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Reviewer: Paul Candy
Source: Cairn Fog v2.0 24/192 CD player, Audio Zone DAC [in for review], Stello CDT 200 CD transport [in for review], Pro-Ject 2 Xperience turntable w/ Nagaoka MP-30 cartridge [in for review], Pro-Ject 1 Xpression turntable w/AT95E cartridge
Preamp/Integrated: Manley Labs Stingray, Audio Zone AMP-1, Stello DP 200 DAC/preamp [in for review], Pro-Ject Tube Box phono stage, Graham Slee Era Gold Mk V and Gram Amp-2 SE phono stages [in for review]
Amp: Stello M 200 mono amps [in for review]
Speakers: Meadowlark Kestrel 2
Cables: DH Labs Revelation interconnects, Q-10 speaker cables and Power Plus AC cables, Audience Maestro interconnects, speaker cables and powerChord AC cables, GutWire Power Clef 2, Power Clef SE AC cables
Stands: Premier three-tier, filled with sand
Powerline conditioning: Blue Circle BC86 MkII Power Line Pillow
Sundry accessories: Pro-Ject Speed Box, Pro-Ject Speed Box SE [in for review], Gingko Audio Cloud 11 platform, Grand Prix Audio APEX footers, Walker Audio SST contact enhancer, Audience Auric Illuminator MkII, GutWire Notepads and SoundPads, Duende Criatura Tube Rings, AudioPrism Isobearings, dedicated AC line with Isoclean ICP-002 outlet, homebrew acoustic treatments
Room size: 13' x 17' x 8'
Review Component Retail: $2599 Canadian

When the original Shanling CDT-100 broke upon the scene a few years ago, it generated a great degree of excitement amongst audiophiles. Here was a distinctive looking SOTA design with all the fixin's including tube outputs that sold for considerably less than expected. Additionally, the CDT-100 had a unique and extraordinary appearance, with glowing tubes and blue LEDs embedded in a funky acrylic top-loading transport lid. Okay, I admit it. I asked to review today's subject solely on its looks. With its sultry come-hither aura, I was instantly turned on like any hot-blooded mammal. Hey, this criterion worked with the Manley Labs Stingray, why not here? Did the Shanling measure up to its cool visual vibe as did the Stingray? We shall see anon.

While our publisher reviewed a Parts ConneXion modded CDT-100 last year, I was curious to check out the standard offering. Furthermore, I know there has been a little tinkering even under the hood of the stock unit, hence the added C to the model moniker. I understand that some of the internal components have been improved. Therefore, I expected this player to sound somewhat different from older models. Externally, there have been alterations as well. Gone is the folded and welded stainless steel chassis. Instead, the CDT-100C sports a uniform brushed aluminum enclosure and a different transport mechanism. Essential features and main internal number crunchers remain unchanged. The quad Burr-Brown PCM 1704 DACs, PMD-200 HDCD filter and CS8420 sample rate converter are identical to the modified piece Srajan reviewed two years ago.

Fit and finish was acceptable and far preferable to the tacky gold and silver of earlier units. However, one of the feet would not remain secure and fell off whenever I picked up or moved the player. The top panel control switches, while conveniently located and a doodle to operate, exhibited a plasticky feel that was out of sorts for such a beautiful looking player. Considering the price, I expected a more solid metallic feel. Swapping out tubes in the Shanling was more difficult than necessary - only the top protective ring was removable. It was quite a chore popping out the tiny 6N3 tubes. It would be far more sensible if all the trim rings were removable.

Nifty looking gold-plated RCA jacks constitute tube, solid-state and digital outputs. The power on/off switch sits on the right side near the rear of the player suggesting the CDT-100 should be left powered up. A valve headphone output is also mounted on the right side. Merely the basic controls are accessible on the front top of the player: play, stop, forward, reverse. The remote handles all other features including upsampling and the 100-step digital volume control.

Unpacking this player was indeed downright sexual. This thing is just so darn cute! A thorough set of accessories is provided: fancy audiophile-grade power cable, soft white gloves for playing with the tubes, a cloth to keep this hottie buff and shiny and a sampler CD. You also get a solid metal remote that is not very friendly ergonomically but gets the job done. Considering the price, this was a well-equipped and generous presentation. The owners' manual was thorough and in decent English.

It is difficult to capture a consistent sonic picture of this player as it is several different machines in one. You have a choice of standard 16/44, 24/96 upsampling, HDCD decoding, tube or solid-state output and even a digital volume control to drive a power amp directly. While the opamp based solid-state output was more forward, immediate and incisive, the tube stage was slightly more laid back, with greater bloom and midrange warmth. Take your pick but my preference was the tube output with upsampling defeated; therefore, my review is predominantly limited to this setting. In this configuration, the Shanling offered a wide, open and detailed soundfield without hardness or undue edge. The highs were sweet and extended. The midrange was warm yet transparent while the bass was plump rather than tight, with fair extension. I noticed this with the solid-state output as well. Therefore, I did not think this was a result of the
valves. The human voice, whether solo or massed, displayed natural timbre with little hardness or accentuated sibilance. It was well neigh impossible to make the Shanling utter a harsh or unmusical sound. It all sounded quite composed, orderly and enjoyable. My only nagging concern was a slightly flattened two-dimensional soundstage and a less than fully extended bass. My recently acquired Cairn Fog V2.0 offers a deeper, more layered soundstage albeit without quite the tonal richness of the tubed Shanling. For example, the string tone on Andrew Manze's recording with the Academy of Ancient Music of Geminiani's Concerto Grossi Op. 5 [Harmonia Mundi HMU 907261.62] was lusher and more tonally voluptuous compared to the Fog. However, I was more aware of the recording venue and subtle spatial information via the Frenchman.

