To tease out further sand/glass distinctions, I cued up Carmen Lundy's Self Portrait [JVCXR-0005-2] for some top-notch recording quality (shown with T200's magnetic puck). To up the ante, I zapped the disc with Furutech's RD-2 demagnetizer before buffing the surface with LAST. If I was hard of hearing, at least the software was now about as good as I had and could make it.

The already noted softening of the valved outputs translated instantly into the illusion of a more farfield perspective, not by moving the stage proper but because transients mellowed as they do a few rows farther back. Carmen's velvety voice on "Round Midnight" had a bit more taffy magic but dynamic crests rose higher with the transistors. They also isolated the vocals against Jeremy Lubbock's strings with sharper separation while the tubes caused a gentle blending between soloist and accompaniment, again more farfield, but also with extra copper luster on the con arco orchestra.

On balance for ballad and considering the female vocal seduction, I preferred los tubos though truth -- that perennially absentee landlord -- would probably have pointed the other way. Letting you have it both ways made the Shanling into the devilishly perfect antidote against that most ancient of prohibitions: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife". No, you shouldn't indeed. Alas now you can openly, and without anyone getting aggrieved, cuckolded or hurt. In fact, the other husband's invited as well. Okay, you know what I really meant. I've traded Californication for the dry desert years ago.

On Mark Gorenstein's rendition of that old 24-carat warhorse, Dmitri Shostakovch's 5th Symphony in D minor, pop. 47 [Redemption, Pope Recordings 2009-2], the transistors rendered the martial opening of the "Allegro" more riveting and energetic, with an uncut dose of piccolo zing and trumpet blat. They rode out the famed climax with more endurance and vigor, tympany and cymbals crashing harder, louder and meaner, the tuba and trombone registers displacing more mass. The valves added some distance and 'slowness' that was more Venus than Mars, Bringer of War. Take your pick but in this instance, I was ready to unleash hell, not nurturing. I was initially compelled to make a very strong reco for the equivalently modified Maverick, for the usual cheapskate reasons. However, the T200's double-dipping prowess proved too useful a feature to discard. But wait, what about SACD? Never mind double-dipping, the T200 talks a full-blown quintet of possibilities, valved headphone output included (which the recent demise of my 8+ year-old Grado RS-1s, sniff, conspired against to evaluate properly).

Time to descend into the SACD layer of Safa, a Persian/Sufi-centered trio exploit I knew from its CD layer as an exceptionally well-recorded work compliments of Graemme Brown of Vancouver's Zen Mastering. It features clarinets (that's why I bought it), various indigenous percussion instruments like Peruvian cajón, Cuban batá drums, Philippine kulintang, Irish bodhran and Persian dumbek, and setar and vocals [Songlines 2403-2]. Switching to DirectStreamDigital was like going back to the softness of the valves - but without losing the crystalline clarity of the transistor feed. Resolution without dryness. Ambient 'dust motes', of sound steaming off the instruments into space, reflecting back and adding natural reverb body, were far more numerous and visible. This created not just more plausible three-dimensionality on stage but also gave the instruments and voice more physicality, as though a partially transparent semi-ghost slipped fully into a body and became completely incarnate, solid and real.

I've heard arguments holding that hybrid SACDs suffer deliberately handicapped CD layers to magnify the difference and help sell the new format. Alas, Safa is so non-mainstream as to virtually elude all but the most musically curious "victims" in such a scheme. It creates strong doubt that DSD's superiority on this recording was due to any meddling at all. The setar delivered all the startling twang of a plucked string (sharpness of leading edges) but also had the body and elongated sustain the Zanden DAC offered over the Cairn when I first reviewed it. The percussive immediacy of stretched skins responding to hard impacts; the cobra-like speed of metallic rattles hitting the eardrums; these arbiters of microdynamic fierceness all lacked the "bad bite" of digital but kept the "realistic bite" of life music intact. How would the tube/transistor equation translate with DSD? Theory predicted that enhanced resolution would magnify rather than minimize differences.

Reality decided against it. Though cut from identical cloth, the already modest delta of difference shrunk further, the thermionic softening still present but only at the edges of awareness. Strapping the T200 to its SP-80 stable mates, I had two means to control volume: Setting the monos to unity gain and using the player's passive control; or setting the player to +2.5dB bypass while engaging the amp's active tube linestage. This time, notion and verdict coincided - albeit not necessarily weigthing what to call superior. As reported in their review, the sculptural EL-34 single-input integrateds are very musical and refined while slightly forgiving designs. Using the player as controller created a leaner but also more detailed sound. Aiming the remote at the amps instead added fullness but also softened things a bit at the edges. It put a skoch of weight on the brakes to make the music sound plumper and richer while also a bit slower, with less of what architects call tensegrity, the balance of opposing tensions that maintain a suspended structure.

