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Unlike speakers which have clearly discernable signatures as the generally most distortion-prone and voiced members of the chain, price-matched digital can be like counting the number of demons on the tip of a syringe. For the most potent injection of R.E.Z. straight into the vein, my truth serum concoction consisted of Music First Audio's Passive Magnetic TVC into a FirstWatt F4 into the 98dB Rethm Saadhanas. By refusing any voltage gain in favor of pure impedance and voltage-to-current conversion, the F4 is consummately transparent to what precedes it. As a passive, pure attenuating transformer-coupled preamp, the TVC is probably as devoid of colorations as doable. That shifts the burden entirely on the source, perfect to magnify the digital demons for a head count and compare competing players. Lastly, the noise floor of this setup is scarily low - perfect in general but even more so for this business. The +6dB transformer gain option gave me mondo head room for the occasional soft recording to have all the necessary SPLs for this high-efficiency Lowther rig. And yes, Rethm designer Jacob George has indeed killed the infamous Lowther shout, merely requiring of owners to follow his instructions and - um, install the apparently innocuous felt strips behind the DX55 cones.

First comparator was Raysonic's CD-168 with its even sexier build, nicer remote with additional features plus variable outputs for hot-seat volume control - and $1,000 cheaper appeal. The CD-3000
really would have to romance the ears to make a case for spending the extra scratch.

Scratch did happen. On my scalp. Granted, my CD-168 runs some nicer than stock valves but for one extra G, I expected the Underwood
mod to take the obvious lead - more bass, deeper soundstage, sweeter treble, hotter dynamics; anything to come out ahead. If this optimized system couldn't transmit a clear advantage to force agonizing A/Bs instead which tend to eventually invoke the imagination... the Raysonic would seem the obvious choice for identical sonics, more bling and a lower price. So? Cough, twitch. I couldn't readily tell the players apart in my initial home version of
the average in-store demo. Cue up impatient salesman meets can-I-trust-my-ears punter. Play a full track here, then over there and back again here. Soon where the 't' belongs between here and there has been forgotten. The choice then boils down to non-sonitary reasons. But reviewers are made of sterner stuff. They say. Never mind that you couldn't demo the modified CD-3000 at dealers in the first place. Splitting hairs then:

On certain tracks, the CD-3000 was more dynamic but this did not hold steady. On others, the CD-168's ambience seemed fuller and deeper. Engaging or disengaging the Shanling's 24/192 upsampler varied in effective power with material. In general, upsampling smoothed the transients to soften timing and jump factor - plus it altered the ambient field in a fake-feeling additive way. In non-up mode, in the first few seconds after each switch, A/Bing the players suggested playing with tinting - overlaying a black 'n' white photograph with transparencies of very light tints. Just as with a photograph, the sonic scenery remained the same. Same foreground, same shadows, same details. Only the tint/texture seemed somewhat dissimilar, creating a short-lived illusion of 'other'. But to assess categorical quantitative differences wasn't possible. The non-upsampled Shanling, in the end and often enough on various recordings to perhaps count, seemed a bit grippier, a bit sharper or articulated on the leading edge. The Raysonic then was a touch mellower and rounder by the same token. Perhaps. Nothing to write home about in either case. A cable swap could accomplish more.

My upgraded Raysonic valves were a gift from a Swedish reader. I don't know their price to add to the CD-168's retail price as the appropriate luxury tax. Regardless, that valve pair (you only need two for single-ended output as used here) wouldn't eat up the $1,000 differential between these machines. Even if it did, the CD-3000 would have to be sonically superior since the CD-168 remains the even more attractive package at least to my eyes and feature tally. For most shoppers, sounding for all intents and purposes the same will likely mean that the real considerations between these two particular contenders will come down to looks, features, money, perceived reliability, after-sales service and who you prefer to do business with. The latter has Underwood Wally covered. His track record for customer service, satisfaction and professionalism approach the legendary.

With Raysonic's CD-168 as one of our Blue Moon award recipients, like performance of course is a splendid thing for the Underwood mod. If you have $3,000 to spend, would you want to know what $10,000 could buy - just to feel certifiably sane that you would never allot such princely sums to any single audio component? Enter the Ancient Audio Lektor Prime from Poland. It doubles as a preamp with one analog input. It adds remote-controlled volume with a colossal max output voltage of 7V. It uses the famed CDM-PRO2 Philips industry reference standard transport, exceeded only by the various big TEAC/Esoteric VRDS sleds and perhaps Luxman's new module. It also is dressed in black granite with gold accents. For that kind of money, extreme bling is mandatory. Yet when the lights dim and your eyes close, how much separates a really good $3,000 machine like the tweaked Shanling from one more than thrice its price?

