The music industry is going through interesting times right now. "Interesting", that is, in the Chinese proverbial sense: the compact disc, the industry's golden goose since the mid-‘80s, is on the wane. Complaints about the cold, direct sound of "digititis" have sent audiophiles retreating to vinyl, while mass-market consumers flock to the convenience and attractive price points of digital downloads. The dedicated CD player has become (like the turntable, paradoxically enough) something of a boutique item.
Regardless of its uncertain future, for the time being the CD is unquestionably the most popular medium of music distribution. As I write this, Amazon.com reports over 2,000 new releases on the shiny discs this week alone. However, if you want a simple component that holds and plays just one CD at a time and (oh, the horror) don't want to spend $1000 for it, your choices are surprisingly limited. If you want to spend less than $500, you can almost count your options on one hand.
The CD5001 is Marantz' response to the situation. The $300 player was introduced nearly three years ago (replacing, inexplicably, the apparently identical CD5400) at the entry level of their disc-spinning products. In that time the CD5001 has developed a good reputation among budget-minded audiophiles, so much that I was curious enough to contact Marantz' PR agent in New York, and took delivery of a review sample just a few weeks later.
Any Color You Want As Long As It Is Black
The CD5001 sports Marantz' usual black, brushed aluminum faceplate, giving it a handsome look not found in most mass-market components. It's not particularly heavy, and the CD tray wobbles around a bit when jostled, but performs no worse in this area than some players I've seen at 15x the price. The back panel boasts both coaxial and optical digital outs, as well as typical unbalanced RCAs. Front panel controls are neatly laid out and responsive, and the remote is excellent, with good sized buttons that are clearly labeled and spaced-out well enough for even the most fat-fingered audiophile.
Stupid CD Player Tricks (New Segment on Letterman?)
Kidding aside, none of the CD5001's features are stupid, but a few of them are somewhat esoteric in nature, and not often seen at this (or any other) price point. And they are:
Pitch Control: This changes playback speed, with the obvious effect of changing the pitch of the music being played. Pitch can be adjusted up or down one octave in whole-step increments. The idea here is to give musicians (and vocalists in particular) the ability to perform along with recordings in the key of their choice. Sadly, the unit will not play CDs in reverse, so all those secret messages in your ‘70s rock albums will just have to remain confined to vinyl....
Peak Search: This scans an entire CD to find the loudest passage. It doesn't do it particularly quickly; taking over six minutes to scan a 70-minute disc, but might have been useful to me back in the ‘80s as a home taper, as may have the next feature:
Simple Edit: By selecting a tape length (46, 54, 60, 75, and 90-minute options are available) the CD5001 divides a disc's tracks in to two groups (without changing their original order) so they fit on each side of a tape. It inserts a 4-second pause between tracks, and (if a Marantz-brand auto-reverse tape deck is being used) can start recording and turn the tape over automatically at the appropriate time. Fancy!
Headphone Amp: Sporting its own volume pot, the CD5001's headphone jack is driven by an NJM4556, the same OpAmp used in the Grado RA-1 Headphone Amplifier. Interestingly, the Marantz fell short of the RA-1 when driving Grado SR-225 headphones, lacking bass authority and overall volume output; but performed remarkably well with my higher-impedance Sennheiser HD-580s. A Marantz/Sennheiser combo would be a welcome addition to any bedside table or dorm room.
Overall, an interesting set of features that demonstrates a spirit of fun and creativity in Marantz' engineering department, and even among the suits who must have approved their inclusion. They may even serve as a cost-cutting measure: hi-fi fashion dictates that high-end components must have clean, minimalist front panels; if these features had been left off (and their corresponding buttons removed from the fascia), Marantz may have had to charge more for the player!
The entire time I had the CD5001 in my system, the unit never failed to produce clean, accurate music that was a pleasure to listen to. It calls very little attention to itself, and has an overall sonic character that is pleasantly neutral. Detail retrieval is adequate, and the player had no problems with CD-Rs or discs that were moderately scratched.
