Let's start with the most notable feature of the Cary Audio DAC-200ts DAC shall we? The Cary Audio DAC-200TS ($3995) as reviewed here is a full-featured stereo DAC. A pretty lame opener, I agree, yet with a featureset so extensive and crucial to the DAC's personality it bears at least one blatant statement to that effect. The Cary Audio DAC-200ts DAC supports a very wide array of inputs, ranging from USB and Bluetooth aptX lossless, to S/PDIF coaxial, optical TosLink inputs and supports any real-world sampling range up to 384kHz PCM. It utilizes a quad of stereo AK4490EQ DACs to support a balanced output and has 8x oversampling scheme with selectable upsampling, which Cary dubs TrueBit. It also supports up to 256 DSD via USB input. Wi-Fi is supported via 802.11 b/g/n plus both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi have dedicated antenna, which is a nice touch to ensure a solid signal. One of the most interesting features is the selectable output, as one can use the "standard" solid-state output or utilize tube-based output via a pair of 12AU7s. This is a feature Cary Audio calls "Dual Independent Analog Output" or "DiO" for short.
The Sum Of The Parts
The architecture utilizes a reclocking scheme, 8x oversampling, and a pair of parallel DACs per output phase per channel (eight channels total). Upsampling is achieved with a 128-bit DSP setup, and all upsampling is run to 32 bit word depth, allowing a lot of headroom for the digital volume control. Output impedance is claimed at 220 Ohms unbalanced RCA and 440 Ohms XLR balanced, which is more than low enough to drive most reasonable amplifiers. I assume that the tube output impedance, when enabled, is somewhat higher than this but noticed no issues in my setup either solid state or tube. The use of multiple parallel DACs is cool, allowing greater current drive into the output stage/filters as well as averaging any misbehaviors.
The unit's equipped with selector buttons for different inputs, clock input in the case of utilizing an external clock signal, power (duh), and switches to control the selectable upsampling and tube output. The remote is full featured as well; controlling any of these functions as well as some (Cary) amplifier functions, and has an aluminum top plate and plastic body. The remote also allows one to control volume, which can be configured in a couple different ways to accommodate various sources, as well as direct connection to an amplifier, in which case this is a digital preamplifier. Given that Cary describes this as a connection option, I'd have liked to see a volume control on the front panel preferably with the remote's mute function duplicated there as well. The front panel does have a nice clean look, however, so perhaps it was a visually motivated decision. I could do without the connectivity logos but after talking with Cary, it seems they had no choice- they're required to have them on the front panel to use the respective technologies and are a big enough shop to get noticed if they omitted them.
Disappointing was the fact that the remote was IR given the unit's Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. It would have seemed obvious to utilize an RF remote, though the unit can be controlled via an app on the user's phone and/or tablet, which mitigates this gripe. Therein lies my only complaint-the DAC connected to Ethernet, but wouldn't work with Wi-Fi. Cary says they haven't encountered this challenge before, I tried both static and DCHP addressing, and no joy on Wi-Fi. Hopefully it was just that I had an early unit, though a firmware update didn't alleviate my issue.
The faceplate has the ubiquitous blue lighting for the power switch and the display is a blue vacuum fluorescent display, with controllable brightness from the remote. I would have preferred a more advanced display, possibly with touchscreen support. Given that this DAC supports advanced digital connectivity a better display with support for album cover displays, etc, would have been a welcome addition. Upon powering up the Cary Audio DAC-200ts DAC, the unit takes about 10 seconds before the output is switched on and control functions are live, which is likely to enable warm-up of the vacuum tube outputs. Vacuum tube heaters seem to always be on to enable only a short mute when transitioning from solid state to vacuum tube output. In operation apart from the network issues above, the DAC was never anything but solid, though there's a slight pop when switching to and from the vacuum tube output, or using the sample-rate converter options. I only noticed this over the single-ended outputs when run through my transformer volume controls, when I used the balanced outputs to drive my NCore amps directly, there was an expected dropout of the sound but no pop, which I was glad to note, as the combination of the powerful NCores and very high efficiency speakers makes any extraneous noises quite cringe worthy (am I going to blow out my woofers?!)
