Good cd player and a great DAC or great cd player?

I'm moving from a entry level system ($1K) on my way to hi-fi bliss ($20K?)

I am currently considering a $2.5k cd player. It's going to take me a while to save for it, though. Would I be better purchasing a 1 k cd player with digital output now - I'm currently using a $300 cd changer - and then purchasing a $1.5k DAC later, or should I save for the $2.5k cd player? Another related question: How much better would the transport be in a 2.5k cd player be versus that in a 1K player?

Thanks for looking and I hope you can help.
The upgrade plan makes sense in principle: buy a player, then a DAC and a digital interconnect, then sell the player and get a good transport. Along the way you might try an aftermarket power cord.

But is this the best way? Reliable generalizations are impossible. It depends on the deal that comes up when you go shopping, it depends to some degree on component interactions; more than anything else it depends on the sound you discover you prefer. If you mentioned specific players, than asked about the quality of the transport in each, someone might be able to provide info... but I don't know how much farther ahead you would really be after that. Are you really ready to start considering the pros and cons of Sony vs. Philips, or TEAC VRDS vs. CEC? How easy will it be even to find out what transport a given player uses? Is that the important question?

My very humble personal opinion is that if I were in your shoes I probably would have stopped listening to my sound system except in the background. If I sat down to listen, my attention would wander. I'd pick up a book or think about exams. Emergency! Nine-one-one! Call the music medics!

Is that what's happening to you?

Most of us would agree with you: you need to change your source. I myself would have a burning desire to do it right now and not wait. As for what to, well, a NAD 541 or a Music Hall CD-25 would give you a better reason to listen right now. If you can look farther upscale, fine. If you can wait longer and save more, fine.

Once you get your next source, though, forget planning, stay open and listen, listen, listen. Listen to your system, to friends' systems, make friends with a dealer (hint: buy something) and listen to the best he's got. Go to a show. You'll come to know what you like within what's available and what you can afford. That will make your choice of a much better source and an upgrade path much easier when the time comes.

I think you are making absolutely the right decision in upgrading your source first. In fact, according to me you should sacrifice on other components to get the very best possible source. So many systems have a so-so front end, and at the finish line you can hear that oh-so clearly. My principle (given a finite budget) is that you should always have more resolution available at the source than downstream.
Upgrading from a $1k system to $20k system is a big step. Unless you inherit some money, you may not want to go from your former CD changer to a $2.5k CD player (or separates) simply because until you upgrade some of the other components, you will not hear all the differences in quality the extra money is paying for. And, until the rest of the upgrades are in place the player is depreciating in value and technology is progressing. I would buy a good used CD player which can be sold in a year or two at around the same price you paid for it.
That being said, I would recommend an all-in-one CD player. I had separates and went back to a one-box unit (resolution audio opus 21) and am very happy.
Agree with Bwyoung. I'm not also sure whether just a straight listening would help. In order to evaluate a real difference between two very good components one should know what details to pay attention on, and it's not obvious when go from $1K to $20K level. Criterias of what is a 'good sound' should be adopted to a new quality level. All this just requires a lot of time...

In regards to CDP or DAC+Transport, I was recently looking for the answer on a very same question, one very experinsed person gave me an idea, for which I still feel obliged to him. He explained that while I consider myself on a budget (whatever it means for me), it worth to get more upscale integrated component then two cheaper separate ones. After some listening I realized the wisdom of this rule (there are some exception, such as power requirement for amplifiers, if one need it). It saved me money and I'm happy with my sound. Just my humble opinion.
Thanks for your input. I should clarify that the 20k system will be a work in process over several years. I have heard those systems (and several at the 5 and 10k level) and enjoyed myself immensely. On the other hand, I know that dropping that number on my wife at one time purchase would lead to a quick divorce settlement, LOL! In the meantime I have considered an upgrade path that will give me greater musicality without a lot of lateral moves that will surely end up costing me more money in the long run. To that end I have thought of an upgrade path such as:

1. 2.5k cd player
2. 2.5 k integrated amplifier
3. 2.5k speakers
4. sell the source and purchase a 5k cd player
5. 5k preamp
6. sell the integrated amp and purchase a seperate 5k amp
7. sell the speakers and purchase 5k speakers

Make sense?

