REVIEW: CARY AUDIO SLP-05 PREAMPLIFIER & CAD-120S MKII POWER AMPLIFIER

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by Peter Familari

16th June, 2018

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REVIEW: CARY AUDIO SLP-05 PREAMPLIFIER & CAD-120S MKII POWER AMPLIFIER

Cary Audio is a music lover's best-friend. Taken separately or as a combination, the sheer musicality and vibrancy of these Cary components signals that they’re serious, high-end models.

Cary Audio

SLP-05 Valve Preamplifier ($15,000 RRP)

CAD-120S MkII Valve Power Amplifier ($9,999 RRP)

Cary Audio is an elite US audio video brand that has mostly flown under the audiophile radar, until now.

In the land of the Southern Cross, Cary Audio has not had the exposure it deserves for mostly historical and economic reasons.

The previous distributor was a Melbourne based Hi-Fi retailer and a very good one. But while he built up a sizable customer base for Cary Audio in Melbourne, the brand did not get the national audio media exposure it warranted.

I can’t recall ever receiving a press release about any new Cary Audio model in decades. Thanks to newly appointed distributor Convoy International, a distribution heavyweight who also handles NAD, JBL, Mark Levinson, Revel, Bluesound, Music Hall, PSB Speakers and IsoAcoustics, that's about to change.

It also helps that Geoff Matthews, Convoy’s CEO is a long time, fully paid-up member of the Cary Audio fan club. Matthews has run with Cary components in his hi-fi system for decades.

After hearing Cary Audio’s SLP-05 Valve Preamplifier and CAD-120S MkII Valve Power Amplifier in my audio system, I concur: taken separately or as a combination, the sheer musicality and vibrancy of these Cary components signals that they’re serious, high-end models.

What makes it even more sweeter is they’re both priced much lower than comparatively credentialed models from other elite brands.

You’ll pay $14,999 to take an SLP-05 home and another $9999 to add the CAD-120S MkII to your system.

The Cary SLP-05 preamplifier has an expansive and liquid sound and the CAD-120S MkII power amp is a match made in musical nirvana for the preamp.

It’s also an amp that thanks to its output power will drive just about any loudspeaker and sound divine whether it’s driven thunderingly loud or just cruising.

And since you’re asking, the CAD-120S MkII is rated at 60 watts per channel in Triode mode and 120 watts per channel in ultra-linear mode driving an 8ohm speaker load.

Since you’re also bound to ask, let me save you the bother and share with you that I preferred the incisiveness of its ultra-linear mode, but was smitten by the sweetness and delicacy of its triode performance.

In any case, you can switch between modes on the fly via a switch on the front panel, and trust me, you’ll be glad the designers at Cary Audio provide this option.

Factor into this buying equation that Cary Audio Pre and Power amps are the equal of comparative models from Audio Research and McIntosh, and you can draw your own conclusions.

Mine suggest Cary Audio tube pre and power amps are terrific bargains and more controversially, that Cary Audio competes rather beautifully in the audio sector usually dominated by the big US brands.

The thing is, Cary Audio owners keep their gear forever and when they upgrade, they buy other models further up the range.

The pairing of the two Cary products with a Max Richter CD called The Blue Notebooks gave me the reason why owners seldom switch to other highly rated brands.

On a Melbourne winter’s night where the temperature dipped to 2 degrees announcing winter had arrived with an impressive vindictiveness, the pure, smooth, beguiling sound of the Cary Audio duo was like a gentle flow of warm air over the entire body, like a cup of creamy, sweet hot chocolate savoured on a spitefully cold night.

The orange-tinted glow of the exposed valves of this endearing pre and power amp was as mesmerising as looking at a city, any city at night.

An experience that allows the imagination to soar unbounded by everyday cares and concerns.

As my normal stress level declined, I began to relax into the music that was blessing my room with its grace, generosity and creativity. I allowed my notebook and fountain pen to drop to the floor.

Days later, when my critical faculties returned, I thought about this sublime moment and why an audio system can have the grace and majesty to transcend time.

I wanted to hold the experience tightly to surgically explore its boundaries, all the better to find the source of its magic and share it with others.

