Have you done the audio math already? You'll realize that the T-100 offers four different sonic flavors: transistorized or tubed 24/96; transistorized or tubed PMD-200 (plus the valve-powered 1/4" headphone jack). Adding unsightly tarnish to Sam Tellig's upsampling as the cure-all magic bullet, we find that in this particular case, upsampling introduced a modicum of stiffness, digital edge or angularity that interfered with the more organically fluid qualities of the Pacific Microsonics filter. Now, I'm not dissing upsampling per se - it works great in the Bel Canto DAC-2 and Cairn Fog. But, as the Zanden DAC's antiquated 16/44 architecture already demonstrated so eloquently, upsampling is not the universal panacea to combat digital's willfullness quite as unilaterally as its supporters would have you believe. Implementation of technology and power supply sophistication clearly are more important qualifiers than leading the number's war parade with the latest interpolation trickery. Here it introduced a certain tension and forwardness. That might go for enhanced resolution on paper but didn't sound as natural. Hence, all subsequent comments are with the 24/96 upsampler defeated, a simple and instantaneous remote control exercise.

The differences between solid-state and thermionic outputs with the modified player? Less pronounced than one might expect. The sand links were drier, with leading edges -- especially in the bass -- more pronounced. The glass links created a sense of billowing in the soundstage, slightly longer trailing edges, a dose of harmonic warmth in the vocals. The noise floor and hence dynamic range were a bit better following the transistor route. In solid-state gear, slamming tracks, while sharper, also drove with more traction to become rhythmically more incisive. The already sizable soundstage grew even deeper and more delineated in the far reaches. The thermo version was a bit more intimate, with more liquidity and softer performer outlines.

While I can't be sure, I imagine that the stock player's twin feeds exhibited far greater differences. Throwing designer parts at either while improving power supply filtering probably pushed both not only upwards but also closer together. Depending on the music, or even just specific elements, my preferences weren't entirely for the valves. Take Alcazar De Cristal [Auvidis/Ethnic, B 6823, 1996], a brilliant Flamenco crossover album by Carmen Linares' favored guitarist, Rafael Riqueni.

Expectedly, the embedded string quartet benefitted from the added suaveness, that silky sheen that tubes bestow on bowed strings. Equally expectedly, the rapidly plucked guitar strings gained a degree of ferocity going the other route. The cor anglais' alto-oboe timbre sunk lower into the diaphragm with the valves, Juan Reina's typical Cante Jondo (with those pecularily stretched out ah-iiiii embellishments) had less of that bite and metallic overtone glare, which gypsies deliberately cultivate for the hoarse edge that projects songs about pain and loss with unvarnished authenticity. You get the picture. While by no means drastic, either feed had its own signature. Assigning validity wasn't as simple as remotely changing inputs on my preamp, to play non-committal soldier of fortune who defects to whatever side pays out more.

To put the Shanling's solid-state performance into context, I juxtaposed it against my just reviewed Cairn Fog v.20 24/192 reference player. In exaggerated loudspeaker terms and to make a quick point, the Cairn was the Merlin VSM, the Shanling the Cremona Auditor by Sonus Faber. The Chinese player was weightier, with a few more creamona pounds on its frame. Le français was leaner, lighter, sparklier, and, possibly, endowed with an even lower noise floor. The Cairn guided the ear to spatial low-level data. The Shanling appealed to the heart with its greater image density and concomitant wallop - two different seats to the same great performance, preference a matter of ancillary gear and overall system voicing.

Comparing the Parts ConneXion modified Jolida JD-100 to the Shanling's tubed outputs conjured up push-pull versus single-ended valve performances. The JD-100 was gutsier, more thick-blooded and romantic, the T-100 slimmer, far closer to the Cairn's intellectual esprit. In floral bouqet terms, the Jolida suggested a Hawaiian hibiscus -- tropical, sensuous, intense -- the Shanling a refined whiff of rose - subtler, more ethereal than earth-bound. Western Electric 396A versus commoner's Svetlana 12AX7? Reader Vince Bezdecheck, proud owner of Pass Labs preamp and 600X monos driving Apogee Scintillas, finds the Sylvania black plates the winning ticket in his Jolida, outperforming Mullard and Telefunken rarities and annihilating his friend's Wadia 21i in the process. Without tube rolling myself (possible too with the Shanling within the 2C51 familly of small-signal valves) I can't comment. However, the chance exists that I haven't yet heard my JD-100 at its best. How about the Shanling versus Zanden?

