Radio Shack Optimus CD-3400 portable CD player

"You are not going to believe this."

It was Lars. Again.

"Here's the latest hot thing in audio," he continued. "It's a portable CD player from RadioShack that's on sale until Saturday for $129.95. It's regularly $179.99."

"What's the model number?

"The Optimus CD-3400. Catalog number 42-5035. You want this particular player."

"Why is it so special?"

"You be the yudge. Keep your receipt—if you're not happy, you can always get your money back."

I ran down to the nearest Shack and picked one up.

"Enjoy superb digital stereo on the go!" the box read. The CD-3400 features a 1-bit DAC, 8x-oversampling digital filter, programmable memory, and digital out (which I haven't been able to use yet, because I lack the necessary cable with a digital mini-plug on one end). It's got a variable output for headphones, plus a fixed-volume line out. The player includes a cable for hooking up to your preamp, but not one for connecting the player to your processor. Nor does it include an AC adapter or four AA batteries. A cheesy carrying case is included.

I hooked up the CD-3400 to my main system, which consists of a B&K Pro 10 preamp (latest production run), an Electrocompaniet AW20 anniversary-edition amplifier, and my pair of Quad ESL-63 USA monitors.

Holy smoke! I rushed to call Lars.

"I can't believe this!" I swore to the Swede. I was playing Grand and Glorious: Great Operatic Choruses, a new Telarc disc featuring Robert Shaw with the Atlanta Symphony and Choruses (Telarc CD-80333). "The sound just opened up—much more air there. The difference in bloom was breathtaking. It was grand and glorious, but not before I used the CD-3400."

"I know," said Lars. "I hear Yoe Grado was the first to discover it. He told Dick Sequerra, who told Yerry Gladstein (footnote 1). When Yerry heard it, his yaw dropped."

"His what?"

"You know what I said."

I listened to disc after disc, into the wee hours of the morning. Of course, some recordings were better than others, but the soundstage was breathtaking on most of those I listened to.

Maybe "soundstage" is the wrong word—other players and processors give you a deep, wide soundstage, too. Come to think of it, the CD-3400 did not produce the deepest and widest soundstage. It wasn't so much soundstaging as it was air there. Or bloom.

"This is the best-blooming CD player I've had in my system," I enthused to Lars the next day. "Beats all the processors I've heard, too. It's the didyital scandal of the decade."

Lars let it pass.

I don't know if this is the best digital sound you can get—I haven't heard the $14,950 Mark Levinson No.30 with the $8495 No.31 transport. But I've never had a player or player/processor combination in my system that's produced the same bloom and palpable sense of space.

For years, one of my main beefs about digital has been its lack of air. Most CD playback systems seem to suck all the air out of the room so you can't hear the hall—everything seems to take place in an anechoic chamber. The sound, and eventually the listener, is suffocated. This is why many of us turn, gasping for air, back to analog. Digital sucks, literally. A great analog playback system gives you not just impressive soundstage depth and width, not just great resolution of low-level detail, but lots of air. And now, for the first time, I was hearing this in my system from CD.

From a portable CD player I'd just bought for $129.95 at my local RadioShack.

Scandal, indeed!

From the very beginning I've been vaguely dissatisfied with the sound of my Quad ESL-63 Monitors. I bought the Electrocompaniet AW20 power amplifier (footnote 2), because I found it to be the amp that worked best with the Quads. Then I realized what was different about the Quads this time: Last time I had them in my system, I was listening mainly to analog; now I was listening mainly to digital.

I tried a killer disc: Rachmaninoff's Symphony 3 and Symphonic Dances, with Mariss Jansons conducting the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (EMI CDC 7 54877 2). On some systems, just before the beginning of the Dances, you can hear a bus in front of the Yevropeyskaya Hotel. The bus (which sounds as if it's pulling out of a parking place and heading down Brodsky Street) is right where it should be: in the right channel.

With the CD-3400, the bus sounded as if it was equipped with a muffler. The player didn't quite offer the ultimate in resolution. In addition, the bass wasn't terribly deep, and dynamics were somewhat congested, if you will. There's only so much you can do with power supplies in a portable CD player that consumes 1½W of power.

I began fussing around. At first the player was sitting directly atop my B&K Pro 10 preamp. I tried various rubber feet, to no avail. In fact, the player sounded better while sitting directly atop the preamp. Then I remembered that Veekhtor Goldstein had given me some Harmonix feet, which had proven quite effective with the Pioneer PD-65 CD player. I placed a tripod of feet under the CD-3400. I still couldn't hear the bus, but the overall sound seemed to improve slightly.

Next I tried the Harmonix feet with a Shun Mook Mpingo disc, logo face-down at six o'clock, atop the case over where the hub would be. Holey moley—the soundstage opened up, bass tightened and firmed, and the strings took on more of a sheen.

Footnote 1: Owner of the former G&A Rare Records, in New York, and one of the founders of Fi magazine.—ST

Footnote 2: The anniversary-edition AW20 is essentially the AW100 with some parts upgrades and a drop-dead-gorgeous malachite faceplate.—ST