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Positive Feedback ISSUE 53
Xciter Integrated Tube Headphone Amplifier
(with some minor capacitor upgrades designed by Moon-Audio for Cary)
as reviewed by Jeff Parks
I stumbled upon the Cary Audio Xciter in a convoluted way. Rather than the normal channels of acquiring a review sample through the manufacturer directly, it was sent to me as part of a product group. Included in this group was the Xciter headphone amplifier, a pair of Sennheiser HD-800s, and two sets of Moon-Audio Dragon headphone cables for the HD-800s. Drew Beard of Moon-Audio told me upfront that the Cary Xciter had some minor modifications done to it. These modifications included: swapping out the coupling caps with Cardas Golden Caps, and replacing the stock snubber caps with a pair of Audio One caps. These modifications were designed for Cary by Drew. Drew's rationale for sending all of this gear along with the Cary Xciter was that he wanted to be sure that his cables were heard under the best conditions. Who can blame him for that?
After speaking with a representative from Cary, I was surprised to hear they offer modifications for their products on a limited basis. Not only did Cary Audio approve of Drew's modifications, they installed them. Because Cary Audio does all of the soldering work, the manufacturer's warranty still applies. That said, I find it refreshing when a manufacturer not only supports modifications of their gear, but installs them at a reasonable up-charge. This increases income after the sale for both the manufacturer and retailer alike. In addition, this added upgrade service allows the end user to tweak a product to their personal liking, giving the product added value.
Though I did not have the pleasure to evaluate a "stock" Cary Xciter, I do have to say I was clearly impressed with the Xciter that included these minor cap upgrades. Drew said that by adding the cap upgrades as compared to stock, it adds depth of character to the music and warms things up a bit. Again, not having a stock Xciter at the ready I will have to take his word for it.
Realizing the Xciter was not a review sample for the task at hand, I tried my best to focus upon the cable review for Moon-Audio (see Issue 52). Over time, I could not keep my attention away from the Cary Audio Xciter and its effect upon the music. It was drawing me in like a magnet. As I tried several different pairs of headphones, I was clearly impressed with the depth, sheer power, and authority this little integrated headphone amplifier displayed. I was smitten. Now I had to review it! That afternoon I got on the phone with Drew and asked if I could review the Xciter. Drew responded by stating, "I don't see why not?" After a few calls and emails were made to the editors of Positive Feedback, and to Cary Audio, I acquired the necessary permission for this somewhat unique review. Unique in that I am reviewing a modified unit prior to listening to a stock unit. Please note: my comments apply to "this" particular Xciter amplifier. Adding in the upgrades the US Retail Price rises from $2750 to $3250.
Modified above and stock below...
"Only just the beginning…."
In coming up with a title for this section of the review, I was thinking of calling it "Beginnings." All of a sudden it hit me, that famous song from the early seventies "Beginnings" by the classic rock band Chicago. As I write this section of the review that song is in my head spinning around. Later in the evening I caught myself going through my music collection to pull out one of my Chicago albums. From there it turned out to be an all nighter. I listened to most of the recordings from Chicago starting with Chicago I to Chicago X. During this power listening session I did try to focus and write a paragraph or two for this review. Conversely, I was having so much fun listening to the Xciter though my newly re-cabled Ultrasone Edition 8 headphones with ALO's Chain Mail 8 cable (that sounded spectacular by the way) I couldn't stop myself from playing CD after CD! To be honest with you, for most of the evening I got lost once more listening to the music as opposed to evaluating the amplifier. Enough of the distractions with Chicago's music playing in the background—on to the review!
When I first placed the Xciter upon the rack in my office system, I took notice of its diminutive size, 5 7/8" high x 11" wide x 13" deep. Even the Xciter's light weight of 13.5 lbs. coincides with its small footprint. Originally the Xciter was designed as a desktop headphone amplifier for a computer based system that included the Xciter DAC. I found the sound so inviting I moved the Xciter from my office system into my main reference system where it served as a headphone amplifier, and part time integrated amplifier for the rest of the review period. As an integrated amplifier, I tried the Xciter driving a pair of Aerial Acoustics 7Bs. I also gave the Xciter a chance to drive a pair of stand mounted speakers, Tayo Refs from Tyler Acoustics. All things considered, it was the easy to drive Coincident Pure Reference speakers that the Xciter had me sit up and take notice. More on that later.
During the review period, headphones used were a pair of Sennheiser HD-800s with a set of Moon-Audio Blue Dragon V3 cables, or the new Moon-Audio Silver Dragon V3s. Also on hand was a pair of Ultrasone Edition8 headphones cabled with ALO Audio's Chain Mail 8 cable.
