A welcome newcomer to the scene, offering a slightly different take on the all-in-one genre from both sonic and practical viewpoints. Self-sufficient, but also upgradeable, it should serve both well and long.
An appealing combination of melodious sound – with confident underpinning when required
Smart looks and thoughtful features
Not the last word in detail
Slight emphasis on the midrange will not please all tastes, nor ensure the widest speaker compatibility.
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Any resemblance to Shanling's single-purpose CD players is obviously no accident, but this machine does a lot more than that. The MC300 features a 60-Watt amplifier, an FM tuner and an iPod dock, making it truly the only electronic component many folks will need for a stereo sound system in the modern manner.
Just in case you wish to add a few frills there are three line inputs: there is no digital input of any kind, though, so if computer audio's your thing you'll need a good analogue-out sound card or something like the Cambridge Audio DacMagic. You do get a digital output (from the CD player), a preamp output and a video output, which relays a video iPod's display to a TV screen if required.
At first glance, one might easily think this is an all-valve amplifier. There are certainly some valves there and the three cans at the back look for all the world like the classic lineup of mains transformer and two output transformers. But the valves are small-signal devices and power amplification is handled by transistors, the right and left cans housing the relevant circuits and their heatsinks.
The rest of the circuitry is mounted under the top plate on several immaculately assembled boards. Apart from a few components, which are only available as surface-mount types, Shanling has used exclusively through-hole components and we were impressed to find that most of these are of remarkably high quality, especially the op-amps. The CD player board, for instance, uses four single op-amps of very high performance, really quite a deluxe touch in a product at this price.
No doubt in the interests of easy assembly and serviceability, Shanling has linked the circuit boards mostly with push-on connectors. In principle this puts more connections in the signal path than one might wish for, but that's probably not the biggest compromise in the world.
What did slightly bother us, though, was the discovery that the FM input socket (and f-type connector aimed at the US market – adaptors to the UK type only cost a couple of pounds) is linked by two distinctly non-ideal bits of wire to the tuner module inside. At FM radio frequencies, even a couple of inches of the wrong type of wire can compromise performance with weak signals. Incidentally, that tuner (a good-quality unit from specialist maker Kwang Sung) does have an AM input, but Shanling has chosen not to enable it.
Operation of the unit is straightforward, and we particularly like the way the input selector and volume control knobs are cunningly disguised as part of the front left and right support cylinders. As is common these days, some functions are only available from the remote control, including manual FM tuning, which means that without the remote the tuner could quickly become completely non-functional – all you can do from the unit itself is change between presets.
Unlike several of Shanling's CD-only players, there is no option to select different digital filters. A headphone socket is concealed on the right-hand side.
With so many options on offer it seems best to start with performance when playing CDs as that is likely to be the core of existence for most MC3000s in the field. And it's a good standard of performance that is offered, one that we feel can probably justify the asking price quite irrespective of FM and iPod capabilities. It does have some slight idiosyncrasies, though...
The most surprising thing we found with the MC3000 is its tonality. Most CD players and amps these days are pretty close to neutral, but in comparisons with various familiar references we consistently felt that this unit had a distinct lift in the upper midrange. For reasons we can only conjecture (measured response is as flat as the proverbial pancake) there's a slight, but consistent lift to female voice and the fundamental frequencies of many melody instruments, which gives the sound a highly appealing lightness of touch.
As a slight potential downside of that, bass isn't necessarily the most immediately gripping we've ever heard, but it's got some decent heft to it when required and unless your speakers are already a bit marginal for bass quantity and quality, it's unlikely to make or break the MC3000's appeal.
It's also good to report that there's some fine rhythmic drive in evidence, with plenty of life and 'kick', plus excellent timing integrity between the registers. High treble is clear and precise, not markedly forward or recessed though occasionally a touch dry. Power delivery is assured and confident, though overload is distinctly obvious when it does eventually occur.
That's the nuts and bolts of it. The practical result of all this is a sound that is invariably strong on melody and basic communication, with enough detail and analytical skill to convey accompanying instruments with convincing layering and spatial precision.
We have some slight reservations about the ultimate level of detail and for sure there's ground lost in this department to the best standalone CD players and amps in the £500 to £1,000 bracket. The sound is just a little hazy at the edges, not in an offensive or obtrusive way, but just perceptibly on those odd occasions when one tries to hear exactly what is happening in the middle, or at the back, of a mix.
We'd hazard a guess that both this and the tonality qualities noted above are down to a small, but not quite vanishing amount of low-harmonic distortion which we found on test – just enough to give a little subtle colour to the sound.
We felt the FM tuner is decent, rather than outstanding – its rejection of interference from nearby stations isn't brilliant and in urban situations this can be an annoying drawback. As for the iPod dock, the sound from it largely follows the performance with CD, suggesting that most of the character is in the amplifier part of the unit.
There are more advanced all-in-one units available, but Shanling's combination of audiophile and user-convenience features is well-judged for the space-constrained audio buff and we're happy to give the MC3000 a cheerful recommendation.