POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 38
as reviewed by John Potis
It's an old story: great product, less than great marketing. I don't mean to be too blunt or unkind, but I mean, what else can you say about an American manufacturer with (at present) only two American dealers; a manufacturer with little domestic name recognition but a manufacturer that just happens to be very successful overseas in Europe and in Asia? If you're an American reader and you're not familiar with Canary Audio, you're not alone. They have a fabulous reputation around the world but for some reason name recognition and market penetration in their home country seems to thus far have eluded them. From what I gather by talking to people outside the United States, Canary has an outstanding reputation and their preamplifiers, which I have yet to experience, are considered by some to be among the very best around. Their power amplifiers are very good. This I know from experience and from talking to other Canary owners—even domestic ones.
My first experience with Canary came with a review of their CA-160, a 140-watt EL34 tube mono block power amplifier. Smoothly refined and extremely powerful, they hold a place on my short list of favorite amplifiers and I bought the review pair. However, shortly thereafter my speaker choices seemed to gravitate toward the more efficient horns and I found the 140 watts somewhat overkill and the EL34 pentode not the most synergistic with speakers that preferred triodes. So about seventeen months ago I made the decision to let go of the big CA 140s and acquire a pair of Canary's CA-330s, which boast dual 300B triode tubes in push-pull configuration for 26 watts per channel. That's not exactly flea powered, but a completely different type of amplifier as compared to the CA-160s.
The CA-330s shared much of the CA-160's aesthetic design and they are lookers; they're beautifully designed and well constructed. A champagne gold faceplate a full inch thick is beautifully brushed and nowhere on the amp is to be found a sharp corner or edge. A backlit blue window on the front indicates the company name and model in etched glass. Around back the CA-330s feature extra-sturdy gold plated 5-way binding posts (0, 4 and 8 ohms), a fused IEC inlet and a single ended RCA input. Each amplifier measures 11.5 inches wide by 9 inches high and 23.5 inches deep. Each mono weighs 65 pounds.
Canary uses a pair of Electro Harmonix 6SN7GTB triode pre-amp tubes as well as a pair of Phillips 5U4GB tubes for rectification but, like all Canary 300B amplifiers, the amps come without 300B tubes. I found myself going for the jugular and had them outfitted with 300Bs from Western Electric.
Again, output power is 26 watts and input sensitivity is .72 volts for full output. Input impedance is 150,000 ohms and Canary reports a frequency response of +/- 1dB from 10Hz to 68kHz. Total harmonic distortion is less than 0.4%, and the signal to noise ratio is said to be -84 dB below 1 watt. Damping factor is 13. Power consumption is 240 watts. Canary warrants their amplifiers for three years, parts and labor.
Canary is unusually dedicated to the 300B tube. Within their line they make a few higher-powered amplifiers utilizing the EL34 but they make several models using the 300B in varying configurations for different power output ratings. There's the CA-306 stereo amplifier using two 300Bs per channel in push-pull for 24-watts per channel. Then there's the CA-208 mono amplifier that operates with a single 300B in single-ended triode for 8-watts. Then come the CA-330 and 339 that operate in push-pull, and use two and four 300Bs respectively for outputs of 26 and 50-watts each. At the top of the food chain are the Reference mono blocks that each use eight 300B output tubes in each push-pull amplifier for 100 triode watts each.
With regard to the 300B tube and even single ended triode amplifiers (SETs) in general, it amazes me how, in this day and age, so much misinformation still abounds. Just the other day I started reading a review where the reviewer characterized SET amplifiers as producing music that sounds as if each note is dipped in syrupy goo. At that point I just rolled my eyes, shook my head, and stopped reading. Of course, this was not a review of an SET amplifier or he would have known how silly his comments were. In fact, I don't believe that I've ever read a review of a SET amplifier where the reviewer described the sound as anything of the sort. It seems that only those without intimate experience with SET amplifiers are of such an opinion because nothing could be further from the truth. SET amplifiers are not about euphony. They are not about syrup or even goo. So where in the world does this misinformation originate? How did SET amplifiers get such a reputation? Well, generally speaking, SET amplifiers have a higher output impedance, which can wreak havoc on the output of some speakers causing aberrations in the speaker's frequency response. For this reason they've been deemed unpredictable tone controls by some. I'm sure there are indeed certain speakers that will combine with SET amplifiers with unpredictable or even undesired results, but I haven't come upon such a thing.
