Upgrading Frontend in 2009: Which way to go?

For reference, my system is located here:


One of the upgrades I'm looking to perform in 2009 is my source. I've enjoyed the Cary 303/300 as a standalone player, but it's time to move on (for reasons not relevant to the thread). I'm looking to spend $2k-$4k if I replace my CD player, and probably $1k-$2k if I simply add a DAC.

Sonically, I like the Cary presentation in that I can hear the recording venue, whether it is a studio, auditorium, amphitheater, or whatever. I suppose I'm a big fan of detail but not to the point that it sounds sterile. I won't be able to live with a player that doesn't allow me to hear everything on the disc, like breaths that are sometimes heard when listening to singers or wind players.

I've read some older posts about CD players, but I'm also wondering if newer DACs or newer-model CDPs with newer onboard DACs will be superior to the older models. I've read great things about the Resolution Audio Opus 21, for example, but I'm concerned that it might not be the best value anymore, given that it's 6 years old now.

One other limiting factor: I sold me preamp last year, so if I go the CDP route the new unit must have volume control onboard.

So I'm looking for the best bang for my buck in that price range. If it's a DAC, so be it. If it's a new CD player, that's great, too. Maybe even better, since I wouldn't have to buy another set of cables.

Any thoughts to help me compile a "short list" to audition would be much appreciated.

Merry Christmas and happy new year to all!
The used APL Denon 3910 presently for sale with H Attenuator (that enables
the player to run directly to an amplifier) is a steal, provided the laser is
running trouble free (meaning it won't read some CDs).

Other options include the Resolution Audio Opus that you've already
mentioned, and an Audio Aero Capitole SE with preamp section.
The Gamut CD-3 should be on your audition list.These come up used from time-to-time in that price range.Much improved over the original CD-1s,and those were no slouches-just under built and can be unreliable.Gamut is now under new ownership and in better hands.
Used Mark Levinson 390S

It doesn't need a pre-amp
I'm happy with the Bel Canto DAC3. Has volume control and can be used in a computer based front end, which is how I use it in my system - no preamp, Mac Mini via USB cable into DAC3 and then direct into amplifier via XLR outputs of the DAC3. Great results. Can't complain. Replaced Audio Research CD3MkII cd player.
For slightly more than your upper budget limit, you could consider the K&K Audio RAKK DAC MKII "Extreme" fed by a used Esoteric P-70 VRDS transport.

The "Extreme" RAKK has a tube/active linestage built into the same case. I own the stand alone version of the linestage and it is very very good in an all balanced system. The Lundahl transformers make for a dead quiet background in my system. The DAC appears to handle up to 24 bit 192 kS/s input. I own a P-70 as well, and its 176.4 kS/s upsampled output is stellar. It has converted me to the superiority of the VRDS mechanism. Kevin of K&K can confirm whether his DAC will accept dual AES/EBU 176.4 input. He will assemble the DAC/linestage combo for a very reasonable cost.

For about $6000 including dual AES/EBU digital cabling you might have a wonderful 2 box source plus active linestage that would be very hard to equal at the price. A pair of replacement linestage tubes is dirt cheap. They are robust Soviet military vintage still available in large numbers.
I own a Cary 303/300 as well as a server which runs through a Benchmark DAC-1 into the same system.

The Cary has lots of adjustability, but the DAC-1 sounds different to me than any of the combos available on the Cary. But ... different will not be better to all ears.
I've found 2 camps of DAC sound - "rounder" and "leaner" (speakers and cartridges, too).

If you prefer the rounder sound of the Cary's onboard DAC to the leaner, more revealing (IMHO) Benchmark, I'm not sure you'll find what you're after. The Cary is really good - of this type. It's plenty revealing, but warmer and will sound more "musical" to some.

OTOH, if you prefer the DAC-1, there's probably a bunch of good choices out there, the DAC-1 certainly among them.

