Big Difference With New Source?

I am considering upgrading to a new cd player. My modest system has slowly come together and at this point I figure the cd source is the weakest link. Currently I have a NAD 541 w/hdcd. I am considering players in the $2k range from Linn, Cary, Rega, Naim among others. My question: What differences am I going to notice compared to my $500 player. Will there be a major, dramatic improvement or will the changes be more subtle. (Will I have to concentrate to hear the difference?) I would appreciate your opinion. --------PatrickSYSTEM: Bryston 3bst
VTL tube preamp
B&W CDM1nt
NAD 541 cd
It'll make a HUGE difference. I'd sell the NAD and the VTL, then buy a Cary 306-200 on the used market for ~$3k. Run that directly to your ampflifier via balanced connection. You'll hear a LOT more detail.
My experience has not been the same as Gthrush1. I've upgraded everything in my system at least 3 times. I found that the upgrades from a Kenwood cd to a Micromega 2 to a Meridian 508-24 were FAR less noticeable than the upgrades of (in order) amp, cables, speakers, preamp. YMMV
I agree with Rbirke.
I have found that improvements in the analog end to have much more "bang for the buck" than in the digital end.
I would probably leave your CD playback until last.
I don't necessarily agree with the order of Rbirke. I would put the combination of speakers and amp at the front.

I must respectfully disagree with some of these posts. I am not a Linn fan but I agree with his philosophy in regard to hiarchy of importance. The single most important thing you own is your source, LP, CD, or whatever you use. The second most important thing in your system is the piece of equipment which retrieves the music from the source. I don't care how good your amp or speakers are, they won't add what your CD player didn't get.
Get the most off of the CD or LP by investing the better portion of your budget there and then work back to the speakers in decending order of priority.
I just bought a Sony SCD-777es and am really impressed with the sound of redbook CD and SACDs.
Shop smart!
I also own the NAD 541 and recently upgraded to the Rega Planet 2k. The differences are not subtle. I brought it home from the dealer for an audition thinking that I'd get my gf to help me switch between the two units without me knowing which one was playing, but after about 10 seconds of hearing the Planet, I knew that an A/B test wouldn't even be necessary. Quite honestly, the Planet blows away the 541. The soundstage is wider and fuller, with more presence to the voices and instruments. The 541 sort of sounded to me like there was a hole in the middle of the soundstage... the Planet is very solid from left to right with better width, depth, and height in the soundstage than the 541. Imaging is better too. It's easier to tell precisely where an instrument is coming from, and there seems to be more space around the instruments. You also get a little better detail than the 541. But all of these improvements pale in comparison to the improvement that the Planet gives in pace, rhythm, and timing. This is a quality that's hard for me to describe but its something that the Rega excels at. With the NAD, it seems like the presentation is a bit cold and analytical, while the Planet seems very lively and just makes me want to smile and tap my foot to the music. This is a very intangible quality, but one that I could detect from the very first listen. The Rega also has a warmer tonal balance, which can be a plus if your speakers have a forward treble, as mine do.

Some people are going to say that digital source doesn't matter or that all cdp's sound the same. I can only say that to my ears, the Planet 2k is a night and day improvement over the 541. If your budget goes up to $2k, you might also want to check out the Jupiter, which I haven't heard but supposedly its even better than the Planet. I upgraded my speakers before the cdp(I went from JMlab Chorus 715 to JMlab Cobalt 816) and as much of a difference as the speakers made, I think that the cdp made an even bigger difference. The 541 is a decent cdp for the money, but even for $1k you can do a heck of a lot better. All IMHO.
My experience with digital front ends is probably similar to a few others out there.

I had started off with a cheap CD player many, many moons ago. Over the years, i had changed players. Sometimes out of wanting something new, sometimes out of having to replace a player that was "wounded". There were some subtle changes along the way, but nothing really major. Out of all honesty, i think that most of the improvements were simply due to the normal "trickle down effect" as digital technology has grown over the years.

All of that changed when i picked up a tubed DAC. While i had tried a few different SS DAC's before, i was not prepared for the difference in liquidity, increase in soundstage depth and air, separation of instruments, drastically increased "musicality" and overall improvement that came with the addition of the "antique" technologies known as tubes to the digital signal. It was by far the biggest step forward in digital that i had ever taken. There was no more digital glare or "sterility" that i had so often encountered in most digital recordings and presentations. Instead, there was music that flowed freely from my speakers like never before from a digital source.

