Cary Audio Design Classic CD 303T Professional SACD player

Despite predictions to the contrary, the Compact Disc isn't dying anytime soon. Too many are in circulation, and until a smooth, friendly skin covers the computer interface, the music-server revolution will remain nascent. We're still in a long, shaky period of transition.

As more audio enthusiasts migrate toward or begin to think about downloading and playing high-resolution audio files via music servers, players sporting multiple DAC inputs will become more popular, and single-purpose players will disappear. Buying a digital disc player with no DAC input today, particularly an expensive one, is a poor investment and a fast path to obsolescence. Once you've lived with a music server, you're unlikely to want to return to fumbling with jewel cases; and once you've heard hi-rez digital, you won't want to go back to vinyl. Just kidding.

SACDs stubbornly survive, thanks to support from audiophile-oriented labels that continue to release new and reissued recordings on the format, even if the major labels have given up. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, in 2009 the industry shipped just 200,000 SACD and DVD-Audio discs. While I don't believe the RIAA counts sales at the "audiophile" websites where most of these discs are probably sold, even if you double or triple this number, the total is still small.

Given that, even an SACD player with multiple DAC inputs, such as Cary Audio Design's Classic CD 303T SACD Professional Version ($6500), is likely to appeal only to those who already own substantial collections of SACDs.

The CD 303T is an unusually versatile, fully balanced SACD/CD/HDCD player-DAC combo with multiple digital inputs and outputs. It can upsample CDs to as high as 768kHz, and even offers, at the push of a button, the choice between solid-state and tubed output. The CD 303T is the model below Cary's CD 306 SACD Professional and costs $1500 less. While I didn't review the 306 (John Atkinson did, in the November 2008 issue), I used it as a reference while reviewing the Marantz SA-11S2 SACD/CD player (January 2009).

Built to Last
Sitting on its four conical feet of hefty metal, the 34-lb CD 303T player is no less impressively built than the more expensive CD 306, and though it lacks the 306's copper chassis and copper-plated partitions, its interior is similarly laid out, in three sections. The rigid chassis holds a well-organized layout of circuit boards and mechanical parts. The central section contains the transport—a Sony assembly remanufactured by Cary to include a new aluminum disc tray, among other parts—as well as the digital input/output and control circuitry. The left section houses the power supply, the right the D/A and analog output circuitry. Cary is based in North Carolina; wheras Cary's amplifiers are made in America, the 303T is assembled in Hong Kong.

Also like the CD 306, for SACD playback the CD 303T's clock runs at twice DSD speed, or 22.5792MHz. Four Burr-Brown PCM 1792u 24-bit chip sets run in parallel pairs to handle fully balanced, dual-differential digital-to-analog conversion for both DSD and PCM. Cary's DSP-300 upsampling filter also decodes HDCD-encoded discs, which can deliver 20-bit performance from CD. In fact, keep your eye on the CD 303T's HDCD light and you'll probably be surprised by how many discs in your collection that don't bear the HDCD logo are so encoded. Reference Recordings and Neil Young's catalog aren't alone.

The CD 303T's faceplate of brushed or black-anodized aluminum has an array of buttons logically laid out (though not backlit), and a large fluorescent screen that's long on readability and short on graphic frills, which is how I like it. Blue LEDs above the buttons identify the digital input selected and other functions.

In addition to the usual player controls, from the front panel you can select digital inputs, disc layers (CD or SACD), and your choice of solid-state or tubed buffer/output stage. A small cover plate provides easy access to the four 12AU7 tubes (ECC82s can also be used). While Cary clearly encourages tube rolling, I used only the stock tubes for this review.

The remote control is well laid out and easy to use, and includes buttons for upsampling and selecting among digital inputs. Other than the Power button, which blinks blue to acknowledge the pushing of any button, the remote is not backlit.

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