|Shanling CD-T100 with Level 1 Modification CD Player|
|Home Theater Audio Sources CD Players|
|Written by Augie Bettencourt|
|Thursday, 01 May 2003|
When I first was made aware that I was going to be reviewing the Shanling CD T-100, my thought was “Who the heck is Shanling?” I’d never heard the brand name before but, with very little research, I was able to find many Webophiles were praising the Shanling CD-T100 as an affordable, good-sounding CD player. With a little more digging, I discovered the Shanling CD-T100 was a little-known Chinese import. Their importer is Music Hall, the long time US importer for Creek and Epos, as well as its own Music Hall branded products. As I so far had experience with few high-end products from this region, I had my reservations. My concerns about the Shanling CD-T100 subsided once I heard that Chris Johnson, founder and former president of Sonic Frontiers, had designed a modification for the CD-T100 at his new company, the Parts Connexion, exclusively for The Graham Co. Walter Liederman at The Graham Co. is calling this new player the “Shanling CD-T100 with Level 1 Modification.”
The Shanling CD-T100 with Level 1 Modification is a high-performance CD player with a very appealing feature of both tube and solid state D/A converters that allows you to select between the two, depending on your aural preference. It will decode standard CDs, as well as HDCD-encoded discs, and upsamples to 24-bit/96 kHz with a push of a button. Additionally, the CD-T100 has a built-in volume control, allowing you to connect directly to your amplifier if you are running a single source and yearning for a minimalist approach. The volume control is fully digital therefore The Graham Co. recommends that you run through a preamp for the best quality sound. The modified CD-T100 can be only purchased directly from The Graham Co for $2,450, delivered with second-day air shipping. If you already own a standard Shanling CD-T100, or decide to purchase one and later want it modified, you can do so for $800 plus freight.
After unboxing this CD player, I was treated to a little attitude adjustment about Chinese electronics, because this is one gorgeous-looking player. It’s a striking combination of brushed aluminum, chrome plating and glass, with just the right amount of gold accents, a product worthy of consideration of the Museum of Modern Art. It’s no lightweight piece, either, weighing in at 27 pounds, it weighs more than some amplifiers I have seen. The CD-T100 measures 16.9 inches in length, 11.4 inches wide and 2.5 inches in height. The CD-T100’s front panel includes a remote control sensor, amber display window for play status, frequency upsampling indicator (24bit/96KHz) and a HDCD indicator, which shows when a HDCD disk is being played. The top of the player features play/pause keys, a stop button, and both next-track and previous-track skip keys. The right side of the unit has a headphone output jack and power switch. The rear panel features a connector input for a detachable power cord, coaxial digital output, CD analog output and tube amplifying audio output, which I’ll discuss further in the review. I was very impressed by the quality of power cord included with the player, which has a braided outer core and hospital grade connectors on both ends. It also includes both the original soft feet, as well as optional spiked feet and discs. These are all very impressive accessories that most other manufacturers would either omit or charge extra for. The remote control is full-function with direct access to tracks, repeat features, volume control and fits in the hand nicely.
I placed the Shanling CD-T100 with Level 1 Modification on the top shelf of my equipment rack and again marveled at its beauty. There it sat, with all the shine of metal, the dim glow of tubes and the bold blue glow of the glass top cover. My wife, who seldom says anything about audio equipment asked, “What’s that new pretty thing over there.” Even she was impressed by its aesthetics. I hooked it up to my Krell HTS 7.1 with a one-meter pair of Cardas Golden Cross RCA cables through the Krell HTS 7.1’s “Preamp” feature, which is a complete analog pass-through feature, using the DACs in the CD player. This player actually has both a line and headphone output level adjustment, adjustable via the remote control, so you don’t have to run it through a preamp. My Krell FPB 400cx amplifier doesn’t have single-ended inputs, so I had no choice but to use my Krell HTS 7.1 as the preamp. Since the Shanling CD T-100 with Level 1 Modification offers both “CD Analog” and “Tube Amplifying” outputs, I decided to hook both up to the Krell HTS 7.1 on two different analog inputs, allowing me to toggle back and forth between the two outputs very easily. Chris Johnson claims the two outputs are exactly the same, with the tube output having just the addition of the tube buffer in-line for those who prefer that sound.
