MUSIC VAN TUBE CD PLAYER
Thanks to Joe at PacificValve.com for providing this review sample. PacificValve is an American company that specializes in importing Chinese components that are relatively unknown in the US. They do not deal in gray market merchandise and stand behind their products - publisher.
When our publisher James Darby asked me to write the world's first review for the Shenda Music Van CD Player I was very excited. After all, I am a die hard analog fan. Perhaps you are wondering how someone who has such an affinity for the way a good vinyl record album lends itself to the natural portrayal of music could possibly be exuberant about writing a review on a digital player of any sort. I can sum it up in one statement. It's all about the music!
You see, I have always been a vinyl lover for the music's sake. It is first and foremost the sound of the music that has kept vinyl's grip on me over the years. I learned what good music reproduction sounds like through both live performances and listening to records, my training ground so to speak. After all, digital didn't exist when I first began to acquire a deep appreciation and love for music. But when compact discs first began to replace the LP on record store shelves, I almost immediately jumped on the band wagon to buy my first CD player in 1983 - a Technics. It didn't take my ear long to find out that this new fangled contraption didn't make music sound like music. In fact, it sounded horrible - completely shrill, thin and un-involving, like AM radio on uppers. This was not "perfect sound forever", not even "fair sound" for "now"!
Well, it took about a year for that Technics player to begin badly mistracking, I thank God for small favors. He knew what was good for me. So I bought up as much vinyl as I could while it was at bargain prices due to it's "obsolescence"; many MFSL and CBS half-speed masters, and even some beautiful Japanese imports.
Fast forward ten years; in 1993 I purchased a brand new Rotel RCD-955AX cd player and was pleased to find out that the technology wasn't hopeless after all, it was certainly evolving, and I was able to actually begin enjoying music reproduced through the compact disc. Yes, it was still too bright, but for most recordings not to the point where it grated on me as the Technics or Sony did.
So now here we are twenty five years since the first CD's and players hit the store shelves, and it would certainly be short sighted as a music lover to not acknowledge that the technology continues to evolve in subtle strides. Many CD's and digital players of today are undeniably worthy of delivering a true musical experience. Frequently I am finding one similar to that which I enjoy so much while listening to my vinyl recordings. The question here is, is the Shenda Music Van one such example of digital done right or just another non-musical shiney disc spinner? Let's take a look and have a listen, shall we?
The Shenda Music Van arrived in a box much larger than I had expected. This was partly because of the fact that it was very well packed, the customary double box scenario (double corrugated as well), which was then placed in a much larger box and nestled among a few thousand foam peanuts. I found the component had arrived in perfect condition and discovered that the Shenda Music Van is larger in size than I had expected. It's about 17 x 15 x 4" and weighs over 33 pounds! This ain't no Oppo, Toshiba or Technics. It did however fit and look very nice in my SolidSteel rack.
The build quality is excellent. Solid and heavy, with a beautiful fit and silver aluminum finish, the face plate being a 3/8 inch thick slab of brushed aluminum. A nicer and smaller font for the "Music Van" name on the front plate could have been selected in my opinion, or perhaps left off all together as it almost looks like an afterthought in contrast to the other screening. But that's really my only criticism regarding the physical appearance of this handsome product. Controls are minimal and of necessity: power, headphone volume and 1/4" jack, and four control buttons for normal disc operation.
The fit of the CD drawer has a very fine tolerance all around when closed, which in my opinion adds to the overall sense of high quality design and manufacturing. The disc drawer glides oh so smoothly when opening or closing, something I always take note of and in my experience seems to be an indication of transport quality. Whether or not that is actually true I do not know, but in any event the silky smooth operation certainly made me feel like I was dealing with a quality product. I learned from the Pacific Valve site that the transport is a Philips L1210/S which utilizes a servo mechanism to ensure precision control and laser focus as
you switch from track to track.
