Radio Shack Optimus CD-3400 portable CD player Greenberg part 2

Used as a digital transport, the CD-3400 drove either a Theta Gen.III or an Audio Alchemy DAC-in-the-Box with a HAVE/Canare digital cable, plugged into the CD-3400's digital output with RadioShack's #274-378 RCA-to-miniplug adapter.

Sound: Good but not great—that about sums up my feelings about the CD-3400's sound. It's really good for a portable CD player you plug a pair of Grado SR60s into for music on the go-go, but a giant-killer that compares favorably to high-end separates? No way in hell, daddy-o. I don't know what kind of mushrooms these audionuts are putting in their salads, but I got much better sound from the el cheapo $299 NAD 502 CD player all the way across the board. Wasn't even close.

To its credit, the CD-3400 has a pretty smooth, non-fatiguing sound reminiscent of the better single-bit home players like the NAD. I don't claim to be an expert on portable CD players, because with the exception of some of the expensive Denons, they all suck: coarse, raggedy-ass mids and highs; poor, low-level rez that turns reverb into kazoos; and wimpy-ass headphone circuits that can't drive anything to decent levels but those heinous open-air dungphones that come free with the players.

But this RadioShack player is really impressive as a stand-alone portable CD player—I was surprised at how atypically musical it sounded driving the cool Grado SR60s. Kurt Cobain's voice on Nirvana's In Utero CD and Muddy Waters' voice on the Mobile Fidelity reissue of Folk Singer were reproduced with good clarity and freedom from the graininess that's kept me from taking the portable genre very seriously.

Bass quality and drive were fair to middlin': The CD-3400 rolls, but it doesn't really rock. When the music explodes from silence to full-tilt boogie, as in the beginning of In Utero's "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle," the CD-3400 didn't really kick it out with the same gut-level punch as the HeadRoom. And with other dynamic rock recordings, the CD-3400 was noticeably more reined-in dynamically than the NAD 502, and especially the Theta gear.

The CD-3400 also tended to turn low-treble transients, such as cymbals, into bursts of white fizz. This got real old real fast on a lot of my rock CDs that feature upfront drum sound, like Masters of Reality's Sunrise on the Sufferbus and all three Nirvana records. This low-treble breakup was also apparent when comparing the CD-3400 to the NAD and Theta gear over speakers through my reference system, giving the RadioShack player a much less musical signature than the other digital sources.

The CD-3400 also had pretty limited resolution. The biiiiig, deeeeep sense of space on the MoFi Muddy CD was reduced to a small bit of reverb around each of the instruments, and headphone listening made this all the more apparent. Low-level detail didn't get fuzzed out like it does with many portables saddled with mis-/unaligned DAC MSB trims—it simply wasn't there. In general, sounds faded to a point somewhere above the CD-3400's internal circuit hiss, and then, instead of fading all the way down, as with the NAD and Theta gear, just disappeared. This and the CD-3400's reduced sense of bass drive and so-so dynamics made me always aware that I was listening to a $180 portable player that, while definitely a fine player for portable listening, is no high-end giant-killer.

Listening to the CD-3400 as a transport driving the Theta and Audio Alchemy processors confirmed my feelings that the RadioShack player doesn't live up to the Audiophile Grapevine hype. While I did hear a slight improvement over the CD-3400's own internal DAC when it drove the Audio Alchemy DAC-in-the-Box, the sound wasn't nearly as good as the DITB is capable of when driven by a good transport, or even the digital output of a CD player (like the NAD 502) (footnote 1).

Why All the Grapevine Jizz? I'm pretty underwhelmed by the Optimus CD-3400. Based on the rants'n'raves I heard from the Grapevine, I expected lots more in the way of true high-end sound. So why all the fuss, and from Noted Gurus who should know better?

The RadioShack player has a much beefier headphone circuit than almost any portable I've tried, driving high-quality cans pretty loud without crapping out like other players; that might account for the initial "Yeah!"

Also, I'd bet that few of these Grapeviners have listened to the better portables, such as the Denons; so when they heard the CD-3400 basically "not suck," they went a little nuts over it and plugged it into their home system. "Wow, this thing is great. Hey Joe/Al/Tom/Wink/Sunji, you gotta hear this amazing RadioShack portable CD player. Yeah, you heard me right—RadioShack. It's incredible."

And Joe/Al/Tom/Wink/Sunji told two friends, and so on, and pretty soon everybody was shampooing with Agree and trying to outdo each other in hyping the CD-3400.

The Audiophile Grapevine has had its share of real discoveries that have stood the test of time, but it's also had its share of turkeys, like Armor All-ing/demagnetizing CDs and all the Tice TPT BS. Me, I heard the $299 NAD 502 walk all over the RadioShack player in every possible way. Where the 502 delivered the kind of open, tangible sound that immediately registers as "high end," the RadioShack player sounded as small as the box it comes in. I may buy the CD for use as a good portable player for travel, but I wouldn't want it as the primary digital source in my home system.

CG Sums Up: If you're looking to buy a portable CD player that sounds really nice, definitely check out the RadioShack Optimus CD-3400. For a portable, its sound is smooth and non-fatiguing, and its beefier-than-normal headphone output can drive high-quality 'phones like the Grado SR60s louder than's good for you. For even smoother sound with much better bass, you should look into the HeadRoom portable headphone amp; but the CD-3400's own headphone outputs are surprisingly potent on their own.

Everyone, including me, is looking for that budget giant-killer that competes with the Big Boys at a fraction of the green. The CD-3400 ain't it. What it is is a very good portable player, but no more. If you've spent time and care assembling a high-quality music system in your home, the CD-3400 doesn't offer the kind of entry-level high-end sound quality of a good, table-top CD player like the $299 NAD 502. Recommended as a cool portable, but not as a giant-killer for home systems.—Corey Greenberg

Footnote 1: The Audiophile Network's Kinhluan Nguyenngoc recommends placing the CD-3400 inside a large book, such as a telephone directory, and closing it while the unit is playing, to get the best sound. Sam Tellig, however, recommends using a sheet of plate glass covered with Sorbothane and supported by German Acoustics metal cones (see "Sam's Space" in this issue).—JA