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Equipment Review

June 2005

Cary Audio CD 303/300 CD Player

by Vade Forrester

 

 

Review Summary
Sound "The CD 303/300 sounded a variety of ways depending on which output section and sampling rate were used." "The tube output section exhibited good detail and tonal color, and it painted a nice, open soundstage. The solid-state output section’s high and low frequencies were quite extended and detailed." "Through the midrange, both output sections sounded just a bit forward."
Features A fully balanced CD player with switchable tubed and solid-state output sections, switchable sample rate, and built-in analog volume control. "Cary Audio uses its Resolution Enhancement DSP circuitry to provide the choice of upsampling rate after the circuitry first expands the CD's 16 bits to 24."
Use "The CD 303/300 is packed with audiophile-approved goodies that seem well thought out not only to improve sound quality but also to enhance using the player. If you like futzing with your audio gear, you'll find a lot to like about the CD 303/300."
Value "The Cary Audio CD 303/300 is certainly worth your audition time, but you shouldn't ignore other similarly priced CD players, especially, as I discovered, the one that may be sitting in your equipment rack right now."

If you’re like me, you've held off upgrading your digital source until high-resolution audio matured, players became available at sane prices (whatever that means in this hobby), and software was widely distributed. But now that many audio writers have officially declared SACD dead (ignoring the fact that a steady stream of new SACDs continues to appear in the marketplace) and DVD-Audio was stillborn, it may be time to buy a new CD player. I've been using a very good Meridian 508.24, and while I am not unsatisfied with it, I am an audiophile. Upgrading is in my blood.

I therefore welcomed the opportunity to review Cary Audio Design’s latest CD player, the $4000 USD CD 303/300. Cary proclaims this player to be "the finest Red Book-compliant CD player in existence." I was eager to see how it compared to my well-used Meridian CD player. Would I be tempted to upgrade?

Features and flexibility

The CD 303/300 measures 18"W x 4"H x 15"D and weighs in at a substantial 38 pounds, which certainly creates an initial impression of solidity and value. Its conservatively elegant front panel (in silver or black) includes several interesting features. In addition to the standard CD controls, the front panel has buttons that switch between two different output sections (tubed, with a pair of 12AU7s, and solid state) and among six different sampling rates (44.1 (no upsampling), 96, 192, 384, 512 or 768kHz). Cary Audio uses its Resolution Enhancement DSP circuitry to provide the choice of upsampling rate after the circuitry first expands the CD's 16 bits to 24. When you press the Tube button on either the CD 303/300's front panel or the remote control, there is about a half-second delay as a hermetically sealed gold relay switches between the output sections. The CD 303/300 further caters to tube-loving audiophiles by providing an access panel on the top of the player toward the right rear edge. This lets you easily swap out the stock Electro Harmonix 12AU7 tubes for your personal favorites, without having to remove the entire outer case. Smart.

It’s obvious that Cary has put some serious effort into the design of the CD 303/300. The CD-ROM drive used as the transport mechanism provides extremely accurate digital error correction, although it is a bit mechanically clunky and adds a few seconds to the initial loading process. HDCD fans will be pleased to learn that Cary’s DSP-300 digital filter decodes those discs. Premium parts are used throughout, including Burr Brown PCM1792u DAC chips in a dual-differential configuration -- the CD 303/300 is fully balanced. Six-layer printed circuit boards are standard.

The rear panel provides comprehensive output options: balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) line-level outputs, and TosLink, S/PDIF RCA and XLR AES/EBU digital outputs (at 44.1, 96 or 192kHz sampling rates). There is also an RS-232C connector for "custom installation systems." An IEC power connector lets you use your favorite power cord.

For those who listen only to CDs, Cary includes a flexible analog volume control. Because the CD 303/300 produces up to three volts output via the RCA connections, it’s quite feasible for the player to drive a power amp directly, unless the amp’s input sensitivity is low. It worked splendidly with my Art Audio PX 25 amp, which has a fairly high (.7 volts) input sensitivity. The front display shows the volume level, spanning a range from 0 to 63dB (at 63dB the volume control is switched out of the circuit), which should work with most power amps. Curiously, the volume control appears only on the remote control, not the front panel.

Speaking of the remote, it’s a rather ordinary-looking plastic unit that controls both the CD player and Cary’s amplifiers and preamps. Although it doesn’t match the appearance of some other brands’ hefty metal remotes, Cary’s remote is thoughtfully designed and offers all the controls I can imagine for the CD 303/300, including setting the brightness of the display (or turning it off, which produced a very slight improvement in sound clarity).

Two final features. Rather than just screw on rubber feet from Home Depot, the CD 303/300 uses four adjustable black conical aluminum feet to enable leveling the player for best playback results, and a bubble level imbedded in the top of the player makes it child’s play to achieve perfect levelness. The points of the cone feet are slightly rounded to avoid scratching furniture and they rotate easily to adjust the player’s height.

Needless to say, the CD 303/300 is packed with audiophile-approved goodies that seem well thought out not only to improve sound quality but also to enhance using the player. If you like futzing with your audio gear, you'll find a lot to like about the CD 303/300.

