Every time I review a CD player, it sort of feels like it’ll be the last time. I felt that way after my evaluation of the Rotel CD11 Tribute, and I feel that way now, after having boxed up Pro-Ject Audio Systems’ CD Box S3 ($549, all prices USD) and shipped it to Canada for custom photography.
What’s funny is, while I called the CD11 Tribute an oddity due to its lack of SACD support, HDCD decoding, and network connectivity, the CD Box S3 is remarkably similar in terms of connectivity and straightforwardness. It plays Red Book Compact Discs, and that’s it. End of story. It can serve as a transport thanks to its coaxial S/PDIF output, although I imagine most end users will rely on its stereo RCA outputs fed by its Texas Instruments PCM5102 DAC chip.
Unlike the recently reviewed MaiA DS3 integrated amp, the CD Box S3 is—as its name indicates—part of the company’s S line (specifically the third generation thereof), which means it’s a step up from the entry-level E line, but not quite as fancy-pants as the DS line. Measuring 8.1″W × 2.2″H × 6″D, the S3 is a good bit taller than its predecessor. And at 2.9 pounds, it’s also heavier. The CD Box S3 boasts new aluminum casework and a 1.5″ screen with a color-inversion function that’s toggled by simply holding the stop button on the front of the player. It also seems to be missing the selectable reconstruction filters of the S2.
It does, however, retain the slot-load design, which is something I’m a bit squeamish about. If a tray-load CD player decides to eat one of my discs, I generally feel confident in my ability to pry that tray open. With a slot-load, though, I’d have to pretty much take the unit apart, which admittedly doesn’t look too difficult. That said, the slot-load design does give the CD Box S3 a slightly swankier feel, which is nice.
The player’s relatively diminutive size means it’s probably going to be more appealing to those who already own other components in Pro-Ject’s S (or even DS) line, like the MaiA S3 integrated amplifier (the littler sibling of the DS3 I reviewed). It might also appeal to those looking to save a bit of space. It would be a great addition to a modern “executive” desktop system (remember when those were all the rage?), a smaller dorm room, or maybe even a bedroom system. Of course, there’s nothing to keep it from being a CD-slinging addition to a full-sized component system in your main stereo listening room, either.
Setting up the CD Box S3
With only two output connections—only one of which you’ll be using in all likelihood—installing and dialing in Pro-Ject’s high-value CD player is about as straightforward as any setup process gets. The player doesn’t come with interconnects of any sort, so I briefly connected it to the Pro-Ject MaiA DS3 integrated amp I also had in for review by way of a coaxial cable of indeterminate pedigree (just to make sure the S/PDIF output worked) before switching over to Straight Wire Encore II analog interconnects for the duration of the review. I also briefly paired the CD Box S3 with NAD’s C 3050 LE and Parasound’s HINT 6 as I worked on reviews of those integrated amps. Through all of these setups, I primarily relied on my reference Paradigm Studio 100 v5 towers connected with a pair of Elac Sensible Speaker Cables.
One thing worth noting about the setup and control of the CD Box S3 is that it doesn’t feature any sort of control connections—no IR in, no trigger in or out, and certainly no bi-directional RS-232 or ethernet. It also comes with a little credit-card remote, which points to its position as the most affordable of Pro-Ject’s current crop of CD players.
That said, the larger, wand-style remote that came with the DS3 promised universal compatibility with Pro-Ject’s other Box Design gear, so I gave it a whirl and discovered that not only did it work—it actually worked a bit better than the CD Box S3’s own remote. It wasn’t quite as fussy about aiming, and while I did experience a handful of missed commands with the credit-card remote (including one particular freakout when I thought the player had eaten one of my cherished Dave’s Picks Grateful Dead discs), the larger wand-style remote was always perfectly responsive. As mentioned in the intro, I’m positively phobic about the thought of a slot-load player eating one of my CDs, so take my overreaction with a grain of salt. Still, if I were buying the CD Box S3 for myself, I’d definitely want to get my paws on the larger Pro-Ject Control it remote.
How does the Pro-Ject Audio Systems CD Box S3 sound?
As I did with the Rotel CD11 Tribute, I spent a lot of time comparing the output of the CD Box S3 to FLAC (or sometimes ALAC) rips of the same tracks, fed in this case from my Maingear Vybe media and gaming PC to my iFi Audio Zen One Signature DAC. There were some exceedingly minor differences to be heard, especially with the aforementioned Dave’s Picks releases (all of which were encoded in the HDCD format, the peak soft limiting of which the CD Box S3 doesn’t decode). But in blind testing, I never could reliably decide whether the PC or CD player was objectively better.
