ONLINE - ISSUE 6
cary audio Rocket 88 amplifier and SLP-88 preamplifier
as reviewed by Danny Kaey and Steve Lefkowicz
My "buds" often ask me "Have I ever heard the best system", or "what IS the best system out there?" I always wonder how to respond to such questions, as they are easily transcribed into other fields as well"hey what's the best CAR?" "who's the best cook?" In my opinion such questions, by virtue of their nature, are often times misleading and will never yield a correct answer. We can however, approximately respond to that question by answering with the following: ok, so you want Bass? Listen to... (fill in the blank). You like chamber music? Listen to... (fill in the blank). Indeed, IS there such a system that can do justice to a multitude of scenarios and musical programming? Sure, I believe there isto an extent. On one end, you certainly wouldn't prescribe DJ Moby a set of Cary anniversary edition 805 mono blocks for his day to day work, on the other hand, the new VPI HRX would be a complete waste of musical information to an mp3 junkie.
For us mere mortals, alas, there has to be some middle ground, a place we can call home; a piece of equipment which will give us infinite musical pleasure without breaking the bankan all round do-all, be-all, every-day type of component. So now you say, well, how much is that? Is there a price we can attach to that piece of equipment? Certainly! (at least I think!) Since I started to write for PFO, I had the pleasure of auditioning systems in just about every price category, except for perhaps the "stratosphere". Heck, just the other week I had the most amazing experience with Audio Magic's new interconnects, which cost twice as much (!) than the Cary Audio Rocket 88 amp I am reviewing here! Was it instant bliss? You betcha! Was it a better performance than anything I had heard through this system before? You betcha! Would I recommend it? Well, I'd have to be honest and say no for about %95 of all systems out there. No, not because I didn't see the benefit to the cables (to the contrary, I enjoyed such an immensely musical performance, that it was REALLY REALLY difficult returning these cable back to Dave Clark!), rather, from a simple "accounting" perspective, it wouldn't really make an awful lot of sense to spend multiple times the money on each interconnect than what EACH component costs. However, after reviewing all these components, from all walks of life, I believe that MAGICAL number is somewhere around two thousand dollar (US) mark. Can you get it for any less? Of courseand most certainly for a lot more too; but again, the main objective was to achieve reasonable musical bliss without having to resolve to breaking your sons college fund, girlfriend's soon to be wife's wedding ring bank, etc. You get my point. I really believe that for around that price point you achieve solid mechanical construction, sonic accuracy, performance and most importantly, musical pleasure.
Without much further ado, I would like to present the following dynamic duoprecisely the two components I was referring to in the above paragraph: Cary Audio Rocket 88 tube power amp, and Cary Audio SLP-88 tube pre-amp. I further would like to recommend the Cary Audio 308T tube output stage CD player, which I have reviewed elsewhere in this issue. Further, please note that most listening and reviewing was done WITH this closed systemI did substitute an Audio Note 2.1 CD player for a while, but again, most of the time this was itthe Mac Daddy, the King of the Hill, the ONE.
Before digging in to the meat and bone of this review, I do have one confession to makethis is the first time that I have devoted a great amount of critical listening to assess the benefits / downfalls to an all tube systemindeed, my previous engagements were all with the solid state camp and as I am coming to realize most if not all my ideas and rumblings on tube sound were ill conceived and totally unfounded. Used to be that when someone recommended I give a good tube setup my time of the day, I would shriek and typically mouth back with such non-sense comments as "yeah, and every month I need to replace the tubes?!" or "man, how can essentially 1940's technology sound good some 60+ years later?". Well, to all those who had advised me otherwise, I offer my kind apologiesI simply did not realize what a tube setup can offer in terms of overall musicality and sheer musical pleasure.
