By Ken Micallef
Down Beat, 1 October 2004
Volume 71; Issue 10; ISSN: 00125768
Peak Performance: Shanling SCD-T200 SACD/CD Player Spins The Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East
Can an object of art turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse? Can modern high-tech remake old-fashioned live and lo-fi? Can the $2,695 Shanling SCD-T200 SACD/CD player deepen the listening experience of The Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East, a classic of improvisational blues rock now available on SACD?
Already twice remastered for CD, the Fillmore concert double disc, declared the Allman Brothers Band’s peak performance by drummer Butch Trucks, always sounded good even as a crusty LP. For a 1971 recording, At Fillmore East was clear, dynamic and punchy, from Duane Allman’s searing leads and Berry Oakley’s wiry bass tonnage to the doubledrummer finery of Trucks and Jaimoe.
In remastering the disc for SACD, Sony stepped into a potential minefield. Similar landmark SACD remasters, such as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, have received negative reviews, while Roxy Music’s Avalon is perhaps the best example of remastering rock for SACD. Toying with posterity and the beloved audio memories of millions is like messing with Mother Nature.
The Shanling SCD-T200 has a beauty that’s more than skin deep, incorporating both luscious looks and brilliant design. The T200 has been called a tarted-up Maverick SACD machine (both are imported by Roy Hall of Music Hall Audio) but it’s more than that. Designed in Italy and manufactured in China, the Shanling SCD-T200 features a four-tube design, both tubed and solid state output RCAs, one digital out, gold-plated headphone jack, a hefty high-end power cord and a brushed aluminum remote that is as functional as it is good-looking. At night, the T200’s four tubes, with their rounded sci-fi tube sentinels, give off a creamy azure glow. Together with the stunning flip-top plexiglass CD cover, which is also backlit in dreamy cobalt and stands atop the unit’s stainless steel body, the tubes give the T200 the appearance of a silent UFO parked in the middle of your living room. This top-loading player (Sony transport) places its machined stainless steel buttons atop the unit so as to keep its view entirely streamlined. Four heavy duty adjustable footers round out the Shanling, which measures 20.9 inches wide by 15 inches deep by 8.25 inches high, and weighs 25 pounds.
Before I considered the Shanling with the Allman Brothers’ SACD, I played CDs, from Miles Davis’ Miles Ahead to Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs For The Deaf. I only briefly used the player’s solid-state outputs, being a tube man from way back. I did not care for the T200’s solid-state sound, finding it brittle, spitty and flat. My preference for tubes may blind my judgment. Only in the maddest frequency extremes did the T200’s CD playback give anything up to more expensive SACD and universal machines (the T200 is SACD and two-channel only), sounding warm and plumy in the low registers, transparent and extended in the treble. Much attention was wisely paid to the T200’s midrange, a forceful and large-scale presentation that made almost all CDs sound grainfree detailed and dynamic. And there was still plenty of upper register air and sheen. Overall, the T200 is a musical machine.
The qualities the T200 showed on CD were compounded via SACD. As with all good SACD remasters or original recordings, At Fillmore East reveals many subtle details that made the music more alive, removing tons of audio grunge to expose a brilliant sonic presentation. Duane’s leads sting with greater grit, passion and bite. Drums kick with far more drive, with cymbal tone, bass drum definition and snare drum slap much improved. Instruments previously unheard, like Gregg Allman’s juke piano on “Done Somebody Wrong” or Duane’s or Dickey Betts’ delicate comping in “Stormy Monday,” now sound spookily lucid. Everything just swings harder and with increased physicality.
But focusing on single elements misses the depth of sound inherent in At Fillmore East. The SACD allows you to hear so much deeper into the performance, with much wider lateral and horizontal spread, that you are enveloped in the performance and it becomes more vibrant, not simply a ’70s masterpiece but an archival document laid so bare that it is practically virtual reality. Instead of a 10th-row seat with distracting hall ambience, At Fillmore East now places you front-row center and almost on the bandstand. Happily, the SACD doesn’t neuter the slightly forced treble extension of the tape master in favor of a warmer rolled-off sound, but leaves it all intact with every wire snare buzz, crowd applause, cymbal tizz and microphone brush exposed in full glory.
Though neither the most expensive nor recorded with modern technology, the Shanling SCD-T200 and At The Fillmore East make the case for SACD as well as anything on the market.
Copyright Maher Publications Division Oct 2004