Review: Cary SLP-05 vs SLP-98
Source: Squeezebox 3 and PS Audio Digital Link III DAC (upsampled to 192)
Preamp: 05 vs 98
Amp: Plinius SA-102
Speakers: Martin Logan Summits
At first glance, it's probably not best to compare two preamplifiers in two different price classes, one at $4100 (with phono) and the other at $7500. However, if you take a look at Cary's legacy, you will find that both these preamplifiers each sat atop the top of Cary's preamplifier line up. The Cary SLP-98 had been the golden child for Cary Audio for quite some time, up until the SLP-05 came about a little over 1.5 years ago. The SLP-98 had been on Stereophile's Class A list for several years running until the 05 recently took it's place on those same pages. Suffice to say, there has always been something about these "Sweet Little Preamplifiers" (SLP elongated) which seem to have always caught the public's ear.
As far as I know, no one has written a comprehensive review comparing these two reference preamplifiers. I've scoured audiogon's forums, avs' forums, and google itself for a relative comparison between the two so as to ease my decision in whether I should stick with my long-time love (98) or move up to what could potentially be my new mistress (05). Needless to say, I couldn't find one review. Thus, I decided the only way to really find out whether I would prefer one over the other was to get the SLP-05 into my listening room and compare.
Now, you guys must know that I DID NOT SELL my SLP-98 prior to receiving the 05 nor did I post it on audiogon the moment I got the 05. This is testament to how much I loved the 98 and how steep of a reference the SLP-05 had to prove itself against! I was not impressed by the hype the 05 brought with it, nor was I going to let some new preamp move into my listening room and bump down the SLP-98 purely on swagger alone.
I had to hear it for myself...
Now, I know all of you folks are asking, "how does it sound???" However, let's look at the way both are designed first and foremost.
The SLP-98 was beautiful to me, I liked the slender chassis and the way capacitors and tubes stood out of the chassis in a systematic fashion. I liked the tactile feel of the knobs and switches up front which had always been flanked by a lovely aluminum (or black) faceplate. I recall imagining myself to be some sort of an 1960's radio operator whenever I played with the front knobs and switches of the 98... clicking and clacking away. Taken as a whole, the SLP-98 embodied what it was to be a sweet little preamp.
In contrast, the SLP-05 is much larger, much manlier, and demands attention. The 05, double-stacked upon it's power supply, has an almost grand appearance with the 8 6sn7 tubes resembling some sort of a crown. Physically large, the 05 is a far cry from being a sweet little preamp - perhaps the SLP in the 05 means sweet LARGE preamp! Looking at the rear reveals much more robust single ended inputs/outputs along with pure-balanced XLR ins/outs, a sight for sore eyes coming from the 98. Examining the front shows that the 05 has more of the same switches and knobs which gave the 98 a tactile feel to its operation, but includes a much larger volume (and power) knob which is evidence that despite all the physical hoopla the 05 displays, music is still the 05's number one priority!
It definitely did not take much time to realize how each of the preamplifier sounded in my system - the Summits are ruthlessly revealing. The 05 and the 98 are similar in tone, but the 05 is very different in its presentation.
Not much grain from both preamplifiers using stock EH 6sn7 tubes, but I felt that the 05 had a better control of grain compared to the 98. There was definitely a better sense of detail with the 05 without being overbearing. In addition, I felt that 05 had better extension at the furthest ends of the treble region, while retaining a relatively sibilance-free presentation even when turning up the volume.
The 05 had much better presence as vocalists had more body while at the same time, sounding a bit more natural than through the 98. The 05 demonstrated a sense of solidity which was far superior to the relative "wobbly" nature of the 98, meaning the 05 would not seem to fall apart when a lot was happening in the midrange. The 05 also seemed to be more musical in the midrange and many times my attention was drawn to particular instruments in the audio playback when played through the 05, these same instruments were glossed over by me when quickly A/B-ed to the 98.
Unexpectedly, I found that the 98 was a bit rough around the edges when it came to bass reproduction. Interestingly enough, it was not until I had the 05 in my system that I realized this foible. The 05 is rock solid down-under. I recall the bass line from "Like A Star" by Corrine Bailey Rae, through the 98, the bass sounded very dirty and muddy in comparison to the quick, tight, and well-differentiated bass reproduction through the 05! The 05 presented infrasonics with a much better amount of texture and character, the 98 in comparison was pathetic.
The 05 handily won this category. The 05 was very solid and precise in its imaging, far better than I felt the 98 could muster. When playing through a gamut of tracks (from James Blunt to Eric Clapton to Ella Fitzgerald), the 05 remained steadfast in its presentation. Each instrument was better focused through the 05... the vocalist had a more precise and almost razor sharp image focus to it. The 05 was so precise in the way it imaged a much tighter and focused vocal image, the 98 upon A/B seemed unfocused and overly big. The 98, even with NOS Sylvanias 6sn7 tubes did not have the focused vocal image that the 05 displayed... an eye-opening realization for me because if you've followed my posts, I've stated numerous times how focused I felt my vocal imaging had come since I've gone to the 98 and since then have rolled the tubes to NOS Sylvanias!