The Rocket 88 is a winner in my book on looks alone. The minute I unpacked the hefty "baby" Cary, I new I was holding err schlepping, something special and unique. There certainly is something to be said about the beauty of tubes glimmering and shimmering at night (or day in a dark room! Doh!) and making you feel as though you are transported back into a different time and space. With all its antique looks, the construction quality and overall fit and finish are by no means antiqueall top notch stuff. The unit is a push pull design, balanced, running in Class A triode mode and switching to Class AB in Ultra-Linear mode. Output is rated at 20 watts Triode mode, and 40 in Ultra-Linear. Tubes used are as the name implies KT 88's in the output stages, two x EL 84 current source and lastly a pair of 6922 input tubes. As mentioned, since I am new to the world of tubes, please don't ask me what all this meansI have no clue! From speaking to tube aficionados, I understand that this is a typical setup for such an amplifier. With its black anodized front, chassis and overall black construction it looks like a million bucks (to the untrained eye of say my wife or friend who was over the other day), that's for sure. Weight is around the 40 pound mark, and it has very nice, high quality binding posts for RCA and XLR inputs, with gold plated output binding posts which accept spades or banana plugs. Nice job indeed! Ohh I almost forgot Cary Audio has this special little touch they add to some of their designs; "cat eye" output level tubes, with adjustable intensity controlsway cool! As the name implies, they indicate the output level by blinking in sync. Gotta hand it to Dennis Had, that's one of the neatest features I have ever seen on an amptube or otherwise! The tubes are in plain sight, symmetrically arranged at the front of the unit, while the power transformers are located all to the back (also in symmetrical arrangement). If Grandpa (from one of my all-time favorite shows, The Munsters) had this laying around his house, I wouldn't think much of itthe fact that this work of art is occupying a spot in MY living room, however, is a different story altogether.
The SLP-88 on the other hand has a more subdued approach and designin fact, to the untrained eye, it appears as though it just another preamp. Featuring a Class A Single-Ended design and employing dual 6SN7 tubes, this Cary is quite a special performer. Dominating the black anodized aluminum facia is a large (thank you!) attenuator flanked by several operational switches, on/off, headphone on/off, tape monitor and mute. Remote control is standard, though somewhat limitedessentially it features volume up/down and a mute on/off buttonfrom a mechanical perspective a bit of a letdown as I was hoping for a more substantial and solid r/c. But again, it is a price point question no doubt, and offering a machined remote at this level (US$ 2000) would have cost that much more moneywho knows, maybe Cary Audio can offer some type of upgrade in the near future. Also noteworthy are dual "bling-bling" BLUE LED's indicating power state of the unit.
Since I was the first to receive these three pack (Rocket 88, SLP-88 and 308T CD player), I first proceeded with a lengthy break-in period. As the days went by, one thing became very evident: this was one musical system! At long last, about 10 days into this process, I anxiously awaited my first actual seating and listening session. Armed with my favorite CD's (still waiting for the LP playback component), I was eager to learn about the tube sound altogether. So, what exactly is tube sound anyway? Conversing over this subject with my fellow associates and friends, tube sound comes away most often characterized as being sweet, open, natural, musical and any other adjectives you can find to describe the general tonality. Of course, immediately following should be the questionwell, ok, so you don't have solid state that would fall into any of those categories? Answer: of course you do. However, in general, I have come to understand the following: it appears to be easier to design such a musical component at or near these price points with tubes than with solid state. Another way of putting it would be to say that it would take that much more in resources to achieve such sound from solid state than it would through use of conventional tubes. What the little Cary system was able to do with my living room was nothing short of amazingI remember placing a call to Dave Clark voicing my newly discovered enthusiasm for tube gearplaying various tunes of different Massive Attack CD's, I felt exactly that what apparently had eluded me all this time, was that sweet, beautiful tube sound.
