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Positive Feedback ISSUE 5
february/march 2003


An Interview with Dennis Had of Cary Audio
by Sasha Matson


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Dennis and Sasha at 2003 CES

In high-end audio—or any other business for that matter—a decade can be a long time. Cary Audio Design achieved that milestone a while back. Dennis Had and his wife Donna founded the company in 1989. Now Cary Audio is starting to celebrate milestone birthdays of their noted products—the renowned CAD805 monoblock amplifiers turned ten this year, and in their honor Dennis Had brought out a special Anniversary Edition of that great music maker. Time flies when you’re having fun–Had is every inch as passionate about audio design today as when he was a kid. He was a seventh grader when he designed his first single-ended audio amp as a science project. He won a blue ribbon for that effort, and returned to that initial love years later with the founding of Cary Audio Design. You are what you design! Dennis Had and Cary Audio have attracted much attention and many loyal customers in the years since, for their no-compromise, take-no-prisoners attitude towards amplifier design, particularly his single-ended designs, several of which feature the tube audiophiles either love or love to hate, the 300B.

I caught up with Dennis Had, along with his business partner Bill Wright, in the Cary Audio suite at the Alexis Park during the 2003 Consumer Electronics Show. It has been a big year for Cary Audio, highlighted by their move to bigger and better manufacturing quarters in North Carolina. As I spoke with Dennis, I could hear beautiful music being played in the next room by a Cary CD player through his new Cary speaker design, the Silver Oak Loudspeaker, driven by gorgeous looking (and sounding) CAD805 Anniversary Edition monoblocks.

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Dennis and Bill at 2003 CES

Sasha Matson: What is your view of the proper relationship between the appreciation of recorded music and the live concert musical experience? Do you view them as two separate worlds?

Dennis Had: I think if we are realistic, they probably are very much two separate worlds, and I say that from the standpoint of interfacing with our customers. Probably a majority of those customers do not attend live concerts, other than rock concerts. Symphonic presentation is an offering for maybe twenty percent of our customers. These are the true high-end buyers—the people that really will go to any length to replicate that emotional experience. They are the most passionate, without regard for the equipment costs. Then you have the people that really love jammin’ with music, who make up a major portion, and those people are more cosmetically intrigued and more inclined to tweak, to put different power cords on. That is their form of the ritual, whereas the concertgoer knows that real music is the ritual, and they want to come home and continually feed that emotion. Then you’ve got the people that have no concept, except that it’s bigger and louder.

SM: Franco Serblin of Sonus Faber was recently quoted as saying: "You might have a more intense emotional experience with a recording than with a live performance."  What is your take on that?

DH: That could be possible from the standpoint of your environment. Some people might be far more relaxed and allow themselves to delve into the music. Personally I find that difficult to comprehend when I attend the symphony. I can be out on the street and a fellow opens up his guitar case and starts to play, and I stop and listen. I was raised with it. My father was a violinist, and music was to be played as the composer intended it.

SM: Does the current younger generation value music in the same way?

DH: I think music today, or what is in vogue, is somewhat surrounded with high-tech and machinery.

SM: Just go over to the Convention Center (laughter)! Is the internet going to be a medium for high quality audio?

DH: In the future there will be a form of downloading music that is legitimate and ethical, and there will be advances in bandwidth.

SM: As a designer, how do you view the interface between the physics, the hardware and software, and the ethereal art of music?

DH: It truly is an art form. As you design a circuit there are proper protocols of engineering, there are rules that you must follow for ethical engineering. There are circuit changes that will respond to the personal designer’s ear, still staying within proper engineering form. But it is an absolute creative passion—that’s me you’re talking to.

SM: That’s who I'm talking to (laughter)! You’ve now designed and brought to the public a number of fine audio products. Do you love all your children equally?

DH: There are always some of your first-born. One of them of course is the 805.

SM: Even as you introduce new products, are there some you would like to keep in production?