I was overjoyed to say the least. I liked it so much i ended up buying three more tube based DAC's ( some 18 bit, some 24 bit ) for other systems. Along with that went the associated variations in tubes, etc... It was both fun and enlightening to see the differences that various makes of tubes could introduce into a system. I was in "digital bliss", or so i thought. Little did i know that this wasn't going to last as long as i would have thought.

One day a package showed up at my shop. It was a DAC that i had ordered months and months prior. While it was an SS unit, i was guaranteed that it would put my tubed DAC's to shame. I was told that i would have the speed, frequency extension and transparency of SS with the warmth, liquidity and natural presentation that tubes offered. If i didn't experience this, i was free to return the unit with no questions asked. Needless to say, i was both reluctant and excited at the same time.

Upon hooking the new SS DAC up, i was immediately aware of how precise and clean this unit sounded. Not only did notes pour forth with razor like precision, they did so as effortlessly as Nolan Ryan threw a fastball. The sound was pure yet had such a soft and liquid character with great extension at both ends. I new my "old flame" of a tubed DAC would seem like yesterday's news. That is, if i were to ever hook it back up. I did do that, but not for quite some time. The difference was so startling and instantaneous that it swept across me like a revelation sent from above.

The bottom line to all of this was that i had reached a plateau at one point. This took place after literally trying over a dozen different players, dac's, etc... from various manufacturers. I thought that i had reached a point that would be hard to surpass. Then, all of a sudden, something rose above that plateau to show me that there was the potential for better performance and increased enjoyment. Just as i had come to rest on what i thought was a pleasant plateau with my new-found love, another product awoke me from my slumber on that plateau to push me forward. While i have moved forward from that "push", i am now pretty content with what i currently have. That probably means that there is something coming my way shortly that will make me sit up and take notice. That is, IF i want to.

I'm sure that there are others out there with similar stories and experiences. As such, their system and yours will only evolve to the point that you want or will allow it to. Sometimes the step forward is very noticeable and quite large. Sometimes it is gradual and made up of a bunch of smaller steps. Either way, there is always new ground to be explored with most of it being at least "different" if not pleasurable. It all adds up to what most would consider to be an educational experience in what can be a very fun and enjoyable journey.

Do your homework, demo as much gear as possible and spend your money wisely. If you play your cards right, you can check out quite a bit of gear in your house / system without really losing money should you decide to keep rolling things over. Variety is the spice of life and i encourage you to partake of that "spice". Why settle for less when there is so much more out there : ) Sean
so Sean, after all that you didn't even introduce us? What's her name?
With a revealing system, changes in source are very apparent and IMO establish the basis for achieving a natural musical presentation devoid of the digital artifacts that we all seem to dislike. I have an NAD 541 as my cdp in a project studio with SS into Tannoy monitors but I wouldn't use it in my dedicated listening room for classical music (there I use Merlin VSM-Ms with tubes). I have used an Arcam Alpha 8se, CAL Delta / Bel Canto DAC 1, and Dan Wright modified CAL Delta / Tact RCS 2.0 internal DAC. Each of these had its own character (as did the selection of digital cable connecting the transports and DACs). I think the choice of equipment (including cdp) depends upon what music you want to listen to and your personal preferences about sound presentation. My Arcam was more forward and very detailed while the Delta/Bel Canto combination was more laid back and smooth. I preferred the latter but I can imagine others preferring the Arcam. I've never heard the Rega Planet 2k but from everything I've read, my guess is that it would be a great match for your equipment based on what I like. YMMV however.
Hi Ptm...I do think CD players sound different enough to make the upgrade worthwhile, but the differences are much much more noticeable when the rest of your system is upgraded. I'm not familiar with most of your components, so I can't comment on them. If you are planning on making other changes you might want to make them first. If not, then spend the money on the better CDP (and consider buying get a lot more for your money).
What represents a major, dramatic improvement is a relative thing that changes over time with your tastes and listening experience. As you listen to more and more gear you get a better sense of which components have an effect on what aspect of sound, and once you have that ability changes that would be relatively minor to a novice become dramatic to the more seasoned listener.

