For the best part of 2007 my regular CD player has been ASTINtrew’s At3000. I like it very much – my only (slight) misgiving being the way it sounded when used in its 24bit/96kHz upsampling mode. The new At3500 looks virtually identical to the At3000, and offers much the same mix in terms of features and facilities. However, internally it’s a different story. The At3500 has a higher specification digital clock, with an accuracy of 5 parts per million (ppm) and its own dedicated low-noise isolating power supply. At normal operating temperatures the makers claim that distortion is held to less than 2ppm – an exceedingly low figure.
Another improvement is the inclusion of a second isolating power supply for the upsampling clock. This is claimed to reduce digital distortion, while improving the isolation of digital components from the power supply. Other power supplies on the DAC board have been upgraded and improved. Higher quality capacitors have been used in critical parts of the circuit, including Auricaps for the output of the DAC and buffer amp. Finally, the At3500 has improved feet for better damping of vibration and isolation. These upgrades can be retro-fitted to an existing At3000 (which continues to be available at a price of £647) at a cost of around £650, while the new At3500 costs £1150. ASTINtrew’s Michael Osborne worked on these changes and upgrades in conjunction with Graham Fowler of Trichord Research, but is keen to point out that the solutions chosen for the At3500 differ from those used in Trichord’s own CD players and low-jitter Clocks. He also warns that, when brand new, the At3500 needs something like a fortnight of continuous burn-in time before the sound reaches its optimum. And while the At3500 sounded quite good straight from the box, it does ease-up and open-out after a week or two. He puts this long burn-in time down to the use of the Auricaps.
The new At3500 retains the clarity and lucidity of the At3000, but sounds freer and more natural. Its musical presentation is very smooth and beautifully integrated. The sound has plenty of bite and attack, yet the upper treble remains sweet and very clean. There’s a nice fullness and warmth about the sound. The bottom end sounds deeper and fuller too. Bass lines emerge with greater weight and presence, sounding lucid and clean with considerable power. CDs that normally sound thin and bright are reproduced with greater warmth and richness. Yet there’s no loss of brilliance or immediacy – actually, quite the reverse.
The 24bit/96kHz up-sampling option seems to work a lot better on the new player than it did on the At3000. Superficially, there’s much the same increase in separation, fine detail and lucidity, but the At3500 sounds more cohesive and integrated. You get increased clarity, but with less sense of the music being pulled apart. Set to 24bit /96kHz, the At3000 produced somewhat mixed results. In hi-fi terms the sound was definitely clearer and better-separated, but the music seemed nicer and more together in the standard mode. On a quick A/B comparison, 24/96 seemed to win out every time. But in the longer term it wasn’t as satisfying to listen to, losing that all important sense of musical coherence.
The new player performs more consistently. Switching to 24/96 brings increased separation between voices and instruments, and this definitely works with some CDs. If a more integrated and homogenous sound is required, going back to the standard mode produces a smoother more blended result. Being closer in overall accomplishment actually makes both options eminently usable. I still find the standard mode slightly easier for general listening. While it’s not quite as detailed, and there’s less separation between voices and instruments, the music falls a little more easily on the ear. But I can live with either option and, depending on the music playing at the time, the ability to switch can be very welcome indeed.
Something else I investigated with the At3500 is how well it performs on damaged or ‘faulty’ CDs. Some of my wife’s dodgy Chinese pop CDs jumped, skipped, or produced rhythmic hissing noises on the new player, yet they had played perfectly on the At3000. A couple of my UK pressed CDs were problematic too. However, on the vast majority of discs the At3500 performed impeccably. Choosing a particular CD with known problems, I compared the At3500 to the CD/SACD multi-players I was also reviewing at the time. I wondered if players able to reproduce SACD might handle problem discs better. Not so! The At3500 was easily the best so far as fault-free playback was concerned. On the chosen disc, all the CD/SACD multi-players produced clicks and dropouts. One actually failed to play the disc at all – the clock showed the laser skating back and forth trying to lock onto the signal. Rather than relying on memory, I did actually go back to the At3000 for a quick listen. For some reason it proved even more sure-footed on problem discs than the At3500. Trying the disc that had troubled the CD/SACD multi-players (and the At3500 slightly) it produced a perfectly clean sound – no clicks, hisses, or dropouts. Alas, there was a downside; the At-3000’s sound wasn’t as good! Having lived with (and got used to) the At3500 for a couple of months, the At3000 sounded noticeably thinner and less substantial in terms of tonal body and weight. It was good, but the richness and tonal body I’d taken for granted suddenly wasn’t there any more. There seemed to be less ‘power’, and a reduced sense of presence. On pop music, the sound produced seemed more ‘processed’ and electronic, without the fullness and integration produced by the At3500.