Setting up and listening

In my experience, most components must be burned in to achieve their best sound, and the CD 303/300 needs to have both the tube and the solid-state output section burned in separately. That means you’ll need to devote at least 100 hours playing music or burn-in CDs for each section. Although the player came to me with time on it, I gave each section around 300 hours before I started to listen critically. It was interesting to hear how the sound evolved during this time. At one point, the tube output section developed an incredibly lush sound that, although not accurate, was intoxicating.

Associated Equipment

Loudspeakers –  Second ReTHM.

Amplifiers –  Art Audio PX 25 stereo amp, Wright Sound Company WPA3.5 monoblocks.

Preamplifier – Audio Note M2 Phono Signature preamp and Audio Note AN-S3 step-up transformer, deHavilland Mercury.

Digital – Meridian 508.24 CD player.

Analog – Linn LP-12 turntable, Graham 2.2 tonearm, Dynavector DRT XV-1 cartridge.

Interconnects – Crystal Cable Crystal Connect Piccolo, Purist Audio Design Venustas.

Speaker cables – Crystal Cable CrystalSpeak Micro, Purist Audio Design Venustas.

Power cords – Purist Audio Design Venustas, Blue Marble Audio.

I used several interconnect cables, but selected the remarkable Crystal Cables CrystalConnect Piccolos for most of the critical listening and a Purist Audio Design Venustas power cord. Because my preamp is single ended only, I used the RCA output jacks.

The CD 303/300 sounded a variety of ways depending on which output section and sampling rate were used. The tube output section didn’t sound very tube-like. The lush sonics that briefly appeared during break-in gave way to a much more neutral sonic palette. The tube output section exhibited good detail and tonal color, and it painted a nice, open soundstage. The solid-state output section’s high and low frequencies were quite extended and detailed. However, in comparison, the tube section sounded bandwidth-limited; the highs didn't soar and the bass didn't dig as deeply as when the solid-state output section was in use. I found that surprising -- there’s no reason tubes should be noticeably limited in bandwidth in a line-level application.

The solid-state output section was very open-sounding, but perhaps lacked a little of the refinement I heard from the tube section. I initially expected to prefer the tube section for listening to classical music and jazz, and the solid-state section when listening to rock and pop music; however, things weren’t that simple. The solid-state section sounded better on some classical discs, and the tube section with some pop music. Through the midrange, both output sections sounded just a bit forward. For speakers with a "polite" voicing (not uncommon), that could be an advantage; but with my Second ReTHM speakers, the CD 303/300’s midrange was a little overemphasized. This was not a major failing, just a "flavor" of the sound.

On Jennifer Warnes’ "The Panther" from the CD layer of her SACD The Well [Cisco SCD 2034], Warnes’ voice was just a little forward in the mix with both the solid-state and tube sections. The solid-state section exhibited extended (and excellent) high frequencies on the opening chimes and percussion. The tube section missed some of the high-frequency sparkle that the solid-state section captured so well. On the other hand, the tube section exhibited a more solid image, spread nicely between the speakers, while the solid-state section was slightly more diffuse.

"Fields of Gold" from Eva Cassidy’s Live at Blues Alley [Blix Street Records G2-10046] is a little aggressive-sounding. Through the solid-state section, the guitar sound emphasized the strings over the sound of the guitar body. Vocals were a little breathy, and became edgy during the loudest passages. The tube section produced smoother vocals, but they were still a bit forward. The CD 303/300 sounded somewhat edgy during the loudest passages, as is often the case with this recording.

My favorite test cut, "Folia: Rodrigo Martinez" from Jordi Savall and associates’ La Folia 1490-1701 [AliaVox AV 9805], favored the solid-state section of the CD 303/300. The bass drum went lower and had more detail with the solid-state section than the tube section. The guitar and harp, whose parts intertwine, were somewhat hard to tell apart. This phenomenon, which I had heard before, usually indicates that the harmonic structure of the instruments is not being fully fleshed out. The string sound of Savall’s viola da gamba was emphasized over its body sound, and was a bit insistent with both sections. However, a pronounced sense of forward momentum helped clarify the phrasing and make it obvious that the musicians were having a rollicking good time with the piece.

The various upsampling rates were very subtle in their effects. The control toggles among the various settings, from one to the next higher. When it reaches 768kHz, the next switch is back to no upsampling. It was hard for me to discern any difference between adjacent rates except when switching from 768kHz to no upsampling. I found that the highest upsampling rates sounded somewhat over-processed and spatially congested, and I preferred lower settings. No upsampling sounded open, but the highs sounded a little raw and edgy compared to those with other settings. The upsampling rate I preferred most often was 192kHz, and that’s what I used for my evaluations. Again, this is a very subtle setting, and reflects a personal choice. The CD 303/300 didn’t sound bad with any of the sample-rate settings.

