Cary 303/200 CD player
The Cary is surprising—in a good way—in its abundance of features. Cary calls it a "CD transport/processor" because it has digital inputs and outputs, as well as both balanced and unbalanced analog outputs. Its output is either fixed, for running through a preamp, or variable, controlled in the analog domain with 64 discrete levels, for direct connection to a power amp. Switching between the two, or setting the maximum voltage output to one of two levels (3V or 6V for unbalanced, 6V or 12V for balanced), requires opening up the unit and moving jumpers on the DAC board. My unit came configured in the Low Gain and Variable Output settings, which worked just fine in my setup.
The CD-303/200 also features selectable upsampling. The digital from the transport are first passed through a Texas Instruments digital signal-processing (DSP) chip, in which the word length is automatically expanded to 24 bits via a proprietary Cary algorithm. The signal can then, at the user's discretion, be upsampled to 96kHz or not, prior to conversion. The DACs themselves are a pair of 24-bit/96kHz-capable Burr-Brown PCM1704u-K grade chips. The 303/200's digital inputs accept signals with sample rates of from 32kHz to 96kHz, and word lengths of 16, 20, or 24 bits. These datastreams are similarly routed through the DSP chip and word-length expansion, and can be upsampled or not, as the user chooses.
Why wouldn't someone want to upsample the signal? I did a number of listening tests with and without upsampling, and always preferred upsampling. There was better detail resolution and ambience retrieval, and smoother overall sound. The catch is that the 303/200 is also HDCD-compatible—a Pacific Microsonics PMD-200 digital filter/decoder chip is inserted between the DSP and decoder elements—and upsampling renders HDCD decoding inoperable. And yes, the HDCD discs I tried sounded better using HDCD. A neat, versatile solution.
But what Cary is really known for is their exquisite amps and preamps, so I asked what was magic about the CD-303/200's analog side. The reply was "Nothing really magic—just a good circuit and attention to detail in its execution. Board layout, parts quality and selection, mechanical and electrical isolation—attention was paid to all of them."
The CD-303/200 is nicely executed, particularly given its price. It's dominated by the Philips transport assembly, which is encased in a heavy steel channel bisecting the unit from front to back. On one side of the channel are the C-core transformer and two power-supply boards, one for the transport, one for the audio circuits. On the other side of the channel is the single DAC/analog output board. Everything is neatly laid out, and while the Cary isn't as chock-full of circuitry or as laden with esoteric audiophile parts as a Burmester or Classé Omega unit, it's well-made—especially for the price. However, I found it impossible to read the small, crowded, blue display from across the room.
Use and Listening
Cary recommends that the CD-303/200 be broken in for 200 hours, so I began by letting it run continuously for a week before doing any listening. After that, there was the usual setting up and general tweaking of the system: experimenting with cables, installing Echo Busters room-treatment panels, choosing reference CDs and cleaning them. When I was satisfied that everything was just so, I sat down to listen seriously, and was immediately surprised—in a good way.
Some components differ from the norm in some subtle but fundamental way. The Wadia CD players stand out by virtue of their incredible temporal precision, which gives them an unusual, captivating immediacy. In the case of the Cary CD-303/200, what immediately jumped out was its taut, powerful sound. I began my listening with David Johansen's Shaker (Chesky JD236), and noted that the presentation was immediate and very direct. Johansen's voice hung right in my listening room, a solid, tightly focused presence sharply bounded and surrounded by unusually "black" silences.
Joe Beard's For Real (AudioQuest AQ CD-1049) was next up, and reinforced my initial observations. My notes are full of comments like "super clean but really ballsy" and "very taut and precise, but with incredible slam." Again I noticed the Cary's unusual and captivating power, solidity, and impact, furiously scribbling "again, there's that 'solid images projecting out from a black background' feel...like the images and notes are solid blocks of granite, standing out in sharp relief."
Starting from the bottom, the Cary's powerful sound began with the best low-bass performance I've heard from a CD player. It was powerful, with huge dynamic contrasts. It was also amazingly well-controlled, with notes starting and stopping on a dime. Nowhere was that impression of notes being distinct, solid entities more prevalent than at the very bottom. Bass drums were ominous and explosive, and timpani crescendos took my breath away.
The Cary's bottom end also had superb pitch definition and detail. I often use Zubin Mehta and the LAPO's reading of Holst's The Planets (London/Classic CSCD 6734) as a test of these qualities, listening to see how well a component can reproduce the distinct characteristics of the different double basses in the section. Never have I heard the individual instruments portrayed as beautifully, or as distinctly, as with the Cary. Soft passages, or ominous, swirling underpinnings, or full-out crescendos—all were outstanding, the basses steadfastly remaining a group of distinct instruments and players.
Moving up a bit, to the "warmth" region of the upper bass and lower midrange, the Cary's performance was also quite good, but not quite as satisfying as in the lowest registers. There were the same sorts of precision, detail, and dynamic contrasts as down low, but not quite as much weight, and not quite as rich a tonal palette. There's a passage early in Antal Dorati and the LSO's performance of Enesco's Romanian Rhapsody No.2 (Mercury 434 326-2) where a line cascades down through the string sections, finally settling in the cellos. The cellos had all of the inner detail, dynamic nuance, and precision of the double basses in The Planets, but didn't seem to have the warmth and bloom—the dark, woody richness—that cellos usually do.
Playing other discs, such as Sherman Robertson's Going Back Home (AudioQuest AQ CD-1050) or The Poll Winners (JVC JVCXR-0019-2), I noted that bass lines were inevitably sharper and more precise with the Cary, but—particularly near the top of the double bass's range—warmer and bouncier with other players. In the case of Ray Brown's performance on Poll Winners, the Cary didn't seem to have as much of the warm, woody resonance I've heard with some other players, sounding just a smidgen lean in comparison.
The Cary's power and precision carried up through the midrange as well. I noted that everything from trombones and French horns through trumpets and flutes was characterized by large, precise dynamic contrasts, outstanding edge definition, and solid, dense tonal colors. Again, there was that overriding feeling that the notes were solid, powerful entities standing out distinctly from their surroundings. Several minutes into Enesco's Romanian Rhapsody, shortly after a soft passage in which woodwinds play off one another, there's a solo oboe line superimposed over low, humming violins. The way the oboe stood out in bold relief, immersed in the violins' swirl and the ambience of the hall yet totally distinct from them, was amazing. For me, that passage, perhaps more than any other, best displayed the Cary's unusual presence.
In "Don't Start Me Talking," on Joe Beard's For Real, I swear I could see Jerry Portnoy's hands around his harmonica, his fingers cupping toward, then away from it. I must have listened to this track 10 times in a row. I just couldn't get over that holographic imaging.