Shanling MC-30 Music Center CD receiver

My first one-piece stereo—I think I paid $60 for it, including a pair of speakers with pegboard backs—gave me a lot of pleasure when I was young, and I loved it. Everything that came after has been better in every way but one: None has inspired that kind of love. And most have left me wondering if there might be something just a little bit better.

The road to eternal dissatisfaction had a gentler on-ramp in 1972: Component systems, from soup to nuts, were available for just a few hundred dollars—money you could make mowing lawns or stocking shelves. Thirty years later, the choice is harsher: cheap appliances on the one hand, so-called high-end audio on the other.

Audio critics, the paunchy old bastards, have long encouraged closing the gap from above, with less expensive products from the latter group. Sadly, after describing certain $5000/pair loudspeakers and even $8000 turntables as affordable, we've rendered the word all but meaningless.

Now we're seeing movement from the other direction. I can't say for sure who was first to the market with a one-piece stereo unit of very high quality that was still (genuinely) affordable—the $599 Polk Audio iSonic of 2005 was the first to get my attention—but the Shanling MC-30 Music Center is the newest and, quite possibly, the most remarkable attempt at bringing high-quality playback gear within the reach of the average music enthusiast.

The Shanling MC-30, designed and manufactured in the People's Republic of China, combines a CD player, AM/FM tuner, and iPod dock (using a 3.5mm stereo jack) with a very basic yet reasonably easy-to-use integrated amplifier. The only catch is also the biggest hook: The integrated amp is a very-low-output single-ended design, thus limiting your choice of loudspeakers while at the same time (I daresay) enabling musical and sonic performance that's a bit more involving than usual.

Line-level gain is supplied by solid-state devices (a dual-mono pair of Burr-Brown op-amps, also used for voltage gain in the digital audio section), and each channel of the power amp is driven by a 6N3J dual-triode tube. The output section is a capacitor-coupled 6P1 beam tetrode operated in single-ended (thus class-A) mode for a total of 3Wpc.

The CD player and iPod dock both address a Burr-Brown PCM1738E D/A converter chip that apparently uses its own 8x-oversampling digital filter. (The Burr-Brown chip can also be used with external filters, but I couldn't locate one on the board.) The tuner section, self-contained and shielded, is presumably bought-in from elsewhere.

The ergonomic interfaces for some of those bits and pieces are remarkable. Volume adjustment is provided by a resistive-ladder-on-a-chip of the usual sort—but the control knob is actually the top portion of the MC-30's front-right support pedestal. Similarly, when the top of the front-left pedestal is rotated, the user selects among the various sources described above and a line-level auxiliary input. The Shanling dispenses with a motorized CD drawer altogether: Its Philips VAM-12 transport is accessed manually from the MC-30's top surface, and protected by a hinged demi-lid that incorporates an illuminated Plexiglas disc as well as the standard low-mass magnetic clamp.

The whole of the Shanling's front panel is occupied by a digital readout for all the usual functions—plus remote sensor, conveniently labeled as such—while the rear panel is home to phono jacks for auxiliary in and preamp out (!), plus jacks for the (supplied) AM and FM antennas and EU-compliant speaker jacks. In addition to the four tubes themselves—all protected with attractive stacks of Plexiglas rings—the top surface contains a jack and support for an iPod, two output-transformer covers, and a four-way, touch-sensitive toggle used for various functions. The MC-30 is switched on and off with a round toggle button on its left-hand side.

The quality of materials and parts used to make the Shanling MC-30 is surprisingly, almost jarringly high. The build quality is just as good. Its casework wouldn't shame a five-figure product in this industry, let alone a three-figure one. Inside, the MC-30's circuit-board construction is very good, the only odd note being a solid-state rectifier tucked away in one corner, saddled with a heatsink that appeared to have been an afterthought. (Then again, I'm glad someone thought of it at all.) The packaging is decent, the owner's manual acceptable, the styling remarkable.

