Review: Shanling CD-T100 CD Player
Great box. No, boxes: it’s double. Inside there’s a solid block of what looks and feels like polyethylene foam, not just a pair of polystyrene caps for the ends of the unit. Not much chance of shipping damage with this package. And where’s the unit? Instead there are cavities for a large number of extras and accessories. Let’s see, here’s a pair of white gloves. Now that seems to be going a bit far, it’s not made of crystal, this machine, is it? Oh but there are tubes to install. Now I understand. For those who have never done it, you install a tube the way you do a halogen bulb. Make sure you don’t get any body oils on the glass or the tube’s life can be dramatically shortened.
Still at the top layer of the box, here’s the remote. Silver-coloured, long and slim, two or three dozen buttons. The numeric ones are little gold nipples in a darker surround, quite easy to distinguish by touch from the larger silver command buttons. Good thinking. (In use later on, the remote’s buttons prove to be quite well laid out, with volume, stop and the rest easy to find and learn.) More goodies: a chamois to keep the metal polished, a double demo disc... oboy, one of my favourite Jennifer Warnes tunes, Way Down Deep, is here in an HDCD version! Here’s the power cord. Wow, a premium cord, thick and heavy, with hospital-grade connectors. Looks good, and they didn’t need to do it. Few manufacturers include such a potentially expensive accessory even at this price, but a good cord makes a clear difference to sound quality. It’s another indication that the designers’ priorities are well chosen.
However they have paid a whole lot of attention to the visuals. As you lift off the top block of foam and pull the player out of the box you can see that its pictures don’t really do it justice. They make it look a tiny bit tackier than it really is. The thing doesn’t just breathe high end, it waves it out at you with both hands. There’s anodized aluminum, brushed stainless steel, gold plate, lucite, chrome and glass. It looks like a space station; it could have been inspired by the same marine drilling platform that gave Steven Spielberg the idea for the mother ship in Close Encounters. There are transformer pots like contained reactors, tube cages like condenser columns. There’s a cool little display window set into the narrow brushed metal front edge, for all the world like the windshield of a ship’s bridge, and there’s a disc clamp like a flying saucer. The designer clearly had fun.
Basic control functions are available from solid metal buttons on the player: play, pause, stop and skip. The rest are keyed from the remote. The machine is heavy, with most of the weight at the back where the transformers are. You can set it up on four flat corner pads or you can use three points. Two of these screw in, replacing two feet, and one slides under the bottom panel. All three have dimpled footplates, gold-plated like the points. Plating and machining are high quality. I use the points, replacing the two front feet, and place the player on the carefully-leveled top shelf of my Target T5 equipment rack. The IEC power connector fits nicely.
The five RCA jacks on the rear panel are surface mounted, not set into the chassis. They are gold-plated, American-made and labeled CMC SuperCU. There are two stereo sets, one marked CD Audio Out and the other T. Amp Audio Out. These are both high-level analog outputs: the first are solid state and the second use the unit’s tube amp. Both can be plugged simultaneously into your preamp inputs. You can then choose your favourite output pair as you listen, but your second pair of interconnects must be as good as the first to make this a meaningful way to compare. A final RCA jack on the back panel is labeled Coaxial Out and is intended for an external converter. As I plug the Neutrik connectors of my Ensemble Masterflux cables into the CD Out jacks, I notice a sticker marked “Export Edition!”. Perhaps this unit is not identical to the ones sold in China.
Over the first weeks of listening that led to this review I try both sets of outputs without developing a clear preference, most often using the pair labeled CD Out. There generally seems to be a bit more detail available through these, but in contrast, the T. Amp outputs seem very slightly warmer. I am not yet ready to say one set is clearly better than the other.
Besides choosing a pair of outputs, a decision also needs to be made about tubes. I have opted for an upgrade, a set of NOS Western Electric 2C51/396A tubes to replace the stock Chinese ones. I decide to install the upgrade right away. These tubes are only about half the size of the stock parts, and in order to set them in easily the “condenser towers” have to be partially disassembled using an Allen key. I do this carefully, so as not to mar the chrome plating. Each tower is made of four separate sections: a flat ring drilled at opposite points and two threaded spacers, so removing one ring doesn’t make the whole assembly collapse the way it would if the vertical supports were made of a single bolt with a sleeve. I take off two levels of each tower and manage to slip the little NOS tubes into the ceramic sockets using my new white gloves. The best tubes go into the left-side sockets; the right-side ones are for the headphone output and I’m not using that right now.
Breaking in the CD-T100 takes a long time. Initially the sound is pretty tame and I much prefer to spend my time with vinyl. After 100 hours things are better but tame still. I keep my hopes up. I’ve heard a well broken-in Shanling before and I know mine can do better. Two hundred hours of play after the first disc, the sound has become lively, colourful and involving.
Six weeks and over 200 hours of play later I come back from four days in the forest with my ears thoroughly rested. I decide it’s the ideal moment to perform an experiment to see which combination of outputs and tubes sounds best. I choose Karen Young singing Second Time Around, accompanied by the superb bassist Michel Donato. I start listening with the Chinese tubes and the T. Amp outputs. The music is clear and pleasant, with good detail. I know my system can throw up a bigger soundstage, the mids are perhaps a bit thin, the bassist and singer appear on the verge of losing each other on one tricky passage. I enjoy myself all the same; there is no hardness in the treble, no digital edge, the bass is quite clear, the rhythm and melody present and catchy.
