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cary audio

308T CD player

as reviewed by John Brazier and Danny Kaey


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Sennheiser HD 600 headphones.

EarMax Tube OTL headphone amplifier.

Rega Planet (transport only), Perpetual Technologies P1A Digital Correction Engine and a Perpetual Technologies P3A Upsampling DAC (both with IS2).

Acoustic Zen Silver Phantom digital cable and Acoustic Zen Matrix Reference interconnects.


one.jpg (6551 bytes)Tubes Rule!! This is, without a doubt, the first time I have ever expressed such a thought. My experience with tubes up to this point has been with my EarMax OTL headphone amp. I spend no less then an hour a day in the glow of her tubes, and warm, sweet, and comforting" are some of the adjectives I would use to describe the sound. Nevertheless, though I've owned the EarMax for well over two years, I have never felt compelled to proclaim "Tubes Rule!" Enter the Cary Audio Designs 308T 96Hz/24bit HDCD player with its tubed output stage. The Cary website lacks a page dedicated to the 308T, but a little clicking around uncovered some information under the "News" link. The following is all there is as far as specs go: "The CD-308T retains (from the 308) the 24 bit/96 kHz Burr Brown DACs and then has the DAC output stage direct into the gain and output section. It can do HDCD decoding or can play at 44.1 kHz or in 96 kHz upsampling mode. The remote control has a variable volume control and a switch to allow you to upsample or run at 44.1 kHz." For that, the 308T costs $1000 more than the 308.

Why do Tubes Rule?! Their influence on the 308T is evident and enjoyable. The sound is clear, deep, and dynamic, and only suffers from a slight case of mid-bass bloom. The highs are extended and controlled, with the highest of highs having a comfortable smoothness. Spinning Diane Reeves' In the Moment before the Cary arrived, there were times that I was compelled to reach for the volume control in an effort to take the edge off. With the Cary, her high notes were not so strained. Cymbals and high hats sounded as true to life as I can imagine. I focused on the drum kit in every recording I used, almost to the point of obsession, and simply have never heard such remarkable reproduction of cymbals.

The proclamation that tubes are sweet on the human voice is certainly true in this case. To my wife's amusement, I have a none-too-secret love affair with Joan Osborne. Her current release, How Sweet It Is, is a collection of soul and/or 60s cover tunes. The slight raspy nature of her voice is part of her magnetism. Love it or hate it, to lose it is to lose the Joan-ness of the recording. Her rendition of "I'll Be Around" is heart wrenching. The 308T got it right—the emotion came though, yet did not damage the inherent edge of her voice. For male voice, I relied on Dead Can Dance's little ditty, "The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove," sung by Brendan Perry. The tune is ominous, and the vocal is deep, lush, and melancholy. Perry's voice is not deep or gritty like Johnny Cash's or Greg Brown's, but it has the same vibrant threads. The 308-T was able to extract these threads and still be truly musical. As a result, the 308T has opened my ears to a new dimension in this recording.

The aforementioned mid-bass bloom affects the accuracy of this player. Tubes are often criticized for being too lush or warm, and to an extent, that criticism can be made here. I think the better question is: If you take some mid-bass bloom as a given with tubes, does it get in the way of the music? Only slightly. A sterile recording is warmed up a bit, but an otherwise warm passage sounds just a bit too warm, and everything in between is affected accordingly. This was a problem only in the otherwise warm" instances, when the sound became distractingly dark and had an overly lush feel. Achieving a tight, controlled bass line can be a tough task, and is the apparent sacrifice for the greater good in the 308T. Make no mistake, though, this is a quibble, not a major flaw, and in some cases it is a strength. Popping in the seemingly ancient DDD recording by Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms, opened my ears once again. This recording was marketed as the first (or one of the first) totally digital CD way back in the 80s, when, by comparison to today's recordings, it might as well been chiseled out of stone. Warmth? No, but the tubes in the 308T made it sound yummy.

The upsampling feature of the 308T is hard to evaluate due to this bloom. My reference front end, the Perpetual Technologies upsampler and digital correction engine, upsamples to 96kHz, the same rate as the Cary. The PT flushes out a bit more detail, though it is possible that the two units flush out the same amount of detail and the Cary masks it with tube lushness. Again, this is not a huge issue. The Cary had plenty of detail and was able to convey the musical message more than competently, but that final "puff of breath," or the steely sound of Leo Kottke's fingers sliding along the neck of his 12-string, were not as discernible.