A novice, for example, can readily pick out differences in speakers but can not always hear "significant" changes between CD players, although to a more experienced listener the two CD players can sound like "night and day." That said, I don't think any component makes a more absolute difference to a system than speakers as they are not only responsible for delivering information accurately but, more than any other component, will impart a certain character to the sound given its overall design(i.e. 2/3/4 way, sealed/ported, monitor/floorstander, cone/ribbon/stat, crossover order, etc.) and how it interacts with your room. This is not to say upstream components don't have character as they most certainly do, but they will not impart their character to the extent that speakers do to the overall system(which is why novices don't have a hard time hearing differences between speakers but don't always pick up as easily on changes to electronics). So don't expect the change to be "quantitatively" as different as changing speakers, but "qualitatively" a CD player may yield a bigger improvement depending on your system and tastes.

I'm saying all this because if you don't like the "character" of the sound of your system the biggest absolute(note, not qualitative but rather quantitative) change you can make is with regard to speakers. If, however, you basically like the sound of your system but want to improve it then I subscribe to "the chain is only as strong as the weakest link" theory, and it's up to you to discover which that is through trial, error, and playing a hunch.

I think you're on the right track looking at the source(assuming you're happy with the "character" of your system), and given your level of equipment I'd think you would hear a fairly dramatic improvement to your system by upgrading to a better source component, but don't expect the change to necessarily hit you over the head immediately--it may or may not. Some things to listen for would be not necessarily the level of detail but rather the way in which detail is presented--is it more natural/believable? Also there should be more clarity of space between players/instruments that allows them to more clearly exist individually. Bass may become tighter and better defined. Soundstage may expand in all directions, and elements at the rear of the stage especially may become more readily identifiable and easy to hear/place in space, and echos and reverb will tend to tail off in a more natural and extended way. Anyway, these are some things to listen for, and I bring them up because sometimes you need to listen into the music more to pick up these changes.

So this has a lot to do with perspective and expectations, and the above is meant to help provide some of the former while also managing some of the latter--hope it helps and best of luck.

By the way, my guess is Sean's referring to an EVS Millennium DAC as I had a VERY similar experience when I got mine. Talk about dramatic improvements. Come on Sean--fess up.

Yes, Tim is right. While i had initial problems with my first EVS DAC and ended up returning it, it was a hard thing for me to do. I really liked this piece but the low level hum / buzz that i had in the system with it was annoying once i noticed it. Even with the barely audible buzz, my Brother's first words when hearing the Mill II ( for less than one minute !!! ) were "this sounds AWESOME !!!". The results were that noticeably improved over my previous tube based dac, which is now serving in one of my other systems. The tube based DAC retailed for 50% more than what the Millennium cost me. That does not include the tube upgrades and mods / tweaks that were done to it either. As you can see, price does not always equate with better performance.

As it turns out, the hum problem was elsewhere in the system. With the EVS being "tweaked out", it is quite sensitive the system that it is in. The EVS was transparent / sensitive enough to reveal such a problem whereas over a half dozen other DAC's had not exposed such a flaw. Probably because they weren't as revealing to begin with. Once i had gotten that problem tracked down, i ended up purchasing another Millennium II and have fallen back in love all over again.

My Brother also own an EVS DAC now, albeit an earlier model. After hearing mine, he decided that he wanted something similar. The results of installing one into his system provided the same "magic" that i had obtained in mine. We had to play around a little bit more with digital cables in his system, but we ended up where we wanted to go pretty easily. Like me, he has no intentions of doing any shopping for another digital source anytime soon. For the record, he had used four different "one box" players and two different DAC's in the last two years.

