Q My audiophile Cambridge Audio CD player has stopped working, and I suspect the laser has died. I've been thinking about a new one, and all of this led me to look at Blu-ray players. They play CDs as well as DVDs, so why have a separate CD player? Cambridge Audio makes a high-end Blu-ray universal player, which is about $1,200. Another option I am considering is the Oppo BDP-95 Blu-ray universal player, which is about $1,000. What are your thoughts?
A You hit the nail on the head. Why buy a CD player, when it locks you out of the possibility of playing other kinds of discs such as DVDs and Blu-ray discs?
Besides DVDs and Blu-ray, there are audio discs such as Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD-Audio (DVD-A) that offer better sound quality than conventional CDs. These niche formats are favored by audiophiles.
Universal players such as the Cambridge Audio and Oppo units you mentioned play CDs, DVDs, SACDs, DVD-A discs, and Blu-ray, hence the name "universal."
I have always been skeptical of digital disc players with extremely high price tags. If you are using the digital audio outputs or HDMI connection, you won't hear any difference between a $10,000 high-end player and a $50 Magnavox from Walmart. Even with the analog audio outputs differences tend to be minor, nowhere near the difference you will hear between different phono playback gear and speakers.
Disc players also have a limited life because, as you have noted, the laser assemblies go bad over time, and new formats and capabilities come along that render players obsolete.
It is for this reason that I don't recommend extremely expensive disc players unless you have a high-end system to match, which I assume that you do.
In the disc player pecking order, Oppo (www.oppodigital.com) is tops, featuring top sound quality from all disc formats as well as exceptional video performance from DVDs and Blu-ray discs. Support after the sale is exceptional, as well. In addition to the $1,000 BDP-95, Oppo also offers the $499 BDP-93, which provides much of the performance of the BDP-95. Just remember that you need to use the analog audio outputs of the BDP-95 to make the most of its upgraded audio circuitry.
In the lower price range, the $299 Panasonic DMP-BDT500 offers upgraded analog audio circuitry and connections, as well as digital processing modes meant to mimic the warm sound of tube electronics. It isn't a universal player, though.
These recommendations are meant for serious audiophiles and enthusiasts. The average consumer doesn't need to spend $300, or even $200, to get exceptional video and sound quality from a Blu-ray player. Just about anything off the shelf will do. Sound quality will be more a function of your speakers, receiver and room acoustics than anything else.