I asked Roy Hall of Music Hall, Shanling's US importer, if he could explain the origin of the company's name; after a number of attempts, he admitted defeat: "It has something to do with a mountain."

Setup and listening
Infinity, JBL, Klipsch, Mission, Polk, and other companies all sell loudspeakers for under $500/pair that offer sufficiently high electrical sensitivity and appropriate impedance characteristics for the MC-30's 3Wpc amplifier; I would send any prospective Shanling owner in that direction, with a clear conscience and a hopeful heart.

I chose instead to review the MC-30 in the context to which I'm accustomed: The similarly sensitive and easy-to-drive Audio Note AN-E SPe/HE loudspeakers ($7225/pair in birch burl, stands additional). The pairing may have been perverse, but it gave me an arguably unique view of the Shanling's strengths.

Those strengths are considerable—for the money and, to an understandably lesser extent, for any product that aspires to perfectionist-quality playback. Overall, and virtually regardless of source, the MC-30 had very good musical timing and tunefulness, with a surprisingly good sense of scale and spatial detail with stereo recordings. Acoustic instruments had a small but satisfying degree of very real-sounding texture, and voices and solo instruments stood in front of the rest of the mix, just as they should. The MC-30's most obvious flaw was a shortage of very deep bass and trace of lightness—though not brightness—in its overall tonal character.

Most of my MC-30 experience came courtesy of its CD player—as I've mentioned in previous issues, a lack of broadband Internet access is the only thing keeping me from iPod ownership—but the Shanling's FM tuner deserves mention. Even in Godforsaken central New York State, even with just its freebie antenna—a 60" piece of insulated wire with a connector at one end—the MC-30 pulled in 21 stations, some clearly enough to startle me. (Sadly, one of those was an overmodulated signal from an evangelical preacher, who observed that he was preaching on the radio only because "God wants me to!" Silly me, thinking pride was a sin!)

But the real centerpiece of the Shanling's performance was its musical and sonic success with CDs. I was so inspired by the notion of a truly high-quality $999 music center that my listening notes morphed into a music guide for the college-bound buyer:

First: Get someone to buy you a copy of any of the better, more accessible interpretations of Mahler's Symphony 2: Bruno Walter's (Sony 64447 et al), Leonard Bernstein's earliest (Sony 89499 et al), or either of Gilbert Kaplan's (MCA Classics MCAD-2 11011, Deutsche Grammophon 000141436). Save Scherchen and Fried and even Tilson Thomas for later: You might not appreciate them quite yet.

Now, here's the listening test: Do you get it? Do you understand why the disturbing first movement is followed by such quaint drawing-room music in the second, then a grotesquerie in the third? Does the beginning of the fifth movement scare the crap out of you, and does the ending make you cry (and not just a little)?

The Shanling, even though it got in over its head during the loudest, scariest bits, and sounded light and fussy when the opposite should have been true, did indeed get it. Playing my favorite Mahler Seconds on the MC-30, I could and did respond emotionally to them. No small feat.

Second: You should probably have a copy of Joanna Newsom's Ys (Drag City DC303CD), which I hesitate to call a masterpiece only because Newsom is just 26 years old—there's no telling what else she'll have to say. But the album is masterful and moving and unlike anything else in music, period. So get it.

That done, play "Only Skin," which is both the climax and the centerpiece of the record. ("Cosmia" is more of a coda, howsoever brilliant in its own right.) What should a good stereo do for "Only Skin"? The squeak of Newsom's voice at the very beginning should be distinct but not harsh, the French horn should sound as if it's coming from well behind the other instruments, every plucked note of her harp should jump out like a gem—but the big thing is, the song should make you cry a little, especially the part about the bird. And, again, the Shanling did well enough on all those things, especially the important ones, though a little more bass would have been nice.

Shenzhen Shanling Digital Technology Development Corp., Ltd.
US distributor: Music Hall
108 Station Road
Great Neck, NY 11023
(516) 487-3663