How far has computer audio come in the last few years, you ask? Once the domain of the tech-savvy gadgeteer or the network nerd, media players more amicable and approachable have rapidly become the norm rather than the exception. Exhibit A: the Cary Audio DMS-500 Network Audio Player. If you’re a computer-phobe (a show of hands please), forget the sweaty palms. The Cary puts users at ease while effortlessly bringing forth digital media in all its many wired and wireless and exotic permutations.
The DMS-500 is “Central Command” for most things digital, from streaming to file playback, wireless or Ethernet. At the heart of its digital engine is a pair of two-channel AK4490EQ DACs that stream or play back native PCM files up to 32-bit/384kHz (and WAV files up to 768kHz). Plus it’s DSD64, 128, 256, and 512-capable. Although there is no onboard storage, once it’s connected to a home network the DMS-500 will stream files from either a MAC or a PC, from NAS drives, or via music services such as Tidal and Spotify. All the while, Cary’s proprietary TruBit PCM and DSD technology enables on-the-fly PCM conversion to DSD up to 256, or PCM upsampling with a choice of six rates up to 768kHz. AptX Bluetooth and AirPlay? You bet.
Solid, seamless, and nicely laid out stem to stern, the DMS-500’s overall construction quality appears beyond reproach for this category. Its front panel, available in either brushed silver or stealth-black aluminum, is understated yet elegant. It’s dominated by a large LCD color display for configuration and input navigation, as well as tracking metadata and album cover art. The large font is legible and readable from a distance. This display conveys loads of information, but is a bit of a tease in that it appears to be a touchscreen. Well, kids, it ain’t—so save the swiping for your iPad. The panel keeps it clean and simple with only a single on/off pushbutton and handy inputs for USB thumbdrive and SD card.
I think of media players as the wranglers of today’s digital world where connectivity is the name of the game—and the hassle-free DMS-500 upheld its end of the bargain. The back panel hosts a throng of digital inputs including three USB ports, two coaxial jacks, an optical input, plus one AES/EBU. The DMS-500 will also accept an SD card, has an Ethernet port, and will connect to aptX Bluetooth. The DMS-500 will output a digital signal on optical and coaxial jacks.
The DMS-500 offers the choice of unbalanced or balanced analog outputs. There’s also a handy volume control for those who may wish to forgo a conventional preamplifier and connect the player directly to an amplifier or powered loudspeaker. Naturally the DMS-500 includes a remote control, which made navigation a snap, but the new controller app was even better.
That said, the Cary app could’ve been more graphically stimulating—as in, it lacks sexy menu-view options. Also, its display is portrait mode only, so it will not rotate to landscape on a smart device. Still the app is far better than garden-variety; it’s easy to understand and does what it needs to do. Cary Audio is also striving to improve its app and was on the ball informing me of firmware updates, including a format upgrade, and later on—as the review was going to press—a significant update to enhance the Tidal and Spotify experience.
Advanced users may still want to remain loyal to third-party media server software such as JRiver, MediaMonkey, or foobar2000 but a key advantage that the Cary app has over these is user control of most of the DMS-500 functions such as power, on-the-fly upsampling, or input selection. Though Cary’s file manager may not be as comprehensive or searchable, it certainly does simplify operations overall.
In keeping with a trend that’s rendering front-panel control a vestige of the pre-smart-device past, the DMS is launched and controlled from either the remote control or via the Cary app. Personally I still like twisting a knob or pressing a mechanical button. But then again I still like cueing a tonearm and shifting gears with a clutch. That aside, I know of nothing that can strike more fear in the computer-fixated than the caveat, “Operation assumes all users have a minimum of a moderate level of understanding of computer file sharing, networks, and associated peripherals, etc.” Rest easy and put away the Xanax; it doesn’t take the résumé of a Silicon Valley IT expert to get the DMS up and running. The Cary instantly recognized my Synology NAS on my network; I used the following connection sequence: a run of Wireworld’s new Starlight CAT 8 Ethernet cables from the NAS to the Netgear ProSafe switch, and another run from the Netgear back to the Cary—and bingo. Frankly I’ve had more trouble setting cartridge VTA.
Sonically the DMS-500 struck most if not all of the right notes during my listening sessions. It established a full-bodied ease and warmer signature that supported naturalistic acoustic recordings and proved particularly flattering to cello, acoustic bass, and piano. I don’t think it’s too great a leap to say that Cary, with its long heritage designing tube amplification (including the legendary SET model CAD-805), might’ve had this refulgent voicing in mind. However that’s not to say it soft-pedaled transients or took an easy-chair approach with tonal accuracy. It didn’t. There was firm and forceful dynamic pop, along with quick transient reflexes, yet these never reached the point of etch or grain. It manifested a clean, harmonious character that was light on its feet with delicate low-level detailing and micro-dynamics. Bass response was equally impressive both tonally and dynamically, as exemplified during Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” a weighty dance groove and a bass line boasting recoil like that of a ten-gauge.
