Cary Audio Design Classic CD 303T Professional SACD player Page 3

Altogether, it was a skillfully put-together sound that, while free of digital artifacts, added a touch of warmth and body that, to me at least, is welcome in the world of 16-bit PCM. But if your speakers have flabby lower midbass and/or recessed highs to begin with, you might be less impressed than I was. In that case, spending another $1500 for the CD 306's tauter, faster, more extended sound might be worth your while.

The CD 303T's sound when playing 16-bit/44.1kHz signals was never less than complimentary to every disc played, even those that were warm and midbass-heavy, or slightly rolled off on top—another indicator of the skill with which the player has been voiced.

Seasick Steve's Man from Another Time (CD, WEA International 615828) was a phenomenon in the UK, going all the way up the charts (it's now been released in the US). Steve is a 69-year-old, gray-bearded bluesman with a sound not that different from The White Stripes', though he's more bluesy and somewhat less edgy. Here's one older guy who's laying it all out. The title tune is great! "Don't you got better things to do than listen to a man from another time?" I expect your answer will be the same as mine: "No!"

The album was recorded all-analog "here and there," mixed in Nashville, and mastered by Ray Staff in the UK, where Seasick Steve now lives. It's a determinedly warm, reverberation-bathed recording to begin with, and while more air, transient clarity, and longer decays could be had from the Playback player, the CD 303T's warmer sound was equally if not more credible, without smothering the music. Steve's voice was pushed forward pleasingly from between the speakers, giving it greater intimacy and verisimilitude, whether or not that was a more accurate reproduction of what's on the master tape.

Playing with the CD 303T's upsampling options made subtle, recording-dependent changes in the sound; generally, as I climbed the ladder of upsampling rates, the sound got slightly softer. At some point it always became too much and I needed to back down, but for the most part, "Red Book" CDs were "Red Book" CDs, and there's not much you can do about that. I never felt that going above 96kHz upsampling yielded anything but an unwelcome and overly soft character.

Tubey or Not Tubey Output
This is a choice I wish the CD 306 offered. I'm not sure the CD 303T needs even more warmth than it already offers through its solid-state output, but again, this will depend on your taste and system; the differences were subtle, but easily audible as a slight added softness, fullness, and flow through the tube stage.

For some reason, the CD 303T's HDCD decoding made a greater difference in the sound than has that of other disc players I've heard. Through the Cary, the Jimi Hendrix compilation The Ultimate Experience, remastered in HDCD by Joe Gastwirt in 1992 (Polydor 517 235-2), sounded significantly more three-dimensional and analog-like, and the top octaves far better resolved, than when played through the version ripped to my Sooloos Music Server and fed to the 303T's digital input. The difference was that the CD 303T, like the CD 306, doesn't decode the HDCD information via its S/PDIF inputs. (It was hard to hear any differences in other comparisons of CDs and the Sooloos rips.)

Through the CD 303T, your HDCD-encoded discs should sound really good. If you don't think HDCD makes much of a difference, this player might change your mind. Joni Mitchell's HDCD-encoded compilations from 1996, Hits (Reprise 46326-2) and Misses (Reprise 46358-2), have never sounded better here.

Hi-Rez Files via TosLink and USB
Whatever the measured jitter problems of TosLink connections might be, comparisons of 24-bit/96kHz files played back via the Sooloos and the Cary CD 303T's coax input, and the same files played back from the computer via TosLink, were sonically indistinguishable. The same was true of the Beatles' re-remastered (ca 2009) catalog at 24/44.1, taken from Apple's USB dongle edition transferred to computer.

Reference Recordings' sonically stupendous 24/176 HRx discs sounded equally good via the USB (at full resolution, or so the Cary's front panel said) and TosLink inputs, though via the latter they were limited to 96kHz out of the computer. Again, whatever the measured differences, I couldn't hear any. Had this been the state of the digital art in 1985, I'd have been down with it.

Looking for musical and sonic adventure? Try Opening, by the Mathias Landaeus Trio (M•A Recordings M081A). This single-point, double-DSD-speed recording is as pristine and pure as you'd expect from producer-engineer Todd Garfinkle, and the package includes the album on both CD and DVD-ROM, the latter disc containing both 24/176.4 WAV and 24/88.2 FLAC files. The music is sublime trio jazz that any Bill Evans fan will enjoy, and any audio buff will appreciate the quality of the sound. Compare the "Red Book" CD with the hi-rez files and then try to convince yourself that CD sound is good enough.

How Cary has managed hi-rez 192kHz USB transmission while others seem stuck at 48 or 96, I don't know, nor do I know what JA's measurements, particularly of jitter, will show. But, bottom line: Whatever you might want from a disc player (except for playback of DVD-Audio discs), the Cary CD 303T can deliver it.

The CD 303T costs $1500 less than Cary's CD 306, and its sound is clearly different—but I can't say it's less accomplished. The CD 306 resolves more information, and has faster attacks and longer decays, but it also makes clear how many poor-sounding CDs there are. In a direct blind comparison, I have no doubt many listeners will prefer the less expensive spread.

The CD 303T produced a more relaxed, warm, and inviting sound than the CD 306. If it was a touch vivid and overextended in the upper bass and lower midrange, that aspect of its personality was apparent only when I compared it to the far more expensive Playback Designs MPS-5. Nor was the Cary's less than fully resolving and airy top end noticeable except in such direct comparisons. And on a large percentage of discs, much of what's up there is best forgotten anyway.

Yet the CD 303T never bored me, nor did it make recordings of hard rock sound soft and polite. If it has been deliberately voiced, this has been done with incredible skill. It produced a most agreeable sound from all formats and musical genres, and its versatility can't be beat. And if you need even more warmth, use its tubed output stage.

No, it's not a dCS Scarlatti stack, but for $6500, the Cary Audio Design Classic CD 303T SACD Professional Version is beautifully built, and its exterior looks just as fine. Used in a system comprising ridiculously excellent-performing components at equally ridiculous prices, the Cary's sound came close enough to that high level that, whatever the differences, I couldn't care less about them. One of those Joni Mitchell HDCDs is playing as I write this. If you were here listening with me, I think you'd agree.

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