A headphone amplifier conceived….
As hinted above, one of the first things I noticed on the back of the Xciter was that it had two sets of speaker binding posts. Drew told me this was added to the design as a bonus for the end user. Though the goal was to create a state-of-the-art headphone amplifier when the Xciter was on the drawing board, the decision was made to add binding posts due to the fact it has enough power to drive many of today's loudspeakers. The Xciter is rated at 5 watts per channel using 6L6 tubes, or 10-watts per channel when running KT-88s. With that said, the Xciter has more than enough power to drive a small pair of office speakers, or it could be the heart of a small system running a pair of floor standing or stand mounted speakers.
During development, the designers chose the Xciter to be a triode based pure Class A amplifier designed around the 6L6 vacuum tube. For those familiar with this tube, it has a lush midrange with a smooth as silk top end, all of which are to my personal liking. For the purpose of the review I kept the stock tubes in the unit—a quad of Chanand 6L6s, and a pair of Chanang ECC83 or 12AX7s.
The basics... give me the basics please!
As stated earlier, the Cary Audio Xciter is an integrated headphone amplifier whose main purpose is to serve as a headphone amplifier in a desktop type situation, or in a well appointed high end audio system. This is one good looking amplifier with the large remote controlled volume knob dead center, flanked by two equal in size knobs: The one on the left serving as the selector switch, and the one on the right as the headphone on/off switch. The Xciter does come with a remote that is small in size, yet functional. It has only two functions: volume up/down, and mute. Got to love that mute switch, I can't tell you how many times that has become convenient when my son or daughter comes into my office and wants to talk to daddy, or when the phone rings.
In looking at the Xciter from a cosmetic point of view, I really like the retro-appearance of the exposed tubes, with the 12AX7s in front and the power tubes in back. The black painted chassis adds a touch of class, along with all of the transformers encased in matching black painted covers. To top things off, the volume control, selector knob, on/off headphone knob, and tube sockets are all backlit in blue. This looks really cool at night considering the rest of my gear is backlit using a blue display and blue LEDs.
The Xciter has three pairs of RCA line inputs and one pair of RCA subwoofer outputs. I tried running the subwoofer output to drive my E.A.R.-Yoshino 890, or my Anthem Amp-1SE+. Unfortunately when using the subwoofer output to drive these amplifiers, things sounded disjointed. Perhaps there was an impedance mismatch between the Xciter and these amplifiers? That could account for the congested sonic result. No worries, since I would never run the Xciter in that manner anyway. For my purposes, the Xciter is a pure headphone amplifier. Though it is nice knowing I have a third amplifier (the Xciter that is) as a backup if the need ever arose.
As stated above, for running headphones there is a separate on/off switch in order to move the Xciter's output from the speaker terminals to the ¼' headphone jack. This action does disengage the speaker's output to the external binding posts when listening to the headphones. There is no balance control. Volume control and selector switch are sourced from Alps and appear to be of good quality. When running the volume up and down, the attenuator is quite smooth and very quiet. All in all, a very nice package!
Time for tunes….
As stated in the beginning of the article, the Xciter was designed to serve as a headphone amplifier. This is where the Xciter clearly shines. The Cary Audio Xciter is, in my opinion, as close to State-of-the-Art as any headphone amplifier can aspire obtaining—period! This is one very impressive little amplifier! There is no doubt that the Xciter has set the bar for all others to aspire to. Listening to a good pair of headphones through the Xciter is like listening to a very well appointed high end audio system--nothing is missing. The sound is dynamic, full range, it gets all of the details right while maintaining the musical truth touched by that triode sound we tube lovers can't get enough of when listening to our systems. This little amplifier sounds so good when listening to headphones it can make the most reluctant audiophile blush with envy. The Xciter not only gets the music right, it presents it in a manner that one could listen to it for hours on end. If I were on a deserted island, this would be the first piece of audio gear I would grab. Give me some electricity, the Xciter, a great source, a nice collection of CDs, a pair of reference quality headphones, and I could live happily ever after on that desert island. In fact, I may never want to leave!!
