Radio Shack Optimus CD-3400 portable CD player Willis
My interest in the RadioShack Optimus CD-3400 was stirred by hearing Sam Tellig praise it at the Stereophile High-End Hi-Fi Show in Miami last May. Then a friend and veteran hi-fi enthusiast told me that every self-respecting audiophile had to have one. I bought one the next day, on sale for $129.95. At that price, I figured that even if it wasn't everything it was cracked up to be, it would still fill a niche for me; I've never had a portable player before. At the very least, it would be a source of music at my workbench.
I thought it sounded merely okay through its headphone jacks, driving either the Grado SR80s or the much more comfortable JVC HA-D990 (footnote 1). The fact that it inverted absolute polarity didn't bother me, but a low-level clicking sound imposed on the music as the batteries ran low did. Running its line outputs through my HeadRoom Supreme headphone amplifier made a world of difference. What I hear from the pair is more than musically satisfying; it's downright pleasurable. The CD-3400 sits directly atop the HeadRoom on a table next to the bed; I can lie there in the dark and listen 'til dawn if I wish. Unlike JA, I haven't had any trouble with stacking them. (It turned out JA's Supreme had a fault in its grounding.)
I auditioned it side by side with my Randy Tomlinson-modified JVC XLZ-1010 TN: No comparison, but it performed amazingly well for something so cheap. I think it will benefit from a massive outboard 6V supply, which I need to find time to build. Until then, the RadioShack AC adapter will suffice.
Next test was at a friend's home in a duel with another portable: the Sony D-3. We played both through his Naim electronics and KEF loudspeakers. Sorry, folks, the Sony was superior in every respect: sweeter top end, more involving midrange, and deeper, richer bass. The Sony, of course, is about three or four times the price of the CD-3400, and lacks a digital output.
And that's where the CD-3400 is really outstanding: as a transport. I sat the little player, powered by four alkaline batteries, on top of the "master" of a pair of Meridian D-6000s, and fed its digital output into the Meridian's input through a RadioShack adapter and a short XLO cable. I was amazed at what I heard. I kept thinking, "A hundred and thirty bucks. We're getting this kind of sound for a hundred and thirty bucks." Not really, of course; we got that kind of sound for $130 plus $15,000 for the Meridians. But it convinced me that, transport-wise, 95% of the battle can be won by a cheap device that plucks the bits off the disc and sends them in a steady stream to a high-quality processor.
About two days after I got the CD-3400, I accidentally subjected it to a drop test from shoulder height onto a marble floor. It was visibly unhurt, could spin the disc, but couldn't read it. I repacked it and returned it to RadioShack, where the clerk promptly gave me another one. He asked me if I wanted to buy an unconditional five-year warranty for $60—almost half of what the thing cost! It seemed like a lot at the time, and I said no. But maybe I should reconsider, because a dollar a month isn't much to insure something I know will get dropped again.—Barry Willis
Footnote 1: Recommended by Bill Sommerwerck in his comprehensive review a few years back, and available via mail-order from Stereo Advantage in upstate New York for $65.90. Call (800) 446-0072.