No comparison. Definitely the Rotel. Its one of the best CD players I have ever owned. I'm sorry I sold it. Rotel should have never stopped making it.
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With all due respect to the OP--I'm not sure there's much, if any, value to answers you get to "which is better?" questions. As many have said a million times in the past, it depends on the room, the associated gear, personal subjective tastes, etc. Your best bet is to try to hear the players in your set up to decide which you prefer.
That being said, I can tell you that I would answer exactly the same as Zd542, but with the Sony 5400 being the player that was "one of the best CD players I have ever owned." And, yes, I'm sorry I sold mine, too. Good luck.
I totally respect your opinion buy when I made my comment, it was based on listening to both units. I wasn't just guessing on the Sony. I also put it next to my 9000ES and it was still quite a bit better. But thats just my opinion.
Reading your post, you talk about the Sony having the better DAC. I don't know if I would agree on that. There's more to a DAC than just the chip. The overall design and quality of the other components that go into supporting the DAC chip are important to consider as well. Also, you can't forget the analog portion of the DAC. That's every bit as important as the digital section. The Rotel just gets the whole package right. There's nothing wrong with the Sony either, I just prefer the Rotel.
I own both units currently and my Sony XA 5400 ES outperforms my Rotel RCD 1072, in my opinion, with redbook CDs. Especially in the treble, which is just smoother with the Sony. Now, the RCD 1072 is a fine unit and I kept mine for a backup if the Sony ever goes out (trouble free for 3 years so far), but it doesn't do SACD. The RCD 1072 does HDCD, but good luck finding a HDCD. The Sony cost me $1,050 new and the RCD 1072 was $725 as I recall, and for the price the RCD 1072 was (is) a wonderful unit.
FWIW, I had an RCD-1072 and loved it, but ended up selling it one year after buying a Squeezebox Touch (was $300 then). Playing the same CD (wav image and CD itself), using the analog signal out of both units and into a fairly resolving system, I could hear no difference. But the SBT had the edge over the CD medium in flexibility (ability to create playlists, hi-rez music, etc), so ended up selling my beloved Rotel to help finance a DAC.
I know it's not what the OP asked for, but I thought it would be useful for you to know.
I haven't heard the Sony in my system, so I cannot compare the two. But I have been enjoying the Rotel RCD-1072 for many years now. It is an absolutely wonderful sounding deck with an uncanny ability to play the music "just right." My AudoQuest King Cobra interconnect works quite well between the deck and my amp.
Zd542, both players use Burr Brown DACs but I do believe the Sony chip has much more impressive technical prowess. The spec sheet for the PCM-1796 will reveal that. It's one of BB's top-of-the-line chipsets whereas the PCM-1732 was decent but more noteworthy because of its ability to also decode HDCD.
Like you mention, the analog stage is also very critical in the performance of the DA section. However, I think it's safe to assume that the PCM-1732 (RCD-1072) falls short against the technical performance of the Sony player.
Zd542, both players use Burr Brown DACs but I do believe the Sony chip has much more impressive technical prowess. The spec sheet for the PCM-1796 will reveal that. It's one of BB's top-of-the-line chipsets whereas the PCM-1732 was decent but more noteworthy because of its ability to also decode HDCD."
Yes, but does it sound better? You can't tell how something sounds by looking at the spec sheet, or even what dac chip it uses. CD players can, and do sometimes, sound completely different even though they may share some of the same components.
"However, I think it's safe to assume that the PCM-1732 (RCD-1072) falls short against the technical performance of the Sony player."
I don't see that one either. Who designed the Sony? With Sony ES, sometimes they make it, and sometimes they don't. This market segment is what Rotel does best. And its not a sometimes thing. I haven't read reviews for at least 10 years, but most people here do, so I'll reference one. The 1072 was was given product of the year by TAS. Not budget product of the year, because of its low price, but product of the year regardless of price. Its one of the few times that the magazines got something right. (Just my opinion).
The reason I'm going on here is not to tell you that the Rotel is better. You need to listen to both players and decide that for yourself. I'm going on because there's absolutely no reason at all to think that the Rotel will automatically fall short of the Sony just by looking at some specs. In the end, though, you may have to settle for something like the Sony because its so difficult to find a used 1072. I replaced mine with an Arcam fmj 33. Looking back at the Rotel, I feel the Arcam is a little better, but if I didn't get a good deal on it, and had to pay retail ($2800, I think), I wouldnt have done so.