Cary Audio Design CD303/300 CD player Brian Damkroger on '300 vs '200

Sidebar 3: Brian Damkroger on '300 vs '200

When I reviewed Cary Audio's CD303/200 CD player for the May 2004 issue of Stereophile, I was impressed by its bold, powerful sound, its mix of excellent definition and huge dynamics, and its truly remarkable bottom end. It also boasted a comprehensive array of features, everything from extensive I/O connectivity and HDCD to user-selectable upsampling rates and voltage output levels. Its presentation wasn't quite as sophisticated as the best players I'd heard, but it was a nice package, and a good value at $3000.

I'll leave the details to Art Dudley, but Cary's CD303/300 ($4000) is much closer to a completely new unit than an upgraded CD303/200. Everything, from the cosmetics to the hardware and software used for the digital processing, has been improved, and even more features have been added—most notably, upsampling rates up to 768kHz and the choice of a tube or a solid-state analog stage. I found that maximum upsampling generally resulted in the cleanest, most refined handling of details and transients, and that using the tube output fleshed out tonal structures and improved image dimensionality—so I stuck with 768kHz upsampling and the tube output stage for most of my listening.

The new Cary's sonic performance was also a departure from the 303/200's. The new unit lacked the 200's jaw-dropping bass and huge dynamics, providing instead a more balanced, more sophisticated presentation. Its bottom end was still powerful, but cleaner and more articulate. The 300's dynamic transients were also less spectacular but more precise, with a better sense of pace and timing. With the 303/300 in the system, I always seemed to be tapping my foot, which I don't recall being the case with the 200.

The 303/300 sounded quite neutral through my system (VTL TL-7.5 preamp, Simaudio Moon Rock amplifiers, Thiel CS6 loudspeakers), with none of the slight coolness I'd heard in the 303/200. Strings were sweet without being overly rich, oboes were appropriately woody, and the hollow, slightly metallic character of the flute was as good as I've ever heard. Edgier instruments, such as saxophones, had a perfect mix of bite, texture, and bloom through the 300, whereas the 200 slightly emphasized the harder, more dynamic components of the instruments' sounds. On the other hand, the 303/300's treble was sweeter than I recall the 200's being, and might even have been a little too sweet. Cymbals had a little more ring and a bit less shimmer with the 300, and triangles were more bell-like, not cutting through the orchestra quite as clearly as they should. Switching to the solid-state output stage did result in an airier, more extended top end, but overall, I preferred the tube stage.

Back in 2003, I noted three areas where I thought the 200's performance could be improved: soundstage depth, coherence, and an upper midrange that was almost too much at times. All three were noticeably better with the 303/300. The trumpet on "Pueblo Nuevo," from Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club (CD, Nonesuch 79478-2), was a good example. It was arresting through the 303/200, but slightly edgy and a little disconnected from its surroundings. Through the 303/300 it had the right brassy edge but wasn't harsh, and was seamlessly woven into a more detailed, more complex harmonic structure. And rather than being defined by a bold outline, the trumpet's image was more finely drawn, with a clearer sense of the air around the instrument.

Another disc that showed off the 303/300's sophistication was Friday Night in San Francisco, a live album by Al DiMeola, John McLaughlin, and Paco de Lucia (CD, Columbia CK 37152). The transients were explosive where necessary, but never overshadowed the remainder of the note or blurred the lightning-fast passages. I could easily discern the unique character of each guitar's strings and bodies, and hear the smallest details of hands brushing across the top or fingers sliding along the fret board at the notes' trailing edges.

Friday Night confirmed that the 303/300 was a step above its predecessor in terms of soundstage depth as well. The images were dimensional with the 200, but the 303/300 located them in a deeper, more realistic space. There was an excellent sense of the audience and space in front of the performers. Similarly, the space behind the guitarists was clear and properly scaled. "Yulunga," from Dead Can Dance's Into the Labyrinth (CD, 4AD 45384-2), was a little two-dimensional with the 200, but through the 303 created a three-dimensional world in which the surreal sounds—animals? birds? aliens?—appeared at distinct and startlingly different locations in space.

It's not a surprise that Cary Audio's CD303/300 is significantly better than its predecessor, but it is a little surprising that it's so different, impressing most with its subtlety, balance, and sophistication instead of dynamics and definition. Regardless of how Cary got from there to here, the CD303/300 is a superb CD player that competes with the best I've heard. I'd be happy to install it in my system and never look back.—Brian Damkroger

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