Cary Audio Design Classic CD 303T Professional SACD player Page 2

On the rear panel are coaxial, TosLink, and USB inputs; AES/EBU, coaxial, and TosLink digital outputs; and both single-ended RCA and true dual-differential XLR outputs. The CD 306 has an AES/EBU digital input; the CD 303T does not. Cary includes a CD-ROM containing a Windows-compatible (no Mac) USB driver that it says provides up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution—a first, in my experience, for a USB connection.

Use the Facilities
Everything about using the CD 303T was to like. Discs loaded quickly, the transport worked smoothly in all modes, and there were no surprises from the remote.

Reviewing a multi-input player such as this requires auditioning SACDs, CDs, and HDCDs via the transport, as well as hi-rez files via my Macintosh computer's TosLink mini-jack output and via the USB interface of a Windows PC, as well as server-based source material. It was easy enough to install the USB driver (in my case, to the Windows partition of my MacBook Pro laptop), but the Cary's instruction manual needs an upgrade to tell you how to use it. I had to call Cary to get it sorted out. Otherwise, using the CD 303T in all modes was a self-explanatory pleasure.

SACDs First
The Classic CD 303T SACD Professional Version sounded nothing like the CD 306 SACD Professional Version. Even through its solid-state output, the 303T had a warmer, fuller, more relaxed sound than the 306, but was no less involving. The 303T sounded more analog-like than the more detail-oriented, and more highly resolving 306.

The sound of Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab's SACD/CD reissue of the Band's Music from Big Pink (Capitol/MFSL UDSACD 2044)—which, for now is the reference edition in any format—combined deep, elastic, rumbling bass lines from both bass guitar and organ on the Cary 303T with powerful, almost violent tom smacks from drummer Levon Helm, to produce a thick but rhythmically lithe foundation. The sound of the toms on this record, most of which was recorded in four-track at A&R Studios in New York City, has a distinctive, deliberately "thuddy," almost out-of-control quality that sounds more like a much larger timpani. It shouldn't sound polite and clean, or thick, indistinct, and blobby. Few hippie audio systems in 1968 could handle the weight (not to mention "The Weight"!), so Capitol lopped off the bass end of the original LP.

If your system goes low with control, you're likely to quickly warm to the 303T's tactile, inviting bottom end on this SACD. Even the tambourine strokes produced visceral impact. But whatever was responsible for it, and even through its solid-state output, the CD 303T produced tactile everything. Nothing about the sounds of SACD was digital, in the negative senses of that word.

The warmth extended up into the lower midrange, though not obtrusively so. On the first track, "Tears of Rage," the deep, weeping horn lines in the left channel were punched up with greater authority than I usually hear from this album. Richard Manuel's voice, in the center channel, had a rich, caramel presence and three-dimensionality above the "wet," rapidly decaying reverb. The touch of warmth had the effect of producing a vividly three-dimensional soundstage on which were placed solid, equally dimensional images. While the top end wasn't nearly as well resolved or airy as some other players I've heard, including the CD 306, and while the decay was not as pronounced or extended, the upper octaves had a tube-like, almost golden glow, and pleasing presence and transparency, even through the CD 303T's solid-state output. The 303T's absence of grain, grit, glare, and other digital unpleasantness was also welcome, and it managed all that without ever sounding soft, rolled off, or boring. The sensation of a touch of added "body fill" was never obtrusive, but only added to my listening pleasure.

Playing Music from Big Pink through Playback Designs' MPS-5 SACD/CD player ($15,000; I reviewed it in the February 2010 issue) produced an altogether different sound: leaner, faster, tighter, and at first somewhat less harmonically fleshed out. But when I listened more carefully, I appreciated the Playback's more "event-oriented" sound, its firmer grip on the bottom octaves, and its greater extension. Details that blended into a pleasing whole through the Cary CD 303T were separated in space through the Playback. While some of the warm followthrough of the tom and tambourine strokes seemed truncated through the Playback, the definitions of attacks were noticeably sharper, and myriad small, fine details effortlessly appeared—items that the faster, cleaner, leaner CD 306 would also pick up.

Assuming you like male jazz singers such as Nat King Cole, Johnny Hartman, Mel Tormé, or Johnny Mathis, here's a plug for an overlooked gem of an SACD. In 1990, Groove Note issued With This Voice (GRV1007-3 SACD), by Luqman Hamza (aka Larry Cummings). In a voice rich in vibrato, Hamza delivers 14 standards with a breezy, fresh, lyrical clarity. The CD 303T was particularly well suited to the sound of this well recorded disc. Though I've often played the LP edition all the way through, with the Cary, I found myself listening straight through the SACD for the first time.

Zenph Studios' "re-performance" in stereo of Glenn Gould's 1955 monophonic recording of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations (SACD/CD, Sony Classical 703350), produced by Steven Epstein, made clear both the CD 303T's warm, inviting tonality and, when I switched layers, the improvement SACD makes over 16-bit PCM, particularly in how the latter handled the piano's upper registers—they clanged, taking on a hard, unpleasant, mechanical quality. From the SACD layer, they remained well behaved. But beyond that, the individual notes remained distinct via SACD, while via CD they tended to blur together, as well as with the reverberant field behind.

As an SACD player, the CD 303T effectively bridged the gap between the too analytical and the too romantic. But switching to the more-than-twice-as-expensive Playback Designs MPS-5 produced greater transient and image clarity, and made obvious the CD 303T's modestly effusive yet still attractive sonic signature.

CDs Second
The CD 303T's overall character didn't change when it played CDs. The bottom octaves weren't as tightly gripped as is possible with CD sound, but were well extended, cleanly rendered, and free of harshness or hardness. The upper-bass/lower-midrange area was pushed slightly to produce a pleasing but not excessive warmth, while the highs were reasonably well extended, if not the airiest, most detailed, or pristine I've heard. Attacks weren't the fastest, but neither were they tediously soft or indistinct.

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