Shanling/Underwood HiFi SCD-T200 Level-1 CD/SACD Player 
Home Theater Audio Sources DVD-Audio/SACD Players
Written by Thomas Garcia   
Thursday, 01 January 2004

I’m not generally an early adopter of most new technologies. Usually, I prefer to wait for “the latest and greatest” to mature a generation or so. It's only been in the last couple of years that I've developed a strong interest in pursuing the current high-resolution digital audio formats. This hasn’t been due to a lack of inquisitiveness regarding the performance enhancements of these technologies, but rather to a scarcity of compelling source material. However, with the increasing availability of greater options in high-definition playback equipment, substantial increases in titles and a broader genre of music, I have begun eagerly pursuing these new formats and the improvements they offer. With a theoretical frequency response from DC to 100kHz and a potential dynamic range greater than 120dB, these new high-definition formats have the ability to reproduce the music with the highest degree of realism, resolution and detail. Needles to say, when I was offered an opportunity to evaluate the Shanling SCD-T200 Level-1 SACD/CD player, I greeted it with great interest and enthusiasm.

The sole distributor of the solid-state and vacuum tube hybrid Shanling SCD-T200 Level-1 SACD/CD modified player is Walter Liederman of Underwood Hifi. Using a stock SCD-T200 player manufactured by Shenzen SHANLING Electronic Co., Ltd. of China, the Level-1 Mod incorporates a multitude of key improvements. The player is made available via collaboration between Chris Johnson’s Parts ConneXion, which designs and completes the modifications, and Shanling’s importer, Music Hall, which provides the stock players and authorizes the Level-1 modifications. This highly customized Shanling is priced at $3,490, excluding shipping, and is covered under a full one-year factory warranty backed by Music Hall.

The graceful incorporation of dissimilar metal finishes and colors, circular glass vacuum tubes protectors, softly contoured transformer covers and the clear plexiglass lift-top disc loader all contribute to this player’s striking character. Accented with small amounts of gold trim and many interesting architectural features, the SCD-T200 could be a candidate for the Guggenheim. From its sexy high-tech appearance to the glowing amber color of the retro vacuum tubes and elegant, tasteful use of cobalt blue accent lighting, this component is extraordinary from every vantage point. During my audition, it was interesting and entertaining to hear the assorted descriptions bestowed upon the Shanling SCD-T200 Level-1 by all who viewed it.

Functionally, all the controls are laid out in a sensible and easy to access manner, elegantly integrated into the aesthetics of the player. All of the controls for the SCD-T200 are located on the top face, arrayed on both sides of the front panel display. Five metal buttons allow play/pause, stop, forward and backward track skip, and CD/SACD selection. Each of these functions is repeated, along with volume and muting buttons, on the beautifully machined and ultra-classy remote control. I found the inclusion of an extremely high-quality volume control very useful for configuring minimal systems, allowing direct connection to a power amplifier. The right side panel contains the tube-amplified, gold-plated headphone jack and the main power switch. Occupying the rear panel are two RCA unbalanced outputs for the vacuum tube stage, two RCA unbalanced outputs for the solid-state stage, one coaxial digital output terminal and a electrical receptor to connect the premium quality detachable power cord. Rounding out the accessories is a set of high-quality, machined isolation feet with footers for protecting finished surfaces. Both sets of unbalanced outputs, along with the headphone jack, are attenuated by a high-precision digitally controlled analog volume control. Overall dimensions are 20.9 inches wide by 15 inches deep by 8.25 inches high, at a total weight of 25 pounds.

