Why would Anyone Buy a 20 Year Old CD Player (or DAC)?

AR-OldDacA225.jpgYesterday, during my perusal of a used audio site that doesn't need another mention, I spied someone selling a CAL ICON II CD player for $599. And my only thought was. "Why would anyone buy this when you have so many better new options?"  My answer? Nostalgia, coupled with willful ignorance...

Sometimes, buying used or discontinued products is a great way to save money on high performance audio. But in every case the components will be analog electronics, loudspeakers, or even cabling. But when it comes to digital devices, I draw the line. Recently, I've reviewed not one, but two digital devices that serve as DAC/preamplifiers that were both priced under $300 whose performance is on a level that I believe is better than you will find from any ten-year or older DAC regardless of price, then or now... Those two DA/Pres were the Project S2 and the IFI xDSD.

AR-OldDacD225.jpgAnd while there are a few audiophiles and manufacturers who believe that older, "simpler" DAC chips, with no over-sampling sound "more analog-like" than current generation DACS, I have not found this to be true, especially if you look at some of the latest chip, FPGA, and ladder DAC designs.

Some audio pundits claim that the current generation of DACs are so good that the primary arbiter of ultimate sonic quality is now their analog rather than their digital circuitry. And while there are some 10 and 20 year-old DACs with excellent analog circuits behind their digital ones, it's hard to take any brick-wall filtered DAC and make it sound acceptable, even with the best analog circuits to try to tame its issues.

AR-OldDacC225.jpgAnd then there's high resolution capabilities. Regardless of your position on high resolution files, the ability to process higher resolution files is usually accompanied by the ability to upsample 44.1 files. With the latest chips (and FPGA DACS) you have the option of more than one digital filter option, which lets a listener tailor the sound more closely to their personal tastes. 10 and 20 year-old DACs have one filter, and in many cases it's a more primitive brick wall type.

I seriously doubt that the laser used in a 20-year old CD player was spec'd to last for 20 years of regular use. I have no doubt that there might be a few old players out there that are still going with their original laser assembly intact, but they would be the equivalent of Thomas Pynchon's fabled 100-year-old lightbulb...exceedingly rare, but not impossible...

AR-OldDacE225.jpgAnd then there is the process of going from the CD's physical nubs to digital bits is not without timing and data loss issues that do not improve with a unit's age. Many reviewers discovered when we first began ripping CDs into digital files, that the digital files sometimes sounded better than the original discs! Fewer timing errors and less error correction needed for the files allowed DAC sections to perform more optimally.  And then we have streaming. Most 20-year old CD players and DACs have no way to bring in or even process high-fidelity streaming music...

Today, I can buy a simple portable computer, disc burner, and a basic DAC for about $700US if I looked around a bit that will do everything better than any 20-year old CD player - with far greater flexibility, utility, and sound quality, regardless of the make or model.

AR-OldDacF225.jpgWhile I would never want to dissuade anyone from buying an old CD player from ARC or Goodwill for $25 or less just to see A. if it still worked, and B. how does it sound compared to contemporary gear. When it comes to spending anything over $500 for a DAC or CD player that is more than ten years old strikes me as an exercise in nostalgia, not high-performance audio.

I'm sure that someone reading this has what they consider a "golden nail" of a vintage CD player that is still sonically competitive with current generation digital products. I'm also equally sure that they haven't bothered to hear what the current generation of DACs (and streaming devices) can do both sonically and in terms of ergonomics. But nostalgia can be a strong influence on even an audiophile's thought processes, but when it comes to digital, in my humble opinion, it's the wrong road less travelled...

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