Radio Shack Optimus CD-3400 portable CD player Atkinson
Like Jack, I managed to buy a CD-3400 at the sale price of $130, even though the RadioShack sale had been over for two weeks at the time. I use a portable both when I walk to work and as a source for my in-car system. Over the years I have used a Sony D-7S (fatiguing sound, frequent breakdowns, its lead-acid batteries died if left uncharged for even a couple of weeks); a Philips D6800 (recommended in the UK press, bulky, sounds grainy and veiled, ridiculously short battery life); a Panasonic SL-NP1A (sounds smooth and unfatiguing, but very sensitive to vibration); and a Denon DCP-150 (beautifully built, sounds wonderful, expensive). I also have a Procom CD-ROM drive attached to my office PC—those who feel there must be something inherently good about CD-ROM drives for music playback should note that this sounds absolutely dreadful: thin, fatiguing, veiled, and with very poor channel separation.
Used with the Grado SR60s or my reference Sennheiser HD-580s, the RadioShack Optimus sounded almost as good as the Denon, for a lot less bucks. (Though it didn't go as loud as I would like with the Sennheisers—which is why I bought a HeadRoom Supreme amplifier (footnote 1)—the sound didn't get harsh or congested.) It sounded very smooth, without anything like as much treble hash and grain as even the Panasonic. Using the '3400 with the HeadRoom Supreme (footnote 2) and Sennheiser HD-580s for the plane trip to Florida to attend Stereophile's Hi-Fi '94 Show, it was both musically satisfying and pleasantly unfatiguing.
Using it in my home system, the CD-3400 still sounded smooth, but was overall veiled, with a "whitened" quality in the high treble and a low end that sounded both lean and somewhat softened. While recorded ambience was more clearly evident than with my elderly and unmodified Magnavox '572, soundstage depth was curtailed in absolute terms.
The RadioShack player did much better as a transport, driving both a humble Audio Alchemy DAC-in-the-Box and the mighty Mark Levinson No.30 with aplomb. (For the latter, I had to use a Madrigal RCA-to-AES/EBU adapter cable, which costs several times as much as the player.) As a transport, the sound was still a little "whitened" in the treble, with reduced soundstage depth, a fuzziness in the bass, and a lack of absolute pace. As Sam Tellig describes in this issue's "Sam's Space," although using an Audio Alchemy DTI with the CD-3400 improves the sound significantly, the $200 additional cost without the extra cable does seem out of proportion. (Using the $1495 Digital Domain VSP Model S re-clocker raised the CD-3400 transport's sound almost to Class A levels, but with even more of a lack of price proportionality.)
Superb value as a portable CD player at $130, and with its digital output making it the lowest-cost CD transport available, I highly recommend RadioShack's Optimus CD-3400. I'm very happy with my purchase, but, like CG, I'm puzzled why the audiophile grapevine has rated its sound so highly, mentioning Krell and Mark Levinson in the same breath.
I suspect the reason is that, coupled with its basically good sound, the Optimus's price makes it accessible to even the most miserly music-lover. And, like the Audio Alchemy DAC-in-the-Box, the PSB Alpha, and the NHT SuperZero, this accessibility brings back some of the audiophile excitement us middle-aged goats remember from our early years, when it was possible to try a lot of the stuff out there. No matter how much it pushes back the frontiers of digital sound, not many audiophiles get to hear a $23,445 Mark Levinson 30/31 combination. But almost everybody can try the $130 RadioShack unit, do hands-on comparisons with what they already use, sharpen their listening abilities, and have some fun!
The '3400 enables even impoverished audiophiles to be active rather than passive participants in the High End game, which, I feel, pretty much makes this player a true high-end component. And if you find that you still prefer your Krell or Mark Levinson gear, you've still got one heck of a good-sounding portable that might well increase the time you spend listening to music. The best of all outcomes: win-win.—John Atkinson
Footnote 1: See my review in January '94, Vol.17 No.1, p.163.—JA
Footnote 2: One point for users of the excellent-sounding HeadRoom amplifier: When I used it with the external D-Cell supply, power-supply-switching noise, presumably emitted from the umbilical cord, interfered with my sample of the CD-3400, which shut down in protest. If the units were stacked (as they would be in HeadRoom's CaseLogic carrying case), my CD player wouldn't play at all; I only got music if the units were physically separated by at least 12". If the leads weren't dressed properly, however, the sound became very grainy and spitchy. I tried using a RadioShack ferrite clamp over the umbilical to cure the problem; this was only partially effective. It later turned out that my sample of the HeadRoom was faulty in that it had not had an internal ground connection made. (See Tyll Hertsen's letter in September 1994.)—JA