The Level-1’s modification begins with the stock SCD-T200, which features a number of high-quality components, including the latest Sony KWM-234AAA drive, a Sony CXD2752R SACD decoding chip and a Burr-Brown PCM1738 24 bit/192 kHz DAC custom-made for SACD. Proceeding with the transformation, an extensive design and parts renovation of the stock Shanling vacuum tube and other solid-state (direct) outputs commences. In both output stages, various critical path and coupling capacitors and signal-path resistors are upgraded, and DH Labs 99.99% pure silver Teflon tape wrap jacketed solid core wire is added. The vacuum stage output tubes are swapped for a pair of Western Electric 396a devices. Concurrently, the solid-state stage modifications include two added custom adaptor PC boards featuring Burr-Brown OPA627 op amps for the main output buffer. The power supply receives not only various capacitor upgrades, but also two huge, additional 150uF 350V Black Gate VK series capacitors and 13 semiconductor changes. TRT silver-content Wonder Solder is used for all modifications. Finally, the internal chassis receives two sheets of Soundcoat damping to reduce potential mechanical resonance and feedback.

As you can imagine, the effort required to set up the SCD-T200 was basically nonexistent. While in the midst of reconfiguring my reference system, I decided to connect the Shanling directly, using two different amplifiers I had on hand, the Pass Laboratories X150.5 and the Lexicon LX-7. Positioned on a small equipment rack placed between my Revel Salons, total placement and connection of the Shanling took a whopping five minutes maximum. This simple exercise was a welcome experience after spending the last year assembling and configuring a multitude of surround sound processors and multi-channel speaker systems, each taking a substantial amount of set-up time.

I did experience one operational glitch with the first sample player sent for my review. The unit had difficulty accessing certain tracks and was unable to recognize several of my CDs and CD-Rs upon start-up. I discussed this issue with Walter Liederman and he concurred that there had been a problem with some of the first released units. I was immediately sent a second unit and was told that the problems had been addressed. The replacement player sounded identical to the first, but exhibited none of the operational mishaps.

During my audition of the Shanling SCD-T200 Level-1, I spent a significant amount of time going back and forth between the vacuum tube and solid-state outputs. The information provided by Liederman discusses the merits of both options, listing the solid-state as the more accurate interpreter, with the vacuum tubes providing a lusher midrange and a complementary euphonic presentation for poor recordings. Listening to a wide variety of SACDs and Redbook CDs, I found that with my amplifier and speaker combination, I consistently preferred the solid-state stage to the vacuum tube output. There was a greater degree of articulation when listening through the solid-state output, with no loss of midrange presence or purity. The vacuum tube section seemed to soften both extremes, which did not complement my current set-up. The following observations, unless otherwise noted, are representative of my listening experiences using the solid-state output only. I recommend anyone interested in the Shanling audition both outputs to see what suits your system best. The great thing about this player is that you can choose your preference with every disc you play as both outputs can be run to your preamp at the same time.

Relaxing to the SACD version of Diana Krall's The Look of Love (Verve/Universal) proved to be a very blissful, tranquil experience through the Shanling SCD-T200 Level-1. Produced by Tommy LiPuma with the enchanting orchestral arrangements of Claus Ogerman and the London Symphony Orchestra, this recording is a departure from Krall’s core style. Stepping away from the intimacy of her usual small group ensemble, the trio infuses a tasteful dose of orchestral support surrounding Krall’s seductive, whispery vocals. During a soul-stirring rendition of Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love,” Krall’s performance is mesmerizing through the Shanling; its ability to put forth her distinctive sultry voice is captured with a liquidity that is transparent and pure. Krall's impassioned "Cry Me a River" is conveyed in a lush, relaxing portrayal through the Shanling, delineating each element of the recording with a realism and ease that captivated my intellect and emotions. The Shanling creates an extremely effortless perspective into the capabilities of this high-resolution media.

For almost three decades, I have been buying different iterations of Pink Floyd’s musical masterpiece Dark Side of The Moon (EMI), including a variety of high-quality vinyl and CD releases. Spinning the re-mastered high-definition SACD version through the Shanling was like taking a walk down memory lane with binoculars. The improvement in musical contrast, shading and detail presented through the SCD-T200 was quite astonishing. I found myself completely entranced by the Shanling’s presentation of “Time,” mesmerized by the mechanical medley of clocks, chimes and bells as they soared toward their crashing crescendo. Equally interesting was the beginning segue into “Money,” its opening sliding cash register drawers slamming and clanging in a most convincing manner. Throughout the cut, bass lines were extremely delineated, making them easy to follow as they underscored this classic track. Playing this high-definition disc through the Shanling kept me engrossed, providing the most satisfying listening experience I've had with Dark Side of The Moon to date. As stunning as this disc sounded through the modified SCD-T200, I could only wonder what it might have been like to utilize the SACD 5.1 surround sound track that lay lurking within this disc.