Hopeless, really.

Moments such as these occur outside of time. Beyond the direct experience, all that remains is a time-bound recollection that’s sadly, simply a pale imitation of the original moment.

That’s the thing about truly great audio components. We know intrinsically that they provide a sound that’s way out of the ordinary, much better than the merely good components. We just don’t know why.

Sharing this insight using the jargon we currently use to describe audio gear is simply an assault on a greater truth called, beauty.

Allow me to digress.

Why do we persist using hollow concepts the likes of “imaging”, “soundstage”, “transparency”, “neutrality” and all the other shallow baggage of latter-day audio language when we know intuitively, they don’t even come close to capturing what is essentially the most personal of aesthetic experiences?

We persist with an out-dated, hollow audio language because we’ve inherited the revolutionary ideology of the 70s reviewers.

The Exact Reviewers OF The 60s And The 70s Audio Revolutionaries

Pity the poor audio consumer of the 60’s. Pity indeed, because they didn’t stand a chance in an audio scene populated by an audio press full of reviewers I like to call, The "Exact" people.

Open a copy of the US magazine called Stereo Review or indeed any issue of the UK’s esteemed, Gramophone in the 1960s and what passed for an audio review was literally a dissertation on a component’s measurements.

The ideology of the era equated the merit of any audio gear by its laboratory specifications. By ideology, I simply mean a system of ideas and beliefs.

Components with impeccable specs were deemed kosher and worthy of buying. Those that didn’t pass this numbers muster were given a big fail.

The reviewers of the 60s, on both sides of the Atlantic, were big on numbers. They never tired talking about distortion, dynamic range, signal to noise ratio and things like wow and flutter.

If they bothered to listen to components, if at all, this was always an after-the-specs, painfully short description that simply assumed components that measured well automatically sounded good, so why bother with tiresome subjective listening sessions?

Stereo Review’s most important reviewer was an electrical engineer who worshipped at the altar of exact measurements.

After putting a review component through a series of tests, he’d finally play the component on a system in his basement that included a pair of Bose 901 loudspeakers.

The listening clearly wasn’t a major consideration and it was usually dismissed in a couple of paragraphs. As for consumers having any input via personal auditions in stores or at home, well what a far-fetched notion that would have been, if it existed as a unified approach to buying audio.

No, consumers were expected to be passive and buy their gear by the numbers. Logically, if the specs approach to audio was indeed the path to audio’s holy ground, all that would have been required to sort through products and models, were brochures and to hell with listening.

Naturally, the “exact” reviewing cabal had to expect a backlash. Though none saw it coming, when the pushback arrived it was devastating and a complete victory.

The subjectivists were reviewers who felt that audio components that measured the same could, and often did sound vastly different.

Central to their ideology was the listening experience. Their credo, which is still mandatory today, is one that believes the only route to assessing the sound of a component is to insert it into a reference system and pressing “play” on the signal source.

The magazines that fostered the new audio revolutionaries in the mid-70s were the UK magazines, Practical Hi-Fi and Hi-Fi Answers. In the US, the subjectivist audio magazine was called, Stereophile.

It was this trio of magazines that paved the way for periodicals including The Absolute Sound. Publications that understand why specs are important, but why listening to audio components is vital to an understanding of a product’s place in the audio sun, or not.

By the early 80s, the “exact” reviewers in the US and the UK were routed, although a few incorrigibles still lurked in the colonies.

The subjectivists developed a new audio language and it’s the one largely still used today to describe a component’s sound. Terms dear to the subjectivist heart are the well-worn ones such as “transparency”, “timing” and “imaging” and all the other concepts that are still useful today.

Some are truly insightful. “Synergy” for example, which is the idea that a great sounding system has parts that gel so well together they create a quality that’s greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Measurements thrashed to an inch of their lives, couldn’t in isolation help you predict which combination of components would have synergy.

The premise was simply “suck it and see”. Its importance was a central plank in a Hi-Fi store’s approach to audio, back in the day when home auditions were the overriding feature of the audio scene.

