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Positive Feedback ISSUE 54
The Neoteric Listener...
Cary Audio's SLI-80 Integrated Amplifier
Five years ago, Graham Abbott wrote the definitive review of the Cary SLI-80 integrated amplifier. Wonderfully complete in its descriptive details of the amp's features and sonic signature, the hardware review (http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue24/cary_sli80.htm) is still essential reading. But when Graham celebrates "the world of tube amplification, in which simpler ideas from the good old days are alive and well—even flourishing," well...things have changed. Nobody's talking about the survival of tubes anymore, they're too busy buying products that use the pricey bulbs in every capacity short of sticking one in Uncle Fester's mouth. There are six figure tube amps in every size and color, and there's no end to budget CD players and DACs stuffed with glass sausages, eastern bred and western priced...
Still, I appreciate that there are those who despise valve amplifiers. You like speed, detail, and power in spades, which isn't what the SLI-80 is after. You don't have time to flit around; you want your music now, fast, and loud. You won't like this amp, or me taking a long time to tell you that, so here's the big game recap: The sound isn't loud enough to blast mines or sharp enough to cut diamonds. This amp makes everything sound bigger, sweeter, and in a larger space. It's well-crafted in its materials and design so that you never feel that the sound is artificial, but there is that expanded dimension that captivates this listener. It doesn't process music files, movies, or protein shakes. It's tubey, dammit, and it's been a star since 1989.
...Apparently, it's tough for an algorithm to mirror the incandescent tube sound, even with all the advances in modern amp design. Some people grumble about bad measurements, but they're probably the same ones looking at the nutrition label before ordering a raspberry dacquoise. While audio critics like to talk about the technology ADHD plaguing the high end audio market, the "resurgence" of vinyl, flea watt amps, and vintage gear illustrates that plenty of folks are as likely to get their listening reference from a crystal set as they are from a crystal ball. Vinyl and tubes stick around because, like it or not, their sonic character is inimitable and many people consider them the chief reference point for "exceptional sound." The tipping point from audio traditionalist to audio avant-garde is more limbo dance than sprinter's finish...for good reason. Nobody likes to get burned by stuff that buys great but wears crappy.
Graham's review was prescient in one aspect, however, in that there will always be some new gizmo that challenges the defiantly established design of the Cary SLI-80. His article fretted about the advent of surround sound and DSP features, but, today, this could just as easily be about automatic tube biasing or asynchronous USB DACs. There are plenty of new toys to entice those smart enough to have a little surplus cash on hand, and nothing has changed the game like the expansion of computer audio. No surprise, plenty of amp manufacturers are jettisoning old parts (and partners) in the frenzied struggle to help customers turn a computer into God's jukebox. Cool running Class D amps loaded with data chips are just the latest challengers for the Cary's market share, so the essential question looms as large today as it did in Graham's original review: With all the audio spinning tops available today, is purchasing a Cary SLI-80 still a smart choice?
At least, if the several months of listening pleasure that I've enjoyed are any indication, then this tank-solid mass of metal, glass, and wire delivers what many people say they want: gratifying sound. Graham's original review lauded the Cary for its "almost fulsome tonal beauty that, once heard, makes a lot of solid-state gear sound lean and threadbare." So what does all that beauty do for me in my listening chair? For one, it means that when I'm playing a live 1970 recording of the Grateful Dead's "Brokedown Palace," the opening strums of Bob Weir's acoustic guitar convey the air and wood emanating from the sound hole and not just the metallic vibrations of the strings. It means that Mississippi Fred McDowell's ascending vocal shouts in "Write Me a Few Lines" (which can really break off in your ear if not presented right) pull you out of your chair, and not in a bad way. While we're at it, fulsome tonal beauty also describes the dark alley reverb that envelops every plucked bottom string coming out of McDowell's Western Auto solid state guitar amplifier. It means the exploratory saxophone riff that starts off "El Cahon" from Stan Getz's Anniversary album has all of the pitch and spit you'd expect from such a powerful horn played by a consummate artist, a sound that seems to emanate from the lungs and not a digital chip.
Graham's original review took pains to explain the sound produced by the classic tube design of the SLI-80, but five years later, even neoteric listeners like me know the tale of the tape for tube vs. solid state at this price point. For those who don't, just know that tube amps can be fussier to maintain, make a little more noise, and rarely deliver as much bass as their solid state buddies; but the trade off is better midrange presentation, larger and more capacious soundstage, and an absence of high frequency stridency. Generalizations all around, of course, but so the campfire stories go...
The Cary SLI-80 definitely has a different sound than, say, the Virtue Audio M901 I've been using (even with the tube buffer engaged). The M901, the Audioengine N22, and the Peachtreee iDecco all have a decidedly modern sound--fast, detailed, and extraordinarily clean. None of them are remotely lean or harsh, and they are all wonderful to listen to, but they all share a similar sonic family. The Cary provides much greater sense of separation between instruments and voices, and makes those instruments and voices seem to be larger than...well, maybe not life, but certainly larger than I'd heard them in my room before. The SLI-80 costs much more than any of those other amps, of course, but the difference isn't a matter of degree; it's more a difference in kind. Both the Cary and the solid state amps sound great, but you're definitely faced with two distinct options. Before you think that this amp is better suited for mixed drinks than a mixing board, I should mention that what this amp really reminds of is listening to freshly recorded tracks being played in a studio through a big tube console, which is good enough for me.
