Upgrading Frontend in 2009: Which way to go?

For reference, my system is located here:


One of the upgrades I'm looking to perform in 2009 is my source. I've enjoyed the Cary 303/300 as a standalone player, but it's time to move on (for reasons not relevant to the thread). I'm looking to spend $2k-$4k if I replace my CD player, and probably $1k-$2k if I simply add a DAC.

Sonically, I like the Cary presentation in that I can hear the recording venue, whether it is a studio, auditorium, amphitheater, or whatever. I suppose I'm a big fan of detail but not to the point that it sounds sterile. I won't be able to live with a player that doesn't allow me to hear everything on the disc, like breaths that are sometimes heard when listening to singers or wind players.

I've read some older posts about CD players, but I'm also wondering if newer DACs or newer-model CDPs with newer onboard DACs will be superior to the older models. I've read great things about the Resolution Audio Opus 21, for example, but I'm concerned that it might not be the best value anymore, given that it's 6 years old now.

One other limiting factor: I sold me preamp last year, so if I go the CDP route the new unit must have volume control onboard.

So I'm looking for the best bang for my buck in that price range. If it's a DAC, so be it. If it's a new CD player, that's great, too. Maybe even better, since I wouldn't have to buy another set of cables.

Any thoughts to help me compile a "short list" to audition would be much appreciated.

Merry Christmas and happy new year to all!
Forget the front end - invest in some room treatment! Seriously, it's a great listening space, but it must reverb like crazy.
well i have a linn 1.1 and its great it does things other players just don't. there are a few for sale in your price. there is also the linn sc which does a whole bunch if things and can also be a dac.uni-disc playerswith vid just for kicks. just goggle
if you dont mind using a pc - prism sound orpheus, well priced studio gear 24/96 (5k) that compares to weiss, dcs and works as preamp aswell.
no kidding, seditious. I've been eyeing some GIK Acoustic panels, and bought a set of 3 for that back wall last week. Will probably order another 3 once I've tested them in the room.

If this were the house I'd be in for many years I'd rip the plywood off and sheetrock it, but it's a rental so I'm stuck with treatments and the wife complaining that we won't use them in the next houses. Oh well, at least I can get the 1st reflection points and back wall squared away!

Question shifts to in-home auditions. I have some units in mind I'd like to hear. Although I explored the DAC angle I've decided I'm not quite ready to add another piece of equipment. That decision has to do with frequent moves, future space constraints, and additional cabling rather than any opinion on the merits of a DAC.

I have an Ayon CD-2 coming this week. I'd love to A/B it with:

Acoustic Research CD-7
Esoteric X-03SE
Ayre C-5xe

Does anyone know of dealers that would allow me to try these in my system before making a purchasing decision? I'm not opposed to sending a "tip" a dealer's way for their time and trouble if I don't wind up buying their unit. After all, there can be only one winner, right? :-)
Oh wait, this is audio, not sports!