Cary SLP-98P tube preamplifier Page 2

The SLP-98P, for its part, respected voices. I liked the way it made Frank Sinatra sound on that guiltiest of guilty pleasures, "It Was a Very Good Year," from September of My Years (LP, Reprise 1014). The sound of his voice was perfectly textured—more so than with most electronics of my experience—and the musical performance itself had a sense of drama beyond mere soft-to-loud dynamics: Call it a feeling of anticipation, where I had not only a good sense of attack on each note but also apprehension—a sonic equivalent of a visual cue, as in a concert setting, of the expressiveness about to occur. I've found that only the best—not necessarily the most expensive, but simply the best—audio components get this effect across. The Cary was in their company.

The voice came across with fine scale and presence, too. Francis Albert was big and up front, in a great Hey, Jack, reach out and touch me! kind of way: a presentation that both encouraged and rewarded sitting closer to the speakers. Timbrally, the Cary sounded a little thick to me in the lower mids, making the harp that plays chords throughout the piece (not just the arpeggios that melodramatically signal the start of each new verse) sound just a little heavier than I think it really is.

That latter effect became apparent on other material, but never to the music's detriment. It certainly didn't detract from my enjoyment of the new Beatles remix, Let It Be...Naked (CD, Capitol CDP 5 95713 2)—an album of dubious artistic and historic merit overall, albeit one with its own rewards. For instance, the Cary preamp exposed the fact that, on the new mix of "Two of Us," Ringo's floor tom has been given quite the EQ boost compared with the original! (Footnote 1) Like everyone else, I blame Paul.

If you're attracted to small-scale music by the sounds of the instruments as much as by the music itself, then you'll find lots to enjoy in the Cary's sound. In much the way that it respected the textures of Frank's middle-aged voice, the Cary consistently drew my attention to the sweetness of Vadim Gluzman's violin in Lera Auerbach's moving T'filah for Solo Violin (CD, BIS CD-1242), or the strangely human sound of Marianne Ronez' sharper-hued and even more harmonically complex baroque violin in Biber's Mysterien Sonaten (CD, Winter & Winter CD 910 029-2). Somehow I've restrained myself from adding John Cale to that list (Dave Swarbrick is another story).

On the alternate take of The Band's "Tears of Rage," from Music from Big Pink (CD, Capitol 5 25390 2), the sense of humanness, of touch, came across in a stronger-than-average way with the Cary in the system. The way Rick Danko slides, very subtly, into most notes on his electric bass, rather than just fretting them dead on, came across nicely, as did the deliberate holding back on the beat that his playing technique effected. And Danko's falsetto vocal harmonies in the chorus were well separated from Richard Manuel's lead, not only spatially but in terms of pitch, timing, and inflection.

It was really quite amazing how good Dylan's "Queen Jane Approximately," from the new SACD/CD of Highway 61 Revisited (Sony CH 90324; see also this month's "Listening" column), sounded with the Cary in the system. It's a cluttered, clattery arrangement, and even in SACD guise the sound of the recording is mildly unkind to the music. Yet here, the Cary preamp—ironically or not—did to the song what my favorite SET amps do: It found the all-important vocal and pulled it out front of everything else. In the process, the surrounding instruments became somewhat less mechanical and clattery, and the edge (that harmonica!) got smoothed off some: The Cary, though never dull, was consistently free from treble nasties.

And, again, I heard nothing that spoke of problems with rhythm and pacing, or gross timing errors: All the music I tried with the SLP-98P was reliably involving, and my attention didn't waver—although I thought that leading-edge transients weren't quite as sharp as I've heard with other combinations of electronics in my system. Earl Scruggs' banjo in the fiddle tune "Soldier's Joy," and especially the darker-sounding vintage banjo played by John McEuen on that same cut on Will the Circle Be Unbroken (LP, United Artists UAS 9801), sounded less present and exciting through the Cary than elsewhere.

On other recordings, I noticed the same effect with harpsichords and similar complex musical sounds: a slight blunting, but not so severe that it interfered with timing or flow. Experience tells me it's possible to make these note attacks sound strong and clean and real without being too sharp in one direction or too mushy in the other, and the Cary erred very slightly toward the mushy, compared to what I consider the best preamps I've had in my system: the Linn Klimax Kontrol and the Audio Note M3. In any event, I'm sure many listeners, faced with a choice, would prefer a little too smooth over a little too sharp.

Spatially, the new Cary preamp sounded big—much bigger than my memory of its predecessor. The most obvious effect was that it gave my system a more believable sense of scale with symphonic music. Valery Gergiev's new recording of Shostakovich's Symphony 7 (SACD/CD, Philips 470 623-2) seemed to benefit from this, along with the Cary's distinctly muscular and colorful presentation. And the level of emotional involvement remained excellent: When a visit from a friend forced me to mute the preamp (but only once!), I had the damnedest time tearing myself away from the music.

The SLP-98P's bigness was welcome with some pop records, too, where studio trickery can be used to take advantage of such things—as on "You Don't Have to Cry," from Crosby, Stills & Nash (LP, Atlantic SD-8229): After a couple of tentative bars, Stills' acoustic guitar opens the piece with a hammer-on that's double-tracked and panned way to the sides—deliberately, to maximize the effect of that moment, I'd assume. This little phrase sounds impressive with most gear; it was even more so with the Cary.

Conclusions: Read me first!
I was about to wonder whether audiophiles are forever doomed to a hobby in which certain things—certain sounds—go in and out of fashion. But the fact is, I see that as a positive thing. Some listeners want a tube sound, others more solid-state. Others disdain both camps for wanting anything at all apart from the truth—but who's to say what that is? Smart consumers try, at one time or another, to understand all those points of view, then spend their hard-earned money on whatever makes them happiest. Where's the doom in it?

Like the blind men and the elephant, everyone comes away from an event with their own piece of the truth, and the bigger and more unfathomable the event, the smaller and more individualized everyone's truth will be. So it goes with music—and this product, like everything else, comes back with its own take. And I like it. The Cary SLP-98P plays music in a way that respects the notes and beats, and its sound respects and to some extent glorifies many of the things that I respond to in recorded music: Texture. Color. Drama. Scale.

While I've heard only a small portion of all the perfectionist audio preamps in the world, I can confidently say that the Cary SLP-98P is a distinct, and distinctly musical, choice. Far from being another me-too preamp in any way, the Cary rewards the tube-friendly listener with a view on the music that I consider not only to my taste, but truthful. That the Cary is priced fairly for what's gone into it—and a lot lower than most of its worthiest competitors—is no small blessing in itself.

A sweet little preamp? Without question.

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