Radio Shack Optimus CD-3400 portable CD player Page 2

But I still didn't hear the bus on Brodsky Street. This indicated to me that there are limits to this player's resolution. So those of you who paid 180 times the price of a CD-3400 for a Mark Levinson No.30/31 combination did get something more for your money. (I'll take the RadioShack and use the money for concert and opera tickets and traveling.) Though the CD-3400 had limitations in terms of resolution, bass extension, and dynamics, it produced a sense of air that I have not heard from any other digital playback system.

"Then again, you haven't heard the Levinson gear," says JA. (I can hear him editing my copy.)


Bear in mind that you absolutely must have a good line stage—to get some extra voltage, some added oomph going into your power amp. You'll need a good line stage if you're trying to drive a serious pair of headphones, too—like the Grado HP 1s. Otherwise, the player can sound quite congested (footnote 3).

Resolution isn't top-drawer, but what about the clarity?

I think it's quite good, the way single-bit usually is. Remarkably, this player doesn't irritate in any way. Sibilants are handled particularly well—no splash, no tizz. Brass Ear has tried the player, too; he commends its "warmth and body." He also remarks on its lack of ultimate resolution and its somewhat congested dynamics.

Lew tried the player, liked it, but remarked that the midbass and the upper bass were a little prominent. And he thought the upper midrange was slightly depressed—making some older recordings, like some of the old Mercurys, sound a little "sweeter and more acceptable." I would add that it's not only the midrange that's slightly depressed; it's the treble, too. Like Brass Ear and me, Lew also noted a relative lack of dynamics. "When you turn the volume up, the dynamics don't increase, the sound just gets louder."

Lew's comments lead me to wonder whether the mid- and upper-bass emphasis and recessive upper midrange aren't partly responsible for that sense of bloom. Maybe the reason so many of us are captivated by this player is that it reminds us of the tonal balance of our favorite moving-coil cartridge (footnote 4).

I recently received a Cary CAD-300SEI single-ended integrated amplifier. It uses one 300B output tube per side and puts out about 10W. It also has a headphone jack.

"This is a great headphone amplifier," advised Dennis Had, head honcho of Cary Audio. "Use it in the bedroom."

Indeed it is. Much to Marina's chagrin, I put the amp on my night table and ran the CD-3400 into the Cary. Then I plugged the Grado HP 1s into the Cary, using it, in effect, as a headphone amp. You would not believe the sound quality! If there was any residual midrange and treble grain, the Cary removed it. Marina is still not happy about a tube amp atop the night table, but she has to admit that the 300Bs glowing in the dark do look sexy.

"It's only on loan," I said to her. "The amp's not going to stay here." (Only for five or ten years. Heh-heh.)

What's going on here? I mean with the CD player, not with Marina and me.

I have a suspicion that what we have with the CD-3400 is a killer transport! I have no way to check this out until the necessary digital cable arrives. But the center hub of the player is interesting: it's a soft plastic, with fingers that appear to get a really good grip on the disc.

"The player grasps the disc like a yewel box," said Lars. "Maybe that's part of the secret."

I think maybe it is.

What to do?

For me, the decision was easy. I ran back down to RadioShack and bought five more players before the sale ended—one for the bedroom, one spare, and three gifts.

I'm enjoying the CD-3400 as much as any CD player or combination of players and processors that I've had in my system. It comes down to air—the sense of instruments and performers in the room, the illusion of the musical event happening live. This seems to have been the hardest thing for CD playback systems to get right. In fact, I've never heard a CD playback system get it right—until now.

When you have air there, you can forget that you don't have the very last bit of resolution, or somewhat limited dynamics, maybe even a residual amount of midrange and treble grain. You can overlook all these things—at least I can. And not just because of the low price. Having the air there gives the music life; this, more than resolution, puts performers in the room with you. Having the air there means, I think, that you won't suffer from listening fatigue.

All of this leads me to an embarrassing question: How come most of the big-name manufacturers haven't been able to give us this kind of CD sound quality in a regular player at a reasonable price? How come RadioShack can do it right for $179.95—in a portable, yet—and most of the other manufacturers can't seem to come close in their regular players selling for up to ten times the price?

Footnote 3: I can imagine that this player would be a killer combination with the Melos SHA-1 line-stage/headphone amp.—ST

Footnote 4: I recently went back to a Kiseki Blue Goldspot cartridge, and I must say that its tonal balance strikes me as similar to the CD-3400's.—ST