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How good can a bud­get-priced CD player get?

Ilike my life to be sim­ple. And I like things to work ev­ery time… and all the time. Which is why I’ve pretty much given up on get­ting my mu­sic served up via a com­puter. I know it’s sup­posed to be easy, but I have lost count of the num­ber of times I couldn’t play any mu­sic be­cause the Wi-Fi net­work couldn’t con­nect, or one or the other of my de­vices couldn’t find files for one rea­son or an­other. I re­ally don’t want to trou­bleshoot a com­puter net­work ev­ery time I want to play mu­sic. The cruncher for me is that my net­work doesn’t boot au­to­mat­i­cally af­ter a power out­age, which hap­pens fairly reg­u­larly in my neck of the woods, and if I’m not home this means my sig­nif­i­cant other can’t play any mu­sic un­til I get home, which rather af­fects her mood!

So I have re­cently taken the ‘fam­ily’ hi-fi sys­tem back to ba­sics. It has a CD player, an in­te­grated am­pli­fier and a pair of speak­ers. That’s it. I can’t be­gin to tell you how re­lax­ing it is to use a mu­sic sys­tem that is com­pletely bul­let-proof. It al­ways works. Load a CD onto the player’s tray, press ‘Play’ and a few sec­onds later mu­sic fills the room. It’s just so easy. Any­one can do it…even the grand­kids.

Best of all, my wife is over the moon about our ‘new but old’ sys­tem. She not only now has a hi-fi that’s super-easy to use, she also has a fancy new wooden cabi­net that hides all the elec­tron­ics from sight, three large draw­ers in that cabi­net to hold all her CDs for easy ac­cess yet hide them from sight as well, plus a new large and long sur­face for all those es­sen­tial flower vases, sculp­tures and knick-knacks. OK, so I have to keep my own CDs on book­shelves in a room out the back, but who said life was per­fect?

Which is why I think Pi­o­neer is onto a win­ner with its PD-30AE CD player. It’s a just a CD player. That’s it. No bells. No whis­tles. No fancy pro­gram­ming fea­tures… it’s not even able to be con­trolled by an app. Con­trol is man­ual only, via front panel but­tons or the pro­vided re­mote con­trol, which is an old-fash­ioned in­fra-red type. Like I said… it’s bul­let­proof.


The PD-30AE’s front panel is sparse, but it has all the con­trols you need for ba­sic op­er­a­tion. The trans­port con­trols—tray open/close, play, stop, pause, track skip for­ward, track skip back, are all clus­tered log­i­cally to the right of the disc tray. Note that Pi­o­neer has in­creased the sim­plic­ity of the trans­port’s op­er­a­tion by pro­vid­ing the play and pause but­tons sep­a­rately, rather than com­bin­ing them. The track skip but­tons, on the other hand, are com­bined, as they double-up as fast-for­ward/ fast-re­verse con­trols. The con­trols at the left end of the front panel are for power (Standby/On) and head­phone level. There’s also a standard-sized head­phone jack (6.35mm) which is gold-plated for bet­ter con­tact and im­proved re­li­a­bil­ity.

The front panel dis­play is rather ba­sic, in that the let­ter­ing is shown us­ing fairly large bluish dots which mean the let­ter­ing is rather coarse com­pared to mod­ern OLED dis­plays. So the writ­ing looks a bit rough, but it’s easy enough to read. There are three bright­ness lev­els avail­able, but I found that even the bright­est level wasn’t par­tic­u­larly bright and there is no ‘Off’ level, so the three lev­els are ba­si­cally ‘dim’, ‘dim­mer’ and ‘dimmest’. De­spite its ba­sic­ity, the dis­play will show al­phanu­meric in­for­ma­tion (folder name,

al­bum ti­tle, track ti­tle, etc) when the PD30AE is play­ing a disc con­tain­ing MP3 files, as well as con­fir­ma­tion in­for­ma­tion (such as NOR­MAL PLAY) when play­ing back standard com­pact discs.

The re­mote con­trol of­fers av­enues whereby you can per­form more so­phis­ti­cated trans­port op­er­a­tions, such as pro­gram­ming spe­cific tracks for re­play in your cho­sen or­der (up to 25 tracks) and re­peat­ing a sin­gle track… or all cho­sen tracks. You can also choose tracks di­rectly, by press­ing a sin­gle but­ton to ac­cess tracks 1–9, or three but­tons for higher-num­bered tracks (for ex­am­ple, to get to track 25, press the >10, fol­lowed by ‘2’ and then ‘5’). Some but­tons pro­vided on the re­mote didn’t ap­pear to work with the PD-30AE. For ex­am­ple, when I pressed the ‘Ran­dom’ but­ton, which would nor­mally cause tracks on a CD to play back in a ran­dom or­der, rather than in the or­der in which they were recorded on the disc, it did not re­sult in the PD-30EA ran­domis­ing the play or­der… play just con­tin­ued in standard track or­der. It ap­pears this was an iso­lated fault on my re­view sam­ple, with Pi­o­neer ad­vis­ing that this model does in­deed have ran­dom play as a fea­ture.