DH: Sure, one of them would be the 805, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary. That is a product that we’re known for. There are products in the past that I thought would be absolutely cool, but they were too low power. At this point there is a trio of products we would like to maintain: the CAD805, the 300SEI (that all my children own), and the 300SEs.

SM: In the era of home theater, is it now necessary for musicians and people in the high end to think like filmmakers?

DH: The surround-sound video experience is driven by the video, by the film. In my opinion, the multiple-channel loudspeaker setup is flawed for music. I believe that a two-channel system done properly is far more realistic, and will convey far more of the emotion. With the proliferation of that market, and the type of equipment that goes along with it, care and passionate designing are absolutely secondary. With film and video, the audio becomes a fill-in. If the screen were blank, there would be no reason to listen to that stuff.

When I use the term "secondary," that is something about which we learned a hard lesson. A number of years ago, I designed a broadcast-quality multi-channel amplifier. It was part of my naiveté. I made an assumption, which was incorrect, that this was a product that we could take to the pro-sound world for commercial theater applications. The unit weighted 190 pounds and was absolutely bulletproof; it was my presentation of how music should sound. We made a presentation to a group of executives in Las Vegas a few years ago. The amplifier, to meet our margins, was a seven-thousand-dollar device. We were invited to come, and graciously invited to leave the room when we found out they didn’t want seven-thousand-dollar amplifiers—they wanted seven-hundred dollar amplifiers. In the cinemas that we are going to, you’re listening to the least expensive they can get away with.

SM: Having now tackled the design of digital components, are you still a believer in tube technology?

DH: The CD308T was great fun because the sonic presentation could be molded and finessed, to my ears, in the software realm. I’m not a digital engineer, so the way it was done was I drove the digital team crazy. It afforded me the opportunity to shape that player in this mystic digital realm to my ears and desires, and then add the sweetener of the vacuum tubes.

SM: Your initial line of CD players included tubed outputs, but currently the CD308T is the only one that does. Have your customers been asking for them?

DH: They have been. There has been some disappointment with our CD players with our hardcore tube customers. The CD308T was an immediate success. The reality is that we have many dealers throughout the world that have no concept, or any desire, to have products that include vacuum tubes, which are "old technology." They are not able to comprehend them. So, it afforded us a new venue to not have the vacuum tubes.

SM: Extrapolating this out, Dennis, what are your current thoughts on the digital/analog divide? Have you been able to achieve parity with fine vinyl playback with your current lineup of CD players, or is that even a goal?

DH: You know, at first it was, years ago when I was tearing apart players. The analog playback system will have its own distinct sound. I grew up with a record player as soon as I could put a record on. That is what I'm attuned to. I equate electronic playback of music with a record player.

SM: Do you listen to a lot of vinyl at home?

DH: I would say my CD player has a lot of dust on it (laughter).

SM: Mums the word!

DH: The reality is that the CD is what we find music on, but I have come to the conclusion that we are just chasing our tails.

SM: But it's getting darn better, under your leadership and others.

DH: That's true. You take the average layman off the street, and it is not subtle—they can hear the difference between a first-generation CD player and what we've achieved.

SM: Given the complex nature of digital sub-components, how have you tried to achieve a creative approach in your digital designs?

DH: I have creative control, at this point, in the software realm. I have my software guru. The filtering, the algorithms—they can be shaped.

SM: Do you do empirical testing and listening?

DH: That is correct. Then my responses: "I need a greater soundstage, I need more foundation, I need depth of field, the last software didn’t get me those."

SM: Do you find the nature of digital components frustrating?

DH: No, and the reason is that I have my other realm of products that I can be tweaking. It's something of a luxury that I can speak in terms of my desires, and then the software people can do their thing.

SM: What are your thoughts at this point on SACD and DVD Audio?

DH: When I formed Cary Audio it was an absolute statement. From a business standpoint as well, to just follow the crowd is the most difficult.

SM: Low wattage and 300B tubes?

