Cary 120s

I am looking at a few different used tube amps to "move up the food chain" from my dynaco st70.

I am interested in possibly a Cary rocket 88, but I am seeing several Cary 120s amps for very reasonable prices here on the 'gon.

For a nice amp with this kind of power there seems to be a large number of these offered constantly here.

Are people having issues with the 120s amps or am I just seeing a lot of people with "upgradeitus"?

Maybe I should also consider a used bat vk55 or vk60 instead.

Have any Cary 120s users had any problems with your amp?

Thanks Dave

I have a 120s and I am extremely happy with this amplifier. I have done some tube rolling with good results... Genelex Gold Lion kt-88 reissues, brimer and pope 6sn7's for the driver and output tubes.
Okay, I am a HUGE Cary fan and have quite a few of their products. To me the 120s is my least favorite from both a build quality down to the sound. The 120s just doesn't sound good to my ears. The Rocket 88 is far superior to the 120s.
Had the Rocket 88 and V12R they both kick ass and the 120S kicks both of their asses IMO. At least when hooked up to the SLP05 or the SLP98P. You should be very happy with a 120S at a good price, unless there is something wrong with the unit.
excellent price now i have the slp-05 with balance cable's with the 120s excellent with my jbl-l300 ....i had at one time the rocket 88 not even closeeeeee but you have eight output tube's and i like to buy the best output costly .. maybe that said is why you might see them go up so much for sale,,,,,,,,,,,,,enjoy you can not go wrong
Thanks for the input. I know the 120s uses 8 kt88 output tubes and could cost a little to retube.

Does anyone know what the average hours on a set of output tubes in one of these amps should be?

I am using a classe audio dr6 ss preamp with balanced xlr outputs that are being wasted with the dynaco..... that is why I am looking at cary and bat amps with balanced inputs.

I do like the warm tube sound of the dynaco and it seems that cary's "sound" may be warmer than bat so I am leaning more toward cary.

I am probably going overboard with my preamp/amp for my "cheap" speakers (quad 11L mini monitors) but I will upgrade those maybe after tax refunds next year.

So with 8 kt88 tubes, how hot does the 120s get?

Brf..... you say the 120s was your least favorite cary amp, can you describe the sound difference that you disliked on the 120s?

This amp is fantastic, if you get an octet of Gold Lions, and especially if you have the caps upgrade done. The SLP-05 sounds best with this amp, of ALL the Cary amps; and the 306Pro run balanced through the SLP-05 all the way to the 120S and into Dali speakers was one of the best sounds at CES two years ago. Last Jan, they (Cary) ran the new 211FE's with the SLP-05 and the 306Pro into Marten Design Coltranes, and it didn't sound near as good, IMHO.
I to have the 120s and the CAD 500MB. I actually bought two 120s to bi-amp, but it did not work out. With the right tubes, this amp can kick some serious azz. Mine has the pope 6sn7 and the tung-sol. The 120s does not get hot.
One of the problems I had with the 120s is that it sounds poor with the stock tubes. At a minimum, I would expect an amp in this price range to sound excellent with a bit more performance gained through tube rolling. With the 120s, tube rolling is a must. In addition, this amp runs really hot, a lot hotter than other 6550 based amps with that many tubes. My friend runs his without the bottom cover on to aid in ventilation (he has no pets or kids to worry about curious fingers or paws). The quality and fit of the 120s is not up to Cary’s regular standards. When purchasing a 120s, you must factor in replacement tubes over stock, which pushes the 120s price point even higher. The 120s is not my cup of tea, but that is why Cary has so many different amps in their lineup…one size does not fit all.

As an aside, I don’t think that the Classe DR6 is a differential balanced pre amplifier; take a look at the LR output to see if pin 1 and 3 are tied together.

I do agree that the stock tubes are really poor, but once you upgrade these it takes the amp to a whole new level. This actually explans why you have a number of them listed for sale. Of course these upgraded tubes do not come cheap so folk either decide to upgrade or get rid of it.

As far as it running hot, I not feel it does, well it is all relative. One person hot may not apply to everyone.

