By Brian Hunter
The (Digital) Times They Are A Changin’
With the onslaught of technological change and market shift impacting traditional hi-fi, more established companies are dipping their big toes in the murky waters of unexplored territory. In a trend that’s become readily apparent, they’re offering new products in both the digital domain and even down into the trenches of personal audio, a trend that’s becoming readily apparent as the audio show circuit expands.
Cary is one of those astute companies. Based in the US and founded in 1989, Cary started with 2-channel vacuum tube equipment and quickly evolved into upscale A/V gear as that market expanded. A few years ago, they introduced a hybrid headphone amplifier with a tube preamplifier stage called the HH-1, and they’re now offering a pair of D/A converters. The purely solid state DAC-100 retails for $2,495 and the DAC-100t includes a vacuum tube analog stage, for an additional $500. Both units share the same digital bits but the topic of today’s discussion will be the “t”-for-tube DAC-100t.
Tangled Up In Screws
As the short product cycle of digital audio technologies continues to revolve faster than a prehistoric slingshot of musical truth, Cary’s new full-size digital-to-analog converters aim to bring more consumers closer to their favorite sonic pastime.
I use the term ‘full-size’ intentionally here. As far as DAC sizes go, the DAC-100t is the largest I have ever reviewed and probably seen in the flesh. While Light Harmonic’s fancy $20k DaVinci DAC may take up more physical real-estate with its futuristic, stealth-fighter design, the 100t is for all intents and purposes a box, and as I mentioned, a rather large one at that. Think old time VCR, times two; the 15” by 17” by 3.5” size fills a typical A/V shelf to its near maximum.
The aluminum faceplate, available in black or silver, is attached to a fairly standard-looking machined metal audio component container. The buttons and faceplate design don’t exude fanciful aspirations that break new ground, but they get the job done; Cary even threw in a phase switch for good measure.
A simple LED readout lets you know what resolution you’re sending to the device and the on/off switch communicates its position with a back-lit glow of blue or green.
There is a slight delay when you first hit the power switch that lets things get fired up for the analog section.
The tube state section of the 100t is visible though the perforated casing near the rear of the unit, but is cleanly and safely tucked away from tiny hands that could cause damage to themselves or the glass.
A replaceable fuse also rounds out the rear panel’s many digital connections (more on that later).
The unit weighs in at 21 lbs, reasonable considering the size. Cary recommends 100 hours of burn-in time, but there wasn’t too much of a shift in noticeable quality within the extended time we spent together.
USB hookup to the Cary DAC 100t was as easy as it should have been and I suffered no complications connecting to my MacBook Air. No additional drivers were necessary for smooth operation. Audirvana Plus found the “Cary Audio USB Interface” immediately and indicated a file reception up to 24/192 kHz. The interface worked seamlessly with the DAC and should be a very basic setup even for first timers.
Subterranean Homesick Tubes
From an internal design standpoint, the name of the game is power supply for Cary.
Two individual high-current custom built toroidal transformers pump juice into the digital and along sections of the device separately. The analog transformer leverages a Faraday shield that promises to reduce outside interference.
The analog output stage utilizes two 6922 tubes, and dumps into either a set of single-ended RCAs or balanced 3 pin XLR.
In execution, the Cary DAC-100t did an excellent job of controlling outside anomalies from interfering the with precious tube stage and kept the noise floor just as seductively low as any solid state DAC that has made its way through the lab here.
Access to the tubes is somewhat restricted; rolling here really feels like more of an afterthought.
Rainy Day Women #9023 & 9018
Digital capabilities start with a XMOS asynchronous interface for the USB port and a Wolfson WM8805 chipset designated for the two coaxial and two Toslink SPDIF digital inputs. All inputs are capable of 24/192kHz, but DSD conversion is surprisingly absent.
The main silicon is based around dual ESS Sabre ES9023 chips, one for each channel. At first blush one might be curious as to why Cary decided upon the less expensive ES9023 as opposed to the widely popular ES9018, but fret not. Chip implementation is everything and more often than not dictates the actual quality of output more than chip selection. Chip programming for the best possible audio output is a very complicated and delicate process, the results of which can vary greatly even while utilizing the exact same DAC chipset.
The end result with the 100t is very much up to par with many ES9018 choices available, and outperforms several of the less than stellar implementations I have heard.
Truly evaluating a DAC chipset implementation is a perhaps a bit trickier when its tucked behind an analog tube stage. Crispy edges can find smoother solace when surrounded by the warm blanket of tube-ature. On the flip side, a razor edge can be rendered painless by vacuum tubes additive harmonics. But what comes out of the outputs in the back is what you get, so talking the 100t as a whole is really the only proper thing to do.
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Tight
Low end burst and impact hits right where and when it should. The short electronic bass sound that introduces Coldplay’s recent track “Magic”, is approached with authority in a delivery that isn’t diluted by the rummaging bass line that crisscrosses the pop anthem. As the complexity of the tune builds, everything retains its proper composure without a dynamic breakup or otherwise unpleasant audio aberrations. The relative speed of the low-end is quite quick and surprisingly satisfying for electronic and dance music. Overall, the bass didn’t appear inflated or muddy, with no exaggeration or boost above the traditional neutral baseline.
Where the Cary DAC-100t starts to diverge from other DACs is the mid-treble section. The tubestage seems to impact the presentation with a forgiving injection of naturalness, while taking a little off the top in terms of straightforward definition. Jack White’s vocal track from Lazaretto, “Alone In My Home”, showed a bit more air and dimensionality through the Auralic Vega DAC ($3,500) as did the articulation around the percussive shaker virtually located in the upper right hand side of the stereophonic soundscape. This is the tradeoff, it seems, for the semi-sweet gloss of a finely textured midrange.
