Does it have a built-in hard drive? No. Can it burn CDs? No. Does it play Blu-ray Discs? No.
These were the questions my friends asked as we sat on a patio, enjoying some beer before the rain that has plagued much of this summer began falling again. I’d told them I was working on a review of a new CD player, and I wasn’t too surprised. I don’t know many people who’ve bought a CD in the past year, let alone anyone who’s purchased a device whose sole purpose is to play CDs. If the medium hasn’t yet died, it’s certainly on life support, as demonstrated by the fact that sales of vinyl have actually surpassed those of the shiny plastic discs.
So, in 2017, why would anyone buy a CD player? I think the simple answer is that, for a quarter of a century, the Compact Disc was king in the world of music playback, and as digital technology matured, so did the sound of CDs. Many of us have sizable collections of CDs -- assuming we haven’t loaded them on to a hard drive for playback through a computer-based system, if we want to hear those CDs, a good player is still a necessity.
For those of us who still use physical media for music, Bryston has introduced their newest disc spinner, the BCD-3. It costs $3495 USD.
What readers may find most surprising about the BCD-3 is what it doesn’t do. This is a “Red Book”-only player: It can’t decode the high-resolution formats that audiophiles like to rave about. The Bryston has been designed specifically for discs made to the 16-bit/44.1kHz specification that Sony and Philips originally designed into the format. (The Compact Disc’s complete specifications were originally published in a technical paper bound in a red jacket.)
According to Bryston, DVD and universal disc players might be able to play CDs, but they can’t resolve the format’s full dynamic range and subtlety, their designers having made compromises in sound quality to handle multiple formats. So rather than manufacture an all-in-one player, the Canadian company opted to build something whose sole purpose was to do one thing exceptionally well. At a time when consumers tend to want a single product that will perform a multitude of functions (e.g., the smartphone), it’s refreshing to see a company commit to a single goal, even if it counters current trends and appeals to only a small minority of buyers. Then again, that describes much of high-end audio. For me, the BCD-3’s inability to play hi-rez recordings isn’t a problem. I own few such recordings, and besides, the best-sounding discs in my collection are almost all “Red Book.”
Specifics of the BCD-3 are scant on Bryston’s website, but here are the highlights: Discs are loaded into what Bryston describes as a professional-grade optical-disc transport, where data are read and passed along to two balanced AKM digital-to-analog converters based on the design of Bryston’s flagship DAC, the BDA-3, which I reviewed for this site last year. The optical pickup and DACs are slaved to a single master clock, a highly precise quartz oscillator, designed to eliminate jitter. Once in the analog domain, the signal is sent to Bryston’s proprietary, fully discrete, class-A operational amplifiers (op-amps) at the output stage. Either balanced (XLR) or single-ended (RCA) outputs can be used to link the BCD-3 to your preamp. Additionally, there are S/PDIF (RCA) and AES/EBU (XLR) outputs, if you want to bypass the BCD-3’s DAC altogether and send data from the transport to an outboard converter. I can’t fathom why anyone would buy the BCD-3 to use it only as a transport, but the option is there if it’s wanted.
The Bryston weighs 8.8 pounds and measures 17”W or 19”W (depending on the faceplate chosen) x 3.325”H x 11.53”D. The faceplate is a thick slab of aluminum finished in black or silver. As with every Bryston product I’ve ever encountered, the review sample of the BCD-3 felt extremely solid and well built. While it could hardly be considered flashy, its fit and finish were impeccable, exuding the quality I expect of a luxury product.
The front panel evinces the clean aesthetics of Bryston’s new series of electronics, which feature the usual controls needed to operate the player. A small OLED display at left indicates the status of the player or the disc being played, and can be factory-ordered with blue or green text. I’d prefer if the display were larger, or used larger text at the expense of more information, so that I could more easily read it from my listening chair.
The BCD-3 can be controlled in a home automation system using RS232, Ethernet, or USB two-way control interfaces. An infrared remote-control handset, the BR2 Controller, can be ordered separately for $150, and will also operate other Bryston components. Made entirely of aluminum, the backlit and touch-sensitive BR2 is still the nicest, most sturdy remote I’ve come across in high-end audio. However, I wish it could have been included with the BCD-3 -- I suspect that, like me, many find a remote to be a nearly indispensable part of the experience of using a CD player. The BCD-3 can also be controlled with a remote supplied by a third-party manufacturer -- or, the more technically savvy can connect the BCD-3 to a local area network (LAN) via Ethernet, to take advantage of its built-in Web-based user interface, which duplicates the appearance of the player’s front panel.