Wow, what a detailed reponse. I really appreciate the time and consideration you put into that. I've actually spent a bit of time listening to a number of sources, amps and speakers and have concerns about taking what I think might be a small step up with the Music Hall or NAD cd players. I've heard Music Hall and found it not to my liking with several different speaker (ref 3a, Totem, B&W NT's) and amps (Shanling, Linar, Passion). In every case I found excessive sibilance and a tendancy toward a bright presentation. Quite surprisingly, my current system is acutally musically fairly satisfying. I think that the NAD receiver and PSB speakers may err on the side of warmth which may mask some of the harshness associated with my entry level Marantz source. I know I'm not gettin gthe level of detail that I aspire to, but it's not to the point that I have to use it only for background music.

The source that I have most appreciated was the Audio Note 2.1x. To a lesser degree was the Musical Fidelity a3.2. Both made a significant impression and upgrade over my current sound. Did I just answer my own question? LOL! Are their other sources in between that I should listen to that might help on the cd player vs. DAC question?
There is no single answer. The best thing to do regardless of how much money you want to spend is to go out and demo several CD players that interest you (based on research or recommendations or just what's available locally). Demo at home if at all possible.

Another related point is that if you are upgrading all of your components at the same time it's hard to judge whether you like a single component or not. I would recommend you upgrade one component at a time, including cables. Spend time with each change and this allows you to indendantly judge each one.

Based on my experience there different levels of quality but also different sounds. Through trial and error I've found something I like, which happens to be a seperate DAC and transport, but there may be a one box player that floats your boat. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

The dedicated transports, for the most part, use the same transport mechanisms as the single box players. What you get, however, is an implementation focused on the goal of reading data off a disc and spitting it out through a digital cable. Often times transports have better power supplies or higher-quality parts. Some, like CEC, do have unique transport mechanisms.

Finally, hi-fi bliss doesn't have to cost $20,000. It can come a lot cheaper.
Consciousness, Yes you did answer your own question : ) If you get an Audio Note DAC and any transport you can then upgrade the DAC (or transport) over time as you see fit. I have the AN 2.1x Balanced DAC and it was a great discovery. I love it! There are a few used available here on Audiogon right now. I have an Accustic Arts transport on order.
Thanks for the kind word, Conscious. Your question required me to get my own ideas together, and I enjoyed my shot at that.

I see that you have already done a great deal of good research. Your upgrade path makes sense, certainly. May I say, though, that unless you know you will be coming into money, at the moment it is more fun than serious? I had my own upgrade path all planned out too. I had the amp, I had the preamp, speakers were narrowed down to only five or six choices, I knew what was next. Then UPS put a spell on me for more than six months with their horrible claims process. Then I made a friend whose second-string preamp blew my first-string, preamp-for-a-thousand-years, right out of the water. Then... well, my upgrades since then have depended on serendipity and my own ears, and I no longer know what's next except in a "that's-nice-in-principle" sort of way.

It takes a long time to get used to changes in your music system. A new component can make you want to listen to every piece of your software twice over again. That's the very best part. When that happens, I realize that other people are way ahead of me, some manufacturers especially, and I will be upgrading till the day I leave the planet.

It's great that you already have a component to shoot for ( the AN DAC ). If you can't go for your Audio Note 2.1 now, though, how long can you wait and still spend time with music at home happily? Dwyoung and Dmitydr suggest a good reason for a one-box for now. I understand what you say about the two entry-level players I suggested, and I don't think they would sound lots different in your own system ( try to evaluate new components with what you have whenever possible ). You might consider a used Shanling CD-T100, there are some deals here at the moment ;-).
Thanks again for your input. I certainly have come across the "best laid plans", challenge. I was recently offered a Jadis Integrated Orchestra amplifier at a very, very good price and I'm finding it hard to stick to upgrade path. My path is based more on principles than components right now. Certainly, I could take a giant step and select 3 components at my intial upgrade phase but that would upset the budget - read wife. I am therefore consigned to upgrading a piece at a time. What may present as a great speaker now, might seem less so down the road when I upgrade that component. Therefore, I get to continue enjoying the journey while saving for my next purchase.

