Budget CD players are offering ever improving sound quality at affordable prices - possibly fuelled by the success of cut-price models like Cambridge Audio's Azur 540C. Spending between £300 - £500 doesn't necessarily afford you state-of-the-art technology and the specifications are typically ordinary but build quality and sound performance have improved immensely.
Price: £300 More info: Audiolab Size: 445x74x335mm Weight: 6kg Formats: CD, Line out: Stereo phono Digital out: Coaxial DAC: 24bit, 192kHz, Delta Sigma
Audiolab has been around for a while and can claim a prestigious hi-fi past, especially during the eighties and nineties. Its position faltered slightly following company restructuring but recent designs have been making a stirring comeback.
The 8000CDE is a simplified version of the earlier 8000CD, which sacrifices some connectivity and an advanced power supply for a more affordable price without overly affecting the performance.
The weighty design is solidly constructed with an exceptionally smooth transport, although the front panel controls are slightly unresponsive and the outdated and oversized remote hasn't changed for years. Connections are limited to standard stereo outputs and a coaxial digital output.
Although the sound is reasonably powerful and unrestrained, it's the excellent detail that really captures the attention. Individual sounds are distinctly separated without ignoring subtleties while expansive dynamics and neutral tonality create an open and involving listening experience. There's enough attack to enliven energetic tracks but musical timing isn't as cohesive as models like Creek's EVO and the treble can seem bright if accompanied by forward equipment.
The 8000CDE is a fine player that will attract music purists with its honest, detailed delivery and affordable price. However, competition is fierce and there are models that can offer similar performance for even less money.
Competitive price; build quality; detailed and dynamic performance Minus points
Outdated remote; lacks cohesive timing
Price: £450 More info: Creek Size: 430x80x340mm Weight: 6kg Formats: CD Line out: Stereo phono Digital out: Coaxial, optical DAC: 24bit, 192kHz, Burr-Brown
Creek Audio is another company that's been rejuvenated after a relatively recent overhaul of its entry-level product range. Its latest Evolution range features improved build quality while retaining the same sophisticated assembly - although it is on the expensive side.
Despite switching to overseas manufacturing, the design is far more substantial than earlier Creek equivalents. The solid aluminium front panel, slick transport and stylish arrangement of controls give the unit a quality feel that resembles the upmarket Destiny range. By contrast, the buttons on the slim remote feel spongy but they are responsive and easy to use. Connections including standard line outputs and both coaxial and digital outputs are spaciously arranged across the rear panel.
The sound is lively and enthusiastic with an impressively rhythmical sense of timing and even tonal balance. It produces a focused sound stage that's efficiently presented using tightly controlled low frequencies. This safe sound is fine with ambient and expressive soundtracks but it can seem too good-natured when challenged with more forceful material. Compared to Rotel's RCD-06, hard-hitting tracks lack drive and aggression - but that's not always to everyone's taste.
The price isn't so competitive but the EVO's candid and precise sound quality offers stern opposition to any CD player under £500.
Improved build quality; easy to use; lively, insightful performance Minus points
Comparably expensive; lacks drive and aggression