I linked the BCD-3 with a Bryston B135 SST2 integrated amplifier via Nordost Moonglo interconnects; the B135 was hooked up to a pair of Revel Performa3 F206 floorstanding speakers with AudioQuest Comet speaker cables terminated in banana plugs. For comparison, I hooked up an Apple MacBook running Audirvana software to a Bryston BDA-2 DAC ($2395) with an AudioQuest Forest USB link, and DAC to preamp with Kimber Kable Tonik interconnects (RCA). To compare the BCD-3’s DAC with the BDA-2, I linked them with i2Digital X-60 digital coaxial. All electronics were plugged into an ExactPower EP15A conditioner-regenerator.
Since becoming parents last fall, my wife and I have had far less time to sit and enjoy music as we used to, something to which I imagine most people with kids can relate. Instead, much of the music we now play is streamed wirelessly, typically as we move about our place trying to get things done. In this sense, the arrival of the BCD-3 was timely -- it forced me to sit down and actually revisit our CD collection. Much like listening to vinyl, this encouraged listening to whole albums. The experience of playing CDs will never be as tactile as brushing off a record and dropping the needle in the groove, but once the disc is in the tray and I’m seated and comfortable, I’m far more likely to stay and listen to a good portion of the album, if not the whole thing -- just as I’d listen to at least one side of an LP.
Fortunately, the BCD-3 was the perfect companion for extended listening sessions: It had almost no discernible sonic character. When I began writing for the SoundStage! Network, I found it frustrating to write about such gear -- it wasn’t easy to describe something a component wasn’t doing. Over time, I came to appreciate that allowing the nature of a recording to emerge unadulterated was its own virtue -- I was able to focus on the music itself, and that, of course, is its own reward. The inherently neutral BCD-3 was definitely such a component.
When, in high school, I was introduced to Massive Attack, their music was a revelation. As someone who grew up listening to rock and folk, trip-hop was unlike anything I’d ever heard. The band’s third album, Mezzanine (CD, Virgin 8 45599 2), is well produced and possesses a large, immersive soundscape of often dense, murky sound underpinned by subterranean bass. Through the BCD-3, Mezzanine sounded as good as ever -- the Bryston did a fine job of conveying the dark atmosphere the band clearly intended to create with this record. A faithful conduit to the music, the BCD-3 was superb at reproducing all of the detail on this album with unerring precision. The percussion in “Inertia Creeps” was taut and fast, the squeaky-clean Bryston perfectly reproducing the track’s infectious pace. The more down-tempo “Angel” opens with bass so deep you’d need a subwoofer to do it justice. Within the limits of my Revel speakers, the BCD-3’s ultraquiet electronics were able to render the notes with exceptional clarity -- each remained clear and distinct, rather than the muddled mess I’ve experienced with lesser systems.
Bryston has always enjoyed a reputation for building components that are highly transparent and resolving of musical detail, so it’s no surprise that the same characteristics apply to their newest CD player as well. I was reminded of this listening to Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie & Lowell (CD, Asthmatic Kitty AKR099). I’ve been enjoying this album for the past year, but 95% of that listening has been done in not-so-quiet environments, using an iPod Touch and Sennheiser earbuds. Hearing it on CD through the BCD-3 was a sort of epiphany -- I gained a new appreciation for its production. For example, in “Fourth of July” I could hear the sound of what seems to be a storm brewing in the distance, over which is laid a layer of static and a single piano note whose repetition establishes the tempo. Stevens’s voice hung centered between the speakers as the music was spread across the front of the room, creating a wide stage. The entire effect was rendered with commendable clarity by the Bryston-Revel combo, and helped convey this haunting song’s emotional impact.
In “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” the sound of what I think is a running stream serves as backdrop to two guitars, one each emanating from beyond the outer boundary of the left and right speakers. This stage wasn’t especially deep, but, as in “Fourth of July,” Stevens’s voice is between the speakers, hanging in air. About a minute into the track a subtle clatter can be heard -- something I’d never noticed before. Stevens recorded some of these tracks on an iPhone in an Oregon hotel room -- thanks to the lucidity of the BCD-3 and the system as a whole, the information preserved was relayed to me. This made the BCD-3 quite special. Another way of saying that it had no discernible sonic character is that it added nothing to the sound: It was what it didn’t do that made it possible for the BCD-3 to deliver to me music as its creators intended.
