I am not sure which we need more in this country -- affordable hi-fi or a return to sound economic policy, or at least to a policy that will bring the good times back for the other 98% of us. Well, actually I do know, we need affordable hi-fi. Because even in good times value is valuable while in bad times music is the perfect balm.
Of course, value and its fraternal twin, affordable hi-fi, are relative terms, with both being the most relative of all high-end terms, excepting only "the best", which as we all know changes meaning every week. As for "value", I have heard sub-$500 gear that was outstanding, which, obviously, implies wonderful value. Then again, I have also heard gear that fully justified its $20,000 price tag, which certainly is a valid definition of value - assuming you have the scratch to play that kind of game. However, those extremes give value an unwieldy range of meaning, so let's narrow terms. In this review value and affordable signifies something I can acquire without sacrificing marriage or the kids education and something that rewards beyond its price. To me that boils down to gear that can go towards assembling a system, complete, for around $10,000. Now, I know $10,000 is a lot of money, and not exactly real world, but then audiogeeks seldom live in the real world. And I all see it this way, a $10,000 system can be assembled over time, making it reachable for even audiogeeks only half-way insane, and so becomes affordable.
Rule number one when combining a bunch of separate parts, regardless of the cost, is to take a systems approach as it is precisely the combining of components that is both the problem and the art of audio systems. Dropping the majority of your budget on a single component that the remaining parts cannot keep pace with makes little sense. Likewise, a randomly selected set of parts of equal value will, in all probability, fail to achieve any sonic synergy. This is why it makes sense to look at the Cary Audio "GR8" electronics when putting together a 10K system. For $7,000 you get a source (CD 308 or CD 308T for $2,500), a preamplifier (SLP-88 for $2,000) and a power amplifier (CAD-808 or the "Rocket 88" for $2,500), which leaves $3,000 for speakers, wire, power conditioning and basic room tuning - enough to do the job if you select wisely. Moreover, since the GR8 gear was designed to work together as a system, these parts should play well together. In addition, coming from one of the great audio houses, they have the potential to offer sound quality beyond their cost. With this as prelude then, let's look at a GR8 system, first at the separate parts and then as a system.
The Rocket 88 Amplifier
Cary Audio, especially with their amplifiers, has a lust for flexibility. The CAD-808, or as Cary refer to it in their literature, the Rocket 88, is no exception. From the factory the Rocket comes equipped with four KT-88 power tubes generating 20 watts per channel in class A push-pull triode mode or 40 watts per channel in class AB ultra-linear mode. Switching between modes is accomplished by flipping two switches located on the external chassis. Each channel also has a switch to choose between 4 and 8 ohm loading. Lastly, while shipping with the KT-88, the Rocket 88 can also use EL-34, 6L6, 6550, KT-66, KT-77 or KT-90 output tubes. With that many options finding your sound with the Rocket 88 should only be a matter of taking the time to run through all your choices.
The remaining tubes on board this Rocket are a pair of 6922s employed as a phase inverters, a pair of current source EL-84s and a pair of 1629 green eye indicator tubes, which operate out of the circuit. The green eye tubes are mounted on the front fascia and pulsate with the power draw of the amplifier, giving an enjoyable light show.
On the rear apron of the amplifier Cary uses a pair of robust and easy to tighten 5-way binding posts per channel and offers both single-ended and balanced inputs, selectable by toggle switch. The IEC power receptacle is center mounted, and even though the rear plate is small, offers plenty of clearance for bulky power cords. An AC fuse is also on the rear panel, while a second, tube fuse, is located in the top panel. The remaining controls are a front mounted power knob, top plate mounted eye tube attenuators and bias jack, control and lights. The amplifier has all the main parts exposed, as per norm with a Cary design, and looks functionally elegant in black with gold lettering and gold nameplates in top of the transformer housings.
