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September 2015
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Cary Audio DAC-200ts Stereo DAC With Preamplifier
Tons of options within this modern single-box DAC.
Review By Jeff Poth

 

Cary Audio DAC-200ts Stereo DAC With Preamplifier

  Let's start with the most notable feature of the Cary Audio DAC-200ts DAC shall we? The Cary Audio DAC-200TS ($3995) as reviewed here is a full-featured stereo DAC. A pretty lame opener, I agree, yet with a featureset so extensive and crucial to the DAC's personality it bears at least one blatant statement to that effect. The Cary Audio DAC-200ts DAC supports a very wide array of inputs, ranging from USB and Bluetooth aptX lossless, to S/PDIF coaxial, optical TosLink inputs and supports any real-world sampling range up to 384kHz PCM. It utilizes a quad of stereo AK4490EQ DACs to support a balanced output and has 8x oversampling scheme with selectable upsampling, which Cary dubs TrueBit. It also supports up to 256 DSD via USB input. Wi-Fi is supported via 802.11 b/g/n plus both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi have dedicated antenna, which is a nice touch to ensure a solid signal. One of the most interesting features is the selectable output, as one can use the "standard" solid-state output or utilize tube-based output via a pair of 12AU7s. This is a feature Cary Audio calls "Dual Independent Analog Output" or "DiO" for short.

 

The Sum Of The Parts
The DAC is a beast and a well-packaged, nicely finished, solidly built 28 lbs. behemoth at 3.75" x 17.25" x 16.25" (HxWxD). It's by far the biggest stereo DAC (as in not a home theater pre/pro) I've ever used. The build quality and component selection is very good, and Cary claims unmeasurably low jitter and extremely good dynamic range and S/N ratios of 123dB and 112dB respectively. These are very solid numbers from a very solid DAC. Don't take "solid" wrong when I say that word, as it's with respect. This unit is a rock with normal connections and the claimed performance is excellent. It is worth noting that the dynamic range is something that could only be achieved with high-resolution digital audio files, as normal CD 16-bit/44.1kHz has a theoretical maximum dynamic range of 96dB (rarely achieved). Some might argue that dynamic range can never be higher than the S/N ratio (I'm one of them).

Cary Audio DAC-200ts Stereo DAC With Preamplifier

The architecture utilizes a reclocking scheme, 8x oversampling, and a pair of parallel DACs per output phase per channel (eight channels total). Upsampling is achieved with a 128-bit DSP setup, and all upsampling is run to 32 bit word depth, allowing a lot of headroom for the digital volume control. Output impedance is claimed at 220 Ohms unbalanced RCA and 440 Ohms XLR balanced, which is more than low enough to drive most reasonable amplifiers. I assume that the tube output impedance, when enabled, is somewhat higher than this but noticed no issues in my setup either solid state or tube. The use of multiple parallel DACs is cool, allowing greater current drive into the output stage/filters as well as averaging any misbehaviors.

Cary Audio DAC-200ts Stereo DAC With Preamplifier

The unit's equipped with selector buttons for different inputs, clock input in the case of utilizing an external clock signal, power (duh), and switches to control the selectable upsampling and tube output. The remote is full featured as well; controlling any of these functions as well as some (Cary) amplifier functions, and has an aluminum top plate and plastic body. The remote also allows one to control volume, which can be configured in a couple different ways to accommodate various sources, as well as direct connection to an amplifier, in which case this is a digital preamplifier. Given that Cary describes this as a connection option, I'd have liked to see a volume control on the front panel preferably with the remote's mute function duplicated there as well. The front panel does have a nice clean look, however, so perhaps it was a visually motivated decision. I could do without the connectivity logos but after talking with Cary, it seems they had no choice- they're required to have them on the front panel to use the respective technologies and are a big enough shop to get noticed if they omitted them.

Disappointing was the fact that the remote was IR given the unit's Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. It would have seemed obvious to utilize an RF remote, though the unit can be controlled via an app on the user's phone and/or tablet, which mitigates this gripe. Therein lies my only complaint-the DAC connected to Ethernet, but wouldn't work with Wi-Fi. Cary says they haven't encountered this challenge before, I tried both static and DCHP addressing, and no joy on Wi-Fi. Hopefully it was just that I had an early unit, though a firmware update didn't alleviate my issue.