One in­ter­est­ing social ob­ser­va­tion one can make about the Pi­o­neer PD-30AE is that the au­to­matic standby func­tion, which will turn the player off au­to­mat­i­cally af­ter it’s been left stopped for 30 min­utes, is pro­grammed dif­fer­ently for Amer­i­cans than it is for Euro­peans. In the USA, the player is sup­plied pro­grammed so that it will not turn off au­to­mat­i­cally, whereas in Europe, it’s sup­plied pro­grammed such that it will turn off au­to­mat­i­cally. It’s then up to in­di­vid­ual own­ers to change the pro­gram­ming to de­fault to their pre­ferred eco­log­i­cal set­ting. (Here in Aus­tralia, the de­fault set­ting for the Standby mode is ‘On’.)

If I found the fore­go­ing in­ter­est­ing, I was even-more fas­ci­nated to find that when I went onto the ‘net to check the Pi­o­neer PD30AE’s cur­rent spec­i­fi­ca­tions, it was Pi­o­neer’s Euro­pean Union site, which op­er­ates out of Ger­many, that was serv­ing up all the in­for­ma­tion on the PD-30AE, and when it couldn’t de­liver that in­for­ma­tion (such as when I asked for the data sheet!) the 404 er­ror was: ‘ Uppss, some­thing went wrong here my friend, please go back where you were :)’ [Note that the nose was miss­ing from the smi­ley face on the web­site!]

The player is cer­tainly very solidly built. It weighs 5.3kg and the siz­able chas­sis (it mea­sures 435×103×298mm) is so stiff that there’s no flex at all when you pick it up. Un­like many low-cost play­ers, which use CD drives in­tended for com­puter use, the drive in the PD-30AE is one that was built specif­i­cally for use in CD play­ers, and its open/close logic is ex­cel­lent.


I was a bit con­fused when I started re­view­ing the PD-30AE be­cause it ap­peared that there were two dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the PD-30AE avail­able, one with­out a USB in­put on the front panel that plays only standard CDs and CDs coded with MP3 files, and one with a USB in­put on the front panel, that will also play SACD discs.

I sub­se­quently learned that the Pi­o­neer player with the USB in­put that plays SACDs is called the PD-30, and the vis­ual sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween that model and the PD-30AE re­viewed here, plus the sim­i­lar­ity in the two model num­bers, means that many web­sites here in Aus­tralia—as well as in other coun­tries around the world— have published the in­cor­rect im­ages and/or trans­posed the spec­i­fi­ca­tions and/or model num­bers for the two ma­chines.

So in or­der to be per­fectly clear, the two dif­fer­ent mod­els are: Pi­o­neer PD-30AE CD player: $444.82 Pi­o­neer PD-30 SACD player: $799.00 So… not at all con­fus­ing then! There was cer­tainly no con­fu­sion when it came to op­er­at­ing the PD-30AE. It’s ‘fall­ing off a log’ sim­ple. You won’t even need to pull out the man­ual… ex­cept, maybe, if you want to pro­gram tracks into mem­ory for re­play. And, I said ear­lier, the tray logic worked per­fectly, and the qual­ity of the disc tray it­self and the mo­torised load­ing sys­tem was ex­cel­lent. Pi­o­neer doesn’t call it a ‘Silent Load’ sys­tem for noth­ing!

The qual­ity of play­back was ev­ery­thing I could ask of a sub-$500 player and more. It didn’t come as much of a sur­prise to learn Pi­o­neer was us­ing a 192kHz/24-bit DAC in­side the PD-30AE be­cause the back­grounds were to­tally silent, so if the mu­sic was recorded live, you could hear the back­ground noise at the venue per­fectly and, if the au­di­ence was be­ing silent, you could hear the am­bi­ence of the acous­tic it­self. This would be ex­cel­lent for any CD player, much less a bud­get player such as this.

