Cary Audio Design CAD-300SEI integrated amplifier Page 3

The 300SEI's tonal balance wasn't perfect, however. The top octave lacked air and extension, making the presentation slightly closed-in. This characteristic tended to make the soundstage less expansive in both width and depth and imparted a smaller sound to the recorded acoustic. With small-scale music, the effect wasn't a drawback; but on full-scale orchestral or choral works, the presentation lacked the halo of bloom at the soundstage's outer edges I get from the VT150s. Rather than presenting a huge acoustic the way the VT150s do, the 300SEI's more intimate portrayal of space lent itself better to smaller works. Acoustic jazz was particularly well-served by the 300SEI's sonic perspective, as well as by the amplifier's ability to communicate the musicians' intent with more emotional impact.

I had an unusual perception when listening to jazz through the 300SEI: I gained a heightened awareness of the musicians' phrasing. Instead of hearing a collection of notes, I could feel the melodic and rhythmic nuances that contributed so much to the musicians' expression. In fact, if I had to describe the 300SEI with one word, it would be "expressive." This amplifier provided a more direct path of communication between the musicians and me. It's difficult to describe, but once you've heard it, the experience is unforgettable.

Because both the Genesis II.5s and Compositions have powered woofers, their bass presentations weren't dependent on the 300SEI's ability to deliver current to a woofer. Consequently, the presentation with either loudspeaker had terrific bass, which went well with the ultra-liquid mids and treble. Driving the full-range KLH minimonitors with the 300SEI revealed that the Cary amplifier's bass sounded a little woolly and somewhat lacking in tautness and definition. The overall sound was, however, better than I've heard from these speakers.

Compared to what I consider the reference in power amplifiers, the Audio Research VT150s ($12,000/pair), the 300SEI had a softer treble, with less HF definition. The mids were slightly more laid-back and "darker" with the Cary—although, paradoxically, the 300SEI put more musical focus on the midrange. Dynamics were easily better from the VT150s, the more powerful monoblocks having more transient impact, wider micro- and macrodynamics, and the ability to go loud gracefully. The 300SEI had tighter image focus, with a smaller, more intimate soundstage.

Conversely, the VT150s better presented a sense of a concert hall's size, with a greater feeling of the acoustic surrounding the images. The 300SEI had, however, a palpability and directness of expression I didn't get from the VT150s. Note that the VT150s are far more practical: they'll drive virtually any load and are not restricted to high-sensitivity loudspeakers, as is the 300SEI.

For years I've cavalierly dismissed single-ended tube amplifiers on the basis of their poor measured performance, but the Cary CAD-300SEI integrated amplifier has opened my eyes to the glory of single-ended amplification. The 300SEI was a musical revelation, providing a totally involving and musically euphoric experience night after night. The 300SEI excelled in the most important areas: harmonic rightness, total lack of grain, astonishing transparency, lifelike soundstaging, and a palpability that made the instruments and voices seem to exist in the listening room. Beyond these specific attributes, the 300SEI communicated the musical message in a way that went straight to the heart.

This performance was, however, highly dependent on the loudspeaker the 300SEI was asked to drive. I was fortunate to hear the 300SEI driving the ultrasensitive Infinity Composition P-FR with its powered woofer. The Infinity was perfectly suited to the 300SEI and let this little amplifier shine. I can't emphasize strongly enough the need to pair the 300SEI with the right loudspeaker—of which there are very few. If you select an inappropriate loudspeaker, expect a mushy bass, rolled-off treble, closed-in soundstage, compressed dynamics, and low listening levels.

Even using the Infinity, however, I still had a few criticisms of the 300SEI. The amplifier's top octave was a little depressed, reducing the sense of air around the soundstage. The dynamics were adequate, but limited in relation to more powerful push-pull tube amplifiers and solid-state units. When driving the full-range KLH minimonitors, the 300SEI's bass was a little woolly.

The 300SEI had horrendous measured performance, with high distortion, deviations from flat response when driving real-world loudspeakers (footnote 4) and limited current delivery. But damn the measurements! The 300SEI was so musically satisfying that I don't care what the numbers say. My head tells me the 300SEI can't be any good; my ears and heart say this is the most involving and communicative amplifier I've heard—and a tremendous bargain at $3395.

You can count me among those converted to single-ended amplification. If you audition the Cary CAD-300SEI with the right loudspeaker, you too may be added to the growing legion.

Footnote 4: I'm not going to be so charitable as RH. Given the fact that Stereophile would not recommend at all a loudspeaker that showed as unflat a response as the Cary when driving our standard simulated load, I don't regard this amplifier as a hi-fi product at all. It is actually a tone control, and an unpredictable one at that.—John Atkinson