Why Does CD Sound So Good?


Over the years, I’ve tried countless variations of system components in order to find the best sound. CD players, CD transports, DACs, streaming DACs, iPods, iPads, phones, computers, amps, tube preamps, you name it. System types include home audio, car audio and headphone audio. There has been a consistent recurring trend: After I’ve played around for a long time and mixed and matched components, I always find a CD player to deliver the best sound.

Sure my laptop computer and DAC sounds really good in my 2-channel rig, but my much lower priced CD player sounds more musical and more listenable, which is really what matters to me. 

In the car, I’ve got radio, XM Radio, streaming through my phone, playing files off my phone, etc. and yet the CD sounds best.

In my headphone rig, I’ve tried fancy DACs and headphone amps, tube buffers and preamps, better power cables and power supplies, etc. and yet a portable CD player has gone the furthest in making my headphones sound the best.

The CD consistently outperforms any streaming player I’ve tried. Don’t get me wrong, there are non-CD based solutions that sound fabulous, but I find myself always going back to the CD in the end. I find a properly setup CD-based system to have non-fatiguing highs and tight, accurate bass; the former being an absolute requirement for me. I don’t care how good the system measures or how expensive the gear is if the sound is fatiguing in any way. That’s a hard line I draw in the sand and one I refuse to negotiate on. It can’t be fatiguing and it has to be musical.

Where I’m lost for an explanation is the “why” behind all of this. In theory, a CD player shouldn’t be so good. We’re spinning a (usually wobbling) disc at many RPMs and trying to track it with a laser and then error correcting what we can’t read. A solid state hard drive or even a normal hard drive should have a walk in the park acquiring the data and should sound better because of it. My phone should sound excellent having solid state memory, being battery powered and having very short signal paths between the memory, DAC and output stage, and yet a cheap $25 portable CD player blows it out of the water.

So why does CD sound so good?
mkgus
It just does. Can't explain it. I just read a review of the SGM Extreme, a $24,000 streamer and a CD rip in 16-bit 44.1Hz bettered .flac, bought or streamed Qobuz in 24/96, tidal in 24/48 .flac or 24/96 MQA. To be fair, neither the streamer nor the TotalDAC "does" MQA but it displayed that it unfolded it at 96Khz. It turned out that Roon engaged its MQA decoder and did it in either 24-bit/88.2Khz or 24-bit/96Khz stream.

Like you, I find my CD player is all I need.

All the best,
Nonoise
I’d guess that your cd player has a better DAC or that distortion is being introduced somewhere in your modem> streamer> DAC chain. The CD player may be benefitting from the smaller amount of circuitry, connections and cable needed to convert digits to analog out.
mkgus,
I'm with you. I find my transport/DAC very satisfying. I'm no longer tempted to make a foray into analog because I don't feel that I am missing anything.
Like you, I find my CD player is all I need.

The CD consistently outperforms any streaming player I’ve tried.

+1
I've yet to hear in my system anyone's streamer or stored h/d topple my CD/dac that they bought along to compare.
And those same guys that use streamers ect are constantly trying different things to make them work better, obsessively so.
Trouble is most of them sold off their 1000 plus of CD collections and can't go back now. 

Cheers George
I have had a different experience. I have owned some great CD spinning transports from CEC, Teac, PS Audio and others, but my music has never sounded better than it does now. I ripped my 1200 CDs to my Innuos Zen 3 and stream from Tidal and Qobuz.

My CD spinners sounded no better for sure. It all depends on the care and attention you give to the small details with non-CD digital front ends. I use top grade ethernet cables from SOTM, a SOTM Switch/router powered by a nice LPS, LPS on my modem, top grade USB cables and an Ideon 3R Master Time USB reclocker.

I am not convinced or agree with blanket statement that “CDs always sound better”. They don’t always. They can and cannot depending on the system and set up details. With digital front ends everything really does matter. 
My experience is similar to grannyring. 
Granny, I agree we can’t make blanket statements. Any format can outperform any other format if set up with the care and precision required. Okay, maybe wax cylinders will not outperform CDs, but you get my point.

I’ve said before that I believe computer-based playback has the greatest potential to deliver the best sound of all the formats. Things are different in practice, though. Computers are noisy environments and they also need lots of care to get it right. Things like upgraded power supplies on all components, noise isolation products, reclocking products, and more are necessary to get the best sound out of them. And those things are definitely required if you’re going to compete with CD playback.