As far as falling into money - that's unlikely. However, if I can save about $160 a month, I'm able to meet my 20k objective in about 10 years. I don't plan to wait that long to drop the money - I enjoy the tinkering too much - but given my income, I don't think it will be a challenge. This means a new source this year, integrated amp the following, speakers the following, etc. If I'm able to purchase wisely, then I hope to lose only about 15% on resale of my used equipment. Therefore while spending 20k, I hope, in the end to be able to purchase gear for around 17k. But if someone makes me an offer I can't refuse....
Unless you are planning on buying one of the more expensive universal players, such as the Denon and replacing all of your CD's with SACD or DVD-Audio disks, I would recommend buying a top of line used DVD player, such as a Sony DVP-S7700 and get it modded. Then use this as a transport for both audio and movies with a good DAC, such as a modded Perpetual Technologies P-3A. No off-the-shelf CDP will match this kind of performance. You can buy both on Audiogon for about $700. The mods will cost you around $1800.
My husband and I are in a similar situation with the upgrade plan and limited cash flow.

We upgrading our source now. I had planned on getting a CD player, but I listed to a lot and only really liked the $3.5k Linn Ikemi. Instead, we are trying out a Bel Canto DAC 2 ($850 dealer demo) and building a PC based transport (my husband is a computer scientist, so this appeals to him). Parts are on their way, so I don't know the verdict yet.

Just a thought for you...

We had planned on buying an integrated amp until we discovered Outlaw Audio. We have their 950 pre-amp and 7 monoblocks. It cost us less than $3k and sounds a lot better that all the integrated amps we listed to in that price range. They only sell online (, and their prices are amazing for what you get.

Good luck!

Joy Elyse
Hey Joy, thanks for your input. I'd be very interested in how that Bel Canto DAC sounds with your transport. I noticed you have the 950 with - holy moly- 7 monoblocks. I assume that when you mentioned integrated amps you compared av receivers to the av seperates that you have now, right? Can I ask what you compared to the Outlaw?

We started off looking at receivers: the Marantz, the Onkyo, the Denon, and the Harmon Kardon...the high end of mass market stuff.

When we looked at separates, we looked at Adcom and Rotel...both of which are more expensive than the Outlaw Audio, but I didn't think sounded nearly as good. I read the reviews, and everyone said Outlaw was an amazing buy for the money. We wanted something with Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS, etc, and component switching that would still sound great with 2 channel audio. (The 950 has an analog bypass.) And with deal they were running, we were able to get the 7 monoblocks and biamp our tower speakers. We explored the idea of getting a used pre-amp, but still couldn't approach what we wanted in our price range.

What we didn't look at was the integrated amps from the high end companies. Audio Research makes an integrated amp for $3k, Linn makes a Linn Classik Movie System integrated DVD/CD/Tuner/Preamp/Processor/Power amp for $3k (which I can't believe can sound that good for the money, but I am a Linn fan), Musical Fidelity makes a few integrated amps, as does Moon, Krell makes a one for their KAV series. Actually, so does Outlaw Audio. There are a ton out there. I'm sure some of them might be better than the Outlaw, but I didn't do the comparisons. There are a ton on Audiogon for fairly cheap.

My Bel Canto should be arriving sometime early next week. I plan to compare it against the Linn Ikemi (borrowed), and also try the Ikemi as a transport to see how much of a difference it makes. I'll let you know how it sounds.
Getting a seperate transport and DAC does NOT necessarily mean better sound. And I have found in many instances its not as good. For $2500 you should get a cd player with great out of the box performance. There are a handful of players in the price range. THe Wadia 301 leads the pack in my opinion. And for a few reasons. You can buy a 301 for under $2500 and then down the road spend another $900/$1600 for some basic/reference modifications that will give you better imaging,resolution and detail than pretty much any player at any pricepoint. Ive been a big fan of Wadia, due to their modular upgradeable design philosophy.