The bottom line is for the current sale price, it getting a good amp. Invest a few more $$ and you will be happy.

I currently have two, will get rid of one will definately keep the other.
I have limited hours on my 120S (approx 30) so the amp has not reached break-in. I agree with BRF regarding build quality compared to my SLI50 or VAC amp, the speaker binding posts feel cheap (can't use a hex driver) and the chassis exhibits a lot of resonance when tightening the cables (thin sheet metal sound).

I'm in AZ and we recently shot back into the 100 degree days and the Cary makes significantly more heat than the VAC so I've given it a rest until the weather cools off.

My initial impressions in the ultralinear mode is a transistor sound which lacks resolution of fine details and less impact in the bass than I expected. It sounds much better in Triode with a relaxing somewhat distant perspective and much better low level detail. The soundstage is much smaller than the VAC. At this point, I wouldn't characterize it as being an amp that would would want to boogie (more cerebral and introspective). I would say it is more relaxed and less "live" sounding than the VAC. I have not changed tubes and am currently using the stock power cord for break-in. Once the break-in is reached, I will switch to the Nordost Brahma which I use on the rest of my components and see what that does.

One operational negative so far is that I hear hum through the speakers with the volume control past 11:00. This amp has less gain than the VAC and I find it needs more volume especially with the phono stage and then I hear a hum through the speakers which cheater plugs does not change. The VAC does not produce any hum at any volume level. Other than that, it has worked reliably and the bias adjustment is simple.
There is lots of good info here, thanks guys...
Even used, around $2.1k + is at the very upper end of my budget.
Maybe a rocket 88 at sub $1k pricepoint might be a nice intro into Cary products for me.

If I like the 88,I could always sell it and upgrade to a 120s later with little to no cash loss.

Brf, the classe dr6 has xlr balanced input and output connections on it..... It is the best piece of gear I currently have and was used as the reference preamp by the absolute sound editor for several years in the early 90's when it was a current model.

I just thought if you had balanced xlr outputs on your preamp that it means it is balanced circuitry...... I am new to high end gear so maybe that is wrong??

Another option would be to purchase a Rocket 88 amps and have the caps upgraded to either 1) Cardas Teflon caps or 2) Mundorf Gold/Silver/Oil depending on your preference. Add in some NOS tubes, a few resistor (Riken) upgrades, ERS sound damping material, and you are go to go for well under $2K!
“I just thought if you had balanced xlr outputs on your preamp that it means it is balanced circuitry...... I am new to high end gear so maybe that is wrong??”

Dave, I owned a DR6 and loved the preamp. Never ran it in balanced mode. A lot of manufactures put in pseudo balanced (XLR) output/input options for marketing reasons, but their circuit topography never was truly balanced.
Brf, I found it odd that if I attempted to drive the 120S from my VAC Renaissance with the switch set to balanced output from the VAC, the sound was muted, and picked up noise from the remote volume control motor. It seems to work just fine using the XLR cables with the output set to single ended. Are you sure the Cary is truly a balanced input? BTW, the Renaissance uses transformers for the balanced outs.
Rhljazz, sorry I cannot answer your question as to whether or not the 120s is a balanced defferential design as my friend only runs his single ended and I did not look that closely. Perhaps the XLR pin outs are different between the VAC and Cary, that would cause the mismatch that your heard.
so the cardas and mundorf cap upgrades have different sound characteristics..... Can you describe the differences?

Also on the nos tubes what have you found that works well in a rocket88 ?

Thanks Dave
I have no firsthand knowledge on the Cardas Teflon cap upgrade. I have only read good things about the Cardas caps coupled with the fact that Cary uses them in their new Founder’s edition 211. My experience is limited to V-caps and Mundorf in an 805 amp. The V-caps change the 805’s character but does add another level of transparency and speed. The Mundorf’s take away a bit of the 805’s warmth, adds a touch of quickness, more bottom end extension, and a bit more transparency.

Because Cary utilizes point to point wiring, any competent tech can perform the cap upgrade without breaking the bank.

