Product: Astin Trew AT3500 CD player
Manufacturer: Astin Trew - UK
Cost: 1150 UKP (YMMV)
Reviewer: Maarten van Casteren - TNT UK
Reviewed: April, 2008
Astin Trew is a relatively new English audio brand run by Michael Osborn. He started the company less than 3 years ago and in that time managed to produce a preamp, a power amp, an integrated amp and two CD players. Quite an accomplishment, especially as all these products look really mature. Astin Trew claim to offer products with a natural and 'musical' sound and, to achieve this, use hybrid designs combining solid state and valve technologies. The power amp and integrated amp use valves with transistor output stages, for example. All units use the same casework with minor modifications to keep cost down and create a good match when used as a system. Everything is designed in England, mostly by Michael, but build in China to keep things affordable. The CD player under review here is the better one of the two, and basically an upgraded version of the more affordable AT3000. Both players have been getting reviews to die for, so I was very keen to find out more.
Of course, CD players are rapidly becoming obsolete, being replaced by computer based sound systems and, perhaps, new high definition media like Blue-ray. A simple 'red book' CD player is sooo last century. Still, strangely enough, this is Astin Trew's best selling product. Obviously we silly, old fashioned audiophiles are not alone, or there’s more of us than I thought.
The player certainly makes an excellent first impression, with its stylish case work and good build quality. My sample came in silver, but the player is also available with a black front. Everything looks and feels just right. The CD tray opens and closes in a deliciously smooth way due to the CD mechanism being fitted to a vibration damping platform. The tray is set in a mirror finished section which also contains the display and two indicator LEDs, for power and upsampling. That last option is the only ‘special feature’ on this machine: it can be switched between standard CD bit rate at 16 bit / 44.1 kHz and upsampling to 24 bits / 96 kHz. This option is also available from the remote control, but switching does take a couple of seconds.
This switchable upsampling is something that intrigues me, to be honest. I have just reviewed the Audio Note CD1.1x CD player, which uses no upsampling nor any filtering at all. Anti-alias filtering is recognised nowadays as one of the reasons CD replay can be less than perfect. A very steep filter is normally used to cut out everything over 22 kHz, but steep filters have unwanted sonic side effects. The reason for upsampling, or oversampling for that matter, is to avoid these steep filters, as the first aliases are now moved to a higher frequency. But upsampling comes at a price too, as it basically is a complicated digital conversion, involving a complete remapping of the signal to a higher bitrate. The Audio Note player proved to me that removing all digital processing and all filtering can be a very good thing indeed. The Astin Trew player does not change its analogue filters when upsampling is switched off, ending up with a comparable situation, in theory, with a standard bit rate and a gentle filter.
The output stage uses a single ECC88 double triode valve, in a hybrid configuration with transistors. The standard valve that comes with the player is an Electro-Harmonix 6922, but Astin Trew can provide a Philips JAN 6922 NOS valve as an upgrade for about £20. I got a sample of both valves with the player. In addition I was able to try the very special EAT ECC88 too, but more about that later. A two part design silicone valve damper is provided with the player.
For the rest this is pretty much a standard CD player. It only provides RCA outputs, no balanced ones, and has a single coaxial digital output. Differences with the more affordable AT3000 include a better master clock with dedicated power supply, various component upgrades, better power supply, RDC feet and Auricap output capacitors.
The AT3500 was used with my Django transformer preamp, my Electrocompaniet ECI-2, used as a power amp, and my Dynaudio Contour 1.8 mk2 speakers. In addition a Vincent SP-331MK power amp was also used at a later stage. Other CD players present at the time were the Audio Note CD1.1x and the North Star Sapphire.
I very much liked this player from the first moment I started using it. It had been reviewed by someone else before me, so was well burned in, and was already fitted with the Philips JAN valve. I started with upsampling switched off and was immediately impressed by what I heard. The overall sound is warm-ish, without deviating from neutrality too much. This is a smooth sounding, pleasant machine that will let you listen to your CD collection for as long as you like, without ever causing fatigue. That in itself is a good reason to like it, but in the case of the Astin Trew there aren't the usual compromises involved in making it sound so relaxing. It does have excellent, deep and agile bass, it does have very good resolution and the top end is beautifully open and detailed. With the AT3500 you can both have your cake and eat it, it seems.
The signature property of this player must be its lovely rich midrange. It adds body and warmth to the whole sound and works particularly well with voices, as you would expect. The best thing about this warmth is that it is more or less limited to the midrange. The bass isn't overly warm at all, but actually nicely tight and tuneful. This allows the player to have a warm and full sound without being woolly, soft or too dark in overall presentation. The same is true for the top end. No softness or lack of detail or attack here either.
I do have to admit that I initially thought this midrange warmness was perhaps a little bit of a trick. Of course things will sound better when you add a bit of valve warmth to the midrange. Anybody can do that. Except that they don't, and it's probably more difficult to do right than you might think. More exposure to the sound of this player proved that this isn't just a cleverly voiced player, but a very good player that also has a very pleasant and musical overall balance. The most important thing is that I never, ever felt that it sounded dark or inappropriately warm in the midrange. To me it simply sounds 'right', for lack of a better word.
