I find my new Cary 24/96 model "303" to be of stunning quality, and I don't think this quality was available at this price (3k new, 1800 used) until now.
On the other hand, I recently heard an old $200 cd player on a system that was naturally warm and musical sounding but not highly resolving - it had excellent tonality (Gale 401 speakers with NAD amp) and it was extremely satisfying.
Is this a money question or a CDP tech. question? Kind of hard to tell, but isn't it just easier to say this is how much I got, what should I get? I'll answer assuming your question is 'I have $1500 and am trying to stretch that amount as far as I can.'
If that is your question, I think a good way to stretch your dollars is to buy used. No matter what, all you got is $1500 right? You can purchase a nicer used CDP for that amount, than you can a new one for the same. CDP's are on a sliding scale in the used market, but you can find even current technology for about the same discount as older stuff (1/2-1/3 off). Do you need it now, or can you be patient and ambush the right deal when it comes along would be my question.
I say buy used, unless there is some local dealer you would like, or need to keep up a good relationship with. You can buy a damn nice current but used CD player for $1500.
I really do think some of the new technology offers better resolution and less of a "digital" sound. I'm extrememly pleased with my EVS Millenium DAC II. Before that I was using an old Studer A727...a $3000-$4000 pro CDP from the 80s. It sounds great and it's built like a tank, but the newer DAC chips offer much more resolution and a more natural, refined sound. Some of the Resolution Audio CD50 sell in the $1500 - $1700 price range, and there are many more options. I use my DAC with my DVD player (a Pioneer DV05), and they cost a total of $1650.
I would say go to the used market. I previously used a heavily modified Phillips unit just to play music that was not available in LP format. An audiophile friend was in the upgrade mode, and I purchased his theta tranport and Dac with Theta's proprietary optical link. This is by far the most listenable digital I have every heard, including Levinson, Spectral, Meridian, Wadia. My previous experience was the only differences were their respective weaknesses.. My combo cost less than $ 1800. I actually look forward to listening to disks now. Sorry I waited five years to upgrade. Perhaps the recent move to one box units is to lower price, and attract the audiophile waiting for the new formats.
Or depending on what you are trying to do in the future, then why don't you consider a "newer" player for less money and then wait for the digital format war to end, and then go ahead and spend that money on a "higher end" model that plays in that format then. That's what I am going to do. I was going to spend about $2K on a brand new Meridian 506.24 if I didn't either find a used one either out there in the field, or here on the internet at a price that was acceptable to me (about $800.00 to $1,000.00), or opt for a newer "24-bit/96-khz." player such as a Arcam CD72 or Rega Planet 2000 and then either wait for the dust to settle on one of the newer formats (SACD or DVD-A), or wait for an affordable universal digital player to hit the market which will not only play discs from the newer format, but will also play my existing CDs as well. My advice then, it to wait and see if you could get a 2 to 3 year old $2K player for $1K or less, and then just sit back and watch the newer formats fight it out. Afterwards, then just get a player that conforms to THAT standard. You'll be surprised at the quality you could get at that price. At that price, you should be able to get a quality player right about now, something that was unheard of as recently as a year ago. That would be my take on this issue.
Go with a new player! The newer chip sets from Burr Brown are much better than those of 2 years old or older.
My suggestion...no need to even spend that much...newer MusicHall or others in the $500 range would more than meet your needs while all the hi-rez or next hi-rez format "shakes out"...
IMHO, level of refinement of the chipsets from Burr Brown and some others have indeed increased over last couple of years. However, I think it affected mostly expensive players, and I'm doubt there is a drastic progress among the budget ones.
IMO Cd's got better, if you play a new cd on a 10 year old player it sounds great. If you play a 10 year old Cd on a new player it may not.
I think that first you need to look at is your present player and judge what it is that your not achieving in sound quality ,eg is it to laid back in the top end , not enough bass or both, or an overall lacking sound stage and when you have got this in perspective look for a different player not just a brand new model , many older models are very compitent preformers even going back to the late 80s eg MARANTZ CD94, STAX QUATTRO 2,also it is a matter of taste some of the older models have a style and build quality that just makes you fall in love when you set eyes on them ,to be perfecely honest many audiophiles claim that redbook cd has come a long way in the last 5 years which is true but if you pick and choose and listen to a good range of older cd players you will find that the improvements in sound are few and far between.
as for cds getting better it is a hit and miss depending on the original master tapes eg the original BROTHERS IN ARMS - DIRE STRAITS original released cd has a better sound than the re-mastered cd , eg RIDE ACROSS THE RIVER does not have a drop out as it does in the re-mastered cd,
If you spend $1500 on a 5+ yr old player first make sure the manufacturer is still in business and then check with them to make sure the laser/transport can still be repaired.
If both answers are yes then I'd go with the older player. Power supply and analogue output stages have more bearing than the DAC chipset in my experience, and the older player should be better in both of those regards.
Sorry, I beg to differ with Seandtaylor. The newest 24 bit chip sets, as well as the newest upsampling decoders are light years above the older ones. While the power supplies and analogue output stages are also critical, there have been no major advances in these areas in some time. You should demand both!
My problem, after extended listening to a player with the new chips, is that the sound of SACD is still better, granted that selection is still an issue, but no more so than it was with CDs in their first few years.