What an amazing-looking piece of kit. That was my initial reaction to Shanling’s CD-T1500 CD player. It’s rare to find equipment as well-made as this. The top and bottom plates are made from solid alloy some 2.5cm thick, creating a structure that looks like it could stand being run over by the proverbial Tank.
As you can see, it’s a top-loading player, the disc clamp system being raised or lowered by hand. The CD itself is visible while playing, but it’s protected by a clear acrylic cover. The transport section and feet have clear acrylic mouldings that light up blue when the player is turned on, creating a striking high-tech appearance. Essentially though, the CD-T1500 is a very simple machine. It has a minimal number of controls, with most functions being accessed from the remove handset. The player is built around a high-quality Philips CDM-12 Pro 2 transport and employs Burr-Brown SRC4193 44.1kHz/192kHz up-sampling chips.
Two PCM1794K chips are used for D/A conversion, one for each channel. Four 6922 tubes are employed for the analogue output stage, giving balanced and unbalanced audio outputs – the former via XLR sockets. Three separate power transformers are used for the digital, analogue, and tube sections. The sturdy build quality of the CD-T1500 results in a player weighing about 10kg. Finish is excellent, and the player immediately inspires confidence. It looks and feels like a quality item, and I was intrigued to see if its sound matched its superb appearance. I began by using the player via its unbalanced outputs. Early impressions were of a sharp clear sound that had good detail and definition. Clarity was excellent, and the sound seemed smooth, and well-balanced, yet immediate and focused. It wasn’t especially rich or ‘tube’ like, though the top end was certainly clean. The CD-T1500 offers listeners a choice of sampling rates - standard 44.1kHz or up-sampled to 192kHz. The ASTINtrew At-3500 CD player I used until recently offered something similar, and (once again) I found it far from easy to decide which of the two options sounded best. The up-sampled output definitely gives more detail, creating a sharper more immediate presentation, with slightly greater dynamics and separation. The bass seems a shade leaner and less voluminous too. On immediate switch-over, the response is one of ‘that’s better’. But, after a while, doubts start to surface. When you switch back to 44.1kHz, the reaction is often one of relief – the music sounds smoother, and more evenly-balanced, with better integration. It’s maybe not quite as brilliant and sharp, but it seems more together and nicer to listen to. The bass is fuller and more ‘woody’ sounding – less dry and electronic. It’s easy to get carried away here. If you’re not careful, you can end up switching between the two options all night – each time (seemingly) getting a big improvement… Generally, I preferred to stick with 44.1kHz – though, for some recordings, the 192kHz up-sampling option definitely improved things.
Although Shanling make strong claims regarding the quality of the Philips CD transport used, it has a couple of drawbacks. The first is agonisingly slow ‘fast’ search. It seems to search in four or five second jumps, and if the point you want to reach is several minutes into a track, it takes a fair while to get there. Indeed, it’s so slow, it reminds me of the very first Philips CD players from 1983 – yes, that bad. The second concern is tracking. Playing a Chinese Pirate CD (James Blunt’s Back to Bedlam) which has a nasty radial scratch, the CD-T1500 jumped quite severely, and lost a couple of minutes’ music. To keep things in perspective, the CD-T1500 did not jump or misbehave with any other discs.
Unfortunately, not long before the CD-T1500 arrived, the ASTINtrew At-3500 CD player I’d been using was recalled. It would’ve been nice to compare the two, but it wasn’t possible. Nonetheless, the Shanling made a good first impression, and I lived with it for a couple of weeks before making any serious comparisons. Eventually, I tried it against the UK-made Arcam’s DV-135 DVD/CD/SACD player. This costs less than the Shanling, and (rather obviously) lacks its lavish build quality. But it is a much more versatile machine, playing CDs and SACDs, as well as DVD Movies, yet with CD source material, the Arcam and Shanling sounded surprisingly close. The Shanling was sharper and perhaps a shade more focused and immediate. The Arcam sounded fuller, with a deeper weightier bottom-end and sweeter more airy treble. The Arcam seemed to image better, producing a greater sense of ‘height’ and depth. To be honest, at this point in the listening if forced to choose I slightly preferred it over the Shanling.
The Arcam is all solid state, compared to the hybrid transistor/tube Shanling. However, had I not known, I’d have thought the Arcam was the tube component. It had a certain richness and warmth compared to the Shanling. On Richard Thompson’s Keep Your Distance, I was impressed by the Arcam’s solid cohesiveness. All the various instruments could be heard clearly, and the vocals sounded clean and prominent, without seeming exaggerated.This track has a deep solid bass, which the Arcam reproduced very convincingly. On the CD-T1500, the bass seemed to lose some of this weight and authority – especially when set to 192kHz.
The differences between the two players were not huge, and I daresay if you couldn’t live happily with one, you probably couldn’t live with the other. Nevertheless, I had a consistent preference for the Arcam. However, the Shanling has a built-in Get Out of Jail card in the form of balanced outputs. Now, it’s been a fair while since I used a CD player with balanced outputs – so long, in fact, I’d mislaid my cables and had to make up a fresh set. But the effort was well worth it. Suddenly, the Shanling was calling the shots.
The increase in output level seemed bigger and more strongly projected. Of course, I reduced amplifier volume levels to compensate. But it went further than that. The Shanling’s soundstage seemed broader and deeper, and the music had greater tonal body and dynamic presence. Going over to the Arcam, the sound now seemed somewhat ‘smaller’ and more contained. Back listening to the Arcam, I felt I wanted to turn up the volume - past the point where I’d originally had it set – trying to match the Shanling’s bigger broader deeper soundstage, Doing this certainly helped, but did not fully compensate. The Shanling sounded bigger, not just louder. Via its standard outputs the Shanling had sounded very good, but not exceptional. Using the balanced outputs, it was much, much better – often close to outstanding. So, you need to use the Shanling balanced to hear it at its very best. The difference is pretty significant.
Another thing that made the CD-T1500 sound better was switching its display lights off. You do this from the remote handset, and the result is a cleaner slightly more focused sound.There’s a richer ‘darker’ quality to things – as though the music were emanating from an inky-black backdrop. I also wondered about the ‘open’ transport, which allows light to reach the surface of the CD. Years ago, I used to reckon that CDs sounded better if played in a totally dark environment. Most are, of course, simply because of the way that CD players are designed and engineered. Back in the 1980s I had Pioneer’s PD-75, which played discs upside-down on a platter. There was a little window in the drawer, so you could see the disc spinning, and this allowed light to reach the playing surface. That player definitely sounded better with the window taped up. I wondered if the Shanling might also be affected. So, having nothing better to do, I found a suitably sized box and placed it over the transport. It did not cut out 100% of the light, but certainly reduced it by a big margin. Now it might’ve been imagination, but I reckoned there was a further small but noticeable improvement in focus and clarity…
The Shanling CD-T1500 is a very nice-sounding CD player - one that sounds very good unbalanced but much better once its balanced outputs are used. Combining extraordinary detail with real substance its sound is extremely impressive. I love the CD-T1500 for its looks and build, and reckon there are many who will want one for its appearance alone! But set it up carefully and the sound is more than a match for the wrapping.