But if your going to be spending money on a system worth of about $20k, put most of that investment into the best speakers you can get your hands on as they(along with room treatments)are the most critical part of a quality sound system. After the speakers and room treatments comes the source unit, then amplification, then cabling.
I've heard the argument for putting most of your money into your speakers before. Often the people who advance it say that speakers are the most critical part of the sound system, but they don't say why. Or they say, well, that's the part that actually moves the air. Or that the speakers are responsible for some large percentage of the total distortion in the system, 35 % for example. I believe these arguments, with or without the distraction of figures, miss the point.

Ritteri, I agree with you that a separate transport and DAC are definitely not a guarantee in themselves of good reproduction. I even think, like you, that unless there is a compelling reason to get a two-box system ( a reason such as an upgrade opportunity too good to miss, or a combination which your ears tell you beats everything else at the same price ), then a single-box player is a much better bet.

You may choose to develop a system around a pair of wonderful speakers, but unless you can immediately afford to purchase all your other components at the same level of performance, you will then wait for your upgrades as you listen to the weaknesses of your upsteam units in horrible clarity. Whereas if you have a fine source, upgrades downstream will progressively reveal what a fine buy you made at the start. This is why it makes more sense to start building a system at the source.

Joyelyse, I too would like to hear how the Ikemi turns out in your tests, if you get the chance to post !
Tobias: Reason why most people state to put most of the money into the speakers is due to the fact that mankind in general has yet to master the physics of sound reproduction. We can store,decode and transmit a signal that is therotically close to perfect in the digital/analogue line level realm, but we cant do this anywhere near close to the same level on the output(speaker/transducers themselves)stage which is what we actually "hear".

Its a well proven fact that the speakers, their placement and the actual room acoustics are the absolute most critical part of ANY system regardless of price. I would rather take a killer set of speakers placed properly in a well set-up room with a minimal money invested in source and amplification from a price point of view then get average sounding speakers with better source and amplification. I personally think that budgetwise anywhere from 50-75% of the money should go into speakers that match up accoustically to the room they will be going into. If your budget is in the real world area of about $5-$10k that would mean investing about $2500-$7500 on the speakers themselves with about $2500-$5000 left over for source,amplification and cabling. I sure as hell know you can get incredible sounding transducers for $2500 no question. And $2500 leaves alot left over for good quality source,amplification and cabling.

Hell if the budget is less than$5k(say $2500 total)I still know that there are real good speakers in the $1250 range. And $1250 is still plenty for a high sound quality source and amplification, still leaving enough for some good cabling. But once again, most of the budget NEEDS to go into the speakers no question. They are the theoretical weak link in the chain.
Agree with Ritteri. While I do believe that all links in the chain are equally important, I desided to build my system around speakers. Why? Speakers set the final limitations on your system: even "cheap" CD player usually can do certain kinds of music quite well, but being harsh on complicate orchestral pieces. But if the speakers become "bad" for you, it won't be good on any genre. My 'old good' NAD CD player sounded pretty good with new Revel M20 speakers (on most genres). But I hardly imagine my new Moon Nova (I consider it as a very good source) would benefit to the sound being coupled with old-cheap Mission 702 speakers.
really wouldnt suggest dropping alot of $$$ into a digital source right now.

things are changing too rapidly and the deprecation is horrendous. ie the philips 963 ($400 new) can take on any digital cd/dac of 2-3 years ago in $2500 range.

i would look at the marantz sa 8260 or the sa12/14...the redbook is incredible and it has sacd ( the redbook is damn close to the sacd).

the musicality is unusual in a digital source at any price. would suggest bying with a warranty... there have been TOC / transport/servo problems.

the sa8260 can be had for $700 to $800, definitly worth a audition.

hope that helps !!!

I didn't say that good speakers should never be used with a less-good source. I said that given a limited budget and an upgrade plan like the (excellent) one Conscious has, he is making the best decision to spend as much as he can on the source first. In this way he will get the most pleasure over the long term.

It's a fact for me. A good source with ordinary downstream gear is more listenable than the opposite. Where I worked years ago setting up turntables, it was easy to hear. We had the cheapest monitor equipment you can imagine, and you could still easily tell the difference between sources of different quality. When a really good turntable, a Linn for example, came in for a checkup, it grabbed everyone's attention.

