These days, what you get with your first CD player upgrade, or perhaps your first dedicated CD player, is a whole heap of technology. Oversampling is de rigueur over the £400 mark and promises smoother, more revealing sound in exchange for bigger numbers in the DAC specs. These players also have superb build quality and even a bit of style in some cases. Fundamentally what they offer is a significant increase in resolving power, the sound quality on offer from all of these players would have cost you twice as much only five years ago.
Price: £400 More info: Advance Acoustic Size: 440x110x350mm Weight: 8kg Formats: CD Line out: Stereo phono, XLR Digital out: Coaxial, optical DAC: 24bit, 192kHz Analog Devices
Advance Acoustic MCD203 II
Advance Acoustic is a Franco-Chinese brand which manages to compete with the likes of Cambridge Audio on build quality despite being traditionally distributed. This is its only integrated CD player and it makes a big deal about its valve or tube output stage, which uses a 12AX7 triode for each channel, something pretty much unheard of at this price. Its chassis is divided into compartments to minimise interference between the analogue and digital components while its output is available in either standard unbalanced and balanced form. You will have to spend rather more to get an amp with balanced inputs but they're useful if you have to use long cables.
You can hear the presence of the valves but only if you know what to look for and it has a big, lively sound that is more distinctive than most. This is another way of saying it sounds colourful which is no bad thing with CD, a format that often swings too far the other way and ends up sounding dry and sanitized. Here the voice sounds great even if the accompanying double bass isn't quite as well defined as it might be, and if you want the sensation of 'being there' at a live event its expansive soundstage is very convincing. On the other hand it's not as relaxed as the Japanese players - it's quite exciting but won't soothe fatigued ears so easily. This factor may calm with continued run-in however and if thrill power is your bag then it's top of this particular heap.
Lively, energetic and juicy sound combined with battleship build and fancy conical footwork Minus points
Could be more relaxed and the tendency to auto shutdown can be a drag, especially as turn on takes 60 seconds
Price: £500 More info: Cambridge Audio Size: 430x115x315mm Weight: 6.4kg Formats: CD Line out: Stereo phono Digital in/out: Coaxial, optical DAC: 24bit, 384Hz Wolfson
Cambridge Audio Azur 740C
As with other top line Cambridge components you are never short on features. The 740C has both digital in and outputs, so you could hook up a DAB tuner or set-top box (if it has digital outs) and benefit from the high-spec DA converter in this machine. The latter upsamples to 384kHz which is twice what you get with standard chipsets (192kHz) and allows the use of a Bessel filter which Cambridge is quite keen on. You can also change the sample rate, word width (bits) and whether dither is applied to the digital output, though this is really only of use when making digital recordings. The remote handset has the dual advantages of operating both this and any Azur series amplifier as well as basic iPod controls when a dock is used.
Once I'd mastered the trick of playing tracks above ten with the stick remote (dual numbers are a bit fiddly) the 740C delivered a weighty and powerful sound with fine dynamics and good timing. It seems a little thick in the upper bass next to the Pioneer for example, but produces a resolute and timely sound that's rather more taut and crisp than the Advance Acoustic. It's also appealingly bold and solid in presentation, albeit in the context of the slightly dry balance experienced with the partnering amplifier (740A). It's more calm and neutral than the AA but not quite as swift as the Denon, the Pioneer as ever delivering a smoother sound. That said, its taut, crisp character is a good balance of control and thrill power.
Well judged balance of timing, dynamics and bass weight combine with fine build and plentiful features Minus points
Tonally on the dry side, remote makes accessing high track numbers a challenge