Hands-On: Compact Pro-Ject CD Box S3 delivers vibrant CD playback
Physical media has seen a real renaissance over the past decade, primarily around the LP format, but lately there have been plenty of stories about the return of the CD as well, with sales increasing in 2021 for the first time in 17 years. I had contacted European brand Pro-Ject Audio Systems about the possibility of reviewing one of their turntables, actually, but when the company showed off a pair of new CD players earlier this year I jumped on the opportunity to check one out.
Pro-Ject, based in Austria and distributed here by Sumiko/Pro-Ject USA, added the CD Box DS3 ($899) and CD Box S3 ($549) models, and I spent some time spinning records with this latest product. I knew the company had a solid reputation for its range of analog options, but I was admittedly unaware of its range of digital audio offerings which includes DACs, streamers and CD players ranging from budget level at just over $3,000 on the high end.
The CD Box S3 is the company’s initial product for its S3 line, and from my experience with it, there will be great anticipation for whatever comes next.
Characteristics and configuration of the Pro-Ject CD Box S3
In fact, I was surprised that I hadn’t carefully read the specs which included dimensions in millimeters, roughly the size of the CD player when I unboxed it.
It’s about half as wide as the Integra Blu-ray player I use for playing discs and at about 8.1 x 2.2 x 6 inches (W x H x D) is only slightly larger than my Spectrum decoder – perhaps intended to sit next to a modern streaming component or DAC on an audio rack shelf.
The “ultra-compact” CD Box S3 isn’t a super flashy audiophile-type product, but offers a subtle industrial design in a black or silver finish (the sample I got was black) for the aluminum chassis. It feels very sturdy weighing just under 3 pounds without the power supply.
Having the unit next to a DAC can also make sense, as the CD Box S3 can be integrated into an audio system via the pair of analog RCA line level outputs or the digital coaxial S/PDIF output if connected as a transport device coupled to an external digital-to-analog conversion product.
Internally, the CD Box S3 incorporates a PCM5102 DAC that offers bit depth and sampling rate up to 32-bit/384 kHz.
Besides these outputs, the only other connection on the rear panel is for power.
The front panel includes a 1.54 inch display for track number, status and time; but is mostly low-profile with buttons for power, play/pause, forward/back and stop/eject, as well as the slot-loading mechanism for discs.
Pro-Ject delivers the CD Box S3 with a wall power plug and three adapters to cover different international sockets. I snapped the US version and plugged it into an outlet on my system’s Clarus Concerto power conditioner.
I added the CD player to my setup which includes an Anthem Statement D2v preamp/processor, Anthem Statement P5 amplifier and Paradigm Studio v5 speakers, all connected via Clarus Crimson cabling.
I listened to the Pro-Ject component connected to the D2v both ways, first with Crimson analog cables and then a Crimson digital audio cable using the D2v’s internal DAC.
After making the analog connections, I turned on the CD box and its status indicator turned blue, while the on-screen display turned on to say “no CD” inserted for the moment.
The hardest part of the setup was removing the battery tray from the included credit card-sized remote so I could insert its penny-sized battery. I was a bit worried about the tray breaking and breaking, but with a little pressure I managed to pop it out of the remote, put the battery in and put it back in again.
Pro-Ject CD Box S3 Performance & Conclusions
A few years ago, when I reconnected my Anthem components and Clarus wiring, I had also revived an old Sony 5-disc CD changer that I hadn’t used in over 20 years; I thought why not, it might be fun to hear how it sounded in a high end rig. Pretty soon I remembered why I had turned to an Integra DBS-50.2 Blu-ray player, and before that a Toshiba HD-DVD player, for my CD playback needs – there was just something missing in what I heard from the old CD player.
That’s partly why I wanted to test out Pro-Ject’s CD Box S3, to hear what a modern, purpose-built CD player might look like in a revealing reference system. Having used multi-format video disc players for CDs over the years, which sound great, how would the CD Box S3 sound?
All in all, outstanding and truly joyful to hear as I delved into my extensive collection of standard Red Book CDs, old and new, and CD-Rs that I had burned 15-20 years ago for copies standard discs or lossless live music. FLAC file recordings.
