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as reviewed by Graham Abbott
Why do things have to be so complicated in today's world? We step outside the box and embrace change, only to find we're on a Nantucket sleigh ride to God knows where. The final poke in the eye is that these changes aren't always for the better. So where can we Luddites (if you will) find solace? How about the world of tube amplification, in which simpler ideas from the good old days are alive and well—even flourishing? Surround sound? DSP? How about point-to-point wiring and single-ended triodes bangin' out five watts a side?
If the thought of toilet-paper-tube-sized pillars of glass sticking out of the top of an amp—and enough heat to bake cookies—even faintly stirs your imagination, you already have some of the tube lover's prerequisites. But to be a real dyed-in-the-wool tube lover, you have to be a romantic type—the kind of person who still buys a car hoping to live with it for twenty years, or an automatic watch because it's cool and handmade instead of accurate. You have to believe your ears—and your heart and soul—and forget about the test bench, because that is the proverbial elephant's graveyard for most tube-based amplifiers. This is all about hearing and connecting to the music, and the experience can sometimes border on the sublime.
The Cary Audio SLI-80 is less work than most tube amplifiers, and except for the occasional manual biasing of tubes, is about as set-and-forget as tube amplification can get. A robust little sucker weighing 48 pounds, it fits comfortably into the average audio rack, needing only about eight inches of clearance to breath comfortably. All that weight isn't just window dressing. According to the manufacturer, the transformers are 150 percent duty cycle, and they certainly contribute generously to the overall tonnage. The fascia is thick metal and houses a volume knob, balance control, and three-position input selector. To the right, a beefy switch allows the user to switch the amp into headphone mode. In fact, the entire chassis is festooned with heavy switches that thunk into place like breakers, offering choices between triode (40W) and pentode (80W) operation and 4-ohm and 8-ohm impedance, all selectable on the fly. If these niceties aren't enough, a preamp output is available, making a subwoofer a plug-and-play option. Cary even includes a very solid, utilitarian (volume and mute on/off only) remote control. The SLI80 is exceedingly good value for $3000, and Cary has an excellent reputation for reliability and longevity. I have beaten this thing like a rented mule for about six months with nary a squeak.
It's built like a brick s**t house, but how does it sound? Because the SLI-80 offers a fair amount of flexibility for a tube amp (owners of surround-sound receivers are free to laugh here), we must first flick a few switches and try a few things before wearing out the listening chair. The owner's manual states quite emphatically that the sage ears at Cary find that the amp sounds better in triode mode, and I agree. In triode mode, the amp delivers 40 watts of pure Class-A power, and my Red Rose Rosebud 1s, moderately efficient at 87dB and 6 ohms, were getting all the juice they needed. Pentode mode delivered more oomph, but sounded harder overall, a bit shrill in the highs, and lacked some of the gorgeous tonality of the triode setting. Death-metal junkies would opt for pentode, though it's hard to picture them head banging with even 80 glowing watts.
Playing with the impedance switches also brought out differences. The 8-ohm setting had a beguiling delicacy and lilting sweetness. It sounded amazing on chamber music and small-group jazz, but lacked some of the dynamic impact that brings tension to the music and personality to instrumentalists on large-scale or faster-paced works. Fast bebop cymbal work in particular seemed to highlight this trait, being about 80 percent shimmer and 20 percent stick impact. The 4-ohm setting brought things back into balance in my system, with just the right mix of transient energy and instrumental texture.
With all the switches flicked and settings set, this amp is first and foremost about tonality. It possesses an almost fulsome tonal beauty that, once heard, makes a lot of solid-state gear sound lean and threadbare. Horns are especially well served. Each is presented with its distinctive personality front and center, trumpets strident when called for but always rich and brassy, alto and tenor saxophones clearly distinguished, their individual voices easily discerned, even in dense orchestral works. But brass wasn't the only beneficiary. Throughout the Acoustic Sounds 45-rpm reissue of Waltz for Debby, Scott Lafaro's bass and Paul Motian's brushwork were full of body, sparkle, and life, with a top-to-bottom tonal coherence that made things seem more real and complete. Out of curiosity, I played the LP and digital issues of many recordings to see if the effect was consistent. Sure enough, Waltz for Debby on LP sounded fuller, richer, and more plausible. Some will call this coloration, though I found it beguiling. The more I heard it, the more I wanted.
This plausibility—this completeness—was further enhanced by the Cary's soundstaging and imaging, which, given the right recording, are phenomenal. On Kind of Blue, Miles and the guys were spread out beautifully, and there was lots of air and ambience that gave me the sense of being part of it all. Large-scale symphonic works also sounded wonderful, with the players spread well to the sides of and behind the speakers and each section of the orchestra clearly delineated. Even during loud passages, the instruments stayed separated, refusing to blend and become confused.
The SLI-80 is a shrewdly designed tube amp. It does everything I've described so well that I was able to completely concentrate on the music and its message. Coltrane's playing seemed more plaintive, his solos built from ever-more-urgent phrases. Wes Montgomery's thumb had pop and bounce, joy and direction. Music had what I crave—emotional impact and life. The Cary has been designed to maximize the strengths of its tube topology and connect the listener directly to the flow of the music.
But even the most shrewdly designed $3000 tube amplifiers are going to have some limitations. Firstly, though the Cary is quiet, it does not have the jet-black background of many solid-state amps. I had to listen harder for small details, like the sound of fingers sliding down the neck of a bass or guitar. The detail was there, but it was just not as upfront or apparent as it can be with some solid-state and SET gear. Transient energy was lacking compared to that of mid-priced solid-state amps, the Cary always erring on the side of smoothness. It had a very liquid sound that was always easy to listen to, but it was not right for every recording.
An important point is that I'm using monitor speakers, which the Cary really seemed to like. I tried several full-range speakers of average efficiency, and the results were decidedly different. At moderate to high volumes, the deep bass had a pear-shaped quality that slowed down the rhythm and pace and destroyed the coherency that I loved. Because the amp was working harder, top-end extension also suffered. High notes became rounded and lost dynamic energy. Switching to pentode brought more drive, but the slightly glassy sound from mid-treble upward was consistent with all of the speakers I tried, and the loss of intimacy and tonal richness was simply too high a price to pay. High-efficiency speakers are mandatory to get the best of what the Cary has to offer. The good news is there are many available models that fit the bill nicely, at many price points.
I liked the Cary SLI-80 a lot. It is well built, very reliable, and communicates the essence of music really, really well. You will want to listen to music through this thing, and I am willing to wager that you will find that the hours melt away faster than ever when the SLI-80 is switched on. I found myself drifting away again and again, losing track of time yet remaining focused on the music. If you're a romantic like me, you're gonna like this amp. Graham Abbott