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303/200 CD player
as reviewed by Gary Beard
Until a few months ago, my digital source was the excellent Sony SCD-777ES SACD player. I used the 777 primarily as a transport, to feed a Perpetual Technologies P-1A/EVS Millennium Dac-1 combo for CD playback. The sound of this setup was top drawer, but I grew tired of all the boxes and cables and longed for a simpler solution. My miniscule collection of SACDs was not reason enough to keep the big Sony, and since my CD collection keeps growing, I reasoned that one of the highly touted new Redbook players would be my best option. I had an idea of the features I wanted, flexibility of placement being one and remote volume control another. Having read several very positive comments about the current Cary players, I decided to take a look. The 303/200 is a front-loading design, and could be located on the middle shelf of my rack (the Sony, a top-loader, could not). It also has remote volume control.
Even though the 303/200 is the baby brother to the 306/200 player that Dave Clark and Ed Morawski think so highly of (www.positive-feedback.com/Issue2/cary306.htm), it is still rich in features. Based on the Philips CDM12 transport, it uses the same Burr-Brown PCM1704u DACs and Pacific Microsonics PMD-200 HDCD filter as the 306, though the 306 has eight DACs to the 303s two. It has user-selectable upsampling to 24 bit/96khz, HDCD, and remote control, and offers a choice of single-ended and balanced outputs, as well as a digital input and output.
The 303/200 is a substantial piece of gear, not a day at the gym like the 777, but a solid 35 lbs. nonetheless. When Big Brown dropped the new player on my doorstep, I was concerned that Id be sending it back before the first CD was spun. My fears subsided after seeing the double-boxed shipping arrangement. The 303s appearance is a bit austere, but it blends well with my other gear and is certainly not ugly. The blue display shows all the usual information, sans CD text. It is nearly impossible to read from my listening position, but then my eyes arent the greatest. There are two blue LED-indicating lights, one showing when HDCD playback is engaged, and the other to indicate when the 24bit/96khz upsampler is on. The LEDs are a minor annoyancethey are so bright that I have been using them as grow lights for my houseplants.
The remote is a big chunk of metal, not to be tossed across the room for fear of maiming the person on the receiving end. It works well once you figure out the rather non-intuitive layout. While its ergonomics are only so-so, it is backlit (a very nice feature for those of us who listen in relative darkness), and the stop, pause, and play buttons are distinctively shaped for ease of use. Switching between the PMD-200 HDCD filter and the 24bit/96khz upsampler can be done from the remote, making comparisons quick and easy. My favorite feature is the remote volume control. You press a button each time you want to increase or decrease the volume by one of its 64 steps (no holding the button down for sweeping changes). When using the remote for fine volume adjustments, I never noticed any loss of resolution (the main CPU attenuates the analog signal via serial control). However, when I had the player connected directly to my amp, I did notice a slight softening of the low bass on some CDs when the volume was very low. All things considered, the volume control works very well, and is certainly a significant plus for those of us without remote control elsewhere in the system.
I did not like the Cary 303/200 at first. Even after a 100-hour break-in, it sounded somewhat grainy and shallow. Keep in mind that I owned a very good digital front end, so perhaps I was being overly critical. I continued to run the Cary twenty-four hours a day for another 200 hours. I replaced the stock power cord with a nice homebrew unit, and placed the player on top of three Final Labs Daruma ball bearing isolators, which were atop an MDF shelf supported by Vibrapods. The improvement in the sound was not subtle. The harsh top end was all but gone, and the depth of the soundstage improved dramatically. This player responds well to a little tweaking.
At some undetermined point (300-400 hours), the real Cary emerged. The graininess was replaced by a smooth, transparent clarity, and the stage continued to deepen. One of the things I like most about the Cary is its chameleon-like character. Its overall presentation is very relaxed, but it also takes on the characteristics of the recording you feed it. The 303/200 does not gloss over bad recordings. If a CD is harsh and hot, youll hear it. If it is languid and lush, youll hear that, too. On recordings with a tilted-up treble, I preferred listening without the upsampling, as this seemed to lessen the digital glare. While the 303/200 is not quite as forgiving as some digital sources, it is still kinder to poorly recorded material than the Sony 777ES.
Soundstaging is one of the Cary's greatest strengths. It throws the widest stage I have heard in my system. On John Mellencamps HDCD, Cuttin Heads, the stage is wall to wall. Each musician occupies his own space, and there is a considerable amount of air around instruments and voices. The music always sounds cohesive, so organic, if you will allow me to use that term. While depth of stage is not this machines best attribute, you get a layered and three-dimensional stage. Another strength of the 303/200 is its frequency extension. Treble is clear, precise, and smooth. The midrange is solid and weighty, yet refined in a wonderfully natural way. Bass reproduction is fantastic, and although the 777ES is very good at reproducing bass, it is not as good as the Cary. The 303/200s bass is deep, tuneful, and visceral. It kicks booty and takes no prisoners. Detail retrieval and inner resolution are both very good as well, and one can listen at lower volume levels without a noticeable loss of information.
Dynamically, the 303/200 is excellent, and is able to power the big crescendos necessary for the convincing portrayal of full-tilt classical and hard rock music, as well as the micro-shifts necessary for acoustic and small-combo jazz. The single biggest improvement it has made is in the reproduction of spatial cues and microdynamics. On the Cowboy Junkies The Trinity Sessions, Margo Timmins voice soars, contained only by the walls of the church in which it was recorded. On Amused to Death, Roger Waters use of Q Sound is striking and stimulating. The dog barking in the yard next door on "Bill Hubbard" is uncannily real, and Waters guitar attacks with an edge and then fades into blackness. The entire CD has a remarkable presence that is recreated in spectacular detail by the 303/200.
When listening to an HDCD, treble seems to be a little more extended, and the stage a bit more expansive. However, this can be a disadvantage on some recordings. Aimee Manns terrific Bachelor #2 sounds very good in HDCD, but the treble is a little too hot at times. By comparison, Keb Mo's Slow Down and Mark Knopflers Sailing to Philadelphia sound fantastic in HDCD mode.
I did all my listening through the single-ended outputs, as I dont do balanced. And I have yet to use the digital input or output, so can offer no opinion on them. I did have a couple of minor problems with the Cary. The transport has skipped on rare occasions, but to be fair, so has every other CD player Ive owned. For some reason, a couple of selections on two CDs dont like to be upsampled, but they played just fine through the PMD-200 filter. All other discs, including CD-Rs, have played without a hitch. The problems have been few and far between, but nevertheless I have had them.
I wish the display was easier to read and the remote was a bit lighter. I also wish the volume would change when you hold down the button. These are minor complaints, to be sure. With respect to sound quality, I wish there was more soundstage depth, but perhaps the Cary is closer to the truth of the recording than some of the players that better it in that regard.
The Cary 303/200 is a very fine CD player. Is it the best out there? No, of course not. If you value depth of stage over all else, or if you want a player that is going to gloss over bad recordings, the Cary is not for you. However, if you are in the market for a CD-only player that is rich in features and has refined and natural sound, you should include the 303/200 on your audition list. Keep in mind that it takes time for this player to show its true colors, but if you give it the time it deserves, I think you will find that the 303/200 is deserving of its accolades.
303/200 CD player