I usually don’t do reviews (actually never). After all, we all have two ears and our own tastes. Not to mention, a review of just one piece of equipment in a system is sometimes meaningless to someone with different associated equipment and rooms.
However, I also realize that auditions may not always be possible and that there is some value in the third party review process. Hence, I figured I’d review my least known component and the hardest to audition – the Shanling SCD200 Turbomodded by Empirical Audio. To-date it’s the first one modded by Empirical Audio, so this should be the only review, although I suspect that will change soon.
If you want to get right to the review of the Shanling, skip the next few paragraphs or so. My pet peeve though with reviewers is the lack of background information on them and their system, so I’ll share a brief synopsis.
I’ve been in this hobby since I was 15 years old (now 35). I’ve seen and heard quite a bit of equipment over those years. I regularly attend both the Stereophile and CES shows and keep tabs on my local dealers with the latest and greatest. Not to mention, the area audiophile group has some noteworthy members who have pretty impressive systems.
While I’m not claiming to be some audiophile Jedi, I feel very confident in delivering an accurate review that may be helpful. For those interested, I’ll give a quick rundown of my associated equipment.
Spendor S9 speakers – After owning these speakers for almost 2 years, I still find no better way to sum up the S9 than Spendor's own words…"The S9 has to be heard to appreciate the grand scale of its superbly integrated sound. Whether you play loud or soft, music or film, the S9 has the uncanny ability to convey the energy and emotion of the performance. The bass is rock solid, treble delicate and airy, and the mid range captivatingly realistic. Often you'll feel you could reach out and touch the performers."
While the last sentence is somewhat cliché, the description is pretty accurate. In fact, the only adjective I might add would be “intoxicating.” They simply sound like music and not a bunch of drivers. Probably the best all-around Spendor model since the BC-1. Caveats -- likes solid state amplification or high power tube amps. May not have the midbass hifi sounding punch some prefer. Also not as “alive” at very low listening levels.
Conrad Johnson Premier 17LS – Closest thing you can get to the sound of the incomparable CJ ART at less than $5000. I could live happily with other preamps in this price range, but the combination of features, sound quality, and CJ pedigree won me over Caveats -- need to keep cable runs short and low capacitance or the performance drop-off from the ART and 16LS is more steep. Inverts polarity and has a relatively high gain.
McCormack DNA.5 Rev. A Platinum Monoblocks – The guy who was modding things before modding became hip- Steve McCormack - went all out and I have everything done that he knows possible for now. Is it the best solid state amp??? Well, no amp is best for all applications, but I can safely say if you have these amps you can’t be too far from the best regardless of price. I’ve had more than one aficionado of the venerable JC-1 amps admire these amps, and I’ve heard many stories of Levinson and Krell amps being embarrassed in direct comparison. Music just explodes around you with a sense of effortlessness and liquidity that transport you out of stereo listening and into the music.
Accessories – I use a few, but the most noteworthy is the BPT 3.5. Good enough to be considered a component, not accessory. Almost a necessity in some environments. Caveats – I’ve heard some owners have a hum issue and it’s not the bargain it once was at $1400.
Room – My room is small – 12 x 14 x 8, but heavily treated and totally dedicated to just two-channel listening. It measures pretty flat although there is a slight suck out around 63 Hz. I do get low frequency extension down to almost 25 Hz without much drop-off. I also have a 20amp dedicated circuit.
I suppose that’s enough (or too much) background. Now to the main attraction – the Shanling.
I was intrigued with the Shanling SCD-200 with the Level 1+ mods from Partsconnexion/Underwood soon after it came out. I usually stick with companies that have a pedigree and have been around for awhile; however, I noted that Shanling met ISO 9001 certification standards, which is fairly impressive and gave me some comfort.
I did a brief audition in an unfamiliar environment (not smart), and decided to buy it since it seemed to be better than my previous redbook-only player. In hindsight, it definitely was, but I also think I was fooled early on by my first extensive exposure to DSD SACD recordings into believing the player sounded better than it really did.