Winning the day for the DMS-500 was its low-level resolution—the ease with which it reproduced the quiet, contemplative passages of a piano sonata or the deep acoustic interior of a complex recording, i.e., the intimate orchestral moments that focus your attention as much on a distant triangle or castanet or harp as on the louder, more forward string or wind elements. Two popular examples I’ve often cited are the Rickie Lee Jones backing harmony from Lyle Lovett’s “North Dakota,” and the Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie background vocals from Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman.” In both cases the backing voices are subject to blur or smear in the acoustic behind the lead vocals. But the Cary revealed an aptitude for depth of focus that supported and outlined these subtle cues. The voices retained character and articulation even at the softest levels. Overall the Cary also presented an open and extended top end that was very satisfying. During a track like Alison Krauss’ “You’re Just a Country Boy” the Cary shed a glimmer of added light on her airy vocal, and enhanced the lift of the drum kit cymbals and extended their decay. There was just a bit more image clarity overall. On voice and strings it still didn’t sound quite as airy and effortless as fine analog LP playback can, but this gap is closing rapidly.
The Cary was not the very last word in spatiality and soundstage dimension. During Vaughan Williams’ The Wasps Overture I’d hoped for the full expression of orchestral section layering, and the sense of the hall extending to the furthest point behind the musicians, but this perspective was slightly foreshortened.
In general, tinkering with the upsampling feature added some textural and atmospheric refinement to well-recorded classical or acoustic repertoire but it’s mostly a matter of taste (and patience) to wade through the selection of filters. My advice is to experiment to your heart’s content. In my experience the Cary’s performance was so musically solid that I tended to leave music files in their native state. While I noticed subtle differences in air and bloom, in warm and cool when browsing through sample rates, none were so consistent or overwhelmingly superior in resolution that their absence left the music at a deficit.
Of no small import, however, is that the DMS-500 is now fully MQA-certified and will decode those files. During the course of this evaluation this upgrade arrived as a firmware update, and the download was completed without incident. The DMS-500, unlike some of its competition, will upsample the decoded MQA file to 705.6kHz or 768kHz for conversion to analog. This was my first up-close-and-personal, in-home exposure to this advanced encode-decode format. All my previous encounters with MQA playback had been under trade show conditions, and while those A/B comparisons were impressive, they were meant to be. For this review I was provided a sampler of MQA-encoded tracks (classical, chamber, jazz, vocal) but my impressions were tempered by the fact that the only way I could compare the tracks without MQA was by switching to different media players such as the superb Lumen S1. This implies that some of the audible differences could be attributed to DAC variables rather than to the MQA format per se. In my opinion however, the distinctions were not subtle. As familiar as I am with Daft Punk’s hit “Get Lucky,” the MQA version commanded my attention. The track had a distinctly cleaner focus; the beat was rock-steady and grounded with drive and defined pulse, tuned with pitch—results that can’t be entirely attributed to the differences in DACs. I experienced similar outcomes with piano and chamber music as well as percussion ensembles. In each instance musical elements were positioned with near-holographic precision. There was a harmonic integrity to these recordings that bathed the room with uncanny acoustic life. Though the posh Lumin may have edged out the Cary in reproducing high-resolution PCM and DSD, Cary’s addition of MQA makes the DMS-500 impossible to ignore.
That said, new formats such as MQA are emblematic of the fraught relationship audiophiles are having with digital playback when the technology remains unsettled, the storage ephemeral, and the issue of obsolescence looms over every potential DAC purchase. It’s no wonder why audiophiles and millennials are rediscovering vinyl playback as audio comfort food; it’s a physical format whose permanence and performance has stood the test of time. Of course it doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition, and though the rollout of MQA has been met with controversy, my experience with it has been nothing but musically positive.
The DMS-500 is one of the most format-friendly and un-finicky media players one is likely to find in the here and now, or at least for the next six months. Anchored by superb sonics and wide-ranging connectivity and reliability, the Cary amasses well-deserved kudos for filling the DMS-500 with exotic digital tech and massaging it to perform so seamlessly that even the computer-averse can dry those sweaty palms and reengage with the music. And isn’t that the goal of the high end? I certainly think so, and obviously so does Cary Audio. A terrific product.
Specs & Pricing
Digital inputs: TosLink optical (1), coaxial (2), AES/EBU, (2) USB Type A (3): triggers, SD card, aptX Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Ethernet, IR
Analog outputs: Unbalanced on RCA jacks, balanced on XLR jacks
Digital outputs: SPDIF on RCA jack, TosLink optical
Outputs: RCA, XLR, optical, coaxial
Dimensions: 3.75″ x 17.25″ x 16.25″
Weight: 23.5 lbs.
CARY AUDIO DESIGN
6301 Chapel Hill Road
Raleigh, NC 27607
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