Blah BlahBlah, Yadda Yadda
As I delved into the features, I started with the easiest part- the tube output is what many might expect. It's a softer, smoother presentation, with a smaller soundstage than the solid-state counterpart. That it's switchable on the fly saves this from being a criticism- I think the tube output option could be very helpful in taming some more aggressive sounding recordings, and if the DAC is used for TV watching or other less-audiophile purposes, it may well be the preferred mode of operation. This may also be the case for speakers with a brighter tonal balance or more aggressive overall sound, or when playback is at higher levels. Indeed, given this DAC's connectivity options, I'd be surprised if many users didn't wind up utilizing the DAC with less than stellar source material sometimes, and thus a forgiving tube output option is very helpful. With better recordings, through my speakers (which are always carefully voiced not to have any harshness), I preferred the solid state outputs by a significant margin. The tubes did also add some shimmer in the highs, almost like a tradeoff between extension and decay. Was this an artifact or an improvement? I think different listeners would have different conclusions.
Bluetooth operation was simple and really easy to operate, with good antenna range. Unfortunately Apple phones don't support aptX so lossless will be limited to users on Android platforms. Bluetooth input from my iPhone was very mellow sounding, with limited top end extension but pretty decent performance otherwise. This isn't the way a high-end DAC should be run, however, with a compromised low-res input, so testing was limited mostly to functionality and some brief sonic evaluation.
Having the volume control allowed me to run the Cary Audio DAC-200ts DAC as a preamp; running quite a bit lower in level than the nominal output level. This meant running at about -30dB on the Cary's dial. Running so low I was beginning to flirt with digital compression. Thankfully, no artifacts were noticed that belied this with 44.1kHz source material. When running directly, I utilize the 32 bit upsampling to prevent compression at the source wordlength, and as a direct preamplifier, the unit performed admirably and had drive enough to run my monoblocks and sub amplifier together to full output off the XLR balanced and RCA unbalanced outputs respectively. I heard no loss in highs, dynamics, or a change of sonic character. The combined load had the Cary driving only about 10kOhms and it handled that relatively low impedance perfectly well within my system.
The sample rate converter was a very interesting function. I found that integer multiples of the original material sample rate sounded best, IOW, a 44.1kHz signal sounded better at 88.2kHz than 96kHz, and likewise better at 176.4kHz than 192kHz. Interestingly, at the top upsampled rates only integer multiples were available (for 44.1, 352.8 was available but 384 was not, and 705.6 was available, but 768 was not). I found the non-integer multiples to sound slightly muted relative to the 2x, 4x, 8x, and 16x values, which for some content could be helpful, but the aforementioned values were certainly more transparent than their non-integer counterparts. This was particularly true at the high end of the frequency spectrum. The higher upsampled bitrates seemed a tad more transparent than the source-bitrate performance, but the difference within my rig was fairly minor. If I lived with this unit longer, I might have found more advantage to them yet it is hard to say. Reviewing is very challenging and the fact is sometimes our conclusions must be drawn on subtleties. I think the parallel architecture and low jitter performance are big parts of what drives the sound quality on this unit, and those are present no matter the sample rate.
Summing It Up
My ratings are fairly high across the board and we must keep in mind I'm a pretty picky guy. So I leave some room for something better (though I haven't met it in my rig). The low value rating might give some pause, yet it's a function of the higher-end price point (remember, though, it has two preamplifier stages which contributes to that) and some of my concerns with display and control/network performance within the review sample. I can't imagine a DAC at this level that I'd give a five star value rating, so don't be dissuaded by the value score if you're considering a stereo DAC at this very reasonable $3995 price.
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