Cary Audio SI-300.2d integrated amplifier

My entrée to high-end audio was in the late 1990s, when I bought a used pair of Cary Audio CAD-572SE tubed monoblock amplifiers to add to my Marantz CD player, Audio Note M2 preamplifier, and ProAc Response One SC loudspeakers. This system reproduced recordings with a sound that made me happier than a country boy with a glass of milk and a helping of peach cobbler. (I was reared, as my grandmother would say, though not born, in North Carolina, where Cary is based.)

Though the CAD-572SE's class-A, single-ended-triode (SET) design produced only 20Wpc into 8 ohms—probably not enough wallop for the 87dB-sensitive ProAc One SCs—I thought the combo sounded terrific. The Carys were lush and a bit woolly, but created a wonderful sense of soundstage bloom, with gorgeous, richly saturated tone. The Carys also kick-started my love affair with the 6SN7 tube, also used in the Audio Note M2 preamplifier; I collected copious quantities of new old stock 6SN7s before sadly selling it all in a bid for fiscal responsibility.

I imagine that this sort of story—the Cary purchase, not the fiscal shenanigans—is familiar to many Stereophile readers. Conrad-Johnson and Audio Research repopularized tube amplification in the US in the 1980s, and Dennis Had's Cary Audio brought SET designs to the mainstream in the early '90s. Such Cary models as the SLP-05 and SLP-90 preamplifiers, CAD-300SEI integrated amplifier, CAD-805 and CAD-211 power amplifiers, and, eventually, lines of CD players, DACs, network players, phono stages, and headphone amps made Cary Audio a company with a seemingly solid legacy.

Billy Wright has been involved with Cary Audio practically since its inception, first as CPA, then as CFO, and, since 2009, as owner. Like Had, Wright is a native of North Carolina, and oversees in Raleigh a team of analog, digital, and software engineers. He helped them bring to market Cary's first ground-up digital product, the CD-303 CD player, in the late '90s. Think of Wright as the house co-designer, getting down and dirty with every product carrying the Cary Audio brand.

Welcome to Lifestyle Country
Originally, Cary Audio was all about SET amplification. Today, Cary is as much a lifestyle brand as a high-end audio company, as exemplified by the solid-state SI-300.2d digital integrated amplifier ($5995). Sporting the modest chassis height, brushed-aluminum faceplate, and plethora of tiny buttons of Cary's newer designs, the SI-300.2d is an extremely versatile, 52-lb beast that brandishes 300Wpc into 8 ohms or 450Wpc into 4 ohms of class-A/B power. Its amplifier section is coupled to a class-A preamplifier gain stage. At the heart of its digital section is the Asahi Kasei (AKM) AK4490EQ DAC chip also used by Astell&Kern, Denon, Marantz, and TEAC.

"We like these DACs because they process signals natively, PCM up to 32-bit/768kHz," Wright told me. "So 16/44.1 is processed at native 16/44.1 with our proprietary TruBit selectable upsampling technology. The user can choose playback at the file's native rate or from six additional sample rates, or even convert any PCM signal to DSD64, 128, or 256. Like PCM, DSD signals are handled natively—bitstream—up to DSD256 [on a PC platform]; Mac is relegated to DoP [DSD over PCM] 128 for the time being, due to Mac's native limitations, not our ability to stream native DSD up to 256."

DACs incorporated within integrated amplifiers are common nowadays, but I wondered: Why include a DAC chip that's sure to become obsolete in no time, yet ignore headphone fans and vinyl aficionados? (The SI-300.2d has no headphone jack or phono stage.) Wright responded via e-mail:

"Whether homes, cars, or audio, lifestyle trends reveal that customers are comfortable knowing they no longer need separate items and can confidently combine or get the best of both in one. And DAC technology is actually quite mature. It's the formats and file rates that change. The SI-300.2d can play native PCM at 32-bit/768kHz and native DSD up to 256 [via USB, not S/PDIF]. An overwhelming majority of the audiophile base is listening to 16/44.1, slowly sneaking up to as high as 24/192 or perhaps 24/358.2, with respect to PCM. If ever these bit depths and sample rates become mainstream, the SI-300.2d still has a lot of headroom to take on 32-bit depths and 768kHz sample rates. . . . [W]ith that said, we will have MQA-certified products in the very near future."

Part of me is a diehard separates-and-analog fan who views "lifestyle" as more of a marketing niche than a subset of serious audiophilia—but I acknowledge that tomorrow's audiophile is likely to embrace a set of audio values very different from mine. Of course, what always matters most is not how the music signal travels from point A to B, but the sound of the music flowing through the product to your ears.

The Bluetooth-capable SI-300.2d is fashionably retro, with a large, 1980s-style volume knob and cool, McIntosh-blue VU meters on its ¼"-thick aluminum faceplate. The preamplifier section is a new design for Cary, the power amplifier is based on a circuit previously used in the company's CAD-200 stereo power amp, and the SI-300.2d's digital circuitry is derived from Cary's DAC-200ts stereo DAC-preamp. Assembled at the Cary factory, the SI-300.2d's chassis and case are made of steel, the faceplate and volume knob milled from aluminum.