Time to collect my thoughts. Like the Zanden/Ortho Spectrum combo, the Shanling is a very elegant, light-footed player with an 'analogue' while lively dynamic mien and phenomenal data extraction. Virtually indistinguishable from my reference in triode feed (refer to the Zanden review for further details), the transistor output adds even more low-level retrieval, darker quieter backgrounds and yet more uncanny ambient teleportation. Bass gets more articulate, the highest treble opens up a bit. Transient presence increases, equating to a perception of closer listening distance without affecting actual depth perspective. Though dependant on material, with my associated gear, I generally preferred the solid-state outputs. The transport never once burped, even with CDRs. My Level-1 short-term loaner during the T100 review did occasionally refuse to read a disc's TOC at all, or it required multiple coaxings. A software upgrade since seems to have rectified this issue. From my end, there are no sightings of dreaded Murphy to report - except the lengthy access times which seem endemic to the breed.

If my lone recording was any indication, SACD is an appreciable step forward, albeit not of the magnitude I perhaps expected. More importantly, the Shanling's consummate CD performance was so compelling that I would not be tempted to replace my current library even if most or all of its entrants arrived on DSD. Conversely, if I owned a player like the SCD-T200 that made no compromises on the 16/44 front? I'd carefully study the SACD release listings to see whether I'd spot arrivals I didn't already own, but which fell into the offbeat categories of music I enjoy most.

The final reckoning [Li Tzu, Chapter 2, verse 51]

Outside of perhaps cables and accessories, most reviewers don't own multiple anythings in the diverse main component categories. Contrast that with Caelin Gabriel of Shunyata. He purchased various competing cables to keep on hand. They represent SOTA efforts in certain categories to serve as reminders of what's possible - since you never know 'mo betta' until it bites you in the arse. As a reviewer, how to keep accurate track of performance hierarchies? How to continuously reshuffle them to make proper room for newcomers, fit them into their appropriate slots, readjust the top? Exposure takes time, memory's still the arbiter unless you buy it all. A friend is fond of comparing reviewers to courtesans. "If you're lucky, they treat you really well. They perhaps even make you believe that you're the world's top stud. Then you leave. It's the next John's turn. He might get it even better. She could really enjoy him and not just fake it. Perhaps he truly is the world's greatest lover. Don Juan. Casanova. What do you care? Didn't you get what you came there for?" (Of course you're already wondering.)

You see the point. You'll also appreciate Caelin's wisdom, to keep various references handy for continuous evaluations. It's mighty hard to keep the stud counter accurate without it. Until Meitner's DCC-2 DAC arrives for review, I won't know from experience how my Zanden compares. I know it's the best I've heard thus far - but exactly what does that mean to you? To indicate where I believe Chris Johnson's modified Shanling SCD-T200 belongs, I shall invoke a brief anecdote from HE2003 where I met Fred Nadel, proprietor of PureAudio, purveyor of super-exotic audio to the well-off. Nadel sells the Zanden as well as the current EMM Labs piece. He's also very familiar with the dCS stack and (lucky devil) uses an MBL 1621 as transport.

I pressed my luck. In his opinion, how did the Zanden hold up against the latest and greatest number crunching assaults from the inventors of the RingDAC and Mr. DSD himself, Ed "the man" Meitner? Nadel grinned and reassured me that, though going about things in exactly the way I had come to identify and cherish, Yamada-San's recipe was indeed still "right up there", directly competitive with these other makes. For what that's worth, it suggests that by inference, the T200 Level-1+ player must be included on this list - and clearly ahead of the MkIII when mated to my transport and digital cable without the AR2000. Bloody impressive.

And remember, this is for RedBook performance! In any comparison with the Zanden, that's all you may consider. Today's one-box player is thus a no-compromise CD player. It happens to also do SACD; give you two personalities for each; and all of that probably for 1/3th to 1/5th the price of the two/three box competition if you factor their associated necessity for stand-alone high-quality transports. In its one-box category, there are the Nuvista and Trivista pieces to consider. Any which way you slice it, rarefied company indeed. Incidentally, preamp users can have Chris bypass the internal PGA2311A attenuator chip. Quipped the modman: "Remember, it's a wonderful and very transparent control. But if you're still using a preamp? It can and should be bypassed. It brings the performance up another notch - say to 185." This is a $50 retrofit option if the unit is already modded, $30 if ordered during the original full-bore mode. Just don't get finger prints on the darn thing. That's its only Achilles heel, a vexing one if you like your gear sparkly and shiny. What am I saying? It's about the sound, you moron. Slap me hard. I shut up now. Okay?
Manufacturer's website
Underwood Hifi website
PartsConneXion website