The basic, or unmodified, Shanling CD T-100 is a full-featured player in itself with impressive construction, boasting that it’s the first tube HDCD player. Its open-top disc drive is a Philips 1201 bare-head system made of aluminum alloy, with a Pacific Microsonics PMD200 HDCD processor chip, a Crystal CS8420 sample-rate converter chip and an OPA2604 amplifier, as well as Burr-Brown PCM1704 D/A chips. The analog circuitry is built around the 6N3 tube for both headphone and tube outputs, using four 6N3 tubes in all. The combination of 24bit/96kHz and tube technology makes it a very unique CD player.
The Level-1 modified Shanling CD-T100 has been extensively tweaked for increased performance, a modification package that Chris Johnson claims takes it to a whole new level. “It’s a modified, hot-rodded version of the original Shanling CD-T100 that drastically improves the tonal balance of the solid-state output, while maintaining its quick dynamics, bass and high frequency response.” Johnson also claims that the level of transparency, air and detail, as well as tightened bass impact is improved in the tube stage, while preserving its rich, warm euphonic character. I thought these were rather lofty claims for a CD player that was merely modified, even by someone of Johnson’s credentials, yet when you start to read through all the modifications on the list (and I do mean list) that Johnson has created for the Shanling CD T-100 with Level 1 Modification, it becomes clearer how these claims could be possible. When Johnson is done with it, the CD T-100 is quite a different player than before. Here’s a list of the changes:
As you can see, this is a pretty extensive list of changes, but I still needed proof that all of the audiophile tweaking would translate into discernable sound quality improvements over other CD players I have heard.
Before I started my listening session, I left the Shanling CD-T100 with the Level 1 Modification running for three days and let it play through its tube output for about three hours. I started by listening to Norah Jones’ Grammy Award-winning CD, Come Away With Me (Capitol Records). Jones’ voice has a sultry quality that’s well beyond her 22 years of age, as she sounds like a seductive Rickie Lee Jones with a bit of Diana Krall style. The first track I listened to, “Come Away With Me,” has a dreamy quality that was magnified by this player. Jones’ vocals had a very lush, sweet sound that was both easy to listen to and pleasing to my ear. The combination of her vocal quality and piano playing had a natural sound that made me feel as if I were in a smoky jazz club somewhere. It had a level of naturalness I’ve never heard in my listening room before, one that my reference player, the Sony DVP-NS999ES or Arcam FMJ CD23, can only dream of achieving. Its level of harmonic texture, wide-open soundstage and lifelike quality was very impressive. Whether Jones strokes a piano key or her drummer strikes his cymbals, the natural changing harmonics of their instrument’s decay, seems to go on forever. “Nightingale” from the same CD starts with the strumming of acoustic guitar, which has wonderful timbre and tonal quality that no other CD player I’ve played in my system has been able to duplicate in this way. Midrange quality was never overly forward, but had just the right amount of warmth and palatability that gave Jones’ voice amazing presence. When toggling from the tube to solid-state stage, the midrange magic was missing and had lost both depth and width. The soundstage just didn’t seem as large. In general, the tube output has a rounder, more forgiving sound that is a definite advantage for people who prefer warmth and sweetness over neutrality and transparency, and/or when listening to poor recordings.
The next CD I listened to was Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising (Columbia Records). The first track was “You’re Missing.” The weathered maturity of Springsteen’s voice shone on this track and the Shanling CD-T100 with the Level 1 Modification delivered every ounce of his weathered sound. I’ve grown accustomed to tube equipment’s wonderful midrange quality, but this track was proof that a tube product can also deliver when it comes to dynamics and clarity. Bass response was tight, accurate and had all the weight and slam of a good solid-state CD player, even though I was listening to the tube output. The next track from the same CD was “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day.” This upbeat song had excellent pace and tempo, something that tube products are sometimes criticized for lacking – definitely not the case here. This song is a real toe-tapper. I had an ear-to-ear grin on my face the whole time I listened to Clarence Clemmons wailing on his sax. This song had all of the pace and dynamics of both the Sony DVP-NS999ES or Arcam FMJ CD23, as well as a wonderful, airy sweetness through the midrange and upper frequencies that made every CD easier to listen to, something seldom heard from a CD player in this price range. I started to prefer the tube output of this player so much that I stopped listening to the solid-state output.