Though nominally rated at only 20 watts per channel, this amp could play as loud as anything else I ever had in my system! I might add that my Reimer's are quite efficient speakers, rated at around 94db's, thus if you simply do the math, you come to realize that there is plenty of headroom in the setup. Case in point, listening to the famous Gladiator soundtrack with its bombastic and musically involving sound never gave me the impression that there was much constraint during "hard" passages. The typical narrowing of the sound stage, loss of musical integrity normally associated with clipping amplifiers was never really brought to bear on this listener. On contrary, these triode watts played nicely and appeared to be in full control. I was utterly impressed with this feat, as the previous setup in my system, the VDH pre-power combo was rated at a much higher output level. No matter what musical material I threw at this combo, the net result was always clean uninterrupted coherent sound. Massive Attack is one of my all time favorites, due to their consistent material and of course prodigious and well recorded bass lines. Jumping from track to track, CD to CD, yielded incredibly satisfying music emitting from the Reimers. The entire Cary system achieved a very high level of coherent performancetypically, you get one of this, one of that, and in most cases a lot of something else, but this Cary system just gave you EVERYTHING with extreme precision, resolution and speed. Music simply flowed through the room, much like a live performance would carry itself over the sound stage through the auditorium. Recently I purchased the outstanding disc of The Rat Pack (that's Dino, Sammy and Frank) performing at a smoky night club in Chicago, the famous Villa Venice. The performance, if you are into that type of music, is nothing short of extraordinarySteve Hoffman did a great job on this disc; capturing every nuance of signal left on the original masters which only recently were uncovered in fact, leaves you asking for more of this kind of an actproblem is, I couldn't think of any modern group capable of recreating such performances! Played through the all Cary system, the result achieved is seriously something to be heard. The old "you are there" saying really needs to be taken seriously in this instance; the voices, the timbre, aura, air, are so realistically portrayed its almost as though you can see the cigarette smoke appear in your room. Fascinating, as Mr. Spock would say.
ECM's new release of Rarum recordings, in this case, Chick Corea's compilation of outstanding musical achievement is well very well preserved on this disc. Ranging from his early works on, the sound is ECM typical. Full in sound, spacious, clear - in short, well recordedthis disc plays very well through my system. Resolution is top; this is really where the Cary systems shines in my humble opinionit is open and clear, yet without the dreading harshness which can easily find in lesser designsinstruments shine in their full light. Kick drums, snares, cymbals, trumpets, pianoyou name it, the full glory of each instrument is brought back to life without any fuss, compression doom or gloom. From all this transcending performance, there has to be something which is not quite where it could be, or rather something that is left for more elaborate, read: more expensive designssay the famous 805's (instant drool factor!) which I hope to review some day Well, yes and no. Yes, I am sure that more powerful amplifiers will yield higher dynamic reserves for all but the most demanding orchestral passages. Yes, the performances can surely be taken onto higher levels of even greater refinement and sonic bliss. But, let's keep this in perspective; the sonic beauty of this system is achieved for a very, very low entry fee into the realm of what is available. You would have to spend that much more money on equipment to get incrementally better performanceheck, last I checked, the 805 anniversary edition retails for a hefty 10k, or in other words, more than the ENTIRE Cary system put together before me. Thus, what we are left with and take on our journey is by no means "average". This system, setup with properly matched speakers, will play with the best of them and give anything in it's (and dare I say above) its price range more than a run for its money.
Is this the best "system" I have ever heard? Depends on what you are looking for; Dave Clark just recently received a quite nice "little" amplifier, the stereo version Clayton amp pumping out a cool 300 Class A watts into 8 ohms, that, by the way, would amount to 600 into 4, as played through my ReimerswOOha! Playing one of my newest musical treasures, Bill Laswell's Tabla Beat Science, Dave's system forced me to conjure up all the superlative adjectives I could muster to describe the sound of tablas being played back at live volume levels without any hint of compression. While I haven't had the chance to replicate this sound at my house I am almost positive that the Cary system will not be able to reproduce such a mighty performance. Sure, the tonality, timbre, dynamic range will all be there, no doubt, albeit at "lower" volume levelsobviously, you don't have to be a rocket scientist that, et ceteris paribus, a 20 watt triode amplifier is no match for a behemoth, yet very much musical 300 Class A watt'er. Mind you of course, watts aren't equal to watts and as such please take this statement within that context!