Leon Trotsky was right to talk about the “permanent revolution” because the revolutionary subjectivists of the 70s are now today’s reviewing establishment and one whose orthodoxy is being challenged.

An entirely new way of referencing the sound of components within the context of an audio review is slowly emerging. This approach uses the language of the 70s but crucially places humility as its central concept.

Humility, because it shares the insight that the sound of the great components can only be partially described and explained, but it can’t be fully defined because the definition and reasoning comes after the event of the real experience.

The best reviewers know this. Which is why in the course of a review of outstanding components, they drop the jargon of the 70s and talk to real readers about a real musical experience using accessible language.

Say what you will about this kind of audio review. But what you can’t say is that it’s elitist.

So with this historical caveat in mind, we come to the pair of Cary Audio components now playing in my system. Playing so endearingly I had to suspend all forms of reasoning, suspend note taking and surrender to the flow of the music.

Ask Cary Audio's designers the same question and they could go on for hours about circuitry, choice of components and much else of technical interest that plays a huge part in his models’ sound.

What they won’t talk about is the part played in the designs by years of experience, chance, intuition, imagination and that indefinable human quality called creativity.

In the new school of audio reviewing humanity and humility take centre stage, while measurements and jargon are back in the stalls where they belong.

The Cary SLP-05 Pre Amplifier And CAD-120S MkII Power Amplifier For The “Exact” People

Measurements are important but it would be foolish to equate specs with sound, period.

I’ve lost count of the number of speakers I’ve heard that have a ruler flat frequency response and minimal distortion that sound frankly, flat and boring.

Specs are a useful guide for matching component to component and of course, they shouldn’t be ignored.

The SLP-05 has wonderful specs for those that get off on these things. A valve pre-configured to Class A Triode mode the SLP05 comes with hand-matched tubes.

It’s also a two chassis model with one enclosure for the preamp and the other for the power supply.

The pre’s output is rated at 2 volts with 12v volts maximum, and the line stage gain is 17dB and 24 dB in balanced mode.

Noise and hum figures are a very healthy -90dB below full output while input impedance is 50,000ohms for RCA and 10,000 ohms for the XLR.

Frequency response, one of the more useful of any audio specs is 5Hz to 250,000 Hz.

Of more importance is the valve compliment that comprises eight beautiful sounding 6SN7 tubes for the balanced, headphone and gain stages. The rectifier tube is the well-regarded 5AR4.

No pesky 6922s or 6H30 tubes here.

The SLP-05 is fitted with 1% metal film resistors and polypropylene film and foil capacitors.

Connections comprise one Cinema Bypass (XLR or RCA), One Tape Monitor Loop, two XLR inputs, three RCA inputs, one XLR and two RCA pairs of preamplifier outputs.

The finish is in a superb Anthracite black, topped with a choice of a silver or black aluminium faceplate.

The preamplifier weighs in at 16 lbs. and the external power supply at 19 lbs.

The CAD-120S MkII power amplifier is also well specced and as beautifully finished.

Its tube compliment comprises a pair of 6SN7 tubes for the input gain stage, two 6SN7 drivers and eight, yes eight KT88 output tubes.

As mentioned the CAD-120S MkII gives its owners the wonderful choice of operating it in Triode mode (60 watts per channel) or ultra-linear mode (120 watts per channel).

Gain is quoted as 28dB and sensitivity at 1.24 volts. Noise is quoted at -80dB, input impedance 100k ohm (XLR and RCA), and the frequency response at 17hz-25kHz measured at one watt.

Connections include one pair of RCA and one pair of XLR inputs. Like the preamplifier, finish is black Anthracite with either a black or silver faceplate.

The CAD-120S MkII carries two front panel meters to monitor the bias current delivered to the tubes. It weighs 65lbs.

The Sound Of One Hand Clapping

The SLP-05 preamp and CAD-120S MkII power amp were used with a system comprising Pioneer’s vibrant flagship SACD player, the PD70AE, SME20/2 turntable, SME V tonearm, Van Den Hul Crimson Stradivari cartridge, Musical Surroundings Nova II phono stage and Wilson Audio Sasha speakers. Cabling throughout from tonearm to speakers was from German brand, In-akustik.

