Cary Audio Design CD 306 SACD Professional Version SACD/CD player Michael Fremer, February 2009
After I'd been happily listening for a few months to the Marantz SA-11S2's warm, detailed, emotionally involving sound, John Atkinson sent along Cary Audio Design's CD 306 Professional Version SACD player ($8000) that he had reviewed in November 2008 (Vol.31 No.11). He suggested I use it as a benchmark against which to evaluate the Marantz. Direct comparisons of the players' sounds proved enlightening and constructive; the differences remained consistent through the playing of a wide variety of CDs and SACDs. In fact, I could pick any CD or SACD from my collection and hear consistent differences between these two excellent machines.
While the Cary's overall sound was somewhat cooler, its attack was pristine and lightning-fast, and decays seemed to continue for impossibly long times. This resulted in astonishing resolution of recorded detail, along with breathtaking transparency. Images were exceedingly well delineated and separated on a deep, ultrawide soundstage. This sound was among the most enticing and riveting I've heard from any digital source.
Through the Cary, the opening drums of "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," from the SACD edition of Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde (Columbia)a remix of the original four-track master tape because the original two-channel mix was no longer usablesounded faster and tighter, with the initial strokeand all of the other components that make a drum struck in space sound like onemore cleanly rendered and well separated in three dimensions. The trumpet and trombone were brassier, their images more finely fixed in three dimensions on a deep, wide, airy soundstage. Dylan's voice popped cleanly, standing well in front of the instrumental backdrop. The bass was tauter, more detailed, better extended.
The Marantz's rendering of the Dylan track was pleasing, reasonably well detailed, and inviting. The Cary's was mesmerizing and "visual" in a vinyl sort of way, though it still sounded like an artificial construct compared to the more organic-sounding LP. Just to be sure it wasn't the Blonde on Blonde SACD's remix talking, I compared "Like a Rolling Stone," from the SACD of Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited on the two players and got the same results.
The Bill Cunliffe Trio's Live at Bernie's (SACD, Groove Note GRV1009-3), which was also released in a two-disc 45rpm Direct to Disc set, was recorded closely miked at Bernie Grundman Mastering, in the common space outside Bernie's mastering room. I attended the recording session, which was also captured directly to DSD. The sound is of ultra-high quality, though not "audiophile" in the sense of "two microphones in a big space." In his mix, engineer Michael C. Ross spread the drum kit across the soundstage; he also placed mikes inside the piano, then spread that instrument's sound across the stage as well.
The Marantz reproduced this exciting-sounding SACD with the inviting warmth and somewhat narrowed soundstage with which it rendered other discs. This helped this recording's sound to jell pleasingly, while the Cary spread the drum kit and piano across a vast expanse of lateral space, and emphasized the piano's percussive aspects over its harmonic structure. When drummer Joe La Barbera attacked his cymbals, the Cary precisely pinpointed the location of each, and with great focus. The Marantz's reaction time felt somewhat slower, its focus not quite as sharp.
The overall impression going from the Marantz player to the Cary was like going from a very, very good rear-projection CRT HDTV capable of delivering 1080x1300 lines, to a full-resolution 1920x1080 picture produced by a fixed-pixel plasma or LCD flat screen. The former loses some resolution, sharpness, and clarity, but has a richness and fullness that the higher-resolution display, with its slightly artificial crispness, lacks.
For a more analog analogy, the Marantz was like one of the better wood-bodied Grado cartridges, the Cary more like one of van den Hul's speedy Colibri or Grasshopper models. While each make has it advocates and detractors, everyone agrees that the vdHs are more vibrant, resolving, and speedy.Michael Fremer