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Gil Loring called Sunday to remind me that he wanted to come by Monday and audition his Cary preamp on my system, as he was writing a review for Audio Observatory. Well that meant a day off for me, so I said sure! Busman's holiday, anyway. First we picked an amp and speakers for our very subjective session. We ran the SE 10 amp thru the Optimus 990's for a bit, but Gil felt the highs were a bit rolled off, so we switched to the Triophoni amps thru the Magnepans.
As a control we started with my modded Citation 1 in the system. I used a neat thrift find for software, an RCA Red SeaI from the Prokofieff Series, Symphony No.3 and the Scythian Suite, by Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston [LSC-2934]. I got a new old Denon DL-103 moving coil with an AU-320 step up transformer from Jim Lissa, which made my DP-6000 turntable and DA-307 tonearm all Denon. I love it, so the old Audioquest got moved to the Grace tonearm for a rest.
I particularly like the EQ of the phono stage in the Citation, and thought the album played well. The Citation has polypropylene caps in the gain stages, metal film plate and cathode resistors, extra filament supply capacitance, fast recovery rectifiers, smooth plate Telefunken 12AX7's, and Siemens 12AT7's (the Telefunken 12AT7's I have tried were noisy and had teeny Japanese looking plates).
After a good warm up we patched in the Cary preamp. The Cary comes with a line stage only, composed of one 12AU7 per channel. An optional Phono stage is available, as an internal Qr external addition. Gil had opted for an internal phono stage, as he listens to a lot of vinyl. Gil is a cool guy. The phono stage was amp'ed with two 12AX7's. Coupling caps were polypro and a few oily or giant polystyrene looking types.
The four tubes are attached to a PC board as big as the whole CD player sized cabinet. This clearly weren't no PAS. The sound of the Cary was a bit cleaner and leaner than the Citation. I think the obviously simpler circuit helped there. I know you guys are saying "What a doofus, using a Citation I." Let me just say that I sold my mint PAS after I redid the Citation. Nobody but me seems to have the patience to recap one. But then I only replaced 42 of 'em.
Well I thought the Cary was a little dry and sharp, so I cooly pulled out my Telefunken stash box and said, "would you like to try some other tubes?"
A pair of smooth plate Telefunkens went into the phono stage, and a pair of orange label Amperexes that I had loaned Gil went into the line stage. A little better, more tubey, but not as clean and linear sounding.
Then AH HAHl I found my only pair of T'funken 12AU7's. In they went and that little preamp sounded NICE. I wish I had some Bugle Boys to try, but I didn't have time to dig for some in the Chamber of Tubes Behind the Wall. I suppose we could have tried Mullards too. But I traded my Masters to Eric a while ago, and regular Mullards don't get me going. Anyway, my opinion of Chicom tubes was reinforced. Real linear, real wiry, real detailed, real thin. Not my thing. We also tried Gil's Parasound amp and my modded Stereo 150. The Cary had no trouble with the solid state amps. Man, the old MGIIA1s sound good with some power behind 'em. Gil said that he would have kept his old MG 1's if they had sounded like my lla's. He was probably just being nice. Then again, maybe I should quit this tube thing and -- Naah.
Now that we were pretty well confused by listening to five different amp/preamp combinations, Gil said, "Want to go with me to Nuts about Hi-Fl and try the Cary with the high price stuff?". If you have heard the Wilson Xl's, you know why I said yes.
The Xl's are powered by Krell's biggest power amps. (let's see, $64,000 for the speakers, $32,000 for the amps, yeah, that should work for the rear channels). The preamp is a Krell, of course. Gil said he thought the Cary might sound better, so in it went. We had gone back to the Chicom tubes, but it still had a little more tubey presentation than the Krell. Gil had a neat new CD called Requiem, done with that new pipe organ in Dallas, and a great choir. I think voices were a little more natural with the Cary, but in this league of equipment my ears meet their match.
One reassuring thing, even new tube amps make a little tube noise, which could be heard up close on the next speakers, Thiel CS-3.6's. These marvelous speakers sounded slightly rolled off with the Cary, and Gil said they were just right with the Krell preamp, so there may be something to the idea of current speakers being designed to compensate for the solid state sound.
At this point we went back to the Krell, as a customer was auditioning along with us, and Nuts' owner Bill wanted to play the Krell for him. This time the speakers were Wilson Watt / Puppies. God, those things sound almost as good as the X1 I If I only win Quinto instead of Lotto I'll buy the Watt/Puppies instead of Xl's.
By the way the CD players we used for these auditions were my cheapo, stock Onkyo DX-1400 at my shop, and a top of the line Theta Player and DAC at Nuts.
To sum up, the Cary is a nice preamp, equal to one vintage classic, today's tubes may not be as good as vintage stock, Wilson speakers are great, and the guys at Nuts About HiFi are super.