Cary Audio Design CAD-300SEI integrated amplifier Follow-up from December 2000

Sidebar 3: Follow-up from December 2000, Vol.23 No.12

How do I keep my audiophile life in tune with my wife, the estimable K-10? Keen-eared audiophile that she is, supportive musical mate extraordinaire, even she sometimes needs a break. We inhabit a Chelsea loft. Hey, we love it, but there's no place to run away to, slam the door, and just be alone. Well, there's the bathroom, but audiophiles need to pee a lot.

So what happens when it's that time of the month for me, and multiple deadlines encroach? When writing reviews and columns from home, do I fire up the big system and further bombard my wife with The Sound?

Nope. I fire up the luscious little $3995 Cary CAD-300SEI integrated amplifier, powered by a pair of Western Electric 300B tubes, natch. My unit's front panel is anodized in black, but you can have it in gold if there's something of the Bob Guccione about you.

I usually snap a pair of Sennheiser HD 600s ($449.95 list) over my enlarged reviewer's head and play CDs on a Rotel RCD-971 that sits on the shelf below on a good-looking BDI stand of glass and oak. Right now I'm using a set of Nordost Quatro-fil interconnects between the player and the single-ended RCA inputs of the hot-running, substantially built, jewel-like Cary. There are no cones or feet under the Cary, but I do keep a Shakti Stone on the top cover of the CD player to damp its mild chassis resonance.

Okay, first of all, you don't know me as a big headphone guy, but do I even have a reference in this department? Why yes, I do—the best in the world: the Sennheiser Orpheus HE 90, fabulous in every way but now discontinued, hélas. It starts with a key! (You may remember that Tom Norton reviewed it in February 1994.) That gorgeously tubed beauty's performance, achieved with bespoke electrostatic headphones, sounded simply incredible—unbelievably fantastic. It was the openness and speed in the highs that did it for me. Simply breathtaking. The midrange was taut and redolent with detail, and the bass kicked ass. I had the luck to borrow one for three months. (The retail price was $12,900, and Sennheiser wanted $9k, even for that banged-up old review sample. As I say in the accompanying review, I only play one on TV. I'm just a journalist, fer cryin' out loud! $9k!? Yeah, but did I covet it.)

So where did I go from there? Exactly nowhere. I literally didn't—couldn't—listen to anything else on headphones for weeks after, weeping, I'd packed up the Orpheus for return. One of the saddest days of my life.

Ralph Lauren to the rescue. Well, sort of. The Cary CAD-300SEI looks "cute," according to Kathleen. (I think it's handsome.) And it's got those great pedigree-up-the-poop-deck Western Electric 300Bs, and those great boxes a matched pair of tubes come in. You've got that shiny, attractive chrome chassis topped with black, macho transformers and a trio of New Old Stock 6SN7s, plus the 300Bs fanned out to either side. It's all very Ralph Lauren; lavish lifestyles of the musically lascivious! I mean, none of the audiophiles I know are "old money"—or even "new money," don't we wish. But the Cary is great stuff and makes you feel good to be around. It's not cheap either, though nowhere near the super-expensive Orpheus. At least, when used as a headphone amp, you get the Full Monty with the 300SEI. When tapping the headphone button, a double-pull/double-throw, 10A, gold-plated relay disengages the speaker terminals and routes the entire amp's audio circuits to the headphone output. No cheap ICs used for 'phones here!

So, is the Cary CAD-300SEI good enough? You bet your bippie. Using primarily the Sennheiser 600s, the sound was always very classic Western Electric: a bit tubey and not the most dynamic. The bass was good, but didn't crack all the fillings in my teeth. The transition from upper midbass to lower midrange was unruffled, a little plump, but fairly linear. The midrange always sounded entirely splendid, and everything was grand in the midband. Only a glutton could ask for more.

The highs? Yeah, well, a bit rolled-off. So sue me—I love the CAD-300SEI anyway. And this is, don't forget, in comparison to the heavy droolage induced by the Orpheus. My gawd was that thing quick and open in the highs—and those comfortable electrostatic headphones, that clarity and coherence. [smack] Thanks. If I can't have that, well then, I'll take this! No, no, no...don't wrap it up, I'll wear it home!

The only real tweak I tried was popping the Golden Sound Nagivator power cord, plated gold over silver, that I typically use into the PS Audio P300 Power Plant. Now this was interesting. First off, the Accuphase SACD/CD transport and its companion SACD/upsampler DAC were plugged into the '300, both pulling about 54W between them. That left 200W and change to play with, and everything was glorious until the '300 shut down. At that point, rather than unplug the Accuphase units and try again, I plugged the Cary back into the wall and continued on my merry way. Yes, in all significant ways the CAD-300SEI sounded better, faster, more clear, more coherent, and focused when 'Planted. So the hot setup for ne plus ultra headphone pleasure would be this rig and one of those bigger 'Plants. No question about it: condition the juice, achieve better sound.

In any case, even with the Cary CAD-300SEI plugged into the wall, I could listen to the Sennheiser 600/Cary combo for hours (and in many cases did so as I wrestled, not very successfully, with those dastardly deadlines). Richness of tone, roundness of presentation, harmonic lushness up the poop deck, plus a head-nodding need to acknowledge the music, remains the most compelling experience of listening to this combo. Yes, one could wish for faster, clearer, more open, and extended sound. So go buy an Orpheus.

I tried a few other solid-state headphone amps at a variety of prices. In all cases, their slightly gritty upper-midrange/lower-treble regions automatically dropped them out of contention for me. I'm sorry, I'm so spoiled! I did try an OTL tube design from Wheatfield Audio that showed real promise at a much lower price, but tube noise ruined the show. And I did try better digital sources, although the elegant little Cary weighs a ton and doesn't lend itself to schlepping around the manse. The better the source, the better the sound. Big surprise.

But as the intimate little system with which I spend much of my writing time, the Cary CAD-300SEI/Sennheiser 600 succeeds musically on all levels. I know there are other worthy contenders out there, but for now, lacking the wherewithal for the Orpheus (which isn't available anyway), this is my now and future reference headphone rig. I love it.—Jonathan Scull