Welcome to the insanity!. So many choices and everyone can suggest things but only you can decide what you like. Here are the products that I have used that make listening more enjoyable.
PS Audio P300 power plant
Cables-Revelation Audio Labs
Perpetual Technologies-P1/P3 & Monolithic power supply
Would suggest the Benchmark DAC, PS Audio P300 and a Revelation Audio Labs digital cable to start. For a transport you can use any DVD or CD player to keep costs down-make sure there is a coaxial out.
Best of luck!
I am afraid that this website will only add to your confusion. lol! My advice is for you to experiement. You already know that you will get all kinds of answers so why belabor the point? Find something that is a good deal and try it out. If you don't like it, sell it at basically no loss, and try something else. You just won't find YOUR answer any other way.
I asked the similar question about 3 months ago and got so many responses it took some time to work through them all. The funny thing is I'm sure most of them were dead on ... I decided to go big and picked up a Levinson 360S DAC and I'm now saving for a new transport. I can tell you it sure made a huge difference however my system is quite a bit different than yours. One thing I would like to point out and; any other member's feel free to correct me on this. I purchased the 360S partially because it could handle a 24 bit digital input (SACD/DVD-A) but due to RIAA concerns such a thing does not exist. If you plan on going to 24 bit sound ... better stick with a single unit with analog outputs.
As for the 360S; I like the multiple inputs - I run the PC, DVD and my Redbook transport through it and get fantastic results. I think the 36S would have been a better fit as I use it mostly for Redbook CD now and the 24 bit driven analog out "ain't happening".
One concern about going with a separate DAC is jitter.
I read up on jitter because I kept seeing it referenced as a potential problem when you separate the transport and DAC:
Here is an good overview if it's not a term you are familiar with:
I can tell you I'm running a pretty simple transport (Rotel RCD-1070) and my system exhibits NONE of the described effects that I have read about in terms of jitter ... in fact it's very, very detailed and accurate. High frequency was dramatically improved and I hate to sound like an ad but I really can hear things on CD's I had never heard before. I connect the two with a coaxial "Silver Resolution" cable I bought from Signal Cable. All that being said - I spent too much.
Are you looking at Redbook playback, SACD/DVD-A, DVD-V? At your price range I would lean towards a good single unit. Your budget puts you into some nice players. If it's mostly Redbook I like tubed output, if it's a multi format player I hear good things about the Denon 3910 ... you might be abled to pick up a used untit with a level one mod. I emiled a member who went that route and swears it's the best of everything. The good thing about Agon is you can buy, try and if it's not for you - resell and try something else.
I would strongly suggest going the music server route if you already have a pc or a laptop. I've read many great reviews on the Wavelength USB DACs, as well as others.
Aball offers some good advice. This site is indespensible for doing exactly what he suggested.
Do some research. Decide on a product and keep a lookout for a good deal to come up on that product. If you don't have the time to devote to research, you might want to considering using the blue book portion of this site to get pricing data for used components.
For $1500 or under, you could get a very good sounding one box CD player. I've owned several in that price range that were very good. If I were going to spend up to $1500 today on a one box unit, I would buy a Quad 99-CDP or 99-CDP2 and pocket the rest of the cash. I've seen these for $695-$1100 depending on model and condition.
Some other good choices would be Cary CD-308T or 303/200.
Anyway, decide what you want to try, wait for a decent deal, try it in your system, keep it or re-sell it here for little (or zero) loss.
If I had a Rega dealer close by I'd be auditioning the Rega Apollo one box player.
The price is attractive and from from what I've heard the sound marvelous.
Transport/dac vs. one box vs. one box (modified) -Very good question.
One of the biggest problems in digital is the mechanism in all cd players/ transports. The manufactures that supplies the audio companies will discontinue production. So your unit has to go in for repair (plan on it) and there are no parts available (read the previous wadia thread). This happens to all manufactures (including reimyo) with the excection of cec and teac (sorry if I missed a couple).
