Review: Cary CAD-211 Anniversary Edition amps
The Cary CAD-211 Anniversary Edition monoblock amps (hereafter the “211’s”) currently represent the top of Cary’s tube amp line-up. It is a Class A triode design using a pair of 845 tubes in zero feedback push-pull mode, a pair of 300B’s as drivers, a 6CA7 current source tube and a 6SL7 driver tube per amp. This provides for 70 watts in Class A operation and 110 watts in Class A2. Both single-ended and balanced inputs are included (it is a pure balanced design) and there are 4, 8 and 16 ohm speaker terminals. Each amp weighs a substantial 90 lbs and come securely packed from the Cary factory in wooden crates. Though not a self-biasing design, Cary does include a bias meter making this a simple task for the user. You can find additional specs on the Cary web site but curiously there is no distortion specification at all. I can venture a guess as to why that is – because it probably measures poorly being a zero feedback topology. So, if you care about measured specs, you can probably stop reading now and check out a sand amp.
It was a challenge to lug these things in their wooden crates down to my basement music room (they weigh ~135 lbs in the crates). Once there, unpacking and set-up were straight forward. This review deals with the stock Cary-supplied vacuum tubes (the actual source of which is not clear to me though I suspect China for the 845’s). Tube rolling is something for the future. Also, it should be noted that one of the monoblocks was missing the model/serial number tag from the bottom of the chassis. This was quickly rectified by Cary.
The first thing that struck me once I powered them up was the complete lack of noise/hiss/hum issuing from the speakers – they are dead silent! I was beginning to wonder if they were actually on but then I played a cd and sure enough, they were. I’ve previously owned two other tube amps (a Jolida 502 integrated and most recently ASL Explorer SET monoblocks) and there is a night and day difference between the 211’s and those tube amps in terms of idling noise. The 845’s glow brightly but you’d be hard-pressed to know if the other tubes are even lit since there is not much glow coming from them. Never having had an amp using 300B’s before, I sort of expected more of a glow from those tubes but not so in this case. There is a “cat’s eye” tube in the front face plate that provides a relative gauge of the amp’s instantaneous power output but really this is just a curiosity with little real value to me. I say drop the cat’s eye circuit and lower the cost of the product. Taking that circuitry out may even improve the sonics (if that were possible).
During the several months I’ve owned the 211’s I’ve gone from Spendor SP 1/2E’s to Vandersteen 3a Sigs loudspeakers and have replaced the Cayin SCD-50T with a Cary CD-306 CD/SACD player (separate reviews on the Vandy’s and Cary 306 to come). As appropriate, I will comment on the listening results through both speakers. Cary says a 100 hour break-in time is needed to reach optimal listening results. Honestly, I heard very little change in the sound during those first 100 hrs. Furthermore, I have listened through both the single-ended and balanced inputs and, despite the 211’s being a fully balanced design, I didn’t hear much difference there either (my preamp, a Sonic Frontiers Line 1 is also fully balanced). I have chosen to stay with the balanced inputs (Cardas Cross).
So, how do they sound, you ask? In a word – magnificent! Take the recent Telarc/Jarvi Bartok Concerto for Orchestra (SACD) for starters. This work is a good test for the dynamic capabilities of a stereo system. The 211’s provided life-sized dynamics from ppp to fff and beyond. From the quiet opening bars in the low strings through the orchestral outbursts in the Finale, the 211’s deliver it all without breaking a sweat. It’s unlike any sand amp I’ve heard in this respect and something I’ve learned to appreciate about tube amps in general. It’s been said that tube watts are more “powerful” than sand watts and the 211’s illustrate this handily. From a tonality standpoint, I love the way the 211’s present acoustic instruments.
The bottom octaves are robust and full with good pitch definition. The growling, massed cellos/basses in the Bartok are well-rendered as are the occasional bass drum and timpani thwacks. They have a bloom that one hears in a concert hall. On Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (Reference Recordings rbcd/hdcd), the opening bass drum has monumental impact (especially on the Vandys). There is no evidence of strain or running out of power despite playing this at concert hall volumes (loud!).
On to the midrange. In the Copland, the trumpet entry is crisp and forceful without any hint of the piercing brightness so often encountered in sand amps. Of course, this also is a function of the speakers and both the Spendor’s and Vandy’s are a big asset in this aspect. The tutti volins in the Bartok (1st mvmt) come across as the true massed ensemble that they are without sounding “fizzy”. Lush and natural in timbre. The larger brass instruments have the requisite heft combined with the appropriate amount of attack. Glorious! Some have used the terms “romantic” or “warm” to describe the midrange sound of tubes in general. Perhaps. I will just say that if you know the sound of acoustic instrument, you can count on the 211’s to deliver a truthful and satisfying midrange sound.
The top end is appropriately crisp and airy without being at all bright or fatiguing. To me, this is a true acid test since so much of today’s audio gear (especially speakers) goes over the top in the treble. Back to the Bartok violin sound, the upper harmonics are so well balanced when they are playing above the stave it is a pleasure to hear. Now, that’s a tough test and the 211’s pass with flying colors. Cymbal crashes have great attacks and decay – close to the real thing. I do not hear any obvious compromises in the high end that some attribute to tubes.
I understand why Dennis Had considers these amps to be his best tubed effort to date. They are a musical marvel. In closing, I must make you aware of one other issue I’ve encountered while playing these amps. I checked with Cary to see if there is any problem with switching the amps on using my Monster HTS-5100 power center and Dennis Had said “no problem”. However, when I powered on this way, I would frequently blow the 4 amp line fuse on the amps. Very annoying. So I no longer turn them on that way and have not had any fuse issues since. If you can afford them, you will be in for a real sonic treat!
Cary 306 SACD/CD player
Sonic Frontiers Line 1 preamp
Cary CAD-211 AE monoblock amps
Vandersteen 3A Signature speakers
Cardas Cross interconnects (balanced)
Cardas Quadlink 5C shotgun biwire speaker cables
Plus: Hafler-type ambience extraction surround setup with two rear speakers (gets a much more 3D soundstage from conventional stereo recordings).