Review: Cary Audio Design SLP-05 Tube preamp

Category: Preamps


Let’s start with the punchline: The Cary SLP-05 is the single best equipment purchase I have ever made. It is wonderful sounding, convenient to use, beautiful to look at and built like a tank (two tanks, actually – separate power supply).

Now we can rewind and go through this step by step.

Associated equipment:

Rowland 201 monoblocs
Sony 777 modified to Platinum Standard by Modwright
Linn LP-12 decked out to the max
Tom Evans Groove phono stage
Aerial 9 speakers (in gorgeous rosewood, with Aerial stands)
REL Storm III (rarely used, but nice when needed)
Shunyata Hydra Power conditioner
Kubala-Sosna Emotion IC’s everywhere & PC’s for Pre/Phono/CD digital section
JPS Power+ PC’s for amps and Digital+ for cd power section
Grand Prix Monaco Modular equipment rack
Mana stand for the turntable

All this exists in a specially built dedicated room 15x26x7.5 with dedicated hospital grade circuits, etc.

Prior Preamps Recently Owned (in reverse chronological order)

Aesthetix Calypso with NOS Mullard/Amperex/Telefunken (and other) tubes
Rogue 99 Magnum
Melos SHA-Gold
Sonic Frontiers SFL-1

I love my stereo and I have since I was 13 (32 years ago). I’ve had many many pieces of equipment, but in the last few years I have mostly wanted to have a complete, finished stereo system that could handle anything competently.

When I bought my Calypso, I thought I was done. I had gone to the Rowland amps after a long affair with Bryston, and the Rowlands perform at their best when fed by balanced preamps. When my Rowland dealer recommended the Calypso, I took his advice seriously and later bought one. The Calypso is a great unit, no doubt, but in my opinion, it runs the 12AX-7’s a bit too hard, and the result is noise. Yes, the noise goes away when music is on, but it’s still there. Musical, well-built, etc…..I tried to love the Calypso, but after more than a year of tube rolling and tube rush, I was tired of trying.

I called Kevin Deal at Upscale as he had supplied me many of the NOS tubes I rolled into the Calypso, and I mentioned to him that I had noticed the SLP-05 in one of his ads. He couldn’t say enough about the Cary line, the Cary people, and this preamp in particular. So instead of rolling tubes, I rolled preamps. It was a big financial leap at a time when I thought I was finished making big leaps, but I suppose you should be careful of the questions you ask your hifi dealer. Without being talked into it, I was talked into it.

Wow. No loss of the musicality that I loved about the Aesthetix, but instead of tube rush there was dead silence. Dead. Silence.

But not with the phono stage, right? Jacked up the turntable, and again, dead silence. High volumes, spaces between notes? Dead silent.

Okay…enough with the silence. How did it sound when it wasn’t being silent?

Some test recordings and associated ruminations:

Sinead O’Connor – Universal Mother – All Apologies – killer recording with ambience like few other recordings. I thought my listening room had lost its walls. The room went from fifteen feet wide to hundreds of feet wide, from 26 feet deep to cathedral depth.

Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane – eponymous LP – thought I would listen to Well You Needn’t to see how the pre did with older piano and sax recordings. Listened to all four sides. Couldn’t believe the recording was 40+ years old. Timbres were natural, piano was one continuous instrument (despite 3-way speakers), and the 7-9 players (different bands on different cuts) never sounded congested.

Giant Sand – Cover Story, Stone of Enchantment, All Over the Map – Giant Sand just played here in Portland, and I played a lot of their music on LP and CD before and after the show. They played an excellent show at a superb sounding venue. But my listening room with the Cary is still better. Scratchy hard nasty passages were appropriately abrasive without making my ears bleed and soft solo cynical songs were intimate without disappearing.

Various Operatic Overtures – just went to the Portland Opera to see Macbeth – pretty good show, not the PO’s best offering ever, but the soundstage in my room was not much smaller than the soundstage at Keller Auditorium. However, thanks to the Cary, my room was much quieter. And no one was coughing or eating.

Vicente Amigo – various flamenco albums – this guy has won many awards for his flamenco playing, and his albums are closely miked. The Cary allowed me to peek deep into his world with none of the clinical glare that I have experienced with some friends’ high priced solid state preamps.

Johnny Cash – mostly American Recordings stuff but some older pieces as well – did I already say “close miked”? These are terrific recordings and Cash leaves a lot of space around his words and carefully chosen picking. This is one of those places where tube rush can be most disconcerting. Not any more!

Janos Starker – Bach Concertos – these even got my wife to admit that the new preamp was worth every penny. Same deal as the Monk – thought we were going to listen to one or two pieces – instead played the whole set of LP’s from start to finish.

Procol Harum – Whiter Shade of Pale – what a great song and what a crappy recording! While the Cary didn’t cover up the recording’s sonic foibles, it didn’t emphasize them either. The song was still more prominent than the gear. I’ve heard this beloved chestnut sound unbearable (like on an all solid state system in my living room) and I’ve heard it sound “tubey” – that is, veiled, thick, fun but dark. These same comments apply to several Doors cd’s and albums.

