Which would you prefer? A mid-price component from a luxury brand like Linn, Krell or Cary or a similar unit at the same price from a mass-market brand like Rotel, Sony or NAD? I know Iíd enjoy the cachet of the high-end brand. But which company is better equipped to bring the best value to an unfamiliar price point?
My money is on the high-end manufacturers. After all, they know what good sound is all about, and they would be reluctant to market anything under their name that might besmirch their hard earned reputations. The approach I would take would be to produce simplified versions of my stock-in-trade. Shave off the expensive features, like balanced operation, cut down the number of inputs and outputs, reduce the maximum power output, introduce a more modest enclosure and subcontract the manufacturing process to an Asian contractor.
Is this the approach Cary has taken with the new Concept series? The 125wpc CAI 1 Integrated Amp ($2000) is not based on any higher end Cary model. The CDP 1 CD Player (also $2000) on the other hand is derived from the CDP 303/300 CD Player, which lists for $4000 and offers the user the option of tube and transistor output stages. The CDP 1 drops the tube output stage but keeps other advanced features such as dual Burr Brown PCM 1792 DACs, variable output level, balanced operation, HDCD decoding and a wide choice of upsampling options. In the process the CDP 1 loses 15 lbs, a built-in spirit level, adjustable metal-cone feet and a balanced digital output.
The new designs are attractive, without quite reaching the fit and finish levels of the best Japanese and European designs. Strangely, the amp comes with a credit card sized remote control while the CD player sports a more conventional plastic wand. Each remote controls the other component with clearly marked buttons and positive clicks. When you hold the volume down, it shifts the volume by one notch, so it requires over sixty clicks on the amp remote to bring you from minimum to maximum volume.
Cary Audio CDP 1 Upsampling CD Player
Letís examine the CD Player first. The control buttons on the remote are in an unusual pattern, spaced in and around a diamond configuration. The fast-forward button toggles you between regular and scan mode where the output is fully muted. This is a relief after my struggles with the same feature on the Meridian G08. There is full support for HDCD, a rarity these days and a welcome inclusion. You can change the upsampling from none to 96, 192, 384, 512 or 768 kHz using either the remote or the front panel, but no phase inversion option. A separate section on the remote controls key amplifier functions. So here is a remote with two volume controls, one for the amp and one for its matching CD Player, both operating in the analog domain. The inclusion of an analog volume control on the CD Player is one I find hard to justify in this context, and you cannot even switch it out of circuit as on other CD Players. The layout of the fascia is clean with a row of identical buttons on the right side to control the transport. To the left of the centrally located drive unit is the power switch and the upsampling button with an array of LCDs to show you the current selection.
The drive unit is a Matsushita DVD-ROM unit, although this player is strictly Redbook. The drive is almost silent in operation but the drawer mechanism is none too smooth and reading the TOC is sluggish. From drawer open to play takes 12 seconds. I am disappointed with the status display. Unlike the one in the matching amp, it is difficult to read at a distance and not perfectly horizontal on the review sample. You can control the brightness or turn off the display, but maximum brightness is not quite high enough.
I start by plugging the CDP 1 into my reference system, running alongside the Meridian G08, a CD player twice the price. Both CD players feed into the Perreaux R200i Integrated Amp, which in turn drives Wilson Benesch Act 1 speakers. This test is biased in favor of the Cary, since I am connecting it using a Valhalla Power Cord and Valhalla Balanced Interconnects, while the Meridian uses a modestly priced Soundstring Digital Power Cord and Valhalla RCA interconnects. When I switch these cables around to be absolutely fair, my findings are unaffected.
This is not a difficult comparison, once the listening levels are adjusted for the Caryís higher output levels. The Cary CDP 1 simply cannot stand up in this company. It is unfailingly musical, and distortion is low at all times, but something is missing. The bass does not have the spring or the tunefulness the Meridian offers, and the treble, while reasonably extended, does not have the fine resolution of the reference. Images do not expand out into the room and fill the space between the speakers, while the music is neither as relaxing nor as inviting and responsive as the reference. To take this test one step further I can connect both CD players directly to my reference headphone amplifier, the Graham Slee Solo, feeding the superb Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pro canal earphones. Listening to canal earphones is a totally different experience from listing to full range speakers, but these particular earphones have an enormous bandwidth and confirm all the findings from the speaker listening tests.