The BCD-3 was also excellent at bringing out the open, warm sound of another album recorded in the American Northwest: Elliott Smith’s Either/Or (CD, Kill Rock Stars KRS269). Smith’s characteristic doubled vocal in “Speed Trials” created a nice stereo effect: a wide, deep soundstage spanning the front of the room. I particularly like how the drums on Either/Or are recorded, as in “Between the Bars” and “2:45 AM.” They don’t overwhelm the mix, but they aren’t buried either, and the ultraquiet Bryston-Revel system revealed them with wonderful clarity and a bit of heft, especially notable in the warm thump of the kick drum. The ease and fluidity of the BCD-3 made for some longer-than-planned listening sessions, as I continued to revisit this favorite from Smith’s catalog.
I was especially interested in hearing how the BCD-3 acquitted itself alongside a computer-based front end, in this case comprising Bryston’s BDA-2 DAC and an Apple MacBook computer running Audirvana software. As music lovers continue to abandon physical media, they do so in favor of hard-drive-based systems or the increasingly popular music-streaming services; it was natural to want to hear how the BCD-3 would fare against the former.
I began this comparison by cueing up an AIFF 16-bit/44.1kHz file on CD and computer. “Me and a Gun,” from Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes (CD, EastWest CD 82358), is a favorite of mine to use in reviews. Compared to the Apple laptop playing the music through the Bryston DAC, the BCD-3 portrayed Amos’s voice as a touch laid-back. As pure as it sounded through the computer and DAC, the resonance of her voice in this a cappella performance seemed a touch more natural through the CD player; though the difference wasn’t huge, I preferred the sound of the BCD-3.
With “So What,” from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (CD and 16/44.1 AIFF, Columbia/Legacy CK 64935), both the Apple-BDA-2 and BCD-3 captured the track’s precise soundstaging, making it a cinch to visualize the outline of each performer. Even as I switched repeatedly between the two digital front ends, focusing on a single instrument, it was difficult to distinguish which component I was hearing -- tonally, they sounded identical. However, I found the overall sound from the BCD-3 a bit more expansive, as if the ceiling of the recording studio were a little higher, and the notes could soar a bit more. This was most notable with the trumpet and the saxophone, and it had the effect of making the music more spacious.
In “Backstage with the Modern Dancers,” from Great Lake Swimmers’ Ongiara (CD and 16/44.1 AIFF, Nettwerk 6700-30691-2), the Apple-BDA-2 combo again sounded pretty similar to the BCD-3, though the CD player’s sound was slightly warmer, which in turn made the music a touch fuller. This was particularly noticeable with the drum kit, which had more weight through the BCD-3. Although the differences I’m describing were subtle, I found myself consistently preferring the CD player with Ongiara -- that extra hint of warmth was very conducive to this acoustic music.
Finally, I spent some time listening to music played through the BCD-3’s S/PDIF digital output into the BDA-2, but could detect no difference between using the CD player on its own or as a transport to feed the DAC. There were moments when I thought I heard some difference between them, but then, as I replayed a section of music and switched back and forth, I was less certain. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me. The BDA-2 reclocks all incoming data, so I suspect it reduces jitter to largely the same degree as the CD player. Furthermore, the BDA-2 uses AKM4399 DACs, while the BCD-3 uses AKM 4490 DACs -- though in my experience, the DAC chip itself is only part of the story; it’s how it’s implemented that significantly influences its sound. Given that Bryston’s CD player and standalone DAC have similar architectures in terms of their power supplies and output stages, it’s not unreasonable to expect them to perform at similarly high levels.
I didn’t expect that reviewing a CD player in 2017 would be a refreshing experience, but in this case it was. Although setting up a computer-based system for music playback isn’t rocket science, it involves more work than simply plugging in a CD player, hooking up some interconnects, placing a disc in the tray, and pressing Play.
As an audiophile, I crave simplicity. I enjoy things that involve minimal fuss, as long as they deliver high enough sound quality. Without question, Bryston’s newest CD player meets these criteria. I respect the company for eschewing audiophile trends and building a “Red Book”-only player, instead of one that can handle high resolutions and multiple formats. If you need the ability to play higher resolutions, obviously, a BCD-3 isn’t for you. But if, like mine, the music you love is almost exclusively encoded at 16/44.1, then something like the BCD-3 -- something designed to produce the best sound quality only from such sources -- makes perfect sense. A BCD-3 isn’t cheap, but if you’ve spent the last 25 or so years amassing a library of CDs, you’ll want to hear them sound their best. The Bryston BCD-3 can deliver that.
. . . Philip Beaudette
Bryston BCD-3 CD Player
Price: $3495 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
677 Neal Drive
Peterborough, Ontario K9J 6X7
Phone: (800) 632-8217, (705) 742-5325
Fax: (705) 742-0882