Once I got it back into my system and played it with familiar material in redbook, I slowly started to realize weaknesses that I missed or were masked in the brief audition. Sibilance/distortion/digititis was a problem and the unit lacked extension at the frequency extremes. The sound was not particularly dynamic, the soundstage was confused, and the overall presentation was opaque. I almost thought it was my associated equipment, but switching out the Shanling on occasion proved otherwise.
In addition, there were some quirky things about it mechanically. First, it would not read approximately 1% of my collection. I could never put a finger on why, and apparently they have come out with a fix, but it takes shipping it China and 3 months. Also, the drive mechanism is somewhat slow and noisy when reading a disk. When playing, it’s much quieter although it is an open air top-loader and can be heard if your environment is otherwise silent. On the plus side, it is very attractive and truly an aesthetic marvel compared to most CDPs.
I did have one actual malfunction that required service and a small part to be replaced. Mind you, the customer service was excellent and turnaround was only a couple weeks. Nevertheless, I became concerned about its long term prospects both mechanically and sonically. I don’t want to go overboard though. Compared to what else is out there (I’m talking strictly digital, not analog), I’d say the Level 1+ is pretty decent sonically, but still a good bit away from the best. When the 6moons.com review came out, I was somewhat surprised by the tremendous review, which basically inferred it was world-class. Perhaps the plethora of poor sounding CDPs on the market makes a decent CDP seem better than it really is. Or maybe the reviewer was fooled as I was early on.
Anyway, I knew I could do better, so I started looking for alternatives. Sound wise, the Meitner was my favorite alternative, but a few other things about the Meitner turned me off, so I kept searching. Gradually, I learned that my best course may be to just have the Shanling further modified.
Steve Nugent at Empirical Audio was the guy I decided to try since he appeared to have the background and expertise required for such a custom project. Here’s where I will stop and give a plug to participation in local audio clubs, and, specifically, Duke Lejeune (Audiokinesis). I probably wouldn’t have heard of Steve Nugent if Duke hadn’t sent me a link with the interview done on Steve by Positive Feedback Online. Ironically, it was over a year ago and had nothing to do with CDP mods. We had just been over at another club member’s house listening to JC-1s when we realized that they just weren’t sounding right without a preamp. Sure enough Duke later found this interview where Steve Nugent says essentially the same thing about the JC-1s.
I was intrigued by the rest of the interview and noted that Steve seemed to have the ability to go beyond mere parts-swapping mods. Recently, when the issue came up with the Shanling, I retrieved this from my quickly fading memory banks and decided to email Steve about doing this custom project. I basically gave him carte blanche to do whatever was necessary to make it truly world class. He immediately embraced the project and started as soon as I shipped it to him. In short, the experience was exceptional. He kept me constantly informed and detailed each step of the process.
Overall, I believe it took him approximately 24 hours of work and a host of new parts/design alterations. The Shanling was back with me within a matter of a couple weeks. You can go to his website or email him to get the details, as I will just focus on the end result.
In short, all I can say is Mission Accomplished! I wanted Meitner-esque level performance, and we are pretty much there. (Steve actually believes it’s better than the Meitner on redbook, and he has more experience with the Meitner than me.) The Meitner does offer balanced outputs and is probably better running direct to amps, but the Shanling is much less expensive and more attractive. Either way, whichever is better is strictly splitting hairs, in my opinion. The bottom line is that both are absolutely stunning. I still can’t believe how much changed with Steve’s mods to the Shanling. Every aspect improved substantially, but the thing that really stands out is the increased authority and dynamics. Sibilance is gone and soundstaging is precise, layered, deep and wide.
It’s actually quite hard to put into words or even audiophile jargon, but anyone who’s gone to the various shows knows that something is different when they walk into a room with a Meitner front-end. Yes, it usually has $50,000+ of associated equipment, but so do many other rooms that don’t have that same magic. There’s just a continuity to the sound that’s analog like. Images appear in 3 dimensions, not 2, and instruments sound like they are really being played (i.e. you can hear fingers or prop hit an instrument with an unprecedented authority and sense of realism.)