In addition, the 05 had much more poise than did the 98. When the volume was turned up on the 05, I felt that the imaging stayed relatively life-sized without becoming overbearing and larger than life and instead more emotion spilled out of the vocalist as the voice projected further into the room. The 98, on the other hand, had the tendency to inflate the vocalist to an inappropriate size and losing the fabricated sense of realism.
This was another area in which I felt the 05 rocked the 98 in more ways than one. The 05 was far better than the 98 in conveying a layered musical soundstage. The 05 presented the vocalist consistently a few feet beyond the drums in the rear while making enough room between the instruments via a better articulation of what I'd like to call "dead space" between say the guitar and the piano on stage left. The 05 clearly delineated each aspect of the stage at a much higher level than did the 98. By comparison, and this is no exaggeration, the 98 was flat, 2-dimensional, and completely akin to listening to a stage not much more articulate than the wall behind my speakers.
The 05 was so good at staging, that I never felt that my system sounded congested! For so long, I've been a bigger fan of listening to simple tracks and avoided tracks with a lot of instruments simultaneously playing at the same time... once again, I thought it was purely because the source/recording was bad. With the 05, I began to pull out more and more of my more complex tracks and played them which a smile remained on my face. This was a night/day difference from my prior experiences with the 98 (and all the other preamps I've owned) as I've always avoided multi-instrument congestion of the stage.
Volume Level... ???
Surprisingly, I found that I manned the volume controls a bit differently with both preamplifiers. With the 98, I found myself controlling the volume in a way that rectified the size of the vocal image meaning that the volume control was my way of getting the vocalist to be the size that I wanted him/her to be. Beyond that particular volume level, the stage fell apart and the singer became way too big to be believable.... below this volume, I found that the stage was (relative to the 05) deficient.
In comparison, the 05 had a much much better grip at staging and imaging that I found myself playing with the volume control in a manner that suited my listening preference at that time. If I wanted more emotion, I would simply turn the volume up... the singer would project his/her emotion further into the room (almost spitting on me) and the instruments would present themselves in a much more emphatic sense! If I wanted to not have my neighbors knock on my wall, I'd turn the volume down, but I still got a much better feel of the stage at similarly low volume levels relative to the 98.
To summarize, the 05's imaging and staging was much less correlated with volume level compared to that of the 98's.
To describe the Cary SLP-05 through my system, I felt that it was very transparent to the source. Whether or not it was neutral is difficult to assess as I no longer believe that there truly is a neutral component. The 05's sonic presentation is one of solidity - as imaging is rockhard and razor-sharp while staging is 3-D with each instrument seemingly removing itself from the other instruments on the stage by virtue of a better sense of "dead space" encapsulating each one. The 05 has superior dynamics and extension on both ends of the spectrum giving way to a more detailed treble and a reasonably more textured low-end grunt while maintaining a sense of naturalness in the midrange. In terms of image/stage presentation, the 05 can be described in my system to be forward (not aggressive sounding type of forward, but upfront and close to the performers type of forward). The vocalist is definitely at the plane of the speakers (or a foot forwards), which is what I love to recreate. I hate having the sensation that the vocalists is 5 feet behind the speaker plane as I prefer the sensation of my being in a small jazz club.
Yet, without musicality, all else is meaningless! I'm here to tell you that the SLP-05 is one musical machine! I won't go into detail as to how it is musical or go on endlessly describing how the 05 has PRaT and timbre correct. Instead, I will let you guys know that I was able to sit through an entire Corrine Bailey Rae album without getting up, something I had not ever done before with the 98. I'm not the biggest CBR fan, but if I can sit through the entire album - that means something!
Is the 05 the best preamp I have owned? I've had many preamps in my system from all of the current Rogue models (short of the Hera) to the Cary 98L and 98P with upgraded Jensen caps. With that in mind, I have yet to hear a preamp that does what the 05 does for me and in my system.
Was it worth it? Within the first 3 minutes of listening, I had already confirmed with myself that it was.
This review was from purely a speaker-dedicated perspective, I did not mention that the Cary SLP-05 is one heck of a headphone amplifier. I have rolled the tubes in the headphone amplification stage of the 05 and I have gotten my headphones to sound very very good! The Cary 05 is a class A 1/2watt headphone amplifier which uses the entire topology of the preamp (the other 6 tubes) in resolving the signal through the input/output stages prior to sending it to the remaining two tubes and the headphone amplification circuit. While not important to some, this included amenity makes the 05 a "steal" in that headphone amps of this caliber and design easily cost $2-3,000!