The trick is to find a component that is both revealing AND "musical" at the same time. Most lack in one aspect or the other or can provide both qualities but do so in limited quantity. It is the "limited quantity" of having both aspects that can make a component / system sound "good" but not quite pull you into the music full time. I've found the EVS to be capable of doing what i want it to do so long as the source feeding it ( transport / digital cable ) are up to snuff. I'm currently using the same transport ( with modifications ) that Bob Crump / John Curl use to demo their CTC gear with. As far as i know, this is also the same transport that Hovland uses as their reference at trade shows. Obviously, the rest of the system behind it has to be up to the same level of performance and i think that i've come pretty close to achieving that. Sean
In my expereince, the source and the speakers are the two components that will most dramatically change the sound of a system. Amps and preamps will change the sound as well but I think to a far lesser degree unless huge money is spent. Choose carefully and if at all possible, audtion with your own stereo as it is. In your price range there are many good CDP's to choose from.

Good Luck,
Thanks for all your input. Y'all really put in some thought and effort and I do appreciate it. I've got alot to think about. I live in Hawaii where I cannot audition ANY gear, which makes selecting components difficult. Thanks again
Absolutely! the Rega Planet/2000 (or for a few more bucks) consider the Classe CDP.3 are much better than the NAD. Your system is quite good. A better CD player (the one's listed)excell in layering, dimensionality and realism. There is a coherency to the music that makes it sound that more real, engaging and accessible. Ensure that you have very good IC and speaker wire. AC Power cords are also very important. Try Kimber PK-14/PK-10 or XLO PL-1500 power cords(both approx. $150-$200ea.)
Your equipment is able to perform to a high level of virtuosity --give it a quality CDP and cords and you will be surprised at the level of performance attainable....

peter jasz
What loudspeakers are you guys using? I have found big improvements with CDP (in dealer showrooms) on Thiel 1.5 (Linn Genki to Meridian 508.24) and Revel M20 (Marantz 5 disc changer to Musical Fidelity 24/192 DAC) speakers. But I notice extremely small difference on B&W Nautilus 804's and ProAc 2.5's (Planet to Cary 303/100).
My guess is that "detail demon" speakers like Thiel have the resolution to make CDP differences obvious. But if the speaker doesn't have the resolution then it can't bring out what the CDP is doing. The chain is as strong as the weakest link and no sense upgrading the CDP if the speakers can't make use of it.

Has anyone else ever noticed this? I've never seen it mentioned before.

Another option is to listen to CDP through headphones. Although I have not tried, it is supposed to be more revealing than playing through speakers in a room.

My experience is very similar to yours. A few months ago, I got the bug and up-graded my speakers to Talon Audio Khites. The result was I had to follow that by up-grading to a CD Transport and DAC, from an "all in one box" high end DVD player because, the speakers allowed me to listen to detail for the first time, and it was not good. With the transport & DAC (Levinson #37, Chord DAC 64), the speakers are able to resolve detail like the dying of a single string, that adds an unbelievable ammount to my listening enjoyment.

Before the up-grades, I found it very tireing to listen to Bach (sounded like piano lessons), now , Bach is on my system as often as Blues which is my first love. I even like jazz now!

Regarding the headphones, I take my Senn 600's, Headroom Cosmic Amp, and favorite CD's with me whenever I audition equipment.

Ptm: In short, yes, the CDP will make a huge difference but only if your speakers allow you to hear it.
This is kinda off topic, but I completely agree with Sean as far as the EVS Millenium DAC 2 goes. Like Sean, I was also suffering from a buzz problem. I assumed it was the DAC, but I really didn't want to part with mine. After nearly a year of frustrations and searching I discovered that the buzz was caused by a bad connection in my amp. The DAC was the only component that reacted with the bad connection...the system was silent when the DAC was unplugged. My amp's connections was fixed and the buzz is now gone. Yep...that DAC will find any problem in a system. And I also agree with him about the transport...I've noticed every single transport or cable change. I've been using my old Studer A727 CDP as a transport. It's pretty old (late 80s??) so I assumed it would have loads of jitter, but I've preferred it to every other CDP or DVD I've tried. I recently bought one of Ric's modded Sony transports (used) and I can't wait to hear it. If it's half as good as the DAC I'll die a happy man (preferably in 50 years, or more). And Tim is very right...listening is a learning process. The more you listen consciously, the more differences you begin to notice. In the end, I think I'd take Consttraveler's approach. You may not notice as much of a difference between CDPs with your system, buy a new player, and later you might upgrade speakers and realize that you don't care for the new player. Although I suppose you could always buy speakers that work best with your CDP. Oh well...six of one, half a doze of another. Good luck!