Rocket Sounds - Triode Amplification
Each component in the GR8 system spent time alone with my reference system. That system usually consists of a Dodson DA-217 DAC, First Sound Presence Statement pre-amplifiers, Manley Labs Neo-Classic 300B amplifiers and Merlin VSM-SE loudspeakers. Wire varies but is mainly Cardas, Stereovox, Acoustic Zen and Audio Magic, while power cords are primarily Shunyata Research Powersnakes, Acoustic Zen and JPS Labs. Power is conditioned by a Shunyata Research Hydra and the whole mess rests upon a SoundRack stand. Other gear seeing significant time during the review and with various pieces of the GR8 system were my Blue Circle BC6 amplifier, Silverline Panatella III loudspeakers, Ayre CX7 CD player and a Sophia Electric 300B amplifier.
After breaking in the Rocket I gave her an immediate acid test - signal from the First Sound and driving the Merlins. Starting in triode mode, over the next several days I swapped interconnects (out went the Stereovox, in went Cardas Neutral Reference) and power cords (Shunyata Taipan taking over for Acoustic Zen on the Rocket) and found a balance that was even and musical. Starting up top, the cat and dog range of the treble was gently rolled off, which took just the slightest bit of sparkle away. But below that the treble was rich, detailed and full of bite. Mids were lush, offered excellent tonal texture and yet transparent to a degree I had not expected from an "affordable" amplifier. Bass mirrored the treble, spot on through the upper and into mid-bass where it began a gentle roll off. The overall feel of this tonal curve was balanced, with the mids having the smallest bit of prominence.
Dynamically, the triode mode conformed to expectations. On those subtle, swift, low-level changes the Rocket excelled. Quick breathes had the power to startle while the attack of stringed instruments, for example, was crisp and forceful without stepping into the artificial or hyped. When asked to track large swings, the Rocket responded quickly but gently softened peaks. Still, considering the price, I was more than pleased by the dynamic envelope of the Cary.
As I said just above, I was mightily impressed by the transparency of the Rocket 88. Dense musical passages which often trip up value-oriented gear, never congealed in a flat, featureless sonic landscape. Instead, individual instruments and voices were clearly laid out and easy to follow. I use the Richard Einhorn composition Voices of Light [Sony CK 62006] as a measure of transparency. With medieval motets in multiple parts, the Netherlands Radio Choir, solo soprano, alto, tenor and bass, and Anonymous 4 jointly singing the role of Joan of Arc, the music has density, but done in a French and not German style. This recording is remarkably transparent and full of sonic highlights. Through the Rocket, the musical flow was simple to pick up as were soloists as only the most excited passages became a little wooly.
Staging was excellent, if a bit short of state of the art. The front of the stage was very well done, but the rear tended to curve inward and depth was truncated just a touch. Images on the stage were vivid and defined. High volumes did shift their size a small amount, moving you forward a couple of rows, but I mention this out of an obligation to completeness rather than point to a problem, as it was only a minor issue.
Switch the Rocket into ultralinear mode and the changes were, again, consonant with expectations. Tonally, the extremes of both treble and bass firmed leading to a flatter overall response. There was a commensurate lessening of harmonic texture as well. Dynamically, ultralinear kept nearly all of the micro level skill of triode and added a fair helping of large-scale whack. Staging took on tighter control as well.
To my ears the changes, while mostly positive and not huge were still a mixed bag. I very much enjoyed the triode Rocket, and while the ultralinear Rocket improved on the triode in frequency response, dynamics and staging, the changes felt more attuned to those ordered up by an audiogeek than by a music lover. Also, the loss of a small degree of harmonic purity is something I, personally, would not choose. Still, I found myself turning to ultra mode when playing upbeat jazz, blues and harder rock. If all my music ran that way, I would probably stick with ultra. But it doesn't. So if I had to choose between the two modes, I'd take triode. Of course the real beauty here is that neither you nor I have to choose as switching between modes takes all of two seconds.
