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From Hi-Fi World - June 2009 issue

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Two Trew

astintrew_at3500


Initially very well received, the Astin Trew AT3500 CD player has now been upgraded to this Plus variant. Paul Rigby wonders if the new model is worth the extra outlay...


 

One of the problems of upgrading any part of your hi-fi is that, once you change one box from a settled, balanced, rack, it can throw the entire system out of kilter - sometimes in unexpected ways. For example, I remember using a Linn Axis turntable very successfully with a Rega Mira amp and a pair of KEF Q55 floorstanding speakers. Then I ‘upgraded’ my £500 amp to a £1,400 pre/power Naim replacement – and all hell broke loose. I was totally unprepared for it and never realised that my warm Mira was keeping the brightly lit KEFs at bay, forming a synchronous bond. Minutes after the change I was unhappy with my hi-fi, and it cost me a packet and years of saving to replace several boxes to, once again, find the right balance. I never took system synergy for granted again...

 

Owners of the Astin Trew AT3500, who have been charmed by its playback qualities but who feel that they are now ready to move along the upgrade ladder may be worrying about a similar fate. “Should I upgrade or am I asking for trouble?”, they might wonder. Surely, what’s needed is a CD player that provides essentially the same playback characteristics but which does it better. So what they need is another Astin Trew, but a better Astin Trew! And that folks is exactly what the company is proposing with the AT3500plus, available as a standalone unit for £1,399 or a £220 upgrade...

 

The casework for both players is identical, measuring 430x340x110mm, weighing in at a heavy 9.1kg and comprising mostly anodised aluminium. The top plate is resonance damped and the conical feet are made from a self damping composite material. In fact, the feet have been so effective for Astin Trew that the company now sells them as replacement parts for other products and are priced at £29.90.

 

The sparse controls remain in their familiar positions with an on/off button and function keys arrayed at the front and a basic set of RCA outputs plus a digital out on the rear, leaving many of the extra functions (i.e. Repeat, Mute, etc.) to the remote control. The display remains quite poor however. It is cramped and often requires assistance from Bletchley Park to fathom out...

 

The one frontal control of note is the upsampling button, rated at 24bit/96kHz. A contentious feature and much in fashion currently, its task is to effectively double the frequency of the digital number crunching - which shifts it out of the audio band where digital’s weaknesses are audible - and then divide it back down again so we can hear it, minus digital nasties. Some think you lose more on the swings than you gain on the roundabouts as it were, but it’s fair to say that most audiophiles wanting machines at this price point think it’s a worthwhile feature, giving a smoother and more atmospheric sound. The CD tray is fronted by a clear fascia, behind which is a Philips CD12 mechanism and associated Burr Brown PCM1738 DAC.

“After completing the AT3500, I knew I could do more,” said Astin Trew boss, Michael Osborn, “hence the plus. I’ve been an inveterate dabbler for many years and so have worked out many tricks of the trade which are easy to do as a one-off but not so easy in production.”

 

Whilst creating the plus, one labour intensive improvement was to add dampers on all of the integrated circuits on the DAC, bonding them with thermal glue – a feature sometimes found on very high-end CD players. The glue also acts as a heatsink which allows each element to work rather more efficiently. “I have a colleague who is also adamant that this process acts as a RF shield,” said Osborn, “which might well be the case. It’s a simple solution but a bloody fiddle doing it.”

 

Other improvements include upgrades to the internal cabling from the DAC board to the buffer amp and the buffer amp to the output, replaced with the very highest quality pure copper. Previously, the AT3500 used a regular audio quality coaxial, silver plated, multistrand. The final modification is an upgraded buffer valve from the standard Electro Harmonix EC88 model – a good production model – to a Philips JAN (Joint Army Navy) valve which ceased production around 1963. This is new, old-stock model but there’s still plenty out there.

 

The plus option can be ordered as an upgrade for your standard AT3500 but markets such as Germany are already selling the plus model as standard. While the basic AT3500 is created in a factory in China, the work for the upgrade is all done in the UK.

SOUND QUALITY

Testing was done with the upsampling feature turned off on both boxes, to give the competing units a level playing field and to negate possible extraneous readings created by my reference system. Although it came highly recommended by editor DP, I personally had never heard an AstinTrew AT3500 before, so this aural comparison was doubly enlightening and, after running the Sugarbabes’ ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’’ ‘Stronger’ (Island) I became an instant fan. Gone were the ear-piercing vocals generated via excessive peak limiting and, while the cymbals hardly danced with fragility, they were nicely tamed. The AT3500’s natural sweetness and warmth lends itself well to unruly, chart-based, CDs. Detail retrieval was startling, taking the secondary harmony vocal from the middle-eight and turning it into a floating spectral piece.

 

I did sense a slight slowness in rhythm that prevented me tapping my feet, however. The Astin seemed to be stepping carefully, like a the first steps after a broken leg, not wanting to put a foot wrong - or was it hunting for yet more detail to present before it moved onto the next musical bar? Synth runs were tracked easily and successfully and with more assurance than my other favourite in this field, the Roksan K2, whilst further surprises lay in the sweeping synth strings. This section generated large waves of deep bass that marched across the entire sound stage like those advancing arrows during the title sequence of Dad’s Army. My One Thing Audio Quad ‘57s never knew what him ‘em!

