SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIHot Product Archives

Published November 1, 2000


Sony CDP-CX400 CD Megachanger

CDs aren't the same as LPs, get it?

Most people -- at least most audiophiles -- don't (as I explain in Features this week). It took me years to figure this out, but I gradually noticed that the old paradigm of fiddling with my LPs, then listening attentively for 25 minutes, just wasn't the way I listened to music anymore. I do still listen critically, of course, but the CD's longer playing time has freed us to do other things as well. And now, with CD changers holding 200, 300, or, as in the Sony CDP-CX400, 400 discs, we can program or randomly explore our music collections for hours (or days) at a time.

It's a whole new way to interact with your music. I love it.

When CD changers were first introduced, they were balky critters. Many of them had circular trays that spun either three or five discs around inside the player's chassis. Others boasted cartridge-style mechanisms similar to those used in automotive CD components. What they all had in common was that they were mechanically clunky -- you could hear gears grinding and watch the players quiver as they changed discs. Those CD changers weren't reliable and didn't sound very good.

Audiophiles hated 'em -- almost everyone else wanted one. And because they were popular, the major audio companies kept making them and continued to refine them. The modern megachanger is a completely different critter than those early units. They are built to be reliable, have gazillions of programming options and actually sound darn good. They also sport such features as interconnectivity and digital outputs.

Too much of a muchness

Take the Sony CDP-CX400 for instance. It's a surprisingly hefty unit, sitting squat and solid on its rubber feet. (In fact, its 21-inch depth may pose a problem on all but the most oversized equipment racks.) As you might guess from its designation, it holds 400 CDs in a carousel mechanism that is astonishingly quiet and smooth in operation. It has a front panel input for a computer keyboard, allowing you to enter each disc's title, artist, and category. This is time-consuming, but essential if you are to enjoy all of the unit's programming options, which range from the esoteric to such mundane tasks as allowing you to delete the tracks you never wish to hear or programming a sequence of your 32 all-time favorite tracks.

The front panel of the unit is dominated by a huge Plexiglas revolving door that gives access to the carousel. The loading compartment is lit by a large blue light which blinks on and off dramatically when the carousel is in motion. To the door's left is a readout that displays the disc's title and artist, as well as a bank of buttons that designate the eight musical categories. To the door's right is another read-out that reveals disc number and programming information. To the right of this display is a large shuttle knob -- below it is another bank of buttons that control playback options, as well as controls for stop, play and pause.

The rear panel sports analog outputs, analog inputs (from another player), a Toslink digital output, and two Sony Control-A1II inputs for system linkage.

You may be asking yourself why a stand-alone player has analog inputs. The answer's simple -- if you use two CDP-CX400s in your system, you can connect them via Sony's Control-A1II inputs (a mono mini-jack), which allows you to control both units as a single player. The slave player's analog output is routed through the master player so that the two machines share a single connection to the preamp. This way you get to program a total of 800 discs plus you can utilize special features, such as cross-fade and instant play (a great feature that cues up the next song or disc on one player while the other plays; the second song or disc then starts instantly when the first song or disc ends).

Associated Equipment:

Preamplifiers: Ayre K1x; Conrad-Johnson Premier 17LS

D/A converters: Bel Canto DAC1; Perpetual Technologies PA3

Power amplifiers: Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300

Loudspeakers: Dynaudio Contour 1.3 mk II; Thiel CS 7.2

Cables: AudioTruth Midnight interconnect; AudioQuest Dragon speaker cable: DiMarzio M-Path cables and interconnects

Accessories: Osar Selway Audio Racks, AudioQuest Big Feet and Little Feet, Vibrapods, Audio Power Industries Power Wedge Ultra 116

Room treatment: ASC Tube Traps, Slim Jims, Bass Traps

Too much of anything is bad, but too much of good whisky is barely enough

That's the way I chose to go, so I acquired a second unit. Data input for the two units proved to be about a week-long part-time project. Here's a health hint: Be careful where you place your computer keyboard and the CX400 because you will be turning from one to the other constantly during this process, and repetitive motion injuries are no joke. I didn't think this through before programming my first changer, and that miscalculation dictated a trip to the chiropractor.

But whatever you do, do program in as much information as possible or you'll have a very stupid megachanger. It's a lot of work, but you'll be rewarded with a slew of options.

You can listen by artist, by musical category or by looking up a specific disc on the read outs. You can program specific sequences or listen at random to individual songs or to entire discs.

This has changed my listening habits.

I still listen critically to single discs on my Musical Fidelity A3CD CD player/Bel Canto combination, of course. For one thing, I didn't install any classical CDs into the megachangers (random song order and multiple movement works aren't great natural partners, after all), so I still listen to my "serious" music one disc at a time. And although, the CX400 sounds pretty good, the A3CD/BC combo offers much better sound.

