I recently completed an article on the controversial “natural’ wine movement for Edible San Francisco magazine. For you non-oenophiles in our audience, this growing movement practices organic or biodynamic viticulture, a relatively non-interventionist style of winemaking that, at its most extreme, eschews all use of sulfur in both the vineyard and cellar. The end result is argued to be a more exciting, expressive, and “pure” bottle of wine.
I found myself reflecting on the similarities between audio design and winemaking because at the end of the day most of the winemakers and importers I interviewed for the article were less hung up on the process than they were with on the result. Which is exactly where I stand on electronics. In other words, although I don’t really care if a preamp or amp is solid-state or tube, I do care how the designer has used his chosen devices to make them reproduce recordings in the most exciting, expressive, and purest form possible.
I’m also using this analogy because “pure,” “exciting,” and “expressive” are the easiest ways for me to describe the top-of-the-line vacuum tube gear from Cary Audio. Both items under review are from Cary’s Classic Series, which, as the company states, “combines the latest cutting edge technology with time proven innovation.”
The SLP 05 ($8000) is a zero-feedback, balanced design utilizing the venerable 6SN7 tube—eight of them, as a matter of fact—six for the linestage “proper,” and two for the headphone amp, which in turn are coupled to transformers to deliver a half-watt of solo-listening power. The SLP 05 is rather handsome, in a simple, somewhat retro-looking way, with the tubes standing like a tiny troop of soldiers atop the aluminum chassis, which is beautifully finished in a Jaguar (as in the automobile) Anthracite Black Clear Coat. One balanced and one single-ended output are provided, as are two balanced and three single-ended inputs, plus a tape loop and a Cinema Bypass mode. The solid, silver-colored anodized aluminum faceplate is cleanly arranged, but lacks one feature I like in my preamps—a mono switch (especially with so many fine mono jazz LP reissues lined up on my shelf). Balance is achieved by separate left/right input level knobs, and the motorized ALPs volume control is remote-controllable, as is the mute function. The remote “wand” is a delightfully small thing, and, with just three-buttons (volume up, down, and mute), a model of simplicity. One slight operational annoyance is that the toggle switch on the chassis must be flipped into the mute position for the remote’s mute to function—not a huge deal but something I’m still getting used to.
The SLP 05’s power supply, which is driven by a 5AR4 rectifier tube, rests in a matching—if slightly shorter—outboard chassis with four top-plate indentations that coincide with the footprints of the preamp’s elastomeric feet. Obviously they were meant to be stacked. But if shelf height is an issue—the stack measures a relatively tall 10.5** from the power supply’s feet to the top of the preamp’s tube set (plus you’ll need clearance for those)—an eight-foot, Kimber Kable-sourced umbilical allows for a wide variety of placement options. Extending the retro-cool design vibe, the power supply sports a pair of meters that display tube plate voltage and current. The units require a three-minute period before the ready light pops on, but a timed warm-up/mute circuit acts as a safety device if you’ve either purposefully or accidentally already turned on your amps.
The $20,000/pair CAD-211 FE, short for “Founder’s Edition,” is a monoblock power amp of impressive beauty, which can be had, if you will, in the same Jaguar black described above, as well as in other automotive paint colors (if you really want to lust after a pair, check out the luscious cherry-red beauty pictured on the company’s Web site). Another zero-feedback design, the 211 FE is an update of the classic 211 model that Cary produced for 17 years. Few firms, outside of Magnepan or perhaps Joan Rivers, can boast of such longevity. The FE version is said to have increased power output (though the actual rating remains the same), as well as a direct-coupled drive system to add “more depth and slam.” The amplifier’s tube array is like a trip to a tube-geek’s candy store. This all-triode monoblock features one 6CA7 current source tube, one 6SL7 at the input, two 300B driver tubes, and a pair of 845 output tubes. That’s a lot of pretty glowing glass, and enough to keep your listening room comfy in winter, and maybe a bit too toasty in the summer. The 845’s operate in a push-pull mode to deliver a rated 70 watts Class A, up to 110 watts Class A/B, and up to 150 watts Class B. The 211 FE sports a trio of binding posts for 4-, 8-, and 16-ohm speaker hookups, single-ended and balanced inputs, has a top-rear chassis-mounted jack for connecting a bias-adjust meter, and a slim, front-mounted bias-read meter in place of the familiar green “cat-eye” found on earlier editions (I must admit that I rather miss that nostalgic touch). Power and standby switches are mounted up front, and, as with the SLP 05, the entire package is solidly built with an absolutely first-rate finish.