This is the second mid-to-high-priced CD player in a row that I have reviewed (the other being the Ayre CX-7) that did not have a "random" or "shuffle" feature. Why would a manufacturer exclude such a simple feature? It is one of the wonderful benefits of the digital age. Anyone that grew up with vinyl knows what it is like to have the tune of the next track drifting into your brain before the current track is complete. With "random" employed, I never know what I am going to get. Tracks 15 or 16 have as much chance of getting a listen as tracks 1 and 2. I could live with this CD player. In fact, if we were not approaching tax time, I would be considering it as my next upgrade. However, I scored a bunch of CDs for Christmas and I am really looking forward to hearing tracks 14, 15, and 16. John Brazier





Reimer McCullough GS.

Cary Audio SLP88 preamplifier and Rocket 88 amplifier.

Audio Note CD2.1x CD player.

Analysis Plus Oval One interconnects and Oval Nine speaker cables.


two.jpg (6646 bytes)I will never forget the first time I heard a CD player. It was around the fall of 1983, at a local mid-fi dealer who was big on launch parties of "unbelievable" new products. Such was the case with CD, so it was a surprise to no one that Sony/Philips utilized his store for a pre-release demo of this "amazing" new technology. I vividly recall the slogan Perfect Sound Forever (well, not quite, as it was in German—I am from Austria—but the essence was quite the same). My brother, knowing that I would dig this new technology, took me along to this dealer demo. I don't remember the gear that was used in the playback chain—some type of high-end Sony pre/power combo—but I do remember all the "Wow's" I heard that afternoon. Imagine, here was a format that captured music on a small disc, had much longer recording capabilities than an LP, was virtually unsusceptible to wear and tear, and, on top of all that, was portable. Certainly very promising, especially considering that such modern-day marvels as AMD Opteron 64s and Pentium 4s were unheard of. True, you say, but how was the sound?

In all honesty, I can't recall. I was more impressed with the technological feat than the idea of offering ultra-high-quality audio playback. (Give me a break, I was twelve years old!) Of course, today, reading through the reviews and comments from members of the audio community yields an almost unequivocal lack of "Woo's" and "Wow's" about first-generation CD players. Sometime in 1985, my brother came home with his first CD player, an Akai. My parents, who to this day aren't capable of programming the clock on their VCR, were in complete amazement. It appeared as though all their old records were rendered obsolete, and my dad instantly jumped on the bandwagon. In the next couple of years, my brother amassed some hundred or so CDs, and the massive media Blitzkrieg foisted upon us by Sony/Philips had taken us all in.

Fast forward to 2002, and Cary Audio's new components include a CD player, the 308T, as well as a preamp, the SLP-88, and the Rocket 88 tube amp. My reviews of the preamp and power amp will be available in the near future, but the 308T is the subject at hand. The 308T ("T" denotes this player's tube output stage, as the "standard" 308 has a solid state output stage) is one hefty player considering its small size. It is made of solid aluminum, and construction is top notch and very clean in execution. The player utilizes Philips' tried and true CDM12 mechanism, and the DACs (Burr Brown PCM 1704u) have the ability to upsample a 16-bit signal to 24/96 and perform HDCD decoding. Upsampling is switchable on the fly via the remote control as well as on the unit. The output stage has a pair of Philips JAN 5814a tubes, and there are no ICs in the signal path. The front panel is very clean and uncluttered while providing all the necessary information: track time, number, etc. About the only thing missing from the player are those ultra-cool-looking blue LEDs that I am completely nuts about, and that are found on the 308's higher-priced siblings, the 306 players. The 308T certainly has a high end look and feel, with its all-black chassis, silver anodized buttons, and lack of glitz and glitter.

Before proceeding with the "meat and bone" part of the review, I would like to stress one point: really the only other CD player I had for direct comparison was the Audio Note 2.1. Towards the end of my review period I did receive the fabulous Ayre CD player though only for a brief time did I have a chance to really compare and contrast them. On a similar note, I did not have any other pre- power combo available for a direct comparison either, so this should perhaps be filed under the "system" review section with references to the aforementioned Audio Note thrown in the mix.

Going back down memory lane, I remember that many people had the notion that all CD players sounded the same, and that all CDs were recorded equally well. Of course, quite the opposite is true—digital designers have the ability to voice their gear to sound a certain way, which brings me to the sound of the 308T. Armed, loaded, and ready to rock with my usual high-fidelity recordings—the Kraftwerks, Massive Attacks, Hugh Masakelas, Dean Martins, and Elvises—I proceeded to get in the groove with the all-Cary system. Playing (or is it rotating?) Kraftwerk's excellent compilation of remixed hits, The Mix, yielded new highs of system resolution. The Marsh/Audio Note combo that I previously gave high marks for resolution seemed overly in your face" by comparison. The Cary system offered bottom end that was more natural and less digital-sounding. To prove this, I loaded up Crystal Method's new CD, Tweekend, which features a plethora of well-recorded synthesized bass, and played the first track, "PHD." While the Audio Note offered bass lines in tune with the recording, the 308T went one step further, offering a magical touch-and-feel quality. I quickly moved to the double-bass line in the last thirty seconds of Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up" (on So) and was able to verify my findings. The 308T has an amazingly life-like character, one that seems less digital than previous players I've heard. No doubt, the tube output stage has something to do with this.

