CD sounds better than CAS?

The editor of Hi-Fi Plus Magazine, Alan Sircom, has stirred up a storm with his comment that at the very high-end, some audiophiles are beginning to prefer CD or SACD playback compared with Computer As Source (CAS) playing the same music files.

Alan wrote: Beneath the calm surface of the audio world, there are dark stirrings. The backlash is beginning. It’s starting slow, and starting at the very top of the top-end of hi-fi, but there are people in high-end audio who are comparing CD or SACD with the equivalent computer files, and consistently prefer the spinning disc.

You see, when you compare the very, very best of what CD and SACD replay has to offer (we are talking Accuphase, dCS, Esoteric, Metronome, Wadia and Zanden-grade disc replay, here) and do the same with the latest and greatest in computer audio in all its guises, CD and SACD often come out on top. At less breathtaking levels of audio expenditure, the differences are not so clear-cut. But the fact remains that in many of these tests, CD outperforms its computer audio replacement. It is LP vs. CD all over again.

Metronome Kalista CD transport.

Zanden 2000T CD Transport. Audiophiles using such high-end CD
players like Metronome and Zanden are saying CD sounds better than CAS.

I have performed such comparisons on several occasions and in a number of different contexts, and I have begun to conclude there is no simple answer. In many cases, the sound of disk and computer audio are on a par with one another. In some cases (and even, with some listeners) computer audio sounds distinctly more natural than CD, and also the reverse is true. But once you breach that top-end barrier, the more people you test, the more you come up with preferences toward the spinning disc, even under blind conditions. In fairness, these differences are fairly subtle, and I still maintain that well-handled computer audio is not ruined next to spinning disc, but the preferences are distinct and consistent.

I guess the next two interlinked questions are why? And what can we do about it? While we could do precisely nothing and hope our resolve will grant CD the same longevity as LP, I am more of a prepare for the worst, hope for the best kinda guy. I think the Why might stem from the computer itself; the better USB converters invariably take great pains to galvanically isolate the computer from the audio-side equipment, and the really outstanding server-based music replay systems have been computers that were broken down into separate subsystems, each one EMI and resonant/acoustically isolated from the next. Swapping out the standard power supply for a linear supply from a lab bench, replacing any form of HDD for a hedgehog of USB memory sticks and endless RAM have also all been touted as a path to computer audio salvation. But such options are impractical, expensive and are unlikely to receive approval from the computer know-it-alls.

It may be that the high-end is creating something out of nothing, or that we are falling into the trap of comparing a mature format with a nascent one and criticising the new one simply for being new. But the fact remains that CD and SACD still have loyal followers among the audiophile community and that is not going away, no matter how good computer audio gets.

In the Malaysian scene, there are at least two audiophiles who have stated that the CD player sounds better than computer-streamed music in their systems.

This, of course, is a very sensitive issue as there are two groups waiting to pounce on each other - the diehard optical-disc followers (including the romantic TDA 1541 chip fans) will swear by the musicality of their CD/SACD players while the CAS enthusiasts will also swear by their Macs with iTunes and Amarra while Windows-based users will swear by their J River V16/17 or Foobar and the latest async USB 24/192 capable DACs.

But the fact remains that optical-based music is on its way down while CAS is on its way up.


  1. We are not comparing apples with apples when we compare CD with CAS. A well implemented CD system will sound better than a normal CAS setup and the reverse is true, a well implemented CAS will sound better than a normal CD setup. In my setup, the CD sounds better.

  2. The Bladelius Embla uses proprietary software for ripping "bit-perfect copies of CDs using our advanced proprietary data reading error-analysis algorithms enabled by a high-performance Teac drive".

    After I rip the a CD into Embla internal flash memory.I found Embla play back cd still better than ripped file at same system.


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