Where CD shines is that you can get great sound with less investment. A good used CD player with a nice power cable and coax cable will perform as good or better than most other formats at comparable price ranges and most other formats at reasonably more expensive price ranges, in my opinion.

Long story short: Yes a computer can outperform a CD player but you’re going to have to spend a lot more time and money to do it. And what would happen if you used that same time and money to improve your CD playback system? Dollar for dollar, I think you’d be hard pressed to beat CD with computer. Where computer may be the ultimate victor is at the very top where cost is no object.
Great points! Agree 100%.  
Yes a computer can outperform a CD player but you’re going to have to spend a lot more time and money to do it.
This makes absolute sense in a budget system However, in my system, which is nothing extraordinary, the sonic comparison isn’t even close. I’m not challenging you, of course, just reporting my (quite recent) experience.Playing a friend’s Metronome cdp (a one-box model, top-notch construction), as a source, the sound was soft, less detailed and somewhat mushy - less extended in the hi-frequencies and less dynamic than the same track(s) played thru the computer set-up.
(Let me be clear: in & on its own, the Metronome plays marvellous music; I’m pointing out differences, not great deficiencies here.)
When we played the Metronome as a transport, connecting the SPDIF output to the dac, the sound actually picked up dynamics and "crispiness" -- i.e. the hi frequencies became more present. Even there though, the computer source sounded better. One advantage the USB source has is a reclocker -- which may help things... Of course, I am referring to a cd & a rip of the said cd (Pink Floyd pulse, BB King & Friends, Mahler 1st Symphony, B Walter / Columbia, Bellini-Norma, Callas, Votto, Orch of Theatro Scala)
Cost: computer (minix) + s/ware + optimisation: ~700, reclocker 350, DAC 3500, total ~4.6k The Metronome alone costs 6k. So, very close.
Anyway, just a different experience!

To the Expert HiFi Audio folk, I must be considered an antedeluvian.

My CD spinner is a Bryston BCD-3 It has a superb transport mechanism, and the internal DAC has the same chips and input-output circuitry as their DAC-3. One super-accurate clock provides timing for the transport and DAC, without the necessity to have separate clocks if an external DAC is used. 

The DAC output goes to a Bryston BP17 cubed preamplifier, then onto a 4B cubed amplifier.   Simple, but highly effective signal path. 

IMO, yes, CDs do and can sound better without all the hue and fuss necessary to rip CDs into a digital player, and if streaming is a selected source, to spend the time  and effort to assemble playlists and identify the programs for listening.    For Redbook CDs, an excellent CD spinner and preamp, "Simple" wins out. 
I read through each post thinking this is surely going to turn into the typical " I'm right, and there is only one true path ogre pi$$ing contests". And while there differences in opinion, the discussion remains civil and with respect to each others points of view.

I wish every thread on audiogon was like this. Kudos to you all.


I think mkgus make interesting remarks...

I use a computer modified with very positive results...I even throw off my usb isolator after some times...All is relative....A piece of protective gear cannot gives always positive results in any system...


I think a cd player has also his own problem...


And I own 15,000 files approx. I cannot takes a room of my house to store 15,000 cd... :)

mkgus


Another +vote for a cd player over computer audio.


Happy Listening!

 mahgister

15,000 files! Wow! How do you select the one you want to listen to?   And, will you ever be able to hear them all again?

Just curious, from a guy who has over 1100 classical CD s  and wonders how he'll able to listen to all of them once again. 
jafant,

Agree, another + vote for CD player over computer audio.

George
Not sure if placebo, but, yep, I'm with you. CD sounds better than streaming for some reason...
brayeagle
I listen music 10 hours a day....

I listen for example to some Bach files or Schutz 1,200 times during a 7 years period(basically one time each day... :)

Most files I listen one time... Most music is only interesting one time listening...

I had some hundreds I listen to regularly...( mostly classical, jazz, persian-iranian, indian, and others)

For sure more than half of these files( around 7.000) I had never listen to them to this day because I love too much those I picked for regular listenings among the 7000 or 8000 others I had listen to already :)...

I sold cd for 30 years...And books ( I own 25,0000 books)... I usually made flac files for many years of all cd I sold or owned...

I read with music on background, books about science and philosophy all the day and walk...

Walking without music tough is the only way to think.... :)

In my experience cd or files or streaming, is totally different and the S.Q. is linked to the specific way these gear are embedded in the room and house and computer...Therefore no comparison is possible except on the same system if the 4 embeddings are rightfully addressed to...



