Back in 2006 a new name appeared on the British hi-fi scene, launching a small range of mid-price hi-fi separates. The pick of this was the tube-buffered CD player, which sounded quite distinctively different to its price rivals. It didn’t take long for the Astin Trew AT3500 to gather a small cult following. With UK design overseen by founder Michael Osborne and manufactured in China, this £1,150 machine was absolutely of its time – in a world of relatively explicit and bracing sounding silver disc spinners, this one epitomised the move towards a warmer and more rounded sound. Indeed, it sounded like nothing else at the price, being sweet, almost euphonic in its presentation.
From a technical point of view it was a good, solid design but nothing exceptional. The transport comprised the Phillips VAM1202 mech and CD711 servo, isolated from the main casework by a thick aluminium base plate with compliant anti-resonance damping. A Burr Brown PCM1738 DAC was powered by the expensive ‘C core’ transformer running separate power supplies for each section. Then there was the ECC88 double triode valve used for buffering the output. The chassis was a lavish, anodised aluminium affair, and inside it sported a high performance clock with dedicated power supply; a Class A biased analogue output stage was used and a number of expensive passive components including Auricap capacitors were specified.
A largish 430x340x110mm machine, it was heavy too at 9.1kg. Its neat front panel was complemented by the attractive venting on the case top, along with elegant heatsinking around the side. With flush-mounted hex-head fixings and excellent gunmetal/titanium paintwork, it seemed a neat looking machine at the time. The downside was the rather crude fluorescent display set behind a mirrored fascia, which looked a little gaudy and didn’t convey information as elegantly as some. The one frontal control of note is the upsampling button, rated at 24bit/96kHz.
A Plus option was offered for a premium of £220, which bought you extra case damping and improved internal cabling from the DAC board to the buffer amp and the buffer amp to the output, replaced with the highest quality pure copper. An upgraded buffer valve from the standard Electro Harmonix EC88 model was fitted – a new, old stock Philips JAN (Joint Army Navy) valve which ceased production around 1963.
The basic AT3500 was a lovely machine, winning several group tests in 2007 and 2008, with a seriously smooth and musical sound. It was always a little lacking in low level detailing but its wonderful tonality made it highly popular with valve fans; for a few short years it was the de rigeur CD spinner to be seen with at hi-fi shows, especially for manufacturers whose products were centred around the tube sound. It was very good rhythmically too, better able to give a coherent sense of the music’s phrasing than many rival players, which sounded sterile by comparison.
It was a mellifluous sounding device alright, but when the upgraded £1,300 AT3500+ came along a year or two later we realised there was yet more to go; the Plus version was syrupy-sweet, especially when the Upsampling button was pressed on. Treble was silky, midband smooth and delicate and bass full and fat. The only downsides were that the machine did sound a little coloured and slightly opaque compared to rivals the Cyrus CD8, its treble was a little curtailed and the bass wasn’t the tightest or tautest around.
These days, the second-hand market makes the Astin Trew relatively affordable, although it is still holding its value well simply because it remains something of a cult object. It’s a hi-fi badge of digital defiance; it marks you out as someone who knows clearly what they want, and who appreciates that it isn’t available from mainstream machines. With a good reliable mech and decent spares support, it’s still well worth a look – and an excellent used buy. The AT3500 is still available new, but most people paying £1,500 or so for a digital source nowadays want full DAC functionality, which the Astin Trew simply doesn’t have. That’s the biggest thing that dates it; the sound certainly doesn’t.