The million dollar question: Do some CD players sound better than others?
There can be differences, certainly. Some differences are even detectable under level matched, blind comparisons.
Lets say you tried an inexpensive Pioneer DVD player on CD in your system?
Or a Theta Compli? Or an even more expensive Meridian CD player? Or a Granite Audio or other tube CD player?
Sure, but how you evaluate them can have a profound impact on your perception. I'm assuming Steve that you're talking primarily about 2 channel here.
Does it make a difference using the analog output of the CD player, using the DACs in the player, vs using the digital output of the CD player, using an external DA converter?
This simple question begets a complex answer, however let's look at a few scenarios that lead to differences.
1) You need to make sure the playing field is level here when doing this comparison. For example,
a) Output levels can be different in both scenarios with a given CDP. This not only means that one can be louder than the other, but also that there can be a channel imbalance of a few tenths of a dB. This scenerio also exists between CDP's. I'd recommend that one use something like a test tone at 1 kHz and a multimeter to check the voltages at the speaker inputs
and make sure they're the same. In lieu of that, one can use an SPL meter mounted on a stand. The latter is better than nothing, and certainly better than your ears, but does not approach the precision of a multimeter.
b) You need to make sure that any bass management is turned off. Many are careless and cavalier here, so it pays to make sure you understand both the CDP and whatever it's feeding.
c) Some external DAC's are funny in that they play loose with how the whole process was originally envisioned. With modern CDP's, the player is also slaved to the DAC. IOW, the DAC controls the influx of data. When you break that connection, the DAC no longer can act as a brain. Hence, if the buffer is undersized, there'll be problems with translation. Further, some DACs derive their clock from the data stream. Some don't.
Do the technical specs of the player tell you what player will sound better, that is, if the tech specs are better the player will sound better?
2) No. Manufacturers, whether they be Oppos, Pioneer, Theta, or whomever, publish specs that are largely meaningless and self-serving. Measurements though can be another matter entirely. For example, people can and do get hung up on things like jitter despite the fact that Dolby's work in this area very strongly indicates that the levels in virtually all players are inaudbile. Some specs and even measurements aren't even performed which can be useful for the end-user. Allow me to illustrate with an example. The Rega Planet, when initially introduced, got good reviews. Then, some people were reporting that the unit sounded edgey...grainy...unfocussed, etc. The usual pissing matches occured but then a group in England conducted some blind tests. They found that the preference was system dependent. I know. I know. It's a matter of matching components, right? But no. What they found was that Rega was using a bottom of the barrel BB Dac that happened to generate a large amount of ultarsonic RFI. Now maybe it could've been filtered, or maybe they could've spent an extra $2 on a better DAC! It wasn't enough to fail any tests for governmental compliace, but that was because the RFI was being transmitted through the cables! Now, the pairing that caused problems in this particular case was a Creek integrated amp. Other pairings didn't have this issue. The reason was because the Creek was a wideband unit that also happened to behave non-linearly above 20K. So, what we had was inaudible distortion, going into a non-linear amplification that resulted in audible
IM distortion that was present in the audio band. Now maybe some ferrites around the cable would've done the trick. Maybe some other approach. I don't know.
Knowing things like FR, output impedance as a function of frequency are important. The former will contour your sound ike an equalizer. The latter, if very high, can cause problems (audible differences) with lower input impedance preamps or prepros.
Some players and DAC's, play games with the reconstruction filter. Call it spline fitting. Call it 'getting the time domain right'. Call it leaving it out entirely. What happens then is not only do you get what's on the disc, you get things that aren't on it! That's because images, which would normally be filtered out, are now folded back into your audio stream. For example, the Audio Note DAC's (I don't recall the model...an older one) were found to have distortion products (the images) in far greater proportion than the signal itself!
What CD players have you tried in your system and did the CD player make a difference sonically?
I buy my CDP predicated on a personal philosophy that I don't want extra information. I want it to adhere to the idea of get me the info off the disc and please do a good job with disc errors. Personal work I've done, stuff that I've read suggests strongly that if I seek out such players, even if I can pick out audible differences, they're just so damned small so I don't worry about it. Kind of like if all you do is deal with small problems, you'll just be wasting your time. Speaker placements and the room swamp all that. Presently I have a middle of the road Onkyo.
If you use the digital out of the CD player, then are all CD players soundwise necessarily the same, because its digital and it must be the same?
As mentioned above, not necessarily but quite likely. If you're going with an CDP or pure transport, then you should buy a $25 or less disc to at least test its ability to cope with CD problems. That seems smart to me. Further, you should get from the manufacturer some information as to its speed accuracy. If you're going to pay the money for performance, then make sure you get the performance.
Or do build quality, jitter reduction, stability of transport, vibration damping, etc. all affect even when you use the CD player only as a digital transport?
There's a lot of things done that don't do anything such as vibration dampening. Companies claim it, but provide no data to support the benefits. It's done to raise the price disproportionally. Stablity we touched upon when dealing with transport/external DAC. Build quality is subjective. These aren't turntables and the same concerns don't apply with the same rigor. As an example, a belt drive CDP is just a stupid idea. However, you may prefer that your CDP uses a professional transport which are more robustly built. Unfortunately, while the price differential isn't that much, the final costs are.
You tell me?
I don't advocate you buying the cheapest nor the most expensive. I also don't advocate letting others blow smoke up your ass or doing it yourself. If your evaluations indicate no difference among say 3 CDP's, you should use your own personal guidance to select one. Could be your idea of their reputation, service, resale, appearance, feature sets (balanced outs), the remote, flexibility. Only you can appropriately weigh that in your own mind Steve and assign a dollar value to that.