My normal source is the $150 Sony SCD-CE595 (reviewed back in 2005 by our own "Joe Audiophile", Scott Faller). Casually switching between the two over the course of the review period, I got the vague impression that the Marantz was slightly smoother, while the Sony had slightly more high-end extension. I was unable to reliably confirm this in level-matched listening tests, but for whatever reason, the vague impression remains.
Of course, the Sony unit also plays SACDs, something the Marantz can't do. Performing a fair comparison of SACD to Redbook CD is tricky, because the different layers in a Hybrid SACD are often subject to different mastering. According to recording engineer Jim Anderson, his 2001 SACD of Terence Blanchard's Let's Get Lost is identical to the Redbook release except for the resolution. The session was recorded and mixed on analog tape, mastered in DSD with the Redbook release being downstream of the DSD master. This means it is one of the few albums suitable for a true CD versus SACD "shootout". Sonic differences were minimal but detectable: nothing really stood out in the overall presentation of either one, but the SACD sounded a touch more lifelike. The singers seemed a bit more forward in the soundstage on the Marantz, whereas on SACD they seemed more integrated with the band. The sound was close enough on my system that, if the price points were reversed, I would not think it worth the upgrade. But hey, I'm cheap.
Later on, I ran the CD5001 against a friend's Benchmark DAC1 PRE ($1575, the original, non-preamp version was reviewed by Dick Olsher in 2005), listening on his Linkwitz Orions (among the most resolving speakers I've ever heard). The Benchmark demonstrated a slight improvement in dynamics, and the session also revealed a faint touch of digital hash in the upper register on the Marantz.
How faint? We tried an ABX test to see if I could tell the Marantz from the Benchmark without looking. Out of four trials, I got the first two right and the second two wrong. Now, hardcore ABX enthusiasts will tell you that, 1.) four trials is not enough to establish statistical significance; and 2.) a 50/50 score indicates that I was guessing, and thus the two components sound identical (hardcore ABX detractors will tell you the whole exercise is a waste of time). My theory is that I really could hear the Marantz' top-end artifacts in the first two trials, but it took so much effort that I got fatigued, and could no longer pick them out in the next two.
Feel free to draw your own conclusions about our ABX test (or about my listening abilities), but I think that most everyone would agree that the differences between the Marantz and any of the digital components I had on hand are, at best, extremely subtle. Later on, we played the opening ten minutes of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet (a performance my friend is intimately familiar with), first on the Marantz, then again through the Benchmark. He said that through the Marantz he listened to it, but through the Benchmark he was conducting it…he had a more vivid, emotional reaction to the music through the Benchmark. Impossible to support with any measurements or A/B testing, this data point could be nothing…or it could be everything. I didn't find listening to the Benchmark quite so revelatory (although I wouldn't kick it out my system if I had one), but keep in mind this was his system, and one of his favorite pieces of music.
Digital audio is getting better and less expensive all the time (thanks mostly, I believe, to engineers at major audio chip manufacturers like Texas Instruments, National Semiconductor, etc.). The Marantz CD5001 demonstrates that perfectly enjoyable digital sound is available to anyone willing to spend a few hundred dollars. Truth be told, I've never found anything but minute differences between any two digital source components... In my opinion, those who talk of dramatic "night and day" differences between one CD player and another are either exaggerating (a common practice among audiophiles and members of the audio press) or in possession of a debilitating sensitivity (another common practice among audiophiles and members of the audio press). While sonic differences between digital source components do exist, they don't make as much impact on the overall enjoyment of my audio system as factors like price or ergonomics.
Overall, I was impressed with the CD5001. The build quality, ease of use, ergonomic comfort in the remote, and ultimately the sound are all excellent for the price. Is it the best CD player in the world? Well, no…but it could be all the CD player you need, and for $300, it certainly gets my recommendation.
Type: Stereo CD player / transport
Marantz America, Inc.