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Positive Feedback ISSUE 33
september/october 2007


cary audio

SLP-03 tube preamplifier

as reviewed by Robert H. Levi





Avalon Eidolon and REL Stadium III subwoofer.

E.A.R. 324 phono preamplifier, E.A.R. 890 amplifiers (ran as monos), NuForce Reference 9 SE V2 amplifiers, E.A.R. 912 preamplifier, and an E.A.R. 834L Tube Line Stage.

VPI Scout/JMW 9 tonearm, VPI SDS Controller, ZYX R-1000 Airy 3-XSB phono cartridge, E.A.R. Acute CD player, ModWright Sony 9100 Player with tube power supply, ModWright Sony 9100ES with Signature Truth Modifications, Mod/Bybee Filters and Revelation Cryo Silver Umbilical. Alesis Masterlink 24/96 Recorder/Playback Deck, and the Benchmark DAC 1 revised. Grado Statement Phono Cartridge. Pioneer DVL 919 LD/DVD Player, and a Marantz DV8400 DVD/SACD/CD player. Magnum Dynalab MD-108 Reference Tuner, Marantz 10B FM Tuner, Day Sequerra Reference FM1 Tuner, and Scott 350B FM Stereo Tuner, AQ 7500 FM Antenna, Stax 7t Electrostatic headphones, Grado Reference 1 headphones, and a Grado headphone amplifier.

Kubala-Sosna Emotion, Harmonic Technology CyberLight, Harmonic Technology Magic 2, Dual-Connect interconnects, Dynamic Design THB Nebula, Soundstring, Kimber Select balanced, Kimber TAK phono AG, Kimber Hero balanced and single ended interconnects, and Acoustic Zen Silver Reference II balanced interconnects. Kimber D-60 Digital Interconnects. Kimber Select 3038 Silver, Kubala-Sosna Emotion, and Harmonic Technology Magic Reference Silver speaker cables. Kimber Palladian, Tara RSC and Decade, Tice, Soundstring, and Kubala-Sosna Emotion AC power cords.

Monster Reference 350 Mark II v2 Power Conditioner, World Power Power Wing, Tice Clock, and Audio Prism Quiet Line IIs. Cable Cooker 2.5, Winds Stylus Pressure Gage, Bedini Ultra Clarifier, VPI Record Cleaning Machine 16.5. Audio Magic's Quantum Physics Noise Disrupters.


It's a wolf in sheep's clothing. I just had no idea that $2400 could buy you this much audiophile performance, but here it is! With a well groomed, clean look about it—which rather obscures its phenomenal flexibility and musicality—it's no joke when I say it's one of the best deals in tube preamps I've heard. With balanced dual mono innards, single-ended and balanced connectors, premium parts galore, and remote flexibility that'll entertain any technocrat, the Cary performs with power and finesse equaling preamps priced at nearly double its low cost, and maybe even more if you work at it. Dennis Had has once again redefined high value in a way that will allow new audiophiles a chance to enter the big leagues. Way to go Cary!

With no other changes, I merely replaced my reference preamp with the Cary. I left in my favorite Kubala-Sosna Emotion Interconnects, one meter of which costs more than the Cary preamp. I did this to make minimal changes initially, but discovered the Cary merited this royal treatment. I used a Kubala-Sosna Emotion Power Cord on the Cary as well. I ran it full balanced to take advantage of that great balanced circuit.

An Excellent Preamp Played Stock

The Cary was already broken in when it arrived, but stock right out of the box it sounded very good. Lots of detail, lots of layering, a generous sound stage, very good imaging, very quiet, and dynamic—the Cary rang my bell. I listened to reference CDs and SACDs as fast as I could toss them in the E.A.R. Acute CD Player. It sounded very natural, accurate, and quick. It did not fatigue your ears on long listening sessions. The 03 has a very suave musical sound.

On the other hand, it did have some small flaws. I was used to an even bigger soundstage, a bit less grain, more punch, tighter focus, and more overall textural layering and definition as in my $11,000 reference. But hey, at $2400 the Cary was a minor miracle. I had to listen closely to detect its shortcomings. If the price had been  $4-5000, I'd have been pleased at its price to performance ratio. It sounds right: music sounds like music should sound, and it works flawlessly.

