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Positive Feedback ISSUE 54
as reviewed by John Brazier
I suspect that most readers of this site do not need much of an introduction to Cary Audio. Founded in the late 80's by Dennis Had and his wife, the company first focused on amplifiers and preamplifiers. Over the years, and as the company's products gained market momentum, Cary expanded from its first 800 sq. ft. space to the dedicated 10,000 sq. ft. building where it currently operates in Cary, NC. Early on, Billy Wright joined the firm and worked closely with Dennis to manage growth while maintaining their commitment to the production of high quality and great sounding gear. Today, Mr. Wright is the president of the company.
Years ago, I reviewed one of Cary's first CD players with a tube output stage and I recall it to have had a rich, detailed sound with just the right amount of "emotion" added by the tube output. I also recall that at that time I was doing 90% of my listening thorough an Earmax centered headphone set-up and the detail brought out by the Cary complimented a headphone environment excellently. More recently, I reviewed and purchased the Cary 306 Pro. For the past 2.5 years the Cary has been my reference as both a CD/SACD player as well as a DAC for my Apple, Locus Designs Diverter computer front end. At the time of the 306 Pro review I had a $10,000 front end that shall go "naim-less" (I crafted this section just so I could waste that pun) and was quite satisfied. However, my audio boss lent me his 306 (pre "Pro" version) and I was immediately taken by the completeness of the sound, from the bottom end through to the high frequencies, and the comparative gobs of detail. About half way through my time with the 306 Pro, I placed my then reference digital front end on the market and sold it for enough to fund the purchase of the 306 Pro review sample plus a "refurbished" Apple Macbook (as told in my 306 Pro review).
The point of the forgoing is to (1) express the faith I have in Cary gear and (2) punctuate a bias I may for the company and its products.
How I got to the Cary SLP-05 tube preamp for this review is a part of my audio evolution. I have to say that I have been very happy with the state of my rig for some time now. My most recent addition, and what I thought should have been my last major purchase toward my system, were the Bryston 28B-SST2 mono-block amplifiers. With them, I have been using the extraordinarily neutral Pass Lab X1 as my preamp. But, over time, like any other card-carrying audiophile, I began to wonder what if...? Specifically, what if I brought some tubes into the mix? I had often heard that "tubes" with my speakers, the Verity Audio Parsifal Ovations, were a great pairing. But, as I learned some years ago with a pair of warmish Sonus Fabers mated to a very "tubey" tube integrated, sometimes there can be too much of a good thing.
So, when a fellow reviewer offered me his personal Macintosh C500 preamp, I jumped at the chance to begin my experimentation. Although, I only had the Mac for a few weeks, I knew immediately it was not a good mate with the rest of my gear. I would, however, categorize my time with the Mac C500 as "fun". There was a lot of "sexiness" added to the signal that created a state of aural arousal, but, alas, the morning after was not that enticing.
Yet, with my interest piqued, I contacted Cary, requested a review sample of the SLP-05 and was graciously provided the same. Prior to SLP-05's arrival, I had been listing more and more via the Macbook as a music server and the 306 Pro as a DAC. So much so, that I rarely put a disc in the drawer anymore. However, since its arrival, I have found myself reaching for the actual disc more and more. As I sit right now, I have the John Butler Trio's Sunrise Over the Sea in the disc player, and it sounds fantastic and, with the Cary, so much better than its digital dizygotic twin.
What I am not saying is that SLP-05 has a detrimental effect on the reproduction of music from a server. What I am saying is that the SLP-05 is able to pass through more of the subtle and important information such that the disparity between listening via the Mac and the 306 has been widened. Where I was once of the opinion that the sound from my computer based front-end was only marginally beat out by the 306 Pro directly, this is no longer the case. The Cary preamp is able to bring more of what a CD/SACD has to offer than I thought a preamp could.
For those who may not know, the Cary SLP-05 is a two chassis, tube preamp relying on eight 6SN7 tubes and sits atop the Cary preamp product line. One chassis is a dedicated power supply whereas the other is the control unit. The units are designed and manufactured to sit on top of each other and, if I had the space, that is how I would place them. I have an audio rack custom designed by AudioAV.com for the equipment I had when I ordered it. While the rack is infinitely reconfigurable, I opted to place the control unit directly on top of the power supply and have had no issues by having done so.
As for the technical specifications, I direct you to the Cary Audio website.
