It takes some big... umm... output tubes to sell a CD player with all the hype, misinformation and apprehension surrounding the new digital formats. Fortunately, Cary Audio has quite sizable output tubes, even if the CD-303, unlike its predecessors which used a pair of tubes in their output stage, is a pure solid-state design. Built around dual Burr-Brown PCM1704u chipsets (a 24/96 chipset), the Pacific Microsonics PMD-100 filter with Microsoft's HDCD, a 3rd order Bessel analog output filter and the Philips CDM-12 transport, the CD-303 is a solid, well built unit, which, for $2,995 USD, I guess it ought to be.
Like the proverbial Ford of Henry J., the 303 comes in any color you want, as long you want black, but at least it's a pretty shade of black. The fascia is very clean looking with a very substantial center mounted CD tray with an easy on the eye blue display just below it. To the left lies the power button and above that is a blue LED power indicator. To the right of the tray is a blue HDCD LED. Along the bottom right of the fascia are the control buttons, open, play, stop, back and forward. These functions are duplicated on the remote control wand, which also adds the usual other functions, namely programming and repeat. Round back, the CD-303 gives you five ways to get signal, with single-ended and balanced analog outputs, and coax, optical and AES/EBU digital outputs.
Inside, the Cary sports an extremely clean layout. The transport section runs the entire length of the player and is fully shielded. To one side is the power section, while the other side has the digital and analog output sections. Everything is neatly designed and mounted, showing a mature product design.
After warming up in the office system, the 303 served a stint as transport in the main rig. Not that you should consider spending three large on a dedicated 16-bit/44kHz transport at this stage of the high-bit evolution. Then again, if you are looking for a CD player to fill current needs, as well as a player that can eventually serve as a purpose-built 16/44 transport down the road when we finally get true universal DACs, the 303 gets my hearty endorsement. In fact, of all the transports that have spent time at the Warnke Music and Snowshoe Lodge, including the mighty CEC, this Cary is the closest to neutral I've heard, as well as being the most revealing. And, if that isn't enough, it is both quick and quiet in duty. All of which adds up to hearty praise for the Philips transport and Cary's internal design.
Still, we are here to talk about the 303 as a CD player, not a transport, so onward we go.
To investigate that, after using the CD-303 as a transport I pulled my Dodson DA-217 MK. II DAC and lashed the Cary to the system with some Cardas Neutral Reference ICs. The first impression the solo 303 delivered was of impressive and broadband neutrality. Of neutrality so total and complete that it could teach the Swiss a thing or two. And, even, of neutrality that to a wild-eyed tone-junkie, could border on the bland.
Since a great many so called audiophiles are in fact tone-junkies, willfully geeking out to exaggerated realities, the above line is not meant as an insult to the 303. Instead it is an acknowledgement of the first and most fundamental skill of the 303. Rather than hype, skew, color or fog the proceedings, the 303 gets as far out of the way as possible. Purity, most especially in tonal character, receives much audiophile lip service and yet most audio designers know that to get attention in the show room, purity gets you as many second looks as it does in a bar at 2am. While I'll refrain from offering advice on what happens at 2am, I can say this, to overlook the CD-303 on this basis is a real mistake. After all, that girl you picked up at the bar is probably not going to make it home to see mom, just as a willfully colored audio component is good for a fling but all wrong to build a system with.
The CD-303 also has a very even dynamic temperament, neither adding emphasis at the micro-dynamic level in an attempt to add life, nor subtracting from macro swings. For example, a listen to Ralph Towner's solo album, Ana [ECM 1611], is substantially about micro shadings of tonal color and dynamics. Through the Cary player I heard exactly what I expected to hear, a guitarist of the first rank. No new worlds were opened by tonal and dynamic sleight of hand, instead the same world had greater definition, greater stability, greater reality.
Looking back over the last couple of paragraphs I realize that by saying what the CD-303 doesn't do wrong I'm praising it in negative terms. Let's take a different tack for a bit.
In my system the Cary showed itself capable of reaching all the way to the lowest octave with both superb control and power. Listening to Everything But The Girl re-mix album, Everything But The Girl vs. Drums N'Bass [Atlantic 2-85474], is wild exercise in rhythm and bass, and a test of any system, even if the music almost entirely electronic. The 303 showed itself more than up to the task, easily besting the in my room performance of all but a couple stand-alone DACs. Faced with the subtle mix of tonal and micro-dynamic demands of the Collen Sexton track on the Telarc compilation of Charlie Patton tunes, Down The Dirt Road [Telarc CD-83535], the 303 pulled out all the midrange, acoustic thrills of her pure and forlorn vocal as well as the outstanding guitar work of Gregg Hoover, proving the CD-303 excelled on more than just bass and electronic music.