The player is fitted with three aluminum isolation cone feet with very fine points, two in front, one rear center. Right there I could tell there was some advance thought put into isolation and resonance control - they did not just slap the four usual feet on this thing. It has been pretty well established that a triangle base resists vibration better than a four point system. Three aluminum pucks are also provided with a very small divot in the center for each cone point to rest in. This indicates that Shenda pays attention to vibration and resonace and took the time and expense to engineer the footers.
The display glows a light blue/green fluorescent and is very simple, with the track number being larger than the time counter. I am a few years into my forties and was just fitted for my first set of eye glasses last year, so I like the fact that I can see the track number without straining from my listening position about 9 feet away. The display cannot be dimmed or turned off, but it is at just the right brightness given the lack of these features. I would never turn off the display anyway as I like to know what track I am on, and I have my doubts about some manufacturer claims that the ability to turn off a fluorescent display quiets the noise floor, at least I don't believe that it does to the point of audibility. There is also a small sixteen-number grid on the display, where the number of the current track flashes, then disappears from the grid as it completes. A small red "over" indicator illuminates if there are more than sixteen tracks on the disc. Functionality is identical when playing a set of programmed tracks, with the grid only displaying the tracks that you have programmed. This display grid feature is somewhat useful as a guide to know when your disc or programmed selections are about to finish, but of course would be impossible to see the actual track numbers from a normal listening position.
Tubes are accessible for replacement or rolling by removing eight Phillips head screws holding the top cover plate in place, as the sockets are on the output circuit board. The remote control can easily double as a weapon in a pinch! It's a solid black aluminum brick with well laid out buttons that have the appearance of being ball bearings partially protruding through the face of the remote. The remote has some additional features not available from the front panel as is the customary approach on most high end components, the program button being the most necessary of them. Perhaps a bit large and heavy for some (7x2" and 3/4" thick), but I prefer that over the cheap plastic ones that even some of the more well known (and considerably more costly) brands provide with their products.
Something you certainly don't see in CD players under a grand is the twin XLR outputs for balanced playback. Pretty impressive.
Finally, I was impressed that the interconnect provided with this player was much better in quality than the typical consumer grade cables or even more costly products. In fact, many esoteric players come with no IC's at all. So thumbs up on the Shenda Music Van for overall appearance, control layout and excellent build quality. This is a very attractive unit in my rack that matches my similarly finished components very well. That's good, because it does not come in black.
It was my understanding that the review sample was pre-burned in by The Pacific Valve Company at least partially, but after reading the manual I figured I should be certain and play the Shenda for the prescribed 50 hours before any critical listening. Well, it didn't take that long at all because after my first night of casual listening I became aware that there was something undeniably special about how well this player presents the music. Was this vinyl I was hearing? Ummm..not quite. I found that my good vinyl recordings generally tend to have better depth to the stage than most of the CD's that I auditioned on the Shenda. Yet something was very different, as the music that I was hearing didn't sound like any CD player I ever had heard in my system. The player had a very analog presentation, as I said not "vinyl" sounding (well, there was an exception that we will come to), yet beautifully smooth and well balanced that was nearly as pleasing to my ear as vinyl, only in a different way. The music that I heard coming from my loudspeakers had a warmth and multi-dimensional presentation that I thought up until that point was simply a pipe dream in terms of digital recordings. Not bright or harsh while at the same time not suffering from high frequency roll off, wonderfully retaining the full musical detail and sparkle of the recordings.