There's a lot to like about the 03. It makes being an audiophile fun in its set and forget simplicity. It's so much more harmonious than anything in its price range that's solid state by a country mile. It is as good a reason to insist on a tube linestage as I know of on the planet earth.

Ok you say, so where's the beef? How can it be even better? Just pop the preamp's top plus do a few other tweaks. I'll explain.

First, put the Cary on a good base. I like the Townshend, Ginko, or Grand Prix bases. Next, use cables and a power cord that you'd use on a top notch preamp. No kidding, don't skimp on the ancillaries. Then, experiment with the 4 tubes. It comes with good quality ElectroHarmonix 12AU7 tubes on board. These are about the best, new, small signal tubes around. I am not surprised at all that Cary has chosen them as they are readily available, reliable, and sound very good. Even so, this circuit design is extremely tube sensitive, so pull them out. I used the very available RCA NOS 5814As from 1960 that retail for about $40 each—they sound powerful and very neutral. Mullards would be lovely and even sweeter and warmer. Maybe a combination of the two would be just right with your speakers. There are plenty of these outstanding NOS 12AU7s and their equivalents around; the prices are still low and attractive for this tube type. Kevin Deal at Upscale Audio in Upland, CA has lots of stock and can give you numerous choices.

How Excellent Just Got Better

Plug in the NOS tubes and replace the very heavy steel cover. Finally, place a Quantum Physics Noise Disrupter [the large size] in the front and center of the top, and voila, big improvements! Oh my, my, the definition has increased! The soundstage has widened and the sense of "you are there" is, well, there. Musical drive becomes more powerful as the bass gains added sock and micro/macro dynamics become much faster and bolder. Depth and ambience have increased as backgrounds are now jet black. These differences are anything but subtle. The moment I saw this exceptional uncluttered dual mono circuit layout combined with the most common small signal tubes around, I knew that tube rolling would benefit this preamp. Different brands of NOS tubes will bring you different benefits. Oh yes, switch off the fluorescent display. The preamp gets even smoother.

I am biased when it comes to a great preamp design. I like a piece of tube gear to contain readily available tube types like the 03. I like the gear to look like normal gear. I want the tubes encased in steel for shielding. Exposed tubes act like sails in the acoustic wind. No way. Also, I like one chassis. You don't need 2 chassis's. That's may be an invitation for RF and EMI. I like a sense of quality and brick like construction. I lifted the lid on the Cary and it took both hands, the 03 weighs 25 lbs. It's that heavy! I like balanced, dual mono circuits. The very best preamps have it and it's finally trickled down to the Cary SLP-03.

Just wait 'til you hear your best discs on the tube rolled Cary. It's lots of fun to experiment. Sure you can stay with the stock unit as it's worth every penny of its low cost. But just a bit of attention and added investment, and you'll gain so very, very much more. We all know that real audiophiles have to work for it!

A nice, informative owner's manual is included with the preamp. I mention this because my reference preamp did not include one. I love the included headphone jack on the preamp face that is tube powered. Plus, the 03 comes with 2 remotes. Its ergonomics are very good indeed.

In Summary

The Cary SLP-03 Balanced Stereo Vacuum Tube preamp is a wonder of trickle down sophistication. With fine definition, flexibility, and smooth sound, it won't disappoint you right out of the box. Maximize the 03 with the best ancillaries and tube roll the 4 tubes on board with RCA or Mullard NOS brands and you will come much closer to the top audiophile performance which preamps costing much more than the Cary can achieve. Tube rolled or not, the Cary is one of the best values in preamps I've yet encountered. Even audiophiles on a tight budget will now be able to afford outstanding preamplifier performance. With the money you'll save on the Cary, you'll be able to upgrade the rest of your system. The Cary SLP-03 is a winner. Recommended to the max! Robert H. Levi

SLP-03 preamplifier
Retail: $2400

Cary Audio
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