Sometimes work and play are indistinguishable from each other. When you really enjoy your job, you look forward to going to work and the days seem to pass quickly. Even though 10 Audio is a free service, I do take it seriously and sometimes, for the sake of providing good information to my readers, suffer through listening to some gear so you won’t have to. I did not suffer when listening to the Cary PH-302 and this review does not fall into the category of work. This phono stage is a fine example of music-making technology from one of the most respected names in audio.
The ‘302 follows the Cary tradition of offering excellent build quality and attractive cosmetics without extra fluff. It looks good without being audio jewelry. But it differs from previous Cary preamp offerings in several ways. Physically, it is a conventional enclosed box, instead of a Broadway stage show with the actors in full view. It uses 6SL7 octal tubes for phono gain, two pairs per channel, instead of the 12A- miniature types. The 6SL7s are relatively inexpensive and in current production. They also are reported to have an in-service lifespan that is 2 to 4 times greater than the smaller tubes. The phono preamplifier can accommodate both moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges, and uses step-up transformers for the additional gain required by moving-coil types. The benefit of transformers is that, as passive devices, they are inherently quiet. A phono cartridge has coils of wire inside, either fixed to the body of the cartridge as in moving-magnet types, or mounted on the cantilever as in MCs. The coils in a step up transformer provide a good “natural” load for the cartridge’s own coils.
In another departure from other Cary products, the PH-302 uses printed circuit boards instead of point-to-point wiring. Whether or not the use of PC boards makes an audible difference is unknown, since an equivalent point-to-point wired PH-302 was not available for comparison. The use of PC boards will significantly decrease manufacturing costs. Additionally, where the Cary 300SEI and SLI-80 integrated amps use comfortably dim blue LEDs to signal operation, the PH-302 uses bright blue and red LEDs on the front panel. In my system, these LEDs are much too bright and were a continual distraction since my equipment rack is centered between the speakers. Hopefully, this minor nuisance will be corrected in future production.
One thing that made me curious, and might bother some people, is that cartridge loading for MC cartridges is not adjustable. Let me address this issue now and hopefully put it to rest. With some phono stages and my reference Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum MC cartridge, I would install loading resistors in 10 ohm increments – 50 ohms, 60 ohms, 70 ohms, etc. – until I found the ideal load, which almost always turned out to be 100 ohms. With the ‘302, I used cartridges with recommended loading of 30 ohms, 100 ohms, 600 ohms, and 47k ohms, and found no problems or negative results using the fixed load provided by the Cary. Cary said this would be the case, but based on experience and common sense, I had to experience it for myself before agreeing that cartridge loading is a non-issue with this particular phono preamplifier. This is as close to “plug and play” as you can get in the tweaky world of analog.
Break-in took about 200 hours, which is fairly normal. Regular warm-up time is about 30 minutes. After that time, put on a record, set down the stylus, have a seat, and the ‘302 just makes music. The presentation is warm and inviting, welcoming you to forget about the components and focus on the performance instead. The Cary does have a character, but that unique sonic fingerprint is in the service of music. However, if you are a Type A analytical person, you’ll have more of a reaction to the ‘302’s character than someone who just wants to relax after a hard day of real work.
Here is how the Cary sounds. The bass is superb. It is unequivocally strong, detailed, powerful, and deep. This is the best phono stage that I have heard for typically bass-challenged Koetsus. There is a detailed richness in the bass and midbass that is wonderfully satisfying. A special synergy in the low frequencies is obvious. The Dynavector XV-1s, which is a bit tighter in the bass than the RSP, was also well served by the outstanding bass performance of the Cary phono. I did a couple of “sound checks” during the review period at the Colorado Symphony, then returned home to hear the Cary. Bass and tympani drums were simply real! The bass was a bit too much with the already Technicolor (overly “hot” all across the audio frequency band) Clearaudio Insider, but worked extremely well with a Benz Ruby H and a couple of others. If your system needs some help in the bass, or if you are tired of the relatively wimpy bass from another phono stage, you definitely want to check out the PH-302.
The midrange was nearly as good. Male vocals especially benefited from the wonderful harmonic development and richness from the Cary’s lower frequencies. Female vocals also had a wholeness that many other phono stages just don’t get right because they seem to emphasize a bit too much of the upper harmonic content and not enough of the lower frequency fundamental notes and character of the individual voice. Do you like vocal music? You’ll really enjoy this phono stage.
During the review period, several different amplifiers and speakers visited. I was awed when listening to the incredibly realistic, 3-dimensional soundstage produced by the Cary through a pair of Magnepan speakers. The Cary phono helped me understand that while low power SET amp magic and the special sonic traits of tubed gear are both welcome and real, loudspeakers can have a much greater effect on the overall sound we hear than the electronics behind them. In other words, changing amps and cables certainly make a difference, sometimes a large one. However, changing your speakers can transform your listening experience.
There is a weakness, but it will be a non-issue to many potential buyers. As a tool to compare phono cartridges and downstream components, the upper frequencies are just a bit too smooth and relaxed to provide the kind of analytical abilities some of us prefer or require for one reason or another. There was enough treble speed and definition for the Koetsu Platinum cartridge not to sound slow or overly warm (which it definitely is not), but the treble did show a lack of ultimate resolution. The cut “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, from After Midnight by The McNeely-Levin-Skinner Band (Sheffield TLP-30) is an excellent test of speed, detail, soundstaging, and resolution. This is a challenging piece for any phono stage (or cartridge), but the ‘302 made it difficult to follow the lightning fast finger plucking of the banjo and missed some of the notes. Note: This is not the genre of music I normally listen to, but this one cut can tell you almost everything you need to know about a component.
In comparison, the Sonic Frontiers Phono 1SE clearly resolved everything on this cut, as did both the Groove and MicroGroove+. And while the Rowland Cadence was slightly better at resolving low level detail, the ‘302 far outperformed it in soundstaging, dynamic agility, and simple musical involvement. For more normal musical fare and not audiophile torture tests, the Cary is an excellent overall performer. Of course, a successful audio system is a precise and delicate balancing act where the total performance is the sum of the contributions of each actor. Pick your cast appropriately, and the Cary could be the star of the show.
Don’t be fooled by the gain specification of 54 dB. This might not seem acceptable for MC cartridges with outputs in the 0.2-0.5 mv range, but the Cary was quiet enough to accommodate these low output cartridges in excellent fashion. The ‘302 had background noise that was just noticeable between cuts, but it is a very rare phono stage, especially a tubed one, where the phono preamplifier noise is much below the surface noise of a non-recorded area of an LP. However, the unavoidable noise was low enough in level that it never intruded on the music. I noted this in the Groove review, but it bears repeating. A phono stage provides about 98% of the total gain or amplification in an audio system. Quietness is not just a virtue, it is a requirement.
At $2,500, the PH-302 is priced appropriately for the performance level it provides. While not particularly suited as a reviewer’s tool, it is a very entertaining and very high quality music maker. It was reliable, always enjoyable and scored high on the Zen test for its ability to communicate the meaning of the music and draw this listener into the performance. Thank you, Cary, for another very enjoyable audio component.
Overall Rating: 8.5 LPs