For a first fix on the Shanling sound, I tethered its tubed output to my Bel Canto PRe6 and switched remotely between that and the input of the Cairn/Zanden/AR2000 data stream, the latter's low 1V output matched to the T200's industry-standard 2V. The preamp's memory function for the volume setting of each input made quick A/Bs child's play and merely a matter of swapping transports. My first CD? Ibrahim Ferrer's new and just-reviewed Buenos Hermanos [World Circuit/Nonesuch 79650-2]. Abstaining from island rum for the session but swaying my hips to the gentle bolero Cubano rhythms nonetheless, I kept thinking that -- should I make it to 77 like Ferrer -- I'd sure hope to being in equally splendid shape. Hombre, this cat's got charisma and mojo the equal of ol' Satchmo - elegance, bottomless heart, humor, vitality. Humanity.

Good thing too that I picked music enjoyable even after the nth go-around - for that's what it took. For a while, I was at a loss. What to key in on? I'd focus on certain parameters only to write them off as equal - timbre, soundstaging, tonal balance, low-level resolution. All I was left with was an eventual and minor sensation of feeling differently. Perusing various favorite tracks like the slow-mo scorcher "Mil Congojas" with its zany juxtaposition of Blues/Surf guitars and string orchestra, I teased out that the Zanden setup was a mite more relaxed. It prompted a certain melted whole-body response. Ahh. The Shanling didn't quite do that. At times, I'd notice a peculiar soft inner-ear pressure that'd go away when I switched back to the Zanden/ Ortho Spectrum combo. Elusive, this, and not 100% reliable. I didn't always get this elevation-type ear sensation. Still, 'twas observable often enough to suggest - something. I'd need far sparser material to make headway here.

Alas, there was one other aspect that began suggesting itself for the MkIII, again subtly: A slightly greater dynamic swelling on vocal peaks, a greater splash from higher up on certain guitar transients. Now, test bench aficionados will completely write off commentary rooted in feeling response. I admit slippery territory. I would also add that how our body-mind reacts to music playback may well be the core while deeply obscured issue. It's why we settle down with certain components and not others. It's why somebody else will come away with a very different impression.

Before we continue, some perspective. The resident three-piece ensemble weighs in at more than$13,000: $1,695 for the Cairn, $10,000 for the Zanden, $1,100 for the Ortho Spectrum, additional funds for a good digital interconnect and one pair of analogue cables. The one-box modified Shanling is $4,490 - about 1/3rd. Need I say more? Perspective. Now add that subtracting the AR2000, in my system, would have given the T200 a clear lead in transparency and incisiveness - because that's what the filter added to my DAC when I first reviewed it. It's why I've kept it in the signal path ever since and dread the day when it will be recalled.

Granted, the Model 5000 might still be handicapped by my comparably modest transport. However, using the Shanling was out since it wouldn't pass the non-upsampled data stream which the 16/44 tube DAC requires. Yamada-San's just launched a specialty digital cable for his DAC said to squeeze out every last drop from its potential. In the meantime, Chris Sommovigo's i2digital X-60 and Stereovox HDVX are very strong contenders. Unless I hear differently at a later time, I cannot consider them weak links by any stretch of even highly fertile imagination. So much for our little performance/value equation then. Back into the pink ... of my ears.

To suffer less compositional complexity, I now cued up the "Allegro" from Bach's Harpsichord Concerto in D-major, jazzed up by Jacques Loussier [The Bach Book - 40th Anniversary Album, Telarc, 83474]. Piano, percussion, double bass; phenomenally well recorded, with astounding bass definition and endless triangle decay trails: When review comparisons get hairy, less is more - easier caught. Right?

