Sunday, March 04, 2012

Another vintage portable CD player comparison!

Hallo meine kleinen Süßen!

Enough with cables and CDs for a while for today I´d like to present another, smaller comparison of portable CD players after my first bigger test. I´ll also be using my so called "sound pictures" again to visualize how I perceive the sound of these players concerning frequency response and staging; for details just jump to the section called "sound pictures" on the first portable CD player article. This time it won´t be a "battle" between Technics and Sony, I will compare only two Sony players. The first one is the Sony D-20, released in 1988 which is the same as the D-22 which only has an added bass boost. The second one is the Sony D-EJ 915, released in 1999. The D-20 shows everything that was typical for portable CD players released at the late '80s: it´s bulky, heavy and built with lots of metal parts and a thick plastic housing. The drive itself is mostly made out of die cast metal or sheet metal as is the base (that´s also covered from the inside with anti-static foil). It doesn´t look good but it feels like a sturdy, heavy brick, made to last a lifetime. It doesn´t have many functions but it was equipped with rubber straps that could be attached to its sides so that it could be carried around. Well, I´d wonder if anyone was successful attempting this feat because it easily skips when moved. Unlike later players the display isn´t illuminated which is bothersome in the dark and it also doesn´t show the time at its default setting. The display can be switched to a setting which shows the time and only then the player will be able to search inside a track.

Sony D-20

Sony D-EJ 915

The newer model is far more versatile - except it doesn´t have a display of its own at all. Instead the display resides inside the remote attached to the headphone cable. The D-EJ 915 is far more thinner, it´s only as high as two and a half jewelcases and the outer diameter is only half a centimeter bigger than a CD. The upper lid is made out of aluminum and surprisingly the drive does have many metal parts too. This is quite a difference to Sony portables from the early '90s to the mid '90s (in my last review the Sony D-220 and the Sony D-465 served as examples of having plastic-y drives). Oh, and don´t think for one minute that the sound quality may be better because of more metal - I just believe the metal will prolong the function of a drive. The product finish and the manufacturing quality is rather excellent too, I was surprised to find that a more modern player would be a haptic highlight. Even though the player seems fragile when judged from its small size it still appears to be sturdy enough. It offers CD-Text decoding - but only when it´s connected via optical cable to an MD-recorder (it´s curious that it cannot show CD-Text information but transfers it to Sony MD-recorders instead). It is also equipped with a whooping 40-seconds electronic shock protection, called "G-Protection". This ESP cannot be switched off, it´ll be activated all the time - even if you use its line-out or the optical output. According to the manual my player seems to be an exception because normally the '915s will deactivate the ESP on these occasions. Compared to the D-20 it´s the far more practical player for outdoor use.

The two players in comparison - 11 years progress in miniaturisation.

How do the players measure? Well, if you can call the things I did "measurments" then they measured without showing anything worth to mention. Noise levels, dynamics, stereo separation are ranging from good to very good. The D-20 does show a bit more harmonic distortion though which may explain its coloured sound. It also shows very strong imaging artifacts (commonly mistaken for aliasing) where content from 20-22.050 Hz will be mirrored to the frequency band above (the ones I usually create myself on purpose with iZotope RX). With these artifacts also comes a drop of higher frequencies and a slight ripple at those frequencies, maybe it doesn´t oversample or only has an analogue aliasing filter used at those times or both, I don´t know. Anyway, I was very surprised by their jitter performance: even though the D-EJ 915 spins the disc with high speed (for the ESP) it does show an extremely good jitter performance. Also surprising: the D-20 shows a jitter performance by the book; it´s perfect and almost unbelievable for such an old CD player, it´s one of the best I´ve ever "measured" myself.