The SI-300.2d's well-organized interior includes two large heatsinks back to back, one visible through the ventilation grille in the top plate. Inside a shielded can is a 1000VA toroidal power transformer. A series of larger Elna and smaller Matsushita/Panasonic capacitors occupy the six circuit boards.

The SI-300.2d's faceplate is tightly populated. From left to right are the alphanumeric display window, the volume knob, and the VU meters; below these, in a shallow groove spanning the faceplate's width, is a row of 15 tiny buttons. From left to right, these are: Power, Display, Mute, Sample Rate Converter, Cinema By-Pass (to activate signal pass-through if the SI-300.2d is connected to a surround-sound processor), and Bluetooth. Then come the input buttons: USB, Coaxial 1 and 2, Optical (TosLink), and AES/EBU; and, finally, Line 1 through Line 4, for the analog line-level inputs.


The rear panel is even more densely packed. At top left are two pairs of speaker terminals, and below them the four analog Line inputs: Line 1 and 3 are single-ended (RCA), Lines 2 and 4 balanced (XLR); Lines 3 and 4 are the Cinema By-Pass options. In the center bay, from top, are the right and left preamplifier/subwoofer outputs, and jacks for WiFi and Bluetooth antennas. Below these are the digital inputs, from left to right: XMOS USB ("capable of True native DSD up to 256 and PCM/DXD up to 32-bit/384kHz," Wright told me), Optical (TosLink), Coaxial 1 and 2 (RCA), and AES/EBU (XLR). Below those are the Optical (TosLink) and Coaxial (RCA) digital outputs, the DC Trigger Input and IR Output, an RMS Ethernet jack, and a USB port labeled Firmware Update Only. On the far right, all by itself, is the IEC inlet for the supplied power cord.

From its Bluetooth, WiFi, and home-theater options to such very useful functions as a Mute, a sample-rate converter (SRC), a Balance control (on the SI-300.2d's aluminum-faced remote handset, included), a Mode button that increases the output by 6dB when using low-output sources (also on the handset), and its very own iOS and Android apps, the SI-300.2d is the most feature-packed product I've ever used. And talk about multitalented: the SI-300.2d can be used as only a preamplifier, and can accept an external DAC to bypass its onboard DAC. It's the whole megillah.

Setup and installation
While attaching cables to the SI-300.2d's rear panel, I found that adhering to simple logic paid off—everything worked as labeled, without my having to refer to the manual. But if you do have to open the manual, you'll find it written with refreshing clarity, and devoid of confusing geek talk and bad grammar.

The Cary SI-300.2d requires good ventilation; it ran warm but not hot to the touch—a thing to be thankful for during one of New York City's brutally hot, climate-change summers. If you plan to use it for a long time in only one system, I can almost guarantee that you'll be able to set it and forget it.

Listening: Music Hall, Heed, Cary, Elac
This was a match made in hi-fi heaven: the Cary's vast power and unerring resolution, coupled to the Music Hall MMF-7.3 turntable's flow—and the soulful, swinging sound of Heed Audio's best-selling phono stage, the Quasar ($1199), chosen for being close, in circuit and sound, to the phono section of the Heed Elixir integrated amp that I reviewed in November 2016. These components, coupled with the chameleon-like Elac B6 monitors, made possible a magnificent LP party. I was a bit tough on the Ortofon 2M Bronze cartridge in my review of the MMF-7.3, but through the Cary it really came into its own. Revealing extraordinary resolution, power, naturalness, and dynamics, the Music Hall–Heed–Cary–Elac trio had me spinning discs late into summer evenings.

First up, on a tip from vinyl guru Michael Fremer, I bought—from Milltown, New Jersey's Revilla Grooves and Gear—the 45rpm reissue of Nat King Cole's Just One of Those Things (2 LPs, Capitol/Analogue Productions APP 903-45). It's stunning in every way, from the placement of Cole's voice—big, booming, natural, and dead center—to Billy May's arrangements, which wrap around the singer. Cole's voice is so rich, present, and swinging that it will make you reevaluate his place in the history of singers of the Great American Songbook, if you don't already hold him in as high regard as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Throughout this album, I can almost see the smile on Cole's lips. The Music Hall–Heed–Cary–Elac team presented rock'em, sock'em dynamics, a huge soundstage, and effortless musicality from these discs. It was hard to stop spinning LPs, day after day, week after week, so I didn't!

Cary Audio
6301 Chapel Hill Road
Raleigh, NC 27607
(919) 355-0010

fetuso's picture

I was glad to read your positive statements about the MMF 7.3. I'm looking to upgrade to a TT in it's price class and your original review knocked it down several spots on my list. Electronic speed control, or at least easy speed change, is a must for my next TT.