Let’s see if I can’t break it down further using specific music as a guide. Christian Mcbride’s CD – “Gettin’ to it” – is a fairly common audiophile reference CD. It will sound good on almost any decent system, but there are chances for it to highlight the spectacular. For example, the first cut includes a bass, trumpet, sax, piano and drums. Many of those are not easy for digital to accurately reproduce without sibilance and/or lack of dynamics, control and extension. Even fewer can provide these things at high SPLs while still preserving inner harmonic detail. Only the elite can give you the feel of the trumpet valves being pressed and a sense of the sound cascading from the bell of the trumpet, all the while producing every other one of those instruments as a coherent music ensemble. It’s the combination of dynamics, detail, control, authority, imaging and organic presence that’s so difficult, but the twice modded Shanling delivers.
The last cut is the one I most often hear at shows from this CD. It’s strictly McBride and his bass. Again, it will sound excellent on almost any system. However, a few things will separate the good from the great. Primarily, it boils down to the illusion created by the sound system. Most systems will just reproduce the sound from the specific areas of the bass. Paradoxically, it will be precise yet overall nebulous. The spectacular system will recreate the grand scale of the entire instrument with sound coming from every inch of the strings and discernible full decay. You sense the entire size of the instrument – the body, neck and all – not just the strings. Dynamics and detail are recorded excellently, but, again, hearing the pluck of the strings is different from FEELING the pluck of the strings and sensing the exactly how far they are being stretched and reverberating. On many systems, things will sound a little too “fast” and “crisp” because a lot of the decay, detail and nuances are being lost.
Let’s try a different CD. First Impression Music makes exceptional recordings. “Oh! That Cello” is an XRCD that is definitely audiophile quality. Unlike McBride’s CD though, I’m sure it can be tough on some systems. The first cut is a good test – Shenandoah. Dynamics are the key here. You truly get a sense of why this recording was an inspiration to many early American travelers. When the Chinese gong is struck, you should not only feel it in your gut, you should feel as if the whole room is shaking from its foundation. Pitch definition should be excellent with no boominess. Without proper LF extension and authority, the song will lack much of the emotion truly possible.
While we’re on percussions, the DSD SACD sampler that comes with the Shanling has a Robert Hohner percussion ensemble which is very impressive. It was one of the better sounding cuts prior to Steve modding the Shanling, but now it is even more incredible. Before, the drums were comparatively opaque sounding lacking the realistic authority of being struck. Also, the soundstage was somewhat confused and fuzzy. Afterward, the authority and dynamics are much more lifelike. The soundstage, in particular, is exceptionally deep, precise and layered. In fact, it’s so sophisticated that you can discern even the smallest of differences in depth and know exactly how the ensemble was laid out.
More examples are possible with audiophile recordings, but any good system will expose a degree of my observations above with audiophile recordings. The hard part is communicating how much farther in degree the custom modded Shanling takes things. Actually, the most significant differences are notable with recordings thought not be audiophile quality. In fact, recording quality is one of the biggest scapegoats for poor sounding systems. The reality is that few recordings are truly horrible, unless you are listening to a lot of pseudo top 40 stuff. True, some recordings expose sibilance and other deficiencies worst than others, but don’t blame the messenger.
For example, Eva Cassidy and Norah Jones CDs sometimes get dinged for weak recording quality. While not spectacular, I find them both quite acceptable. They certainly are good enough to communicate the emotion of the songs in a fairly dynamic and detailed fashion. They will only be irritating or fatiguing on systems with sibilance issues. Both of their voices have a different yet similarly ethereal quality, and Norah Jones particularly floats in a three dimensional space on the SACD version.
While on the topic of Eva Cassidy, she is quite a marvel. No one takes ownership of a covered song like she does. “People Get Ready” from the “Songbird” CD is one track I always enjoy no matter how many times I hear it. The last 30 seconds of this song can be an incredible treat. (Although the recording engineer who faded out the last 5 seconds should be shot.) Anyway, I play this cut loud. This cut and the next cut – “Oh, I Had a Golden Thread” -- truly test a system’s ability to stay composed with both high pitched female voices and dynamic material. I spend this kind of money on audio equipment to specifically have this reproduced without fail, so I can truly enjoy the magnificence of performers like Cassidy who are unfortunately dead and gone.