Good Luck


Thanks for your thoughts, guys. It occurs to me there was a great price on a Resolution Audio Opus 21 with GNSC mods and RSAD umbilical just a few months ago. I didn't jump on it, and I don't think it sold (which is mind-boggling to me), but hasn't been relisted.

I've heard the GamuT player, and liked it, but the bass was very weak in that system. Don't know if it was the PS Audio gear downstream or what else may have caused that. The cabling was Cardas, so I think I can eliminate cabling as the cause. The speakers were Taylor Audio, and I know those speakers to be very balanced within their range.

I'm doing more research on these options to see which way I will go. Thanks again for your thoughts.

Your Cary should make a fine transport if you are going with CD's. Put your money into a DAC.
The only thing I did to my Gamut CD3 other than a after-market PC,has been in the vibration control area (pts,platform).I don't find it weak,as my speakers are no more than 3db>25Hz.YMMV.I do use different cabling/system,may be the difference???
Another alternative would be any of the John Tuckers Offerings. Exemplar 2900 and up
Excellent sonics and you could snag one used for relatively inexpensive 1700+
All good suggestions.Get a Mac mini and your choice of USB dac and your in a brave new world.I can second the BC Dac3,good luck,Bob
Forget the front end - invest in some room treatment! Seriously, it's a great listening space, but it must reverb like crazy.
well i have a linn 1.1 and its great it does things other players just don't. there are a few for sale in your price. there is also the linn sc which does a whole bunch if things and can also be a dac.uni-disc playerswith vid just for kicks. just goggle
if you dont mind using a pc - prism sound orpheus, well priced studio gear 24/96 (5k) that compares to weiss, dcs and works as preamp aswell.
no kidding, seditious. I've been eyeing some GIK Acoustic panels, and bought a set of 3 for that back wall last week. Will probably order another 3 once I've tested them in the room.

If this were the house I'd be in for many years I'd rip the plywood off and sheetrock it, but it's a rental so I'm stuck with treatments and the wife complaining that we won't use them in the next houses. Oh well, at least I can get the 1st reflection points and back wall squared away!

Question shifts to in-home auditions. I have some units in mind I'd like to hear. Although I explored the DAC angle I've decided I'm not quite ready to add another piece of equipment. That decision has to do with frequent moves, future space constraints, and additional cabling rather than any opinion on the merits of a DAC.

I have an Ayon CD-2 coming this week. I'd love to A/B it with:

Acoustic Research CD-7
Esoteric X-03SE
Ayre C-5xe

Does anyone know of dealers that would allow me to try these in my system before making a purchasing decision? I'm not opposed to sending a "tip" a dealer's way for their time and trouble if I don't wind up buying their unit. After all, there can be only one winner, right? :-)
Oh wait, this is audio, not sports!
I like u am looking to upgrade my front end as well with a volume control cdp. Here is a suggestion not brought up yet by members. You can shoot for a less expensive CDP that may give u great bang for your buck. Check out Decware web site. They have a Tascam 160 Mk2 CD Player that they do extensive mods on for about $450.00 to $500.00 for the mod work or u can purchase the machine new from them with the full blown mods for I think about $1,250.00.The mods come with Class A Tube output,Tube power supply,Dual Stepped Volume controls variable voltage gain,Detachable I.E.C Power Cord Connector .
I am told its a real contender at some of the megabuck cdp's and it may be just what were looking for.
The break in time is long maybe 1 to 2 months .They come with a 30 day trial period to try out to see if thats what u like which is interesting. If u don't like it u get all your money back no questions asked. AND I AM not affiliated
with the company at all,But Steve is a really great guy who designed this and its rare these days to be able to talk to the designer one on one. Check the player out on his web site.
I upgraded to the Cary 306SACD with an on board DAC and the sound is incredible. Now going through an amp review. I've got the Cary S120 but I'm reviewing a pair of Seymour Ice Blocks