My best regards to you...
High def streaming music sounds mostly excellent, but my CD player is just audibly better. I did another "test" last night with the same results.
magister, 

Well, we're alike i several respects; however, I only listen to classical music - symphonies, chorales, concertos, operas, requiems, etc.   I grew up where there was no electricity, so I began listening to the old 12" Victor Red Seal records on a wind-up Victrola, using  cactus needles. I've been through the gamut of Mono, 45s,LPs, reel to reel and CDs. 

I've developed a fondness for the classics within the classical genre, and have several different performances of favorite pieces.  I love to compare  certain symphonies and chorales, performed by various artists with different orchestras and choruses under the baton of different conductors. 

Over my lifetime, I've had the good fortune to listen to more than a few performances by the Vienna Philharmonic in the Musikverein's Great Hall,  and Puccini and Verdi operas in the La Scala. (my benchmarks.)

I listen to music from the time I wake up until bedtime,The two-channel stereo goes for around six to eight hours, while  during the remainder f the day
, I either listen to our local  FM classical music station (pseudo streaming) or to the Amsterdam Royal Concertbegaw
 via Apple music and a nice pair of B&W MM-1 speakers on either side of the computer.

I'd really be lost without my music , and my iPad Pro is packed with ripped CDs for use when I have to be in  the hospital. 

Cheers, (It should have been "grayeagle,"but the powers-that-be changed the initial "g" to a 'b.')


brayeagle

I am fond of Scriabin and Sorabji because I like classical piano very much....

Bach is my god and Scriabin his son, Bruckner is the spirit....Amen...Sorabji is the great Zarathoustra...

I like Sorabji because if you create a perfect hybrid between Bach and Scriabin the result will be Sorabji...The greatest piano composer after Scriabin, but nobody is on par with Bach tough except God himself who exceed him for sure .... :)

After my death I will know....I cannot wait to die even if I enjoy my life....Music without hi-fi limitations....and numbers without 

My best wishes to you....
mahgister,

I'm fond of Bach's organ works, and have been comparing Marie Claire Alain's complete set against Helmut Walcha's. 

Cheers

brayeagle

Walcha is amazing.... Totally spiritual it is no more music interpretation, only contemplation... I like Alain and Hurford and others, but no one own this unbreakable silent gaze except Walcha… I listen to it 30 years ago and try to replace it by Chapuis, because the sound is better...But no more silent gaze.... :)

I think that Bach reincarnate anonymously ….

My best...
magister,

Walcha sends me emotionally, as he has figured out how a blind man can play the organ.

I saw a video several years ago showing how Walcha first listened to the diapason line, then built on it. Of course, assistants had to set the  stops for him.    Still, the music that man makes is etherial. I'm always in  awe, listening to him.

cheers
brayeagle

Same experience here...

My best my friend...
It is nice to see so many people have similar experience. I thought I was alone in it.

Streaming ripped CDs through the CD player’s DAC is still slightly less good than CDs themselves. At the same time, I have not tried more than ten CDs on this CD player. To me, convenience of files is worth more than relatively small advantage in sound.
To me, convenience of files is worth more than relatively small advantage in sound.
Glupson I had so many files (flac mainly now wav and 24 bits one also) that keeping that in material forms would be impossible...And most cd cannot be listen to more than 1 or 2 times... All music is not pure genius tough interesting...Exploring music implicate listen to thousands of cd....I think the same than you about files...

And except for a costly cd player the sound of a cd dont beat a lossless file...And my computer is tweaked so much and my electrical grid that the sound of a lossless file is better than a cd on an ordinary cd player....
Coz it is not compressed like MP3 or other formats.  CD samples at 44 khz ( 1,411,200 bits per second) and that is more than enuf to losslessly reproduce all the way to 20khz.  Furthermore each sample is 16 bits wide giving you approx an amplitude spread of about 65000.  That is how you can get it to produce such quiet & such loud passages.  Most analog systems can not match that.   It is good enuf for every human being on this planet.  There will always be some people claiming that they can hear beyond that with more sampling.  Do not believe them, unless they have any dog genes in them.
The great Helmut Walcha introduced me to organ music. Thanks to him, I can't go a week without it. I listen to several organists, but Walcha has a special place in my heart. The fact he was blind makes him all the more amazing. 
We are all Walcha pupils in a way.... Amazing....We are not alone it seems....
If you have a large collection of CDs, the main reason to rip them and put them on a server is accessibility.  How do you listen to 1100 classical CDs?, someone asked:  the answer is rip them.  It is so much easier to scroll a large collection when it is on a server and you have ability to search composer, performer, composition, musical genre (choral music, chamber, 20th century, whatever classification you set up).  You can then make playlists, select tracks, etc.  I can listen to things off a dozen CDs in one listening session and I don't have a dozen CDs lying around that I have to re-shelve in the precisely correct location where they can be found again).  I am much more likely to listen to the more obscure items in my collection (around 3,200 classical CDs, and 1,800 others) now that it is on a server (I still have the hard discs).