In summary, what you get for the amount of money you spent is worth quite a bit and then some in raw performance. Rarely have I witnessed a complete system to play in full sync and achieve such high value. If you are looking to spend this kind of money, give your local Cary dealer a callyou might be surprised as I certainly was with the final result and outcome! Danny Kaey
I try not to have any serious opinions on products that I haven't personally used in my system at home. Certainly I'll have some level of opinion, based on experience from hearing products at hi-fi shows, other people houses, and audio dealers (though I rarely go to audio dealerships). But unlike a lot of audio hobbyists that I've met over the years, I try not to base my opinions on things that I've read in audio magazines (or now, online sources). You can always tell who those people are, as they tend to have very strong opinions about almost every piece of audio gear out there, and you can usually tell which magazine they prefer based on how they express their opinions.
But still there are certain brands, that, even though I have had little direct experience with them, I seem to have stuck in my mind certain preconceived notions of how they will sound when I do get to hear them. This most likely happens because certain people whose listening habits, descriptive skills and musical sensibilities I know and trust have described them to me. Cary Audio is one of those brands, as many people I have known and respected over the years have had very high praise for their products. So it was with great expectations that I awaited the arrival of the Cary SLP-88 preamp and Rocket-88 power amp.
You've already read the detailed description of them, so I can skip that. I inserted both units into my system together, figuring to try them first as a set, a combination designed to work well together. I also tried the units individually, substituting either my Antique Sound Labs MG-SI15DT-S or B&K ST-140 amplifiers for the Rocket-88, and also switching back to my PS Audio 4H in place of the SLP-88. I did use the phono section of the PS Audio throughout the evaluation period, feeding the Cary from its "record out" plugs.
Probably some of you are thinking that a fairly inexpensive set of speakers like the Sound Dynamics 300ti that I use aren't up to the task of evaluating a $4500 set of electronics, but let me assure you that these speakers are the real deal. I have used these for about five years and have never felt that they hindered any review I have written. They are not an easy to speaker to drive, and quickly and clearly let me hear the effect and impact of any change made upstream in my system. Also, although not appearing in my equipment list before, I have been using a Marantz SA-8260 SACD player in place of my AMC CD8 for the past few months, and on both SACD and red book CD playback, it is a real honey of a player. I'll have more to say on this piece another time (Hint: I have already purchased it).
On to the Cary
First, let us discuss the preamp.
Sometimes long held beliefs have to get shaken up. I understand this, and expect that throughout my life, on occasion, something will happen, some revelation, be it major, such as meeting the woman I wanted to marry or having a child, or something that in the grand scheme of things is actually fairly minor, such as hearing a new piece of audio gear, that will cause my basic outlook on things to change. I rarely expect that to happen from audio. I hear good things and bad things and things that fall somewhere in between. Sometimes I'm tempted to buy a new piece or replace an old one (not too often, though), but rarely has my fundamental outlook on things audio actually been altered. Reviewing the Cary electronics has been one of those times, a fundamental change in how I view my audio system.
It may not seem like such a big deal to some of you, but for me, active preamps always seemed anathema to a positive listening experience. I'm a passive line stage kind of guy. I know the PS Audio 4H can be a full active preamp, but in all the years I've used it (bought it in 1984) I don't think I've ever switched the line amp on. The unit runs as a passive preamp, with the large power supply used to power the phono section only. I have tried other passive stages over the years, and always felt this was the way to go. Active preamps always seemed to add too much of their own character to the sound.