In comparison to the rather good Audio Note CD1.1x player I reviewed a few weeks ago the AT3500 certainly does sound a little bit softer at times, but this is not because it is lacking anything; this is purely because the Audio Note is such a vibrant and lively performer. And in the case of the Audio Note player this does come at a slight price, as it isn’t as refined in the top end as the Astin Trew. The comparison does show that more is possible, but it also demonstrates what a great job Osborn has done at designing and voicing this player. The overall balance is about as good as I've experienced. And the sound is very coherent and natural.
Comparing the AT3500 to the North Star Sapphire (review will be out soon) shows them to be very close in sound quality, especially when the Astin Trew is set to upsampling. The Sapphire is a very sophisticated CD player, and will perhaps appeal a little bit more to people who appreciate detail and precision. On the other hand, the AT3500 has the edge over the Sapphire in weight and physicality, especially in non-upsampling mode. Overall I would call it a draw, and it will depend on listener preference and system context which player will be preferred.
Spatially the Astin Trew performs fine too, with good depth and decent width. Without upsampling the whole soundstage comes more forward, without being in your face. Switch upsampling on and there's a noticeable increase in width. The tonal balance also seems to become a little bit more ethereal and individual instruments are slightly better separated in space.
I do have to say that I mostly preferred the AT3500 with upsampling switched off. I hasten to add that my thoughts about filtering and digital processing only followed after I had developed this preference. I didn't have any expectation about which setting should be better. Some other reviewers preferred upsampling, while other ones didn't. The simple fact is that in my system the music sounds more natural and physical with upsampling switched off. The introduction of the rather large class-A Vincent power amp in my system changed my preference a little bit, to the extent that I now preferred upsampling on some recordings. I suspect that the added weight and substance that the Vincent brings to the music diminishes the need for the CD player to provide such strengths, but to be honest I'm not completely sure what caused this change.
Another definite property of the Astin Trew is its ability to be very delicate. Its tonal purity helps with this and enables it to be quite subtle if needed. At the same time there's an articulated effortlessness that can be captivating at times. There's also an impression of quietness, a really nice black background if you like to put it that way. This creates a bit more space between instruments, and gives a bit more depth to the whole picture. Most CD players sound a tad busy and hurried, but the AT3500 sounds relaxed without being slow. It takes all the stress out of listening, but is still very engaging at the same time. All of this without anything dominating at the cost of something else and with a very even-handed and balanced overall presentation.
These observations are based on the player with the Philips JAN valve installed. I also tried the Electro-Harmonix and found that one to be a little bit less refined. The player is still very good with this valve, with a good midrange that still has that nice richness. It is the frequency extremes that become a bit less special, with less texture in the bass and a bit more roughness in the top end. I think the JAN valve is a very good investment, given its low price. I also tried the expensive EAT ECC88 valve, which was even better, but I’ll write a dedicated review on that one in a few weeks.
Finally, the player was also used in a friend's system, consisting of an Anatek A50 integrated amp and a pair of Focal JMlab Chorus 714s speakers. It worked very well in there too, for the same reasons mentioned above. The only difference was that my friend had a strong preference for the upsampled mode. That just shows how variable things can be, and how useful that switchable upsampling option is.
I've been looking for a decent CD player for a while now and I've reviewed about a dozen without finding one I liked enough to invest in. CD players just aren't very inspiring machines, it seems, being either quite disappointing sonically or simply unaffordable. It has been difficult to become excited about something so straight forward as a CD player. Until now, that is.
The AT3500 is so smooth, articulate, warm and shamelessly musical that it is impossible not to become enthusiastic about it. The fact that none of these wonderful attributes come at a price makes it about as perfect as one could expect, given the asking price. I don't know if it is the valve output stage, the fact that upsampling can be switched off or just very good voicing that does this. But I know that the end result is great sound.
This player represents brilliant value. Build quality is excellent and the sound is the best I've experienced at this price level. The fact that this has been achieved by a one man company is difficult to believe. This product shows that there's still plenty of life in the British audio industry and also that two channel audio is not dead yet. If you are looking for a CD player up to about £1500 then this is a product you simply have to hear. I for one would be surprised if you didn't end up buying it. I bought it, and that is the highest recommendation I can give.
© Copyright 2008 Maarten van Casteren - www.tnt-audio.com
From a designers / manufacturers point of view, it is difficult to make any comments that will add further insight or clarity to this review. If I were to write a review of the AT3500 myself, I'm not sure I could improve on this one. Our aim was to develop a CD player that makes CD's sound like music - at an affordable price. Sounds like I've done it for Maarten. It has to be said that the AT3500 is winning top reviews in the quality audio magazines all around the world and this is very gratifying after all our development work and critical listening.
The future of high end audio is about to be turned on its head; digital
data streaming and music servers will eventually overtake the CD as digital
sources of choice. It will however still take the likes of Astin Trew to make
these data sources sound like music - watch this space
www.astintrew.co.uk - meanwhile, keep
listening to CD's, they make music now!.