I bathed in the breathtaking, languid, erotic atmosphere of Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune, courtesy of Charles Munch and his Boston crew [BMG 82876-59416-2]. Once you hear the first few notes of the flute at the beginning, you know you are in for a treat. With the CDT-100, I heard a clearly delineated orchestral balance with a good degree of separation between instruments without undue spotlighting. While I was aware of the slightly flattened soundstage, there was a palpable sense of naturalness and truth to the musical intent that was quite captivating.

The CDT-100C had a way of making previously unlistenable recordings more acceptable. A favorite recording is Brahms' 4th Symphony with the Greta Garbo ("I vant to be alone") of conductors, the late Carlos Kleiber. It has been recently re-released on a single disc coupled with Schubert's 8th Symphony and excerpts from Tristan und Isolde [DG 477 5324]. While a terrific interpretation, the sound quality unfortunately is typical of Deutsche Grammophon for this period; no bass, thin, and a little brittle on top. With the Shanling, the lackluster recording did not bother me as much. I was able to enjoy the performance and was not too concerned with the sonic imperfections.

This flashy Chinese import also performed admirably with old recordings from the 30s and 40s. I have been having a ball lately working my way through Naxos' budget-priced Historical Recordings Series. I have been especially impressed with Toscanini's readings of Wagner bleeding chunks [Naxos 8.110843] and Jascha Heifetz's mesmerizing technique on various violin pieces by Vieuxtemps, Saint-Saens, Saraste and Waxman [Naxos 8.110943]. A special treat was It Don't Mean a Thing, a compilation of Ellington performances from the early 30s on Naxos Jazz Legends Label [Naxos 8.120526]. Despite their age, these are remarkably alive and
musically truthful recordings. Unfortunately, I understand this outstanding series is currently unavailable in the US. If I may, direct your browser to if you are interested and cannot obtain these discs locally. Recordings with a big bottom end such as OutKast's profane yet highly entertaining Speakerboxxx/The Love Below two'fer [Arista 50133] was a little shallow and soft in the bass department. Curiously, this was true via the opamp outputs as well. Otherwise, this was a delightful romp with plenty of drive and get-down boogie.

Perhaps sensing my concerns over the two-dimensional nature of the Shanling, Charisma Audio's Bernard Li eventually offered a goodie bag of various NOS tubes to try out. I found the Western Electric 396A, especially the cryo treated ones, to offer significant sonic gains over the stock tubes. Take my advice: if you buy a CDT-100, toss the Chinese 6N3s. They only hold back this player. With the 963s, the soundstage opened up in depth and transient response improved and was especially noticeable on heavily percussive recordings such as Tomatito's flamenco on Paseo de los Castanos [Emarcy 014313-2]. I'll be darned if I didn't note a mite more bass extension too.

The inevitable comparisons with other players revealed sonic differences that were relatively minor to my ears. After the $1500 mark, the law of diminishing returns kicks into high gear. Past this point and with very few exceptions, I really do not hear much of an improvement between various digital sources. To me, it becomes a matter of taste rather than any real advancement unless we stumble across a unique product like the Reimyo or Zanden gear. Rather than HiFi fireworks, I lust after a greater sense of musical completeness and enjoyment. Am I just hearing notes on a page or am I hearing feeling, breathing musicians expressing their (and the composer's) musical ideas? Do I get the urge to get up and dance or tap my toes? Does John Coltrane's otherworldly alto sax on "My Favorite Things" sound like manna from the heavens? Get my drift?

The Shanling CDT-100C does an admirable job of answering those questions in the affirmative, providing the stock Chinese tubes are replaced with some fancy NOS jobbies. Still, I found myself enjoying music to a higher degree with the less expensive Hit/Cayin CD-22 I reviewed last summer and the recently auditioned Audio Zone DAC. I am not saying they are technically better than the Shanling (they most assuredly are not) but they did offer a greater goose-bump factor - particularly the AZ DAC added a beguiling relaxed ease. While both pieces were slightly opaque and lacking in audiophile razzle-dazzle, they somehow served music to a higher degree - for me. However, if you prefer a more open and detailed sonic picture compared to the Audio Zone and the CD-22, then the Shanling CDT-100 will fit the bill.

Overall and in stock form, the CDT-100 is a very good if not great CD player. If I seem to have been overly critical, it is because this player looks very much the part of a statement product in appearance, features and internal components if not price. It is only natural to expect greatness. While certainly a more capable performer than most if not all less expensive players, it faces stiff competition at this price point, even with upgraded tubes. Still, this is a visually stunning piece that stands far apart from the more familiar sliding-door-in-a-box players and will illicit many oohs and aahs from family and guests. I should also point out the headphone output (also with the WE 396 valves) was ravishing and almost worth the price alone.

With its onboard digital volume, the Shanling just might be the perfect one-box solution for headphone fans. Definitely worth an audition if you are hunting around this price range. Heck, you might even prefer it to more expensive players. My wife loved the Shanling and was truly disappointed when I returned it. I suspect if your significant other usually balks at your every audio-related purchase, perhaps he or she will be less inclined to gripe when they lay their eyes and ears on this little stunner from the People's Republic.
Manufacturer's website
Canadian distributor's website