Radio Shack Optimus CD-3400 portable CD player English
Every workday morning of the past five years, I've loaded my shoulder bag with a bunch of CDs, a portable CD player, some spare batteries, and headed off on my inordinately long commute. When I'm selecting a portable player, sound quality is, of course, an important consideration; but since I lug so much around with me every day, so are size and weight. And, because I have no option for AC power, battery life in the player is important, as is the number of batteries the player needs (I always carry at least one set of replacements). I also want a switch that will prevent the player from being inadvertently turned on and unnecessarily draining the batteries.
But the most important quality in a portable CD player is its immunity to vibration. I spend a lot of my listening time walking; even if the player is the best in the world sonically, it's useless if it doesn't play properly when I'm jostling it about.
I go through about one portable CD player a year. Most of them have been Sonys. They've sounded okay, have had good vibration immunity, and have always played under duress. I've been satisfied.
My main sonic concerns have been what type of batteries and which headphones to use. Prolonged listening convinced me that regular alkaline batteries sound better and last longer than NiCads. However, since NiCads are rechargeable, they reduce the cost of using a player every day. For day-to-day listening, therefore, I use NiCads, and regular batteries as a sonic treat.
Headphone choice has been more problematic. Again, size and weight have been considerations, as has efficiency, since many players can't effectively drive some 'phones. But the biggest problem with headphones has concerned cables and plugs. Over time, I've adopted a rule of leaving my 'phones plugged into the portable. This has minimized the risk of ruining the player's female jack, and has helped prolong the life of the headphones' cables (footnote 1).
Because I go through so many portables, I'm always on the lookout for better equipment at reasonable prices. Peter Mitchell praised the (now discontinued) Panasonic SL-NP1A portable CD player a couple of years ago (footnote 2), so I immediately went out and bought one. I agree with Peter that this unit sounds fine, even with its own headphones. I still use it, but its vibration immunity isn't very good. If I know I'm going to be on the run, or if my bag is full, I use a Sony D-111.
When Jerry Gladstein (formerly of G&A Records in NYC) told me that several of his music-loving, commuting friends had praised the RadioShack CD-3400, I bought one on sale for $129.99. [The normal price is $179.99, but with persistence you can probably haggle this down to the regular sale price Jack paid.—Ed.]
Batteries: I found the '3400's internal circuitry for recharging NiCad batteries most useful. To use this, move the small switch located in the battery compartment to the indicated position and connect the unit to the recommended RadioShack AC 6V DC source. (Don't try to recharge alkaline batteries with the switch set for NiCads!)
JE Listens: With a CD Greenback on each disc, the Optimus CD-3400's vibration immunity was slightly better than my Sony D-111's, and much better than my Panasonic SL-NP1A's. I found the equalizer options to be less than useful when listening to the CD-3400 through the Grado SR60 headphones. The presentation became fatiguingly bright with the treble boost—I actually got a headache from listening to Yo-Yo Ma's and Bobby McFerrin's wonderfully playful Hush (Sony SK 48177). The bass boost added boom and bloat at any volume above a whisper. On The Artistry of Christopher Parkening CD (EMI CDC 54853 2), the level of the acoustic guitar was way out of proportion well up into the lower midrange. On the other hand, the bass-boost position was useful with headphones lacking any real bass; ie, most of the small in-the-ear types.
With no boost, and mated with good headphones like the Grados, the CD-3400 was musically satisfying. While not as smooth and warm as the Panasonic SL-NP1A, it revealed much more inner detail; compared to the Sony D-111, the CD-3400 was smoother and warmer, and better at retrieving information.
The CD-3400 re-created clearly varying degrees of sonic quality from CD to CD. With well-recorded discs, such as Clarity Audio's Auer/Delmoni/Rosen performances of the Schubert Trio in E-Flat and Sonatina in g (CCD-1007), the CD-3400 was far superior to other players I've listened to, reproducing the harmonic signatures of piano, violin, and cello with a pleasing combination of clarity, airiness, speed, and robustness.
Nor did the CD-3400 fall apart at loud levels. While dynamic swings became slightly compressed at high levels, there was no significant addition of glare or loss of information that might have led to increased congestion. Dynamic performance was excellent at both macro (soft to loud) and micro (subtle gradations) levels. It may be that the higher-voltage power supply—ie, more batteries—contributes to the CD-3400's dynamic capability.
The more I used the CD-3400, the more it impressed me. It got everything right on Koko Taylor's Queen of the Blues (Alligator ALCD, with Albert Collins, James Cotton, Son Seals, and Lonnie Brooks). Koko's voice was big, bad, and powerful; bass and drums were strong, clean, and driving; guitars were crisp and searing. The Optimus is the only portable I've used that has actually gotten funky. The CD-3400 was even up to the task of reproducing Hovhaness's Mount St. Helens symphony (Delos DE 3137)—a CD heavily dependent on deep bass, massive dynamic swings, and large orchestration with extensive percussion. Most of my other portables have been best left switched off when faced with this piece.
While the CD-3400 was very comfortable with big musical performances, it was equally adept at handling soft, subtle material. Lovely voices were particularly enjoyable, and delicate sounds were rendered as such. The Optimus's combination of clarity and harmonic richness is something that I've rarely heard from such a modestly priced component. I was very surprised, and pleasantly pleased.
JE Sums Up: The RadioShack Optimus CD-3400 is the best portable CD player I've used. Mated with good headphones, such as Grado's stellar SR60s, and not using the equalizer options, it was never offensive and almost always right. At the regular sale price of $130 (without headphones), it's a tremendous value!—Jack English
Footnote 1: I've used headphones from Sony, Panasonic, Koss, Sennheiser, and others, and have finally settled on the marvelous Grado SR60s for on-the-go use (see CG's review in the June issue). They're a bit bulky, but they have a heavy-duty cable, a good phono plug, tremendous sound, and cost only $69.—JE
Footnote 2: November 1991, Vol.14 No.11, p.73.—JA