 

The shock continued with Can’s ‘Yoo Doo Right’ from ‘Monster Movie’ (Mute) where the strong bass presence appeared to extend the soundstage – not to the left and right, there is a slight restriction there – but downwards. Such was the drum presence which weighted the Quads firmly to the floor. Guitars sang with a particularly metallic freedom and splendour where I heard a definite sequence of feedback. To finish, Malcolm Mooney’s vocal works were heaped with emotional enunciation and variation offering an arresting blend.

 

On to Carol Kidd’s ’Dreamsville’ (Linn) and ‘A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square’ and a beautiful acoustic guitar solo during the middle-eight that confirmed that excellent upper mid and treble detail. Nigel Clark’s highly complex finger-picking run was easily tracked – no mean feat. Kidd’s vocal performance was atmospherically breathy and sweet whilst the cymbals had just enough air underneath them to lend a sense of delicacy to the proceedings.

 

Running the plus variant alongside the basic AT3500 produced an intriguing contrast. For all three review CDs I was initially bamboozled. Having listened to the basic model all day, the plus sounded like it wanted to further reign in the limited soundstage width whilst rearranging the furniture for that basic mix for each CD...


astintrew-at-3500whiterear


 

In fact, it took a couple of minutes to realise what was going on. The basic AT3500 was acting, in effect, like an ink pen touching a piece of blotting paper. Each note was blurring slightly making each instrumental presentation overlap, producing a foggy arrangement and an illusion of extra soundstage width. The plus, on the other hand, was taking every musical element and giving each a tremendous amount of focus.

 

With the added focus came a sense of real clarity where each mix started to make sense. On the Sugarbabes track, for example, the synth washes, for the first time, were free to dominate the flanks of the soundstage providing a base track that, with some help from the improved valve buffer, added grandeur to the song. Bass sounded immediately more in control and sat well in the centre of an improved stereo image.

 

For the Can track, the practical effect of the added focus was akin to the plus reaching deep into the mix to extract new and enhanced details from its very heart. Drums offered a greater sense of maturity whilst the bass adopted a newly polished presentation. The more complex drum pieces found the improvements offered by the plus a positive boon as each was unscrambled with aplomb. In fact, the plus version of ‘Yoo Doo...’ was evidently more confident, providing power and finesse where needed without any sense of strain.

 

That polish was also applied to Kidd’s vocals on her vocal jazz release as a result of smoothing any extraneous harmonics while treble-flavoured cymbals positively shimmered. The principle beneficiary in the improved sound was the piano which, although taking a back seat during that acoustic guitar solo, now, because of the enhanced clarity, adopted more of a partnering role in the break.


CONCLUSION

The brilliance of the regular AT3500 is that it has a certain euphony that’s so desperately needed in the barren world of budget separates hi-fi. But improve your ancillaries and you’re left craving the same warm basic ‘fingerprint’, but with greater detail and focus. The new AT3500plus does just this, improving the dynamic nature of the presentation allowing the ear to pick up new information that previously sat behind the relatively fuzzy and foggy harmonics. For prospective CD player buyers, Astin Trew has, once again, raised the bar for audiophile sound quality at an affordable price for current Astin Trew AT3500 CD owners. The plus upgrade may be the best £220 you’ve ever spent.

 

 

verdict 4

ASTINTREW AT3500 £1,179

Highly musical player with a pleasingly sweet nature and an arrestingly strong bass.


FOR

- exuberant sound

- expansive presentation

- detail retrieval

- bass power


AGAINST

- slightly slurred bass

- lack of focus

- cramped display

 


verdict five globes

ASTINTREW AT3500plus £1,399

Offering a crisp and clear focus that allows hidden detail to be extracted, the plus is an essential upgrade for all current AT3500 owners.


FOR

- super clarity

- finer focus

- enhanced detail

- dynamic articulation


AGAINST

- cramped display

AstinTrew

+44 (0)1491 629 629

www.astintrew.co.uk

 

 

MEASURED PERFORMANCE

The At3500+ has a very flat frequency response with no high frequency roll down or low frequency lift, so it will display a good sense of tonal balance, veering toward some sheen in the treble. Results were identical at 44.1 or with 96kHz upsampling.

 

Distortion levels were lower than the earlier standard version, measuring a low 0.18% at -60dB with 24/96 selected. The Astintrew is linear and has a good measured dynamic range value of 110dB.

 

A continuing area of concern in this player lies in the jitter that exists on the digital output and is likely to affect analogue stages; it measured a high 200pS random, and up to 800pS with programme - high values. Better re-clocking is needed.

 

The At3500+ measures well in all areas except jitter, improving slightly on the earlier standard At3500. NK


Frequency response (-1dB)

CD 4Hz-21.1kHz


Distortion (%)

0dB 0.008

-6dB 0.03

-60dB 0.18

-80dB 2.6


Separation (1kHz) 115dB

Noise (IEC A) -110dB

Dynamic range 110dB

Jitter 500pS

Output 2.4V


FREQUENCY RESPONSE

astintrew-at3500fr


 

DISTORTION

astintrewat350024-96thd
 

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