Upgrading is expensive. It makes economic sense to buy everything in your dream system right now if you can. But if you have to plan to get there over ten years, then I say plan the fewest changes you can, and start with a great source.
Well if this plan is for "10 years" then wouldnt the source be the last thing to get regardless?? Is the CD format going to be the frontrunner in 10 years?

Like stated, the absolute biggest contributor(or detractor)to sound quality is the speakers and the room environment they are in.
Bel Canto first thoughts: It arrived about 2 hours ago. I have it hooked up to JVC DVD player for initial impressions. (We'll begin all the transport switching later. I can't get to anything else. This I didn't need the husband for.) First impressions- I'm in the 10th row of the opera house with Puccini echoing around me; I didn't know that you could hear Tori Amos's piano key come back up; and let's dance. It's beautiful! It made me forget to eat. :)

I'm hoping to pick up the Ikemi tomorrow for the comparison. From memory, I may like the Ikemi a little more, but that might 1. not be true 2. be the more expensive amps (by far) at the dealers 3. be the $10,000 Wilson speakers at the dealers. As promised, I will compare the two and compare the Ikemi as transport vs. my Sony and my DVD player.

For what it's worth, I think that spending money on a source is the right thing to do. There are numerous examples of how a top quality source on a less than wonderful system sounds better than a crappy source on fabulous speakers. I listen to a lot of indie music. It's not going to go SACD or DVD Audio anytime soon, and even if I move to a new format at some point, I have 1000+ cd's...most of which I will not re-buy and will still want to listen to. A good CD player will part of my system for a long time to come. (BTW, there are about 4 album I own on vinyl, cassette and CD.)
OK, I can't resist sharing my updates as they come. We connected the sony carousel to the DAC2 using toslink and the DVD player using coax and used the switch on the unit to A/B (finally a use for the multiple copies of the cds we brought into this relationship). I switched while my husband listened and he switched while I listened. Multiple albums, multiple songs, no idea which transport was which and…we couldn’t tell the difference. At first I thought I heard something, but when I tried to repeat it, it was gone. Shocked me. Neither is a particularly high quality transport. I will let you know if the Ikemi makes a difference.
Joyelise, way to go ! Thanks so much for sharing your impressions so far. I'm really looking forward to more if you get the chance.

Best wishes, Toby
Totally agree with Ritteri and Dmitrydr.

My limited experience tells me the speaker is THE most critical part in an audio system. Comparing two electronics chain, one is $399 and the other is $5500 (all list price) with two set of speakers: one pair is $1k and the other is $4800. Swapping speakers made most audible difference while I had, and still have, trouble most of time to differeniate the two electronics setups.

I'd also add media, e.g. CD or LP or MP3 (LOL!), to the most critical link to speakers. The quality of recording/engineering of an album is the first limiting factor. This is especially evident when you have higher end systems. But I'd worry about speakers first.

just my 2 cents.

Bel Canto DAC2 vs. Ikemi
First we set off to decide which we preferred, the Ikemi or the Bel Canto DAC2. We started with Tori Amos’s “Under the Pick.” Our first thought was the Bel Canto kicks the Ikemi’s a**. Then we sat down for some serious listening. We used Diana Krall’s “Love Scenes,” Shawn Colvin’s “A Few Small Repairs” and a Puccini opera. We thought the Bel Canto was deeper, more transparent, and far more detailed. There was more air. The Ikemi was more intimate and smoother. With the Ikemi, it sounds like Diana Krall is playing in your living room, with the Bel Canto in a small club. Where the Bel Canto really stood out was in creating a sense of space. The cymbals rang out longer, the music echoed as if in a large space. The Ikemi was much flatter. If you haven’t figured it out already, we’re keeping the Bel Canto. At a third of the price, it’s an amazing deal.

The short of it is, the transport matters. We may not have been able to tell the difference between the DVD player and the carousel, but we had no problem telling the Ikemi from the DVD player. We used Tori Amos’s “Under the Pick” and Indigo Girls self titled album (two copies of each). Within just 2 or 3 A/B’s with each, the difference was easily apparent. The Ikemi was more full bodied and detailed. I was hoping it wouldn’t be the case. Now I have to shop for a transport. Any suggestions? We can’t afford the Ikemi for a transport. :)
Just so you know, before you even think about auditioning the Linn Ikemi(assuming its new), it needs to be on and playing a signal for a minimum of about 200 hours(about a week of it playing constantly)before you can make any critical evaluation.