You know you have elite level components whenever you play wonderful music, and you stop listening and automatically begin to engage your hearing.

Composer Max Richter’s two ambient albums called The Blue Notebooks and From Sleep, induced a kind of deep relaxation that made attentive listening much less enjoyable than hearing the same music with an unconscious disinterest.

Both albums were new to me, and so exposure to the music carried none of the habitual posture that’s usually a part of the reviewing process using familiar albums.

A process that typically involves attentive and critical listening modes. Unless of course, the sound heard is so sublime that you give yourself entirely to the music and begin to hear its melodic purity with all your senses.

There are seven tracks on the From Sleep album. The Blue Notebooks has eleven.

The point is, the Cary Audio combination was inviting an avenue into the soul of this music with an unfettered, uncluttered purity. So much so I played each album for its entirety-several times. And each time proved a mesmerising, rewarding experience.

When I turned to the Joni Mitchell double album called Travelogue and listened to tracks I’d played and enjoyed dozens of times, the Cary combination made each familiar track sound like I was hearing it for the first time again.

Pushing the boundaries I slipped a vinyl copy of the Rickie Lee Jones album called 'It’s Like This' and cued the tone arm to play the first track, Show Biz Kids.

A hi-fi track par excellence. Show Biz Kids has all the sonic frills beloved by sound buffs. Shimmering highs, lucid midrange and a bottom end so tight it could crack walnuts.

If any album or track could coerce you into the attentive listening posture, this one can with an insistence that borders on bullying.

I wasn’t expecting to relax to this track. But I did, despite its intensity. So I played the whole side listening uncritically to the notes, as the system seemed to array each note and musical phrase within an acoustic space that seemed to defy walls or ceiling.

Performers and instruments arrayed in my room but escaping its boundaries. A performance where every particular detail was vibrant and alive but the performance was savoured as a totality.

This was going to be a late listening session, I remember thinking as I pulled out album after album and found myself entering an altered state of consciousness with each one.

Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde, Alan Taylor’s Hotels and Dreamers, The Best Of The Mamas and Papas, The Stones' Sticky Fingers and Let It Bleed, Beethoven Late String Quartets, Mahler’s 4th symphony.

By 4am, the central heating was struggling to cope with the 2 degrees cold. I retired to bed. But totally awake I tried to analyse why some systems and components have a touch of greatness and many do not.

In the subjectivist jargon, the Cary Audio combination is classic valve gear, masterfully designed. Taken individually or as a duo, it’s clear both build their sonic architecture on a pellucid midrange that in turn relies on a tight but generous lower midrange.

And either provides a clear vista into the music in a way that is unique to elite valve equipment. A clarity that allows the senses to engage the music and know intuitively where each performer and instrument is within that space.

Within this ethereal space, the music emerges with a grace and elegance that is totally disarming. For my money, part of this combination’s musical magic rests with its refined nature, its harmonic balance and its velvet smoothness and slight tonal warmth.

Conclusion

The Cary Audio's do imaging, sound staging, micro and macro dynamics as well as any other elite product within or about their price points. Think of subjectivist jargon, apply it to here and they’ll pass with flying colours.

But there is a caveat. If you’ve read this review carefully you’ll understand why this Cary Audio pre and power amplifier won’t work with some gear. If your speakers or signal source are on the lush, warm side of neutral you should look elsewhere, for example.

Even so, I heard enough to suggest these Cary Audio products will slot beautifully into a mountain load of systems. What I can’t tell you is why their addictive sound works on the senses the way it does. And trust me, they’ll have the same effect on a horde of listeners.

All I can say with any certainty is the Cary SLP-05 preamplifier and  CAD-120S MkII amplifier have the same thing all of the great, classic audio components are graced with and it’s an audio essential called, Soul.

For more information visit Cary Audio.

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Written by:

Peter Familari

One of the veterans of the Australian HiFi industry, Peter was formerly the Audio-Video Editor of the Herald Sun for over two decades. One of the most-respected audio journalists in Australia, Peter brings his unparalleled experience and a unique story-telling ability to StereoNET.

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