CD Transport vs Music Server

Cellcbern

VIP/Donor
Jul 31, 2015
764
366
385
69
Washington, DC
Hello Everyone,

I am in the process of upgrading my digital front end. I am trying to decide whether to invest my $'s in a nice CD transport (e.g Jay's Audio, CEC TL2N) or a music server (e.g. Innuos Zenith Mk3, Mojo Audio Deja Vu etc). In an ideal world, one might invest in both, but for now, financially I can only do one. Putting considerations like convenience aside (e.g not having to physically place a CD into a transport, experiencing a ton of music off streaming services), from sonic performance standpoint, if one were to spend say $6K or so on a CD transport OR a music server, which one would yield a higher sonic performance? My assumption for the music server is that one is playing the music of a local file stored on the server (I've been told and read that streaming real-time off the internet performs worst than playing a local file). In either situation (CD transport vs music server playing a local file), I will be connecting directly to the same external DAC.

If this question has been addressed somewhere else, please point me to it. But I was hoping for folks who have done such a comparison and have decided to go one way or the other or did both, I would love to hear about your experiences and any insights you can share is much appreciated. Thank you!
Neither. Dan Wright of Modwright is thinking of doing one of his analogue tube output stage mods on the new Marantz 30n sacd/network player. That would be my top recommendation.

See:

 
  • Like
Reactions: longinc

microstrip

VIP/Donor
May 30, 2010
18,957
3,244
850
Portugal
I'm still hoping someone with real technical understanding can describe how a signal from a CD differs from a server. I though they were both computers and had hardware that processed the data. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe the transport only sends the bits to the DAC.

The subject of "bits are bits" was masterly addressed by Emile in the Taiko Audio server thread. He explained it so well that I ordered an Extreme after debating it with him. But many will still prefer the CD transport because they like the sound quality associated to its unique jitter and noise. It is why everyone has his preferred CD transports.

Unfortunately these posts are now buried in the very long thread, always very active. For a fast read you can start reading them here https://www.whatsbestforum.com/threads/taiko-audio-sgm-extreme-the-crème-de-la-crème.27433/post-587821
 
  • Like
Reactions: ctydwn

taww

Active Member
Jun 13, 2020
89
72
25
45
New Jersey
taww.co
So I've spent a few weeks lightly comparing my very prosaic (and obviously sub-par by the standards of this forum!) Roon streaming setup:

ROCK on Intel NUC8i3
PS Audio Bridge card
rPi4 running RoPieee -> USB
Unifi network gear

... with the 2 transports I got, the Cambridge CXC and PS Audio PerfectWave SACD, connected via SPDIF, AES/EBU or I2S in the case of the PSA (just coax for the Cambridge).

To cut to the chase, CD does sound better than streaming, and the PSA transport does sound better than the Cambridge, so no huge surprises there. For me though, none of it has been as game-changing as some people have expressed. All things being equal I certainly prefer the sound of CDs to files/streams, but the flip side is I find myself listening to significantly less music overall when I think about the medium too much. So in no world do I see CD as a replacement for streaming but as a nice-to-have optimization of my audio experience when I have the software on hand. Obviously there's no way for CD to compete with the constant stream of interesting new releases I'm able to access on Qobuz, which still sound very good (hi-res does help make up some, though not all, of the SQ difference). Like others I also don't see the point in spending $10k+ on streaming hardware given the immediate obsolescence and relatively nascent state of the sector. Since this is ultimately about music, I am totally fine with the current setup and enjoying as much music as possible, but perhaps will try some network tweaks and streamer upgrades at some point.

The primary improvements I hear with CD over streaming jive with what others have said - less noise, better bass, better soundstaging, more organic and natural. The improvement in any one particular area is fairly subtle, perhaps even marginal, but in combination make for a nice step up in the overall enjoyability. The noise is obviously not audible hiss or anything of that sort, but more like timing uncertainty - it reminds me of playing a violin without having enough rosin on your bow, so you can't grip the string consistently and your bow articulations become a little indistinct. There's a random fuzz that's added to every leading edge and decay that makes everything feel a bit less pure, a bit more electronic and synthetic. The bass is also certainly better on the transports in terms of power, pitch and articulation. And on most recordings, the soundstage is wider, deeper and better formed with more tangible images.