Cary Audio DAC-200ts Stereo DAC With Preamplifier

The faceplate has the ubiquitous blue lighting for the power switch and the display is a blue vacuum fluorescent display, with controllable brightness from the remote. I would have preferred a more advanced display, possibly with touchscreen support. Given that this DAC supports advanced digital connectivity a better display with support for album cover displays, etc, would have been a welcome addition. Upon powering up the Cary Audio DAC-200ts DAC, the unit takes about 10 seconds before the output is switched on and control functions are live, which is likely to enable warm-up of the vacuum tube outputs. Vacuum tube heaters seem to always be on to enable only a short mute when transitioning from solid state to vacuum tube output. In operation apart from the network issues above, the DAC was never anything but solid, though there's a slight pop when switching to and from the vacuum tube output, or using the sample-rate converter options. I only noticed this over the single-ended outputs when run through my transformer volume controls, when I used the balanced outputs to drive my NCore amps directly, there was an expected dropout of the sound but no pop, which I was glad to note, as the combination of the powerful NCores and very high efficiency speakers makes any extraneous noises quite cringe worthy (am I going to blow out my woofers?!)

 

Blah BlahBlah, Yadda Yadda
Yes, the sound, I know. With normal CD content through the solid state output, this unit is fantastic. Smooth nicely extended highs, deep, tonally accurate, impactful bass, great dynamics, and a really nice deep soundstage. I ran through a wide variety of recordings, and the Cary always sounded the part of a very high-end DAC of the modern age. High resolution files sounded as they should, outperforming their 44.1/16-bit counterparts. I tend not to wax too poetic about sound, the ratings will reflect my evaluation, but the "base" sonic performance had me wishing I had the budget to keep this unit on hand purely for the sonics. Compared to my reference DIY DAC, which is very even-handed and tends a little towards mild, the dynamics boost was very welcome and came with improved resolution, particularly in the highs, and importantly the unit was always a pleasure to relax to music with. I'm very sensitive about the "relax" factor- if a component makes me feel on edge, it's a nonstarter and I never felt that way with the Cary Audio DAC-200ts DAC. It handled everything thrown at it exceptionally well, from simple guitar music to piano, orchestra, electronica, and everything in-between. I'd call it neutral, and I think the dynamics would be a strength most people would note about this unit.

As I delved into the features, I started with the easiest part- the tube output is what many might expect. It's a softer, smoother presentation, with a smaller soundstage than the solid-state counterpart. That it's switchable on the fly saves this from being a criticism- I think the tube output option could be very helpful in taming some more aggressive sounding recordings, and if the DAC is used for TV watching or other less-audiophile purposes, it may well be the preferred mode of operation. This may also be the case for speakers with a brighter tonal balance or more aggressive overall sound, or when playback is at higher levels. Indeed, given this DAC's connectivity options, I'd be surprised if many users didn't wind up utilizing the DAC with less than stellar source material sometimes, and thus a forgiving tube output option is very helpful. With better recordings, through my speakers (which are always carefully voiced not to have any harshness), I preferred the solid state outputs by a significant margin. The tubes did also add some shimmer in the highs, almost like a tradeoff between extension and decay. Was this an artifact or an improvement? I think different listeners would have different conclusions.

Bluetooth operation was simple and really easy to operate, with good antenna range. Unfortunately Apple phones don't support aptX so lossless will be limited to users on Android platforms. Bluetooth input from my iPhone was very mellow sounding, with limited top end extension but pretty decent performance otherwise. This isn't the way a high-end DAC should be run, however, with a compromised low-res input, so testing was limited mostly to functionality and some brief sonic evaluation.

Cary Audio DAC-200ts Stereo DAC With Preamplifier

Having the volume control allowed me to run the Cary Audio DAC-200ts DAC as a preamp; running quite a bit lower in level than the nominal output level. This meant running at about -30dB on the Cary's dial. Running so low I was beginning to flirt with digital compression. Thankfully, no artifacts were noticed that belied this with 44.1kHz source material. When running directly, I utilize the 32 bit upsampling to prevent compression at the source wordlength, and as a direct preamplifier, the unit performed admirably and had drive enough to run my monoblocks and sub amplifier together to full output off the XLR balanced and RCA unbalanced outputs respectively. I heard no loss in highs, dynamics, or a change of sonic character. The combined load had the Cary driving only about 10kOhms and it handled that relatively low impedance perfectly well within my system.

