I have had a Music Hall CD-25 in my system. And it is a very nice player for the money. You should be able to pick one up used for around $350. It doesn't do SACD, but it does do HDCD. I was impressed with it for the money.
If you really want the best sound for this price range here it is: Buy a used Adcom GDA 600 DAC for around $200 and use any cd or dvd player as a transport with a decent digital cable. This will WAY WAY WAYYYYYYY outperform any of the players you are looking at. In fact I have compared the Adcom to DAC's up to $3500. This includes stuff from Theta, EAD, Timbre, Camelot and more. The Adcom is better than many of them and just about equal to the best of them. It is the best deal in cd playback, period!!!
I second the Music Hall CD 25. For the money, I don't think it can be beat. The Rega Planet is good, but there are so many newer players out there that cost less and sound better.
I would say the Sony 333 is a excellent non-fatiguing player for the price range. It has a digital filter that allows adjustment to redbook playback. It also has SACD and I just love listening to Pink Floyd, Patricia Barber, Bob Dylan, and Muddy Waters on SACD.
Try to listen to all the recommendations, but be sure to bring a couple of SACD's to spin and draw your own conclusions.
The new C542BEE in November. Hang on.
I highly recommend the Phillips 963SA ($424 delivered) for CD playback. The 192 oversampling is switchable and really sounds great. Some here have said it lacks a little low end definition but if you want that I would get an original Planet ($350 delivered). It is very musical and a bit "warmer" but it doesn't play SACD's and is less expensive.
The new C542BEE in November. Hang on.
Any idea what the price will be? What will it have over the C541i ??
Also consider the sony SCD-C222ES player. It has multichannel capability, which the 333 does not have.
When I was helping my dad put together a new rig, I did a side by side comparison of the cambridge (which I own) and the nad (which my dad was considering). I found the cambridge a better player in almost every respect. The sound was bolder and darker than the nad with better dynamics and good detail (w/o being harsh or etched). The nad did a better job w/ female vocals (so maybe better timbre?). The cambridge, alas, decodes neither hdcd nor sacd, and its display bites.
I second Mark on the Sony 222ES. There have been some good factory close-out deals on this one. I got mine for around $380 with shipping. The Absolute Sound recently recommeded this one. Supposedly it can be moded if you decide later to invest more money (which I might do someday with mine).
Trust your own ears. I have found that everyone has their own taste. I would especially be cautious of anyone telling you something is way, way better in this category. Do as much a/b comparison in home as you can. I have a/b the cambridge 500se, Nad 521i, and the arcam cd73. The arcam was more but it was a completely different level. I was going to spend what your spending but the arcam ruined it for me. Now I have to spend closer to 700.00.
Main thing is, audition with your ears, your system, your wires.
If you can try a Marantz, the newer nad 521bee, music hall, cambridge, rega, rotel. Based on your likes/dislikes I actually thought the Rotel would fit your taste. It excells in detail and soundstage. It does loose a little in the musicality range for me.
Good luck. Post your findings.
Pioneer has a universal player for under 2 bills at Audioadvisor...also...unless you have a very revealing system...the differences between digital sources will be marginal...the extra ones saves on a more "esoteric" player can be put towards more CDs,etc...I have had good luck with Sony players for what it is worth...
Prices for the new NADs will be the same: $299 and $499. The improvement in the 522BEE is purported to be much more than in the C542, narrowing the gap. With a street price of $250 it seems like it'll be the budget CDP for my HT, my daughters, friends, mother, etc.
Kcdrummer - what model Rotel are you speaking of? Is it HDCD?