Hopefully I'm preaching to the converted here. If you suffer from these misconceptions of SET amplifiers, I hope you'll give one a listen into copasetic speakers and hear for yourself. What constitutes a copasetic match? Obviously, you'll want a speaker of fairly high sensitivity. You'll also want a friendly speaker in terms of impedance. The higher the better and the flatter the better; big peaks and valleys in the impedance plot are a no-no as they will indeed combine with the amplifier's highish output impedance to deliver a less than linear frequency response. Obviously single driver speakers work well as do horns. But there are many other types of speakers as well.
Astute readers have already realized one thing about the Canary CA 330 amplifiers: they use triode tubes, but they are not single ended and therefore don't suffer quite the same degree of volatility that a single ended amplifier may. Astute readers are quite right. But I wanted to make the general point about SET amplifiers and, hopefully, drive home the same observations about the 300B tube. They are quite likely not what you may have been lead to believe they are.
Of course, all SET amplifiers—or push-pull amplifiers-- don't sound alike. Just as with any tube amplifier, a large amount of what you hear will be dictated by the type and make of the tubes you're using and different families of tubes do have familial characteristics. I've used amplifiers that use the 845 tube and it's perhaps the most muscular sounding of the triode tubes I've heard. The 211 shares much in common with the 845 but I've found it a little more linear, a little more neutral and offering a slightly softer and more musically friendly overall focus. The 845 can be a little more concise and incisive but the 211 is silkier. But the leanest, meanest most transparent amplifiers I've ever used-- the amplifiers that excel at producing the cleanest and most transparent window on the music I've used—are 300B amplifiers. If I had to sum up the 300B in two words I'd do so with the words elemental purity. If I had to use a single word, I'd have to use honest.
The 300B isn't the most extended tube at the lower frequency extreme. 300B amplifiers don't always produce the kind of bass that'll be confused with a good solid-state amplifier. Well, actually, that may be an understatement. But that's why I chose the Western Electric 300B. It's widely regarded as the 300B with the most brawn and perhaps the best bass of the lot (plus, it glows a super-cool blue until it breaks-in). Canary, too, is known for producing amplifiers with smaller outputs in terms of watts but big power supplies that produce lots of current for surprisingly taught bass. Together, the CA-330 amplifier and Western Electric tubes won't be posing a real challenge to a pair of 1000-watt Bryston 28B-SSTs, but they won't leave you feeling horribly cheated either. Into an appropriate pair of speakers, the Canarys produce surprisingly good bass. I've always found it completely satisfying.
At the other end of the frequency extreme is the treble and this is one area where the 300B shines. Said to measure into the neighborhood of 40kHz, the 300B is the antithesis of overly sweet and rounded off. By any measure, and particularly for tubes, the 300 B and the CA-330 sound extended, illuminated and detailed through the treble.
So we've got bass that is good but won't quite compete with the best solid-state out there and we've got treble that resists the euphonic sweetness of many tubes. So why have so many 300B fans signed on? Well, it's because where the CA-330 performs the worst; it still performs very well. And where it performs at its best, the CA-330 stands alone and performs magic—through the midrange.
Here come those words again: elemental purity. At its best the 300B and the Canary CA-330 combine for a midrange that may best be identified as akin to cool mountain spring water. Cool? Yes, the CA-330 produces absolutely no artificial warmth at all. Cold and sterile then? No, I didn't say that. I said cool. Not cool as in chilly but cool as in salubrious and refreshing. Like a glass of cool mountain spring water the CA-330s leave no aftertaste; they leave nothing to linger on the palate. The CA-330s are incredibly clean sounding amplifiers.
