ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

April 15, 2003

Cary Audio CD-306/200 CD Transport/Processor

I can’t recall ever reading an audio product review that began with a discussion about a remote control; I know for sure I never wrote one or even dreamed of writing one. Until now. My first reaction upon liberating the Cary CD-306/200 from its packaging was: "Damn, this is the heaviest remote control I’ve ever come across." Audio reviewers are often dazzled by the build of components, comparing them to tanks, brick outhouses, and similar standards of sturdy durability. But remotes? Those little featherweight things with buttons that keep you from burning the two or three calories it takes to move from the easy chair to the system rack?

This remote, however, is a neatly laid-out hunk of aluminum, with all the usual number and function buttons, including remote drawer opening and closing, and input selectors. And it’s made even neater by endowing several of the buttons with dual-function capabilities controlled by a function switch. In one position the switch controls the function as indicated by the button’s symbol; slide the switch to its other position and control the function of the printed word above or below the buttons. It’s all clearly mapped out in the manual, but it does take some getting used to. Even after months of playing with the CD-306/200 I’ll occasionally forget to check the position of the function switch and activate an empty input instead of fast-forwarding the disc. Still, better the occasional flub than a remote festooned with rarely used buttons.

Cary Audio calls the CD-306/200 a transport/processor -- likely due to the number of digital inputs and outputs it has -- but most will probably consider it simply a CD player, as I do. That said, I’ll cut to the chase and tell you that the Cary CD-306/200 is one of the best single-box CD players I have ever had in my system, as good as my comparably priced Metronome T-20 Signature transport and C-20 Signature DAC, and better than most other two-piece units I’ve heard, including some that sell for multiples of Cary’s $5000-USD price tag.

It looks and feels serious, too. Weighing in at 35 pounds the CD-306/200 has dual C-core power transformers and fully regulated power supplies; inputs for coax, AES/EBU, and TosLink; HDCD decoding; Burr-Brown DACs; and 24-bit upsampling to either 96kHz or 192kHz. The aluminum loading tray opens with a reassuring woosh and closes with an equally reassuring clunk. The transport mechanism is a Philips CDM-12 and the DAC section can process Red Book CDs, HDCD, DAT, MP3, CD-R, and CD-RW. It does not work with other formats in the contemporary alphabet soup of choices like SACD and DVD-A. The CD-306/200’s appearance is conventional: a black box with drawer, display window, buttons that duplicate the critical ones on the remote, and LEDs that signal which of those choices are currently operational. In the typical Cary manner, there are more lights than are needed but that’s neither here nor there -- some people like it, some don’t. My only beef is that these aging eyes would prefer a less-cluttered display window -- for example, who needs disc-track boxes that flash as the track is being played, especially since the track number is already displayed?

Before getting into the meat-and-potatoes, specifically the only one that really counts -- how does it sound? -- let me briefly lay out my listening conditions and preferences. Since this is my first Ultra Audio review, I think it necessary to include a few words on this. The only way to realistically evaluate what a reviewer says is to weigh his room setup and listening priorities against your own. I know audiophiles whose listening rooms are little more than shoeboxes, so while I occasionally dip into nearfield listening, I can’t really apply their findings to my own 19’ x 22’ listening-room experience. My musical tastes run to classical music of all eras including historical mono reissues that date back to the dawn of the last century; jazz, blues, and some forms of "world music." What I look for in home reproduction is to come as close as I can to the real thing, and by that I mean un-amplified music in a good hall. Since I go to over 50 live concerts a year, mostly in Carnegie Hall, I know that this is, practically speaking, an unattainable goal. Hence the phrase "as close as I can," which leaves room for the limitations of technological reality and economic constraints.

My reference system consists of the Forsell Air Reference turntable, Koetsu Rosewood II cartridge, Plinius M14 phono preamplifier, Metronome T-20 Signature transport, C-20 Signature DAC; Wyetech Labs Opal line-stage preamplifier; Jadis JA 80 amplifiers; Von Schweikert VR-4 Gen. II speakers; Nordost, Siltech, and Harmonic Technology interconnects, cables, and AC cords; and the usual audiophile closet full of accessories.

