[SoundStage!]Fringe with Greg Smith
Back Issue Article
January 1998

Introduction to Fringe

Here on Fringe, we don't just play around in our controlled listening rooms at home. High-end audio can easily become something that invades your entire life, and I'd say this is perfectly reasonable and desirable if you're a real music fan. Portable systems of all types are going to be one recurring topic here in Fringe, a column I'm going to devote every month to all manner of non-traditional audio activities and products. You want reviews of preamps and interconnect cables? Those are available all over. If you want to build preamps and interconnect cables, I'll be giving suggestions. Essentially, I'll be trying to shine some light into the dark corners of audio reproduction, looking at things that all the traditional review coverage you'll read ignores. Our mantra is Specialized Solutions for Specialized Problems.

Panasonic SL-S320 Portable CD Player

To start the ball rolling, I wanted to look at a product that will pop up repeatedly over the next few months. If you want to get music on the go, you'll need a source that travels with you. I'd been meaning to get a new portable to replace my aged Sony Discman, and I'm quite convinced that particular brand name is worthless at this point (while having lots of features and good sound quality, the current models I see are hugely overpriced and I hear numerous reliability complaints). When I finally needed to plop down some cash, I called up the portable music gurus at HeadRoom. They periodically test a bunch of portables to find ones that don't sound like a dog scratching at your door. Poor sound quality is rampant for cheap CD players, because the fact that most people just don't give a damn means there's little accountability for nasty sonics. You never know what will screw you over; could be a crummy clock, could be a cheap DAC, or it might be the ever popular pathetic headphone jack.

HeadRoom's current pick for the best available portable CD player they know of is available on the page devoted to their Quantum Headphone System. At the moment, that's the Panasonic SL-S320. I bought one from them, as they sell them for $119. Also available from HeadRoom is a battery pack from hell that holds four D batteries, for another $30. If you're just looking to buy the portable, don't feel guilty taking their recommendation and getting it somewhere else; they freely admit to not being able to give a rock-bottom price on this unit, as it's not something they sell a lot of. It's more of a convenience item for those who want full-service shopping. The SL-S320 is routinely available for under $100 at both local and mail-order electronics stores (note that it's not as widely available as Panasonic's less expensive portables). Having looked, listened, and talked with others on this topic, I agree with Tyll and company: this is the unit to beat among inexpensive portables, and is worth a look even if you were planning on spending more.

The Panasonic SL-S320 comes in a compact case that goes for the high-tech black and silver look. It includes most of the features you'd expect in a unit on the go. Nowadays, even some dirt cheap CD portables include anti-shock circuitry. This buffers several seconds of digital data ahead of what you're hearing, so that a skip that bounces the laser around can be covered from the memory until things resync. The SL-S320 has a switch that turns on maximum shock protection, which claims to support 10 seconds before you'll hear a skip. There's a nice display that shows you how full the buffer is. This doesn't start to register a problem until you've cleared around half the saved storage up. The player always survived at least 8 seconds of my most concentrated tapping when I was testing it. In the real world, I found that if the player was placed in a jacket pocket that was hitting my leg when I walked it would cause frequent skipping. Placing it somewhere more secure where it was just dealing with the shocks of my movement instead bouncing off my body worked much better. While this unit may not hold up to, say, full fledged running, it works quite well for normal portable use. Success definitely depends on how it is braced and the exact manner the movement forces are being distributed to the unit. While there are portables on the market that claim slightly better protection, in practice I suspect that if 10 seconds isn't enough, just pushing that up a few to 15 or 20 isn't going to help. The only things that I got the SL-S320 to skip on were essentially constant abuse, and no CD player can deal with that regardless of how much memory it has (well, barring a few hundred MB of RAM).

The manual says the only reason you'd even want to turn off the shock protection is to conserve battery life. While this is true, that isn't the whole story. The sound quality drops appreciably when this circuitry is engaged. I don't know exactly why; it could be that the digital clocking out of the memory buffer isn't as accurate as the master clock that reads the bits off the CD directly (that would make it the evil twin of the Genesis Digital Lens). It's quite possible that, in addition to draining the battery more, the shock resistance memory chips are drawing enough current that the power supply isn't as well regulated anymore. Whatever the case, there is an apparent collapse of the musical realism when you've got the shock protection on. The soundstage shrinks in a manner familiar to any man who has ever jumped in a cold pool. This drop in quality is unnerving when listening in a home environment or while flying, both situations where you don't need no stinking protection, anyway. When I was moving around enough that skipping was a problem, it was difficult to even notice the difference. While I can easily walk and chew gum, my critical listening facilities are considerably less acute when wandering the streets with headphones on. It's worth knowing to watch this setting for when you're trying to get the best sonics in stable environments, but it's hardly a show stopper for mobile use. For car use, sitting on a set or the floor, the anti-shock switch is a bit tougher to decide on. The player will most likely never skip when the protection is on, but it may be just fine most of the time with it off. You'll have to see if you can even notice the quality drop by the time you get the player connected to your car stereo.

The player runs off of two AA batteries. Claimed battery life is 10 hours, but as I suspect I'm using considerably better headphones than the ones used for that test it's not quite applicable for me. Typically I saw at least 6 hours out of a pair, while 8 wasn't unusual when using cheap earbuds. Quite reasonable. As I mentioned, those needing serious battery power can get huge capacities from HeadRoom. I have no idea how long their 4 D cell supply lasts, because I've been using them on occasion for months and haven't run out yet. Included with the unit is an AC adapter when you're running at home, and the power supply seems smart enough to leave the batteries alone in that case (some players I've used say you need to remove the old alkalines before hooking up to the power lines, which is a serious hassle).

Another freebie included in the package is a set of headphones. These are notable for being the worse sounding pair I have ever heard in my life. Rather than using them, I'd prefer to take a pin and try to excite my hearing by poking around inside my ear. I gave mine away to someone I don't like.

On real headphones, the SL-S320 does a very credible job. The music comes through pretty well, although there's isn't the vice grip control over everything you get from a really good headphone amplifier. But for most situations where you want a portable, there's nothing at all to complain about. Driving typical power hungry headphones from the lines of Grado, Sennhesier, or Beyerdynamic will result in restricted dynamics and decreased maximum volume capability, but if you're not looking to go too loud this does a decent job. Those manufacturers all make models that are more compatible with standalone portables, which is something else HeadRoom can give you some advice on if you check out their literature. Driving your typical cheap earbuds, I could easily deafen myself in short order if so desired. That was one area that the XBS "Extra Bass System" actually came in handy. While it turns all the bass into a mushy, boomy mess with good phones, on little cheesy models it was fairly effective at restoring a bit of the bottom end.

It travels well, it sounds good, and it's cheap. What more can you ask for in a little portable CD player? Mine has flawlessly survived a coast to coast trip and weekly trips into Manhattan via subway for the last few months. If you're thinking of buying, also note that there's an SL-321C package available that combines backlighting with a car cassette adapter and cigarette lighter power supply. I bought one of the $20 Sony Discman packages instead, which is perfectly compatible. Lit LCD display? Who needs it. As audio bargains go, few items can compete with the pleasure of getting good sound wherever you travel for a hundred bucks. You'll be seeing this player again in future reviews, because it's a central component to the tunes everywhere lifestyle here on Fringe.

For the official party line on the SL-S320, check out Panasonic's portable page.

.....GS (gsmith@westnet.com)

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