Vocals carry a certain resilience to them that makes them sound like they have been quickly dipped in honey and firmly planted on a drying rack. The sweetness is there, but not so much that things have started to get sticky s*** all over the place. The softer touch allows violins screech less and sing more. It bestows forgiveness to the hard edge and joins hands with ‘warmth’ and ‘hue’. Like a sun-kissed shoulder on a white-sand beach, the 100t does portray a bit color in its initial greeting. It almost groups itself away from other purely solid-state DACs, in a more us-and-them dramatic approach.
The mid-range hangs differently. It is relaxed but yet appropriately distanced and never overbearing. There is perhaps not as much free flowing air directly above male vocals as I hear with the VEGA, but a good-natured lively presentation nonetheless.
High frequencies were very easy to listen to from the DAC-100t, smooth and a bit relaxed as well. The 24/96 download of REM’s classic Out of Time album is a bit tricky in the highs. If your rig leans a forward in the treble, you may get hit with some unpleasantness on a few tracks. “Losing My Religion” pushes on the high frequency range and can get a little brittle or disjointed without proper management. The DAC 100t’s presentation was a welcome addition here. Cymbal crashes are approached with care, free from harsh sizzle or pixilated peakyness. The soaring mandolin, acoustic guitar pick noise and percussion all managed to stay out of each other’s way, with excellent staging and separation. The full range is free-flowing, without feeling impacted at any point. Spatial reasoning is focused and fluid. The stereo field is laid out cleanly, with accurate touch-points for each of the instrument’s virtual locations.
Positively 100t Street
Does the 100t speak to me? Sure it does. The presentation is neither grey nor dull. That little extra touch of richness from the tube section will undoubtedly appeal to many analog enthusiasts across the genres, even though my initial gut reaction thinks tubes perhaps belong more appropriately in the amplifier section of the system and should leave the digital components to their own ones and zeros.
But for every product hole, a key can be fashioned. Perhaps a little warmth to solid-state monoblocks setup without the fragility and replacement needs of large driver tubes? Or perhaps a slight adjustment to a perceived need somewhere further down the chain?
In any case, the sum of the parts here is pretty much what you would expect. Tonal wealth is balanced with a slight elasticity in transparency.
Can’t get enough of the benefits that tubes bring? Double down on the analog implementation with the 100t and rock out till your soul sings.
I found the pairing to be quite favorable with the Zu Soul Mk2 and solid state Caylx Integrated. The newly formed combination brought a sure shot of liveliness into the equation with a very complimentary sum presentation in the higher frequencies.
Like A Rolling Phone
The selection of available DACs continues to grow and become more competitive. More and more often, manufacturers will slip a headphone amplifier or pre amp in for good measure, further blurring the lines between digital product boundaries and dedicated components.
Combination DAC/Pre/HeadAmp products like the Oppo HA-1 are making a bold statement with branding that pushes the headphone amplification first and DAC as an afterthought. It almost conveys a sense of “of course we do this, its almost a mandate in the personal audio space”.
Size is also driving the market in new directions. Even portable components are starting to shake off some of the negative stigma of “bigger is better”. This is no more apparent than the recent release of the pocket-sized Chord Hugo DAC retailing for $2,395. If we can believe in the fact that a cellphone can now provide the functional equivalent of a phonebooth and desktop computer of yesteryear, how far away are we from getting amazing audio out of something only slightly larger? Only time will tell, but the future certainly looks bright. Now is a good time to be involved in audio.
Direct comparisons to the $500 more expensive Auralic Vega DAC roughly fall in line with the previously mentioned tube warmth observations of added texture vs a firm leading edge. A more fair comparison would be the DAC-100 fully solid-state option, but then the price spread starts to feel a bit lengthy for due diligence against the Vega.
A/B’s between the Oppo HA-1 on hand offered a similar feel to the Auralic, which may not be so surprising as they both utilize the same ESS SABRE ES9018 chipset. The sound is getting so good across the board here, at times during the review process I will need take a moment to cleanse my palate by plugging things directly into my computers headphone output, just to remind myself how muddled and flat things can really sound.
While a lack of DSD support at this price point might not make the Cary DAC-100t the right fit for everyone, it does carve out a space for itself for those who prefer a more analog sound from their digital sources.
Not many DACs on the market offer an analog tube output stage, so in that regard alone Cary puts itself at the very front of the pack.
Good dynamics, rich mid tones and a warm analog sound round out a very well assembled combination where digital and analog meet.
The entire package is less fancy/more practical in design, but distributes its resources where it counts. Those looking for a full-scale assault on digital playback for their loudspeaker rig will want to keep the Cary DAC-100t on the top of their audition list.
Looking to add a digital component to your turntable setup? The 100t may be just piece you are looking for to ease your way into things. The unit can even sandwich in between your pre amp and CD transport to help take the crispy edge off.
In the end, it allows you to invite a tube stage into place in your rig that would otherwise might not be an option you may have thought of, an analog key for an overlooked hole. The proposition is and interesting one, I’m looking forward to see what Cary comes up with next.
- Macbook Air running Audirvana Plus
- Zu Soul Mk.II Loudspeaker
- Auralic VEGA DAC
- The Calyx Integrated
- Zu Mission RCA Mk.2-b Interconnects
- Oppo HA-1
- Questyle CMA 800R
- Audeze LCD-3
- Oppo PM-1
About the Author
Brian Hunter is a recovering musician turned audio reviewer. He currently manages and writes reviews for his own head-fi site Audio-Head.com and freelances with several other publications, including Computer Audiophile. He loves tech and the tools of music, especially the ones involved in reproduction. After he finished his undergrad degree in business, he went to the local community college and got one in photography, which was way more fun. He likes it when people have unbridled enthusiasm for something and has the utmost respect for individuals who try to create, and even more for those who are good at it.