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Bryston BCD-3 CD Player

Why Buy a CD Player?

There’s something to be said for doing one thing and doing it well. After all, doing many things well—as, for instance, the dCS Rossini DAC/streamer/player does—gets costly. In the case of the Rossini, $28,000 costly. The Bryston BCD-3 does just one thing, plays CDs, which it does exceptionally well. Further, Bryston offers the BCD-3 at an eminently reasonable price. Still, in this day and age, does it make sense to buy a digital source that doesn’t support hi-res, streaming, USB, or Tidal?

I posed that question to Bryston’s James Tanner. He told me that Bryston decided to produce the BCD-3 when there was an uproar among the company’s customers and prospects over the discontinuation of Bryston’s first CD player, the much-loved BCD-1. (There was no BCD-2.) Many of those constituents, he said, “have a large CD library and want a high-quality CD player—maybe their last one—but don’t want to pay esoteric prices.” I don’t know about you, but I sympathize with that remark.

For the many of us who do indeed have extensive CD libraries and are wondering how best to preserve, access, and enjoy all that music, buying an affordable CD player good enough to be one’s “last” is certainly an obvious option. But I wondered how that approach stacks up against the alternatives? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the alternatives aren’t as tantalizing as they first seem.

For example, ripping a CD library to a NAS has the benefit of combining old and new music on a single media device, greatly facilitating access. But for a large music collection, mass ripping is a daunting proposition. You could spend the next year and a half monitoring progress bars.

Another option is to replace all those physical discs with hi-res downloads. This path has the potential to improve your collection’s sound quality and, again, enables media consolidation. Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely you’d find all your library’s titles in a quality downloadable format. Even if you did, you’d be facing a hefty bill. Besides, as my monthly download column regularly illustrates, plenty of downloads sound no better than their CD counterparts. This approach’s sonic gains would be spotty at best.

Another option would be to forego both discs and downloads. Depending on the genres you listen to, much—though still not all—of your music is likely available from a streaming service like Tidal. Therefore, you could simply opt for a monthly subscription. This approach has the lowest cost and least hassle. The problem is that, with the exception of MQA-encoded content, you will have relegated your CD library to sub-CD sonics. Further, taking advantage of the available MQA content means investing in an MQA-compatible playback system.

My conclusion from this thought exercise is that, for many of us, investing in getting the most out of our existing CD library may make more sense than converting or replacing it. And, as already noted, one obvious way to do that is to invest in an out-performing player.

Ah, but why not go with a more “universal” solution? Something that would not only play CDs but would also handle multiple disc formats and maybe even serve as a DAC? The answer gets back to the maxim about doing one thing right. Single-minded components enable single-minded engineering. They liberate designers to optimize every element for one function. This means that a well-designed CD player will audibly outshine a similarly-priced multi-disc player or combination player/DAC.

 

Single-Minded Design
The BCD-3 is a persuasive case in point. Its engineers took full advantage of the device’s focused functionality. For instance, Bryston designers knew that the ideal CD drive module would be clocked at 44.1kHz, the format’s standard. Anything else would compromise sound quality. They therefore decided to limit drive options for its new player to those clocked at 44.1kHz. That uncompromising stance ended up delaying the new player for several years.

A bit of history: The original BCD-1 benefitted from a 44.1kHz drive module supplied by Philips. Philips’ discontinuation of that module precipitated the untimely demise of the BCD-1. Bryston was anxious to build a replacement, but it soon learned that CD-optimized drives had all but vanished from the market. Instead, there were lots of DVD drives, and that’s what most everyone was using in their disc players. Needless to say, those drives aren’t clocked at 44.1kHz.

Rather than settle for a sub-optimal drive, Bryston decided to wait for something suitable. The company’s patience was finally rewarded when an Austrian firm named StreamUnlimited came out with a CD drive module clocked at 44.1kHz. Even better, the new drive improves upon the unit it replaces, boasting a metal (rather than plastic) tray and a much-improved slide mechanism. I can vouch for its smoother, quieter operation.