The other thing about CDs is they're more consistently good-sounding than streaming. The whole "sounds better at night" phenomenon still applies to the entire system, but streaming seems more variable, which makes sense given it has so many more vectors for noise to enter the system. The times I felt like the gap in sound quality was widest were also the times where I felt streaming sounded the crappiest, usually middle of the day. At night when things quiet down, both sounded good and the gap narrowed. Which perhaps justifies the insane lengths some of the server/streaming solutions go to w.r.t. power supply quality and noise isolation. What I have trouble stomaching is the cost of those efforts - I think I'll wait for some cleverer, less expensive ways to make the system more resilient to noise, which I'm sure will come.

Re: a $600 transport vs. a $6k one - interestingly, the sonic signature of the Cambridge is pretty much like every other Cambridge piece I've tried. It's got good punch (PRAT I suppose?) especially in the mid bass, a very slightly forward and pinched perspective, a tiny bit more grain in the upper frequencies and a little less dimensionality - basically good SQ, but with some mid-fi limitations. The PSA is more unforced, more organic, more relaxing to listen to. I have switched rapidly between the coax, AES/EBU and I2S connections between the PSA transport and DAC using both generic and decent cables. The differences are quite subtle and while I2S does seem best, I'm doubtful I'd be able to identify them accurately in an A/B test. The PSA transport fundamentally sounds the same regardless of which interface you use, the I2S having marginally better clarity, soundstaging and bass. Perhaps I just need a better I2S cable but I was expecting much more differentiation regardless.

Incidentally, I'm less convinced of the value of the PSA as a SACD transport vs. a DSD file on the Roon server. I'm actually not sure it sounds better - the sonic differences between a CD on the transport and a WAV/FLAC on the server do not hold when comparing a SACD to a DSD file. I haven't listened to enough SACDs to say for sure, but so far I'm finding the SACD transport value prop less compelling than with CD.

So to sum up where I stand now: Sure, I think CDs sound better than streaming and given the choice I'd opt to play a CD over a file/stream. It also sounds like it would be quite expensive and difficult to improve streaming in the areas where CD excels. But it's not as big a factor to my overall enjoyment of the system/music as I was initially expecting and the easier solution is to not worry about it too much. :) I'm debating if I should also give another transport e.g. the ProJect RS2-T a try - maybe something just a little better would take CD over the top more clearly? Open to suggestions there. Otherwise, I may hang onto the PSA just for the optionality.
 
Last edited:

taww

Active Member
Jun 13, 2020
89
72
25
45
New Jersey
taww.co
But many will still prefer the CD transport because they like the sound quality associated to its unique jitter and noise. It is why everyone has his preferred CD transports.

Though I don't have any empirical evidence, this jives with my observations on the whole digital playback conundrum. Digital hasn't "solved" all distortion issues, it's simply shifted the primary vector from the amplitude domain to the timing domain. Now we have a whole new complexity of coloration due to timing irregularity, which is by definition completely nonlinear and conceptually hard to understand. Of course in absolute terms, these distortions are minuscule vs. analog ones, but result in a different sort of dissatisfaction with our playback systems. Listening to the 2 transports I have, I'm not sure they're necessarily more accurate than my server setup, but perhaps they distort in ways that are more consonant. Intuitively there is going to be more periodic distortion from a rotating disc system vs. the completely random noise of a computer/network-based one, and perhaps that's just easier on the ears, though in the case of the Cambridge I sometimes feel it has a bit more of a "peaky resonance" distortion to its sound that can be a little fatiguing.
 

docvale

Well-Known Member
Mar 22, 2011
531
48
420
Briarcliff Manor, NY
“Going back” to CD after the sever and streaming experience is reminiscent of the vinyl resurgence after the digital boom: sacrificing the commodity of the more modern medium (physical or virtual) in favor of the sound experience.

