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Positive Feedback ISSUE 56
CD-3.5 CD Player
as reviewed by Kent Johnson
In 2009*, 373.9 million CDs were sold worldwide. This figure was down 12.7 percent from the previous year and down around 52% since the year 2000. At the same time, digital downloads of singles were up hitting 1.16 billion songs. (These figures according to the New York Times.)
At this point in time, many listeners feel that the future belongs to downloads and that CDs will soon become as much of a niche market as vinyl records.
Many other listeners beg to differ. Even though CD sales are down, the sale of over 370 million discs per year is hardly insignificant. Also, there have been literally billions of CDs sold since their introduction in the early 1980s. There are still plenty of performances to add to one's collection.
And there are other factors to consider as well.
CDs represent a substantial financial investment for many audiophiles and, like vinyl, there exists the question as to whether all of the titles released on CD will ever be available as downloads. The push to sell downloaded music appears to some of us (of a certain age) as yet another attempt to sell us the same music we already own, repackaged as "new and improved."
And then there is permanence. Taken care of, CDs should never deteriorate in sound quality. Owning non-physical music that exists only as a file on a hard drive leaves me, and I am sure others, very uncomfortable. Hard drives are notorious for their ability to fail at the worst possible time. The cover story for downloaded music is "higher resolution" but it is hard not to feel that the real motive is "higher profits" for the corporations that control the content.
While downloads offer the potential benefits of higher resolution audio*** reproduction than CD, a benefit I fully appreciate, which is why I own quite a few SACDs, the quality of current CD replay is extremely high. A listener needs a very good system, room, and ears to fully benefit from the improved quality of high resolution files. A high-res source played through a mediocre system is not going to demonstrate any of its benefits.
The physical act of holding a CD case and placing the disc in a player is a carry-over from vinyl replay and has the same level of importance to a lot of listeners. You are playing music and touching the medium itself is part of the experience.
And that brings me to the $3250 Shengya CD-3.5 player. For those of us who own a lot of CDs and want to hear them at their maximum fidelity, there is still a need for high quality disc players. Based on the listening I have done with the 3.5, I have to say that this is definitely one of them.
The Shengya CD-3.5 is a cosmetic match to the A-216 hybrid amplifier that I reviewed in PFO Issue 42. Its styling may not be to everyone's taste but the build quality is stunningly good. The faceplate is a full 17 millimeters thick and machined to a smooth-as-glass finish. The exterior parts fit with impressive precision. Further, the CD-3.5 weighs an extremely solid 30 pounds.
It is also a top-loader, the first one to have come my way. The lid lifts open manually, via a small knob, revealing a capacious well that provides ample finger room to load and unload discs. A magnetic puck is applied to the spindle to keep the CD in place. When the top is closed, the disc is read and the track information is displayed on the front panel. I have been listening to SACD and universal players for so long that the speed with which this information was presented was shocking. I usually have time to get back to my chair before the player has made any decision as to what it plans to do.
The display itself is high contrast orange on black. It is very legible but the actual size of the display is still too small to be read easily from more than about 8 feet away. The display can be dimmed or turned off. I did not hear any change in sound quality with the display off.
Returning to the top of the CD-3.5, the On/Off switch is at the left rear. Center-front are five buttons—Repeat, Play/Pause, Stop, Track Repeat, and Track Forward. Repeat offers either the current track or the entire disc. (Repeat A-B capability is offered via the remote.) Despite knowing that this was a top-loading player, I still found myself looking for an open/close button the first fifty times I changed CDs. Over twenty-five years of habitual behavior is hard to overcome.
At the right rear of the unit is the Tube/FET switch. This allows the user to choose between output via a 6922 tube or an entirely solid state output section. Regardless of which output is chosen, the tube always appears to be on.
The rear of the 3.5 has both balanced and RCA stereo outputs and a single coaxial digital output. There is a standard IEC power cord socket.
The remote is large, about 7.25 by 3.75 inches, heavy, and requires both hands to use. There are 25 buttons laid out in three rows. The remote allows dimming of the display—high, low, and off—as well as random play and programming. I did not attempt to do any programming. Pressing "Random" instead of "Play" allows the 3.5 to choose the order in which the tracks are played. The remote also offers an "Intro" feature which plays the first ten seconds of each track. I found that useful. The remote does not turn the unit on or off.
I really like this remote. I am not sure why but holding it with both hands has a very "right" feel to it. It also worked perfectly; the buttons have a tactile quality to them that continues the impression of a high quality component. I like the fact that the bottom of the remote is held on by four small powerful magnets. To change batteries, there is a small slot that allows the bottom to be pried outward with a small knife blade or screwdriver until the magnets are overcome. No tiny screws need to be undone and then dropped in the carpet to disappear forever. Why hasn't anyone else done this?
