Theta Basic Transport,they go for anywhere fror $400-$600 used and a very good transport.
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I can't imagine that the Rotel 970 would be "bad" as a transport. I thought it made a pretty good stand alone player when I auditioned it anyway. I use a CAL player as a transport with a Bel Canto DAC which sounds good to me. I borrowed a Meridian 506.24 player out of curiosity as to what the improvement would be (with my DAC) and the only difference that I could hear was "maybe" a little fuller bass and could not tell any difference in the mids and highs. I don't have very much experience in this area, but this little exercise made me content with what I have for now. I have decided to wait and see if SACD takes off before I look for another player/transport. Perhaps you could borrow a better (or more highly regarded) player or transport and see what difference it does make in your system before you lay down your money? Sorry that this really doesn't answer you question, but I was very surprised at the lack of sonic difference between the units when they were used as a transports only. The Bel Canto is supposed to reduce Jitter on its own, so maybe this could partly explain the close call.
For $500 check out the Theta Data or the Monarchy DT40. These are universal transports (play various sizes of CD's and LD's) and work extremely well. Both are based on high end Japanese players (Sony and Phillips, Japan) that were re-worked by their respective "manufacturers". Note that both are large, heavy pieces.
I have used a Marantz CD94 as a transport for many years and have been very satisfied. However, I have always used an Audio Alchemy DTI or DTI pro with it. I believe the Marantz uses a Phillips cdm9 mechanism. I have not heard your Rotel but I did briefly own a Rotel RCD 990 and it was very inferior to the Marantz. THe Theta Data Basic is one of the best tranports I have heard at any price, however I would inquire about service before buying. I currently use an Aiwa xc37 changer in one system. The Aiwa is very close to the Marantz but it costs $89 and can be modified into something even better. I also have a Parasound CBT 2000 which is much better than Marantz or Rotel, but not quite as good as Theta Data Basic. My advice would be to try a jitter reduction device, unless you get the Theta.
Joe, good points. You are right about the Data (and Monarchy DT40, too). The transport mechanisms are no longer available. However, these are such good performers, and so undervalued, that for me it's a moot point. Canabalize another for the transport mechanism in the unlikely event that it becomes necessary. Big bang for the bucks.
Thanks everyone! I just happened upon a Theta Data Universal Mark II to day at my local propriators. I'm test driving it now. So far so good. But you're right, this is a big sucker. It's heavy and sticks out the end of my rack. Good thing I'm single. So far I've found it to be more refined and detailed than the Rotel. The bass is also noticably tighter. At first I couldn't hear that much difference, but then they start to creep through and you hear things you didn't before. This is so much fun. Thanks again and blessings!