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It’s always heartening to find a product that gives a taste of high-end sound performance at a realistic price. And if that’s a giveaway to the outcome of this CD player’s all-important listening tests, so be it. Before we get there though, it’s worth looking over the mechanics of what’s on offer here.
   Like other products in the company’s range such as the entry-level AT3000 CD player and the pre/power amplifers, the AT3500 is built around a sturdy metal chassis with extruded alloy side panels with a heavy-gauge top plate. Styled in a dark silver finsih, the overall look is purposeful rather than glamorous.
   Over and above the company’s entry-level AT3000 CD player, the ’3500 offers the option of upsampling to 24/96 digital format, before feeding the same Burr-Brown PCM1738 DAC chip used in the ’3000. The upsampling clock takes its own dedicated power supply, and all power for the player comes, unusually, from a C-core transformer. Not as popular today as the near-ubiquitous toroidal type, the C-core transformer was found to offer identical sound quality but, importantly, appreciable savings in cost, allowing the parts budget to be distributed elsewhere.
   Other enhancements include a liberal smattering of polystyrene capacitors, as well as large audiophile-grade caps from Auricap. These were chosen by the designers – along with the rebiasing of the DAC’s IC filters into Class A – to tune out the final remnants of a ‘strident’ quality found in earlier iterations.

PLAY AND DISPLAY
In use, the AT3500 was found to have mildly tardy transport controls when skipping tracks, and a button press of the remote sometimes resulted in two ‘skip’ commands being read. Otherwise the player behaved well, with the clear front display usefully showing total and current track numbers together. Upsampling can be engaged either from the fascia controls or from the comfort of the sofa via the remote.

SOUND QUALITY
In marked contrast to most CD players at this price point – and even too many at twice the price – the AT3500 has a free-flowing character, seemingly not hemmed in either dynamically nor in treble extension. But first a word about the upsampling option.
   Given the choice of upsampling to 24/96 or not, it’s worth mentioning that even in standard 16/44.1 replay, this is a very well sorted CD player. Switching in upsampling introduced some further widening of an already impressively wide soundstage, and pushed that stage back a foot or two; but it is not an essential requirement to get great sound from the AT3500. In fact, on some discs I really did find myself preferring the marginally thicker, more corporeal sound in standard replay, where I could also better appreciate the player’s understated rhythmic drive. Note that this was while played through a highly resolving and wideband high-end system. Used with amps and speakers more fitting of the AT3500’s relatively modest price, the additionally refined effect with upsampling switched on may well be the preferred full-time option.
   The player’s flowing character was manifest as a delicacy of touch when playing melodically descriptive orchestral passages, letting the tonal colours of instruments shine through. From the promenade of Pictures at an Exhibition that Mussorgsky titles ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’, the AT3500 was able to present delicate woodwind and strings that truly evoked a pastiche of twittering canaries, and when the theme was echoed in the seventh promenade with an accent on strings and brass, you could hear the easy, natural tone of orchestral violins, fleet and resonant, with effectively no ‘digital’ strain.
   There was a well-lit perspective on all recordings, showing plenty of presence in the upper mid and treble, all the while never sounding ‘bright’ or wearing. This single attribute alone deserves commendation, since this is often the achilles’ heel of many a CD  player. They either cover their tracks by tuning in a darker presentation to conceal edgy confusion here, or show their true colours in the name of ‘detail’, with a metallic plating that introduces listening fatigue after the initial glossy presentation tires the ear. This Astin Trew has no such concerns.

PEELING LAYERS
Layer after layer was being peeled away in Massive Attack’s masterfully produced Mezzanine, and ‘Dissolved Girl’ stood out as an apt example, with looped sample guitar and low dub bass joined by deliberate distortion artefacts, kick drum and percussion, before Sarah Jay’s breathy vocal took centre focus. To hear this level of resolution and sure-footed musicality is just about unheard of at this price.
   As if the open and transparent sound of the AT3500 were not already making a good impression, it’s worth noting that it’s a relatively painless task to experiment with different grades of valves in its output stage. And since only one ECC88/6922 is used, there’s no niggling doubts about pair matching to get consistent results on both stereo channels. I tried a NOS Philips 6922 provided by Astin Trew, substituting for the existing Golden Dragon, and heard more air and in-room presence, not to say bass weight, on the Squirrel Nut Zipper’s ‘Ghost of Stephen Foster’ [Perennial Favourites, Mammoth 354 980 169]. Meanwhile the Yiddish fiddle intro and cymbal shimmers introduced more spine-tingling atmosphere. So a little experimentation with glassware here can reap further useful dividends. 

VERDICT

A highly accomplished CD player regardless of budget, and all the more impressive given its £1150 price, able to play music across any genre without fear or favour. It has a natural flow and great grasp of dynamics, well-timed bass without unnecessary added weight and classy, sweet treble that can beguile. A very easy player to recommend for its silky seductive sound quality.

 

Originally published in the February 2008 issue