My priorities in assessing recordings and equipment focus on tonal accuracy, realistic dynamics -- especially the microdynamics that bring music to life -- and "image density," or the depth of the sonic image produced by an instrument or singer. Sometimes I hear that called "presence," but it’s more three-dimensional than that; I’m thinking here of the roundness of a violin’s tone or the body of a singer rendered unmistakable when things are just right. I’m especially sensitive to treble glare and upper-frequency harshness, which can be enough to consign recordings and audio equipment that exhibit such anomalies to the furthest reaches of Hell in my book. Finally, I’m biased toward tubes, but not dogmatic about it, since some of the finest electronics I’ve heard have been solid-state designs.

On to the music: The CD-306/200 takes about 100 hours to fully break-in. I gave it a good deal more than that, starting with casual listening, then serious listening, then the kind of serious listening that’s really work - note-taking, going back and forth to compare with other players, switching cables, and all the other things some people (not me) regard as fun. I started out impressed with how well the Cary reproduced music; I ended believing it to be one of the best CD players on the market.

A prime example of its excellence is its handling of dynamics. I know audiophiles who, on attending a live orchestral event, are shocked that the dynamic spread is more limited than on their home systems where loud passages shake the walls and quiet ones are barely audible. In the real world, the spread isn’t as pronounced; pianissimo passages are clearly heard with body and firmness. The big climaxes bloom and, in a good hall, have room to expand. The CD-306/200 excels in approaching that real-world experience.

Whenever I put a new piece of equipment into my system I play the "Clerks" track from Schnittke’s Gogol Suite [Pope Music 1007] on the now sadly defunct Pope label. This opens with quiet doodling in the woodwinds, then a harpsichord in the rear of the stage joins in at even quieter levels, then the full orchestra explodes with a massive fortissimo. Later on, a piano comes in on the left and there’s a short piano-harpsichord duet -- a real test of microdynamics and system resolution. Throw in some powerful brass braying, wailing treble percussion instruments, and heavy tympani poundings, and it’s the ultimate test for transient response as well as for macro and microdynamics. The CD-306/200 came through with flying colors. It gave me more of the sense of air moving when tympanis were walloped hard, more of that "ping" when xylophones and triangles were struck. Further, while the big climaxes were impressive in their transparency and bloom, the quiet passages were detailed, firm, and in correct dynamic relation to louder ones.

This is also a good track for judging depth of field and image placement since the piano position is set back at the left while the harpsichord is dead center and still further back. Some equipment shoves both instruments forward, while some exaggerate the depth, and others don’t quite manage the layering that exposes the degree to which each of the instruments is placed to the rear. The Cary gets it right, if without quite the degree of specificity I’ve sometimes heard. On other discs, for example, the CD-306/200 doesn’t "see" quite as deeply into the stage as some other players. Nothing too serious, but a chorus or last-row brass section will be a little bit more forward than they should be. Perhaps that’s the price for a wider soundstage and a more immediate, up-front overall presentation. If so, it’s a tradeoff I’m more than happy to make.

Another old standby is Robert Shaw’s performance of the Berlioz: Requiem [Telarc CD 80109]. When I first got this recording I had a solid-state-based system not too far above entry level for high-end gear. In the "Sanctus," you can hear lightly struck cymbals way back in the rear of the hall behind the tenor solo. With my old gear, I couldn’t make out what was going on back there; it sounded like it might be a chair tipped over backstage, just a distant but repeated indistinct sound. With every change in my system over the years, it has become more and more obvious that that vague sound is, in fact, shimmering cymbals. By now, most good equipment I’ve heard resolves that musically telling detail, and the Cary does it as well as any.

I turned to Maxim Vengerov’s new EMI recording of Ysaye: Six Violin Sonatas Op 27 [EMI 57384] to test the CD-306/200’s handling of solo instrumental microdynamics and to gauge my own aversion to the nastiness many CD players give to the violin’s mid-treble on this recording. Again, the Cary passed the test. I’d been reviewing another, albeit much cheaper CD player at the time and also wanted to check whether the piercing high notes and unclear image placement I was hearing were the results of that player’s deficiencies or the recording engineer’s microphone techniques. The Cary proved I was listening to an excellent recording. It didn’t smooth out the treble at all -- the bite in Vengerov’s upper register was the natural sound you hear from a violin at close range and not at all harsh or glaring. And there was also none of that other player’s moments of locating high notes off-center.