what I find interesting, though, is that at the birth of the boom of computer audio (or, at least, at my first exposure to that) around 15 years ago, many experts advocated that storing music files on hard drives would have resulted in lower jitter due to the multiple file reads and buffers prior to the transfer to a DAC (at the time, synchronous transfer via SPDIF or AES/EBU).

unfortunately my entire CD collection is collecting dust in Italy, otherwise I’d be curious to do some comparisons myself.
 

charles1dad

New Member
Aug 23, 2021
18
13
3
67
It would be informative if someone had an opportunity to compare the previous generation PWT to the current model playing CDs. It the new model is noticeably improved then it would seem to be a competitor for the Pro-Ject CD BOX RS2. If the difference is only subtle between the two generations then the Pro-Ject is the better choice in my opinion. The music just flows via the Pro-Ject in a most dynamic, very natural and emotionally involving manner.

My listening impressions are with the standard SMPS wall wart. By all accounts I'm aware of, the sound quality moves decidedly upward when an external LPS replaces the wall wart. I'm awaiting delivery of a Fidelizer Nikola- 2 LPS.
Charles
 
  • Like
Reactions: taww

charles1dad

New Member
Aug 23, 2021
18
13
3
67
@taww,
That would be most interesting!
Due to my thorough satisfaction with my PWT I was giving thought to giving the new version a listen. The onslaught of very positive comments from many happy Pro-Ject transport owners was too much to ignore. I had to find out for myself. It exceeds my high expectations. Truly terrific and I can't wait to receive the linear power supply and a custom OCC umbilical cable.
Charles
 

Al M.

VIP/Donor
Sep 10, 2013
7,193
2,797
603
Greater Boston
The subject of "bits are bits" was masterly addressed by Emile in the Taiko Audio server thread. He explained it so well that I ordered an Extreme after debating it with him. But many will still prefer the CD transport because they like the sound quality associated to its unique jitter and noise. It is why everyone has his preferred CD transport.

I don't like the sound quality associated with jitter. My CD playback sounds substantially better with the Empirical Audio reclocker between transport and DAC. That reclocker lowers the jitter to computer audio levels, but the sound is audibly without whatever noise there is in suboptimal computer audio.

Excellent streaming is available, but in my experience only from expensive ready-made solutions, as is your Taiko Extreme, or from very tinker-intensive DIY or semi DIY solutions that are very susceptible to substantial drop in sound quality with just minor things being off.
 

BlueFox

Member Sponsor
Nov 8, 2013
1,694
374
340
Having never listened to streaming I can’t comment on the quality. However, I have ripped my CDs, and have bought hundreds of new albums from HDTracks, and I feel the digital tunes played through my Lumin X1 are better than the CD. Plus you can create playlists of albums and/or songs you like, and play the songs on random shuffle. This even works for classical compositions.
 
Last edited:
  • Like
Reactions: Armsan

Kingrex

Well-Known Member
Feb 4, 2019
1,214
831
200
The subject of "bits are bits" was masterly addressed by Emile in the Taiko Audio server thread. He explained it so well that I ordered an Extreme after debating it with him. But many will still prefer the CD transport because they like the sound quality associated to its unique jitter and noise. It is why everyone has his preferred CD transports.

Unfortunately these posts are now buried in the very long thread, always very active. For a fast read you can start reading them here https://www.whatsbestforum.com/threads/taiko-audio-sgm-extreme-the-crème-de-la-crème.27433/post-587821
Holly smoke. I guess I don't want to know. 427 pages. No wonder I avoid that thread. I read a couple pages. I get the jist. Basically no topology is perfect. Both make noise, which is the more pleasant noise. And the server is going to have some impact on sound quality. I always noted as such in the past. I always heard my server and felt it had a large impact on playback. A different impact than the DAC.
 

taww

Active Member
Jun 13, 2020
89
72
25
45
New Jersey
taww.co
Not to state the obvious, but given that the variances/distortions introduced by different digital sources is extremely subtle compared to analog distortions, people's sensitivities to it are going to vary a lot. Given that I have no analog setup and have grown up on a fairly CD-heavy diet (my dad did have a lot of LPs, but I haven't listened to them in decades), my ears are more conditioned to it and maybe that's why I'm finding the differences not as meaningful to me.
 