In short, if you like female vocals, this Shanling will deliver. I tried Jennifer Warnes, Holly Cole, Ani Difranco, Alison Krauss, Sinead O’Conner Patricia Barber, Diana Krall, Janis Ian, Carry Newcomer, and more including SACD and redbook versions without fail. No sibilance and all had that ethereal 3D quality with greater ambient information too. For example, Sinead O’Conner’s cover of “All Apologies” on the “Universal Mother” CD is spectacular. The Shanling not only does her voice justice, it also gives you the echo and subtle spatial cues to feel exactly the time room she was in and transports you there, similar to the infamous Cowboy Junkies “Trinity Session”. Some CDPs may miss a lot of this info and short change you on the experience.
Not to be sexist, I also tested male vocals, which were equally inspiring. Matthew Ryan’s “Concussion” is quite an interesting CD whose simple recording may not work well on all system. The key to enjoying his work is following his somewhat haunting, snapshot lyrical style. It’s also intriguing to hear him mix the sound of a cello, tambourine, pedal steel, bass and electric guitar, ambient organ, harmonica and different drums and cymbals all in the same song. He also pulls off integrating Lucinda Williams vocals with his raspy and ornery voice in a separate song. Anyway, before the mod, his voice had a level of sibilance and was somewhat flat. Afterward, no sibilance and a much more fulfilling, hearty and coherent presentation. I was frankly also surprised how much more detail was revealed. Close your lips and then quickly part them. That subtle sound is now clearly heard where it wasn’t previously.
Greg Brown is one of my favorite male vocalist, although he can be little tough to reproduce, especially at higher SPLs. I’ve heard it sound atrocious on quite expensive associated gear where the CDP sabotaged everything. It wasn’t terrible before on the Shanling, but now it is close to a night and day difference. In fact, all the improvements I’m describing are honestly not subtle. No question anyone could hear them easily – even non-audiophiles.
I hate hyperbole in reviews and I’m sure this is starting to sound just like such, so I guess I should wrap this up. Hopefully, the review was helpful and may give someone comfort who was debating whether to have similar work performed by Steve Nugent. In short, the greatest differences were the tremendous jump in authority/dynamics, extension at both extremes, removal of sibilance and clarified soundstaging. The combination of which can best be described as just “magic”.
I should end by pointing out one last feature. The Shanling has 2 sets of outputs – tube and solid state. Both were modded by Steve and my impressions of the differences are as follows: Overall, I think I slightly prefer the SS outputs. In almost every area, they seem just a tad better with even more authority. Both outputs stay totally composed even with difficult material and high SPLs, but the SS gets the nod if I had to give one. The tube outputs probably have a deeper soundstage versus the SS outputs, which are a little bit more forward. I do think the tube outputs may add that 3rd dimension a hair better in the midrange and the layering of the soundstage may be more sophisticated and precise. Either way, it’s exceptional and nice to have this option.
Mechanically, I also want to point out that Steve’s mods can’t fix the unreadability of some CDs. Again, this requires shipment to China and a 3 month estimated turnaround. Newer models may not have this problem. The quirky and slow drive mechanism is also something I decided to just live with, but should be a factor to consider.
Also, in case you are wondering, in hindsight, I should have just bought a stock Shanling and shipped it to Steve to get modded. The Level 1+ Underwood mods can all be superceded by Steve’s work and would have saved me money. Any other questions, feel free to email.
Other primary recordings used: LA Four – Going Home, Jorma Kaukonen – Blue Country Heart (DSD SACD), Willie Nelson – Stardust (SACD), FIM SACD Audiophile Reference, and various Keb Mo, Jesse Cook, Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller, classical pieces.Associated gear Click to view my Virtual SystemSimilar products
Meitner, Weiss, Dodson, Audio Note