CD/DVD player sound quality

Week of September 11, 2005

Q: I am looking into buying a CD changer and have a few questions. It is my understanding that if you connect a CD player via the analog outputs, you will be using the digital to analog converters (DAC) in the CD player. Conversely, if you connect it with the digital outputs, you will be using your receiver’s DAC. Is this correct? It is my understanding that the DACs are what are largely responsible for the sound quality.

If this is the case and you are satisfied with the quality of the DACs in your receiver, does it make any sense to buy an expensive CD player? Is the higher price due only to better DACs, or is there more to it than that? For example, both Sony and Pioneer have their higher end lines (ES and Elite). If you connect via a digital hook-up, should there be any
significant difference in the sound between a plain old Pioneer and a Pioneer Elite?

Lastly, do you have any recommendations for a good changer?

David R. Hall
Las Vegas, NV

A: Your question is several questions and together they comprise a good primer for anyone interested who is a stickler for CD and DVD player sound quality. (You may have noticed that CD changers are hard to find and have been replaced by DVD changers- more on this later.)

First- the digital to analog converters (DAC). You are correct- the DACs make the sound and if you use the analog outputs, you use the DACs in the player, the digital output, the DACs in the receiver. You are almost always better using the digital connection because the receiver converts incoming analog signals to digital for volume control, then back again to analog. Something is usually lost in the conversion, and in effect you are running the signal through the receiver’s DACs anyway, so you may as well use the digital connection. Some high-end receivers have an analog pass through, which bypasses the DAC, but these are the exception rather than the rule. So, first tip for readers- always use the digital connection for the best sound quality.

Second- the sound quality of more expensive units compared to inexpensive units. If you are using the digital output, you will hear no difference because the receiver DACs is doing the work. A $200 and $20,000 CD player will sound exactly the same. (Yes, there are $20,000 CD players for the foolishly wealthy!) If you use the analog outputs and have a good system, you may hear a difference between the two, and you may not. Digital audio sound quality is extremely good from even inexpensive CD and DVD players. You will get better DVD picture quality, more features, and better construction when you buy a better unit.

You did not mention playback of high-resolution formats such as Super Audio CD (SACD) or DVD-Audio (DVD-A). If you are getting a changer and are knowledgeable enough to ask the question about the DACs, I would recommend getting a “universal player” that would play DVDs, CDs, SACD and DVD-A. Some of them offer surround sound music output from the analog outputs, which means you will use the DACs in the player- but again, you would need a very good system and a very good ear to hear large differences.

I can offer two recommendations for a universal changer. The Toshiba SD6915 is a 5-disc unit that is feature-rich and is currently available for only $79 from For something higher end, Onkyo’s DVCP-802 is an outstanding unit as an audio player, and offers good DVD playback quality as well. It retails for $499 but is currently selling for $379 at the same website. Functionally it is the same as the Toshiba, but offers much better quality of construction and materials, and to the very discrimination ear, better sound quality too. Most home users would be happy with the Toshiba, and the audiophiles among us would pony up the extra money for the Onkyo.

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