As transparent as water, the CA-330s hide nothing; they taint nothing with their own personality. Don't look for the CA-330s to tune your system in one direction or the other. Don't look to them to color the music in any way, shape or form. But you can count on them to let all your tonal colors come shining through unimpeded and unadorned. If the rest of your system is up to it, they'll remove the last remaining veils from the music and get you as close to the performance as the recording will allow. As compared to most other amplifiers the CA-330s sound as if there's absolutely nothing between the listener and the music. In my experience this is as good as it gets.
Syrup? No, way. We're talking limpid liquidity. Particularly where it comes to dynamics, there's nothing thick of syrupy about the CA-330s. Free flowing water changes direction on a dime and so do these amps. Water flows and can be redirected without impeding that flow and that's exactly how, dynamically speaking, a good 300B amplifier sounds. Of course, a 26-watt amplifier will be mated with synergistic speakers of relatively high sensitivity and these types of speakers also, generally speaking, rank high on the agility scale. The CA-330s and this type of speaker often combine for the agility of an Olympic gymnast. They can also be surprisingly dynamic. Macro-dynamics? You bet. Water may be all these things but it can also be immensely powerful and into the right kind of speakers, the CA-330s sound more powerful than most big solid-state amplifiers that can't get it out of first gear into such high efficiency speakers. The most micro of micro-dynamics is what these amplifiers live for. It's here where the music absolutely comes to life. It lives and breathes; it ebbs and flows. It pulsates with vitality. Now, flat frequency response is admirable and great bass is fun. But this type of dynamic expression is what's missing in a lot of systems; in some ways it's the last frontier. It's also responsible for an added dose of pure excitement and musical involvement. Who among us hasn't experienced at least one system that imaged like crazy, sounded smooth and musical and even had deep and powerful bass, but didn't get your toes tapping or your heart racing? As great as it sounded, it quickly became boring and uninvolving. Despite all that the system was doing right, something very important was missing. You'd just discovered the importance of dynamics. You'd have to be comatose to remain still while seated before a properly matched system designed around the Canary CA-330 amplifiers.
Single driver loudspeakers such as the AER equipped Lamhorn 1.8 are a great match for the CA-330 as are my 96 dB efficient Horning Perikles which utilize a Lowther DX-2 as a midrange in conjunction with a more conventional (though proprietary) cone tweeter and dual 10-inch Beyma woofers. Both speakers let the CA-330s work their magic and into such sensitive speakers the CA-330s sound as if they have limitless power reserves. But a lot of my time with the amplifiers has seen them tethered to the Tidal Pianos. At 88 dBs sensitive and with only 26-watts on tap from the Canarys, obviously ultimate scale and dynamics will have to be forsaken—forget about the very most macro of macro dynamics as ultimate loudness is sacrificed. But I'll bet that the majority of readers would be shocked at how little of a compromise I'm making here. Not only am I able to achieve pleasing listening levels, but also there's no sign of strain coming from the speakers or amplifiers and it's a very comfortable and relaxing listen. But in terms of micro-dynamics, the Tidals really allow the CA-330s to strut their stuff.
To hear how such a combination excels at neutrality and transparency, try something like Al Stewarts Year Of the Cat CD (Arista). Hardly an audiophile recording, the bass is a little muddled and it's happily awaiting the CA-330s to strip a way a few more veils from the midrange for a less impeded view. The CA-330 is happy to oblige. The CD is reproduced with as much crystal clarity as I've yet been able to achieve. The soundstage is tall, wide and deep—and that's always something that helps me suspend disbelief. And Stewart's voice is reproduced extraordinarily well. It's just beautifully and naturally done. And into the 96 dB efficient and Lowther based Horning Perikles, the last sprinkle of life retrieved from the recording in the form of an added micro-dynamic spark is the icing on the cake. For sure, I've never experienced such a modernizing of this mediocre and dated recording. I don't think the Canary/Horning combo left anything more of the recording on the shelf.
