Toujours bien habillé! Always well dressed. Vraiment le roi de son quartier.

Any discussion about Shanling's top tube product will always begin thus - and without fail. Or something to the same effect, albeit in different languages: You simply look mahvelous, dahlin'! This rocks! What the @#^*? As any beau or dapper city slicker would pride himself in, its creations too exude almost impossible stylishness. They practice fanatical concern over the smallest of details, to then allow both casual and critical eyes to wander and roam appreciatively without getting hung up on incongruent visual design cues. With the latest T200, Shanling messed up but slightly - alas on a very visible button hole which makes this faux-pas doubly unexpected. To help identify unauthorized grey-market imports, the firm has attached a sticker prominently on the front. Well, it's not really a sticker but rather, a black plastic button with the white word USA embedded. It's then encased cleanly in a small aluminum ovoid as though disguised as an after-thought emblem of sorts. Still, this visual mar would have served the intended purpose just as well on the back, out of sight, presumably alerting a buyer whether a prospective purchase was covered under the proper importer's warranty or not.

As my only complaint, I thought to handle this tiny mosquito in the ointment upfront. Ah, there remain two other matters of disclaimer-type importance to settle first.

1/ The machine under review was the Chinese equivalent of one of ModWright's famously comprehensive (and, by Positive Feedback On-Line's Mr. Robertson, comprehensively chronicled ) rebuilds of Japanese Sony SACD players. Which is to say, a very detailed makeover, here spec'd and performed by Chris Johnson's PartsConneXion, available exclusively through Walter Liederman's Georgia-based Underwood Hifi and covered under Roy Hall's 12-month Music Hall importer warranty.

From the AudioCom SuperClock II upgrade with customized power supply to strategically applied Bybee filters and solid-silver RCA terminals for the two main outputs (the 'plus' addition ingredients of Underwood's Level-1 Mod package); from top-line BurrBrown ICs, BlackGate capacitors, Riken Ohm and Audio Note resistors to a whole plethora of adjunct performance tweaks including upgraded WE tubes and elimination of certain interstage coupling capacitors - the review sample enjoyed about as little similarity with the stock machine as shares a tricked-out performance racer (after-market pipes, shocks, tires, bored-out engine and nitrous injection booster) with a lot-sold Taurus. Because only a limited number of these tubed SACD players even make it into the country, requesting a stock and modded unit for a direct A/B was completely out of the question. Hence, parties interested in the non-modified machine will learn little of value. I simply couldn't tell you, from personal experience, how large the performance delta separating it from today's hotrod might be.

However, calling Chris Johnson in Canada, I did learn a few things. On a number's scale, Chris estimates that the Level-1 Mod takes the stock player from 100 to 150 while the '+' upgrade goes to 175. More than 30 modified T200s (90% in 'plus' guise) have already been sold, not a single owner expressing buyer's remorse or a desire to somehow magically nullify the transaction. 5 players have been upgraded from Level-1 to 1+ status. All five buyers indicated that the improvements were "obvious from the first note, akin to the moment when a record player's needle first hits to let you know 'Bingo', instantly".

2/ My familiarity with SACD players is barely above ground zero. Walter Liederman knew this. He still elected to send me this review loaner. The rationale? His modification with Chris Johnson, while sweeping, concentrates on the tube and solid-state output stages which affect both SACD and CD data streams simultaneously. There are many consumers like yours truly -- and Walter -- who own substantial and eclectic CD collections. We are embracing SACD at merely snail's pace, commensurate with the appearance of new and original software we're actually interested in. Our kind of math queries "at 15 titles of import thus far, why should I invest?" This review is thus expressively focused on exploring the T200's Redbook performance. "If this player could compete with state-of-the-art CD-only devices like Srajan's own Zanden Audio Model 5000 MkIII DAC and it did SACD - well now, someone could twist my noodle and get me to pay attention!"

Readers curious about definitive statements, on how this player measured up to competing SACD machines, must look elsewhere. Those who are still new to the format, not quite sure what to think and what the fuss is about, will accompany me now on my maiden voyage into the brave new (superfluous, marketing-driven?) waters of high-definition digital. For detailed specs on what the complete Level-1+ package entails, click here. Before we get embroiled in sonic imbroglio, a bit of technical specs first.

The Shanling SCD-T200 employs Sony's top-line KHM-234AAA top-loading transport and servo as premiered in the tank-like SACD-1. A Sony CXD2753 DSD decoder precedes BurrBrown's 1738 DAC, the firm's choicest when the T200 was still under development but since superseded by the newer 1792. BurrBrown's best programmable gain attenuator chip PGA2311 is used in passive mode, with its 30dB of possible IC-driven gain defeated. This volume control feature enables amp-direct connection. It offers 0.5dB intervals from minus 96.5dB (full attenuation) to plus 2.5dB (unity gain corresponding to a 2.0V output at full signal). The counter-intuitive band of 0-to-2.5dB+ does not indicate gain. It's simply a function of somewhat inelegant software coding. The included all-metal remote features twin sets of level -/+ buttons, one for the T100/200 players, one for the just-reviewed SP-80 monos. One brief press advances volume in a single 0.5dB step upwards or downwards, a continuous press scans at higher speed until relinquished. A mute control confirms as 'mute' on the green dot-matrix display while a three-stage dimmer affords four levels of brightness. The hinged acrylic lid reveals a discrete rather than the integral puck which the T100 adopted, but is similarly backlit by three blue diodes embedded in its stem.

Two blue front-panel LEDs indicate CD or SACD mode respectively. The former takes 10.5 seconds to read before it displays the table of contents. The latter clocks in at a whopping 15 seconds, the first 8.5 of which have the disc sit utterly stationary before the transport's double-speed clutch kicks in for SACD duty. Once the TOC displays and the machine goes into playback mode, the top-loader's whirring is exceedingly low in amplitude and never once was audible at even nearfield listening distances. Top-mounted controls include play/pause, stop, SACD/CD, prev and next while the full-function remote offers all the expected amenities except for the ubiquitous time remain modes.

A side-mounted power switch and 1/4" headphone jack are complemented aft by solid-state and vacuum tube analogue outputs, a coaxial digital out and the universal IEC inlet. Screw inserts for the corner posts allow cushioned or pointy seating on supporting shelves or furniture while white gloves, a screw driver and a custom power cord with impressive connectors complete what you'd find in the very sturdy shipping carton. The twin banks of triodes power one main and the headphone outputs and employ 6N3s like the T100. The Underwood HiFi mod upgrades the left pair powering the main audio outs to WE 396As.

Published specs include frequency response from 5Hz to 45kHz +/- 0.5dB, SNR/dynamic range of 118/115dB respectively and crosstalk of better than 100dB. Because the tube output stage is capacitor-coupled, output impedance will rise into lowered frequencies to provide less bass control than the constant-impedance solid-state circuit.

The new Music Hall Maverick SACD player is a repackaged Shanling T200 without its tubes or Haute Couture styling. Put differently, if all you wanted was the T200's solid-state circuitry; sex appeal were reserved for your significant other, not tolerated in an audio component? You could save significant bread while benefitting from exactly the same engineering. The stock Maverick is $1,500, the equivalent Shanling $2,695. The Underwood HiFi Level-1 mod raises these machines to $1,990 and $3,490 respectively. Today's fully souped-up champ demands $4,490, all quoted pricing for pre-installed rather than retro-fitted modifications. For further details, visit the retailer's website at review's end.