The sample rate converter was a very interesting function. I found that integer multiples of the original material sample rate sounded best, IOW, a 44.1kHz signal sounded better at 88.2kHz than 96kHz, and likewise better at 176.4kHz than 192kHz. Interestingly, at the top upsampled rates only integer multiples were available (for 44.1, 352.8 was available but 384 was not, and 705.6 was available, but 768 was not). I found the non-integer multiples to sound slightly muted relative to the 2x, 4x, 8x, and 16x values, which for some content could be helpful, but the aforementioned values were certainly more transparent than their non-integer counterparts. This was particularly true at the high end of the frequency spectrum. The higher upsampled bitrates seemed a tad more transparent than the source-bitrate performance, but the difference within my rig was fairly minor. If I lived with this unit longer, I might have found more advantage to them yet it is hard to say. Reviewing is very challenging and the fact is sometimes our conclusions must be drawn on subtleties. I think the parallel architecture and low jitter performance are big parts of what drives the sound quality on this unit, and those are present no matter the sample rate.

 

Summing It Up
The top flight sonic performance ruled the day despite my desire for better network connectivity (again, seems to have been a review unit issue), plus would desire an RF-based remote rather than IR and a better display. Would hang on to the Cary Audio DAC-200ts DAC within my audio system if it was possible. The sonics are superb plus I love the sample rate conversion and tube output options. It's not an inexpensive unit, though, so it must return to Cary Audio. The "soft" sound I'd previously associated with the Cary Audio brand only came out when I asked for it by implementing the tube stage or the "wrong" (to me) upsampling rate. It's natural sounding and doesn't give up resolution or dynamics to achieve it. Assuming the networking issues are truly resolved, which I think is a fair assumption (shouldn't be that hard), then the Cary Audio DAC-200ts DAC would be a terrific unit to use in a modern stereo digital rig. It has all the features and connectivity you could desire and produces great sonics. The build quality is fantastic too!

My ratings are fairly high across the board and we must keep in mind I'm a pretty picky guy. So I leave some room for something better (though I haven't met it in my rig). The low value rating might give some pause, yet it's a function of the higher-end price point (remember, though, it has two preamplifier stages which contributes to that) and some of my concerns with display and control/network performance within the review sample. I can't imagine a DAC at this level that I'd give a five star value rating, so don't be dissuaded by the value score if you're considering a stereo DAC at this very reasonable $3995 price.

 

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers

Soundscape Extension Into Room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money

 

Specifications
Type: Stereo DAC with solid-state an d vacuum tube preamplifier
Master Clock Jitter: Below measurable levels
Digital Sampling Rates: 44.1 kHz to 768 kHz
Digital Filter: 8x oversampling digital filter
Digital To Analog Converters: Four stereo AK4490EQ working in true balanced output
Bluetooth: CSR Bluetooth v 4.0 with aptX low latency audio decoder
Analog Filter: 3rd order Bessel
Analog Outputs: Balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA
Digital Outputs: S/PDIF Coaxial, optical TosLink operating 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz @ 16 bit to 24 bit
Digital Inputs: USB, Bluetooth plus XLR AES/EBU, two S/PDIF coaxial RCA and optical TosLink
Digital Input Sample Rate:
  USB from 44.1 to 384 kHz @ 16 bit to 32 bit, DSD 64 / 128 / 256.
  Bluetooth  to 44.1 kHz @ 16 bit.
  AES/EBU, Coaxial, TosLink: 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz @ 16 to 24 bit
Tube Compliment: Two 12AU7
Control: Trigger input 12VDC and IR control
Communication: Ethernet and Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n
Power Input: Configured at factory for either 110-120 or 220-240 VAC, 50-60 Hz
Finish: Black cabinet with silver anodized faceplate standard (black optional)
Weight: 28 lbs.
Dimensions: 3.75" x 17.25" x 16.25 (HxWxD)
Price: $3995

 

Company Information
Cary Audio
6301 Chapel Hill Road
Raleigh, NC 27607

Voice: (919) 355-0010
E-mail: info@caryaudio.com
Website: www.CaryAudio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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