With respect to tubes and the Rocket 88, the combination is almost endless. What I generally suggest to anyone who purchases a new tube amp is to live with the amp for an extended period and note the amps short comings i.e. lack of bass or extended highs etc. This will give people who have rolled tubes in a Rocket 88 a basis to make a recommendation.
Thanks Brf and everyune else who responded.

I think I am leaning toward the rocket 88 and will go with some good nos driver tubes and think about some high quality cap upgrades.

I went through a 2 year electronic trade school course about 25 years ago and am familiar with any easy component changes that I might try on the amp. I still have my soldering pencil, rosin core solder, solder wick, and beckman digital vom. I guess it is time to put the old tools back to use again.

I tried to like ss equipment... 2 vintage 70's marantz recievers, a 70's sansui integrated, a newer rotel av reciever, and a bryston 3b st amp..... I MUCH prefer the warm and musical sound of my dynaco st70 tube amp to any of these. I guess I am a tube convert now.

I am hoping that a higher quality modern tube amp will sound even sweeter in my rig. I will soon find out.

Thanks again, Dave
For what it's worth: I bought one of the used 120S models here on Audiogon. I have not had much chance to experiment with the sound (I'm between preamps) but I have used it enough (with a loaner preamp) to speak to the heat issue. As tube amps go, mine does not seem to get inordinately hot at all. This amp is much less hot, for example, than the Six-Pac monoblocs I once owned. Of course it does get somewhat hot, as one would expect an 8-tube KT88 amp to do. But not unexpectedly so.

I'll report more on this thread
"I'll report more on this thread."

Looking forward to your comments. Thanks.
Cary Audio's "Audio Electronic Super Amp MkII" is cut from the same cloth as the s120 and is a big step up from the St70 at half the cost of the s120. And it is smokin' good, and will let you roll EL34, KT-66,7,88,90s, 6550 and others w/o any internal mods. Cary will go on and on about it whenever I call them to discuss something.
Dav65mus, for what it is worth, I sold my Cary 120s and bought a Canary 160. I paid almost double the price for the Canary. The Cary IMO sounds way better than the Canary.
Ajackson1, then are you getting the Cary back in place of the Canary?
LOL Jdec, u know how to push the buttons don't u.

Truth be told, I have been thinking about it. Cary 120s with the Pope 6sn7gt sounded really good.

Yep, I probably would. Folks always look at the number of 120s on sale as a negative thing, but thats not always the case.
I finally have my 120S mated with a nice preamp (Doge 8) and as promised, I wanted to give some quick initial impressions.

1. Plenty of power and current to drive my Maggies (in fact, could be an ideal tube amp for MMGs or 1.6s).

2. The triode and ultrlinear settings make a big difference in sound. Both have their appeal, but generally I'd say triode is more laid back and better-suited to lower-volume listening. UL is great for rocking out.

3. Needs a higher gain preamp. Primaluna P3 was a bad match; the Doge is MUCH better. A Cary SLP98 would be close to perfect.

4. As for the heat - On a heat scale of 1 to 10: If a McIntosh MC275 is a 3, and AES Six-Pacs are an 9, this is probably a 6.

5. Listening now and sounds great!
Vlentudia, What tubes do u have installed in the 120s?
I am using Tung Sol 6550's and the stock 6SN7s.
I now have 67 hrs on the amp. I like the sound in triode although it is still a bit laid back. My other Cary amp and the VAC both operate in ultralinear and they don't have the dry grainy/etched sound the 120S exhibits in the ultralinear mode. I find this mode basically a gimmick. BTW It is still setup with stock power cord and tubes and I don't envision any changes there that would alter the performance in ultralinear.
I might try the Manley pre this weekend to see if that is a better match than the VAC.
Update: I am now using the 120S with a Cary SLP98. Still early on but so far the results are incredible. The 120S is a great amp to my ears, and a great value at the used price it's been commanding here. Will provide more thoughts after some more listening time.
Welcome Vlentudia. Get some KT88s or Tungsol 6550. Pope 6sn7gt if u can get your hands on them and the only words u will utter is WOW.

