One thing you have to love about our audiophile community is the way we passionately embrace and hold on to technologies that the rest of the planet either views as outmoded or, in some cases, was never even aware of to begin with. Conversely, we are also more than happy to accept new technologies—should they prove to be sonically superior to those that came before. And frequently, these sometimes very different approaches to music playback—tube versus solid-state and analog versus digital are the two most obvious examples—simply coexist for as long as there are enough people willing to support them.
When it comes to the current state of digital audio reproduction, it’s understandable that many of us are feeling a bit of anxiety on just where things are headed. Standard Red Book CD, whose reproduction quality has become markedly better during recent years, is teetering on the verge of…uh, I’m not really sure what. Although more and more people are downloading music, CDs don’t (yet) appear to be disappearing. SACD, which is essentially a non-issue to the mainstream listener, appears to be thriving in the audiophile market, where many vinyl reissue specialists are releasing the same titles on both LP and SACD, and, I’m told, with equal commercial success. At the same time, music servers, and we won’t even get into the ubiquitous iPod, are increasingly popular for at least a few obvious reasons: less physical clutter—who, I ask, actually likes CD jewel cases?—higher resolution, as well as easy access to an entire music library. Still, some of us like owning, handling, and interacting with physical media—something that no digital replacement can duplicate, and, hence, one of the LP’s undeniable attractions and advantages. Just as e-readers are becoming another way to read books, newspapers, and magazines—for many of us, though not yet this writer—music servers are becoming another avenue to the enjoyment of music.
Given that we’re standing in the middle of this digital audio crossroads, it seems logical for anyone contemplating the purchase of a new digital disc player to pause and ask a simple question: How, for at least the foreseeable future, do I envision using this thing? If you want maximum flexibility and at least a smidge of a feeling that your new component won’t be obsolete before you open the box, then you’ll want something like Cary Audio’s Classic CD 303T SACD Professional Version SACD player.
Although that cumbersome nomenclature includes the SACD tag, don’t be misled—Cary’s latest digital disc player is a remarkably complete digital-audio playback device. Its bag of tricks includes Red Book CD playback with selectable upsampling frequencies of 96, 192, 384, 512, and 768kHz. That’s an unusually large range—big enough to keep the tweakers among us busy for eons. But the advantages of upsampling may have its limits, as we’ll get into shortly. The player also decodes HDCD-encoded CDs, which, though hardly a new technology, remains one of the most satisfying ways to achieve higher performance from the compact disc. SACD playback is, of course, a given here, both in two-channel and multichannel modes. And unless told to do otherwise, the player automatically selects the SACD portion of multi-layer discs. Moreover, the 303T’s internal clock processes DSD at 22.5792MHz, which is double the norm.
But high-quality CD and SACD playback is only part of what the 303T has to offer. It can also be employed as a standalone DAC complete with RCA, TosLink, and 24-bit/192kHz USB inputs. The latter is compatible with Windows (but not with the MAC OS), and Cary includes a CD-ROM to get you set up. Digital outs are available via AES/EBU, TosLink, and coax connections, while analog outputs offer single-ended RCA as well as balanced XLR.
Speaking of analog choices, the 303T’s analog output can run in either solid-state or tube mode, and the latter’s suite of four 12AU7s can be easily accessed, rolled, or replaced by means of a separately removable tray inserted into the unit’s top plate.
As I said, the 303T offers maximum flexibility—as well as ease of use. As you might imagine, all of these playback options require lots of switching. In that regard, both the 303T’s front panel and its remote-control wand are busier than those found on most disc players. But the Cary design team has somehow managed to arrange all these buttons in a fashion that, with just a bit of use, quickly becomes familiar. In my opinion this ease of use is crucial to the end user of a device that is, after all, supposed to bring us pleasure, not another dose of aspirin.
At 34 pounds the 303T is solidly built and very nicely finished. The chassis sits on four adjustable conical feet designed to minimize vibrations from whatever rack or shelf the unit resides on.
Finally, the 303T carries a price tag of $6500. Not exactly pocket change, but also not crazy money in our high-end world, especially given what this machine not only offers in flexibility but also in sonic excellence.