Also did you have a way to make sure the output from the speakers between the 2 units was within 1 db?? If not you may or may not be giving each piece a fair trial.

As for telling the difference between a cd player and a dvd player, its very obvious. Many DVD players sound "sucked out" in the midrange when playing cd's due to the calibration of the laser(s).
Thanks for your thoughts.

The Ikemi is a dealer demo, which I have been assured is well broken in. And we used a sound level meter to make sure the volume was almost identical. I'd say it was a fair test.

As for the not being able to tell the differences between the DVD player and the CD player when used as a transport, as I understand it, what that says it that the clock slew on both was very similar. It seems obvious that the Ikemi did a far superior job of sending the clock information to the DAC. Otherwise, digital data is digital data. As I have been assured by a number of engineers, the difference between transports is mainly their mechanical engineering of the clock (a very difficult feat that accounts for a vast difference between transports). “Jitter” as described by most audiophiles is a slightly different concept in engineering.
Joy Elyse, thanks very much for sharing your impressions here. Your experience is of great value to me.

I went to Audio Asylum and found a good number of suggestions with a search for "CD transport" in the Digital Drive forum. One of them was a machine I know : the discontinued Parasound C/BD 2000, which is UHF magazine's reference. It's a belt-drive machine made by CEC. I've heard it at four shows now.

Another transport I thought was very good for the money was the Cambridge DiscMagic. I think it may still be available by special order.

The TEAC VRDS transports have a considerable number of fans. I have no idea of pricing on these.

You might try searching the archives here for more suggestions, or starting a thread on the subject.
I just thought I'd post my "final" system. I decided to go with the new Denon 5900 universal player as my transport. I just brought it home yesterday, and I am in love.

At a trusted adviser urging I tried the Sony DVD99ES first, and was totally unimpressed. The ways in which the 5900 is better the the 999 are innumerable. As a transport, the 999 was better than my a carousel, but the difference was subtle. As a DVD player, it was totally unremarkable. It has the chroma bug, and the picture is not what it should be for a flagship. I found SACD almost unlistenable.

Now the 5900: Audiowise, I'm a convert to SACD. I had never understood the fuss before. The Bel Canto DAC2 is wonderful, but it's not SACD. I think the differences are well documented, so I won't reiterate them here. The 5900 also makes a great transport. On a A/B test, it was immediately obvious how much better the Denon sounded than my Sony carousel. My DAC2 still sounds significantly better than the unit's internal DAC, but that is to be expected. I listened to every CD player in the Boston area under $6k before deciding on the DAC2. Memory is a funny thing, but I think the 5900 may even make a better transport than the Linn Ikemi, but I no longer have the Linn here to compare. We don't even plan to mod the unit and get the Superclock 2, because we are happy just as it is. We're afraid to screw it up.

And the picture, it's amazing. I've never seen anything like it. And for those of us who don't have HDTV's yet, the interlaced picture is superb.

No doubt the unit is pricey, going between $1600 and $2000, but I spent a total of $2550 for the Bel Canto and the Denon (both new), which is still $1000 less than a new Ikemi would have cost me, and I have a great DVD player too.

It took a lot of research and dealer trips, but I am now thrilled with my system exactly as it.

Joy Elyse

I would also consider the Classe CDP-10 CD player. It is next on my wish list to replace my Musical Fidelity A3 CD. I believe it retails around the $2k mark and comes with HDCD decoding plus balanced and RCA outputs.

I would start at the source and work my way back were I you. Good speaker won't sound good if all you are feeding them are low end signal. As you are reasonably happy with your PSB's I would consider replacing them last. They can only sound better with better upstream components. Consider seperate pre and amp unless you go for one of the premium intergrateds. Consider a tube pre as by tube rolling you can tailor the sound to your tastes/ room. Don't ignore that a good chunk of your budget will go towards good cabling which also makes a big difference. Above all, enjoy your time spend auditioning new equipment. I find doing that a lot of fun. Good luck.