A few of the bonus tracks from Stevie Ray Vaughn's In Step CD (Epic/Legacy) have become evaluation staples of mine. Riviera Paradise had always been my favorite cut on the disc but there have been added several live cuts to the CD that bring a whole new degree of enjoyment. "Let Me Love You Baby", "Texas Flood" and "Life Without You" are exceptionally well-recorded live tracks. The soundstage is wider and deeper than the studio cuts and there's a lot more rhythmic life to the music. Dynamics are snappier, and everything is more intimate, too. SRV's voice is in the room with me and the sense of acoustic space around him is palpable. But it's the way the CA-330 adds dynamic articulation to both SRV's voice and his guitar that elevates the overall performance to new heights. His voice has as much snap as Christopher Layton's drums and his guitar is absolutely as vivid as it is tonally saturated. The band's presence and locations on stage is as well depicted as is the sense of space surrounding them. In short, the realism imparted by the transparency and dynamic finesse of the CA-330s serve to remove veils and barriers between the music and listener that, perhaps, the listener didn't know were even there. Spatial qualities in the recording are stripped bare revealing dimensionality never associated with the CD. Everything just becomes so much more vivid. And by that I don't mean vivid in the visual sense, I'm talking about a vitality and energy to the music that is more palpable than ever before. There's a sense of verve and agility that comes with it as never before. Everything just springs to life.
In comparative terms, the CA-330s are some of the most linear and most honest amplifiers I've ever used. As compared to the best solid-state I've ever used—the powerful 1000-watt and $16,000 Bryston 28B SST amplifiers—there are some meaningful and interesting differences. First, the Brystons are smoother through the upper-midrange. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is something reasonable people can disagree upon. I know people who never want to be offended by the music and the smoother, the better. Personally, I think that music and the sound of real instruments isn't always polite. Sometimes it can get rude. Sometimes it can get edgy. Such textural diversity brings contrast and emotion to the music and it sounds more real to these ears. If you agree, you'd like the Canarys, if not, you'd prefer the Bryston amps, which in some ways sound more stereotypically tube-like; they're warmer and more tonally saturated. Where the Canary amps are the undisputed winners are in the areas of ultimate transparency, intimacy and where it comes to the retrieval of fine musical detail. They Canary amps move beautifully ahead of the Brystons when it comes to midrange illumination and articulation. As compared to the Carissa—an 845 based SET amplifier from Art Audio—it's all Canary. The 330s are more linear, more honest, and they are more graceful. I like the Carissa; it can be great fun and it's full of personality, particularly into the right speaker it can be endearing as hell. But I've never kidded myself that it's a neutral amplifier and it can't compete with the Canarys in terms of neutrality and linearity. The Carissa is also a very powerful sounding amplifier, considering its 16-watt output, but the CA-330s are easily their match. The Cyber 211 monos from Opera/Consonance are a better match-up with the Canarys. The Cyber 211s are super amps and for the money they're very high-value. But their output of 16-watts doesn't quite measure up to the Canary's almost doubled output of 26. Both amps are very neutral and both are very musical. But the 211 isn't a 300B and it doesn't have quite the crystal clarity and transparency. In the one area where you want the component to completely vanish from consciousness, with the 211, there's just a little more there there. The Canary amps just vanish into the music.
The beautiful Canary CA-330 amplifiers deserve a better lot in life. They deserve a much more prominent place in the hearts and minds of American audiophiles than they currently hold. In the year-and-a-half they've spent in my listening room they've operated without even the most minor of hitches or hiccups. Their musical prowess has acquitted itself time and time again as other very fine amplifiers have come and gone from my room and I can't envision a time when I'd want to be without them—unless I were to trade up to the even more powerful CA-339, that is. When I find myself fantasizing about taking the next step it is indeed moving up to one of Canary's larger amplifiers that captures my imagination. 26-watts is a surprisingly capable output in the right room and with the right speakers. But sometimes, as Scotty would say, I just long for a little more power and the larger Canary amps start looking really good to me. But that's not to denigrate the 26-watts of the CA-330. Prospective buyers will have seen to it that it's enough to drive their speakers and I'm sure many will be pleasantly surprised by just how powerful 26-watts can sound. It's just that in the here and now a little more power to make them copasetic with even more speakers is the only way I can fathom improving upon these amplifiers when it comes to total satisfaction. I think that after seventeen months of ownership and when all the products that have come and gone in ten years of formally evaluating gear are considered, I think that's a heck of a testimonial. John Potis
Canary CA-330 Amplifiers