It proved almost as adept at reaching to the highest octaves. The Blind Light album, The Absence of Time [Alda 001] prominently features Bill Laswell's electronic bass, as well employing a fair degree to processing on vocals, but also has reference quality drums. On the track, Midnight, the cymbals are especially brilliant. Against a throbbing and suggestive bass line, a hushed Japanese vocal whispers in your ear. When Anton Fier splashes the cymbals it also suggests a certain intimacy. With the CD-303 the cymbals were bright, but not harsh, full range, but just a touch of grain. Still, the sound was so far beyond what all but a few DACs can do that even the ever-suffering Robin commented on how real they sounded.
Perhaps one reason Robin felt that way was that the 303 was also superb at extracting details and yet presenting them coherently. Forgive me if I drift back to negative praise, but what the 303 does right is to reveal but not to overemphasize minute details.
When it comes to staging, the Cary was also even-handed. Right to left spread was never exaggerated, nor was it pinched. Ok, perhaps it had a tendency to shorten the stage a touch, but it made up for that with superb and stable placement on the stage.
Since I have an extra input on the pre-amp, after spending time listening to the Cary, I hooked my reference CD playback system up (JVC 1050 as transport, Audio Magic Illusion digital cable, Dodson DA-217 MK. III DAC) and sat down to listen to both setups. Now, comparing the Cary to my Dodson DAC is about as fair as comparing a factory race engine from Honda to an Accord since the Dodson serves a single purpose, needs a transport and costs $1,000 more than the Cary. Still, so well did the Cary, ahem, accord itself, that the comparison is more revealing the skills of the CD-303 than a sucker punch.
From the start it was apparent that the Dodson DAC stretched a bit lower in the bass and had less grain at the top then the Cary, but the Cary had every bit as coherent a tonal picture as the Dodson. As for which presentation was more neutral, the call was as close as I've had. I would give the edge to the Dodson, but only when driven by the Cary as a transport. The Dodson also had greater macro dynamic impact than the Cary, but the two units were side by side in the micro arena.
If there was any area that went decidedly to the Dodson it was the way the more expensive unit defined images. The harmonic density of instruments was both deeper and more vivid. As well, images had a sharper edge definition, but without edging into hyper-definition. It's not that the Cary was deficient in this area, rather that the Dodson, of all DACs I've heard, sets the standard in harmonic definition.
Overall, instead of being tripped up by the Dodson, the Cary showed what can be accomplished through intelligent design. It is eye-opening what $3,000 can buy in the digital world. And while that is certainly a significant amount of money, considering that CD will continue to be the standard audio format for at least 3 of not 5 or more years, it is a more than fair price for a source this close to the state of the art.
In the final analysis three words sum up the Cary CD-303 - neutral, detailed and authoritative. Like all audio gear these means it should not and cannot be placed willy-nilly in a system and do its job. Placed in a dry and up front system (read solid-state at its worst) the commendable neutrality of the 303 will have you wondering where I'm coming from. And, if your system is purposely designed to exaggerate or to highlight certain frequencies for your personal enjoyment, the 303 may leave you similarly scratching your head. But, if what you want is a reasonably priced (in audiogeek terms), superbly built source that will run all day without worry, that will give every attempt at honestly extracting and decoding a 16/44 bitstream and quite remarkably reach near total success in this endeavor, and will look good doing it, then this is a CD player you really should look at. Me, I like … no … I love the 303. To this guy it sounds like the place where the bend in the cost/benefit curve flattens out and the greatest good is achieved for the least amount o' cash. Quite highly recommended.
Transport: Philips CDM12
Frequency Response: 2 Hz - 96 kHz
Signal-to-Noise Ratio: 118 dB (1 kHz)
Total Harmonic Distortion (THD): 0.0009% (1 kHz)
Channel Separation: 107 dB (1 kHz)
Power Consumption: 35 Watts
Digital/Analog Converters (DAC): two Burr Brown PCM1704u (24-bit/96kHz)
Digital Filter: Pacific Microsonics™ PMD-200 with HDCD® decoding
Audio Output Level:
Digital Input: Coaxial
Digital Outputs (one each): Balanced, coaxial and Toslink
Power Input: 100-120/200-240 VAC, 50-60 Hz
Finish: Black anodized aluminum faceplates, black epoxy coated chassis
Weight: 35 lbs.
Dimensions: 4" x 18" x 15" (HxWxD)
Retail Price: $3,000
Cary Audio Design
Voice: (919) 355-0010