A number of other CD players passing through my system have faired similarly, some vastly more expensive than the Cary. Perhaps I should not have such a good reference, so as to level the playing field. But the truth is the Meridian G08 can be challenged (by the Esoteric DV-50 or Classť CDP10) or humiliated (by its big brother the Meridian 808 Signature Reference). The CDP 1 is just not the player to do so. At this price point I would have dropped the variable output and switchable upsampling, perhaps even the balanced circuitry, and gone for the best possible sound.
Cary Audio CAI 1 Integrated Amplifier
Fortunately the Cary CAI 1 is a very different animal. The credit card sized remote control is simpler and easier to use, including push button selection of source, volume and balance. Even the CD transport controls are more logically laid out and clearly labeled on this remote. The display too is much easier to read. Are there unnecessary frills here too? Who need two sets of binding posts when they are not separately switchable? I would have settled for one set with high quality binding posts instead of two sets of mass-market connectors, or at least placed the posts further apart to enable thick cables to attach more readily. Do we really need a balanced input? Iím happy to see it here, but I do not find significant sonic improvements from using it. Do we need a Cinema bypass? Actually, I vote yes, and it canít add much to the cost. Do we need this much power? That depends on the speakers you are driving. Finally, do we need a headphone output? Answer: Iím all in favor if itís done properly, but Iím not convinced in this case.
Actually the headphone output is the only aspect of the CAI 1ís performance that fails to impress. Even easy to drive headphones like the top of the line Grado RS1s do not come fully to life through this amp. This however is a common failing of integrated headphone outputs, a notable exception being the one fitted to the Portal Panache. So what would I change? Just drop the headphone output and upgrade the binding posts, then leave the rest unchanged. In contrast to the CDP 1, which ran quite hot to the touch, the CAI 1 was cool even after a heavy work out. We can attribute this to the efficient Class D power amplifier modules.
The CAI 1 is a gem, a winner and a breakthrough product for Cary. Paired with the Meridian G08, the amp has no problem driving the high-current Act 1s, which have tripped up many a competitor. On solo piano (Rubinstein playing Chopin Sonata No 2) the instrument has good weight, strong bass definition, an open top end and a musical and balanced singing tone. Substituting the CDP 1 for the Meridian thickens the texture, slows the music down and closes off both the extreme highs and the deep bass.
Chamber music such as Haydn String Quartets Opus 20 played on period instruments by the Quattuor MosaÔques [Astreť E8786] reveals a similar story. With the Meridian in circuit, this is a rich warm experience. My notes indicate that this amp is clearly voiced by a tube manufacturer, since this is a recording guaranteed to reveal any harshness in the equipment. The sound is not just rich but it has bite and pace, although the upper strings sound a bit thin and the imaging leaves a slight hole in the middle. The reference Perreaux fills out the image, clarifies string textures and provides more musical information and sharper transients. The CDP 1 / CAI 1 combination romanticizes this music, softens and slows the impact of the dynamic interplay between the instruments, and shrinks the image further back towards the speakers.
On larger scale classical music [Haintink conducting Shostakovichís Fifth Symphony Ė Decca 425066-2], the pattern is confirmed. The CDP 1 / CAI 1 combination does not reveal the texture in the string tone, wind instruments do not take flight and imaging is rather two-dimensional. On the plus side, the sound is unfailingly musical, climaxes are taken in stride and distortion is low. Itís telling a good story but itís not the whole story. Bring the Meridian into play and the music gains in resolution and size, throwing a three-dimensional image that captivates the listener. We hear atmospherics and superb tone on the wind instruments and flesh on the strings. The pace quickens and the dynamics improve, while the attractive warmth remains. The Perreaux adds greater depth and more precise location to the instruments, and by quickening the reflexes and expanding further the dynamic range, we are finally transported to the concert hall, and sense the thrill of a top orchestra in full flight.
