“Holy Cow!” I exclaimed out loud while opening the outer shipping box. (Actually, what I said was more like a holy expletive for manure, but I’m not supposed to write that.) And no wonder the otherwise ordinary-looking cardboard carton was so heavy. Inside rested a substantial metal “anvil” style, dual-layer foam-lined locking case, with each of the CD player’s various parts meticulously arranged in individual cutout slots. “Uh, is this a kit?” I momentarily wondered. It isn’t, though a tad of final “assembly” is required.
The first layer holds a fairly massive and charmingly retro-looking “Power Box,” or outboard power supply. Then there is a trio of pointy feet, the manually applied transport lid and magnetic disc clamp/weight, a resting pod for the lid (which lights up) for when changing discs, the power-supply umbilical and AC cord, two remote controls (one for a Shanling system, the other for the player alone), a set of soft white cotton “Mickey Mouse” gloves, and a plastic bag printed with red Chinese characters along with an endearing image of a mother and baby goat-antelope, which naturally enough holds a chamois polishing cloth.
Oh, and then there’s the player itself, which is snuggly nestled in the bottom layer of molded gray foam. Once the feet are installed and you get the power supply and cables in place, a twist of the large knob over the rear foot turns on the player and sets the blue lights aglow. (These and the display can be either dimmed or shut off via remote control.)
Suddenly, I was transported back to the first time I saw this top-of-the-line Chinese CD player at last January’s Consumer Electronics Show. With its circular body, exposed dual pairs of output tubes, and arresting blue-light show, Shanling’s $6995 CD-T300 looks very much like something that spun in from the Outer Limits. It also happens to be one of the most direct-sounding, transparent- to-the-source CD players I’ve heard.
In the few months that I’ve lived with the Shanling, disc after disc in virtually every musical genre has exhibited great clarity, low noise, excellent inner as well as textural detail, and a lack of grain that takes it beyond either my BAT VKD5 (which admittedly is a few years old) or digital signals fed through Musical Fidelity’s excellent Tri- Vista 21 DAC (both of which, like the Shanling, sport tube output stages). You’ll immediately hear these characteristics on a good vocal recording such as Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning [Saddle Creek] or Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.,” from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot [Nonesuch], where the lead singer is presented with an unusual degree of presence. And while the Shanling clearly adds an extra bit of glow to the midrange, it doesn’t go so far as to draw an aural circle around voices, but rather keeps them nicely integrated within the instrumental mix.
Tonally, the T300 takes a while to get your mind around. Despite its romantic tendencies, it doesn’t sound overtly like a tube-driven player. Just when I was ready to pin the “sounds like tubes” label on it (“a ‘creamy’ upper midrange,” one of my early notes reads; “rolled-off treble,” says another), I was forced to reevaluate based on what I next played. Which gets back to my original point—this player seems not only transparent to the source, but (as is implied by the very notion) relatively faithful to it as well.
Listen to Martha Argerich’s gorgeous rendition of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit [DG Originals], with its full use of the piano’s keyboard and dynamic possibilities, and you’ll notice that the T300 has a surprisingly wide dynamic range. Argerich’s pianissimo playing produces whisper- quiet yet fully defined trills, while her crescendos hit very high and explosive peaks. The actual dynamic scaling is a bit stepped and not as seamless as analog or as in real life, but that is an artifact of CD in general, not necessarily of the T-300.
The Ravel also reveals the Shanling’s ability to let notes decay naturally, without the abrupt cutoff we usually associate with Red Book digital. This is one place where I will point to the benefits of the tube output stage. For instance, the opening of the second movement is largely based on single-note phrases. For these to be phrases—as opposed to simply single notes—it is critical for the harmonic structure and decay of one note to hang in the air while subsequent notes are struck. With the Shanling this occurs, with a natural harmonic beauty that makes the performance that much more involving.
Overall I would say the T300 achieves that highly desirable balance of detail, power, and ease. For instance, with Nine Inch Nails’ latest, With Teeth [Interscope] (reviewed in this issue), the pulverized drums, tortured guitars, and throbbing bass lines have plenty of power and rhythmic drive, and yet (at reasonable volumes) the sound is not particularly grating (certainly less so than the NIN concert I recently attended!). This is a noteworthy achievement, given that listener fatigue is one of the main gripes against compact discs.
I suppose for ears used to the cooler precision of solid-state CD playback, the Shanling CD-T300 might come across as a mite soft, a bit too pretty. That, to me, is this player’s only obvious signature, and one I’ll take any day over the alternative.