The accompanying owner's manual is just adequate. It provides little technical information. The importer Grant Fidelity, states on their web site that the CD drive is the top-of-the-line Philips VAM 1202 and that the DA converters are 24/192 types. Audiophile parts such as Wima and Elna capacitors are used in the electronics.
When first turned on, the Shengya spends about twenty seconds checking its circuitry before it is ready to use. This is indicated by a small flashing light in the front display.
I positioned the CD-3.5 on the top shelf of my equipment rack and used a PS Audio Prelude AC cord to connect it to my Monster power conditioner.
The only other connection needed was to my McIntosh MA6300 integrated amplifier. My reference player is now a McIntosh MVP-871 and it is connected to the amp via a Supra Sword two-meter balanced cable. Switching this cable over to the Shengya took a matter of seconds.
I repeated the Isotek break-in disc for about a day before doing any listening. The sound was very good from the start. There were no negatives—no harshness, shrillness, sluggishness, boom, etc. The only criticisms were those of omission. The low level detail and bass depth were merely good.
Another 24 hours on repeat and these slight deficiencies were virtually eliminated. With additional playing time, there have been further incremental improvements in the sound quality. These have primarily been noticeable as an improvement in overall soundstage focus.
I had a craving to hear the Commitments sound track (MCAD-10286). Through the 3.5 the sound was excellent. The female backing vocals in particular were clearer, better focused in the sound stage, and sexier than I ever recall hearing them. Bass was tight and drums had a taut almost metallic quality. The soundstage had good width and depth. It has been a while since I have heard this music but all the strengths I remember were there along with some worthwhile additional nuances.
The Aaron Neville CD, Bring it on home…the soul classics (Burgundy Records 82876 85489 2) is absolutely wonderful. Given the material and his voice, why wouldn't it be? Aaron sings classic songs such as "Stand by Me", "You Send Me", "People Get Ready", "My Girl", and nine other standards.
Compared to the Commitments, Bring it on home… offers substantially better sonics. As good as the Commitments soundtrack is it sounds somewhat dated when compared to a modern recording that exploits all that has been learned about digital recording over the past thirty years. Bring it on home… is performed within a space that is essentially seamless over its width and depth. By comparison the Commitments performance occurs within sections and it is possible to identify where those sections intersect with each other.
Rodrigo y Gabriela's 11:11 (ATO 0080) was reproduced by the CD-3.5 with amazing clarity, speed, and detail. The superb soundstaging is exploited to the benefit of the performance. There are interesting sonic effects and movements within the soundstage; at the same time it is possible to focus on and follow any one of the performers. This is a terrific CD and through the CD-3.5 leaves me wondering just how much better could the replay possibly get? It already sounds as if live performers have moved into the listening space.
Three Wishes for a Rose, the romantic sound of the Goffriller** cello (Rhymoi Music RMCD-G012) is another CD that stood out for both its sonic and musical performance. This recording features both eastern and western classical cello repertoire. Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise Op.34, No. 14, Liszt's Liebestraum, and Elgar's Salut d'Amour, Op. 12," are several of the highlights. The cellist is Ma Xinhua and her accompanist on the piano is Feng Dan. This recording is amazing for its richness and realism. The cello has rarely sounded as authentic, resonant, and full as it does here. The accompanying piano is played so deftly and so sensitively that the connection between these two performers feels nearly telepathic. The first time I played this CD, I thought it was an SACD, so good was the sound and so nuanced was the playing.
Hearing a CD reproduced this well leaves me feeling no urgent need to go out looking for some way to improve the sound quality.
This feeling was supported by Glee: The Music Presents The Warblers (Columbia 88697 89813 2). If you don't find the a capella singing on this CD infectious and remarkable, there is something seriously wrong. Instrumental accompaniment is limited—a drum set or guitar—yet a full orchestra is always present. Hearing human voices fill the soundstage so richly and completely was as sonically impressive as it was entertaining.
Listening to these CDs and others via the Shengya CD-3.5 left me completely awash in the music and virtually indifferent to the components playing it. The CD-3.5's presentation of the music was so satisfying that it went almost entirely unnoticed, a very good thing.
I spent time using both the tube and solid state outputs. I really did not hear any substantial difference between them or pay any attention as to which setting was in use.
It was only when I sat down to directly compare the two outputs that I encountered some difficulty. I could hear that there was something very subtly different between them but I could not identify what it was. When I compared them using any single aspect of the sound, bass, female voice, cymbals, or other facets that are usually helpful in identifying sonic differences, I came up blank. Yet something was different.
It finally occurred to me that perhaps the difference might be found in the volume level itself. Using the Stereophile Test CD and my Radio Shack meter, I measured pink noise through both outputs at my listening position.