The timing of this drive’s arrival was auspicious; it coincided with Bryston’s release of a new DAC, the BDA-3, featuring dual 32-bit AKM 4490 DAC chips. The BDA-3 is a highly versatile component, with a vast array of inputs and outputs, plus support for a lengthy catalog of formats and sample rates. The BDA-3 was designed as a modular platform that facilitates hardware updates in the future, as well as allowing sub-systems to be repurposed in other products. Specifically, the DAC section in the BCD-3 is part-for-part identical to that of the BDA-3, with the same dual AKM DACs and balanced analog output circuitry. The difference is that the BCD-3 is programmed to operate only at 44.1kHz. The main circuit board is unique to the BCD-3, and the power supplies are similar.

Bryston lodged all this new componentry inside a chassis that looks nearly identical to that of the BCD-1. The front panel consists of a display surrounded by “Chiclet” buttons; however, Bryston has bumped up their size to make them easier to use. (Unfortunately, the optional remote control remains as bewildering as ever.) In a similar update, the newer model’s display boasts clearer, larger lettering. In back, there are balanced as well as single-ended analog outputs, several control interface options, and a digital out. Overall, the BCD-3’s packaging is handsome, efficient, and reinforces the player’s purpose-built gestalt. Users get everything they need to play CDs with ease—and nothing more.

The Payoff
In assessing how successful Bryston’s strategy has been, the obvious place to start is to compare the new player with the BCD-1. Sonically, the latter has never been a slouch. Nearly ten years ago, when I reviewed it in Issue 183, I dubbed the BCD-1 a superbly musical CD player, and it remains a joy. The first track I played in my nostalgic trip down BCD-1 lane was Bob Dylan’s atmospheric “Man in the Long Black Coat” from the Oh, Mercy disc. The evergreen Bryston propelled the song forward with an unstoppable pace. While the Bryston is not the epitome of openness, every instrument made its mark, with bass being particularly solid. Most importantly, the BCD-1 conveyed the music’s tense mood. That’s always been the case with this player; it gets to the heart of the music.

Yet when I switched to the BCD-3, the new player proved effortlessly and substantially superior. The new model is every bit as musically faithful as the old, but there are sonic improvements that I, for one, wouldn’t want to live without. Among these is the BCD-3’s far better channel separation, no doubt due to the use of dual DACs rather than just one. The result is not only a wider soundstage, but also much more precise imaging within that space. Through the BCD-3, Dylan is no longer vaguely centerstage; he is firmly planted exactly mid-speaker. As all TAS readers know, the ability to virtually “see” a musician adds dramatically to the sense of being in the artist’s presence.

The second main difference between the two players, also evident on the Dylan track, concerns background levels. The BCD-3’s hushed drawer mechanism foreshadows equally unobtrusive background noise. With a lower noise floor, music emerges from the new Bryston with greater purity and tangibility.

 

For something larger scale, I turned to Osmo Vänskä’s brisk, assured performance of Beethoven’s Ninth on the BIS label. This is a hybrid disc, but it sounds wonderful even on its CD layer. Listening to it through the BCD-1, I was carried along with every movement. Again, I wished for a greater sense of air, but the BCD-1 had no trouble conjuring the recording’s mammoth scale and dynamics. Nonetheless, the BCD-3 delivered even more dynamic furor, along with a clearer view into each orchestral section’s playing. As on the Dylan, imaging was markedly better. Nor was openness any longer an issue. The BCD-3 ably conveys that elusive sense of frequency range and dynamic unboundedness so manifest in live performances.

By this point in my testing I had already come to two conclusions. First, the new Bryston is a significant upgrade to the BCD-1. Second, it’s a superb CD player, full stop. Like the BCD-1, it gets the music right; but it also provides greater resolution, dynamics, spatial precision, and openness. Additional listening over many months only confirmed these initial conclusions. So much so, in fact, that I began wondering how the BCD-3 might fare when pitted against something more exotic. To satisfy my curiosity, I did something wholly unfair: I directly compared the Bryston to the $28,000 dCS Rossini.

Did the Rossini sound better? Of course it did! What did you expect? Still, it took me a while to put my finger on what made the Rossini’s presentation the more convincing of the two. Notes—their timbres, rhythms, dynamics, and the space they play in—sounded remarkably similar on the two players. But the dCS proved better in between the notes, maintaining a low-level sense of acoustic space even during musical gaps. This capacity had a surprisingly outsized effect on realism.