Maybe classical music is not your cup of tea. Letís try jazz. Concord has provided me two copies of a superb sampler, The Great Audio Experience [PRO-CJ-0108-2], designed to tell sheep from goats, and to give you lots of fun trying. David Benoitís The Party is simply irresistible. Correction, it is if the Meridian is doing the driving. With the CIA 1 this track has swagger, like Claude Bolling in full flight. There is deep bass in abundance and good definition and location to the piano. This is most enjoyable, but switching to the Perreaux just makes you want to get up and dance. The abundant deep bass now has strong drive and enhanced pitch definition, a slight veil is removed from the piano and there is a greater ease and flow to the music. The CDP 1 misses all the fun here, offering lumpy bass, a shut-in treble, reduced decay and an overall lack of coherence. This disc certainly exaggerates the difference between the players. Other delightful tracks on this sampler confirm these impressions.
I also tried some of my old staples like Lilison di Kinaraís infectious Bambatulu [MUS2-1119], Patricia Barberís Too Rich For My Blood  and Stan Rogersí The Northwest Passage [FCM 004D] to see how pop and folk music fares. With the CDP 1, Bambatulu reveals a floppy bass, a midrange focus and a very beautiful sound, shut in at the top, a sound that matches the stereotype of tube sound that transistor lovers / tube haters carry in their heads. ďSure itís euphonic but is it accurate?Ē Me Ė I donít care if its glass or sand, as long as itís music. Anyway thereís not a tube to be found inside the CDP 1. But when you switch to the Meridian, the gains in bass definition, treble extension imaging and coherence do not come at the expense of musical enjoyment, nor do they introduce any sense of fatigue. Again the CAI 1 cannot match the openness or speed of the Perreaux, but it still offers an immensely enjoyable experience. The Northwest Passage, featuring close harmony of male voices, is too homogenized to be enjoyable with the CDP 1, but the Meridian / CAI 1 combination reveals the individual voices in the mix, and locates them fairly well, while adding both impact and echo. The dynamics are stronger, the background blacker and the sound both more immediate and intimate at once. The Perreaux is more open and dynamic again, as expected. The pattern repeats on other pop favorites.
So, compared to the reference Perreaux R200i, the CAI 1 is not the last word in speed or deep-bass articulation, image size is slightly constricted, dynamics and resolution are both somewhat reduced. But for the price, the CAI 1 is a very strong competitor, with a fine midrange and a balance of qualities that will do justice to your collection and have you smiling all the way to the bank. It is more lively and involving than the Arcam FMJ A32 and has better bandwidth extension than the Plinius 9100 or YBA Integrť DT. And these are three integrated amps that have earned my affection in the past. Best of all the CAI 1 displays no transistor hardness and imposes no special sonic signature of its own. In fact it comes closer to the performance of the Perreaux than any integrated amp I have tried in this price range, and can be recommended for its balance and composure with all kinds of musical material.
A Talk With Dennis Had, Owner Of Cary Audio
I spoke to Dennis Had, President of Cary Audio after my listening tests. He was disappointed that the CDP 1 had not ďfloated my boatĒ but he thought the $6000 Cary CD-306 SACD player would put the Meridian in the shade. I look forward to trying that model, and you should consider it too if itís in your price range. Dennis explained that these two components are just the first in a full series of Concept components. There will be two preamplifiers (one tube based at $2000 and one transistor based at $1500) and a power amp at $1500. Dennis invited me to take the cover off the integrated amp, to see the RF shielding within the enclosure, the separate shielding for the all-discreet preamp section, an R-core transformer for the analog preamp and a switching power supply for the power amp modules. These are the Class D ICE Power modules from Bang & Olufsen, while the preamp section uses a push-pull fully discreet Class A FET design. Both pre and power amp sections are fully balanced. A Motorola processor is used to control balance and volume, which is implemented using a Burr Brown solid-state stepped attenuator, as in the CDP 1. According to Dennis, the ICE modules are very particular about their power supply and it is tricky and expensive to get it working optimally. When you do get it right, the results are magic, as we find here. Iíve heard the same story from a number of manufacturers. Actually most designers will tell you, regardless of topology, that the power supply is the key to successful amplifier design, and I believe them.
So Which Combination Is Best?