The Shenda Music Van utilizes four tubes for output, with no op amps in the circuitry whatsoever. The unit uses a pair of 12AX7s and a pair of 12AT7's. To quote a statement which I read on the Pacific Valve web site, "The current units come stock with EH 12AX7 and 12AT7 tubes. We do not mind the latest incarnations of the EH 12AX7 tube as we find it very quiet and OK for music timbre. You could do better with some Tung Sols (our favorite). Either way, remember: these tubes are not just buffering OP AMP output, they are the output. So tube selection will change the sound good or bad in the most drastic way". So I was happy to learn that the sample Music Van unit was shipped to me with the optional Tung Sol 12AX7 tubes ($44/pr), and Philips JAN 12AT7 tubes (48/pr). To quote Pacific Valve again "Spend some cash on replacing the EH 12AT7s which we find lifeless and uninvolving. Our favorite is the GE 12AT7s for quietness and the Mullards / RCAs for musical timbre". Although the review sample did not ship with either of these particular 12AT7 incarnations, it was still quiet as the black of night with the Philips JANs, and musical tone was excellent as well.
Besides the all vacuum tube output stage, Pacific Valve told me that the Music Van uses a dual R-Core power supply design which also contributes to the
musicality of the player. The D/A converter utilizes the Cirrus Logic CS4396 chip set, which is apparently the same as is used in the Audio Research CD3 MKII player.
IT'S ALL ABOUT THE MUSIC
Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 is one of my favorite classical symphonies. One of the performances that I own on CD is The Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Karajan on the Deutsch Grammophon label (D 103127). I had previously been disappointed by this recording's lack of dynamic range or "luster", but the music came to life when played through the Shenda. I was actually surprised that a 1984 digital recording could sound so musical. There were a few of the louder and more complex passages during which the music became overwhelming, lacking definition between the various sections of the orchestra, where the full symphony converged upon me like a tidal wave to the point where I had to significantly lower the volume. That is almost certinaly the Deutsch Grammophon recording - pretty typical. But overall this recording was never presented to me in a way so pleasing as it did then, portraying the music with a large and lifelike soundstage, with wonderful detail in the quieter and more delicate passages and excellent authority in the bottom end. What really caused me to compare the Shenda to analog is that the music conveyed a strong sense of emotion that moved me in a powerful way. Previously, that quality was only provided on the big, black disks - not the silver ones.
On a visit home one day for my lunch hour I didn't want to power up all of the electronics for just a half hour, so I decided to listen to some selections of a Mozart piano concerto CD through my AKG k240 headphones. The music sounded beautiful and nearly lulled me to sleep, I really could have sat there all afternoon but we need to pay the bills! The piano concerts just sounded beautiful, open and of course with excellent imaging. I will leave my remarks on this topic brief, as I don't claim to be very well versed in how the various characteristics of music should sound through a good headphone setup, as the vast majority of my listening is through my full system. However the headphone amp seemed to do a very nice job with my k240 phones and we all know how difficult they are to drive.
Another classical recording worth mentioning in terms of detail is a Philips recording (D 103821) of Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Op. 2 Nos. 1, 2 & 3, Alfred Brendel soloist. The beautiful melodies had a delightful presence at lower listening levels, and as I turned up the volume I could perceive the natural reverberation of the hall in which the recording was produced, although at the same time the piano did take on an overly bright timbre. Two of the features that make the M520 amplifier so wonderful is the ability to switch the EL34s from full pentode mode (the default, and my preference for most of my listening) to ultra-linear, as well as three settings (per channel) to fine tune the amount of negative feedback applied to the circuit. A switch to UL mode and selection of maximum NFB produced the necessary damping which allowed the music to be presented with a more ethereal and pleasing quality.
Mozart selections performed by The Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph Von Dohnanyi conducting, Serenade No. 13 in G major (K525) "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik", and Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra in C major (K299). Vincent, Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra is one of my all-time favorite compositions! Excellent taste! I don't have that version, though. Care to loan it? - publisher. This 1994 recording on the London label sounded beautiful, open, airy and delightful, as Mozart should! A little night music anyone? Well, I hope my neighbors didn't mind too much. A tremendous soundstage unfolded before me. In terms of classical music, many of my recordings displayed these same excellent characteristics, even some of those on off beat budget labels, such as the "Classical Touch" series. The editing on some of these is very poor, prematurely ending movements before the final notes fully decay and other such engineering atrocities, but others are very good. One worthy of mention contains selections of Bizet's Carmen Suite and Debussy's Prelude to a Faun, and Nocturnes, of which the performances are excellent, and production quite acceptable, although a bit over extended in terms of the high end which I needed to take care of by the running the amplifier in UL mode with maximum damping as mentioned earlier. But overall very enjoyable on the Music Van with otherwise very smooth response and excellent dynamic range.