Similar excellent results were heard when I played the JVC XRCD disc of the Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D Minor [JVCXR 0223], a remastered Mohr-Layton RCA shaded dog that, like other JVC licensed reissues I’ve heard, is as good as or better than the hallowed LPs. Some of the key weapons in Heifetz’s arsenal were his extraordinary range of microdynamics -- the subtle inflections of which he was capable and which are exceedingly difficult to reproduce through an audio system, and a tonal range that swept from intense, slightly edgy, high notes down to a rich, cello-like bottom range wrapped in velvet. Not only did the Cary impress by vividly reproducing Heifetz’s tonal subtleties and nuanced playing, but I also found myself listening more closely to the orchestral part than I had before. Easily overlooked magical moments like the scurrying strings underneath dancing woodwind figures at around four-and-a-half minutes into the first movement, and the tonal purity and realism of the winds at the start of the Adagio, were enthralling.

Here, too, the Cary’s ability to throw a wide, realistic soundstage impressed. On most orchestral recordings, violin sections tend to mass together around center left; the CD-306/200 unglued them so that they stretched from center to slightly beyond the left speaker. That’s the way they sit and sound in a concert and the way they should sound in a home system.

That led me to another favorite orchestral test disc, Reference Recordings’ Mephisto & Co. [Reference Recordings RR-82], a sensationally recorded collection of short showpieces with Eiji Oue leading the Minnesota Orchestra. Here, the Cary strutted its ability to project details realistically. It captured the sparkle of plucked harps, and projected a deep, powerful bass. I hate falling back on superlatives, but the CD-306/200’s bottom extension is the best I’ve ever encountered, not only in its frequency response, but also in its sensitivity to changes of pitch and dynamics. One example was in "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice" when the bass drum is used to support orchestral climaxes. On most systems you either don’t hear it, or all you get is a faint consciousness of a low rumble. With the Cary I could hear a firm bass drum presence that was never unnaturally pulled out of the full orchestral picture; it was there, solid and fully perceptible, the way it is in a concert hall.

I played the CD layer of several SACD discs on the Cary, and didn't miss the much-ballyhooed supposed virtues of the new format in the least. That held for a slew of orchestral discs, and on jazz and blues the CD-306/200 demonstrated that it can rock with the best. Telarc’s Come On In This House [Telarc CD-83395], a superbly recorded blues disc featuring Junior Wells, had tremendous drive and presence. Wells’ moaning, cutting voice was right there in the room with me and the differences among the various slide guitars used by his guest accompanists were clearly audible. The rhythms were downright infectious. Tracks like "Why Are People Like That" had a slam and energy lesser players can slur over and blur.

Upsampling is "in" these days and I found it marginally useful on most discs, though on the best-recorded CDs it didn’t add much. Generally, upsampling to both 24/96 and 24/192 added a bit of air around the instruments. I found the feature nice to have, useful occasionally, but not critical. Since it helped some discs and didn’t harm the rest, I wound up routinely using one of the two upsampling modes.

It’s hard to characterize the overall nature of the Cary’s sound. "Neutrality" is an overused word that’s often applied to overly analytic-sounding gear. And "warm" is about as overused in the other direction, too often implying the kind of thick sound that obscures details and overlays the music with goo. But I felt the CD-306/200 eminently neutral in the best sense of the word, free from the colorations that can tip the sound of a piece of equipment too far in either direction. It was also neutral in the sense that it seems to play back whatever it’s fed -- so if you put on one of those horrendous early CDs, the Cary won’t make it sound better than it is. I also felt it warm in the best sense of that word too, even throughout the sound spectrum, yet giving full value to the kind of warmth we experience from the sound of real instruments and voices.

I could go on with specifics about dozens of discs I listened to hypercritically, but it’s enough to say that the CD-306/200 delivered satisfaction on all of them. It didn’t matter whether a disc was orchestral, chamber, solo, vocal, or jazz -- in each instance I found that the Cary was musically involving and that I could connect emotionally with it. Best of all, when I put the pen and notebook down and just listened for enjoyment, I never experienced listening fatigue or impatience other than when deciding which disc to put on next. This, especially when listening to CDs, is what I only get from the best equipment. The Cary has sheer musicality in the way it lets the music grab you, and that is my ultimate accolade to a piece of audio gear. When you come across equipment that can do what the Cary does, you don't want it to leave your system.

…Dan Davis

Cary Audio Design CD-306/200 CD Transport/Processor
Price: $5000 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.

Cary Audio Design
1020 Goodworth Drive
Apex, N.C. 27539
Phone: (919) 355-0010
Fax: (919) 355-0013

E-mail: info@caryaudio.com  
Website: www.caryaudio.com 


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