Summing The Rocket
As a $2,500 power amplifier, the CAD-808 is extremely flexible, well-built and makes enjoyable music. It is transparent, in both triode and UL modes. For an affordable tubed amplifier, it has very good frequency extension and it offers better than average staging. To my ears, triode mode allows the Rocket to reach its full music making potential, while the option for ultralinear allows the same amplifier to change when your baser musical desires creep out. As for competition, the Conrad-Johnson MV-60, for a couple hundred more dollars, is even a bit more transparent, a touch flatter, and offers a smidgeon more dynamic power. On the other hand, it is not as flexible, and while I did not try every combination of output tube the Rocket 88 can take, the Cary amplifier is sufficiently transparent to amply reward tube rolling - both type and manufacturer. Time spent in that endeavor should offer great reward. In all, a very enjoyable and very recommended amplifier.
With price escalation over the last decade, most of us would be happy with a four sources, tubed, $2,000 pre-amplifier, but not Cary Audio Design. So, besides switching for four sources, the SLP-88 has a tape loop, dual outputs, a headphone output and remote control.
The front panel controls include five small knobs for power, mute, source selection, tape loop and to engage the headphones. There is also a single large volume control knob. The front fascia sports small lights to indicate power on, mute or operate status, tape loop activation, headphone on and up and down on the volume control when using the remote. Speaking of, the supplied remote controls volume and muting only.
On the back the gold-plated RCA jacks are widely spaced, allowing use of any interconnects I know of, while the IEC receptacle is set off to one side, also allowing use of any power size power cord. Inside the SLP-88 employs a pair 6SN7 tubes. When started up the 88 goes through a two-minute auto mute before passing signal. A final hook-up/use consideration, the 88 inverts phase and so you must calculate whether your amplifier does as well before hooking up speaker wires.
Not to give too much away, but for me the SLP-88 was the unexpected gem of this trio. At this price point there is always a trade between sound quality and features but with 88 Cary has struck a remarkable balance. The features - remote, dual outputs, and headphone jack - are useful and well designed. The remote has a wide angle of acceptance and offers slow enough response that small volume changes are easily made from your listening chair. The dual outputs make feeding a powered sub easy and efficient. And the headphone jack, while lacking a cross-feed circuit such as those found in the HeadRoom dedicated headphone amplifiers, offered up warm, detailed and controlled sound. Still, none of these things matter much if the pre-amplifier itself sounds lousy. And this one most definitely does not. Perhaps it is the choice of 6SN7 output tube, but whatever magic it may be, the 88 has an unruffled musical flow. In my experience the 6SN7 strikes a balance between the at times harsh 6922 family while offering the transparency of that tube, and musical but often soft 12A group of small signal tubes.
Let us start with frequency response. The treble was lively, open and shimmering. Even when placed in front of amplifiers like the four times as expensive Manley Labs, the top end was refined and yet powerful. Mids were rich, even and flowing. The bass was flat to at least 30 cycles and harmonically delightful.
Dynamically the 88 moved like a middleweight. It packed punch and yet retained speed as well. Staging was excellent, with good spread and depth. Inner resolution, the ability to peer into the stage for subtle detail, was very good, and remarkable considering the price.
On the negative side of the ledger, I would have preferred the 88 to do the near impossible, that is to combine the large-scale dynamics of a heavyweight with the small-scale speed of a featherweight. My First Sound does this, but it is more than four times the cost of the 88. I would also like to have had a touch more detail and inner resolution. But, as it is, the balance of the 88 is tipped towards the musical and not the analytical, which is always a good thing in my book, and most especially at the affordable end of the price spectrum.
For $2,000 the 88 is a marvel. It was never embarrassed, even when feeding the Manley Neo-Classics and the Sophia Electric 300B. To first in class sonic performance, it adds well conceived extras like remote control and a headphone jack. As I said, the real gem of the set.