As you’d ex­pect of the CD for­mat, I couldn’t hear any aber­ra­tions in fre­quency re­sponse at all, with ev­ery note I heard played be­ing re­pro­duced at ex­actly the right level, with no diminu­tion of out­put ei­ther at very low or very high fre­quen­cies. In an­tic­i­pa­tion of my at­ten­dance at Martha Arg­erich’s per­for­mance with the Syd­ney Sym­phony Or­ches­tra at the Syd­ney Opera House, I span up the record­ing of Beethoven’s Pi­ano Con­certo No 1 that she recorded with Seiji Ozawa and the Bavar­ian Ra­dio Sym­phony Or­ches­tra back in 1983. List­ing the stu­pen­dous feats of pi­anism on this record­ing would take more space than I have avail­able for this re­view, but the Pi­o­neer’s ab­so­lute speed sta­bil­ity and pre­cise con­trol over play­back lev­els means you will en­joy all of them. Lis­ten par­tic­u­larly to Arg­erich’s glo­ri­ous runs up and down the key­board, no mat­ter whether they’re legato or stac­cato and hear how they’re per­fectly paced and each key is struck with ex­actly the same weight, from be­gin­ning to end, un­less she’s aim­ing for a spe­cific ef­fect, such as the way she han­dles the trills around 12 min­utes into the first movement. The bal­ance be­tween Arg­erich’s pi­ano and the or­ches­tra is ideal—as well as con­sis­tent—and she and the or­ches­tra play as if they’re a sin­gle en­tity shar­ing the same mu­si­cal mind.

For the com­plete op­po­site of struc­ture, the next CD I dropped into the tray was ‘The Witch’, from Lon­don-based out­fit Pu­marosa. De­spite the slow, dron­ing build-up that sets up the first track, Pri­est­ess, I could hear

The au­to­matic standby func­tion is pro­grammed dif­fer­ently for Amer­i­cans than it is for Euro­peans

that the Pi­o­neer PD-30AE was right on the money tone-wise. The bass gui­tar riff­ing that un­der­lies the drone was beau­ti­fully de­liv­ered, with a stringy, depthy bass gui­tar sound that de­liv­ered the fun­da­men­tal notes ex­actly, with no dou­bling fre­quen­cies to di­lute the ef­fect. The abil­ity of the PD-30AE to keep the left and right chan­nels sep­a­rated was ev­i­denced by the su­pe­rior way in which the bounc­ing vo­cal ef­fects filled my lis­ten­ing room. When a sax fi­nally breaks in to take away from the trance ef­fect, the ef­fect on the mu­si­cal mood is cathar­tic… and just wait un­til the bass fi­nally stops for sev­eral sec­onds… the way the care­fully-con­structed sound field sud­denly col­lapses is almost shock­ing… and the Pi­o­neer PD-30AE cer­tainly helped de­liver this au­ral shock with com­plete ef­fec­tive­ness.

I got an even-bet­ter sense of the Pi­o­neer’s abil­ity with rhythm and tim­ing when lis­ten­ing to Justin Ber­nasconi’s out­stand­ing al­bum ‘Bare­foot Wonderland’. If you think you’ve heard pick­ing you haven’t heard Justin Ber­nasconi, and there’s plenty of it to be heard here. You can also hear how beau­ti­fully he plays so achingly-near off-the-beat, but al­ways re­solves in time to bring his ex­cur­sions back on track. Is it blue­grass? Is it folk? Who cares? It’s enor­mous fun and so beau­ti­fully recorded that you’ll imag­ine this Mel­bour­nian (ex-Cam­bridgeshire, in the UK) is right there in your liv­ing room, per­fectly fo­cused in the sweet spot be­tween your loud­speak­ers. Aus­tralian Hi-Fi’s sis­ter mag­a­zine, Aus­tralian Gui­tar, de­scribed Ber­nasconi’s play­ing as ‘ a dex­ter­ous dis­play of pick­ing that does a stel­lar job of tread­ing the fine line be­tween gui­tar show­boat­ing and taste­ful melodies.’ And if you like this sec­ond al­bum, I think you’ll like his first, ‘Win­ter Pick’ even more (I do), but why he in­cluded Speed Camera on both al­bums (the closer on WP and the opener on BW) is fully be­yond me.


I said it be­fore and I’ll re­peat it here: the fact that a bud­get CD player such as the Pi­o­neer PD-30AE can de­liver such high lev­els of per­for­mance is amaz­ing… mind-bog­gling even. If you’re af­ter sim­plic­ity and su­perb sound… and you’re happy to load a CD when you want to hear mu­sic… Pi­o­neer’s lit­tle PD-30AE is the ma­chine you want. Paul Dyer

I said it be­fore and I’ll re­peat it here: the fact that a bud­get CD player such as the Pi­o­neer PD-30AE can de­liver such high lev­els of per­for­mance is amaz­ing… mind-bog­gling even.

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