Cary Audio Design CD303/300 CD player
Every endeavor has its own place along fadism's curve. Orthodox Judaism and the study of binomial coefficients are at one end, boy bands and Tiger Beat magazine at the other, and everything else is in the middle. But where does domestic audio fit? I don't know—although I suppose an answer could be had by visiting the homes of all the audiophiles who've bought into various new ideas over the years, and seeing whether any of those things still apply. Are their speakers still sitting on spikes, or on sticky rubber pads, or on nothing? Do people still use long interconnects with short speaker cables, or are they doing it the other way round these days? How often do audiophiles clean their CDs—or do they even bother anymore?
Reviewers could give us some insights as well. Do they still use their VPI Bricks—or Shakti Stones, Shun Mook Mpingo Discs, Original Cable Jackets, Bedini CD Clarifiers, Walker High Definition Links, Gryphon Exorcists, Cardas Sweeps, or green magic markers? All of those things have been promoted as "essential" by various audio reviewers, some more so than others. Yet to believe that they're all still in use is to believe that, for certain reviewers, the simple act of playing a record requires at least a half-hour of work before the music even starts.
Then there's that newest of new tricks for old audio dogs: upsampling. We can all be forgiven for wondering Is it here to stay? Would you miss it if it were gone? Is upsampling a trend or just a fad?
No one is more fascinated by those questions than I am. At the same time, no one has fewer answers. However...
Hyphen shortage explained
In June of this year, the good people at Cary Audio Design offered me a chance to write about their latest product, the CD303/300, an upsampling CD player. How could I resist?
If you're one of those squares who thinks that Paris Hilton is a place and Jean Georges is a person, then you might also have missed when upsampling first hit the domestic scene, back in 1999. For your benefit: An upsampling digital filter is one that reprocesses the datastream retrieved from a CD at a higher sampling rate than the one used during A/D quantization, in an effort to improve replay performance—although, as far as I know, no one has yet explained why such a filter should work, given that the upsampled datastream contains no more information than the original. Upsampling is not the same as oversampling, which uses an increase in the sampling rate merely to shift sampling artefacts higher in the spectrum, thus making possible the use of more benign filters subsequent to D/A conversion.
For their new CD303/300, Cary Audio has developed a proprietary upsampling digital filter module called the DSP-300, using components from Burr-Brown and Texas Instruments and running Cary's own software. (The Cary DSP-300 filter also uses software licensed from Pacific Microsonics, enabling the CD303/300 to decode HDCD discs.) Cary's filter can be set for the standard sampling rate of 44.1kHz, or the user can switch among five different upsampling rates: 96, 192, 384, 512, and 768kHz. Relays allow the upsampling rate to be changed on the fly, with only a brief silence between settings, and the switching can be done from the front panel or the remote handset.
The digital filter module feeds a dual-mono pair of Burr-Brown 24-bit delta-sigma D/A converters, and current is swapped for voltage with another dual-mono pair of Burr-Brown chips. That voltage goes to the grids of a pair of 12AU7 dual-triode tubes and a Burr-Brown op-amp: The Cary CD303/300 has tube and solid-state analog output stages, both of which are always active. The user can toggle between them at will, also using either a front-panel button or the remote control.
Other interesting details: The Cary's CD mechanism is a Matsushita CD/DVD-ROM transport selected for its ability to minimize errors by means of multiple passes. (You may remember Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio praising that capability in my "Listening" column last month.) The CD303/300 has separate power supplies for the analog, digital, and control logic sections, fed by three separate R-core transformers. And it's worth noting that the Cary is truly and fully balanced—another nice windfall from the dual-mono approach to the design of the conversion and output stages.
Installing the CD303/300 in my system posed no problems and at least one pleasant surprise: Rather than perching on rubbery feet of the usual sort, the Cary came equipped with four chunky, well-machined cones, each one height-adjustable within a range of about 3/8". In addition to those, the Cary had a built-in bubble level—actually fastened to the CD mechanism's housing, and visible through a circular opening in the chassis cover—to tell me when those feet were dialed in just right. For experimentation's sake I tried unbalancing the CD303/300 as much as possible, to see if that made any difference in performance. It didn't, but I'm still glad the adjustment is there.
I was also happy to find a little manhole of sorts on the CD303/300: a perforated metal plate held in place with four machine screws, and removable without also having to remove the whole darn chassis cover. Its purpose, as you've no doubt guessed, is to provide access to those 12AU7 tubes. The ones supplied are from Electro-Harmonix, but alternatives are plentiful, and some might even take the Cary's performance a step further.