Who is stealing the precious seconds of my life? Just six eye blinks ago (six blinks already!), I wrote a glowing review praising Mark Deneen for his Juicy Music Merlin tube preamplifier. The Merlin was Five Blue Notes for natural, effortless, thoughtful design and value. All for less than $1K. Sadly, Deneen retired. Three other brands come to mind for "highest quality sound at lowest price" for tube preamplifiers: Antique Sound Labs and Cayin, both of whom I reviewed favorably. There is also JoLida, who I have yet to hear (hint, hint). I know Cary of course. Their marketing is everywhere. I saw them at the North American Audio Show (AXPONA). Yet I did not think of Cary as a value brand.
New Audio Electronics Line
A number of customers who bought kits started requesting Cary assemble or finish assembling their kits. This eventually led to selling completed products in addition to the kits and parts. Eventually, they discontinued the kits and focused on completed products and the parts. This continued until approximately 2006 when Cary decided to put more focus on the Cary Audio product line through dealerships, particularly the home theater products. They shelved the brand until a later date when there was more time to focus on new products. Late in 2011, Cary decided to re-introduce the brand as Audio Electronics by Cary Audio direct to consumers with new styling and products targeted to today's customers. This means Internet, not the few local high-end dealers left. The line is available on Amazon. So far, the stereo line includes a value-priced preamplifier, power amplifier and headphone amplifier.
Jam Somasundram, Director of Engineering and Product Development, re-designed the basic design of the preamplifier and amplifier based loosely on a product Cary produced years ago. He studied in Engineering in Brighton, England, and worked in a hi-fi store part time. Somasundram was introduced to high-end audio when he was about twelve by a family friend and it became a passion. He quickly answered my few hundred questions. Somasundram says the power transformer is often overlooked, that "a design no matter high good, it is only as good as the power supply." He says Cary always uses larger transformers than necessary to achieve better specifications. The benefits or larger transformers are improved dynamics and detail. There also is no balance control on the Constellation. This means your speakers, listening position and side walls must be ideal distances from each other; a situation that rarely exists. Yet Somasundram said they excluded such a vital control "to keep it simple and the signal path as straight line as possible."
Cary does takes the time and effort to label the proper tube for its socket. Box number one goes in socket number. Nice touch. Everything about the product and its shipping speaks of quality and experience. Packaging is great, with plastic wrap against moisture, knobs are big, manual are through. Some manufacturers can run tubes "hot," to get more power. But this practice burns tubes up quickly and can become expensive. Somasundram says Cary is conservative on biasing the tubes: they should last a good while. He says estimated tube life is two to four years or more depending on usage for output tubes and even longer for small signal tubes used in the preamplifier. Replacement tubes are available from Cary.
Somasundram did say that placing either amplifier on a Vibration Isolation Platform* "can help sometimes and you should try it. We leave it up to our customers. Most people use [sharp metal] points." He says the input impedance is neither high nor low. To ensure optimum signal transfer, Somasundram says tweaking audiophiles should match Input and Output impedance of the preamplifier and amplifier, particularly in tube equipment matched with solid-state units. The power cords are typical gauge, but detachable. An upgraded power cord can make a significant difference he says, but Cary leaves that up to the customer. Upgrades are available from Cary and they include capacitors, Hexfred rectifiers and a Grayhill selector switch. Somasundram recommends 100 hours of break-in for the amplifiers. Once broken in, he says both units will sound optimum in about an hour. If a lot of listening is done, such as a weekend at home, Somasundram suggests leaving them on between listening sessions, as I do myself.
Are any other colors than glossy black available? "Unfortunately the answer is no at this time."
Cary's double-boxed packaging with thick foam and plastic bags is perfect. So are the quick-start guides and user manuals. Even the tubes are properly labeled. Knobs and clear-shielded cable posts on both of the new Cary machines are exactly what any tweaking audiophile should expect from equipment from a professional, established company. Everything about Cary products exudes competency.
Though digital amplifiers are getting better, Somasundram says and I concur, most serious audiophiles have a preference for traditional amplifiers. The weight of the Cary amplifiers are due to size and of the output and power supply transformers and the chassis. You are also are able to bias them into Class A for better sound.
In A Flash
Cary sent a long explanation and links. They said a flash lamp discharge creates electromagnetic pulse with energy approximating 1-10 Joules (for small digital cameras). A Joule is equal to one ampere through a resistance of one ohm for one second. The electromagnetic waves travel through the air. The voltage usually does not exceed about 300-Volts (applied to the lamp). The flash in the camera arcs through the tube and creates a momentary radio wave. The Constellation preamplifier is a classic class A circuit pattern, while its brother amplifier is slightly different from the previous approach. Somasundram said circuit typology is important, "the choice of tubes can play a major role in the final sound of a piece of equipment, much more so than a solid-state design."