In regards to modification. There are some great sounding units. However, I would NOT invest big money into it.Why ? You void the warranty and there is very, very poor ROI. Dont get me wrong, spending $100-$300 for a minor mod that is reversible is fine, but the more you spend - the less you will get back..
Transport / dac (my favorite) generally cost a little more, you will need 2 power cords and a digital interconnect. However, if/when your transport goes down. You can still get by on with any player with a digital output.
depending on your taste...if you were going to go the daac/transport route. I would consider the electrocompinet dac and a cec transport or a japanense multiformat player. you might spend a little more. but the electro dac is world class @ $1100-$1200 used and the cec 5100 is pretty nice transport.
If you are new to this hobby AND only have $1,500 to spend don't even think about separtes. You can get an awesome used CDP for $1,500 but separates are consumed by those with lots of experience who know EXACTLY what they're looking for and can tweak their system by swapping in/out transports and DACs. Also, good ones are expensive, even used.
Also, stick with name brands to start: Cary, Audio Research, Sony, etc.
Also decide if you want only Redbook, SACD, Mulitiplayer etc.
Also, I've found power cords to be a good tweak but that's about it relative to other links in the chain (e.g., Interconnects, Tubes, Speaker Cables, Isolation, etc.). Further, power conditioning needs will depend on your situation. For instance, I live in a pretty rural area and have a dedicated line into my room. So, not much need for conditioning. If you live in an apartment building in NYC and everyone in your building has power tools, computers etc. running all the time and you live next to a radio station...different story.
I would recomend the 2 piece route, Transport and DAC.
Theta made an execelent transport in the Data Basic II. It comes up for sale on audiogon ocasionally for $550-$600.
That leaves the DAC I have the Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista there are 2 on the gon right now. 1 lists for $1200 the other for $1500. If you go this route make sure the original owner has a set of spare tubes as the tubes will only last for about 10 years if you leave your DAC on 24/7 like I do.
There are 2 benchmark DAC's listed on the gon right now in the $800.00 range which would make an execelent compliment for the theta which would put you at approx $1400.00.
Then you need a digital cable lot of debate here but I do agree that it should be a 1.5 meter cable to help reduce jitter.
Good Luck in your search.
Good advice from all so far. I'll add my two cents worth. For the one box the Cary 308T or 303/200 would be my choice if I went that route. For you it would depend on whether you're into tubes or not.
However, like Artizen65, I would recommend the transport/DAC combo. The Theta is a good choice, but to save some money, pair it with an Audio Mirror, or one of the other Non-OS DACs on the market that can be found for about $500. This combination will be an excellent value and allow you to get good cables to boot.
The Audio Pimp had a Theta Data basic II (3-10) posted for under $600 and I have heard a lot of good things about the Bel Canto DAC2 ... ($650-800)
Thats well within your budget and leaves some money for a good cable ... I have heard and like both the Cary and the Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista units as well.
A 1-box player I'd recommend is Audio Research CD2. You said you listen to aggressive music, CD2 has tremendous bass control and very good overall resolution without sounding digital. You can have CD2 for under $1500. Built like a tank. For separates, I had very good experience with Sony S7700 dvd player used as a transport driving Bel Canto DAC2. Also very smooth and non-fatiguing combo. Get good digital coax cable for it. Don't disregard the claims that there are differences between digital cables. There are very audible differences between various cables. You'd have to experiment with that. So with S7700 and DAC2 you are looking at around $1000 on the used marked. That leaves $500 for used Audience PowerChord for the dac and Stereovox HDXV cable. Just my suggestions. That's the route I would take. Best of luck.
Audio Mirror D1 or D2 non-OS dacs are pretty decent given their price, but these dacs in their stock for do not hold a candle to Bel Canto DAC2, at least in my system.
While I don't recommend a two-piece, I did use a Sony DVP-S7000 transport and Musical Fidelity A3.24 DAC. It was good for the cost = $1,000.
Still, dollar for dollar, one box is best <$5k.
Between all of the above suggestions and a little more research I think I coming close to a decision. As always your suggestions are much appreciated.