A CLASSIC CD PLAYER?
I`ve read about classic amps, classic loudspeakers etc, but is there really such a thing as a classic CD player?
The emergence of digital communication during the seventies and eighties enabled Philips to launch the CD player in 1983, the CD100, still regarded as the best of the first generation CD players. Other models followed closely, all 14-bit, up until Philips launched the 304 Mk II, which was 16-bit, with the (soon to be) famous TDA 1541 chip. In 1987, Philips launched the top of the line CD960, one of the best and most expensive from Philips ever. You may search the net for an exhaustive overview of all the models. Buy a Philips and you’ll be bitten by the bug, I swear. So if there ever was a CD player worthy of the categorization “classic”, its the 1540-series equipped Philips´es. The 1541, in particular, is by many considered the most musical DAC ever.
The Marantz equivalent, by the way is the CD-94, and this is considered to be a very good CD player, in fact even slightly better than the CD960. That may be the case, but don`t take it for granted. Prejudice may just as likely play a role here, as the Marantz is pricier, and therefore carries a higher audiophile cred. If you do have the opportunity to compare the two, don`t be fooled. Forget about the front-plate names and listen without prejudice. That may well save you some money. I own several models from both makes, and in contrast to what is normally recommended by the hi-fi magazines, I prefer the Philipses. Which goes a long way towards indicating that people judge by their eyes, and not their ears. This is a sad fact and the reason why I have started conducting blind listening tests, to be explained in a forthcoming article.
You may have read my previous article about two Philips CD-players, the earlier models CD 304 and 304 MkII, where I outlined to some extent their DACs and bits. I actually ended up by buying the 304, with the 14-bit 1540 DAC, while "every magazine in the world" recommended the 304 MkII, with the brand new TDA 1541 16-bit DAC. To my ears, the old 304 sounded cleaner and tighter, while the MkII sounded warmer and ever so slightly closed in and nasal. I was very happy with the 304, so when my supplier suggested I tried the top model CD960, I was reluctant. It was expensive, and considerable deeper than the 304`s, so it didn’t really fit in my rack. I had to place it on wooden rails on top of the 304, otherwise its back feet would suspend in free air! I “ tested” the 960 by just moving the signal cables between the 304 and the 960.
My supplier is a nice guy. He accepted that I returned the CD 304 I had just bought, and paid the premium for the CD960. I still consider the 304 and 304 MkII to be very good CD players, but I felt the 960 to be better still. So good, in fact, that I immediately decided to buy it, despite the considerable price increase. I did not consult my audiophile friends, I did not conduct any blind listening tests, in this instance I felt that was not necessary. Not the slightest. I just trusted my old ears. I wanted the best. I NEED the best. I am, after all, a writer, and I test hi-fi equipment. When the force is with me. And I need some cred not to be laughed out of the court. And I felt, as an aging audiophile, that I deserved a good CD player to entertain me for the last of my audiophile career, before I go deaf. Or dead, whatever comes first.
So how do I describe this player? Lets start with the bass. The bass is considerably fatter than the 304, more like the 304 MkII, and if that is down to the fact that they both use the 1541DAC, I dont know. And I dont care. But the difference in bass quantity is such that when pressing the loudness button on my amp while playing the 304, they sound quite similar! And that is a lot of dB! But you will notice this only in a direct comparison. In daily listening, you will accustom to whatever bass you have, so don’t worry about it. In general, the sound of the CD960 is the smoothest, most detailed, and the most liquid I have heard. It cuts straight to the performance, without curtailing atmosphere, instrumental sounds or timbre the slightest. A live performance is easily recognized as such, without the ear/brain combination struggling to find out which is which instrument, and turning it into a recognizable whole. The Norwegian Broadcasting Company is renowned for its high quality broadcasting, but still, when I switch from radio to CD, there is a considerable increase in sound quality. I cannot remember having experienced that before this vividly. (It seems I need to hot-rod my tuner as well, or my broadcasting company has gone MP3). And when my proofreader Dag visited me, he said “I could tell immediately that something has happened to your stereo”. A CD was playing as he entered up the stairs to my living room. Another audiophile friend, Lars Torressen, commented “It appears to be highly detailed, and very fluid”.
Utan topplok vil du finna ein del ting du ikkje ser på originalen. Eg HAR ein oversikt over kva som er gjort, men som sjølvsagt er fortruleg
I need to explain a little more about the the CD player and my supplier. The player is bought and refurbished in Germany by a person or company cooperating with my supplier. It is also extensively worked on, greased up, and so it appears almost like new, and will probably last for ages. And, and this must be called a modification I suppose, the oversampling is removed. I knew nothing about this before I started “researching” after my first Philips. But it appears that oversampling is by many deemed unnecessary, even detracting from sound quality. Please read my article on the Philips 304`s for some background on this; you will find it under the button “audiophile.no in english” (Articles/Reviews). My supplier is Magnulf Rise, the owner of Rektangel AS. Magnulf is an engineer who established the small company Rektangel AS in Ålesund, in cooperation with BEBOP hifi in Oslo, after his main carrier retirement. Magnulf came into contact with my writer colleague Arve Åheim at the HiFi Messen audio show in Horten in Norway, and Arve has already reviewed several products from Rektangel / BEBOP. As my CD960 is not standard, I have had no opportunity to compare standard vs. modified, or upsampling vs. no upsampling. Trust me I will, as soon as I get the chance. And again, as with the 304´s, I have not compared the CD960 to anything new, nothing except the other CD players I already own. I am too lazy to gather lots of new or expensive CD players for an extended test/test period, even though I know I should. It involves too much time and work. So I just trust my ears and my memory: The Philips CD960 is the best I`ve heard, so I just bought it. What else could I possible do. After hearing it, I was not ready to go back to listen to the second best. So this is not a “normal” test, I suppose, its just an appreciation of an excellent CD player, one that puts a smile on my face every time I load a CD.
As a last reality check before I wrote this test, I listened briefly to a Marantz CD-72 MkII, a popular medium priced player from approximately the same period. I bought it recently for almost nothing. I turned up the volume and it sounded wonderful. Heading down to the town center to do some shopping, this impression nagged me. I repeatedly told myself “Stig, you´re an idiot. You paid a fortune for an old Philips, and a cheap Marantz sounds just as good or better”. When I got home, I prepared for some more serious listening. I swopped the signal leads between the Philips and the Marantz. Both were of course connected and thoroughly warmed up. The test did not take a long time. The Marantz just didn’t open up to the music the way the Philips did. There really was no competition, so I needn’t have worried.
The CD960 is a dream to operate. The Play and neighboring buttons are angled and easy to hit. The out/in tray button is actually on the tray itself, it doesn’t get more logic that that. And it comes out like a cannonball, and returns just as fast. It almost shocked me the first time. This surely is the fastest tray in the West. The back side sports a digital out, but really, who needs that, when the built-in DAC is world class? Lets keep it simple. I would not dream of cluttering my simple and easy setup with a separate DAC. No way. I already have one for my Mac, thanks. For more info on the CD960, specs and things like that, just google it.
Finally, let me cite Noel Keywood, HI-FI WORLD April 2010, from his excellent article in the “opinion” column, page 95:
—“But the simple fact is a lot of what is old isn’t out of date. And a lot of what is new will soon go out of date.” —-“A lot of what was being junked was in fact very good equipment, just in need of some TLC." And in finishing: “So thank heavens for classic hifi and the enjoyment it brings worldwide. It may be old, but much of it is pure gold”.