Cary Audio SA-200.2 Stereo Power Amplifier
The new Cary SA-200.2 solid-state stereo power amplifier does not build on the technology of the model 500MB which was reviewed here on 10 Audio in 2005. It is a new design that features modular construction. As in the Levinson 532H and Classe CT-M600/300, having all of the audio circuitry on easily replaceable modules offers greater consistency of manufacture and potentially reduced service costs. This new model boasts improved performance and current-handling capacity over earlier models. According to the Cary White Paper, the sound of the SA-200.2 amplifier was voiced “to have the proven attributes of the “Cary Sound””.
Rated at 200 Watts per channel into 8 Ohms (350 Watts into 4 Ohms), the $3995 Cary amplifier offers both RCA and XLR inputs, and also a trigger input for remote turn on and off. This latter feature is welcome in my system since my Levinson 326S preamplifier can turn on the power amplifier remotely, offering one less power switch to deal with for each listening session. The weight is a manageable 65 pounds. The signal-to-noise spec of >100dB, common these days with solid-state gear, suggests good sound quality and freedom from background hiss.
Other components on hand during the audition included a SOTA Cosmos IV vacuum turntable with Triplanar VII u2 tonearm, SOTA Satellite turntable with Origin Live Zephyr tonearm, Miyajima Kansui, Shilabe and Premium Mono phono cartridges, Bob's Devices CineMag 3440 step-up transformers and Bob's brand new CineMag 1131 "Blue" step-up transformers, Rogue Ares and Lamm LP2 vacuum tube phono preamplifiers, Mark Levinson 326S preamplifier with phono, Prism Orpheus Digital Interface with custom Windows 7 computer/music server, YG Acoustics Kipod Main Modules speakers, YG Acoustics Kipod II Signature Main Modules (OMG), Dali Mentor 5 speakers (from the home theater system), and Gallo TR-3 subwoofers. Power amplifiers included B&K Reference 125.2, Mark Levinson 532H, and Manley Snappers. Interconnects and speaker cables are mostly Mogami. All front end components, including the preamplifiers, receive their AC power from a PS Audio AV-5000 power conditioner which is connected to the wall power with a 1 meter length of PS Audio PerfectWave AC-10 power cord. Other AC-10s were used elsewhere in the system, and I use Jerry's DIY power cords on the music computer and Levinson preamp. An Audience aR2p-TO power conditioner or PS Audio Quintet is normally used for the power amplifiers.
The SA-200.2 amplifier immediately impresses with great dynamics: it is very punchy and impactful. This includes the bass where consistent power across the entire bass range is necessary to properly deliver the foundation of all genres of music. If your speaker system and listening room can support good performance in the lower frequencies, the Cary amplifier will let you hear how good your system can sound. The SA-200.2 has better macro-dynamic ability than the Levinson 532H.
The bass quality is very good. The lower frequencies have a trace of tube-like character which gives the lower bass some extra richness, useful in a leaner system or bright room. The sound is just a bit soft and billowy, or just not as lean as the 532H. The SA-200.2 easily outperforms the vacuum-tube Manley Snappers in the bass. As with a good tube amplifier, the bass character improves as the frequencies rise up into the lower midrange. Overall, the bass character is tuneful and sufficiently “tight” without ever sounding lean or dry. This is consistent with the "Cary Sound".
Cary Audio initially become known for their excellent vacuum tube amplifiers, and the midrange of the SA-200.2 clearly shows the tube heritage. The harmonic density – often called color saturation when described as a visual quality – is excellent. While the Manley Snapper tube amplifiers reveal even more of the low level harmonic structure of each note, the SA-200.2 is competitive with any other solid-state amplifier in memory. There is no grain or coarseness in the midrange or treble, although on extended listening a very slight but consistent fog overlaying the sound of voices and brass instruments becomes apparent, almost subliminally. This became noticeable during week 3 of the audition and is a very small trait.
The upper frequencies are excellent, although the Manley amps seem a bit more open, airy, and natural. Nothing is obviously missing in the treble, and the presentation is never glaring or brittle. This makes the amplifier compatible with high performance loudspeakers which have the latest high resolution tweeters. The SA-200.2 will push the performance envelope of your speakers without adding much of its own character to push your speakers over the edge. The upper treble can occasionally offer a slight white-noise character to cymbals, but the inconsistent appearance of this anomaly suggests that the blame lies with the recordings instead of the playback gear. The tonal quality in the lower treble is just a bit different than in the upper treble as resolution drops a bit as the frequencies increase. This is fairly common in many amplifiers. A benefit of this is a reduction of listener fatigue from older or poorer recordings since their warts are not as glaringly exposed. There is a small inconsistent character in the 500-800 Hz region of the midrange. Since middle-C is at 262 Hz, the slight forwardness about an octave above middle-C can make singers sound a few years younger than they sound through the Manley or Levinson amplifiers.
Now that the objective nit-picking is done, let’s talk about how successfully the Cary SA-200.2 amplifier makes music. The amplifier does nothing seriously wrong. That is a bold statement. One could argue (and I have) that any change from perfect transparency to the incoming signal is actually “harm”. In most cases, we are far more tolerant of subtractive errors than having additions to our music forced upon us by the playback system. So harm would mostly consist of adding grain, or sharpness, or distortion, or any other technological artifact. Almost all of my listening notes have comments prefaced with “not as” in relation to other amplifiers, but never the comment “too much”.
Imagine the perfect amplifier. Its sound sits directly on the edge of an abyss – truly pushing the performance envelope. But go over that edge and performance suffers from the addition of artifacts. A step back from the edge is where subtractive errors are apparent. The Cary amplifier sits very close to that edge; very close to perfection. This means that with poor recordings the sound can easily be less than satisfying, but that fault lies with the source, not with the Cary amplifier. It does not offer a “nice filter” that protects the listener from poor sources. But use a high quality source and the resulting sound is high quality, very enjoyable music.
A good example of the SA-200.2’s fine performance can be heard in “Ruby Baby” from Donald Fagan’s Nightfly LP. The hand claps are very clear and believable. And then the sax and flugel horn start playing and they are right there in front of me, fully realized. Speaking of the sound of a saxophone, listen to “Babylon Sisters” on Steely Dan’s Gaucho. This cut sounds great on LP, but on the CD version the sax has a slightly coarse sound, almost a honk at times. Then, in the LP recording of “Hey Nineteen”, those cymbals have just the right amount of metallic sheen and very good decay into the background.
The sound of the acoustic guitar seems perfect on “Little Martha” on the Allman Brothers Eat a Peach CD. And on John Butler’s “Zebra”, the excellent bass and dynamic performance are readily apparent. This was during one listening session in which the amplifier was playing at fairly high volume levels for several hours. I thought about turning the system off and going to bed, but just wanted to hear one more song, and then another. The level of musical satisfaction with the Cary SA-200.2 amplifier is very high.
One measure of the audio quality of a component is how long it takes to consider concluding the audition. In this measure, the Cary amplifier scored much better than a BAT VK-250SE, Pass X250.5, and Parasound JC-1, and just a bit better than a Bryston 4BSST2. That the Cary amplifier earned these positive impressions with the microscope-like resolution of the YG Acoustics Kipod II Signature Main Modules, an absolutely state-of-the-art 2-way monitor speaker, should not be a surprise given that the amplifier comes from a company noted for making very musical tube amplifiers. Offered at a very competitive price, the Cary SA-200.2 provides excellent sound.
Overall Rating: 9 LPs, borderline 9.5LPs
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