When I bypassed the preamp and connected the CD 303/300 directly to my Art Audio PX 25 amplifier, the Cary’s sound became a little more incisive and open, but the overall character of the sound was essentially the same. While the Art Audio PX 25 has an input sensitivity low enough to work well when driven directly by the CD 303/300, less sensitive amplifiers might benefit from a separate preamp to provide better dynamics.

Comparison

Using the CD 303/300 balanced

My role in this review of Cary Audio's CD 303/300 was to evaluate its sound when used in a balanced system. In my case, this means using the CD 303/300 with a VTL TL7.5 Reference preamp and Blue Circle Audio BC204 amplifier, both of which are fully balanced. I've discovered over time that the sonic gains of balanced circuits are generally most pronounced with digital gear. Two sources I use -- an Esoteric X-01 and Audio Research CD3 Mk II -- sound their best when used balanced, and the same has been true with other fully balanced digital sources I've heard. Would the Cary player perform the same trick?

Yes, but with a few more things to consider. The CD 303/300 sounded clearer, quicker and overall better through its balanced outputs -- single ended, the sound had greater presence in the midrange and upper bass but sounded a little fuzzy in the deepest recesses of each recording. However, this was with the tubed output stage engaged, which softens the presentation and adds warmth as well. With the solid-state output stage in use, the CD 303/300 sounds more vivid and resolute. Edge definition is improved, removing the fuzziness I mentioned but also making the edginess of poor-sounding CDs more obvious. The sonic difference between the output stages was greater than that between the single-ended and balanced outputs and will allow owners of the CD 303/300 to tailor the sound of the player to their systems to a meaningful degree.

Of course, my experimentation couldn't end there -- the CD 303/300 is a tweaker's delight. The lowest sample-rate settings didn't make a big difference in the sound, but the highest two (512 and 768kHz) did, and were consequently what I settled on for the time I listened to the CD 303/300. The entire presentation took a step toward greater neutrality and assumed a characteristic of the Audio Research CD3 MK II, a non-upsampling CD player: a greater sense of overall clarity due to the player's ability to resolve inner detail and "untangle" the music.

A CD player on the market today might include an integral volume control, but the CD 303/300's different output stages, switchable sampling rate, single-ended and balanced output, and volume control make it the most versatile CD player I know of by a wide margin. About the only things missing are stereo and multichannel SACD playback, but you can't expect everything, even for $4000.

...Marc Mickelson
marc@soundstage.com

A veteran Meridian 508.24 ($3995 when still available) has been my digital source for years because its greatest strength is its balance. It does nothing in spectacular fashion, but does everything very well. Listening to it often involves not noticing its contribution to the sound of my system.

Compared to the CD 303/300, the 508.24 had a flatter, less forward midrange. Its excellent pace, rhythm, and timing made the music sound full of life and energy. A quick listen to the "Folia: Rodrigo Martinez" cut on the Meridian CD player revealed more harmonic detail, which made it easy to distinguish between the sounds of the guitar and the harp. The Meridian’s wider and more continuous spectrum of dynamics provided better insight into the musicians’ phrasing of this scintillating piece. And last but not least, the bass drum went lower, with better detail. None of the differences were extreme, but they were noticeable.

The 508.24 sounded more complete than the CD 303/300, with harmonic accuracy and soundstaging abilities that were slightly superior to either of the CD 303/300’s output sections. A few audiophiles who heard both players in my system expressed similar reactions.

So, did the CD 303/300 fulfill its claim to be "the finest Red Book-compliant CD player in existence?" For me, in my system, it did not. I preferred almost every aspect of the Meridian 508.24’s sound. This surprised me greatly, especially considering the age of the Meridian player. However, it’s only fair to observe that my preference may be system-dependent. The Meridian CD player has been in my system longer than any component except my Linn turntable, and it’s fair to say that my system has been voiced to some extent around it.

Conclusion

The Cary CD 303/300 offers a combination of technology and musicality. It has enough features to drive a seasoned audiophile to distraction, and its construction is rock-solid. Its sound, which can be customized to suit a variety of preferences and systems, was certainly enjoyable. I listened to the CD 303/300 during many long sessions, and I often had trouble forcing myself to snap out of the music-lover’s role and put on my reviewer’s hat. During its stay, the CD 303/300 never showed any operational problems whatsoever, and I would expect it to remain trouble-free for many years. For the many audiophiles who listen only to CDs, the ability to dispense with a preamp and use the CD 303/300’s excellent volume control to drive a power amp directly is a distinct benefit that can save the price of both a preamp and a set of interconnect cables.

The Cary Audio CD 303/300 is certainly worth your audition time, but you shouldn't ignore other similarly priced CD players, especially, as I discovered, the one that may be sitting in your equipment rack right now.

...Vade Forrester
vade@soundstage.com

Cary Audio Design CD 303/300 CD Player
Price:
$4000 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor, 90 days for tubes.

Cary Audio Design, Inc.
1020 Goodworth Drive
Apex, NC 27539
Phone: (919)355-0010
Fax: (919)355-0013

E-mail: info@caryaudio.com
Website: www.caryaudio.com

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