CD-500 CD Player
as reviewed by Robert H. Levi
I am sitting here listening to my large reference system enjoying the new Complete Mozart Piano Sonatas Seven Disk Set from Kimber Kable, featuring Robert Silverman on the Steinway Grand. These IsoMike Hybrid recordings are Ray Kimber's best to date and, quite possibly, the best solo piano recordings I've ever owned. Alive with nuance and colorful realism with not the least bit of dryness or etch, the CD layer played on the new Cary CD-500 up sampled to 24/192 is just enthralling. I recall listening to the Metronome CD Player 6 years ago with a price tag of a mere $22,000 that was not quite as mellifluous or realistic as the Cary is today at $3000. We've come a long way, baby! And it's all good.
The CD-500 is Cary's top CD only CD player with HDCD™ decode on board. It's 100% solid state and offers balanced and single ended outputs on RCAs. I did most of the reviewing with balanced outputs, though I heard very little difference between the two choices, except that the balanced were a bit quieter. The test system was state of the art across the board…a tough test for a "mere" $3000 piece of gear. The preamp was the E.A.R. 912 Professional Preamp, the amps were a pair of E.A.R. 890 Amplifiers run as mono-blocks, and the reference CD Players included the newest E.A.R. Acute 3 CD Player, and the ModWright Sony 9100 with Tube Power Supply and Signature Truth Mod on board. Cables were balanced Jorma Origo ["Origo" means "absolute zero" in Swedish], with Jorma Origo Speaker Cables connecting the Marten Bird Loudspeakers and REL Stadium 3 Sub-woofer. Power-cords were the Kubala-Sosna Elation! to all components. One meter of Jorma Origo is 1.5 times as expensive as the Cary CD-500! I use Jorma Design as it is one of the most neutral and uncolored wires on the planet.
The Cary has a very cool upsampling feature, giving the user the choice of sampling on the fly at 44.1kHz, 96kHz, 192kHz, 384kHz, 512kHz, and 768kHz rates for CD playback to the analog audio outputs. After much listening with an audiophile friend, we determined the 192 kHz sampling rate seemed to be the most acceptable most of the time. The upsampling rate is selectable from the remote, so you are not married to your choice for life. I just did not want to drive myself nuts, and the 192kHz position sounded most realistic and right, with ample definition and delicacy. This does not affect the HDCD™ decoding, which happens automatically when an HDCD™-encoded CD is placed in the drawer.
There are outputs for Toslink and Coaxial that will output up to an upsampled 192kHz. Readers should note that there are no digital inputs, so the CD-500 cannot be used as a digital processor for outboard sources. I did not try these outputs during this review, or use the Cary simply as a transport.
The supplied remote allows you to access everything including remote volume. I placed the Cary at its highest volume setting for output to my E.A.R. preamp while evaluating. Since the test sample was a new unit, I let it play in regular and HDCD™ mode for two weeks before the serious review listening began.
I have to say it: the Cary is simply the best solid-state CD player in anything like its price range that I have heard to date. In my experience, you would have to buy the solid-state Ayre DX-5 at $9995 to better the performance of CDs on the Cary. The Cary is much more realistic and musical than any of the mass-produced Japanese brands, and more solidly built (at 23lbs.) than most. Filled with exotic parts and sporting a terrific transport, it sounds like it looks. In addition, almost none of the Japanese brands have HDCD™ decode, which is superb! The CD-500 is part of Cary's "Classic Line" of components, and these are the ones to own. The folks at Cary have great musical taste, and it shows!
Sonically, the Cary is even natured from top to bottom. I did not hear any lumps or bumps at any frequencies with any source material. The highs are open, extended, and natural, and never forced or etched. The mids are smooth and generous with colorful vibrant textural cues. The bass is deep and solidly detailed, with bold dynamics. The smoothness and inner warmth of the overall sound tells me that jitter is not an issue with the CD-500. Unlike most solid-state CD players, the Cary never ever sounded cold and detached or, conversely, warmly muddy and rolled off. It is involving, extremely neutral and slightly sweet, allowing long listening sessions.
With HDCD™ disks, depth and dynamics seem to double compared even to upsampled CDs. Professor Johnson's recordings are an experience to savor through the Cary. Drum thwacks will jar your senses. Right to left and front to back specificity will increase markedly. You will hear a greater sense of "you are there" in-room performance excitement. Vocals as well as most instruments have a SACD-like character I truly enjoy. You will re-listen to your RR collection with relish with the Cary. I must admit I was a bit surprised by this, as I did not remember HDCD™ being so very good. None of my references have this HDCD™ feature, and now I miss it!
I spent a good deal of time with the RR HDCD™ Sampler, RRS3CD, and focused on the jazz selections. The "Miles Davis: All Blues" featured piano, sax, bass and drums. Mike Garson is in the room, sounding terrific on the piano. Eric Marienthal will blow you away on sax. I have never experienced better HDCD™ sound. These recordings from the early nineties do not show their age, and are better than ever with the Cary CD-500.
The Cary is solid-state, so don't expect the very fleshy quality of Cary's tube coupled units. The Cary CD-500 is not exactly lean, but it does fall into the "detailed" category of players. Here "clean and clear" is more obvious than "richness or elegance." A cello will sound more like its strings than its box. Acoustic guitar will sound a bit thinner and more snappy. The sound is more forward and direct than recessed and full-blooded. Higher sampling rates will soften any edge that your ears might experience, but can also add a vagueness and reduce dynamic punch. None of this is a deal buster if you aren't interested in tubes. The CD-500 is just about as good as solid state can be at this price point—or even a good deal more.
The Cary CD-500 is one of the best solid-state CD players I know of. It may be surpassed at about triple the cost, but if you need only CD playback (including HDCD™) and don't want a tubed unit, this is the one to buy. Deserving of the high-end label, the Cary delivers the goods to satisfy and entertain even in a state-of-the-art system. Use the best ancillaries you can afford, including a good power cord and interconnects. The Cary will truly make a big CD collection sound better than you remember it. Mass-produced Japanese CD players simply can't compete with the Cary—it's that good! Moreover, the HDCD™ function is just plain terrific. The remote is stellar with features including various upsampling levels and volume on board.
What a machine! The Cary CD-500 deserves my strongest recommendation. Robert H. Levi