Sony D-20, measured with RMAA with the E-MU 0202 USB

Sony D-EJ 915, measured with RMAA with the E-MU 0202 USB

Sony D-20: perfect jitter performance

Sony D-EJ 915: almost perfect jitter 

How do these players sound... Well, both of them sound rather good in their own way. The newer one is more truthful to the original sound while the older displays a rather unique but pleasant soundscape. In fact, the D-20 isn´t the most dynamic or precise player, it also has problems with differentiation. The "Supergirl"-example also used for my last comparison sounded very pleasant but also less detailed, the extreme high frequency gloss typical for this score was missing a bit. Cymbal crashes sounded more like noise outbursts rather then cymbals. The "Hook"-example revealed a slow timing, a timing that thankfully was consistent over the whole frequency band and also a problem with the dynamics: sudden transients sounded a bit too forced, as if they had problems being reproduced properly. The "Mozart"-example sound ok but a bit too mellow and with missing details and "bite". The Madonna-example from "Ray of Light" revealed that the player cannot handle clipped 0 dBfs signals - it almost sounds like it´s distorting those signal peaks. But even with these distortion-like artifacts the bass is soft and misses impact. While the treble is diminished the bass is slightly boomy even though deep bass seems to be recessed. All of this results in a rather full, warm and voluptuous sound signature.

Music sounds much more beautiful with this player.

Metallic drive

While the sound of the Sony D-20 may not be the original it does indeed have its advantages: to every kind of music it adds some pleasant euphonic colour; music sound a bit more harmonious and less direct with this ancient portable, voices seem to be recessed a bit. The stage impression is very interesting on its own because while it presents the virtual stage a bit more compact compared to the digital original it also sounds more stable, instruments occupy a space that can best be described as chiseled in stone, not even the originals sound that calm. The player seems to say: "relax, enjoy and listen how pleasant and lush I present the music." This calmness probably has its roots in the perceived high frequency drop and while it´s not the original it´s very nice and soothing nonetheless. Many die-hard audiophiles will make the early multi-bit D/A-converters in this player responsible for this. I strongly doubt that this is the only reason for its sound, my Sony D-220 from the last test showed a similar soundscape - and that´s a 1-bit player.

"Sound Picture" (the perceived stage impression): more compact but stable, center information seems recessed.

The Sony D-EJ 915 is different. It doesn´t do anything wrong really. Dynamics are good but not quite the original, precision is good too, differentiation is much better as compared to the D-20 and it´s also more detailed despite sounding a bit too friendly. The last high frequency spark is missing and also a bit of the deepest bass but overall it´s close to the original because treble, mids and bass are so well controlled. Even so, the Technics SL-VP 50 from the last test comes closer to the original sound of the digital reference file. The stage impression is the sonic trait that suffers the most on this player: instrument placement and size are fuzzy. They don´t wander inside the virtual stage but they sound like you couldn´t "see" them very sharp. The stage also is a bit flatter. But "Supergirl" sounds too crisp (as it should), "Hook" has a slower overall but fast enough timing, the Mozart example doesn´t sound too mellow and "Swim" from Madonna sounds undistorted and fairly taut (the clipped 0dBfs peaks are almost perfectly reproduced). Very good!

Sony D-EJ 915 buttons.

The back of the Sony D-EJ 915: the metal thingies don´t serve a purpose but they look nice, don´t they?

"Sound Picture" (perceived stage impression of the D-EJ 915): fuzzy and flatter

"Sound Picture" (perceived frequency difference between the two portables relative to the original)

On the whole the Sony appears to be the only player from my whole set to fullfill its purpose of being a portable player. It´s small, not heavy, well manufactured, has a functioning ESP and also sounds very good for a portable CD player. Before I forget: please note that I did these tests level matched again; I recorded the outputs of the two players with my E-MU 0202 USB in 192 kHz and amplified the volume afterwards to that of the level of the reference file. The recorded files were then downsampled to 96 kHz and compared to the upsampled digital reference files. Again this comparison shows that differences between CD players are exaggerated by most people or audio magazines: while it may seem to you, dear reader, that the differences I described are huge they in fact are not: in case of the D-EJ 915 I had problems hearing differences at first. The reality is like this: most people won´t hear anything at all. However, be advised that I thoroughly cleaned these players as soon as they arrived. I cleaned their laser lenses and their FFC connectors (flexible flat cables) and I also re-lubricated their drives - so these two players are at their optimum performance (apart from age related disadvantages), they probably sound better then other similar models out there. Oh well, here I´m babbling away again... now, because it´s so good and beautiful I´ll present to you more pictures of the Sony D-EJ 915:

Sony D-EJ 915: they should have kept the "Discman" lettering, it was far more unique.

