Cary Audio Design SLP 05 preamplifier Page 2

That said, I do wish you all could have heard how utterly amazing the live Hot Rize album So Long of a Journey (CD, Sugar Hill SUG-CD 3943) sounded through my system with the Cary SLP 05 in place. The sheer presence of the performers went up a notch, even compared with the superb Lamm LL2, as did the sense of force behind the musical sounds. An example: A little way into the concert, when bassist Nick Forster is introducing the members of the group, banjoist Pete Wernick taps his fingers on the head of his instrument—and the sound was startlingly real. The Cary also demonstrated an excellent sense of scale on this recording: I don't believe that stereo components can impart a better or worse sense of "height" per se, but the Cary resolved some or another kind of information that was responsible for letting me hear when one of the performers was holding his instrument up a bit closer to the microphone.

While on the subject of live recordings, I should mention the Cary's similarly fine way with the late Sergiu Celibidache's 1995 recording of Bruckner's Symphony 9 (EMI 5 56699 2). I've been trying to overcome a recent internal Bruckner backlash, no doubt brought on by a combination of bad moods and bad performances (the latter including a recently acquired LP of Jochum's downright deadly Symphony 8); thanks in part to the Cary preamp's realistic portrayal of instrumental colors and its fine sense of dynamics and drama—not to mention the simple fact that it seemed to love being turned up—I made a little progress. Of special note were the beautiful-sounding clarinets toward the end of the first movement, and, of course, the almost frightening, machine-like menace of the Scherzo. Brilliant music (re)making.

The Cary rocked out nicely, as required. Neither P, nor R, nor even a T was lacking on the Replacements' brilliantly noisy "Seen Your Video," from the indispensable Let It Be (LP, Twin Tone TTR-8441). The Cary was also at least the equal of the Lamm in making sense of the layers of sound, most of which seem to originate from the real-time studio performance as opposed to having been punched in later. The more sedate "Sixteen Blue," which follows later on that side, also benefited: a lovely mix of noisy frustration and melodic pop sensibilities, as only the pre–Don't Tell a Soul Replacements could do.

Ditto Marshall Crenshaw's "Calling Out for Love at Crying Time," from Mary Jean and 9 Others (LP, Warner Bros. 25583-1), and Neko Case's "Margaret vs. Pauline," from the brilliant new Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (CD, Anti 86777-2), both of which contain dense layers of reverb-drenched guitars—although Garth Hudson's amazing, and comparatively dry-sounding, piano further distinguishes the latter. If you worry that a tube component can't cleanly separate all those things from one another while letting them keep their texture and character...well, you needn't.

Detail retrieval—of the musical sort, I mean, as opposed to cufflinks and subway trains—was superb with the SLP 05: at least the equal of the best I've heard. Beginning with the second theme heard in Elgar's Nursery Suite (try Harmonia Mundi HMU 907258), the horns play a series of sustained notes that more or less anchor the shifting chords carried mostly by the strings; their sound (there are four of them in the English Chamber Orchestra, according to the liner notes) is easy to miss at first, given the way they blend in—and once you've heard them, they sound a bit thick and hard to make sense of. The Cary preamp very definitely bested every other I know of in making them sound clear and unambiguous and meaningful.

Hillary Hahn and the London Symphony Orchestra's brilliantly performed but weirdly dark-sounding Elgar Violin Concerto (SACD, Deutsche Grammophon 00289 474 8732) was so emotionally satisfying and engaging through the new Cary that it was impossible not to listen to the whole thing through: No subtle pitch distortions or the like distracted my attention or siphoned off my enthusiasm. And the Cary showed its flair for the dramatic on another Hahn disc, the altogether more well-recorded Beethoven Violin Concerto, made with the Baltimore Symphony back in 1998 (Sony Classical SK 60584). In the final movement in particular, using my newly refurbished Quad ESLs—capable of wider dynamic swings than my newer Quad ESL-989s, believe it or not—the SLP 05 allowed the brilliant young fiddler to sound appropriately intense and muscular. A very, very nice performance, and equal to my memory of the similarly dramatic-sounding EAR 912.

Three supplemental performance notes: First, I much preferred using the Mute button on the remote handset to the one on the front panel. The former produced an immediate and uneventful silence, while the latter, no matter how deftly thrown, always occasioned a minute bit of noise—almost like a note's attack component.

Second, as with virtually all such schemes, I found that using either of the individual channel attenuators to adjust balance did in fact result in a "veiling" of the sound in that channel, beyond the more obvious effect of lowering the volume of sound: vanishingly slight, but more audible than mere nothing.

Third and finally, I used two different phono preamps with the Cary SLP 05: a borrowed Linn Linto, which has an output impedance of 130 ohms, and a review sample of the Artemis PH-1, which has a much higher output impedance of 1300 ohms. The two sounded different from one another, of course—but no more so than I would expect from two very different designs. In other words, the Cary line stage didn't appear to have any obvious problems related to matters of input impedance.

There's more to it than all that—isn't there? There's the whole issue of features: a consideration more relevant to this product category than any other, and one that's also supremely subjective. We may not know what we want from life, but we damn well know what we want from an expensive preamplifier!

I look for a balance-control scheme that's easy, repeatable, and has no deleterious effect on the sound; a good mute switch; a mono switch; a polarity-inversion switch; and two sets of output jacks, so I can go back to using a subwoofer if I ever lose my mind again. I'd also prefer having a built-in phono preamplifier, and, where such a thing exists, I want two pairs of inputs and switchable gain. I also prefer letting my moving-coil cartridges see a transformer first, as opposed to an active device of whatever sort. Everything else is negotiable.

I'm not sure such a thing exists, and I'm even less sure that that matters: I'm having fun looking, as are most of us, I hope and presume. That said, to paraphrase Smokey the Bear, only you can determine what sort of preamplifier you'd like to buy next, if any at all.

But I can tell you from honest experience that this one is beautifully built, fun to look at, fun to use—and sounds amazing: a definite step beyond Cary's previous best, and at least the equal of the best of the competition that I've heard so far. A shade better, even, in some regards.

The new SLP 05 is a feather in Cary's cap, and yet another brilliant milestone in the 6SN7 tube's trip from the field telephones of the Ardennes to wherever it's going next. Godspeed.

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