The last piece of the GR8 system is either the CD 308 or the CD 308-T CD. Both flavors of 308 use the tried and true Philips CDM-12 transport as well a 3rd order, Bessel analog filter while the T version uses a pair of 12AU7 tubes in the analog output stage. Equipped with a 24 bit, 96kHz HDCD Burr-Brown chipset, the 308 and 308-T also offer the normal Cary Audio flexibility. First, they both have coax and Toslink digital outs to drive an external processor, but more significantly, via a front panel button you can select between standard 44kHz, 16 bit data decoding and upsampled 96kHz, 24 bit output.
The front panel has an elongated, indented oval that holds the CD tray on the left and the display on the right. Below the disc tray is the power button while six control buttons are below the display. The first five buttons are the normal drawer open/close, play/pause, stop, previous and next controls while the sixth button sets standard or upsampling mode. The remote duplicates all the front panel operations except upsampling, while adding programming functions and also adds yet another option to the 308, analog volume control of the output level (full output is 3.6 volts, enough to drive the Rocket 88 to full output). There are also buttons on the remote to control Cary remote enabled pre-amplifiers.
Still, at half the price of the 303/200, you cannot expect the exact same performance. As compared to the 303/200, the 308 lags, foremost, in the transparency department. Listening to the Einhorn piece mentioned above, the 308 ever so slightly blurred the edges of the voices and compressed the landscape by a small but noticeable amount. It also softened the dynamic kick of the piece. Still, these differences were not so large as to distract.
Frequency extension was broad, as you expect from CD, and flat with the exception of a very gentle bass roll. My guess is that this roll is more a factor of the tube output stage than of the player itself. Tonal and harmonic detail from the top of the treble all the way through the mid-bass was very good with the lower bass showing a small amount of loss of control. Again, most likely the tubes.
It is unfair, but the 308 has, perhaps, the hardest task of the GR8 system, that is it has to compete with the Cary CD 303/200. To be sure, the 303 is twice the price, but it is also offers sound quality very close to the best that can be heard from Redbook CD. On its own the 308 offers sound that is better than any other comparably priced CD player I have heard, and for someone with a budget of less than $3,000 for a source, it is my immediate suggestion. If I were smart, I would end with that comment. But I am not. So, if you have the dollars, be sure to check out the 303/200. In putting together a $10,000 system the addition of the 303/200 leaves only $2,500 for loudspeakers, wire, power conditioning and accessories, which is not enough to do it right. So in that context, the 308 is my first choice. Also, the 303/200 is an extremely neutral player, one that offers downstream gear no help at all if they are cold or sterile while the softer 308 applies a very small gloss to soften hard systems making it perfect for many if not most affordable systems. But given the money to spend and a well balanced system, I think I'd opt for the 303/200.
All Together Now
To hear the GR8 system as a whole, I placed them in front of both my Merlin loudspeakers as an ultimate test, and in front of the $2,500 Silverline Audio Panatella III loudspeakers as a test of my 10k system goal. In both settings the Cary system played with a single voice. Anyone familiar with Cary knows the sound I am talking about. Warm, musical, sonically alive and flowing but also transparent, detailed and rich in sonic texture.
In front of the Silverlines I had sound that satisfied immensely. The single most obvious strength of the system was that it had no single strength. Instead it was balanced with no one area, except musical enjoyment, calling attention to itself. I could play Zep, Miles, Arvo Part, Keith Jarrett, John Zorn, Joni, the Allmans, Biosphere, Bruckner and it didn't matter. No one type of music, no one section of the spectrum stood out. It all rolled over me - gracefully and beautifully. This truly was a system that exemplified what affordable hi-fi should be about. Honest communication without hype or harshness. Driving the Merlins things only got better, and this with loudspeakers that cost over $2,000 more than the combined cost of the Cary equipment. The innate clarity of the system was revealed, as well as an even more sure sense of dynamics and harmonic texture.
Taken as a system, these three pieces of Cary gear worked together in a way that exceeded my expectations. Of the three components, the pre-amplifier is my favorite, but the power amplifier is wonderful as well, while the CD player only suffers in comparison to its older and more expensive brother, the CD 303/200. Cary has a real winner here, and one that anyone looking for real value in audio needs to investigate. Bravo!