When I first received the Cary pair—make that trio—for evaluation, I was using the Kharma Mini Exquisite loudspeakers that Bill Parish of GTT Audio had left me on generous extended loan terms. About halfway through my listening sessions my time with the Kharmas was finally up, and Magnepan stepped in with a pair of the likewise exquisite—if not so mini—MG-1.7s. Need I add that these two speakers could not be more different? The Kharmas are a super-detailed, super-coherent, two-way point source that manages to be both very transparent and exceptionally beautiful sounding, almost regardless of the recording. The Magnepans, at a small fraction of the cost, are not as inherently beautiful-sounding—though they are beautiful-sounding, nonetheless, in my opinion—are, of course, box-free, likewise remarkably coherent, three-way, quasi-ribbon dipoles that in my experience actually tell you more about a recording (and therefore quite possibly, associated equipment) than the Kharmas do. Neither goes much below 40Hz, though the Mini Exquisites do have a lot more punch to the bass, so while I’ll tell you what I heard over both these speakers, do keep in mind that I never really challenged the Cary gear’s very deepest low-frequency muscle.
Also note, that while I did evaluate these items separately—the SLP 05 as compared with the Artemis Labs LA-1 linestage driving Kharma MP-150 mono amps, and the Artemis driving the CAD-211 FEs—I so liked the sound of the Cary components as a team that most of this review will focus on the combination.
First, the SLP 05 is one of the best linestages I’ve heard—though, granted, I have not heard much of the super-exotica that my friend Jonathan “Diamond Jim” Valin has. Nevertheless, excellence is excellence, and our standard is, after all, supposed to be the sound of live music, and the components that transports us—even if only for a moment or two—to a place that feels like the real thing. When compared to the fine Artemis unit, the Cary excelled in every way.
One is transparency to the source. On disc after disc, vinyl or compact, I was simply more aware of, and felt that much closer to, the recorded event. Perhaps no more so than while auditioning a wide swath of 45rpm LP reissues that Rudy Van Gelder originally recorded for the Blue Note and Impulse labels (see “Jazzing it Up” elsewhere in this issue). From a mono 1957 Hackensack recording such as Lee Morgan, Vol. 3 [Music Matters/Blue Note], to a pair of stereo releases from Englewood Cliffs in ’64—Coltrane’s Crescent [ORG/Impulse] and Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch [Music Matters/Blue Note]—the SLP 05 effortlessly conveyed the different venues, as well as the different microphone placement and mixing approaches RVG brought to these sessions. This, to me, is one of the pleasures of a high-end system—feeling as if I’m eavesdropping on music-making that took place long ago and far away.
Of course, tonal naturalness, a lifelike sense of instrumental body and weight, air, and spatial dimensionality are all key elements that go hand-in-glove to convey this feeling. The SLP 05 brings all of these virtues to the table in a way that brings to startling life, say, the very different sounds and playing styles of Lee Morgan’s, Clifford Brown’s or Freddie Hubbard’s trumpets, or Lou Donaldson’s and Gigi Gryce’s alto saxes. You get the idea. It’s not the hi-fi-stuff but the added awareness of each (and more) of these musicians’ instruments and voices that, for me, make the SLP 05 so special.