CD after CD, the Xciter never failed to disappoint. The last couple of months my reference system has experienced some major changes, a new CDP, new speakers, upgraded power cords, and a new soundroom. As you all know, it is that pesky soundroom that can place an audiophile into a frenzied tizzy as you move gear around, add curtains, furniture, move the furniture around several times, add more room treatments, remove treatments, move the speakers 64 different ways until after a few months of messing around, you finally are beginning to achieve the sound you long for from your two channel system. It has been within the last couple of months that my main reference system is beginning to settle in, and I believe it is now making beautiful music. During that time of transition thank goodness for the Xciter, my Ultrasone Edition8 headphones, and Cary Audio 303 T Professional SACD/CD player (review is in the works). This particular combination of gear is truly inspiring. Not once did I experience any music withdrawal while my main system was in transition. It was during those quiet evenings listening to headphones that the Xciter kept me connected to my vast music collection. Many thanks to Billy Wright and the design team at Cary Audio.
Running the Xciter as a small amplifier.
Okay…, I admit it, I am spoiled. I have two really great amplifiers to chose from: My current reference E.A.R.-Yoshino 890 amplifier, a KT-90 push pull amplifier dishing out 70 watts per channel, or my fun-to-listen-to, completely rebuilt, and highly modified Anthem Amp-1 SE+, a push full 40 watt per channel EL-34 based amplifier. I love both of these amps, each in their own different way reproducing the music I love to listen to. Often times the music sounds so good through these amplifiers that it can truly be mesmerizing. Both of these amplifiers have stood the test of time, and more than likely will be in my rig for many years to come.
For this part of the evaluation I decided to run the Xciter as a 5-watt 6L6, EL-34 based amplifier, and as a 10 watt (or there about) 6550 or KT-88 based amplifier. Overall it was the 6L6 tube set that sounded the best, in my opinion. Perhaps the Xciter is voiced for that tube type, since it is the tube set that comes with it. When listening to my Aerial 7Bs (which are difficult to drive due to their 24dB crossover, 87dB efficiency, and 6 ohm impedance) the Xciter never really got these speakers going to the point where I would listen to them for long periods of time. The emotion, or sense of scale, or authority, just wasn't there no matter what type of music I sent through the system. The Xciter sounded constricted, and seemed to run out of gas very quickly when driving the 7Bs as compared to the 890 or Amp-1 SE+. Nor did the Xciter have the depth of soundstage, or macrodynamics, that I am accustomed too when listening to the Aerials. Microdynamics suffered too. In addition, most of the soundstage between the speakers was diminished in size. There was some layering between the instruments and performers, but not enough to convince me that I was listening to an illusion of the real thing. In short, listening to the Aerials as driven by the Xciter just didn't do it for me. This was a poor match.
Moving on to my stand mounted Tyler Acoustics Taylo Refs, one of my favorite stand mounted speakers due to their big sound. The Taylos image like nobody's business and soundstage so well that they can really fool you into thinking you are listening to a speaker much larger than their size illustrates. When running the Xciter through the Tayos, things did improve. I am sure this is due to the speaker's 89dB efficiency and 8ohms impedance, coupled by the fact the Taylos are a compact stand mounted speaker as compared to the almost full range floor standing Aerials. Listening to the Taylos driven by the Xciter, soundstaging improved a lot as compared to the Aerials with sound coming from behind, in front, and to the sides of the speakers, along with excellent instrument imaging and layering. On the other hand it is that lighting quick speed I am accustomed to when listening to my reference E.A.R.-Yoshino 890 that I found lacking in the Xciter, keeping it from being a good match. This is one of the strengths of the 890, its microdynamic reproduction. Even the Anthem Amp-1SE+ (my other reference amplifier) had the Xciter beat in this category regarding speed and microdynamic reproduction. Although the Xciter did have an easier time driving the stand mounted Taylos, it didn't make the grade when you compare it the far superior E.A.R.-Yoshino 890 or Anthem Amp-1 SE+ amplifiers.
However, running the Xciter with the Coincident Pure Reference speakers that offer 95dB efficiency and a stable 8 ohms of impendence, the Xciter was finally in its element. Back to the forefront of the show was that sweet triode sound. Just like listening to the Xciter as a headphone amplifier, once again I heard excellent soundstaging, instrument imaging, along with micro and macrodynamic reproduction coming from the loudspeakers as driven by Xciter. Soundstaging improved so much that the music being presented within a defined center stage between the speakers was more to my liking, and what is expected of a high end audio amplifier. At the same time, the soundstage increased in size and scale due to the added headroom the amplifier now displayed driving the more efficient Pure Reference loudspeakers. This resulted in an enlarged musical presentation to the front and back, and to the sides of each loudspeaker. When driving both the Aerials and the Tyler Acoustics speakers, it was this attribute of soundstaging that turned me off the most when listening to the Xciter. While the Xciter did sound really darn good with the Pure Reference speakers, it still didn't compare to the more powerful Anthem or E.A.R.-Yoshino amplifiers. Again, I equate these results to the fact the Xciter really is a headphone amplifier at heart, thus, it reality isn't fair comparing it to these amplifiers, running this set of available speakers.
