The last time I had a Cary Audio product in the system it was a valve amplifier. Cary still builds a lot of valve designs to this day, but the North Carolina-based company also makes a wide range of solid-state electronics including preamps and power amps, integrated amps, home cinema processors, all-in-one streamer/DAC/amps, and four digital audio sources, of which the DMS-500 is the sole network streamer. By the standards of its class, the Cary is large and wears its features like badges along the front panel either side of a large and colourful display panel.
The DMS-500 is more than a mere streamer; it is also a digital to analogue converter with numerous inputs, as well as Bluetooth in its more desirable aptX form, and it’s a preamplifier with outputs in both balanced and single-ended varieties, both of which are volume controlled. Given this state of affairs, it’s a little surprising that there is no volume knob on the front panel; this facility has to be accessed with Cary’s dedicated control app or the button festooned remote control. The CMS-500 is unusual in being designed for use without the control app or a network, so you can play music stored on an SD card plugged into the front or a USB drive for which there are connections front and rear. You then access the music with the remote via the display screen, an approach that might be a little like hard work if you have a large library, but should be fine with smaller collections. There is no USB B connection for use with a computer, but then the computer is inside the box so it should not be necessary.
On the other hand, the Cary is clearly designed for network audio applications as indicated by a readiness for Roon control software (albeit not a full Roon core ) and the ability to decode MQA material most commonly found on the Tidal streaming service. So it’s a streamer for those yet to fully embrace the concept, which might be a smart move in many markets. Audiophiles in the far east for instance are not inclined to involve computers with their audio and they make up a fair proportion of the market. There are often times when I too would rather it was a matter of putting a disc in or on a device and pressing play, but change is life even in audio.
The Cary gave me a few niggles which the company put down to my iPad Mini, a device that, while not in the first flush of youth, seems to work with most (but not all) control software on the market. I was encouraged to find a more up to date tablet and that seemed to bring back pretty well all the functionality of the colourful control app.
The DMS-500 has independent volume settings for each input, thus when you switch to coax, for instance, it will change to the output level last used with a coax source. This is quite a clever and intuitive way of dealing with variations in source level and avoiding nasty surprises. The DAC is also very flexible when it comes to sample rate options, with everything from native up to 705.6kHz or DSD256 upsampling available at the touch of a screen, and yes it can convert PCM to DSD. Output level is unusual in running from -98 to +8, the latter being very high indeed and something to be careful with when running the Cary direct into a power amp. It’s possible to make small steps with the remote and very large ones with the app, so it’s the latter that needs to be kept away from the young and infirm. One peculiarity of the control app is that it shows a play button while playing, which doesn’t sound odd until you realise that all other such devices work the other way around, including the likes of YouTube, but it’s not beyond the wit of the modern audiophile to get to grips with.
This Cary doesn’t have any thermionic tubes or valves onboard, yet its sonic character reflects a design process that holds the natural balance of such devices in high esteem. Which is hardly a surprise when you look at the company’s amplifier range. Essentially, the DMS-500 sounds relaxed and has a warmth to it that eludes many digital audio components. This is a result of a subtle rolling off of highs and an equally discreet reinforcement of the bottom end; the sound is not as colourful as the display screen, but neither is it entirely neutral by the standards of the genre. This means that Amandine Beyer’s violin sounds a little subdued in its high frequency reach, but that the playing is no less lovely and the tone of the instrument is brought to the fore. It is appealingly relaxed, in fact, but does not lack for instrumental attack. Javier Perianes’ piano [Manuel Blasco de Nebra’s piano Sonatas 1-6 Op. 1, Harmonia Mundi], though played quietly for the most part, is dynamically strong and solid in the Cary’s hands, and its charm is delivered in full effect thanks to the richness of tone that’s reproduced. There could be a bit more of the ‘air’ from the studio and some of this recording’s depth is not made clear, both of which are a result of limited absolute clarity. Other streamers in this class have lower noise floors and thus greater perceived resolution.
Using the Cary directly into my ATC P2 power amplifier, rather than via the Townshend Allegri preamp, produces a beefing up of the low frequencies and a bit more of the effortlessness encountered before. The volume control element of this device is in a higher league than usually encountered with multifunction DACs where such aspects are better left out of the loop if possible. It’s here that Cary reveals its background in amplification: knob or not, this is a decent digital preamplifier to connect up to your power amp or active speakers.
At around this point Cary updated the firmware on the DMS-500 which improved usability and even seemed to improve depth resolution. Arvo Pärt’s ‘Fratres for Piano and Cello’ [Fratres, Naxos] sounded like it was recorded in a substantial and possibly ecclesiastical space and displayed a lot of its radiant pathos. Other tracks reveal a generous and relaxed presentation that brings good shine to brass instruments and real power to bass and drums. Vocals project well and Van Morrison’s ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’ [Astral Weeks, Warner Bros] has a lovely flow to it that while not as clearcut as it can be is in many ways more easily enjoyed than is usual with digital sources. I tried another bit of Van [Versatile, Legacy] from Tidal’s Master Series of MQA material and this sounded good and open with plenty of controlled energy, a better result than you get with regular Tidal streams. A track with more potential, Vilde Frang’s Homage[24/192, Warner Classics] with violin and piano sounded rather special with lovely natural acoustic and good depth once again.
With a coax feed from a Leema Antila CD player, the Cary produced a fluent groove and chunky, slightly thickened bass, alongside a warm analogue style midband. It’s the sort of sound that could do with the tightening up of Chord Co cables, but it’s also a balance that can be replayed at high level with ease and is almost enough to stop you wondering where some of the clarity and definition has gone. In fact without comparison this Cary is a very enjoyable piece of kit; it stops you worrying about the details and concentrates your mind on the music, which is always a laudable result in my book. It won’t suit detail enthusiasts nor those looking for ultimate transparency but it will appeal to anyone who wants to get down with their bad selves (so to speak) and be carried away by the tune.
The feature set on this Cary makes it a very appealing option for anyone looking to get the most out of digital audio today. It allows access to all the key sources, both new and old, and its flexibility with regard to storage systems is almost unprecedented. That it doesn’t represent the last word in transparency is foiled by a relaxed and musical demeanour that means the vast majority of formats will sound appealing. Which is particularly useful if it’s used with streams from mobile devices. My final session with the DMS-500 involved the ground breaking Innuos Zenith SE network server, which gave it a boost that made things very enjoyable indeed. And that after all is the point of the exercise, is it not?
Type: Solid-state network streamer, DAC, digital preamplifier
Analogue Inputs: none
Digital Inputs: Two coaxial S/PDIF (via RCA jacks), one TOSLink, one AES/EBU, three USB A, one SD card reader
DAC Resolution/Supported Digital Formats: USB: 44.1-384kHz, 16 bit to 32 bit, DSD 64, 128,
256 and 512. Bluetooth: 44.1kHz, 16 bit. AES/EBU, coaxial, Toslink: 44.1-192 kHz, 16 bit to 24 bit, MQA
Music services/Wi-Fi inputs: Tidal, Spotify Connect, vTuner, Bluetooth aptX
Analogue Outputs: One stereo balanced
(via XLR connectors), one stereo unbalanced
(via RCA jacks)
Digital Outputs: One coaxial S/PDIF (via RCA jack), one TOSLink
Frequency Range: 2Hz–100kHz
Distortion (THD): 0.0004% (1 kHz)
User Interface: 4.7inch display (on main unit), Cary control app for iOS, Android
Dimensions (H×W×D): 95 ×438 ×412mm
Manufacturer: Cary Audio
Distributed in the UK by: MGY
Tel: +372 880 3580