The Compact Disc was launched in 1982, but the four decades since have seen an alphabet soup of similar-looking shiny discs including major formats like DVD, SACD, DVD-A, and Blu-ray Audio. As each new format arrived, hardware manufacturers scrambled to keep up, developing machines that could play just about any disc you could throw at them (or, rather, insert in them). The result was a bunch of “jack of all trades” disc spinners like the deservedly popular Oppos, which some boutique manufacturers then used as a base unit to create their own multiple format players.
But what if we gave up the notion of universal compatibility and concentrated on building a player dedicated to squeezing the best possible results from the very first, and by far the most common, shiny 5″ disc, the good old-fashioned “Red Book” Compact Disc? Would we get better performance?
Among the many who decided to try is Jay Ho of Jay’s Audio, who set out to create the ultimate player for the billions of regular CDs out there (footnote 1). That quest has culminated in the CDT3-MK3. (I’ll simply call it the CDT3 from here forward.)
Few subjects are guaranteed to raise the hackles of the measurement-centric audio crowd quite as much as a discussion on the sonic qualities of CD transports. Okay, maybe high-performance audio cables is another, and also digital-audio serversbut digital audio is perfect, right? After all, they’ll tell us, bits are bits: It doesn’t matter how fancy the machine spinning the disc is as long as all of those bits make their way over to the D/A converter with the right values (machine-readable as one or zero) and in the right order.
But if there’s one thing we’ve learned over 40 years of improving CD playback, it’s that the format really isn’t perfect at all. To start with the most basic: Why does a CD player need to include error correction if there aren’t any errors to correct? Then there’s the importance of timing, a topic that has been discussed exhaustively in these pages (footnote 2).
Every digital disc transport has at its heart a drive mechanism that spins the disc and reads its surface with a laser, but because building this component is beyond the capabilities of smaller high-end manufacturers, even the most high-end player starts with a drive made by another, larger company with more resources. This approach is pretty common with cutting-edge technology; it’s really not much different from building a $3.4 million Pagani Huayra supercar, which uses an engine made by Mercedes-Benz.
Unfortunately, most of the disc mechanisms in current production are multiformat drives intended for computers and/or designed to play a variety of disc types. They employ parallel systems to gain that level of versatility. For example, as its name implies, a Blu-ray disc relies on a blue laser, which has a very short wavelength, to read the tiny pits, whereas the data on a CD are less tightly packed and must be read with a red laser. So a universal drive has several laser diodes in different colors that the drive switches between as needed. Jay Ho believes that this compromises its performance.
Building the beast
To create the best possible single-purpose CD transport, Ho turned to the last CD-only drives developed by Philips, co-inventors of the Compact Disc, specifically their top-of-the-line CD-Pro series first launched in 1997. The CD-Pro2LF used in the CDT3the very last of that serieswas built from 2005 until 2013. So any CD-Pro2LF drive around today was originally built at least a decade ago, with no continuing support available from the original manufacturer. Ho says Jay’s Audio has stockpiled a substantial inventory of these drives and is confident they have plenty on hand to cover potential future service issues. Each CD-Pro2LF drive is thoroughly scrutinized and put through its paces before it goes into a transport, and the company performs a number of unspecified tweaks and upgrades in house. The CD-Pro2, with its heavyweight aluminum construction, has a reputation for being one of the most rugged CD drives ever made; most continue to operate after decades of use, so drive failure shouldn’t be a major concern.
Selecting the drive mechanism was the starting point in Jay Ho’s quest to build his ultimate CD transport. Next, he wanted to create the ideal mechanical and electronic environment for that drive to operate in, and here’s where he really took things to an obsessive level. The first thing you notice when unpacking the CDT3 is its weight: At nearly 50lb, it’s heavier than some pretty beefy power amplifiers I’ve encountered. This is because the entire chassis is built from machined aluminum slabs; you won’t find any flimsy folded sheet steel here, with all of the CDT3’s working parts attached to a central shelf that divides the internals into two halves. With the top cover removed, you can see that the upper side of the shelf has been milled out to split it into six recessed compartments. These hold the digital output board, the clock board, and of course the CD-Pro2LF drive itself, while three additional compartments contain linear power supply circuits for each of those components.
It all looks very impressive for something that only spins CDs and doesn’t even including a D/A converter, but that’s only the start. Flip the CDT3 upside down and remove its base plate, and you’ll find a massive primary power supply attached to the other side of the shelf, which delivers clean power to all of those smaller individual circuits on the top side. This section has five encapsulated toroidal transformers with a combined capacity of 105VA and a sea of over 40 electrolytic capacitors totaling 150,000µF to smooth the incoming power.