That’s a good thing. It lets me know that the CD Box S3 isn’t doing anything wrong. And that really hit home for me listening to the Dead’s Dave’s Picks Volume 15: Municipal Auditorium, Nashville, TN – 04/22/78 (Rhino Records R2-550932), which I’ve been listening to in heavy rotation in recent months. The third disc kicks off with a romping “Not Fade Away > Wharf Rat > Sugar Magnolia” that sounded simply sumptuous through the CD Box S3. With “Not Fade Away,” I was really impressed by the popping clarity of the recording, not to mention the spot-on dynamics. I couldn’t help noticing the saturated sound of Jerry Garcia’s and Bob Weir’s onstage amps, the exceptional attack of the percussion, and the exquisite decay of Jerry’s guitar and Phil Lesh’s bass.
Speaking of Jerry’s guitar playing, its perfect placement in the mix points to rock-solid tonal balance, and the sense of air around the instrumentation tells me the reconstruction filter isn’t doing anything stupid. With “Wharf Rat,” again, the presentation benefited from a really nice reproduction of the delicate rhythm guitar and, as with “Not Fade Away,” the perfect amount of saturated warmth when Jerry and Bobby pushed their amps a little harder. One thing I really picked up on here that escaped my attention when listening to “Not Fade Away” was the wonderful depth of the soundstage and the unimpeachable image specificity.
Both were even better with “Sugar Magnolia.” There was a delightful sense of space overall, with elements of the mix interweaving and intermingling. There was also a lot of immediacy to Bobby’s voice, and the dynamic punchiness of the sound really reached new heights with this one—even without HDCD decoding.
Much as I hate to sound like a broken record (heh!), I will never, ever do a CD player review (assuming I ever do another one) without auditioning Lyle Lovett’s I Love Everybody (MCA Records MCAD-10808), specifically track 13: “Old Friend.” And I do so because I’ve heard some CD players and DACs do a less-than-stellar job with it, for whatever reason. What I’m listening for here is a grating edge, especially to the vocals, a roughness to the cellos, or too much sizzle on the percussion. There was nothing of the like via the CD Box S3, and the lack of audible noise or distortion really helped give this track—which is rather sparse during the verses—a nice sense of space.
What alternatives should you consider?
The aforementioned Rotel CD11 Tribute is, at $599, a relatively even competitor to the CD Box S3 in most respects, although it does come in a full-sized chassis, and it also includes some control connectivity. There’s also the Denon DCD-900NE at $549, which adds support for burned CDs containing MP3, WMA, and AAC files. It also has a USB Type A port that supports playback of hi-rez files.
Meanwhile, if you know for a fact that you’ll be using the S/PDIF output of your player—in other words, if you plan on using it as a transport only—there’s the Audiolab 6000CDT to consider, also at $549. It has both coaxial and optical outputs, and, like the CD Box S3, it relies on a slot-load drive that accepts store-bought CDs only. No SACD, no DVD-A, no burned CDs, no HDCD.
TL;DR: Should you buy the Pro-Ject Audio Systems CD Box S3?
As every hack audio writer has repeated ad nauseum for the past four decades, Philips’ original advertisements for the Compact Disc format promised “Pure, Perfect Sound—Forever.” What they didn’t promise, of course, was that the player you bought in 1983 would still be working in 2023. Hell, I have disc players I purchased in 2008 or 2009 that have already crapped the bed. All of which is to say that as long as you still enjoy playing music from CDs without ripping them first, you almost certainly haven’t purchased your last CD player.
That said, a lot of consumer electronics companies have long since manufactured their last CD players, and if they still make a component that’ll play them, it’s likely either a video game console or a universal disc player geared primarily toward movie playback.
That’s why I still get emails pretty regularly from readers who want to know if I’ve recently come across a good, dependable, doesn’t-do-anything-but-play-Compact-Discs CD player that won’t break the bank. And there are, best I can tell, maybe five or six legitimate audiophile-brand offerings that sell for less than the CD Box S3 does. None of those have the slot-load mechanism, though, or the compact form factor. Combine that with spot-on performance, and Pro-Ject’s most affordable disc spinner seems like a good value to me. I just think that, for the price, the company could have included a proper adult-sized remote control.
. . . Dennis Burger
- Integrated amplifiers: Pro-Ject Audio Systems MaiA DS3, NAD C 3050 LE, Parasound HINT 6.
- Loudspeakers: Paradigm Studio 100 v5.
- Speaker cables: Elac Sensible.
- Additional sources: Maingear Vybe PC; iFi Audio Zen One Signature DAC.
- Power protection: SurgeX XR115 Surge Eliminator/Power Conditioner.
Pro-Ject Audio Systems CD Box S3 CD Player
Warranty: Two years, parts and labor.
Pro-Ject Audio Systems
Pro-Ject Audio USA
11763 95th Ave N
Maple Grove, MN 55369
Phone: (510) 843-4500