I switch to the CD direct outputs, bypassing the tube amp. There is a new fullness to the voice and a richness of timbre that wasn’t there before. There is better control in the bass. The soundstage is bigger and more detail is available. There is a clearly audible moment when Ms. Young almost breathes too late and loses the beat, and the tension this creates is fun, involving. This combination is obviously preferable to the previous one. Now I swap the left-side Chinese tubes for NOS Western Electrics. This doesn’t change much if anything, and it shouldn’t: I’m still using the CD outputs, which bypass the tube amp. Time now to go back to the tube amp outputs to see what the NOS tubes have done for the music.
Ah. Oh. This combination is way more open. The music has moved back and spread out. It has a much more relaxed quality where up to now it has been a bit too assertive in comparison. The voice is even more natural, Ms. Young’s breathing sounds less forced and she seems to be having an easier time singing, as though she has suddenly gotten better at her work. Michel Donato is trying less hard to impress and has started to play bass with effortless rhythm and definition. He and the singer are naturals together, they never miss a step. The soundstage is much, much bigger. I like this! Conclusion: without an NOS tube upgrade, use the CD Out outputs on your CD-T100. Otherwise a NOS upgrade is well worth it, a measure that will make your player sound much better for less than the price of a premium power cord.
My entire CD collection has been stolen three days before I get my Shanling player and while the insurance settlement is pending I do not attempt to replace the discs I know well. Most of my listening is therefore done with new discs. I pay attention to frequency extension, detail, image, timing and rhythm, harmonics, timbres and overall coherence and musicality. In my system, the CD-T100 delivers them all. I hear no hardness in the treble. Bass is tight, firm and melodic. On recordings with spatial information, like the Beethoven piano sonatas played by Robert Silverman on Orpheum Masters, there is a fine sense of a three-dimensional event. Even on studio recordings, though, like Gianmaria Testa’s Lampo, instruments and voices have a pleasing fleshed-out nature. This last disc has a very well-recorded male voice. Harmonies are seductive and instrumental timbres and textures very fine on the Decca recording of the Albinoni Opus 9 concertos played by Andrew Manze and the Academy. The Shostakovich String Quartets by the Emerson Quartet on DG have wonderful rhythm and dissonant harmony. There is terrific drive along with melody and vocal detail on Passionate Kisses from Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Party Doll. A recording which falls apart if timing and bass extension are poor is Le Temps Passé from Michel Jonasz’ La Fabuleuse Histoire de Mister Swing, but the CD-T100 makes it hang together perfectly. Harmony is delicious and grouped voices and brass beautifully coherent on the Huelgas Ensemble’s recording of the Padovano 24-voice mass. I listen to Eva Cassidy’s version of Stormy Monday for the first time with this player and it floors me with its timing and emotion, as it has so many other people. My girlfriend on the couch next to me was just as breathless as I was.
The remote offers a strategically-placed button which lets you switch on-the-fly to 24/96 upsampling from play at the normal Red Book 16-bit/44.1 kHz rate. There is a slight lag in use as the player does the operation, and a blue indicator light appears on the front panel. It’s interesting to explore the difference between the two modes. I come to prefer upsampling slightly, because of a sense of increased air, precision and occasionally instrumental weight, but the difference is initially hard to pin down and for some discs is inconsequential. This switch button also has to be used to turn off upsampling if you want to hear HDCD discs properly, since upsampling loses the extra information encoded on HDCD discs. Another blue indicator light on the front panel comes on if the disc is HDCD, but this only happens if upsampling is off. It is hard for me to see at a distance which light is on, and in one case I listened to an HDCD disc without turning off upsampling and missed the extra information. (I had overlooked the HDCD logo on the printed insert.) In case you’re wondering, it sounded much better when I played it in HDCD.
I’m going to wind up by saying what I like best and what I like least about this player. First of all, its performance-to-price ratio is terrific. I have not heard any other in its price range which sounds as good, and there are more expensive machines, including some very highly-rated ones, which to my ear offer no more music. Musically then, and especially with NOS tubes, the CD-T100 provides a genuinely involving experience on the best discs and can keep me listening for hours. This is high praise indeed, since my other main source is a Linn LP-12 Lingo along with an excellent phono stage and a good collection of vinyl.
Lastly, the only things I don’t like about the CD-T100 have to do with light, not sound. First, the colour and placement of the two blue indicator lights next to each other on the front panel, while aesthetic, don’t let me see clearly whether upsampling or HDCD is in operation. A last minor quibble is the fact that the machine is a considerable light source. Although the alphanumeric display can be dimmed with the remote, it is the least of the machine’s light-emitting elements. I’m going to have to get a screen for my equipment rack if I want to listen to CDs in the dark, and if I do that the remote won’t work.
Klyne SK-5A preamp
Sima Celeste W-4070se amplifier
Meadowlark Shearwater Hot Rod speakers
Ensemble Masterflux interconnects
Ensemble Voiceflux speaker cables