What else? Well…I used to DJ house music, so I put the system through its paces with electronica (Massive Attack, Leftfield) chillout (St Etienne, Kid Loco, Café del Mar) and more. I play jazz piano and sax and I put the Cary through every Verve and Pablo LP I own (if you can find the Verve Dizzy Gillespie/Stan Getz lp with Siboney on it, buy it!). I love rock (new and old) and classical (but not modern classical) and opera (sucker for Verdi) and world (the whole world, especially remixed, thank you Talvin Singh) and reggae (especially dub and rocksteady) and just about everything else (not much pure Nashville country, but I like blue and newgrass – Allison Krause….), and I’ve been playing about 15 hours per week for the 6 weeks since I got the unit. When the kids are asleep, the volume is moderate (the greatness of a dedicated room – even at midnight I can play) and when I have a day off and they are out, the volume is immoderate. I’ve been ushering friends through, all invited to bring and play their favorite piece. Everything has been wonderful and the consensus is that my rig has never sounded nearly this good. My best listening friend remarked that he hears everything he wants and nothing he doesn’t – i.e., no noise.

The Cary is detailed without being etched. It’s smooth without being pudgy, overly warm or “romantic.”

The volume control is a motorized system – like my Rogue and Melos, but the steps are better on the Cary – I can tune it easily from my chair without over or undershooting.

And it has a KILLER headphone jack – the first truly wonderful one I’ve encountered since the Melos. I have Sennheiser and Grado phones and both worked perfectly. (although I have to confess a slight preference generally for Grado phones, despite the universal hoo-ha over the Sennheisers. Yes the 600’s and the 650’s are nice, but I still like the dynamics of the Grado’s.)

The units are, as I said, built very well, easy to install, and lovely to look at (8 tubes sticking out the top – 2 large meters glowing sweetly blue in the dim of the music room). Autobiasing is a nice plus. I am willing to tweak but I’d rather listen than tinker.

The tubes are eight 6SN7’s and something else hidden in the power supply (tube rectified power supply). In this day and age where a Siemens CCA can fetch a price north of $300, I’m grateful to own a piece of gear with easily supplied tubes. The Chinese stock tubes sound great and I have little inclination to experiment. Why mess around with gear when I’m happy listening to the stereo as is?

I’ve made many purchases that made me very happy. Pretty much everything I’ve owned has given me a lot of pleasure. But nothing has done for my system what the SLP-05 has. It’s finally made me stop and listen to the music, and that, for me, is what this obsessive hobby is all about.

I can’t say enough good things about Cary the company – I had a question about the headphone stage (I had a switch in the wrong setting and the phones were not as dynamic as I’d expected) and they were prompt, polite and very enthusiastic about the preamp. The gentleman with whom I spoke told me that the pre was the best they’ve ever built and he was clearly and justifiably proud. Once I switched the switch, the phones were superb. But the point here is that the Cary folks were jazzed about the preamp and happy to hear that I was happy.

Thanks to Cary for making this unit.

And thanks to Kevin Deal for bringing it into my world.

Now, back to the music!

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Nice review. I have been enjoying my SLP-05 for five months now. Best pre I have ever heard. Just curious, where was this switch you mention for the headphones? I assume you do not mean the one on the front panel?
I am thinking about a Rogue 99 pre for my system what do you think of it?
Thank you,
Nice review. The Cary SLP-05 is by far THE BEST preamp I have ever owned and the only tube preamp I truly love. The dynamics and frequency extension of the Cary SLP-05 gives up nothing vs. the best solid-state preamps while offering plenty of "tube magic" as only vacuum tubes can. I almost gave up on vacuum tube preamps until I met the Cary SLP-05.
Mine is all black with cool blue meters and front panel LED indicators.

My system presently consits of the Accuphase DP-65v CD player driving the Cary SLP-05 preamp. I switch between the Cary Rocket 88R vacuum tube power amp or the Pass Labs X150 solid-state amp, depending on my mood. The speakers are a pair British Tannoy Definition D500's with 8-inch drivers.
Wow, this is great to hear. Nice review, I am getting to it about a year late but I have the rowland 501's which also reqire balanced preformance. I was stuck with choices between aeshtetix calypso, some model of BAT until I found the cary. All of these had their drawbacks in terms for reviews. Too much noise etc. Great to see somebody matchng the rowlands with this amp as I wondered how the sound might be. Now i am convinced. SLP-05, here I come!!!
I have had my SLP-05 for 18 months, and been on AudioGon for just over a year ... I can't believe that I haven't seen your review yet!

I agree with everything you said, but thought I would add a couple of things:

1. Do not bother tube rolling the tubes on the far right. Those are for the headphones.

2. The tubes that make the most difference seem to be the two on the far left.

3. Some Australian versions of the SLP-05 have resistors of the wrong value supplying the pilot lights of the power supply (spec'd for 220V, not 240V). My pilot lights kept on blowing. I took it back to the dealer, and they changed the resistor to the correct value. Lights have been OK since.

4. The rectifier valve in the power supply can be rolled. My dealer suggested a Siemens valve which he fitted. Dynamics and bass were improved.

5. The remote control is really lame! Firstly, the controller itself is a credit card sized thing which looks and feels cheap. Secondly, the remote sensor on the preamp is buried in a little tunnel. Unless your remote is pointing directly at it from a distance of less than 2m, it will not work. Cary need to move the sensor to the surface of the preamp and supply a more powerful remote. On my system I have placed a remote repeater directly in front of the sensor.

6. The preamp responds to aftermarket feet. I placed some Finite Elemente Ceraballs under the preamp which made the trebles rather harsh and grainy. I promptly removed them. They are now sitting on a wooden board while I ponder what to try next.

7. Do not bother with power cord tweaks. Made no difference on my preamp. Maybe because the power supply is already of such high quality?

Hope this helps :)