Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Shanling CD-T1500 CD player

(I had a chance to take this CD player to Texas with me, and now I regret it. It was very cool looking, and it sounded great! Now I'm stuck with a lowly Denon CD player until I can scrape the money together for another Naim.)

I grew up in the shadow of Disneyland, and one of my favorite hangouts as a kid was the Stovall's Inn of Tomorrow. This now-legendary motel was known for both its topiary gardens and its “Space Age” themes of swirling atomic icons, geodesic domes and other futuristic touches. Futuristic, of course, is a relative term, and the Inn of Tomorrow was that kitschy combination of past and future that could only be imagined in the '50s when people thought we would be piloting our own personal spaceships to work by the year 1980.

The Shanling CD-T1500 CD player reminds me of this aesthetic. It's not quite as swoopy and curvy as this Chinese audio company's more expensive offerings, which generally have styling cues that seem more rooted in the 21st century. With the exception of the top-loading transport and acrylic clamp, the '1500 resembles an old-fashioned '50s tube amp in its general layout—albeit one re-imagined for a future where transistors were never adopted by mainstream electronic companies. It has solid transformer cubes toward the rear—one each for the tube, analog and digital output stages--and two pairs of Russian EH6922s along the sides. (These Electro-Harmonix tubes have cool gold-plated pins as well.)

Plenty of Atomic Age touches differentiate the appearance of the Shanling from other CD players, however, such as a pair of aluminum rings guarding each tube and glowing blue lights set into the substantial isolation columns, transport and tube sockets. The contrast of the blue against the comforting yellow-orange glow of the 6922s is very striking in appearance. The CD-T1500 will definitely be the center of attention of any listening room whether it is switched on or not.

Where's the flux capacitor?
The '1500 also provides an extensive list of features and capabilities. Apart from the tubes, which are used for the balanced and unbalanced analog output stages, the Shanling provides 24-bit/192 KHz upsampling, an advanced Philips CD-PRO 2 linear tracking pick-up mechanism and an aluminum alloy chassis that is designed to absorbs vibrations. I/V conversion is accomplished with a 12x Burr-Brown OPA604 chip, and digital-to-analog conversion is handled by a pair of Burr-Brown PCM1794 DAC chips. Low pass filtering is supplied by two Analog Devices Ad627s. RCA, XLR and coaxial jacks are provided, as is a 100-step digital volume control.

The remote control contains a wide variety of functions (it's clearly meant to be used in conjunction with an all-Shanling system), but I was especially thankful for the four-step brightness adjustment key. When those blue lights are going full force, audiophiles who like to listen in the dark will be utterly distracted and will find this dimming feature an absolute necessity. The four settings allow you to control both the brightness of those blue lights and the display. Then again, you can go for broke and leave the blue lights a-glowin' and impress all of your friends. At the very least, the CD-T1500 is a heck of a conversation piece for non-audiophile guests.

My only reservation regarding the ergonomics of the Shanling has to do with the display itself. From a normal listening position of about eight to ten feet away, the numbers are too small to read. I found myself constantly leaning well forward just to see track numbers and time elapsed. I was also a little underwhelmed by the looks of the remote control, which seems like it might belong to an '80s television set. If you're going to make such a huge statement with the styling of your CD player, why not spend a few bucks and come up with a remote that matches?

Despite that observation, the CD player itself offers an extremely high level of fit and finish for a somewhat modest $3295. The aluminum chassis is beautifully machined and solid (the CD-T1500 weighs nearly 25 pounds), and the four buttons on the front of the top panel (stop, play/pause, previous, next) have a firm and confident quality to them when you push them. If you think that Chinese gear lacks fine craftsmanship, the CD-T1500 might change your mind.

It's your cousin...Marvin Berry. You know that new sound you're looking for?
The Shanling spent more than six months in my reference system. As I reviewed several power amps, preamps and speakers, the CD-T1500 remained a quiet constant. It never drew attention to itself, nor did it consistently remind me of any specific shortcomings or colorings. The last tubed CD player I reviewed, the PrimaLuna ProLogue Eight, sounded a bit like a 300B amplifier to me. It offered a big, almost spherical soundstage and definitely added a sonic signature (albeit a very engaging one). The CD-T1500, however, reminded me of an excellent 2A3 or 45 based tube amp, which meant that it was much more linear and clear and detailed than I thought it was going to be. Sure, it was a slightly warm and forgiving player overall, but the sound wasn't idiosyncratic, colored or snipped at the frequency extremes. It blended right into all types of systems and never once faltered.

The '1500 excelled at reproducing the full spectrum of bass frequencies. It captured the woody and slightly sloppy bass work through most of Shearwater's Rook, and it was able to flesh out both the upper pluck and subterranean excavations of John Entwistle's bass throughout the 1996 CD reissue of Tommy. I was able to pair the Shanling with loudspeakers that provided full bass extension into my relatively small room such as the DeVore Fidelity Gibbon Nines and the Gradient Helsinkis, and the Shanling always delivered a generous yet appropriate amount of low frequency information when required.

The upper frequencies were equally impressive, with the Shanling able to communicate the air and space around performers without sounding dry and edgy. That's where the magic of those 6922s kicks in, and why a tubed CD player is such a darned good idea. At no time did I feel like anything was being rolled off, yet the Shanling never made me cringe while listening to some of my less-than-lush CDs such as TV on the Radio's Return to Cookie Mountain or Boy Eats Drum Machine's Booomboxxx. CD players with tubed output stages are sheer genius when it comes to analog lovers who are still looking for a digital front end that fits their sonic preferences.

You're safe and sound now, back in good ol' 2009.
As a hardcore vinyl lover, it's easy for me to know when I have a decent digital front end in my system. Whenever I own an analog rig that can easily surpasses the sound quality of my CD player, I spend an disproportionate amount of time listening to LPs. When I have a good digital player at my disposal, however, I actually have to make a genuine choice when I want to listen to something. If I choose a CD over an LP, I won't even give it a second thought.

The Shanling fits into that relatively small group of digital players that have come my way over the last few years and have given me a true alternative to analog. It won't make me give up on vinyl the way a couple of those hideously expensive players would. The CD-T1500 lacks that sense of infinite scale that many of those five-figure machines provide. But for $3250, the Shanling is an excellent value, and a true vinyl lover's CD player. Like a DeLorean, the visual aspects of the '1500 may or may not be to your liking. But close your eyes, hit the dimmer switch, and prepare to be impressed.

1 comment:

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