No coughing or uneasy twitching in the chair here. This comparison netted real differences - but far smaller than the silly money would
want. Which makes the smart money real giddy. The luxo player with balanced converters and hi-gain 6H30 output stage made the Shanling sound slower, less gathered together and sorted out. Call it better muscle tone and sportier body movements and posture as results. But I was well past day 'n' night differences where you mark clear treble, mid and bass differences. The advances of the far costlier player focused no longer on quantitative stuff where both machines were equals. This game was about subtle qualities. A more sprightly tension in a walking bass line here, a shaker or clave more overtly separated from the surrounding mix there, more
pressure differentials on a bowed string yonder. Running the usual variety of albums, the Shanling was a bit brighter and coarser, the Ancient a bit more refined and elegant.

Rather than page-long listening notes to suggest much of substance and confuse the issue, that was essentially it. The conclusion thus is that a second generation $2,300 Raysonic player gussied up with a pair of primo Mullard bottles becomes a virtual stand-in for a $1,600 machine that's been made over and doubled in price by the partsconneXion men - which, for most listeners outside the gates of BelAir, puts both machines well within spitting distance of a suave $10,000 winner. Plainly, the 16/44.1 format has reached such maturity that to hit 93% of what's generally possible can be had for $3,000 if one shops
without prejudice.

That could be an unpopular statement. Well, unpopular with the luxury players and their vendors. Beside overkill construction and perhaps longer-lived reliability, what separates superior examples in the $3,000 class from those in the $10,000 class really is far less than it should be. You can refuse to believe that, remain dissatisfied with what digital you have and dream of bliss once your stock options cash out. Or you could sit pretty knowing that with a machine like the Underwood Shanling, if something in your system cries out for improvement, it won't be your source. You pick the scenario that appeals to you more.

I wasn't entirely fond of the RC-3F Shanling remote - small buttons, twin descriptors on the non numericals to operate both CD and tuner. However, upsampling is switchable over it and merely mutes the outputs for a sec while the circuit resets. Overall construction is of the non-excessive battle ship sort, albeit with exposed screws heads on deck to betray the machine's budget roots. Cue up is neither super fast nor lazy. The sliding lid minimizes necessary shelf clearance and does not require top shelf placement.

The fully prepped Underwood Hifi Shanling CD-3000 is a very dynamic machine whose modified output stage excels in drive as proven by powering the FirstWatt F4 current-gain-only amp directly without ever suggesting the need for an active preamp. Only the lack of variable outputs disguises this ability for all but those who run passive preamps or inline attenuators. Still, the amount of control and drive a source can exert on whatever follows is has direct implications on overall sound quality. As the comparison to the Ancient Audio Lektor Prime showed, Shanling's digital engine has to make no excuses for resolution (BB 1794 chip, premium BB OPA 627 opamps, DEXA super clock). It gets whatever is on your discs off 'em. Anyone who claims that spending thrice the Underwood's price will get you something that'll slaughter this machine is either ill-informed, dreaming or flat-out lying. The differences that exist well above its price are far skinnier than they should be, returning us to an earlier statement. RedBook digital has matured. The necessary hardware to make premium sound has dropped in price just like computer chips; gifted designers, over the last few decades, have accumulated the necessary experience to put those parts to their best use; and Chris Johnson and team at the partsconneXion are such experienced designers.

On $8,000 ultra-resolution speakers -- there's no other word for broken-in Rethm Saadhanas -- with $5,000 statement tube preamps by ModWright and Supratek on hand, today's machine never left me wanting. Nor did it make actual use of those preamps necessary (remember, I handled attenuation with my transformer-attenuating passive). In my review system as described, most knowledgeable 'philes would predict the absolute necessity for a goodly dose of vacuum tube body and density injection. I guess the two small glowing Reflektor 6H23P bits inside the Shanling covered things just fine on their own. I never felt compelled to change anything. The fact is, most people with $40,000 systems where more than half the expenditure is tied up in amplification and speakers will never need more than this modified Shanling CD-3000. What did the stern farmer say to Babe the pig? "That'll do. That'll do." Damn right. It does.

Quality of packing: Single box with foam protection.
Reusability of packing: Shy of catastrophic mishandling, good for many happy returns.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Very easy.
Condition of component received: Perfect.
Completeness of delivery: Power cord, original owner's manual, original tubes separate, upgraded tubes installed.
Quality of owner's manual: Just fine.
Ease of assembly: None required. Tube replacement requires removal of top cover. Be careful when you lift off the top to not tear out a cable connector. It's a push connector that should be unplugged by hand, not tearing force.
Website comments: Underwood HiFi website details out the modification, Shanling's website has all the specs.
Warranty: 1 year factory warranty for the modified machine.
Human interactions: Prompt and professional. Walter Liedermann is one of the princes of online audio sales.
Pricing: An aggressive performer built on a very solid Chinese platform. Seeing the Underwood/Shanling connection goes years back, one could rightfully assume that Shanling has learned from prior Underwood mods and built this stock machine with many 'pre mods' already handled, allowing the actual modifiers to focus their surcharge funds on areas one usually sees addressed only in wildly more expensive players.
Final comments & suggestions: Remote-controlled variable outputs could be desirable if Shanling ever authored a MkII version of this platform. A dedicated remote with time remain functions could be nice, too.
Underwood Hifi website
Shanling website