Now, with the Cary SLP-88 preamp in my system, whether feeding the Cary Rocket-88, or either my ASL or B&K amps, the music takes on a quality of reproduction I've not before experienced in my home. My lifelong obsession with not adding anything to the signal at this point, which I have always been convinced an active preamp would do (and a tube preamp would do even more) is gone, done, c'est finis. Does the Cary SLP-88 add anything? Well, if improved dynamics, detail, and a much better sense of rhythm is "adding something" then yes it does. If increased sense of scale, pace, and harmonic richness is "adding something" then again, yes, the Cary SLP-88 does. If simply improving my level of enjoyment while listening to music is "adding something" then by golly, the SLP-88 adds plenty, and I'll gladly take all it can add.
There is not a single area of either sound reproduction or musical capabilities that aren't improved with use of the Cary preamp in my system. And this isn't just as compared to an aging moderately priced solid state device like the PS Audio. In the many years that I have had this preamp (only my Linn LP-12 has been in my system longer) I have often tried full active preamps, both solid state and tube. In every case until now, always felt that, though they improved musical playback in some areas, ultimately, I was better off returning to the PS Audio in passive mode. Not any more. I plug my PS in now, and I feel let down, like an important part of the music, the very heart and soul of it, is missing.
Take for example the new SACD release of the first David Johansen and the Harry Smiths from Chesky Records. Listen to the subtle dynamic shading in Johansen's voice in tracks like Delia or James Alley Blues. With the Cary preamp, this is portrayed with stunning realism. Listen to the bass line in Delia. Though the bass line is not exceptionally deep, the notes are fleshed out with both the leading and trailing edges sounding just right.
Switch to something like King Crimson's classic LP Lizard (both an early Atlantic LP SD8278 and the Editions EG half-speed mastered LP EGKC 3) and just sit back and marvel at the intricate interactions between Fripp and the rest of the band. Maybe more than any other album in my collection, Lizard needs a great high-resolution system to really let you hear the music in what can often sound like just so much random playing. Let's all ask Classic Records to release all the early King Crimson LPs (except Earthbound, we can do without that) on 200 gram Quiex pressings! Again through the Cary preamp, each instrument is clearly separated both musically and physically. Listen to the instrumental before the last verse in Indoor Games. Is it just so much noise or can your system reveal the musical adventure contained within? In my system, with the Cary preamp, it is revealed to me as it has never been before.
Some say God is in the details. I won't go that far, but maybe it's the music we find in the details. For as rich and full bodied as this preamp sounds, it is amazing to me that no details are lost. Everything is there, the good the bad, and the off-key. It's just that the Cary seems to get the best out of whatever you send through it.
I could keep going on, but I'll say at this point that this preamp is a musical marvel.
There are some other points I need to make about this preamp. First, if you listen to headphones, this has a headphone jack that is driven from transformers by the tubes. It is a fine headphone amp. Driving my Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro cans, it is luscious, warm, and sensual. It is powerful and dynamic as all get out, but subtle and beautiful and makes me want to listen to Julie London and June Christy and Katherine Whalen and any other female singer that I have that sounds best with the lights turned low. I do miss the signal processing that my Headroom amp supplies (subtle as it is, it really makes headphone listening more comfortable). But the little Little can't match the Cary for sheer beauty of sound.
Second, this preamp (and the matching Rocket-88 too, for that matter) are dead quiet in my system. Full volume with no input signal, and my ear pressed to the front of the speaker, the ambient noise of my house and neighborhood still is all I hear. Even the very slight 60 Hz hum that I have in my phono section (since loading it down to 1000 ohms for my Dynavector 19A cartridge) is reduced significantly.
Third, I like the physical layout of the Cary. It is easy to use, has enough inputs for me (four), a tape monitor, and dual outputs. I do miss having a balance control, though better to have no balance control that to have to deal with dual volume controls like some other preamps I've tried. I'm glad Dennis Had didn't get into that.
On to the Rocket-88.
I love the name! When I was a young lad in upstate New York, my dad was a loyal Oldsmobile man (yes, it was my father's Oldsmobile). I have fond memories of taking trips in various "88's" (Dynamic 88, Delta 88) all powered by the big Rocket V88 (with the Turbo Hydramatic of course). Those guys knew how to name things back then.