The Model 5000's treble is a thing of rare beauty, of ephemereal refinement and elegance unique in my slowly swelling digital rap sheet (I haven't yet heard the dCS or Lindemann players which owners feel are its equals). Despite sticker shock, this led to its Blue Moon Award for "analog high-definition digital performance". The squirrely caption's apparent contradiction was my attempt at pointing to its uncanny combination of resolving the most obscure low-level data while retaining a palpable sense of analog ease - and this without the benefit of a properly matching dedicated transport like the Accustic Arts, Burmester, new Ensemble or an older CEC or Forsell that likely would extract a lot more. In the absence of such overdrive, the $1,200 worth of Sonic Frontiers-heritage modifications grafted atop the stock Shanling brought it scarily close to the Zanden. On relatively simple and timbrally benign material, the main difference? A remaining sharpness that became identifiable only in direct comparison, by subtraction.

Call it the difference between a $45 and $70 bottle of fine Spansish Port. The former entails a faintly lingering flavor of raw alcohol that the smooth mellowness of the more expensive spirit completely transcends. On harder-driving, inherently edgier material like Idrissa Diop's Funk-Juju-LatinJazz fusion Yakar [Tinder, 861112, 2003], the element of high-energy relentlessness -- which, especially at realistic live levels, eventually becomes a distinct inner ear pressure that's grating away at your nerves -- was buffered and held at bay by the Zanden's greater airiness and superior decay lengths. The somewhat drier, somewhat coarser texture of the Shanling caved in to this kind of onslaught to reveal the hidden stinger. The Zanden was also slightly better at separating densely packed passages such as the choral fugue in Mozart's Requiem, the complex interlocking lines of Bruckner's Eighth, resolving both the orchestral and vocal sections while conveying a clearer sense of their many-headed constitutents.

However! By playing essentially the same leagues, distinctions narrowed such that, were you to assign percentage points and call the Cairn/Jolida as occupying opposite poles in the high 80s range, the Cairn with a slight lead, the Shanling would belong into the 93 band, with the Zanden sans ultra transport occupying the 95 marker as the best Redbook I've yet heard. Each measely point in these rarefied strata is obtained at great cost. This rating leaves some headroom for future contenders for the crown. Note how tightly spaced these players are. Now juxtapose $2,695 with $10,000. That's a lot of bright green for what under these conditions was a rather close call. To make matters a bit more complicated? Walter Liedermann called toward Review's End. Being a most excellent salesman, he waxed poetic about the equivalent modification to the new Shanling T-200 SACD player.

With Sony's new triple-A KHM-234 transport as used in their latest $4,000 machines; a new analog-domain, digitally actuated volume control for high-rez amp-direct setups; and yet higher levels of internal construction, he claimed it sounded even better than the T-100. On regular CDs. The magic phrase. Walter sure knew how to fish. Was I interested in a brief comparison? Am I a properly vetted audiophool cruising down Main Street for some heavy action? WIth capitalist synapses firing off regardless, I first quipped "How much?" $3,500 for the hotrodded T-200, an $800 upcharge over today's subject. The prospect of added SACD and yet better Redbock playback made this special seats baksheesh -- in our strange audiophile world of skewed priorities -- seem relatively insignificant.

"Yeah," I croaked, "bring it on. Do me." Three days laters, Walter's personal unit arrived. I was all set for a quick tête-à-tête of digital French, er Chinese kissing, between the 100 and 200 models in this T-erminator series from Shenzhen. This product seems poised to rewrite what -- once made over by a masterful Canadian tweak -- music lovers should expect sonically, featurewise and visually from statement digital at mid-level prices.