Cary Audio Design SLM-100 monoblock power amplifier Page 2

The Cary's high-frequency reproduction was sweet and extended, but on certain recordings the transients could sound a bit slow. This occasionally made percussion sound a bit blunted, and highly modulated cymbal and gong crashes swished a bit. But this was a very subtle effect, and was less noticeable than with the original SLM-100, in production before the middle of 1994 (and which used a slightly different input stage and tube complement). The earlier model sounded noticeably sluggish on all material.

Bass reproduction could plunge convincingly into the nether regions, at least up to the limits of my speaker/room combination that, with the Alóns, is solidly to 25Hz, with somewhat reduced output at 20Hz. However, the greatest shortcoming of the Cary was apparent in the 80–100Hz region, where a ripe thickness could add an overly prominent halo to electric and acoustic basses.

In the early stages of my reviewing, I needed to send the amplifier I use to drive my Infinity woofers, a Perreaux 2150B, back to the manufacturer to be updated with the revised 3300 circuitry. As several weeks without music is untenable in the Reina household, I asked Cary's Dennis Had how he felt his monoblocks would do driving the Infinity woofers until I got my Perreaux back. (I would use my ARC Classic 60 to drive the midrange/treble panels.) Said Had: "Uh, sure, uh...I don't see why not. Yeah, go ahead, try it." Hmmm. In his voice was a definite tone of "I really can't say no to a reviewer, but hell, if he blows it up, I can always send him another unit."

His hesitation, as Infinity fans would know, is derived from those pesky Infinity woofers, which, to really sing, need high-powered, high-current amplifiers with ultrafast damping factors. ("Solid-state arc welders, the line forms to the right.") However, the result was not what you'd expect from this modestly powered tube amplifier. To the surprise of both of us, the SLM-100 performed quite well. Although not as "fast" or as extended in the bass as the Perreaux, it put out consistently musical sound—and at loud volumes without strain!

Against the ARC Classic 60
I spent a great deal of time comparing this baby to the Audio Research Classic 60 on both sets of speakers. The results were fascinating: both amplifiers were clearly impressive performers with totally different sonic presentations. They shared a wide and deep soundstage presentation, but it was difficult to determine which was more realistic. The ARC excelled in image specificity, detail resolution, and transparency, but the images on the stage with the Cary sounded more dimensional and lifelike. On dynamic contrasts, the Cary had the added edge on high-level contrasts (perhaps due to nearly double the power), but both amps excelled in reproducing music's microdynamics. The ARC's bass, however, was far superior through the bottom two octaves.

The high-frequency comparison was most interesting. The Classic 60's biggest shortcoming is in its tight, etched low treble, which is the only flaw in what would otherwise be my ideal amplifier under $5000. The Cary's high-frequency reproduction was more natural, but the ARC didn't suffer from the Cary's slight slowing of transients.

The comparison reminds me of Sarah Faust, a brilliant piano craftswoman in Irvington, New York. She rebuilds Steinways for scratch, using only Hamburg parts. The result is a grand piano better than what you can buy new, for about two-thirds the price. A few years ago a friend bought a Model B from Faust; for a while, each time I visited his house the piano's touch and sound had changed. He explained that Faust was in the process of "voicing" the hammers to his taste, softening them by pricking the felt with a sharp instrument to mellow out the attack of the notes. The Classic 60's high-frequency transients reminded me of my friend's Steinway before it had been voiced; the Cary reminded me of the softened, fully voiced hammers. Which is correct? It's a matter of taste.

Summing Up
The Cary SLM-100 Revised is an excellent amplifier quite suitable for someone looking for musical 100W tube sound on a realistic budget. The high qualities of sound, parts, and construction make it a bargain. (Definitely go the extra bucks for the chrome!)

No tube amplifier in this price range that I've heard is free from tradeoffs. I'd like an amplifier that combines the detail, transparency, and bass of the Audio Research Classic 60 with the dimensionality, high-level dynamics, and the high frequencies of the Cary. (While we're at it, let's throw in the midrange of the EAR 509.) I'm still looking for my dream tube amplifier costing less than $5000. Until then, I'll be happy settling for the Classic 60. Your tastes may be different. Check out the Cary.

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