The Rocket-88 is the kind of amp that I like. At $2500 it is not too expensive, relative to the current market. It uses KT-88 tubes, which are easy to find, reasonably priced when replacements are needed, and are great sounding tubes. Maybe KT-88s are not exotic or the "in thing" like low powered 45, 2A3 or 300B tubes, but in real life systems, KT-88s can drive normal every day speakers without making a fuss. My ASL amp also uses KT-88 tubes (though only one per channel for a mighty fifteen watts) and I love it. The Cary uses two per channel and puts out a very powerful sounding forty watts in ultra-linear mode, and twenty in triode mode. It can be switched with a simple flip of a toggle switch for each channel. And as I find with my ASL amp (which can also be switched from triode to pentode), my Sound Dynamics speakers prefer their tube amps to be pentode, push-pull or simply more powerful. So, for most of my listening I used the Cary amps in forty watt ultra-linear mode.
Where to begin? How about a sophomoric statement like "Wow, what a great amp!" Okay, I'll do better. This amps sings. This amp makes music in the best ways one could want. The flow of music was simply superb, with pace and timing absolutely spot on. KT-88s are generally great bass tubes, and this holds true with the Rocket 88. They control the bottom end of the Sound Dynamics speakers, depth, power, impact and tonality, better than anything I've tried except for the much more expensive 47 Labs Gaincard. However, I don't think the Gaincard has the harmonic richness of the Cary, nor does it match the Cary for the sense of placing bass notes out in the room, as if from real players.
This is one of those amps that, in spite of its moderate power rating, sounds far more powerful than it really is. Forty watts per channel wpc may seem low to some of you, but heck, I live every day with just fifteen watts, and may drop down to 3 to 8 watts if I switch to more efficient speakers. Forty watts is plenty of power. Maybe effortless is a better term. There is a sense of the music just effortlessly flowing out and engulfing me that I just love.
If you've read any of my previous articles, you're probably expecting me to say some deprecating remarks regarding soundstaging and imaging at this point. Well, surprise, I have nice things to say about this. The Cary Rocket 88 sets up a soundstage as big and well defined as I've heard from any system using Sound Dynamics speakers. Although I personally don't put much effort into setting up specifically for soundstaging, recent changes in my equipment (the Dynavector cartridge and the Marantz SACD player for the most part) have improved my system's ability to portray a proper soundstage (as has the ASL amp). As good as that has become, using the Cary amps (both pre and power together) is a whole new world of soundstage presentation for me and my system. For those who put more stock in this characteristic than I do, I think you will be very impressed by this combination.
Actually, throughout the whole sonic spectrum, the Rocket 88 amp does pretty much everything really well. There are no significant tonal aberrations or timing issues or anything to detract from the music. Comparing it directly to my ASL amp, they initially sound very similar. But after just a few minutes you begin to hear the Cary sounding just a little more tonally rich, a pinch more detailed in complex musical passages, a smidgen airier in the high frequencies. Although taken as individual things, the differences seem slight, taken altogether, the Cary does seem worth the extra price over the $750 ASL. It doesn't make me want to sell my ASL or anything, but I certainly appreciate how nice this amp is.
Would I buy either (or both) of the Cary 88's? Maybe. I'd go for the preamp before the power amp, as it represents the greater improvement over what I use now. But, will I buy this preamp? Well, no, I won't, at least not now. Why not? Because now that I have heard what this preamp can do for $2000, I need to see what other manufacturers can do also. Maybe it is just that the art and science of designing line stages has improved in the past several years to where this is just one of many great tube preamps. I'll need to spend a good part of my time finding out. But, if you are looking for a great preamp now, and don't want to wait, you can safely put the Cary on your short list, even if that list has only one name on it. Steve Lefkowicz
Steve Lefkowicz copyright March 2003
CAD-808 (Rocket 88) amplifier