Before I get into the review in earnest, some words about the remote. It seems that over the years I have reviewed equipment with all sorts and sizes of remotes, some with the weight and design aesthetic of a brick, and others that would have made a good weapon in a pinch. Often it appeared as though the complexity of a remote's design aesthetic could be correlated directly with the MSRP of said component. With that said, here Cary includes a palm size plastic unit with volume up/down/mute. Functionally it did as it should, albeit with a very narrow off axis range. My quibble is that it is just the right size to get constantly lost around the house, fall between cushions and, possibly, chewed up by a pet. Moreover, it does not accurately represent the quality of the unit it controls. While I also quibble with the combo weapon-remote controls of other companies, it would be nice to have a "hand" sized remote of modest weight that has the required functionally. (Like the remote for the Cary 306 Pro) In the end, not a deal breaker issue at all.
On to the more important aspects of this unit. Once placed in the system, it took perhaps 30 - 40 hours before it sounded its best, which is not bad at all. As I had become accustomed to listening to digital files over the past year, I don't think I had listened to an actual disc for at least a month or two.
Without regard to the source, the SLP-05 is a remarkably neutral preamp, especially considering it is a tube based unit. "Neutrality" is something I most often ascribe to solid state. In fact, my reference Pass Lab X1 is by far the most "neutral" preamp I have ever heard—almost to a fault. I prefer a sense of organic reproduction in my gear, such that "character" introduced by a piece if electronics or a speaker, is not necessarily a bad thing. Tubes being an excellent example. No one I know would deny that tubes introduce a "sonic warmth" to the signal path. Sometimes this warmth is overdone or exaggerated. Whether it is overdone or not is a personal preference and not an objective or measurable standard. What I found with the Cary SLP-05 is a brilliant combination of neutrality mixed with the attributes of tubes.
My first reaction to the Cary was that it was every bit as neutral as the Pass Labs X1 and I struggled to hear the Cary's own signature, assuming there was one. As time moved forward, I found myself reaching more and more for the actual disc vs. the digital file of the same. In doing so the Cary really began to shine and set itself apart. In fact, the pendulum has been swinging back steadily in favor of actual discs in recent weeks.
The Cary adeptly and succinctly allowed all the right details through to the speakers while never sounding "tubey". I cannot say anything I heard was a "revelation," however, I don't ever recall hearing my Verity Audio speakers sounding so good. The SLP-05 has a remarkable way of reproducing the sound without letting its tubes get in the way. On many tracks, I would have never guessed that tubes were in the signal path. On others, such as Mavis Staples' "Have A Little Faith" off the disc of he same name, there was such a sweet element to the vocal track and no perceptible level of this "sweetness" bled over to the bass of drum track. The music was as punchy as you would want it and expect it with a solid state preamp, but the tubes added an element of organic originality heretofore not present in my listening room.
Sound-staging was larger than life and filled my 22 x 23 room handily. A recent find for me was Buckethead's Electric Tears disc, an ethereal, jazz, disc composed and arranged by Buckethead. Not what I expected, but it is a passionate release and the Cary had the notes flying from one side of the room to the other and back again. On Massive Attack's Heligoland there are all sorts of opportunities for one to impress your friends with stereo trickery and, thankfully, its also good music. I found myself so absorbed in the music with its detailed, solid and convincing placement of the musicians that when I opened my eyes I truly felt disoriented to have found myself in my listening room and not some large venue.
Bringing out some of my old standards such as Joan Osborne was also revealing. The Cary SLP-05 allowed more of the music and character of the recording to emanate out of the speakers and fill the room. This is a high end preamp and everything you would expect with a "high end" preamp is present with this unit, there is nothing noticeable lacking. Moreover, it is able to make the best out of a bad situation.
One of the most compelling performances I have ever seen in video form was that of Imogen Heap signing "Blanket" on Jeff Beck's Live at Ronnie Scott's DVD. The cut is not included on the Redbook CD of the same name and the only other place I could find it is an mp3 on Amazon. It was so disappointing to listen to, however, through the Cary it is as enjoyable as it possibly can be as an mp3.
The SLP-05 has all the neutrality one could want in a preamp. It also has just a hint of tube life introduced in all the right places such as the human voice, strings, certain horns and air around the performance. The frequency range is accurately represented without any bumps or holes. It would be my impression that one would have to have a significantly more reveling audio set up than I have to find any shortcomings with the Cary SLP-05.
The Cary SLP-05 is a remarkable, complimentary mix of neutrality and sonic character, where neither attribute overwhelms the other. I want the Cary SLP-05 to be my reference. I like it so much that it raises the performance bar of my set up to a level that makes me want to listen to CDs again. With that said, my wife and I have recently taken in sibling pair of girls as Foster parents, so, life as I once knew it is gone and my financial priorities rearranged. But, if I can figure out how to do it, I will. Highly recommended. John Brazier