Expert review and test of the Pioneer PD-30AE CD Player by Australian Hi-Fi Magazine. Free download.

I like 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 Equipment

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 PD-30AE 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 PD-30AE’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.

In Use and Listening Sessions

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: $599* (*Corrected price. Price in original review - of $444.82 - was wrong.)
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 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.

Conclusion

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

UPDATED PRICING MAY 2018:

When the Pioneer PD-30AE was reviewed in Australian Hi-Fi Jul/Aug 2017, we published the price as $444.82, as noted in the Product & Contact Details. It later transpired that we had been given an incorrect price. The correct price at that time, and the one current at the time of the on-line publication, is $599.

Laboratory Test Report

Newport Test Labs measured the output voltage of the Pioneer PD-30AE as almost exactly 2-volts in both left and right channels, meaning that the player will comfortably drive any ancillary component to which it could conceivably be attached, and that channel balance was an excellent 0.01dB.

Distortion at maximum output was a little higher than I am used to seeing, at 0.067% THD+N overall. The distortion spectrogram of Graph 1 shows a second harmonic at –95dB (0.00177%), a third at –105dB (0.00056%), a fourth at –125dB (0.00005%) and a fifth at –113dB (0.00022%) after which the noise floor (down at 140dB) is very clean. Nonetheless, this is self-evidently low, yet from Graph 2, which shows distortion at –10dB, it appears Pioneer is optimising performance for lower levels, where most decoding takes place, because as you can see, there are only two harmonic distortion components, both at about –115dB (0.00017%).

The overall noise floor is still down at around –140dB though you can see some mains-related low-frequency noise creeping into the output… albeit at more than 124dB down. At –20dB (Graph 3), THD comprises just a second harmonic at –133dB (0.00002%) and a third at –121dB (0.00008%), which is outstanding performance.

The DAC Pioneer is using begins to show signs of misbehaviour at –60dB (Graph 4) due to the lack of dithering of the test signal, but all the ‘grass’ is down below –120dB, which is excellent performance, and you can see the noise floor has dropped down below the –140dB graphing limit.

The undithered signal at –91.24dB (Graph 5) is entirely dominated by odd harmonic distortion components, and the noise floor has dropped even further.

Adding dither to the test signal (Graph 6) brings the level of the noise floor back up to –140dB (where it’s still lower than the noise floor of most amplifiers) and also totally removes the distortion components… exactly as dither is supposed to do.

IMD is not quite in the same league, as you can see from Graph 10 which shows CCIF IMD using test signals at 19kHz and 20kHz, but it’s still excellent. There are sidebands at 18kHz and 21kHz, but both are more than 100dB down, and there is an unwanted signal regenerated at 1kHz, but it, too, is more than 100dB down… around –106dB (0.00050%) to be precise. There are some high-frequency IMD products around 25kHz that are around 70dB (0.03162%) down, and some more up around 40kHz that are more than 80dB (0.01%) down. All are too high in frequency and two low in level to be audible.

The Pioneer PD-30AE’s frequency response (Graph 8) is ruler flat out to 3kHz, after which it rises fractionally (0.01dB) then slowly falls from 14kHz to be 0.15dB down at 20kHz. Excellent performance indeed.

Channel separation was equally good, with Newport Test Labs measuring better than 100dB at low and midrange frequencies (108dB at 16Hz and 109dB at 1kHz) and 92dB at 20kHz. Inter-channel phase errors were vanishingly low, at around 0.02 degrees at low and midrange frequencies, and still only 0.41 degrees at 20kHz. Group delay results were typical for a modern oversampling commercial DAC, except that looking at the impulse and square wave spectrograms, the Pioneer PD-30AE doesn’t appear to be using oversampling to achieve its results. Channel balance was excellent at 0.01dB.

Newport Test Labs measured the overall signal-to-noise ratio of the Pioneer PD-30AE at 104dB unweighted, an excellent result that improved even further (to 107dB) with A-weighting applied. These are wideband figures. You can see from the noise floor on the spectrograms that across the audio band, noise was down at –140dB. Overall THD+N was not as good as I’ve seen, but still more than respectably-low at 0.067%.

The Pioneer PD-30AE has a de-emphasis circuit, as you can see from the tabulated results, and it’s a circuit that works extremely accurately, with just 0.001dB of error at 16Hz, 0.002dB of error at 4kHz and only 0.067dB of error at 16kHz. Of course most modern CDs aren’t pre-emphasised, so this circuit won’t switch on (it’s automatic), but if you have any CDs that are pre-emphasised (and they will be CDs that were pressed back in the 1980s), the Pioneer will play them back with the correct tonal balance.

Linearity errors were non-existent to extremely low at higher recorded levels, but very slightly high at very low recorded levels (down around –90dB), no matter whether or not the test signal was dithered.

The quality of the digital output from the Pioneer PD-30AE was extremely high, with very low levels of jitter and an almost-perfect frame rate. Eye-narrowing at zero cross was outstanding, but rather high at 200mV. This should not adversely affect the performance of any external DAC you might connect.

Power consumption during use was a little higher than I might have expected, but a 10.59-watt draw is not going to impact on your utility bill, even if you played the PD-30AE 24/7. In standby, it pulls less than half a watt, and therefore conforms to the Australian standard for standby power consumption…plus means you could happily leave the player in standby whenever you’re not using it.

Overall, the Pioneer PD-30AE CD player delivered outstandingly good performance on Newport Test Labs’ test bench, across the full gamut of tests performed.  Steve Holding