Combing the linestage with the CAD-211 FEs raised all of these qualities to significantly higher levels. The music of any low-frequency instrument—be it a Paul Chambers bass run, an Elvin Jones drum pattern, or a bass drum or tympani thwack, say, from Analogue Productions’ knockout 45-edition of The Power of the Orchestra (also reviewed in this issue)—was conveyed a rare sense of dynamic limberness, as well as tonal and textural complexity. Solid-state aficionados could rightfully argue that the Cary pair softens the edges of these instruments, or lacks the ultimate slam of mallet or stick hitting skin. Maybe. Or at least true enough as compared to a powerful transistor design. But up to the amp’s power limits I found plenty of “slam” during the latter’s Pictures at an Exhibition, or in one of Elvin Jones’ many drum fusillades as recorded by Van Gelder.
Given these strengths, it should not surprise that the Cary combination excels at vocal reproduction. And first with the Kharmas and then the Maggies, magic was waiting to happen. Mo-Fi’s marvelous vinyl reissue of Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (another mono LP) will leave you that much more in awe of the man’s (then) pure tone, unparalleled phrasing, and emotional delivery. Or listen to Janis Joplin accompanying herself on acoustic guitar during the demo cut of “Me and Bobby McGee” [Pearl, Columbia/Legacy CD), and again, hear her scratchy, sensual, and vulnerable voice with rare and fresh insight. Again, this is the stuff that makes the high end so much near-term fun, and so long-term rewarding.
As I wrap this, I suppose it would be great if I could pick a few nits. But I really can’t, at least in terms that count to music lovers. Okay, if massive orchestral, operatic, or hard rock is your thing the CAD-211 FE will probably run out of juice before you want it to—especially with something as notoriously hard to drive as Magnepans. Once it, and the 1.7s, too, hit a wall, you’ll hear it immediately and will need to dial back the volume accordingly (here, the remote was a handy item to have at hand). So yes, during those times when I felt like snuggling up with The White Stripes, Zeppelin, or Mahler, I wouldn’t have minded a bit more headroom. And though this is something the Maggies, with a sub, could achieve, or the Cary 211 FE could with a more sensitive speaker hooked up, I am more than willing to trade off that last bit of sheer physical oomph for other and, ultimately for me, more satisfying pleasures.
As I spend more time with these Cary components, and with other associated equipment, I’ll have occasion to report back with further thoughts. Until then, I intend to fully enjoy my music collection with one of the finest sets of electronics I’ve encountered in quite some time.
SPECS & PRICING
SLP-05 Linestage Preamp
Inputs: 2 balanced (XLR), 3 single-ended (RCA), 1 tape (RCA), 1 cinema bypass (RCA)
Outputs: 1 balanced, 1 single-ended RCA, 1 tape (RCA)
Tube complement: 8-6SN7 (preamp), 1 5AR4 (rectifier in power supply)
Dimensions: 17" x 6.25** x 12" (preamp), 17" x 4.25" x 12" (power supply)
Weight: 16 lbs. (preamp), 19 lbs. (power supply)
CAD-211 FE Monoblock Power Amplifier
Power output: 70Wpc Class A, 110Wpc Class A/B, 150Wpc Class B
Number and type of inputs: 1 balanced (XLR); 1 single-ended (RCA)
Number and type of outputs: Three 5-way binding posts (4. 8, 16 ohms)
Tube complement: 1-6CA7 (current source), 1-6SL7 (input), 2-300B (driver), 2-845 (output)
Dimensions: 12.25" x 10" x 24"
Weight: 90 lbs.
CARY AUDIO DESIGN
1020 Goodworth Drive
Apex, North Carolina
TW-Acustic Raven One turntable; Tri-Planar Ultimate VII arm; Transfiguration Phoenix moving-coil cartridge; Simaudio CD-1 compact disc player; Artemis Labs LA-1 linestage and PL-1 phonostage; Kharma MP-150 monoblock amplifiers; Kharma Mini Exquisite and 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