Review: Cary Audio Design SA500.1 Amplifier

Category: Amplifiers

This is not so much a review of the Cary SA 500.1 MB’s as it is a comparison with the older Cary CAD 500 MB’s. The comparison is within the context of my system and listening room. See my system page for details. Note however, that the REL sub was omitted for the purposes of this review.

First, some background. I bought the CAD 500 MB’s used about 2-3 years ago. Make no mistake, I love those amps! But last May, I had a chance to pick up an almost new pair of the SA 500.1’s and jumped on it, expecting that the new amps would provide just a bit more of the magic I found in those CAD 500’s. I did an initial brief comparison, then retired the CAD 500’s while giving the almost new SA 500.1’s several months of run in time.

I’m confident the SA 500.1’s are fully settled in now, so today I pulled the old amps out and got everything set up for a proper comparison with the older CAD 500’s. I powered everything up about 7 hours before listening. I selected the following music for comparing the amps:

1. Mahler 3 Honeck and the Pittsburgh SO on Exton and Lopez-Cobos with Cincinnati on Telarc. 4th and 5th movements primarily. If you know this music, you will understand the choice. In addition, I made the trip to Cleveland last weekend for the Mahler 3 Cleveland Orchestra opening night. So the real thing, by a world class orchestral in a world class venue was fresh in my mind.
2. Brahms 3 Makerras/Scottish Chamber Orchestra on Telarc. Selections from 1st and 3rd movements, but primarily the 2nd movement.
3. Bach Mass BWV 236 Kyrie and Gloria. Purcell Quartet on Chaconne.
4. Beethoven String Quartet Op 130, Grosse Fuge and the substitute Finale. Orion Quartet on Koch.
5. Brahms Op 38 Cello Sonata Zuill Bailey on Telarc.

The music was auditioned in the order above with the SA 500.1’s, then in reverse order with the CAD 500’s.
I’ll begin the comparison with a practical consideration. The 500’s run hotter and require more warm up time to sound their best. I have noticed that the 500.1’s settle in after no more than 10-15 minutes, whereas the 500’s should be powered up for about 2-3 hours prior to listening. With less warm up time, the 500’s will suffer from a bit higher noise floor and higher grain than the 500.1’s. This distinction disappears with sufficient warm up time before listening. You have to give the edge to the 500.1’s here, because we don’t always have the option of that much warm up time. The extra heat associated with running the 500’s at idle will not be an issue for most people. They are hot to the touch but you are not going to fry any eggs on them.

Now then, how about the sound? Having run through the music with the 500.1’s, I began retracing my steps with the 500’s. So the first piece I heard from the 500’s was Bailey’s cello. My first thought was “The 500’s are so tube-like in comparison!” Bailey’s cello was presented as one of those warm, wooly cellos. At the other end of the spectrum from Lynne Harrell’s cello, for instance. That also wonderful cello with a bit of bite and a little edge. The 500’s presentation of Bailey’s cello was very much like he himself describes the instrument-- grounded in the earth, when it needs to be. But I have heard Bailey’s cello, and I have to say the 500.1’s got it right. What I heard from the 500.1's was an excellent reproduction of what I heard from Bailey’s cello live. The 500’s were wonderfully musical, but the 500.1’s were more accurate.

Next, the Beethoven. Here the superior spacial attributes of the 500.1’s stood out immediately. There was more air around the instruments and much more precise placement in space of the 1st violin, 2nd violin, cello, and viola from right to left. But somehow, that musicality of the 500’s was obvious here, too. The violins has a sweetness that the 500.1’s didn’t quite match.

Next up Bach. Here it was more of a toss up. The amps sounded very similar will all four soloists. Bass, Tenor, Soprano, Alto, from right to left. No advantage to either amp.

Brahms 3. The 500’s are the best amps I have ever heard with French Horns and brass instruments. The 500.1’s are good, but they don’t capture the magic of the 500’s on brass. The 2nd movement begins with a dialog between woodwinds and strings. Here the 500.1’s distinguished itself as the superior amp. It gets the strings so much better than the 500’s. The 500.1’s drew me into the dialog. The emotional response with the 500’s was lacking. That is until the brass instruments started in again.