The tube output was 1-2dB lower in level than the transistor.
I felt pretty good, actually, that I had been able to distinguish this difference even if it took me an embarrassing length of time to identify. Adjusting for this small a volume difference was difficult but when the tube output was turned up slightly louder than the transistor output the same small discrepancy in the sound again became apparent.
After additional switching between both outputs, I concluded that I could not hear any difference between them once the disparity in volume was eliminated. Maybe, if a super high quality tube were substituted for the one in the player, there might be an audible difference in the sound. I don't know. Unfortunately, I did not have any compatible tubes around. If you are looking for a tube output section in the hope that it will warm or de-edge the sound of your system, you will not find it in the CD-3.5.
Comparison to the McIntosh MVP-871
I purchased this McIntosh universal player for several reasons. The main one was that I found it being sold New Old Stock for $2000. It originally sold for $5500. I felt that it would be a worthwhile step up from the Sony SCD-XA5400ES that I have been using. Like the Sony, the McIntosh will play SACDs but will also play DVD-As and HDCD CDs. While DVD-A's are pretty thin on the ground, I have quite a few SACDs.
I felt that this player would give me a better reference when it came to reviewing more expensive disc players. While the Sony sounds good enough that I wouldn't be uncomfortable comparing its CD sound to the Shengya CD-3.5, I feel a lot more comfortable using the McIntosh. For this comparison, I simply switched the Supra interconnects between the players.
I re-listened to several of the CDs that I have mentioned with the volume as identical in level between the players as I could get it. If I have a complaint about the McIntosh MA6300 it is the lack of any sort of volume level reference. Even some dots silk-screened around the volume control would be helpful. Fortunately, small Post-it notes work pretty well.
I haven't listened to any Patricia Barber in a while so I got out her CD, Live: A Fortnight in Paris (Blue Note Records 7243 5 78213 2 2). Both players produced a very large space with an electrically charged atmosphere even before any music started to play. Audiophile quality reproduction of the soundstage, low level detail, and bass weight were readily evident from both. Ms. Barber's repertoire of vocal nuance and expression was also presented equally well. When Track 7, "Witchcraft" was played, an instrumental, I felt like the guy in the old Maxell ad, only with winds of somewhat less than hurricane force—more a soothing breeze. I just let the sound wash over me. My brain stopped worrying about the sound and just let it happen. Musically, I feel comfortable saying that both players get to the essence of the performance.
The only consistent difference sonically that I heard was slightly better low bass impact and volume from the MVP-871. At this point, there still are less than 100 hours on the Shengya so I am reluctant to make a big deal out of it. Additional playing time may further improve its sound. Otherwise, the 3.5 and 871 are very close sonic matches.
I should note that the CD-3.5 did have some low level transformer noise that was audible while changing discs. This was not audible beyond a distance of a couple of feet and never intruded on the sound in my room. No noise was ever evident through the speakers.
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the Shengya CD-3.5. Musically and sonically, I never felt it wanted for anything. Most of my time spent with it was spent ignoring it and enjoying the music. Regardless of the recording, I always felt that the 3.5 was reproducing it with the absolute highest quality possible.
For the music lover with a large CD collection, this player will reproduce your music with fidelity and taste. Should there be some enormous break-through in DAC performance in the future the 3.5 will still function as an extremely high quality transport. It is a player that will insure that your CD collection is reproduced with maximum fidelity for years to come.
If it were mine, I would definitely try some tube rolling. I have a feeling that there is more performance possible from the tube output stage than is evident with the stock tube.
Finally, while the list price is $3250, Grand Fidelity actually sells the CD-3.5 for $2200 making it an extremely competitive player financially. If you are seeking a high-end CD player for a long-term relationship, get the CD-3.5 on your shortlist. Kent Johnson
*I have not found any worldwide sales data for 2010 but then I am not a very good researcher. Andrew Everard in the June 2011 Gramophone stated CDs sales for Britain in 2010 saw CD sales drop by an additional 12.4% over 2009 but CDs still continued to outsell downloaded albums by four to one. I expect these statistics are representative of world-wide sales.
**Quoting verbatim from the CD notes: "Matteo Goffriller (1659-1742) was an Italian luthier, particularly noted for the quality of his cellos. Goffriller's celli had been mistakenly attributed to the Guarneri family, Carlo Bergonzi, and even Antonio Stradivari, and was virtually unknown until the 1920s when his instruments began to be discovered. His cello of 1733 [was] once owned by Pablo Casals and since his rediscovery, his instruments have been widely sought by cellists around the world including Emanuel Feuermann, Matt Haimovitz, Jacqueline du Pre, Janos Starker, and YoYo Ma."
***An article in the June 2011 HiFi News, "HD Download Debacle," points out that paying for and actually getting a high resolution download may be two different things.