I’m sure I’ll get flack from friends and readers for this, but for my next selection I chose Eminem’s The Eminem Show (Interscope Records). The first song I listened to was “Without Me.” I was again surprised by this player’s dynamic ability, as it was clearly the equal of the Sony DVP-NS999ES and Arcam FMJ CD23 when it came to dynamic ability. It had all the slam, punch and pace of both players, and also had a richer midrange and airier treble quality. If you’re into listening to edgy or poor recordings like some rock or much of the rap genre, the tube output of this player tends to smoothen the harsh edges slightly, with no real noticeable loss of detail. The next track from the same CD, “Sing for the Moment,” is actually a cool sample of the old Aerosmith song “Dream On,” complete with guitar riff by Joe Perry. Again, the Shanling CD-T100 with the Level 1 Modification delivered impact, pace and powerful bass response rivaling any solid state CD player I’ve heard in my system. Eminem and Steven Tyler’s voices had clarity and a level of smoothness that neither of my other players were able to achieve. I never thought I’d ever describe Eminem’s voice as smooth, but there you have it.
I must admit that I expected more downsides to the Shanling CD-T100 with the Level 1 Modification than I encountered. Even though it’s a great-sounding CD player, really, who is Shanling? Will they be around in a year? If not, what do you do if it breaks down? With present economic conditions affecting all AV manufactures negatively, this could be something to consider. The manufacturer offers a one-year parts and labor warrantee. In the event that there was an issue, it would need to be sent to their repair facility in Norwood, Massachusetts.
I can’t say that I’ve ever heard a better sounding $2,450 CD player, but in this price range, there are many different players to choose from, players that will play CDs, SACDs, DVD-As and or DVD-Vs and have blue-chip brand names.
One design quirk that caught my attention was the way the glass top cover stays up. The cover is on a hinge, and if it’s not lifted all the way to the top where there’s a notch to keep it in place, it comes crashing down on the CD, something I learned very quickly.
Changing tracks with this player seems to take longer than any CD player I’ve used, but it’s not so slow that I wouldn’t purchase it. One of the things that makes this CD player sound good is also one of the things that can cause you to spend more money after a couple of hundred hours of listening. Yes, whether you listen to the tube output of this player or not, you’re still going to have to replace the tubes at some point. I consider this cost minimal, as the tubes are expected to last as many as 10,000 hours and have a price of $25 for the main output tubes contained in the Level 1 modification. A set of upgraded Western Electric 396A NOS tubes is available for approximately $80 from Parts Connexion as of this writing.
After spending weeks with the Shanling CD-T100 with the Level 1 Modification, I must confess that I’m impressed with this player and I’m now forced to reconsider my original opinion of Chinese electronics. Sure, it has a few quirks and will require some tube maintenance, but Shanling has done a great job at making a well-built, well-designed tube CD player that offers many listening options and much listening flexibility. Chris Johnson has taken his years of design experience at Sonic Frontiers and along with Wally at the Graham Co. turned a beautiful CD player that was already good into something that sounds spectacular for $2450. It’s easy to set up, gives you the choice of solid-state or tube output for different tastes or listening moods, a volume control that allows you to bypass a preamp altogether, HDCD capability, full-featured remote and a headphone jack. During this review, I had a chance to put this player to the test by listening to a wide variety of music and was never disappointed. It didn’t matter whether I listened to the soft, sultry sound of Norah Jones, the hard-driving Bruce Springsteen or the beat of Eminem, because the gentle treble, glorious midrange and quick, full bass response of the Shandling CD-T100 with the Level 1 Modification made every CD sound great.