Finally the Mahler 3. The 500.1 was again a clear winner. The 4th movement Mezzo solo, “O Mensch! “and the trill in “Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?” really underscored the superior accuracy and resolution of the 500.1’s. During the remainder of the symphony the two amps exhibited their respective strengths as expected based on the previously noted attributes.

So there you have it. These are different amps with different strengths and virtues. Both are very good. I find the 500’s a bit more euphonic and tube like with a very sweet top end and upper mid-range. It is really very seductive. It is going to be a bit more forgiving than the 500.1’s. The 500.1’s are more accurate and resolving, and have an advantage with respect to spacial reproduction. In the end, I’ll keep the 500.1’s and probably sell the old 500’s. I guess we can hope that someday, Cary will release the 500.2’s and they will capture the best of both worlds. That would truly be an amp to hold for life.

Similar products
Cary CAD 500 MB
Thanks Bill for your review of the SA-500.1 amps. I have been waiting to read something on these since they came out. Based on reviews by 10 Audio and Positive Feedback Online, the stereo version SA-200.2 sounds very good but it seems Cary may have pushed these newer amplifiers toward a more neutral presentation, at least compared to the older 500MBs. You seem to have heard that.

Cary's literature indicates they addressed the somewhat underdamped bass of the 500MBs by improving the power supply in the new 500.1 amps. They also indicate other improvements including a physically larger size, heavier gauge steel, better layout, low noise toroidal transformer, metal film resistors and other high quality parts where needed, the use of bypass caps, and finally a modular construction to facilitate easy field repairs. Cary also indicates improvements in soundstaging.

I have been looking for a pair of high powered, high quality amps that don't throw a lot of heat and can be left turned on for extended periods of time. Thanks for sharing your impressions and comparisons with the 500MBs. I am glad to hear you are enjoying your new 500.1s.
Thanks for your comments. I suppose one could say the new Cary's are more neutral. I would prefer to emphasise the superb timbral accuracy of the 500.1's and contrast it with what I would call a "euphonic" character in the 500's. A good example is in the Mahler 3rd 4th movement, where the concertmaster has prominence along with the mezzo solo. The sweetness of the concertmaster's violin as portrayed by the 500's evoked the same emotional response as I felt hearing the music live in Cleveland. The 500.1's just didn't evoke that response. But in the Brahms 3rd, it was just the opposite. The increased texture due to the superior resolution of the 500.1's was essential in drawing me into the string's dialog with the woodwinds. The 500's just could not capture that dialog at all.

Objectively, the 500.1's are clearly the better amps with respect to sound and I suspect build quality. But those who have had the good fortune to have owned the 500's will understand immediately what I mean when I say it is hard to leave behind that sweet, seductive, euphonic character that the 500's possess, because it can sometimes get to the heart of the music in a rather unique way, even if it carrys with it some sonic flaws.

I carried the old amps up to the bedroom last night and put the boxes back in the attic. I guess I just can't quite let them go yet, but I know they won't be back in the downstairs system.
It appears Cary is going to have the SA-500.1s in their room No. 8025, on the eighth floor of the Marriott Tower at RMAF.
Maybe some others will get to listen to them and comment.
RMAF-Cary Audio
Ok, so I now have a pair of SA-500.1s here in my system. These have been on my list of solid state amps to try that run cooler yet may approach a similar level of sonic quality as my Clayton M300s. After about a week, I must say the Cary amps sound great. Clarity, extension at both ends, dynamics and dimensionality are all very good. They absolutely pack a wallop in the bass, which is the best I have heard in my system. In particular, I find the bass to be just excellent in that it is well defined, goes low, displays a touch of roundness and warmth and has punch you can physically feel on certain recordings. They do not quite mimic the level of midrange warmth of their ancestor 500MBs, but in my system they still fall just a touch on the warm side of neutral, which is a near perfect match to their sonic character. I am using them with power cords made from Furutech FP-Alpha 3 cable and Oyaide P-079/C-079 connectors, Harmonic Technology Pro 9 Reference speaker cables, and HiFi Tuning Gold fuses.

In comparison, I am sure the Cary's improve on the Clayton's bass, but I suspect the Claytons offer a more palpable midrange, depth and purity of Class A, and a touch of darkness that can be attractive. It will be interesting and telling when I finally reinstall the Claytons in my system for comparison. Whichever amps I decide to ultimately stick with, I can truthfully say, if I didn't already own the Claytons, I could easily live with the Cary SA-500.1s.