Rocket 88 R (CAD-808)
Circuit Type: Push Pull, Balanced, Class A Triode, Class AB Ultra-linear
Power Output @ 1.2 volts input: 30 Watts in triode, 60 Watts in ultra-linear
Inputs: RCA Single ended or XLR Balanced
Noise and Hum: >80dB below full output
Input Impedance: 150 kOhms
Frequency Response: 15Hz to 30kHz (+/- 1dB)
Power Transformer(s): Dual High-Voltage secondary, one for each channel, EI Laminated 200% duty cycle.
Output Transformer(s): Special EI Laminate, 100-watt power continuous rating
Output Indicators: Dual 'cat eye' output level tubes, with adjustable intensity controls
Resistors: 1% Metal Film
Capacitors: 0.22µF Film & Foil
Filter Chokes: Two chokes, one for each high voltage supply on each channel, Two chokes, one for each bias supply on each channel.
Power Supply Capacitors:
Power Supply Regulation: New Cary self regulated design
Speaker Posts: Gold plated output binding posts, accept spades or banana plugs
AC Cord: 3 Conductor Shielded, Detachable
AC Power Requirements: 100/117/240 VAC @ 50/60 Hz set by market
Warm-Up Time: 3 Minutes
Break-In Time: 100 hours of music playing time
Weight: 38 lbs.
Dimensions: 10 x 9 x 18 (HxWxD in inches)
Finish: Black finish steel chassis, black anodized aluminum face plate and power knob. Triode/Ultra Linear mode switches, 4 or 8 ohm speaker impedance switches
Feet: Large "Cary Audio Soft Shoe" rubber
Circuit Type: Class A Single-Ended
Gain Line Stage: 20dB
Noise and Hum: >84dB below full output
Input Impedance: 100 kOhms
Output Impedance: 600 Ohms
Frequency Response: 10Hz to 40kHz (+/- 0.5dB)
Tubes: two 6SN7 dual triode vacuum tubes
Power Transformer(s): 400% Duty Cycle
Wire: EE Teflon Silver
Resistors: 1% Metal Film
Power Supply: Full wave rectified feeding a Pi network and filter choke.
AC Cord: 3 conductor shielded detachable
AC Power Requirements: 117/234 VAC @ 50/60 Hz (Set during production)
Break-In Time: 100 hours of playing time
Weight: 18 lbs.
Dimensions: 6 x 16 x 11 (HxWxD in inches)
Finish: Black steel chassis with black anodized aluminum face plate & knobs, remote volume control, tape monitor loop, 4 stereo input pairs, all RCA connectors for inputs, outputs and the tape monitor loop, front panel headphone jack driven by audio grade transformers from the 6SN7 dual triode vacuum tubes.
Transport: Philips CDM12
Frequency Response: 2Hz to 48kHz in 96kHz upsample mode
Signal-to-Noise Ratio: >90 dB, A weighted
Total Harmonic Distortion (THD): 0.0009% (1kHz)
Channel Separation: >100dB (1kHz)
Power Consumption: 35 Watts
Digital/Analog Converters (DAC): Burr Brown PCM1704u (24-bit/96kHz)
Digital Filter: Normal 44.1kHz, upsample 96kHz or HDCD decoding.
Audio Output section: Vacuum tube gain and buffer stage with dual 12AU7 vacuum tubes
Audio Output Level: Single-Ended 3.6 Vrms, Variable analog domain output level control, standard
Analog Outputs: (1) pair single-ended via RCA connectors
Digital Outputs: (1) Coaxial RCA output
Rated output voltage: 3.6 Volts, with variable analog volume control
Power Input: 100-120/200-240 VAC, 50-60Hz
Weight: 25 lbs.
Dimensions: 4 x 18 x 15 (HxWxD in inches)
Finish: Black Anodized Aluminum Faceplates, Black Epoxy Coated Chassis
Cary Audio Design
Voice: (919) 355-0010