As to sound quality, both can sound decent.  I had a Naim CD555 CD player, and I now have a Naim 555 server.  Both sound very good.  My CD collection has been ripped to WAV files, so there is no compression as a potential source of degraded sound.  
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I think modern (last ten years) CD players and dacs are essentially audibly perfect. Only problem, as always, is the sometimes very poor quality of the recording and mastering that created the CD. I have some CD's that were recorded at such a high level that the sound quality is actually destroyed. Don't know why the f**k they do this. But I've been listening a lot to Radio Paradise over internet radio (My AVR receives it over my home wi-fi) and the audio codec is 320kbs AAC and I have to admit the sound quality is very good.In fact I'm not sure I could hear a difference between it and CD. My amp is a Schiit Vidar which is driving maggie LRS speakers. My CDP is an OPPO 203. The AVR is a Yammy aventage.
larryi,

I have my 1100 CDs shelved in special four-sided racks that spin around. I have them cataloged  by composer. It's simple to turn the racks and choose. I also keep a small 20-CD holder on top of the cabinet holding the BCD-3 BP 17 cubed and  two Magnum Dynalab tuners (Straight FM and an Internet Radio)
It is so much easier to scroll a large collection when it is on a server and you have ability to search composer, performer, composition, musical genre (choral music, chamber, 20th century, whatever classification you set up).
It’s about the sound, not the ease, if that were the case none of us would still have vinyl, and that was far from easy.
It’s about get off your a**e and changing record or cd after 30-40 mins, handling the physical medium reading a book or booklet, and then there’s the sound, which too me is better.
I look at enough cell phones, laptops, computer, TV screens all day, I don’t need it as well burning my retina’s out when needing to listen to music as well.

Cheers George
georgehifi,

Agree!!

George
I have two excellent digital sources, a Cary 303/300 CDP and a PS Audio DirectStream DAC mated with Wyred4Sound Server MS2. Both sources provide superb sound. I wouldn't agree with those who claim that a CDP is better than a server/DAC combo, though. That would be an absurd claim.
IMO,
Depends on the quality of the DAC in the spinner.
I’ve got a MSB discrete dac if I play the same album via CD transport or friends streamers (making sure the streamer hasn't up the ante a db or two which some do with downloads).
The Transport wins out for sound, it’s just got more body to it, whichever same digital link is used spidf, rca or BNC and Toslink into the MSB dac.

Cheers George
I have an Ayre QB-9 DSD streaming from my labtop USB and an Arcam CD23, but the QB9 is definitely better than the CD23 so I don’t know if it proves anything.

Theoretically the underlining technology should not be different in term of converting 1’s and 0’s to analog. The only different is the CDP gets the 1’s and 0’s from the spinning disk, whereas streaming getting from either a hard drive or some type of memories. Once the 1’s and 0’s are obtained, things should be exactly the same for CDP or streaming.

From what I’ve heard from professional reviewers, CD sounds more musical, whereas streaming sounding more "exact", "clearer" and "cleaner" .... well you get the point. Personally I don’t understand since they should be the same.
I'm in the boat as stated above that it depends on individual CDs --Poor mastering or copying a less than perfect source especially CDs at the beginning of the cd era. It's improved so much from the early 80s. I really disliked cd in its infancy but have found it has come of age. I still think good vinyl can show it a clean pair of heels.
My opinion after all is said and done is that stock off-the-shelf untreated CDs played on stock untweaked systems generally sound thin, overly cleansed, bass shy, rolled off on top, brittle, hazy, congealed, dry, two dimensional, boomy, compressed, discombobulated, generic, unmusical, Meh, synthetic, unresolved, irritating, disappointing, boring, and like papier-mâché.
Geoff, tell us how you really feel. 🤣 I know you appreciate the CD medium, so what tweaks help to avoid all those things you listed?
I’m not sure this is really the time or place. 😛