You may be wondering which combination works best Ė the CDP 1 feeding the Perreaux, or the Meridian feeding the CAI 1. Iím sure Linnís Ivor Tiefenbrun will not be surprised to hear the Meridian / CAI 1 combination wins the day, and by a country mile. Both amplifiers are of sufficient quality and resolution to drive the demanding Wilson Benesch Act 1s comfortably, and to expose fully any weakness in the source. On this evidence, the source is still the most important component in the HiFi chain. A different picture might emerge with low resolution or bandwidth limited speakers, but I donít have any of this description on hand to perform the experiment. But I do have AKG K1000 headphones, which I can drive directly from speaker binding posts. These are very high-resolution devices, but also somewhat bass-shy. With these headphones, deep bass not being a major factor, and image size also reduced in impotence, the difference between the two combinations is less obvious. Now the main contrast is in the level of detail and the speed of response to transients. The Meridian / CAI 1 combo gives the more involving, detailed and relaxed sound while the CDP 1 / Perreaux has less information and attack at the higher frequencies. This can relieve the AKGís excessive brightness on some less than exemplary digital recordings.
The CDP 1 CD Player will sound best in a less revealing system, one that also does not extend into the deep bass where its chief weakness lies. This was well demonstrated at the Montreal Festival Son et Image in April of this year, where the two Cary Concept components were paired with Era Design 5 bookshelf speakers. This combination sounded sweet and inviting, an inexpensive introduction to the high end. I believe you can do better than the CDP 1 at this price, and would recommend you to audition the Ayre CX-7e ($3,000) and the Arcam FMJ CD36 ($2500), two understated and articulate players. If you can afford the extra cash, the Musical Fidelity DM25 ($6,500) or the Meridian G08 ($4,000) will move you into another category altogether, good enough to grace the finest systems.
The CAI 1 Integrated Amp will serve you well and I believe it offers genuine value at $2,000. It looks good, it sounds good and itís a pleasure to operate. And it may be a source of pride to possess something from one of the most respected names in American audio.
Cary CAI 1
Inputs: 1 pair XLR, 6 pair RCA
Input Sensitivity: 1.2V (full-rated output)
Record Output: 1 pair RCA
Controller Connectors: Mini plug IR input, 3 Mini plugs for trigger out
Communications: RS 232 Full remote configuration interface
Volume Control Range: 63dB in 1dB steps
Input Overload: 3V (single ended) / 6V (balanced)
Input Impedance: 100K Ohms (single ended) / 200K Ohms (balanced)
Output Impedance: 4Ω to 8Ω
Frequency Response: 20Hz to 22kHz (Ī.5dB)
Rated Power Output: 125wpc rms into 8Ω / 250wpc rms into 4Ω
THD: 0.0005% 10W, 4 Ohms 14kHz / 15kHz
THD+N: 0.006% @ 1W, 8Ω 1kHz, <0.2%, 0.1W - 200W, 4Ω
Signal / Noise ratio: -80 dB CCIR
Voltage Gain: 26.8 dB
Damping Factor: > 4000, 100 Hz 8Ω
Weight: 23 lbs
Size: 4.5 x 17 x 13 (HxWxD in inches)
Warranty: 3 years
Cary CDP 1
CD Mechanism: Triple-beam laser, multi speed DVD ROM transport
Formats: CD AUDIO (CD-DA), CD-R, CD-RW
Digital Filter: CARY DSP-300 with HDCD decoding
DAC: Two Burr Brown PCM 1792U
Analog Filter: 3rd order Bessel
Analog Outputs: XLR and RCA
Digital Outputs: Coaxial, Toslink, 44.1 kHz 16-bit to 192 kHz 24-bit
Frequency Response: 2Hz to 22 kHz (44.1 kHz)
Amplitude Linearity: 0.1dB (20Hz to 20kHz)
Phase Linearity: 3 degrees (20Hz to 20kHz)
Dynamic Range: 129dB (1kHz)
Signal / Noise Ratio: 122dB (1kHz)
THD: 0.003% (1kHz)
Output Level: 3V rms (single ended) / 6V rms (balanced)
Trigger Input: 12V DC
IR input: Philips RC 5 IR code
Communications: RS232 full remote/configuration interface
Weight: 23 lbs
Dimensions: 4.5 x 17 x 13 (HxWxD in inches)
Warranty: 3 years
Cary Audio Design