Cary Audio Design CD303/300 CD player Page 2
Basics first: Set for 44.1kHz and auditioned through either of its user-selectable output sections, the Cary was a better-than-average-sounding CD player in a number of ways, including believable sonic colors, textures, and—especially—details. During an unplanned foray into early-'70s rock one sunny afternoon, I dragged out various versions of the Band's Stage Fright in a twiddly effort to compare their mixes. Two and, in some cases, three different versions of the songs on that album were released commercially over the years, and can be heard on the original Capitol LP (SW-425), the first Capitol CD version (C2-93593), the DCC gold CD version (GZS-1061), and the most recent Capitol CD version (25395-2). Close listening and decent playback gear are required to hear some of those subtle variations—such as the deepest bass notes in Garth Hudson's piano part on "Time to Kill," or Levon Helm's vocal ad-libs during the instrumental break in "All La Glory," or the way some apparently discarded backing vocals on "Strawberry Wine" remain audible in some mixes, having bled onto an adjacent track. Later the same day, when I played the archetypal Procol Harum song "Fires (Which Burnt Brightly)," from Grand Hotel (Castle ESM CD 291), I was pleased by the way the Cary highlighted rather than buried the distinctly different settings organist Chris Copping used in his solo, as compared with the rest of the song.
I didn't think the Cary sounded bright in and of itself—although its top end was more extended than that of the Naim CD5x, whose sound I'm used to, and whose musical performance appeals to me a great deal. At the other end of the spectrum, the CD303/300 had a well-extended bottom end, with good clarity and sheer physical weight: The subtle bass-drum accents in Neil Young's "My Heart," from Sleeps with Angels (Reprise 45749-2), were wonderfully effective with this player. Notes in the bottom two octaves also had a welcome lack of pitch ambiguity through the Cary.
Although I'm not an imaging freak by any means, I can imagine that aspect of the Cary's performance proving the biggest draw to some readers. Playing the "Red Book" CD version of Alexander Dmitriev and the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic's new recording of Shostakovich's Symphony 7 on Water Lily Acoustics (see p.41), the CD303/300 delivered a sense of stage width and sheer overall scale that rivaled the SACD version of that release. And on the recent album In Between Dreams, by Jack Johnson (Brush Fire B0004149-02), the deftly played drum kit, and especially the ride cymbals, were spread believably across the rear portion of the imaginary stage. Distinct sounds were present and solid without sounding etched or overly small and fussy.
And the CD303/300 had the qualities I consider necessary for a CD player, or any component, to make piano music sound natural, compelling, and easy to listen to for long stretches: It had excellent dynamics, and it allowed lines of notes to sound fluid and natural rather than mechanical—although never with any sacrifice in timing or forward momentum. Jorge Bolet's deliberate and at times downright athletic approach to Liszt's Liebestraum No.3 (on London 444 851-2 and elsewhere) was reproduced well by the Cary player, which got across Bolet's attack without sacrificing the flow of the music or the tone and purr of the instrument. I was surprised, in fact, that the Cary had as good a sense of drive and pace as the obvious choice in that regard, the Naim CD5x, although the American player had a distinctly different sound overall (being especially wider in its useful frequency range). On a slightly different performance topic, my listening notes reminded me that, through the Cary, there was a moment toward the end of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No.1 where Bolet's touch was so realistic, and the sound of the piano so present, that it literally startled me. Pretty cool.
As mentioned above, the CD303/300 performed well through both its tube and solid-state output sections—but if I were forced to choose one or the other, I'd go with the tubes. Comparing the two was tricky, inasmuch as the output level of the tube section was obviously somewhat lower. Even when the levels were matched, the tube sound was "smaller" than that of the ICs, in terms of imaging and scale. But for all that, I thought the solid-state section wasn't quite as natural, and didn't have quite the same sense of flow.
Which brings us to the matter of upsampling: its own can of worms. My previous experience, with the dCS Verdi La Scala upsampling disc transport (see the January 2005 Stereophile), might have led me to expect upsampling to make for a more refined but possibly less involving sound. So it went here—although things weren't quite as simple as that.
Working through the settings, from nonupsampled 44.1kHz through higher and higher rejiggerings, what was unmistakable with virtually all CDs was an increase in the smoothness and liquidity of the sound: rough edges were definitely being sanded off. But the effects of various upsampling rates seemed to vary from disc to disc. What was interesting was that some discs had a distinct "lock-in" point: I would reach a certain level of performance beyond which the sound would change drastically, becoming dull and colored and downright quacky. On Martin Newell's "Call Me Michael Moonlight," from The Off White Album (Humbug BAH25), there was a remarkable change in the sound—a really very noticeable difference—when moving from 96kHz upsampling (good) to 192kHz upsampling (not so good). But that didn't hold true with other discs, some of which exhibited a similarly drastic sonic change, though at some other point along the scale.
Using the Cary CD player's upsampling control resulted in clearly audible performance differences, and after using the CD303/300 for almost two months, I found that I could work with it to optimize certain aspects of the sounds of many discs. I don't think it's possible to say whether some or all of those differences stemmed from the actual resampling of the digital datastream itself, since the upsampling and nonupsampling portions of the Cary's digital filter address distinctly different analog filters within the player—something that I believe is true of all such products on the market. Was I hearing the sonic benefits of different (re)processing rates, different filters, or both? For now, there's no way of saying, although the possibilities are intriguing. But overall, and notwithstanding the positive changes I heard in the sound, I generally continued to favor using the Cary in nonupsampling mode, preferring it for what I heard as a more involving and, more to the point, less rhythmically ambiguous musical performance.
The most honest conclusion I can offer in the course of a review of a component—and the one that I can and very often do give my audiophile friends—is to describe precisely what was going through my mind when the time came to send the thing back. For instance, the thought of returning the Lamm ML2.1 amplifiers made me miserable, the thought of returning the ZYX Airy S cartridge left me indifferent, and everything else falls somewhere else: another continuum.
It didn't kill me to do it, but I was sorry to have to tape the Cary back into its carton and drive it to UPS. I liked the way it looked and felt, and I liked the way it played music. Most of all, I liked the fact that it was easy to get good, colorful, dramatic, wide-open sound from the Cary: The upsampling features would have been there for me to return to and play around with on the next snowy day—scheduled for late October here in Cherry Valley—but I could ignore them if I wanted to and still love the thing.
Also, like everything else I've seen from Cary Audio Design, the CD303/300 is solidly built and fairly priced. In terms of physical construction, ultra-high-quality parts, and brand-new, original technology, there's a lot going on in the Cary's 38-lb chassis. At its price of $4000, the Cary CD303/300 should disappoint no one and tickle many: an easy recommendation.