So, if I still listen critically to single discs, how has the CX400 changed my listening habits? Well, there are times throughout the day when I would have enjoyed listening to music, but never thought to fire up the old system just for a half-hour break from the keyboard or for a mid-afternoon newspaper break. Of course, waayy back in the old days, when there was interesting (not to mention good sounding) radio, I would have listened to that. But narrow-casting, severe compression and limited playlists have sapped all the joy out of radio. Other than WNYC, I don't even bother these days.

But now I find myself turning on the hifi all the time. I read the New York Times while listening to assorted country; inhale my morning pot of coffee and give my cat his morning massage to random acoustic masterpieces; and drink in a half-hour of rock along with my mid-day espresso break.

That probably doesn't seem revolutionary. It's not, actually. It's only an extra few hours per day of musical enjoyment, but little things mean a lot. Further, this extra musical enjoyment has no down side -- it's a bonus. I already owned the discs, which means I already knew I liked the music. The CD changers are so reasonably priced that shelving for 800 discs would have cost more than their combined retail prices. So I get more of the music I like for a price lower than the cost of audio software storage. Swwweeeetttt!

Accident counts for much in companionship as in marriage

If you think of the Sony CDP-CX400s as a substitute for radio, the sound quality is pretty impressive. The CX400 uses Sony's Hybrid Pulse D/A converter, which employs a proprietary noise shaping digital filter that performs high-precision oversampling. Its Signal-to-Noise (S/N) ratio has, Sony claims, been improved by integrating the Hybrid Pulse D/A Converter onto a single I/C chip. Sony claims increased clarity and lower jitter as a result. The top end is actually pretty sweet, sounding rather liquid even. The midrange is a trifle threadbare harmonically, which adds a muscular leanness to the sound, and the bottom end seems a tad overwarm and loose.

Hooking it up to the Bel Canto DAC1 was a major improvement in the mids and added top-end extension and increased clarity. I'm not sure the bottom end was actually so much tightened up as it was reigned in. The Sony's bass might have sounded a tad undifferentiated and emphasized, but the Bel Canto's bottom end seemed restrained. But I like to use two CX400s linked together because I find the 12-15 seconds between tracks interminable when a single player searches for the next song in random play mode (that instant start feature spoiled me fast). So I need to find an outboard DAC with dual Toslink inputs or I can't go that route at all. So far I've been unsuccessful, but I'm sure one's out there somewhere.

What I haven't done this time out is describe any listening experiences. This is a bit of a tease, I suppose, so let me tell you about this morning's cuppa/cat massage session. I settled into the comfy chair and chose random play of the rock category. The machine chose "Sugar Magnolia" from Europe '72 by the Greatful Dead [Warner 2668-2]. Just as Jerry Garcia's tasty wah-wah solo began, the world's densest cat® cramponed his way onto my chest and demanded attention. So I settled in for the long haul, pinned under 20lbs of feline, and listened to "Leopardskin Pillbox Hat" from The Bootleg Tapes Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live, 1966 "The Royal Albert Hall" Concert [Columbia Legacy CK2-65759]. If it had been a human DJ, I would have admired the tightness of the segue from one classic live performance to another, but it was just a chip doing its job. Next up was John Hiatt's "Walk On," and I made the connection that he'd once been one of the many candidates for "the next Bob Dylan." Then the Sony played "Mr. Pleasant" by the Kinks, "The Mayor of Simpleton" by XTC and "Girl" by the Beatles -- a perfect trifecta of British power pop. It was time to go back to work, but I'd managed to grab a half hour holiday between jobs.

One's too many -- and a hundred ain't enough

If you're looking for a single CD player that can extract every bit of juice from each bit it meets, the Sony CDP-CX400 probably isn't what you're looking for. But if you're looking for a second player, or if you don't listen critically/attentively for your jollies (and in this speeded up, multi-tasking world, there's certainly no shame in that), it just might be.

It's not perfect. I'd love to be able to connect it to my computer and download disc information directly from the internet, as Pioneer's newest megachangers do. I'd like to have more than eight musical categories -- and I'd like to be able to put some discs in more than one. And I'd prefer a coaxial digital output or, even more unlikely, an AES/EBU connection.

But these are minor quibbles. It is well built and has been reliable even though I've used it constantly since acquiring it. It offers fine sound on its own, but its digital output gives you the potential for much better. It's a hoot and a half to use -- I never tire of it.

And let's be candid here, it's dirt cheap. It lists for $360.00 according to Sony's website, but my Sunday newspaper insert from Circuit City lists it as $329.00 and sells it for $299.00. Over the Columbus Day weekend I saw it going for $279.00. It's difficult to believe Sony can make any money at that price, but that's not our worry, is it? The last time I checked, my favorite Billy Bags CD shelf sold for $658 per 1000 discs stored -- so it actually is cheaper to buy a pair of CX400s than it is to buy CD storage! How weird is that?

Best of all, it's fun to use. I'm listening to more music and I'm enjoying it more. That's got to be worth something in itself. Go thou and do likewise.

...Wes Phillips

Sony CDP-CX400 CD Megachanger
Price: $360 USD

Sony Electronics Inc.
Sony Drive
Park Ridge, NJ


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