Although it is quite obvious that one would never drive the $22,000 Coincident Pure Reference speakers with the $3250 Xciter. Though I could see running the Xciter with an efficient pair of desktop speakers, or maybe a folded horn using a pair of Fostex or Lowther type full range drivers. To make that point, here is something to consider. Knowing the Xciter's pure and smooth 6L6 type sound, how about pairing a set of horns with the Xciter? That could be just the ticket since horns often can be on the bright side of the audio spectrum. There I could see the Xciter being a lot of fun, and possibly an excellent match. Unfortunately, with the gear I had around I found the Xciter as a conventional integrated amplifier running a pair of loudspeakers truly lacking, with the one exception regarding the Coincident Pure Reference loudspeakers. With that said, my focus was directed upon the Xciter's attributes as a stand-alone headphone amplifier. When you think of the Xciter as a headphone amplifier, it is anything but lacking. This is clearly where the Xciter shines, and really should be its one true consideration.
I have had the Cary Audio Xciter headphone amplifier in my system for some time now, going back as far as April of 2010. Since that time I have tube-rolled it, and bought the review sample as my personal headphone reference amplifier. Needless to say, with all of that time and experience with the Xciter, I believe I have gotten to know it very intimately.
As I stated at the beginning of the article, the Cary Xciter is clearly an all out attack upon headphone amplification. In my humble opinion there is not a single headphone amplifier out there that can approach what the Xciter can do for $3250. As a headphone amplifier it digs deeper into any recording I have ever heard, presents the music across an expansive soundstage, with fantastic imaging, focus, and most importantly gets the emotion of the performance just perfect. Other than the performance of the Xciter as a conventional 5 or 10-watt (depending upon output tube choice) integrated amplifier, I cannot fault the Xciter in any way. In my opinion, as a headphone amplifier the Xciter is perfect—a clear 10 out of 10! It is the benchmark for all others to be measured. Granted $3250 isn't chump change, especially for a headphone amplifier, most decent headphone amplifiers can be had for around $1000. Let's be honest with ourselves, the Cary Audio Xciter is NOT your average run-of-the-mill headphone amplifier. That said, I truly believe the Xciter, with its added upgrades, is an audiophile bargain, and a "must have" headphone amplifier for any serious music lover. Listening to headphones with their inherent intimacy is really what being an audiophile is all about, or to put it another way, connecting to the music where it touches your soul. The Cary Audio Xciter does this in spades.
As promised I wanted to save my comments regarding tube rolling the Xciter until the end of the article. During the review period I tried out several different sets of tubes: Tung Sol 6550 Reissues, RAM 6550s, JJ Electric and Electro-Harmonx KT-88s, Tung Sol EL-34 reissues, Tung Sol 6L6 reissues, and finally a set of 6L6 tubes from the Tube Amp Doctor cryogenically treated by cyroset.com. It was the 6L6 tube group that sounded the best in the Xciter. Though the stock tubes are the place to start, running The Tube Amp Doctor 6L6 tubes is clearly superior as compared to the rest of the group. The TAD tubes changed the overall character of the amp from one that sounded great to one that is clearly of reference quality. Gone was that last hint of grit I was hearing with the stock tubes. Now instead of the glass being cleaned and being perfectly clear, it was more like someone had opened the window to the music itself. I was now hearing everything in greater detail combined with an greater sense of tonal quality. In addition, the harmonic structure of the notes improved resulting in a purity of tone that was spot on, thus bringing the performance even closer to the listener. Adding the final touch to this tube rolling party was the 12AX7 Genalex reissue tubes—again cryogenically treated by cryoset.com. Now we were have the icing upon your proverbial musical cake. This is clearly the tube combination that made the Xciter truly sing. Tube rolling the Xciter was clearly a blast. This is one piece of gear where tube rolling really does make an honest difference in the sonic signature of the amplifier. I highly recommend it.
The Cary Audio Xciter will now serve as my reference headphone amplifier. There is no doubt it will be a part of my main reference system for many years to come. I am sure you will feel the same too, once you have had a taste of audio nirvana through the Xciter. It is truly one of a kind! Highly Recommended, and winner of a 2010 Positive Feedback Writer's Choice Award! Jeff Parks
Xciter Headphone Amplifier