Vlentudia I meant the Gold Lion Gen KT 88s

Your PrimaLuna Prologue 3 and Cary marriage was a bad one? Can you speak a little to that? I have been running my 3 with Wyred4Sound monoblocks but on the market for a tube power amp...
I am using the 120S with Magnepans, and the PL felt like it didn't have enough gain for the 120S/Maggie combination. I think that the PL3/120S combo would work with more efficient speakers. I'm a PL fan (I have a Prologue One).

The 120S really makes the Maggies sing with the Doge 8 and now the SLP98.
The amp has approx. 150 hours on it now. It took about 90 hours before the ultralinear mode began to develope some dimensionality with a reduction in grain. At the 100 hour mark, I replaced the stock 18 gauge cord with a Nordost Brahma which didn't seem to make much of an improvement. I changed to a generic 14 gauge cord and the sound improved markedly but I still felt the bass to be light weight. Compared to the VAC, the 120S was more distant, dynamically less expressive, listenable, but basically boring.

I have all components plugged into a Nordost Thor and for experimental purposes I connected the 120S into the wall bypassing the Thor. Wow, what a difference! I believe it is safe to say that any Nordost power product is a poor match for the 120S. The system now has deep solid bass and the dynamics are much improved. The treble grain is virtually gone as well. I'm still using the stock tubes and I have had no reliability issues whatsoever. I'll need to find a better PC than the generic 14 gauge unit I have now. Perhaps there is more to gain from this amp.

I will recant my initial criticism of the ultralinear mode now that it has sufficient hours and Nordost removed from the power supply. The triode mode is still too laid back and mellow for my taste.
I have had a Cary 120S amp running through a Cary SLP05 preamp for about a year now. At the onset, the pairing was good but not what I would call great. I tube rolled Genelex KT88's, Genelex KT77's and then found some NOS Mullard EL34's that really bested anything I had tried. Expensive but really took the system up a couple levels. I then added a Synergistic Research T3 power cord to the amp and a T2 to the preamp with immediately noticable improvements. Now this system does kick but..but sure had to outlay to get there.
5 years ago I visited their facility in NC where they have a nice listening room set up showing off there products.
It was interesting to note that all the Cary gear was connected using Kimber interconnects, speaker cable, and power cords, with no line conditioners. All the internal wiring used in there equipment is Kimber silver wire too.
I have been using basic Kimber cabling w/ outstanding results on my Cary and Audio Electronics equipment, and it was encouraging to know that Cary chooses Kimber too. You guys may consider Kimber Kabling as well.
Vlentudia, I see u letting go of the 120s. Wish I had the funds to buy it back.
How about Sonic Frontiers Power 2 or Power 1? I have had the power 3s for about 10 years.
Vlentudia or Anyone Who May Have the Experience:

Regarding your answer on comparing heat output from the Mac275, AES Six Pacs and 120s. I am interested to know if you heard all 3 amps and which sounded best. I'm considering one of these 3 on the used market. How about a Music Reference RM-9 MKII? Anyone know the difference in sound between a 120s and V12R? Thanks.
If you get the Cary rocket 88, you can use it for Biamping hooked up with some Legacy Audio Studios speakers. My advice is, heard the different amps you are considering to get, and choose the one that suits best.
Boys and girls I have never posted anything onany website but I have to this time. Subejct Cary 120S w/ Eat KT-88's. Match made in heaven !! Running stock 6sn7's but tracking down RCA black plates 50's vintage. Been keeping close contact w/ Cary on what works well with the 120s and this sure does. The other ting that is overlooked until you hear it is a balanced power supply. Do yourself a favor and invest in one. Its not subtle. Enjoy Stan
You know what's missing from this thread is the suggestion to purchase some mono blocks. Why doesn't someone suggest some SLAM 100's with upgrades, hexfred, jensen oil on the bi pass filters, cardas gold caps, Kimber silver internal wiring, acme silver fuse holders/fuses, and output plug, upgraded binding post, genelex gold lion kt-88's and oh, by the way, why not upgrade the input circuitry to the 120s mkii's. Hmm, oh, how about Shuguang cv 181-t input tubes to boot. NOW, that sounds like something to talk about! What say you?