Al M.

VIP/Donor
Sep 10, 2013
7,193
2,797
603
Greater Boston
Not to state the obvious, but given that the variances/distortions introduced by different digital sources is extremely subtle compared to analog distortions, people's sensitivities to it are going to vary a lot. Given that I have no analog setup and have grown up on a fairly CD-heavy diet (my dad did have a lot of LPs, but I haven't listened to them in decades), my ears are more conditioned to it and maybe that's why I'm finding the differences not as meaningful to me.

Depends. Recently I heard a direct comparison of CD transport/reclocker with streaming, and it was shocking how different the two sounded. The difference was NOT subtle at all.

CD transport/reclocker won, easily. But the streaming in the system did seem to have some temporary problems at the time.
 

wil

Well-Known Member
Jul 22, 2015
928
765
228
Unless you’re comparing a highly optimized server system to another highly optimized CD system, I don’t see how you can make a meaningful comparison. file playback probably takes more dedicated work to equal CD playback


 
  • Like
Reactions: microstrip

taww

Active Member
Jun 13, 2020
89
72
25
45
New Jersey
taww.co
CD transport/reclocker won, easily. But the streaming in the system did seem to have some temporary problems at the time.

Agreed on the variability of streaming. There are times streaming sounds great and oh-so-close, there are times it sounds like crap. This applies to the whole system but CD has been less variable for me. I do wonder if streaming sounds markedly inferior at a given time, if it's one of the lulls. Which is still a legitimate consideration, but short of an indictment.
 

taww

Active Member
Jun 13, 2020
89
72
25
45
New Jersey
taww.co
Unless you’re comparing a highly optimized server system to another highly optimized CD system, I don’t see how you can make a meaningful comparison. file playback probably takes more dedicated work to equal CD playback


Which I guess comes back to the basic question of our hobby, which is how much money and effort are you willing to throw into anything :D
 

microstrip

VIP/Donor
May 30, 2010
18,957
3,244
850
Portugal
Unless you’re comparing a highly optimized server system to another highly optimized CD system, I don’t see how you can make a meaningful comparison. file playback probably takes more dedicated work to equal CD playback



Exactly. People often report comparisons or opinions in poor conditions - IMHO we can't learn anything from these opinions. IMHO being considered a "data point" implies that the system where the component was inserted was optimized for it.
 

microstrip

VIP/Donor
May 30, 2010
18,957
3,244
850
Portugal
Holly smoke. I guess I don't want to know. 427 pages. No wonder I avoid that thread. I read a couple pages. I get the jist. Basically no topology is perfect. Both make noise, which is the more pleasant noise. And the server is going to have some impact on sound quality. I always noted as such in the past. I always heard my server and felt it had a large impact on playback. A different impact than the DAC.

Your summary does not reflect at all the best part of the discussion we had - you are just referring the accessory. Focus on Emile posts about the subject after the page I referred . It can be easily done using the search facility of the forum or advanced google.
 

BlueFox

Member Sponsor
Nov 8, 2013
1,694
374
340
@BlueFox what CD transport are you using? Same DAC?

I'm looking into the Pro-Ject RS2-T but need to check the supply situation...
Sony XA-5400ES SACD

It's in the sig.
 

About us

  • What’s Best Forum is THE forum for high end audio, product reviews, advice and sharing experiences on the best of everything else. This is THE place where audiophiles and audio companies discuss vintage, contemporary and new audio products, music servers, music streamers, computer audio, digital-to-analog converters, turntables, phono stages, cartridges, reel-to-reel tape machines, speakers, headphones and tube and solid-state amplification. Founded in 2010 What’s Best Forum invites intelligent and courteous people of all interests and backgrounds to describe and discuss the best of everything. From beginners to life-long hobbyists to industry professionals, we enjoy learning about new things and meeting new people, and participating in spirited debates.

Quick Navigation

User Menu

Steve Williams
Site Founder | Site Owner | Administrator
Ron Resnick
Site Co-Owner | Administrator
Julian (The Fixer)
Website Build | Marketing Managersing