The Rossini is also capable of more weight in the bass, which is unsurprising considering its anvil-like build. On solo piano recordings the BCD-3 can’t muster a Bösendorfer’s lower-register heft in the same way the dCS can. Yet the Bryston fully captures that instrument’s deep beauty, as well as its prodigious dynamics. In the same way, though an upright bass emerges from the Rossini with a little more oomph, the BCD-3 matches the dCS’ sublimely realistic attacks and timbral density. Considering the vast price divide between these two players, I came away from this comparison with even greater admiration for the BCD-3.

Why Now?
Clearly the new Bryston has the sonic mettle to qualify as a prime choice for a “last” CD player. Equally clear to me, having thought it through, is that purchasing such a unit makes eminent sense. Still, why take the plunge now? Why not stick with what you’re currently using for a while longer?

The first part of the answer has to do with the degree of the BCD-3’s improvement over previous generations of CD players. I suspect that many readers are getting by with a trusty old Rotel, Rega, Bryston, or other creditable CD player. You may think things haven’t changed much since then. But, in fact, they have.

Spurred by the hi-res phenomenon, companies such as AKM have invested heavily in a new generation of DAC chips. Frankly, these new chips stomp their predecessors. Modern chips are much quieter and far better behaved at the musical extremes. Built for ultra-high sample rates and bit depths, they coast through decoding a CD. One reason the BCD-3 smokes the BCD-1 is that the latter is saddled with a generations-old Cirrus Logic 4398 DAC chip. You can expect the BCD-3 to dispatch your aging CD player just as quickly and definitively as it did the BCD-1. In short, by upgrading you’d be getting a major improvement.

But doesn’t the fact that DACs are progressing at such a brisk pace argue for waiting a bit longer? Well, it would, unless a player you bought today was somehow future-proof. Ideally, a “last” CD player would offer a means of taking advantage of DAC advancements (or winning lottery tickets) that may appear down the road. The BCD-3 does.

 

No, you can’t swap out DAC chips or upgrade software via the Internet. But, as previously mentioned, Bryston thoughtfully included a high-grade digital output. This seemingly-minor feature has a huge benefit: It allows the player to serve as a pure transport driving an outboard DAC. Thus, if it makes sense to do so at some point in the future, you can front a new DAC with this Bryston, with the two units communicating via SPDIF or AES/EBU.

Once I understood Bryston’s future-proofing strategy, I immediately loved it—in principle. But before extolling it to you, I needed to ensure that the theory worked well in practice. Therefore, I set up a test whereby I fed the BCD-3’s digital output into first-rate DACs from dCS and CH Precision. In both cases I was floored by the results. The BCD-3 turns out to be a fantastic CD transport. In that mode, it delivers perfect pace, pinpoint attacks, high detail resolution, and, well, just about everything else you could wish for. Bottom line: This upgrade path is real. As a transport, the BCD-3 will do full justice to any future DAC with which you mate it.

Conclusion
I began this review process wondering if a player like the BCD-3 is even relevant in today’s digital world. I discovered, to my surprise, that it is. My next discovery was just how good the BCD-3 sounds, and how much of an improvement it represents over even excellent last-generation CD players. Then, the Bryston went toe-to-toe with one of the best CD players available—without embarrassing itself in the least. Lastly, I discovered that the BCD-3’s upgrade path, which consists of turning itself into a transport to work with future or more expensive DACs, really works.

Put this together and you really do have what could be your last CD player. The BCD-3’s single-minded design and functionality delivers CD performance that doesn’t come along every day. And, as we’ve seen with the BCD-1, there’s no guarantee such a player will be here tomorrow. If I were choosing a CD player that wouldn’t break the bank but was unflinching in its musical and sonic generosity, the BCD-3 would be at the top of my list.

Specs & Pricing

Outputs: RCA single-ended analog, XLR balanced analog, SPDIF RCA, AES/EBU XLR
Control: Ethernet, USB-A, IR, DC, RS-232
Dimensions: 19″ x 3.3″ x 11.5″
Weight: 8.8 lbs.
Price: $3495

BRYSTON LIMITED
677 Neal Drive
Peterborough, Ontario K9J 7Y4
Canada
(800) 632-8217
bryston.com

By Alan Taffel

I can thank my parents for introducing me to both good music and good sound at an early age. Their extensive classical music collection, played through an enviable system, continually filled our house. When I was two, my parents gave me one of those all-in-one changers, which I played to death.

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