"Time Out" by The Dave Brubeck Quartet is one of my favorites of all classic jazz recordings. I never tire of Dave's piano style, which is hard driving at times, delightfully light and delicate at others. Then comes the superbly lyrical solos of Paul Desmond, like a musical conversation between two close friends. Combined with the perfectly timed rhythm section of Joe Morello on drums and Eugene Wright on the double bass, to me that's "West Coast Jazz" at it's finest. "Strange Meadow Lark" and "Kathy's Waltz" are two favorites of mine, both similar in their laid back west coast tradition. Dave's piano playing is perfectly delightful on both tracks, with the Music Van delivering the notes with stunning detail and clarity. Equally pleasing to my ear was the timbre of Paul's alto, to use Mr. Desmond's analogy of what he was aiming for in the way he blew his horn, like that of a dry martini! Wonderful midrange response here, smooth, warm and natural.
A perfect example of how well this player revealed the detail of this recording is Joe's brush artistry on "Kathy's Waltz", my foot tapping incessantly to the unusual time signature that he and Eugene layered behind the soloists. Bass response was much weightier than on my vintage vinyl (mono) pressing of "Time Out", yet still tight and well controlled throughout the entire recording, and much deeper. You can hear and feel how Eugene really got into his double bass on "Strange Meadow Lark", as the strings vibrate at times (I believe this was the case anyway) against the fret board. I just love how that sounds, it adds so much excitement to the music, and the Music Van reproduced this effect with perfect justice! The soundstage was fantastic, wide and open as I had not perceived before. During Paul's solos on these two tracks, his alto slightly off center to the left, I could hear Dave's subtle piano chords being played way off to the right, far beyond where "I thought" my speaker resided! With a similar effect on the drums off to the left, the cymbals particularly making this point very evident. Eugene on double bass centered and perfectly layered behind all that Dave and Paul had to "say" up front.
Okay, so here's the thing, I was trying to avoid Diana Krall, not because I do not like her music, there must be some sort of stigma attached to using her music in a review. Well, I don't care if the whole world laughs at me for including this one. Like you said Vincent, it's about the music! Use what you like - publisher. The fact is that "From this moment on", in my opinion is one of the best jazz vocal performances of recent years and I simply loved the way it sounded on the Music Van. Diana's vocal is presented superbly, with just the right hint of air, perfect tone, just as I would imagine her to sound in a live performance. I was so pleased to find that the big band of horns on "It Can Happen To You", one thing that truly agitated me in the past were not blaring and in my face anymore. The first time I played that track I lowered the volume just before those horns blew, but I soon realized after a few plays that just wasn't necessary when played through the Music Van. The horns rather had a smooth timbre, slightly pulled back, and to my surprise were actually very musical. The bass is fantastic throughout the entire album, smooth midrange, crisp highs, excellent imaging, again there was that large soundstage, perfectly balanced. To me the CD sounded absolutely fantastic in every regard, both for it's wonderful music and it's superb production. So there! I included Diana and you can't do anything about it! Well, I could if I wanted to...hehe... publisher. And let me tell you this player truly did her justice.
