Cary Audio Design CAD-300SEI integrated amplifier Page 2
The 300SEI's build quality, parts pedigree, finish, and overall look are exemplary.
In addition to driving the Infinity Compositions with the 300SEI, I tried the Cary on the ribbon midrange and tweeter sections of the reference Genesis II.5 loudspeakers. The II.5s have an 800W amplifier to power the four servo-driven 12" woofers, relieving the 300SEI of driving a large cone. The Genesis has, however, a demanding load impedance (3 ohms minimum, 4 ohms through most of the band) and only moderate sensitivity. Although the 300SEI was clearly underpowered for the Genesis, I listened to small-scale music at low levels to get a feel for the 300SEI's sound with this familiar reference. I also drove a pair of KLH 6" two-way minimonitors of unknown sensitivity (late 1970s vintage, before KLH completed their descent into mass-market mediocrity) with the 300SEI to see how the Cary would behave driving a full-range system.
The digital front-end was a Mark Levinson No.31 transport feeding a Spectral SDR-2000 Pro processor through a Kimber/Illuminati coaxial digital interconnect. LPs were played on a highly modified Well Tempered Turntable and WTA, with an AudioQuest AQ7000nsx cartridge. A Vendetta SCP-2B phono stage provided gain and RIAA equalization.
Interconnects included Monster Sigma, Magnan Type V, AudioQuest Lapis, and Diamond x3. Loudspeaker cables were AudioQuest Dragon II.
I was pleasantly surprised by how loudly the 300SEI played with the Genesis II.5s. The levels were obviously limited, but not to the extent I expected from 11W. The presentation lacked dynamics, however, and sounded a little closed-in through the top octave compared with the Audio Research VT150s.
It was unmistakable, however, that the 300SEI communicated the music in a way I'd never experienced before. There were an immediacy and a palpability to the sound that were breathtaking. I don't mean a sonic immediacy, such as a forward character, but a musical immediacy that riveted my attention on the music. On the superb new classical-guitar duo Baroque Inventions (Dorian DOR-90209), for example, I had the distinct impression of sitting in front of the two guitarists in the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. The 300SEI benefited from the low playback level called for by the instrumentation, producing a realistic level with this small-scale music.
Switching to the 96dB-sensitive Infinity Composition P-FRs (which also have a powered woofer) really let the 300SEI open up. The amplifier's limited dynamics and the top-octave air missing with the Genesis were largely restored when the Cary was driving the Compositions. I could also get a totally satisfying listening volume from the 11W amp—with room to spare. In fact, the 300SEI cruised comfortably on most music when driving this easy load. The 300SEI's ability to involve me in the music was heightened by the Compositions' high sensitivity. The 300SEI's sound was ultrasmooth and liquid, but not in a colored, euphonic way. Instead, I felt as though I was hearing only the music, and not the music overlaid with electronic hash. The sound was totally devoid of grain, brittle textures, edge, and stridency. My wife put it best when she said, "The sound doesn't abrade you"—an interesting choice of words for a non-audiophile. The midrange and treble cleanliness, smoothness, and astonishing liquidity gave saxophone a warm, round, burnished sound that lacked any trace of grain or glare. Vocal sibilance was less objectionable, with less of a hashy, intrusive character.
This liquidity and lack of electronic artifact produced a relaxation and intimacy with the music that made me want to play records and CDs long into the night. In fact, I spent night after night totally immersed in the musical experience provided by the 300SEI and the Compositions.
Although the presentation was silky smooth, I don't want to give you the impression that the 300SEI sounded syrupy, rolled-off, or overly romantic at the expensive of resolution and accurate timbre. The 300SEI was good at resolving detail, which is partly why this amplifier was so involving. But the detail wasn't thrust on me, instead sounding subtle in a way that invited me into the music. The detail was there but was understated and refined.
Instrumental timbre sounded astonishingly real—a quality most apparent on violin. When you hear violins in a concert hall, they're never shrill, screechy, or strident. So it was with the 300SEI, which reproduced solo and massed violins with a warmth and beauty unmatched by any electronics I've had in my system. Similarly, the 300SEI's rendering of the human voice was glorious. The amplifier restored the human quality to vocals, making them more lifelike, present, palpable, and expressive. Listen to Doug MacLeod's Come to Find (AudioQuest AQ-CD1027) through the 300SEI to hear this presence and directness of expression I'm describing. The 300SEI's portrayal of the harmonic structure of instruments and voices just sounded more like the real thing, with less of the mechanical, synthetic sound we've assumed has been inherent in music reproduction.