To support the entire structure, three isolating legs pass through the bottom cover of the chassis and are attached directly to the center shelf. Each footer has a built-in Soundcare SuperSpike isolator made by SEAS in Norway, and this helps to prevent vibration from entering the transport through its base, minimizing the influence of the supporting shelf on the CDT3’s performance.
With all of this chunky ultrasolid construction, it would be a letdown if the CDT3 came with a cheap generic plastic remote control. Thankfully, the accessory follows the example set by the transport itself. Weighing in at almost 11oz, the remote is machined from the same type of solid aluminum block as the CDT3 itself. Its metal buttons are satisfying to press. The remote offers a number of functions not found on the transport’s front panel, plus a few unused buttons corresponding to features found on other Jay’s Audio components. Due to international shipping regulations, the two required AAA batteries were not provided, but they do provide a small screwdriver, which is needed to remove the remote’s back panel to install batteries yourself.
Until a few months ago, Jay’s Audio products were distributed worldwide by Alvin Chee at Vinshine Audio in Singapore, but recently, Chee decided to dedicate Vinshine to handling only the Denafrips brand while a new company, Beatechnik, handles Jay’s Audio. Another recent change is the appointment of a US-based representative, Tek Audio Specialties, to handle service and ordering; new orders are shipped directly from Singapore, as they always have been. I was told they plan to eventually have Tek Audio handling inventory and shipping directly from the US, but that change has not yet been made.
To plug the CDT3 into the rest of your system, the player’s back panel provides a comprehensive set of digital output connections. From right to left there’s AES3 on a male XLR connector, S/ PDIF on BNC and RCA, and I2S on both RJ45 and HDMI. There are no optical outputs. The HDMI I2S output does not conform to the HDMI standard, so you can’t use it to interface the CDT3 with an AV receiver or processor. Instead, it follows the I2S connection protocol established by PS Audio and now used by several other high-quality DAC manufacturers including Denafrips, Holo Audio, Singxer, and of course Jay’s Audio.
Each of the CDT3’s digital outputs has its own Scientific Digital decoupling transformer, which is filtered using a high-quality Mundorf capacitor. Such galvanic isolation means that all of the digital outputs can be (and are) active all the time, so you can send the signal to more than one component simultaneously. Rounding out the CDT3’s back-panel features are an IEC power connector, a master power switch, and a pair of BNC connectors that allow you to connect an external clock or use the CDT3’s own oven-controlled crystal oscillator clock to command downstream digital components. A little toggle switch tucked in next to the outputs lets you engage the CDT3’s 4× oversampling feature. More about that later.
The CDT3’s front panel is an exercise in simplicity with just a standby power switch, a clear OLED display screen, and a few basic transport controls like play, pause, stop, and track skip. Additional transport functions, like direct track access, fast forward and back, repeat, random, and the display dimmer, can only be accessed from the remote. The CDT3 is a top-loading player, so there is no mechanical drawer or disc loading slot. To play a disc, you slide back a thick aluminum cover, place the disc directly onto the drive spindle, then place the provided carbon-fiber disc clamp on top of the CD spindle before sliding the cover forward to the closed position. For clear disc-loading access, allow at least 6″ between the top of the CDT3 and anything above it.
For this audition, I paired the CDT3 primarily with one of its natural partners, the Denafrips Terminator II DAC (footnote 3). Denafrips and Jay’s Audio are said to be completely independent companies, but they share a common worldwide distributor (Alvin Chee, operating under different company names), and there’s clearly some common design DNA between the two brands. The CDT3/Terminator II pairing allowed me to connect the transport and DAC using I2S over HDMI and compare it to the more common AES3 connection. I found that the differences were pretty small, but Jay’s Audio feels strongly that I2S over HDMI is the preferred connection, so I mostly stuck with that. For comparison, I used the similarly priced Audio Note CDT2 transport, which uses the same CD-Pro2LF disc drive, and also my Oppo UDP205 universal player.
Footnote 1: Just under 2.5 billion CDs were sold in the year 2000 alone, the year CD sales peaked.
Footnote 2: Among the “perfect sound crowd,” the errors go deeper still. For example, there’s the fact that the assumptions made in the field’s underlying theory are unphysicalthat is, they cannot be satisfied in the real worldand that in processing, the original datastream is often replaced with a completely new datastream, and that often the mathematical “kernel” used in the D/A conversion is different from the one used in the A/D conversion … but I digress.Jim Austin
Footnote 3: See Herb Reichert’s coverage of the Denafrips Terminator Plus DAC here and his treatment of the original Terminator DAC here.