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Do expensive CD players really sound better?

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Do expensive CD players really sound better?

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1988, The Syracuse Newspapers

Despite manufacturers' claims, compact disc players sound pretty much the same to most listeners.

The minor differences that are sometimes heard may be real or they may be imagined. It's not possible to determine the issue closer than that, at least with any certainty.

I have discussed this issue before in considerable detail, and I am mentioning it now because a number of readers have asked about the sound of CD players. The typical question is, "Do more expensive CD players sound better?"

The answer is no. Why, then, do some compact disc players cost so much more than others? Is it a rip-off?

Not really. The decision to price some CD players high is a marketing move. Companies know that most consumers equate price with quality, and in hi-fi gear, quality is supposed to be synonymous with better sound.

Oddly, more expensive CD players may not bring in extra profits. They will surely cost more to make, and unless they sell in large quantities, they may not even pay for themselves. Cheap players, which may sell by the hundreds of thousands a month, nearly always make more money for their manufacturers than more expensive players do.

So why take a chance on losing money with expensive compact disc players? It's simple. Money, as Yuppies already know, is only part of the game. Technological dazzle, exclusive design touches and recommendations of those already in the "in" group are all very important, and they mean the same to the makers of hi-fi components as they do in the auto business.

Just as BMWs, which are svelte and expensive, help sell Nissans to those who want the svelte but don't have the pelt, so the $1,000 CD players help sell the $300 models to those who can't yet afford the top-of-the-line.

The psychology works well. And that is generally all there is to it—except for those few hi-fi buffs who insist that they can hear the difference between a cheap player and an expensive one. Maybe they can, and maybe they just think they can. Objective tests nearly always find such claims to be baseless.

But there is one area that is not so sharply shaded. Of all the esoteric (and expensive) CD players, one model tackles the problem of reproducing sound in a unique way, and the principles it employs are so far out of the mainstream that they may be either completely wrong or totally right.

That player is the Kinergetics KCD-20, a limited-production model that includes special circuitry that is designed to cancel distortions that the company says are inherent in all electronic devices.

Backing up Kinergetics' claim is its impeccable background. It is the developer of a successful circuit that removes distortion from the amplified speech of deep-sea divers. Further, it has used its research in this area to develop devices that do, in fact, cancel out problem sounds in such components as tape recorders.

The KCD-20 compact disc player, at $800, is about four times the cost of a typical bottom-line CD player from one of the major manufacturers. Does it sound four times as good? No, not at all. In fact, my first listening sessions found no difference at all between the Kinergetics player and two or three others I had on hand.

But extensive listening has brought doubts that my first judgment was correct. Over the period of four or five months, the KCD-20 has come to sound more . . . well, more gracious, if that is the way I should describe it. I find that I prefer its sound to any others, but I am not sure why.

Perhaps I have been snared in a psychological trap of my own making. Maybe I just want that player to sound better.

Maybe it really does.

At some point in our technological education, we may begin to solve minor mysteries like this. But until then, we will have to be content with small reminders of how little we actually know about the mechanism of perception.

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