Cary Audio CD 500 CD Player Review 
Home Theater Audio Sources CD Players
Written by Todd Whitesel   
Tuesday, 22 February 2011

It's no secret that stand-alone CD players have lost ground with consumers looking for “universal” solutions to home theater and audio needs. Although the digital domain still reigns, portable media players along with DVD and Blu-ray players have taken a lot of wind out of the CD player's sails. Still, a dedicated CD player offers the best potential for high-fidelity performance. If you've invested into compact discs and want to keep enjoying your collection, then a dedicated disc spinner is still the way to go. If you want to take your disc collection to a new level, Cary Audio's CD 500 CD Player may be the last player you'll ever need.

Design & Features

The CD 500 retails for $2,995, and for that price you get a machine that's built rock-solid and complemented with top-grade components. The CD 500's digital-to-analog converter uses 24-bit, 192kHz Burr Brown 1792u DAC chips, and the player can also decoded HDCD discs. The CD 500 is engineered to minimize disc-read errors by employing a Read Only Memory drive dedicated solely for reading compact discs. This configuration allows several passes of the disc to be made to confirm exact data reading. Cary asserts, too, that this configuration “improves the standard compact disc's error-correction capabilities by a factor of 100.” To prevent circuit jitter, the CD 500 utilizes a trio of buffers that all but eliminates jitter problems. What truly separates this disc spinner from others, though, is Cary's “Resolution Enhancement” DSP circuitry. With this circuitry, the CD 500 first takes an original 16-bit, 44.1kHz signal and expands it to 24 bits. Then users have the option to up-sample the 24-bit signal from 44.1kHz all the way to 768kHz. Upsampling can be done via the front panel and/or remote and essentially in real time, thanks to the CD 500's three processors that perform operations at 190 Millions of Instructions Per Second.        

Cary Audio CD 500 RemoteSetup & Listening

The front panel of the CD 500 sports seven controls and three displays. Of the controls, the big hitter is the Analog Output Sample Rate Converter, enabling one to up-sample standard redbook discs from 44.1kHz to 96kHz, 192kHz, 384kHz, 512kHz and 768kHz. The CD 500 is also compatible with HDCD-encoded discs, and features an HDCD indicator (blue LED) to confirm decoding. HDCD discs are decoded at 44.1kHz only. The rear panel is equipped with a pair of balanced XLR analog outputs, a pair of unbalanced RCA analog outputs, a TOSLINK digital output, a COAXIAL digital output, DC trigger input, IR input jack, RS 232 jack and AC mains. A stock power cable is included, which can be swapped out for an aftermarket cord. Four substantial rubber feet anchor the CD 500. I was able to test the CD 500 using RCA analog interconnects only, so I can't speak for its  playback via the digital outputs or balanced connections. The first thing I did was replace the stock power cord with my go-to RS Audio Kevlar Starchord and then let it burn in for about a week.

The subtle differences between the CD 500 and other players aren't that subtle. For my ears, this player delivers all the performance I would likely ever need. Its a remarkably smooth operator with an engaging, open presentation that doesn't get hamstrung across frequencies. Highs are detailed and clean without sounding edgy or brittle; mids are smooth and burnished; lows are solid and full-bodied. Its sonic footprint is barely audible, with a transparency of sound that lets music do the talking. And the CD 500 isn't a one- or two-trick pony; rather, it delivers the good regardless of musical style or complexity of arrangement. This solid state player has a firm foot in the neutral zone, with just a touch of warm sparkle, making it one of the most ear-pleasing and listenable devices around.

Though it up-samples to 768 kHz, I found that most discs sounded best at 96 or 192 kHz. Just going from 44.1 to 96 kHz brings out the air and bloom in recordings and creates a wider and deeper soundstage. As I mentioned earlier, you can experiment with the different DSP rates, as discs play, simply by pressing the remote's “SRC” button. And if you want to listen in “native” mode, it's just as easy to return to the redbook standard 44.1kHz.  

Dutch composer Johan De Meij's “Symphony No. 1” may not be well known to the general public, but fans of J.R.R. Tolkien (and perhaps high school band students) likely recognize this composition as it was inspired by the author's Lord Of The Rings. This fittingly dramatic work is divided into six parts, five depicting a character or theme from the trilogy. De Meij caps it with a movement based on Paul Dukas' “The Sorcerer's Apprentice.” The 2001 recording by The London Symphony Orchestra, led by David Warble, brings De Meij's work to the concert stage, transcribing the original piece composed for symphonic wood band and re-scoring it for symphony orchestra. The result is a mix of dark and light, penetrated by moments of sheer exuberance such as the triumphant horn announcements and the dancing shuffles of “Hobbits.” I was captivated by the performance and the clarity of the arrangements, presented with a freshness and joy, as if the CD 500 was working solely to make me smile.

Really good components make me want to listen to more music, and the CD 500 had me digging deep into my CD collection for discs I haven't spun in years and enjoying them. Rush's Power Windows is an album with which I never fully connected. The songs and songwriting are topnotch, but the production is so awash with synths and guitar effects that much of the finer details blend together. That all changed, though, when I heard the recording through the Cary player. The CD 500 nimbly navigated through the dense arrangements and brought balance to the big picture. Alex Lifeson's guitar textures were revealed in parts supple, light, graceful and impressionistic. Almost subconsciously I found myself pressing the remote's repeat button, focusing in on a newly discovered dynamic.

Cary Audio CD 500 Front

HDCD playback, on the CD 500, is likewise superb. From my small collection of encoded discs, I heard music presented with substance and vigor, keeping my interest and ears on-duty at all times. Beyond HDCD and silver CDs, the player never failed to read CD-Rs, even some less-than-pristine backups I've had for nearly a decade. As I would expect, the CD 500 read and played every disc that I put in its tray.

Another thing that impressed me about the CD 500 is how good it sounds plugged into amps/receivers across a range of performance and price points. I listened to the CD player coupled with Yamaha's R-S700 Receiver (MSRP $549), my Grant Fidelity A-348 integrated tube amp (MSRP $1,100) and the Aaron Audio no.1.a integrated (MSRP $5,500) I reviewed for previously. This player made fast musical friends with whatever I connected to it, and its performance didn't suffer.  

Final Thoughts

I don't get excited about redbook CD too often, but I must have played 200 discs or so during my time with the Cary unit. My conclusion? The CD 500 is the best non-SACD player I've heard among any costing up to $5,000. Digital has never sounded so good to my ears, and with the up-sampling options it's possible to achieve SACD-like results with redbook discs. Although I don't have experience with the megabuck (10K+) players on the market, it would take a strong persuader to shake me off the Cary tree. At $2,995, this is not an entry-level player or one for casual listeners. But if your shelfs are sagging with CDs and you want to hear them at their best, the CD 500 cannot be recommended strongly enough. Is it time to up-sample? I think so.

System Setup

  • Cary Audio CD 500
  • Grant Fidelity A-348 integrated tube amplifier
  • Yamaha R-S700 Stereo receiver
  • Aaron Audio no.1.a integrated amplifier
  • RS Audio Cables Kevlar Starchord Power Cable 
  • RS Audio Cables Illume Silver Interconnects 
  • RS Audio Cables Illume Silver Loudspeaker Cables 
  • PENAUDIO Rebel 3 loudspeakers
  • Snell Acoustics Type K loudspeakers

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