Soundstage, another important thing in my book, is another area in which the 308T shines. Cueing up Chesky's Women of Song compilation, I played Rebecca Pigeon's "Spanish Harlem." The soundstage had all its height, width, and depth, and was very life-like. I often use this track to compare components, as its delicate presentation really pushes each component to its max. Pigeon's voice sounded clear, yet in a natural, soft way, with no hint of digital edge. (I can hardly wait to hear this and other tracks in comparison with a turntable in my system.) Each instrument was clearly identified and precisely located in the soundstage. The Audio Note player offered a similar performance, yet in the areas of bass, digital character (or lack thereof), and overall resolving power, the 308T had the upper hand. Some listeners would probably prefer the revealing nature of the Marsh/Audio Note setup, but I feel more at home with the human-like character of the Cary.

Elvis Presley's 24 Karat Hits, another favorite of mine, and certainly a reference recording of Elvis' work, has certain tracks that I always use to audition audio systems. "Are You Lonesome Tonight," one of Elvis' all-time hits, sounded incredibly real. At about 1:35, when the singing turns into melodic speech, I got shivers. The texture, timbre, and lifelike articulation were simply amazing. I am not sure if this was a result of the all-Cary system. One thing is for certain—I can't recall ever hearing Elvis like this. Plugging in the Audio Note for a quick comparison pretty much fortified the 308T's position; while the meat was there, no question about it, the juices, if you want to continue the analogy, were somewhat missing and a bit off course—this is not to say that the Audio Note isn't a capable Elvis impersonator, its just that the Cary appeared to play on a different level—again, perhaps a feature of the all Cary tube system adding a special dose of system performance and coherence in the mix. I suppose if you want to extrapolate on this point, it would only seem logical and obvious from a voicing perspective. Ideally, you would have the same or similar sonic signatures between your component ranges to compliment each other–I remember noticing a similar effect when reviewing the VDH pre- power combo. When I proceeded to substitute the Cary preamp the awesome liquidity and resolution of the VDH system seemed to take a step back or at least to a different direction (

Madonna's Ray of Light (in my opinion, her best record ever) has a high dose of electronica. Playing this CD is a delicate proceeding for me. If you played it on a mediocre system, you are really missing the point of this great recording. William Orbit, the producer, paid careful attention to detail from beginning to end. Space, air, and depth are all part of these tracks, and the 308T again offered that rare feeling of being just right. This recording, which isn't shy in the layering of sounds, had resolution without any hint of brightness or harshness. Again, the bass shone with great definition, volume, and that magical, un-digital performance. The 16-bit stepping blocks seemed to have disappeared.

Bass performance is very important to me and this is another shining point of the Cary 308T—its not bass shy and has that umpf' feel and power to it. Loaded with my favorite copy of Massive Attack, a "massively" bass oriented band, I proceeded with my listening session. With this CD I can typically figure out a systems bass performance, or in this case, that of a component. While playing these tracks through the Audio Note, the power, weight and effort was all there—however, when I plugged the 308T in the loop, that sense of matched performance was taken to a different level. The Cary player took the tunes and ran with them; the Audio Note seemed to just play them—I suppose I could characterize it as another system attribute—though I could totally see how some might find the sound emanating from the Audio Note more in tune with their perceived quality of music reproduction. Alas, in my book, the Cary got the nod as being the "better" of the two. Of course, this added presence in the bass region could very well turn out to be an overly exaggerated point on a "fat" system, ie. where the overall tonality is geared towards the bass end—for example, I could see how the all Cary gear would have a tendency to sound too bloomy with say the Dynaudio's, Sonus Faber's or JM Lab's of this world—speakers that in my opinion have that tendency to sound "weighty" in the bass region. With the McCullough's being somewhat limited by their lack of full range sound, this system sounded about as right as I like it. Then again, who knows, I have yet to test my postulated hypothesis on such a system—perhaps a local dealer who carries the aforementioned product lines in your area might assist you with that idea, I would like to find out if there would be some merit to that statement.

The 308T is a stunning product. Its lack of digital coloration and harshness will make you go through your favorite CDs to rediscover your entire collection, and cherish your favorites even more. Many years have passed since the first-generation CD players were released—in fact, the Compact Disc just had its twentieth birthday—and much has happened in the world of digital playback. Cary has now reached the high goal of offering top-end performance at an acceptable price. I would strongly encourage, perhaps even insist, that you listen to this player. Danny Kaey




308T CD player
Retail: $2500

Cary Audio Design
TEL: 919. 481. 4494
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