DH: It afforded us attention. We were set apart.

SM: Having pioneered very high-quality, single-ended, low-output-power amplifiers, do you think the term "watts" has any real meaning today for the high end user?

DH: We can go back to that figure of maybe 20 per cent of our customers, who want to invoke the original emotion of the performance. For them, wattage has no bearing; it's all in the sonic presentation. The most wattage-conscious customer is one that has no clue what music is.

SM: Every one of those watts is a good watt!

DH: Its just part of the American culture. There was a one-cylinder engine in Henry Ford’s first automobile, and Cadillac announced the V16 the other day at the Detroit show—one thousand horsepower! It just follows the society.

SM: Your comments on the mysteries of "upsampling"—when does it work, and when doesn't it work so well?

DH: On some of the earlier digital recordings, there was RF and sub-induced noise above the 23kHz subsonic brickwall filter. On our players, when you have them upsampling at 192kHz, you've got an opening window up to about 88 kHz, so there are some occasions when you will hear some nasty stuff. It is showing the original A to D conversion. It is a matter of personal preference. In reality, we're still dealing with an initial disk at 44kHz. In general, there is greater width, more detail.

SM: What is most rewarding, and most frustrating, in the current consumer business environment?

DH: The most frustrating is the lack of passionate retailers. The mentality in the past few years has become that retailers just want to move boxes.

SM: Do you seek dealers out, or do they come to you?

DH: They come to us. We have felt that if we can sell the final user, then the user will go to a dealer and request it, and that will bring the dealer to us. There are so many dealers that lose track of the fact that this is a specialty market. The Best Buys—that’s a whole different business model, and the mentality of many of those specialized dealers is that they want to emulate a Best Buy or whatever. I think that is harming them, and it’s a frustration to me personally.

SM: Why do people listen to music? What floats your boat aesthetically?

DH: There’s a ritual, and this is the beauty of vinyl. If one isn’t playing the instrument and you’re not at the live venue, then there was a ritual with the turntable. You cleaned the record, you put it on the cleaning machine, cleaned the stylus. And of course, part of the ritual that I like is the glowing vacuum tubes. With the CD, aside from the green pens, there’s not a lot of ritual. To this day I have a passion for used bookstores that carry records. People talk about scratching and hissing—I don’t hear it.

SM: What are your reference recordings?

DH: I have a few that my father did, metal pressings and shellac, which were done in our living room. I can never get enough of Rachmaninoff. Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor—I will seek out every performance, and the chance is that the latest performance becomes my favorite for a while, because I'm feeling new emotion. The RCA Living Stereos, I have maybe 500 of the originals. I enjoy jazz.

SM: What do you think of high end journalism? Do you think it has an educational role to play?

DH: For better or worse, the education process, in my opinion, should come from the dealer. The local dealer should be spreading the gospel and creating the passion. In the "golden day" of hi-fi, that's where the passion was spread, by the dealer in the community. Now the reviewer is in that position.

SM: Cary Audio has recently moved to bigger and better quarters. I assume this reflects some optimism on your part and Cary's place within the high end?

DH: Absolutely. We've been blessed; the market has been very good to us. We did in fact, nine months ago, buy an acre of dirt in an industrial park, and built a new home.

SM: In the high end, the dialectic between art and business seems particularly intense. Do you see this as productive and energizing, or is there a downside?

DH: The passionate, art side of it, the creativity and design, would be to no avail if it was not put forth in a business plan to take it out into the marketplace. Part of my passion is driven by acceptance in the marketplace, which in turn equates to income.

SM: Right. Long may you reign!

DH: Put it this way. You take a trip to Niagara Falls, and the emotional impact of the falls—your mind is ablaze. So you take your latest high-tech camera and take a picture and then bring it back to your home, blow it up seven by eight feet and put it on the wall. You can reflect upon and look at that picture and receive some of the emotional impact, but it will never ever come close to being there at Niagara Falls.