The cynical, easy, and possibly common view of the Shanling MC-30, is that it’s a rather shameless attempt to separate trendy, design-conscious yuppies looking for an upscale iPod dock that stands out from the plastic rabble at the Apple Store from a thousand dollars. Not surprising, I suppose, given the MC-30’s dramatic looks and prominent iPod “cradle”, but, as I found out, quite unfair. While it seems squarely aimed at the white earbud crowd, the MC-30 is actually a very versatile CD receiver that can form the heart of a very good sounding audio system. The iPod functionality, ironically enough, is one of the Shanling’s major shortcomings. More on this below.
A sexy piece of industrial design, the MC-30 packs a single ended tube amplifier (3 watts!), a preamplifier (cleverly controlled by knobs in the tops of the front pillars, one for source selection and one for volume), an AM/FM tuner, and a CD player in a chassis accented by blue lighting around the CD mechanism and the faintly glowing orange tubes. Shimmering away in the corner of a darkened room it certainly does attract attention. My wife, generally intractably opposed to any audio equipment whatsoever, loved it, my two-year old insisted (strenuously) it be turned on and spinning a CD every time he was in the living room, but at least one friend found it gaudy and over the top. If you don’t love the way it looks then you’d likely be missing much of the point, and there’s plenty of anonymous looking gear out there for you to buy, if that’s your thing.
I began listening to the MC-30 as a CD player, via its preamp outputs (there are no direct, line-level outputs for the CD player or tuner) doing a bunch of casual listening over a few weeks to ensure that the brand new review sample was fully broken in. My initial impressions were very good, the CD player sounding smooth and un-fatiguing with no obvious shortcomings coming to the fore. More critical listening in the weeks that followed revealed a CD player of remarkable quality, capable of justifying the MC-30’s price on its own merits alone, and then some. Comparisons to my reference system (Audio Alchemy DDS pro, to Perpetual P-1 D to D converter, to Musical Fidelity A3 24 DAC) were surprisingly close (using, among other things, two copies of the XRCD edition of Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms), with my own gear sounding more solid and cohesive with finer treble detail and more clearly defined bass. The Shanling, however kept pace, lagging behind my much more expensive reference gear by a pretty narrow margin. Judging by some of their higher end products (including a quite stunning looking statement CD player with a price to match) and a lot of positive reviews over the years, Shanling knows a thing or two about building a CD player. It lacked the balls and dynamics of the recently reviewed Bryston BCD-1, which had just left when the Shanling arrived, but I didn’t want for much else with the much cheaper Chinese import. The MC-30 seems to be a lucky recipient of a corporate trickle-down effect, delivering resolution, smoothness, tonal accuracy and just plain and simple listenability that would be rare to find in a $1000 stand-alone CD player, much less a CD receiver.
Flea power notwithstanding I hooked my trusty Energy Veritas 1.8’s up to the Shanling to see what happened. The results were better than I expected from three watts, with big, lush soundstages and a pleasant mellowness, but left a great deal to be desired in the areas of dynamics and drive. Deep bass was largely MIA but the system would play surprisingly loud on some music without completely falling apart. The overall presentation, if quite liquid and smooth in the way that tube amp lovers go for, was, however, overly soft and flaccid with peak distortion becoming quite obvious when pushed, particularly on solo piano material. Of course, it’s entirely unfair to pair the Shanling with a 6 ohm, 87 dB efficient loudspeaker, but, by the same token, it is wise to put a three watt single ended tube amp in a CD receiver? I was hoping to run the MC-30 into a more appropriate speaker but was pulled away to New York again for work before I could lay my hands on a suitably efficient match (AM has some comments below about pairing the MC-30 with the new PSB Synchrony). Free of the peak distortion and with the extra balls that an 8 ohm loudspeaker with a 90-something or higher efficiency rating would provide, the MC-30 should provide sweet, tubey sound with solid imaging, big soundstages and lots of warmth and air.
Now just in case you might be still thinking about the MC-30 as an iPod-centric product, as a very conspicuous dock perhaps, the list of design oddities (missed opportunities?) grows ever longer. You may have noticed that I’ve called the Shanling’s iPod holder a “cradle” as opposed to a dock. A dock it ain’t. I was surprised and disappointed to find that the iPod functionality of the MC-30 consists of a curved aluminum perch and a 1/8” mini jack input (although they do supply a mini to mini cable). While this allows any device to be connected via that jack (a nod, perhaps, to the few people who use portable music players other than iPods) it provides no power to the player in question and forces the user to use the inferior headphone output rather than the line level output accessed via the dock connector. Hoping for a digital output from iPod to the Shanling’s (very good) D to A converter? Sadly, no, but at least signals from a portable player can take advantage of the Shanling’s very good preamp stage, even if the iPod, in this case, will always be sonically outshined by the MC-30’s CD player, if, for no other reason, because of its internal line level connection to the preamp. As for the tuner, I’m going to leave that discussion to AIG tuner guru Andrew Marshall, who will offer his thoughts on the MC-30’s FM performance below.
Certainly something of an oddball the MC-30 is, I suppose, what happens when a hi-fi company, with a knack for making good CD players and a predilection for single ended tubes, decides to make a “lifestyle product” without diluting their technology or approach to the lowest common denominator of the myriad iPod “docks” on the market. As the core of a desktop system, driving appropriately efficient speakers, or even as a standalone CD player, the Shanling is surprisingly and extremely good sounding, not to mention amazingly versatile. It certainly has its quirks, and may appear at first glance to be little more than a yuppie bauble, but the MC-30 packs value and performance into a bold and well made package. The single ended amplifier will narrow its appeal and just plain confound some folks who know nothing of such things (just as many will likely never notice that there’s a problem), but any product that can pack a great CD player, preamp and tuner into such a striking package, for only a thousand bucks, deserves recommendation.
Andrew Marshall on the MC-30’s Tuner
But it’s certainly the hottest receiver tuner in my memory (and it has plenty of these, too), and its digital sound character was somewhat softened by the tube output stage. Listening was through a pair of PSB Synchrony One Bs (review imminent), whose impedance characteristics are generally above 5 ohms and between 8 and 10 ohms except near the crossover. I found the sound slightly mellow and veiled, so it may just be that the amplifier’s frequency response tended to track the impedance curve, with a midrange dip and some bumpiness in the bass. In sum, the sound reminded me of some of the radios I recall from my youth with names like Grundig or Korting. I didn’t compare it directly with the CD player, so can’t attest to whether this character is echoed with disc play. It is an excellent tuner for a receiver, and definitely a value-added in this unusual and versatile component.
Related Reviews:PSB Synchrony One B Bookshelf Speaker and SubSeries HD10 Subwoofer
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