Good enough for Graham, too, and that shouldn't be any surprise, because the amp in my living room is virtually the same in every detail as the Cary amp he listened to five years ago. It still features four KT88 output tubes, the weight and dimensions remain unchanged, and it still puts out 80 watts per channel in Class A/B ultra-linear mode and 40 watts per channel in Class A triode mode The price has moved up, of course, to the current $3495, but even that can managed with a little shopping to approximate the three grand quoted in the original review. Of course, tube rollers will need to pay the premium, and there are high end options available for those who don't mind paying for increased performance.
Paired with my Nola Boxer monitors, the Cary amp seems to pump up every note and molecule of space in the recording. Listening to Cape Verdean musician Tito Paris's "Tchapeu Di Padja," from his Acustico album, I was mesmerized by the mélange of woodwinds, percussion instruments, piano, guitar, and, of course, Tito's captivating voice, in no small part because the Cary combined with the Boxers to produce absolutely riveting soundstaging. The depth, space, and width was grand enough to momentarily convince me that I was in somebody else's listening room, until I looked up and saw the shack's walls squinting at me and closing in fast.
Substituting the Boxers for the new Zu Soul Superfly speakers (review pending); the Cary continued its magic act of producing a scintillating presentation of all music genres. Ray LaMontaigne's "God Willing and the Creek Don't Rise" has all of the things that gets my biscuits a fryin': pedal steel, untuned drums, and a raspy former kindergarten teacher singing a mournful folk ballad full of longing. The recording hinges on the full representation of instrument separation and that rich tonal warmth Graham talked about, and this is a tune the Cary was born to sing. High harmonics on the guitar never get lost in the overtones of the pedal steel and the drums reverberate from the back of the soundstage like they should. The timbre and depth of LaMontaigne's voice clearly benefits from the full midrange treatment produced by the Cary/Zu combination, because it's not hard to see that a less fortuitous pairing could reduce his voice to the level of poor man's Bob Seeger.
In a folky mood, I put on CSN&Y's "Carry On" because I felt like getting my freak flag on, turned it up rrrreaally loud, and blasted the clarion call of the Woodstock Nation. No righteous hippies or groovy dudes showed up (thank Mother Earth) but the middle break where all four singers harmonize "love is coming to us all" was so convincingly conveyed that I almost believed it. Hearing those iconic rock voices through the dynamic, resolving Zu speakers made me marvel at how important that delicate touch of warmth and added dimension can be to the overall listening experience. Look, I'm a disillusioned child of the cynical 70s and caustic 80s—my Dylan is Keith Morris—but the tubular starshine of the Cary SLI-80 made me almost want to get back to the garden. Almost. In addition to reinforcing how the Cary can dish up luxurious vocals, guitars, and other rock n' roll paraphernalia, the sheer third-row volume level of the amp declared that there's plenty of beast encaged in all of those KT-88s. This last point was reinforced with excruciating conviction when I foolishly switched to Moby's "Alice" without first turning hippy volume back to 2011 levels. Be careful with that selector switch, Bobby, not everything is recorded at the same level!
After extricating my head from the drywall where I'd been blasted, I decided to stop messing about and tackle the nettlesome bass issues that Graham had mentioned in his earlier review. To be fair, what he really said is that the Cary works better with high efficiency speakers, especially in conveying the lower frequencies. The Boxers at 90db sensitivity and the Zu Soul Superfly at 101dB efficiency(!) were clearly not going to provide any way to explore this theory, so I can't say how lower efficiency speakers would perform with the SLI-80. I suspect that both of these speakers were well matched with the Cary, and that Graham might be right about less responsive speakers being bogged down, but I'll have to take his word on that. I did disagree with Graham on one point, in that, paired with the Soul Superflys, I much preferred the Ultra-linear configuration. He's right, the triode setting did sound sweeter (especially with the Boxers) but the Zus are wide open, responsive and tempered well enough by tubes already, and I liked how the Ultra-linear mode increased the dynamics of the overall presentation.
The Propellerheads "Spy Break!" is exactly the sort of electronic noise-krieg that quickly sorts out the sissies. If the Cary was going to wimp out, this was the time. True, the Zus take to this genre of music like a band to a beer, but the Cary should be given full credit for moving plenty of air. Although some people judge bottom frequencies with their solar plexus, what I heard from the SLI-80 suits me better than some of those Megatron transformer amps you see on skids at audio shows. Getting back to the Stan Getz recording, the lengthy stand up bass solo on "Stan's Blues" proves instructive in describing the SLI-80s sound. While the Cary may not have delivered the solo with the precision of the Virtue Audio M901 (not exactly a bellower in its own right), the sound of the bass from the Cary was more organic and fit within the scheme of the song more effectively.
Earlier in this review, I mentioned that the SLI-80 provided gratifying sound. Since the Cary amp's product launch in 1989, there are literally tons of products that attempt to shape, cajole, blend, and extract a sound that fills the room with full, rich music. I also suspect that there have been plenty of folks in the interim who have gone round and round buying products and tweaks, only to realize that this is the sound they were looking for all along. When all is said and done, the Cary SLI-80 is a classic tube integrated sound that must be heard by anyone looking for an amp in this price range. Highly recommended.
Cary SLI-80 Integrated Amp