Two squat little tubes sit proudly right in the center of the beefy 22-pound preamplifier. The design of both units is clearly not the stock black box of modern equipment. The tubes of Cary's new line stick boldly out in the open on heavy, glossy black platforms. The Constellation looks, feels and weighs like its brother, the new Hercules power amplifier. The width is not as wide as typical components either. The units are squat, as chunky looking as they are heavy (the preamplifier is 22 pounds). This is an old world look. The Constellation matches the old world looks and chassis of the amplifier. Both amplifiers look, feel and sound professional, competently made and capable. Neither unit can, or should be, stacked alongside other electronic equipment due to noise and hum pickup. On both, the chassis rises up in the back, like an L-shape, to cover the electronics inside. The height provides protection for the tubes in front.
The Constellation uses 6SN7 tubes. The 6SN7 is a dual triode tube with 8-pins. The triode is a simple design, with just three active elements: filament or cathode, grid, and the plate or anode. The 6SN7 is basically two 6J5 triodes in one glass envelope. The Constellation is different from the acclaimed Cary SLP-98L, which retails for $4295. The P version of the SLP-98P uses more traditional tubes, pairs of 12AX7 and 12AU7s. Cary chooses the classic 6SN7 preamplifier tubes because they suited the design goals and price point they had in mind. Other tubes, Somasundram said, would require major design changes and would likely change the character of the sound.
Compared to the $1K Juicy Merlin, the Constellation is a much bigger, beefier machine. Where the slim Merlin leans to the sweet side, the brawny Cary preamplifier provided a larger, more open sound. So while output impedance on the Merlin is lower, so was its frequency response range and noise. Outlaw makes one of the best solid-state receivers I have ever heard on big ole horn loudspeakers. Certainly it is the best solid-state value. Compared to it, violins on the Constellation are smoother, easier to listen to, without a sibilant edge. The Constellation is peppy, full of pop. It is fresh even without warm-up. The bass is suitable for stand-up acoustic bass, but not hard Fender electric.
The Constellation of course has the exotic look of tubes. Nobody wants to see a solid-state amplifier naked. Heck, even my tweaking audiophile club did not bother to look under the hood of Nelson Pass' amazing new SIT-2, the first stereo amplifier in the industry to use static induction transistor chips. On a few songs, the Cary combination on big ole horn loudspeakers could feel sharp. Katie Melua enticing song, "Nine Million Bicycles" for example, the Constellation was a bit shrill on the vocal reverb, strangely not as attention grabbing. It is weird how each piece of equipment renders music so differently.
By far, the sweetest most enticing sound I have ever heard for the money on three big ole Klipsch horn loudspeakers is Don Garber's Magical Fi X4 Stereo Amplifier (1.5 watts for only $1095!) With the Constellation, the edge to the vocals was gone, there was brightness to the treble, but not shrill. The bass appeared richer and lower. The sound in fact seemed balanced through the spectrum. Music in the slow, C-weighted, uncorrected range of mid-80 sound pressure levels had plenty of slam, texture and detail. It was snappy, some sibilance perhaps, but not un-warm. Allison Krause's "Down to the River" gospel song was soft, delicate, "poetry in motion," with clearly enough power for most normal music sessions.
Trend Audio makes a palm-size PA-10 Special Edition preamplifier and it is an ideal size and price for computer audio with a Russian 6H23n tube for only $265. Like the Constellation, the 6H23n is also a double-triode tube. It is equivalent to the European ECC88/E88CC tube. Against the Trend preamplifier, the Constellation displayed immediate differences in sharpness, with better texture of violins, more naturalness and edge, but also brighter too. Katie Melua was warmer, fuller, with bass perhaps NOT as hard or sharp, but with the Hercules amplifier, deep enough on the Khorns to question the need for a sub-woofer for most music at normal volumes. On Fourplay's "Max-O-Man," the Cary combo was effortless, natural and snappy, proving once again that horns love tubes.
Touches But Missing Features
Also, for people with children and pets (and who doesn't have one of those?), neither amplifier has a protective tube cage for the delicate tubes. Cary is looking at this option for future products. The amplifiers do not have bias meter. The amplifier is cathode biased and does not require biasing. Since Cary uses a method of bias called cathode bias. They set the bias by using a predetermined set of bias components. The owner will have to know when to replace the tubes, when the sound starts to degrade or the amplifier makes more noise, though a tube tester is the most accurate way. Cary does include soft white gloves, so you don't get oils from your hands on the tubes. There are there fuses for protection. Cary does test the tubes before packaging.
A Scrooge at doling out grades even when Christmas is around the corner, in the middle of summer, I rank the Constellation mostly three Blue Notes across the board. There was nothing startlingly controversial in either the Constellation's weaknesses or strengths. It is a good, solid, across-the-board performer. It is a modern reconstruction of a classic preamplifier. Despite lacking a few touches, I was very impressed with the Cary packaging and over-all enjoyment.
My own category, Enjoyment, is higher than most other products. Long-term impression is of a wonderfully reliable, solidly built, carefully packaged, thoughtfully engineered and excellent, long-term and name brand value. I like ASL and Cayin, but I would be proud to own a Cary. Their Internet direct-to-consumer line of tube amplifiers are kings of value. Watch out ASL, Cayin and JoLida.
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