To completely switch gears, I must mention Led Zeppelin III. I know, I'm all over the place, but as the saying goes, variety is the spice of life, something I find to be particularly true when it comes to music. I have a remastered version of this CD and I was astonished at how good a classic rock & roll album could sound, CD or LP. Now this is probably the most acoustically geared Zeppelin album of all, where the band is clearly exploring a more folk/blues roots tradition. In my opinion it is one of their best. I never heard the music on this album sound so effortless and kind to my ears. That fact notwithstanding, when played through the Music Van the overly and annoyingly bright color that I recall hearing on other players was tamed considerably, actually making the recording quite enjoyable. The music sounded much more balanced, smoother in the mids, with excellent dynamic range, and I certainly never expected to hear any sort of well defined soundstage as I did. A few notable acoustic tracks that truly allowed me to appreciate this album as I never had before are "Tangerine" and "That's The Way", wonderful imaging and detail of the acoustic guitar on both. "Since I've Been Loving You" showed off the bottom end once again, and the electric guitar lead drew me into the bluesy feel of the song. I've always heard the buzzing of one the amplifiers on this track, as well as the squeak of the bass drum peddle action, but this time the sounds were better defined and separated. This CD player made me want to listen to this album again!
I decided to close this review with my thoughts on one of my favorite albums of all time; one of my desert island picks so to speak. Okay, so I admit it's a ridiculous concept, but this is one of those recordings that I would be very upset of which to be deprived. Carole King's "Tapestry" is such a beautifully performed and produced album. From her earthy vocals singing such emotion filled lyrics, with her wonderful piano accompaniment and other instrumentation, this was probably as close to the sound of vinyl than any other CD that I played (and I don't doubt in my entire library). I nearly sat there with my jaw on the floor this morning as the songs began to unfold before me with such emotion, cunning realism and warmth. The bass was punchy, deep and so well controlled, and again, that large soundstage of both width and depth filled my listening room. A sense of space surrounded each instrument and vocal.
The Music Van does a phenomenal job of making my Silverline Prelude loudspeakers just disappear from my listening room. James Taylor's accompanying acoustic guitar work extended far beyond the limits of my loudspeakers with stunning detail and clarity. Piano mid stage and slightly to the back, and as I closed my eyes I could imagine Carole playing and singing right there in my room; reproducing that slight rasp in her voice with a character that could fool me into thinking that I was listening to the vinyl copy. At times I sensed a hint of distortion in her vocal, but I believe that is present on the vinyl copy as well. During "It's To Late" the electric guitar solo came out of the far left with the wonderful timbre of a dry alto sax playing in the back slightly left of Carole. The vocal harmonies each had their own space as well. Let me tell you, Ms. King's voice was presented as naturally as the "Natural Woman" that she proclaims she feels like in the song on this album. This is an excellent remaster of one of the all time greatest popular recordings, and the Shenda Music Van presents the music just beautifully.
Bottom line on this fine player, I enthusiastically recommend the Shenda Music Van to anyone in the market for a CD player at any price point. Given the fact that it can be owned for just a little over $1000 (after replacing the stock tubes with ones that are more musical in nature, such as those which the review sample was fitted with), I feel that the Music Van is especially deserving of the Maximum Mojo Award. The Shenda Music Van is a very musical player indeed, one that I suspect will bring many more vinyl lovers to question their previous notions about digital music reproduction.
Would I purchase this CD player with my own hard earned dollars? Yes, I most most definitely would! And I did. The Shenda Music Van is and will be for the foreseeable future, my reference CD player of choice.
Mechanism & Servo: Philips L1210/S &
DAC: Crystal CS4396-KS
Frequency Response: 20Hz - 20KHz (=/-0.5dB)
Dynamic Range: >=96dB
THD: <=0.01% (1 KHz)
Channel Separation: >=96dB (1 KHz)
Analogue output level: 2.7V (47 Kohms)
Digital output level: 0.5VFp-p (75 Kohms)
Power supply: 120v/ 60Hz
Size: 430 x 370 x 102 mm (W x D XH)
Tube: 12AX7 x2, 12AT7 x2
Net weight: 15 kgs
Power consumption: 40W
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