Cary 303/200 CD player Page 2

One nit I pick with the CD-303/200's midrange, particularly as it moved into the upper midrange and lower treble, was that its power and presence sometimes seemed almost too much—right on the edge of being too forward. With some discs, vocal transients seemed just a bit edgy, or the faintest hint of steel would creep into massed violin crescendos. There's a nice trumpet entrance about eight minutes into the Romanian Rhapsody that showed off all of the Cary's presence and precision, but it seemed to have a balance that was tipped a bit too much toward its leading edge and contrast, without quite as much brassy warmth and richness as it should have.

I had no complaints at all about the Cary's top end, which sounded unfailingly clear and extended. Things like brushed cymbals seemed effervescent and airy; listening to David Johansen's Shaker, I noted that Keith Carlock's brushed snare work was fantastic. Like Keith Portnoy's harmonica, if to not quite the same degree, the brushed snare was almost holographic in its presence. I wonder if the Cary's incredible dynamic precision and power are related to its exemplary high-frequency performance.

When I sat back and listened to the whole picture, the CD-303/200 had a slightly unusual and captivating presence. Its overall tonal balance was a little on the cool side, due to a very slight lack of bloom in the warmth region and perhaps a slight emphasis in the upper midrange. Similarly, the Cary's spatial portrayal was a little bit more forward than that of some other players. It produced a very wide and tall soundstage, but not quite as deep as some others I've heard. Images were a little larger than with some other units, but more significant, they were incredibly dimensional, and very well-defined by their explosive dynamic contrasts, sharp edges, and solid inner detail.

The flip side of this superb image definition was that individual instruments and players weren't quite as coherently presented with the surrounding ambience as they could have been. In The Planets, the individual instruments, and even entire orchestral sections, while sounding great individually, never quite jelled into a single, coherent whole. Part of this was the fault of the fizzed-up recording, of course. The Cary's portrayal of the Romanian Rhapsody, a more realistic recording, was much more integrated, but still not quite as seamless as with the more expensive Simaudio and Burmester players I had on hand.

All of these characteristics—tonal balance, spatial performance, definition and projection—could be shaded a bit one way or the other by cable matching. For example, the Monster Sigma Retro Gold interconnects have a lot of the same characteristics as the Cary, and seemed to reinforce it, redoubling its compelling power and presence but slightly accentuating its cool personality and forward nature. The Nirvana SX-Ltd., on the other hand, is tipped a bit the other way, toward depth, coherence, and warmth. To my ears, this interconnect seemed to result in a more balanced overall package, filling in a little upper-bass warmth, opening up the rear of the soundstage, and better integrating orchestral sections into a single, coherent whole.

The Cary's strengths and personality could also be accentuated or toned down by mixing and matching associated gear. The Mark Levinson No.20.6 monoblocks, with their darker, warmer tonal balance and more liquid texture, counterbalanced the Cary to a degree, and both softened and warmed up the system's presentation. Although I liked the tonal balance with the Levinsons, I preferred the VTL Ichiban monoblocks overall, because of the clarity and openness they contributed.

But do you really need a preamp?
The CD-303/200 features volume control, executed in the analog domain, so I did a substantial portion of my listening with it driving the VTL or Levinson monoblocks directly, via 6m lengths of balanced Wireworld Gold Eclipse II. My review sample came from the factory with its Low Gain setting selected, which provided a maximum output of 6V from the balanced outputs. With this setting, a normal listening level resulted in volume settings of "40-50" of the 64 increments available. When I ran the Cary through the VAC CPA1 preamp, which I set and use in Passive mode—ie, as a zero-gain buffered line stage—the Cary was set at maximum voltage output.

Like many similarly equipped units—and unlike the Burmester 001, which was an unqualified success when run direct—the Cary run directly into power amps was a mixed bag. On the plus side, some of the quibbles I had with its performance through the VAC preamp were greatly mitigated. The upper-midrange edginess was essentially gone—that trumpet in the Romanian Rhapsody was filled-in and brassy, for example. Soundstage depth improved, the perspective was less forward, and the overall sonic envelope was more coherent. Overall, the feel was smoother and more natural.

On the minus side, the CD-303/200's captivating presence was a bit less so—the Cary sounded a lot more like other similarly priced players. It was still an excellent player, but a little of what made it so special was gone. The dynamic transients weren't quite as large as before, a bit of the dynamic precision was missing, and the notes no longer had that incredible tautness and carved-from-granite solidity.

Although the CD-303/200 has a low output impedance and a substantial, well-regulated power supply, driving long cables and amplifiers can be tricky. I've had volume-capable CD players in the past that shone only when I used them with very short cables. Unfortunately, my current setup didn't let me try that the Cary. Your results may vary; overall, I preferred the CD-303/200 running through my VAC preamp.

Summing up
The Cary CD-303/200 was definitely a nice surprise. Not only does Cary make CD players, but, based on my experience of the CD-303/200, they make very good ones. Even more surprising was that this one is not merely very good—it also offers a slightly different, and arguably more compelling, personality than most other players out there. Its power and presence are arresting, and in some ways—reproduction of dynamic contrasts, inner detail, bottom-end performance—it's as good as any player I've heard.

The Cary has a slightly cool tonal balance and a forward perspective that may or may not mesh with a particular system or a particular listener's tastes, and I found that, in some instances, a bit of upper-midrange edginess crept in. These aspects of the CD-303/200's personality weren't overbearing, and could, as I found, be offset or balanced by cables and/or associated equipment. Nonetheless, they were there.

The bottom line: The Cary CD-303/200 is an excellent CD player. It's very well-built, and has a ton of intelligent features and capabilities. Overall, it's a very good value at $3000. Before its arrival, my recommendations to anyone shopping for a CD player at around this price would have been the Wadia 301 and the GamuT CD-1. I've just added the Cary CD-303/200 to that list.

Cary Audio Design
1020 Goodworth Drive
Apex, NC 27539
(919) 355-0010