Stepping away from SACD to conventional CDs, I was pleasantly surprised at how well the Shanling reproduced the 16-bit/44.1kHhz format. Redbook discs were rendered with an extremely smooth, extended high-frequency response, maintaining that palpable midrange I enjoyed during my sessions with various SACDs. These attributes were aptly evident while listening to The Pretenders’ The Isle of View (Warner), a perennial favorite of mine. Recorded with the Duke Quartet in front of a live studio audience, Chrissie Hynde and the current band set aside their harder punk edge to assemble a collage of their more intellectual, emotional and reflective songs. Hynde’s vocals are the focus here and the Shanling reproduced the depth and subtlety of her performances magnificently, possibly the best I’ve ever heard from this recording. "Chill Factor,” Hynde’s ode to her tumultuous relationship with Kinks’ lead man Ray Davies, was served well by the SCD-T200, convincingly capturing every fluctuation in Hynde’s voice. One predominant attribute of the Shanling is its ability to accurately replicate the attack and decay of various string and percussive instruments, each abundant throughout this richly layered album. Void of all amplification, "Private Life" was reincarnated with impressive power, punch and speed. This is a common trait of the Shanling when playing back both Redbook CDs and SACDs.

The Downside
In today’s multi-format, multi-media world, the Shanling’s main limitation is its ability to play two-channel SACD, HDCDs and standard CDs only. Unfortunately, this means the Shanling cannot take advantage of SACD discs that are encoded with multi-channel soundtracks, which are becoming much more prevalent with new releases.

Additionally, with a plethora of Universal Disc players hitting the market, the Shanling lacks the ability to play the other current competing hi-resolution format, DVD-Audio. Furthermore, the start-up time to initiate and play a disc is extremely slow relative to most players I’ve recently experienced but is typical of most SACD players in general.

To say that the Shanling SCD-T200 Level-1 player was attractive would be a massive understatement. With its high-tech appearance, utilization of superior parts and materials, exquisite attention fit and finish, the Shanling is simply a stunning piece of artwork. It commanded attention from everyone who was within eyesight of this component, but this would be irrelevant without its stellar performance to match its aesthetics. With both SACDs and Redbook CDs, the SCD-T200 is a reference quality performer. SACDs simply sound awesome, lending the music a sense of realism and palpability that is enthralling. On conventional CDs, the performance is equally if not more impressive, considering the confines of the format. The Shanling’s ability to extract the most out of a 16bit/44.1kHz source is extraordinary, giving new life to much of my CD collection. The SCD-T200 also gives the user welcome flexibility with two output stages, vacuum tube and solid-state, each with its own strengths and characteristics. By utilizing the volume control on the excellent remote, I was able to obtain world-class performance by directly connecting the player to a stereo amplifier. Its sonic strengths are many, with the only major caveat being that you are unable to play multi-channel SACDs or any DVD-Audio discs. For those who are normally wary of purchasing modified electronics, rest assured that this is a covered by a 1 year factory warranty mod with a one-year warranty. And though it may not accommodate every silver disc you own, what it does play is extremely satisfying and fulfilling. This player’s superior performance, combined with its stellar appearance, is an absolute knockout. Coupling this with undeniable pride of ownership, the Shanling SCD-T200 Level-1 SACD/CD player is a worthy candidate for anyone seeking to assemble the ultimate two-channel SACD/CD playback system.
Manufacturer Shanling
Model SCD-T200 Level-1 CD/SACD Player
Reviewer Tom Garcia

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