AOM Logo February 2001

A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
The Cary CD-303 CD player

Anthony Kershaw

Dennis Had, head honcho at Cary Audio Design, produces some of the finest valve amplifiers in the USA. His CAD-300SE Signature single ended triode amp and CAD-211M push-pull beauties are especially fine. Cary specializes in these and others of their kind. As such, digital has definitely not been their stock-in-trade. Therefore, it came as a very pleasant surprise to hear of the spanking new CD-303 one-box CD player.

The Cary CD-303 CD player

Audiopathic, Cary's Canadian distributor, displays and demonstrates a lot of Cary gear, always to telling effect. It was here that I first heard of the player and was intrigued enough to request a review sample. Always obliging, Audiopathic sent it shortly thereafter. It is with some sheepishness, then, that I publish the review so late after the 303 went back to its home. No excuses, just apologies.

As I write, glossy print magazines are extolling the virtues of DVD audio and Sony are promising cheap and cheerful SACD players. If so, why invest in a piece which uses a medium that may well be into its Indian Summer? An honest and fair question when the fee for this standard package is $3000.00. To be sure, though, the 303 is no shy retiring type where performance and build are concerned. In fact, if you have ever looked closely at Cary products, they all highlight exquisite fit and finish. The 303 holds its own in this fine lineage.

The Cary player boasts everything the standard CD player enthusiast could wish for: HDCD decoding, 96 kHz/24 bit, a PMD-100 digital filter, a Phillips CDM-12 mechanism, dual c-core power transformer, with fully regulated power supplies and fully shielded drive mechanism. Inner beauty, we are told, is more important to a long lasting relationship. If so, the inner workings of the 303 should hold you for some time, even if the fascia (black anodized aluminum faceplate and a black epoxy coated chassis) has one yearning for the beauty of something Italian and musical. Thankfully, its rear is chock-a-block with connective goodies: analog outputs - a balanced pair via XLR connectors and a pair of single-ended via RCA connectors; digital outputs - one each of balanced, coaxial and Toslink. Enough there for everybody to be happy.

At thirty-five pounds, the chassis is quite substantial, which gave the workmanship a gravitas I always look for in expensive pieces. Leaving the player on continually for a month gave no indication of excessive heat and was always ready to greet me with a warmed-up sound. The remote, while basic, worked just fine as did the smooth operating CD tray - only the gentlest clicks and bumps accompanied its mechanical workings. While playing, the mechanics of the 303 were absolutely silent. Lovely. For many audiophiles, pride of ownership is important, and at US$3000.00 it should be. Have no fear, o shallow ones; I felt like a millionaire with the 303 in my set up.

The player had some hours on it when setup, but I burned another fifty hours or so before I began the serious business. Having just had the pleasure of the exalted Sony SCD-1 SACD player for company, the 303 might have had good reason to slink away from what could be perceived as a considerably unfair fight. No worries, though. I found the 303 to produce some of the most beautiful digital sound I have heard. When matched with either Jeff Rowland's Concentra integrated amplifier or the inexpensive Assemblage single-ended triode tube amplifier, the 303 threw the most gorgeous, refulgent sounds from many different source materials. The sound was truly grain-free, without even the rumor of an edge. The highs were stratospheric and the lows were sent from the earth's core! Thrilling and musical in every audiophile sense.

Associated Components

Digital: Sony SCD-1 SACD player, Arcam Alpha 6.
Preamplifier: Audio Research SP9 Mk. II
Power Amplifiers: Assemblage SET-300B single ended triode power amplifier, Rowland Concentra integrated amplifier
Loudspeakers: Gallo Acoustics Nucleus Solo
Cables: Interconnects: Audioquest Emerald, Kimber PBJ, Wireworld Polaris III Loudspeaker: van den Hul M.C. The Sky-Line Hybrid, Monster Cable XP.
Accessories: Black Diamond Racing Cones (Nos. 3 and 4), Target wall shelf and stand, Seismic sink, BBC boards.

I really admire engineers who, through innovation and plain good ears, scrape away layers of audio muck that leave the music bare, beautiful and essential. It feels like home. I've had this experience with many fine pieces over the past couple of years: The Atma-sphere M-60 Mk. II Reference Monoblock amplifiers, the early Classé CD players and Jeff Rowland's fabulous Concentra integrated amplifier to name a few. Dennis Had has achieved this with the 303 - clear, cool and completely enticing are the qualities that come to mind. When matched with fine ancillary equipment, superb listening experiences await.

The office receives tons of CDs from companies big and small. It makes for a revolving door of reference material. Tough gig! I love hearing the sound of new artists (and not so new) blossom under the influence of seriously brilliant recording engineers. One such engineer, Bruce Stacey, has given Canadian group Windjammers a beaut of a recording - Swingphonic (Eclectic ERCD 00202). Conductor Harry Currie (a sometime contributor to, it should be noted) and his charges sounded just fantastic under the interpretative electrons of the Cary 303. Whether power or subtlety was highlighted, the 303 kept everything in perfect balance, allowing the delicacy of the pianissimos and the thunder of the brass to shine without a hint of smear. Piano recordings also demonstrated the exceptional transient response of the Cary. For instance, Thomas Hlawatsch's superb (and cheap) Janacek volumes (Naxos 8.553586) sounded just wonderful - no blurring of line, even in the quickest of sections. The eccentricity of Janacek's voicings and rhythms were clear and refined.

No matter what equipment I am reviewing, I always find time for a twirl with Renée Fleming. Yes, she of the beautiful and extremely powerful soprano voice. Her release from 1999, Strauss Heroines (Decca 466 314-2) gives the power end of the audio chain fits and the replay end starts when her chest tones become really buxom (the quite lovely Assemblage SET's eight watts shrunk in defeat at just about every turn!). No problem with a big bottom end, though. All the while, the 303 just floated Strauss' glorious melodies and thickly scored harmony with nary a care in the world. This CD continues to be a truly musical treasure (and a good test CD for all you audiophiles wanting the best reproduction from your equipment).

For the grungy among you, the player had a good time with the Pearl Jam's new Binaural (Epic 63665). Eddie Vetter's vocals and the band's great energy in Evacuation got the house pumpin'. Not much of a recording, though. Yes, the 303 tells no lies and was quite happy to advise me that Pearl Jam prefer musical substance to audiophile style.

The real pleasure of the Cary 303 is, that by its lack of effort and strain, the music lover will forget it exists. Its sound will win you over in a short period of time, extolling the virtues of musicality over assertiveness, delicacy over sheepishness, and clean power over brashness. It compares well with others in the price range, matching (and sometimes beating) the standard CD section of the Sony SCD-1, a considerable achievement in its own right.

Yes, there is life in the old dog yet. The standard CD playback will be with us for some time. SACD and DVD audio have not conquered the world (yet). So, why not treat yourself to an audition and a visit to the bank manager? C'mon audiophiles, you deserve it.

Cary CD-303 CD player
Manufactured by Cary Audio Design
Woodwinds Industrial Court, Cary, NC, 27511, USA
phone: 919 481 4494, fax: 919 460 3828
web:, e-mail:
Price: US$2995.00
Source of review sample: Audiopathic. (Canadian Distributor)
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