The 303T’s basic sonic signature is on the warm side, and that’s true in the solid-state mode, too, before ever engaging the tube output stage. Yet this player doesn’t sound sluggish, just warm in a way that highlights musical expressiveness (as opposed to more angular, detail-oriented designs that may arguably deliver more impressive hi-fi effects). For instance, at the start of Gershwin’s “Oh, Lady, Be Good,” from Analogue Productions’ terrific-sounding edition of Count Basie and the Kansas City 7, we hear Basie’s nimble piano work, the trench-digging bass of Ed Jones, and Sonny Payne’s silky brushwork. Soon the rest of the ensemble joins in—two tenor saxes, trumpet, and guitar. The 303T swings right along with the music’s ebbs and flows, presenting the tune with a matter-of-fact ease, clarity, and balance.
Michael Tilson-Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony’s beautiful DSD recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 [SFS Media] is a great challenge to individual components as well as to the systems we evaluate them in. It’s got air and dynamic range galore, as richly varied a palette of tone colors and textures as you’ll find, orchestral scoring with the complexity to drive any system batty, as well, of course, as two female vocal soloists, a large mixed chorus, and a crushing final statement for pipe organ. Again, the 303T showed its inherent warmth, impressive composure, and sweeping musicality. It also delivered a convincingly massive soundstage of well-layered three-dimensionality, with plenty of ambience. On the other hand, if you want every last inner detail, exclamation mark, or tympani stroke to “wow” you, well, that’s not what Cary’s 303T is about. What it will “wow” you with is a continuity of musical expression that, as noted above, sweeps you away with the musical whole.
After enjoying a large range of SACDs and CDs over the 303T, I chose an old favorite of average sound quality but undeniably great music, Thelonious Himself [OJC/Riverside], to describe what you might expect to hear from this amazing array of playback options. In the standard 44.1kHz setting, Monk’s piano was big, clean, and rich, with a healthy percussive strike and good, if somewhat “clangy” harmonic structure. At 96kHz the sound became airier, more focused, transparent, and less brittle up top. The 192kHz setting was richer, and less strident still, but perhaps not as immediate sounding. Moving to 384kHz introduced a noticeably rolled-off top end as well as a veiling effect. And, for these ears, both the 512kHz and 768kHz modes were not only too soft and veiled, but also started to lose the music’s structure and continuity of line.
Selecting the tube output setting didn’t simply add warmth, or richness, and a touch of romance to the sound; it also added consistently rewarding layers of harmonic complexity, air, and instrumental texture. After sliding back and forth for comparisons sake, I must tell you that I ended up leaving the 303T’s tube stage engaged for the remainder of the evaluation period.
You, naturally, may disagree, which is part of what makes our hobby so much fun. But one remarkable thing about Cary’s 303T CD/SACD/DAC is that, no matter what digital audio media one may want to play through it, the owner of this design has access to an unusually complete range of media and playback options. And though no device is absolutely “future-proof,” the folks at Cary have come up with a terrific-sounding design that at least offers a glimpse of that possibility.
SPECS & PRICING
Cary 303T SACD player
Compatible discs: SACD, CD, CD-R, CD-RW
Outputs: Balanced XLR, single-ended RCA (analog,), AES/EBU, coax, TosLink digital)
Tube complement: Four 12AU7
Dimensions: 5" x 18" x 15"
Weight: 34 lbs.
CARY AUDIO DESIGN
1020 Goodworth Drive
Apex, North Carolina
TW-Acustic Raven One turntable; Tri-Planar Ultimate VII arm; Benz Gullwing and Transfiguration Phoenix moving-coil cartridges; Simaudio CD-1 compact disc player; Artemis Labs PL-1 phonostage; Cary Audio SLP 05 linestage preamplifier and CAD-211 FE monoblock amplifiers; Magnepan MG 1.7 loudspeakers; Tara Labs Zero interconnects, Omega speaker cables, The One power cords, and BP-10B Power Screen; Finite Elemente Spider equipment racks