Over the years, I have heard this question asked many times. Typically among audiophiles, the answer almost invariably seems to be that early CD players from the 1980's "suck" (or similar negative expression). Generally, these comments appear without further details to explain the sentiment; as usual in audiophilia, we can find many opinions out there, but few bother with facts to build their case. I haven't seen many contemporary articles or writers discuss this question while looking at objective data to examine performance compared with the hi-res DACs we have these days.
The genesis of this article came about while chatting with my friend linnrd a number of months ago about the sound of DACs, modern devices, and what we grew up with back in the day. Lo and behold, he dug out the two machines you see above from his "archive" of older hardware. They appear to be in excellent condition despite being >30 years old!
Let's have a good look at the performance of these machines, and a listen as well, of course. ;-)
In original boxes:
The Digital Audio Compact Disc (aka Audio CD, "Red Book", 16/44.1 PCM) physical format and players were first introduced in Japan in October 1982. Officially these "laser discs" could hold 74 minutes of music, a total of 650MB data although over the years, we've seen "over-burning" extend that duration up to 80 minutes / 700MB or even a little more. While the 80 minute discs are very common, they are outside the formal "Red Book" standard. The discs are 1.2mm thick, with a diameter of 120mm (4.7"), and a center 15mm hole. This would become the most popular physical format to hold all kinds of digital content from music, to videos, to computer files when we include the high density DVD and Blu-Ray kin.
The first CDs and CD player (Sony's CDP-101) made landfall here in North America in March 1983, finally available after much early publicity. The first CD players had a US$1k price tag and CDs were around US$20 each. Calculated for inflation between 1983 to 2021, that US$1,000 CD player would cost about US$2500 these days.
Despite the prohibitive cost for the average music consumer initially, demand was obviously strong among music lovers such that in 5 years, CD sales overtook vinyl (by 1988). It wasn't until 1991 that they overtook compact cassette sales.
While not the very first generation of CD players, these 2 models we'll be examining in this post came out during the transition time between the introduction of digital audio to the masses and ultimately supplanting analogue media as the primary form of music distribution until Internet downloads/streaming in the new Millennium.
I. About the Technics & Sony players
Let's have a look at the two old CD players above... First up, we have the Technics SL-P110 from circa 1986 (35 years old):
This is the older of the 2 machines we'll be looking at (and listening to). Note the standard front panel with the usual buttons. And the rear is very simple with just the 2 RCA outs and a detachable power cable.
The CD tray is interesting:
The CD sits (right-side-up) within the circular tray and there's a kind of suspension feel on top of that raised central plastic piece. This is a relatively slow CD player which took about 20-30 seconds after inserting a disc for the player to read the table of contents before you can play music.
On the bottom, we see a black "lock" switch which is a handy mechanism when transporting the CD player to prevent movement of the laser read mechanism. Obviously this needs to be unlocked (pushed in) before use.
Based on the information here, the player was priced at US$320 when new back in 1986 (inflation adjusted to US$800 in 2021). The optical pick-up mechanism is called the "SOALP1200". This unit was made in Japan. I'm not sure what the "High Speed Linear Access System" or "Fine Focus System" actually are referring to. Based on some information on other related Technics players of that era, it looks like the internal DAC is the Burr-Brown PCM54HP converter first released in 1985. Although the very first CD players were not quite capable of 16-bits dynamic range, by 1985/1986, we see 16-bit parts like this with rated -82dB/0.008% THD and up to 96dB dynamic range. This would be multibit resistor ladder network technology back then before the advent of bitstream SDM converters became more common (by about 1988/1989).
The other CD player we'll be looking at here is the Sony CDP-690 which came out in 1990 (31 years old):
It has more buttons for direct track access. And we see some text on the front of the CD tray telling us that this device has a "Dual D/A converter system" and "18 bit linear / 8 times oversampling" technology. There's also a headphone jack and volume control on the right side (which sounds fine although I did not measure).
The DAC section consists of 2 x Analog Devices AD1860N chips. The laser head mechanism is the KSS-240A. This CD player's specs sheet listed THD as 0.005%/-86dB with a 95dB dynamic range. It also came with a remote controller.
Note that the AD1860N is an 18-bit DAC chip listed as having 108dB dynamic range, and can perform down to 0.002%/-94dB THD+N depending on the grade of the chip. Its multibit R-2R architecture is "laser trimmed" and "fabricated from silicon chromium thin film". So in principle, this chip can achieve better than 16-bit CD resolution in some ways; 10 years prior to the release of SACD/DVD-A.
While the TosLink interface was designed by Toshiba back in 1983, it took a few years to show up in consumer gear. By 1990, a reasonably priced Sony CD player like this (
I haven't seen the MSRP listed so not sure exactly how much Sony wanted for this US$280 MSRP according to Audio magazine October 1990, thanks Orto Fan) featured the digital output.
|Non-detachable power cable.|
As you can see on the rear, this specific machine was manufactured in September 1990 in Itakura, Japan. Notice the presence of both fixed and variable RCA stereo pairs. I assume the variable output must be adjusted with the remote controller (I don't think linnrd has this any more). For the tests, I'll just use the "fixed" line out which is probably what most users would be doing connecting this to a preamp, integrated, or receiver.
|Sony CDP-690 in German Sony catalogue 1991 - that's what the remote controller looked like.|
So guys and gals, let's get to it...
In order to measure performance, I obviously need the test signals on an Audio CD. For this, I made my own using some of the signals I have been using over the years on this blog for measuring computer DACs - obviously converted to 16-bits as cleanly as possible using a combination of Adobe Audition and iZotope RX:
|The good 'ol days with physical buttons galore. ;-)|