Going back to some records that long ago were in heavy rotation for me, it was such a fascinating experience to hear them through the Pro-Ject player again in tandem with the rest of my setup. I always wanted to know if there was more impact in the drumbeats that open Paul Simon graceland and Rhythm of the Saints (on “The Boy in the Bubble” and “The Obvious Child”, respectively), for example, and they typed with authority on the CD Box S3.
These are CDs I bought over 30 years ago, and the jungle-like soundscapes created on tracks like “The Coast”, “Proof”, “She Moves On” and “Born at the Right Time” on Pace with Simon’s Latin American musicians were completely enveloping.
Pervasive percussion is everywhere on this album, but none of that is overshadowed or lost when listening through this system, even high-pitched bits like triangles. The instrumentation is very well defined and spacious in sonic imagery coming from the CD Box S3, something that has struck me with virtually every CD I’ve jumped into.
This nuanced rendering allowed me to enjoy the feeling of hearing CDs again because I could follow the individual instruments – and the singers as well – more throughout a song, making the sum of the parts more robust ; Hearing bigger and better basslines from the Paradigm floor standing speakers impressed me. I imagine that’s why audiophiles gravitate toward classical music on very revealing systems.
As I noted when reviewing the Clarus Concerto, the combination of it, Anthem gear, and Crimson cabling allows me to crank the system without distortion, and the Pro-Ject unit held its own. producing cleanly and clearly at high volumes.
It was fantastic to hear little extra layers of detail on CDs as varied as U2’s. Rattle and buzzby Bruce Springsteen We will overcome: the Seeger sessions10,000 maniacs’ Our time in Eden (Natalie Merchant’s voice is as lush as ever), Phish’s crevasse (enhancing the ability to isolate baritone bassist Mike Gordon’s fun backup vocals on “Sparkle”), The Band’s Northern Lights-Southern Cross (absorbing all the lows and highs of the groove-laden “Ring Your Bell”, with excellent vocal imagery shared between Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel), and the eponymous acoustic duo of Jerry Garcia/David Grisman.
The latter is an extremely well-recorded album, but every bit of Garcia’s acoustic guitar and Grisman’s mandolin seemingly offered more dynamism and breakdown, yielding tracks like “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Friend of the Devil.” added depth.
Technical specifications Pro-Ject CD Box S3
Rattle and buzz introduced the performance range of the system. It sounded glorious between Larry Mullen Jr.’s dynamic, hi-hat-heavy drumming that anchors the music, whether it’s hard on “Desire” or soft brushstrokes on “Love Rescue Me”; the heavy tambourines and gospel choir supporting Bono on the live “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, especially the male and female left/right channel soloists near the end; to the gritty vocal interplay between Bono and BB King on “When Love Comes to Town.”
There’s beautiful violin, piano and horns around Springsteen on “O Mary Don’t You Weep” on We will vanquish, and you can really hear how the band gelled the interpretation of Pete Seeger’s work as a whole. The raucous song reaches a part where there’s only Springsteen’s solo, and its central image, soft strumming and breathy vocals are amazingly captured as if he’s standing a few feet in front of me.
It wasn’t just my system that the Pro-Ject component shone in. I took it to a buddy’s house and we gave it a workout in a digital transport setup connected to a Topping e50 DAC, a Pioneer C90 preamp and a Wyred4sound ST-500 amp connected to KEF LS50 speakers, models stand-mount like my Paradigms.
It usually uses a Denon CD player from the early 2000s which costs almost twice as much as the CD Box S3, and like me the Pro-Ject has added subtle details highlighting songs such as Tom Petty tracks . Wild flowers and Steely Dan’s Aja.
For a small component, the CD Box S3 has a big impact. Pro-Ject may be best known for its analog offerings, but it would be interesting to know what additional sonic improvements its high-end CD players could provide.
In both analog and digital setups, the thought I kept getting while listening was that the CD Box S3 sounded like a hi-res experience – not too shabby for spinning those glossy record collections.
CE Pro Verdict
- Very affordable at $549
- Nice internal DAC, usable in analog or as a digital transport
- Full, detailed and dynamic presentation with ample space, definition and imagery; ultra-compact size
- The remote was difficult to add the battery
- It sometimes took more than a double tap of the stop button to eject a disc