It was almost 3 years ago that I really started to rebuild my interest in having a home stereo again. I had purchased a cheap stereo from a thrift store. That stereo only had a cassette player. Then, I followed that purchase up with a $10 CD player from another thrift shop. At that point, I should have been done, and should have been happy to spend so little money on a stereo. The alternative I had planned was a new system – amp/CD/speakers – on the order of $1200 or so. My cheap CD player, paired up with the powered studio monitors I’d owned for many years, was a really good sounding little system. At least that’s what I thought.
In the time since, I have bought other cheap CD players at thrift stores. The reason for this was for experience. One experience was the restoration and repair of the devices. Of my purchases, one repair was successful, one wasn’t, and the latest one didn’t need any work at all. The other experience was more audiophilic. People that review stereo equipment have the ability to grade and rank such equipment and that’s really something the average person can’t really do. No one goes out and buys five different CD players at $300-$500 just to compare how they sound. But if the players are $10 each, well, that reviewing experience becomes just a fun little hobby.
The first player in my collection is an Onkyo DX-701. It was made in 1992. Being the first in my collection, it was my unofficial standard. When I first set it up, I was thrilled with it. It did exactly what it was supposed to do: play CDs. For $10, it was all I needed.
The next player I got was a Scott DA980, in April 2019. It cost all of $7. There’s not a lot of information out there about this player, but its manufacture date is June, 1989. It appears to be a Yamaha-manufactured device rebranded by Scott. Unfortunately, it needed some work and I got my first experience repairing a CD player. Comparing it to the Onkyo, I really liked how smooth and silent the loading tray was. But what I should have really focused on was whether it sounded better. To be honest, I couldn’t tell. And that really disappointed me. I thought I would be able to notice some difference, but I didn’t. So at that point, I assumed that “digital is digital” and all decent CD players sound the same. So then, I wouldn’t really need to focus on sound quality, but more on features.
Then, this month, I found yet another cheap CD player. It was a Technics SL-P220. It was marked at $16 and I happened to buy it on a 50% off day, so it cost me $8. My luck in CD player purchases is remarkably consistent. This player didn’t need any repair, just some cleaning. Well, some of the cleaning was technically repair because the control buttons were intermittent. I am a fan of the Technics brand. It was the brand of the stereo system in my youth. This player came out just about the time CDs were hitting the mainstream. Just about the time I experienced my first CD at my friend’s house. This is the oldest of the three players (June, 1987) and being that old, it would be expected to have the least refined technology for decoding digital audio.
When I did my first test play with the Technics, it was kind of a surreal experience. It sounded different. Way, way different, in a good way. I put identical CDs in the Technics and the Onkyo and played them together, then switched back and forth to determine the difference.
And here’s where the difficulty begins. When you read stereo reviews, you will usually find yourself rolling your eyeballs at the descriptions the reviewers use. In fact, you will probably internally smirk at anyone that tries to describe the qualities of sound. It’s just something that can’t really be done. In my case, the first thing I thought of comparing the two is that the Technics was “brighter.” And that’s a fair description. Most people can determine bright sound vs dull or flat sound. This is probably also what experts mean when they say “digital-sounding”. But who knows? What does digital sound like?
So, I had a word that I could use to describe how the Technics sounded better to me (that’s important). But as I listened to it more, there were more differences and those were more painful to describe because it made me sound like a pompous high-end stereo reviewer. I’ll not get into those descriptions and just say it sounded much, much better to me than the Onkyo. As I always do when I get a new piece of equipment, I search for anyone talking about it. And I found only two mentions of the SL-P220, one saying it was great and another saying they replaced it with something that was substantially “better”.
Here’s the thing for me. This latest player has changed my interest in listening to music. I’m now excited to hear music from it. It has the same magic as when I first heard the albums decades ago. This is something the other two players didn’t do for me. It’s revelatory. I’ve read over and over that you have no idea what you’re missing until you hear the music you love on a good system. But… this is an early player and even at that, isn’t a top-end model, just standard-grade. It’s a $300 player back in the day which was average. And, considering what I hear and what experts say, this is an example of poor early-era digital reproduction – tinny, thin, bright, “not analog sounding”, blah blah blah.
So fucking what! The Technics sounds incredible to me and when I try listening to the Onkyo afterwards, it sounds dull and lifeless. So if I like the sound of bright digital, why should I be ashamed of it? So yes, I have a new favorite CD player and it’s my new benchmark. It’s not going to stop me from buying more cheapo players and comparing them. Maybe I’ll find something even better.