Cary Audio Design CD 306 SACD Professional Version SACD/CD player Page 2

With naturally made recordings, especially on SACD, this should be a given, but isn't always. Fortunately, the CD 306 Pro did a great job in this respect. The awesome orchestral opening of Morten Lauridsen's Lux aeterna, in the recording by Stephen Layton leading Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia (SACD, Hyperion SACDA67449), opened up the end of my listening room into the acoustic of London's Temple Church, the soft choral entry raising goose bumps.

Paradoxically, with the best audio components, this phenomenon can occur even with unnatural recordings. The Dave Brubeck Quartet's Take Five (SACD, Columbia/Legacy CS 65122) was recorded in 1959—analog tape hiss is a little obtrusive—and the miking of the instruments is multiple mono rather than true stereo, though the mono image of Joe Morello's drums does include some space. (In the title track, the recording venue lights up when he solos on snare and kick drums.) But despite the multimono miking, the Cary presented this recording with a sonic unity that made me forget its vintage.

The same thing happened with some rock recordings. I'm a big fan of Peter Gabriel, who has not always been well served when it comes to recorded sound. Many tracks on his mid-'80s album So (SACD, Geffen Chronicles 069 493 626-2) have been mixed to sound unlistenably bright. But "Don't Give Up," his duet with Kate Bush, had a unity to the sound when played through the Cary. From Tony Levin's ostinato bass-guitar figure through Gabriel's plaintive bleat to the head-expanding character of Kate Bush's double-tracked reassurance, the unity of the Cary's presentation was definitely more than the sum of these processed parts.

The Cary also majored in preserving a recording's sense of space. The stage depth in violinist Tom Chiu's recording of David Chesky's Violin Concerto (on Area 31, Chesky SACD288) was as fully developed as I have experienced, while the spatial bloom that develops in the choruses in the title track of Steely Dan's Gaucho (SACD, MCA B0000868-36), as the reverb return of Donald Fagen's phased Rhodes piano is boosted, was simply delicious.

The big question regarding the CD 306's handling of CDs is which upsampling ratio to use. It's easy, using the remote control, to change the ratio while the music's playing, but that can lead to a restlessness that distracts from the music. When Art Dudley reviewed Cary's CD303/300 CD player, which has the same feature, in October 2005, he found that, as the oversampling ratio was increased, with all CDs "there was an increase in the smoothness and liquidity of the sound: rough edges were definitely being sanded off." But he also found that the effects of the various rates varied from disc to disc. "What was interesting," he wrote, "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."

I agree with Art that the smoothness and liquidity tended to improve with the upsampling ratio, but I didn't find drastic reductions in quality; instead, I reached a point where increasing the ratio made no difference. The one exception was in the area of low-frequency definition. This issue's "Recording of the Month," Guitars (CD, Half Note 4537), from veteran jazz pianist McCoy Tyner, features, as well as a litany of A-list axemen—Marc Ribot, John Scofield, Derek Trucks, Bill Frisell, and Béla Fleck—the great Ron Carter on double bass. At 44.1kHz, with no upsampling, Carter's instrument sounded overcooked: weighty, yes, but big and bloated, and pushing Jack DeJohnette's drums even farther into the background. As I increased the upsampling ratio, each step reduced the instrument's midbass bloat until, with 768kHz selected, the body of the double bass's tonal quality was in the correct proportion to the attacks.

This was with the Dynaudio Sapphire and PSB Synchrony One speakers, both of which have, er, full-figured low frequencies. But I can imagine that with speakers balanced more on the lean side, such as the Magico V3 (which I reviewed last May), a lower upsampling ratio might be found preferable. But with the highest upsampling ratio, the quality of the Cary's bass with CD began to approach what it produced playing SACDs. For example, I could hear no difference between the SACD and upsampled CD presentations of the symbiotic mix of bass guitar and kick drum on Steely Dan's "Hey Nineteen," from Gaucho.

The Cary correctly decoded HDCD, the display correctly identifying such discs. However, that it would not decode HDCD-encoded data fed to its digital input I discovered only by accident: I was feeding the CD 306 the digital output of my Logitech Transporter WiFi music server playing the HDCD-encoded "Red Book" files of the recording of John Butt and the Dunedin Consort performing Handel's Messiah (CD, Linn 285). The datastream was not identified as HDCD by the Cary's display, and the replay level was 6dB higher than it should have been. This is a minor problem, give the rarity of such circumstances, but hey, I'm a critic—I'm paid to pick nits!

I primarily compared the Cary CD 306 with the Ayre C-5xe, which has been my reference hi-rez player for the past three years. SACD comparisons were made difficult by the fact that I don't have duplicate SACDs, though the fact that the Cary has a digital input made CD comparisons a piece of cake—I simply fed the Ayre's AES/EBU data output to the Cary's data input, then used the Ayre KX-R preamp's Input Offset function to match playback levels to within 0.3dB.

Differences were very difficult to hear. But after a while, playing back my 1998 recording of a Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival performance of Mozart's Piano Quartet 1 in g, K.478, with Pinchas Zukerman, from Bravo! (CD, Stereophile STPH014-2), I felt the Cary retrieved just a tad more of the reverberant signature with the solo piano passages. Conversely, on my recording of Robert Silverman performing Beethoven's Piano Sonata 12 on Editor's Choice (CD, Stereophile STPH016-2), I was hard put to hear any difference at all. With Eric Whitacre's Lux aurumque, from While You Are Alive, my new CD from Minnesotan choral group Cantus (Cantus CTS-1208), both players developed a delicious sense of the hall ambience around the singers, but again, with the Cary, that hall was very slightly larger.

I repeated the comparison using a DVD-A I had burned of the 24-bit/88.2kHz masters for the new Cantus CD. Again, the Cary just edged out the Ayre when it came to retrieval of hall ambience. The Ayre, however, gave a tad more weight to the bass singers. But these differences were very small, and detectable only in direct comparisons; if I left the room after randomly switching preamp inputs, when I re-entered, I couldn't identify whether it was the Cary or the Ayre that was playing.

I did compare the CD 306 Pro with its earlier version, again with levels matched. Regardless of the potential damage to my audiophile credentials, I must say that I failed to hear any difference between them, even after lengthy comparisons.

Summing up
For SACD playback, the natural competition for the Cary CD 306 Professional Version are the Ayre CX-5se ($5950), reviewed by Wes Phillips in July 2005, and the Krell Evolution 505 ($10,000), reviewed by Fred Kaplan in September 2008. I haven't auditioned the Krell in my own system, but I did listen to it in Fred's system, connected by Krell's proprietary CAST links to his Krell FBI integrated amplifier, where it performed flawlessly. But as Fred pointed out, you get the full measure of the Krell's sound quality only when it is used in an all-Krell system. The Evolution 505's performance via its conventional balanced and unbalanced jacks was less competitive. The Ayre has the advantage of playing DVD-As and -Vs as well as SACDs and CDs. But the Cary just edges out the Ayre, I think, in terms of soundstage depth and the sheer silkiness of its high frequencies.

I enormously enjoyed my time with the Cary CD 306 Professional Version. It's on the expensive side, but for your $8000 you get a well-engineered, solidly built, superb-sounding player with close to state-of-the-art measured performance. And it has that very useful digital input, for use with a network music player. Recommended.