The letterings of the Sony are not printed, they are metal parts attached with an adhesive.

Beautiful, isn´t it?

The extra-fast drive of the D-EJ 915.

Sony D-EJ 915 in all its glory. Wonderful to hold in your hand, great haptic feel.

With these pictures I´d like to conclude my little comparison between two portable Sony CD players. Both are extremely well suited for use with a small headphone amp like the FIIO E6, I own one of these and with it both players are able to sound very good (much better when compared to their own headphone outputs, even though the headphone output of the D-20 has incredible power and you´ll loose the display on the newer Sony). The Sony D-20 shows a beautiful sound that doesn´t stay true to the original while the younger Sony D-EJ 915 is small enough to be used on the go with very good sound. In any case, I´m glad to own these two players, now the only two missing are the Sony D-90/99 and the Technics SL-XP 700. But I can wait... in the meantime I´m going to light a cigarette and drink a coffee.


  1. Hello, Marlene.
    I'm a big fan of your blog. The reason i'm writing you is because of my very own Sony d-ej915 cd walkman. I don't know what to do, but it distorts sound very much via headphones output. I have buyed sennheiser cx300 II and it didn't help. I read you clean and tuned your unit. Any chance you can give me some tips, so it can sound better (like before, i guess)? "I cleaned their laser lenses and their FFC connectors (flexible flat cables) and I also re-lubricated their drives - so these two players are at their optimum performance".
    Thanks in advance,


    1. Hey Miguel, thanks for your kind words.

      Regarding your problem: I don´t have an answer for you. It might be possible to alleviate some of your problems by cleaning the headphone output using isopropylic alcohol and Q-Tips. Cleaning flat ribbon cables (the FFC cable I wrote about), laser lenses and re-lubricating the drive will NOT help you because it has nothing to do with the headphone output. Your problem might have a simple cause: your player is probably broken (busted capacitor or condenser due to age); you can´t repair that by cleaning something.

      Another question: do you use the Bass Boost? The headphone output of the D-EJ 915 is extremely weak and demanding IEMs like the CX 300 II might tax it too much when the Bass Boost is active. I experienced this myself on several (10 years older) portable CD players.

  2. Hi, Marlene. Thanks for your reply. Well, regarding the unit, it had little use in the past and i suspect that despite its build quality, it has something to do with cheap headphones amp choice by sony. I have several portable minidisc units and this does not happen with them. Their sound is distortion-free till the end of volume scale, even if the amp is only 5mV per channel and the megabass is max. Regarding your question, i don't use megabass much, but i recognize that the sound benefits from position 1. No bass at all is the equivalent of listen to a decca super audio cd through a small battery powered portable radio. Regardless of the quality of recording/mastering, my player usually starts distorting after volume 6 and a half/ 7, no matter if i use cheap phones or my best sennheiser headphones. That's why i suspect there's nothing broke. I read your review on this unit, and i must say that its sound through lineout optical is flawless, and i hoped that i could do something with its worst headphone output, but i guess not. Cheap units i had in the past never had distortion problems, and they were made integrally of plastic and they were much cheaper. I can't understand this except for cost reduction purely. Nevertheless, i use the unit mainly to record minidiscs in exterior using the optical line out and i'm pleased.
    One thing i can assure you, i recently bought a new unit for my md portable collection, and i was (i am) very happy with its build/ sound quality. Curiously, it's the only one i have that is not Sony. It's an Aiwa Am-f80. I bought it because of an appealing price and backlit lcd (unit). Have you heard of it? Any thoughts about it? Do you recommend any unit that i can buy that stands out from the others? I have heard pretty nice things from Sharp units, mostly about their rich sound, more than from their aesthetics.
    Well, hope to hear from you again. Keep up the nice work, and sorry for the long text. Miguel