Left! Admiring André Arpino's preternaturally tactile brush work, telegraphing the impact of stick on rim, of feather on skin and cymbal with such precision as to nearly have the visual sense raise its hand and pronounce "I just saw that", I'd return to my customary front-end. Had the Shanling just pulled ahead? I'd now hear the same thing on the Zanden. Grooving to Vincent Charbonnier's singing bass, I did soon give a faint but perceptive nod to the Zanden combo, for better articulation and weight on the lower plucked bass strings. Still, the Shanling only missed by a very small sliver. During the swinging Jazz interlude, I again noted that peculiar 'opening blossom' feeling in my belly, as though some subtle tension gave way with the Japanese piece. Quite lame, I admit. The only other decipherable distinction was a small amount of background hiss or dither audible via the Shanling and not the Zanden. It gave the T200 a marginal edge of added outline definition.

Both sources were wonderfully nimble and lithe despite (or because?) their vacuum tubes. Rather than sounding fat and dragged down by obvious fluff, they displayed fancy footwork, stinging like bees to revive a famous boxing metaphor. Both dug deeply into the micro-detail of decays blending with transients and other trailing echoes. Miniature reflections temporarily splattered across the floor of the recording venue like erratic strobe lighting. The degree of transparency reminded me of open-eyed outdoor gazing meditations. Thoughts suspend, the eyes stop blinking for very long periods, the surroundings become omnipresent while something inside goes void to contain it. Without focus, a tiny ant moving up the stem of a blade of grass registers, as does a subtle cloud shift of sun light above and the glittering play of tree leaves in the wind - all at once, without conflict and masking. The ability to hear minutiae in this heavily caloric audiophile recording was stupendous. It was limited clearly not by the hardware but only the listener's ability to remain resolutely in the moment and not miss one detail by focusing on another instead.

Bass strings popped and rumbled, at times briefly energizing woody resonances; low left-handed piano notes spread through the instrument cavity to bloom and ring out; the physical action of the damper pedal became visible as did the expansive palette of tonality the drummer coaxed out of his various struck metals; the instruments remained properly proportioned, didn't wander or lose their definition in the midst of musical lines intersecting like tendrils - 'twas all there to be noticed and enjoyed, but clearly not in hyped, stark, overamped contrast to degrade into the kind of ultra resolution that leaves a listener strangely overwhelmed and exhausted. No, this was natural and completely benign.

Certain folks I know have characterized the BAT CD player as somewhat slow-sounding to me - dense, voluptuous, saturated, rich, but a mite ponderous. I don't believe anyone laying ears on the modified Shanling could possibly come to that conclusion. In fact, I'd dare you blindfolded to confidently identify tubes at all. Yes, there was polish and roundness, but it never assumed the kind of bulky mass that would have interfered with 'aerodynamic slip'. This elegance didn't drift into the opposite camp either, of ethereal no-tension when electrostatic transparency looses oomph, grip and impact so that the music becomes bereft of energy and vitality.
How about solid-state versus tube feeds?

Whether due to lower noise floor, faster rise times, lower output impedance or something else altogether, the transistor outputs removed a subliminal fuzziness, darkened the blackness between notes. The result was a heightening of tactile thereness. Images were even crisper without turning crispy - you know, brittle like fried potato skins. Not. Walking e-guitar bass lines acquired air soles to get more rebound, more incisive rhythmic precision. Groove-driven Latin tunes with their lilting gait acquired more pep, Jazz numbers better timing, a firmer percolating foundation. This shift was very similar in flavor -- but less pronounced in extent -- to putting the Ortho Spectrum AR2000 Analogue Reconstructor in series with the Zanden' months earlier. Without undermining Yamada-San's unique ease of analogue-like delivery, it had added just the right amount of adrenaline and excitement.

Because my amplifiers are high output-impedance SE tube designs, my preference for the Shanling's transistor outputs in this instance may come as no surprise. It simply stands as another example of the typical give'n'take of audiophile negotiations when we voice a system by playing off distinct attributes in its components. The unique parallel-output feature of the T200 invites such fine-tuning not only on the hardware but also software side of things. Have a recording that needs some buffing out of edge and grit? Go Western Electric. Want to click your lens two notches up for the sharpest possible focus? Go solid-state. This isn't a traumatic Jeckill/Hyde type transformation - nor vanilla/chocolate extremity for that matter. It operates more in the domain of lighting, with the tubes introducing faint shadows for a softer, more 'romantic' rendition.