    1. The headphone outputs of several portables units I own are not as good as one might hope. You talk about MD recorders... I too own several (as you know :)) and while many of them are capable of powering even more demanding portable headphones they aren´t very good at it. But I give you that they don´t have problems with distortions.

      The reason for not-so-well headphone outputs might not only be cost reduction; I always assumed that prolonged battery life is another reason. Weak outputs don´t create too much drain for the batteries which in the end will cause the device to run longer.

      You could alleviate the problem a bit by using a seperate headphone amplifier, FiiO for example. On the other hand the D-E915 lacks a display on the main unit so you´d have to plug it into the remote which will render the whole set clunky and impractical.

      Regarding the Aiwa AM-F 80... I´ve thought about it. This and its sister models often pop up on eBay but so far I´ve refrained from buying one of those units because of the Li-Ion Battery which isn´t a common standard type and cannot be found easily. Do you use MDLP? If not I can recommend the Sony MZ-E 30, the headphone output is loud enough, doesn´t distort and - apart from slightly muffled treble - does sound well. I also like the MZ-R 55 and its predecessor, the MZ-R 50. Both are relatively reliable units, both sound well. Regarding Sharp... I can´t say much since I only own two. The first one I´ve reviewed here and it sucks, the second one (MD-MT 270) is much, much better (especially recording). But its headphone output sounds quite thin.

      And don´t worry about writing too much :)

    2. Many thanks, Marlene. I recently bought a sony mz-e44 player and i'm quite pleased with its build/ sound quality so far. I don't use mdlp nor netmd, only sp and hi-md. I've been looking for mz-r50 for a while with no success, but I've seen several mz-r55 for sale, but i chose aiwa unit instead, and i don't regret my choice.
      Thanks for your recommendations, but i will need your help and expertise once more. I want to buy an external usb sound card or a budget but worth dac. The purpose is to connect my sony vaio fw-21z laptop to md recording units, and vice versa. I want to use my vaio as a quality line out to my md recordings, mainly, and output its sound to my stereo and kef speakers with quality. Can i do it with a fiio headphone amp? I've been reading about creative soundblaster x-fi hd, that you already reviewed, and asus xonar u7, but you've been mentioning fiio units for quite a while, and i don't know what to decide, for the purpose i want.. Can you help me once again?
      Thanks. Miguel

    3. Miguel, if you want to ask just ask. I´m not bothered by this, really not.

      Judging from what you described you´d be happy with the Creative X-Fi HD USB. You just have to be aware that it can´t play 44.1 kHz based samplerate (-> CD) on its analogue output. 44.1 kHz works on the digital in-/outputs only. Since you have KEF speakers which - according to what I´ve heard - are already very dynamic sounding the additional dynamic capabilities of the Creative might make the music slightly unpleasant though. The FiiO DACs are indeed very good but are unable to record, they lack a line-in.

      If that doesn´t bother you I´d recommend the FiiO E07K - its DAC is of high, neutral quality. It´ll be reviewed here shortly, I own it since January and have been using it constantly. It doesn´t have a line-out but you can buy a pluggable line-out adapter for cheap money.

      If you need a line-in I´d recommend the Tascam US-366 or the Steinberg UR22. You could also have a look for a used E-MU 0404 USB. You have to be aware though that all of these interfaces are semi-professional and not very convenient to set-up, they expect you to know what you´re doing.

  3. Sincere thanks for your reply and help. I'll get in touch with you as soon as possible, with details about my choice and my impressions so far. Best regards, and keep up the good work. Miguel


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