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Classic Tubes

The SLI 80 integrated amp is a sly component that will impress even a seasoned listener

Cary Audio Design is famous for their expertise in manufacturing vacuum tube equipment and, though they have recently ventured into solid state territory, their mastery of vacuum tube-based technology continues. Dennis Had, who seems almost consumed with innovative technology, has steadily worked to improve an already great design. The SLI80 amplifier (Mr. Had calls it the sly80) was first introduced in 1998, then with some mods in 1999. By 2001 a signature version was introduced, standardized by 2002 and since 2003, the only change has been the addition of the new automotive finish.


Take your pick: ultralinear or triode? headphone jack too!

The conventional layout of tube amps includes transformers, output and input tubes, switches etc. The SLI 80 sports all these, but manages to look very cool, very engaging and just beckoning to be touched. Forget the seductive glow of a fireplace; when this amplifier is fired up, tubes aglow, it will evoke similar enticements, especially in a dimly lit listening room. The unit has a semi-gloss powder coated textured black steel chassis. The front plate is machined black anodized aluminum, and the front panel sports the power switch, balance, selector, headphone jack and LEDs.

On the rear, the inputs are labeled CD, Aux 1 and 2. Toggle switches allow for a choice between 4 and 8 ohms, as well as for a subwoofer output. Five-way speaker terminals and the AC fuse complete the rear panel arrangement. The tube bias adjustment is located on the top of the chassis. The unit also comes with a minimalistic remote for volume and input selection.

The Sound
For my listening tests, I used three different brands of cable the Nordost Vallhalla and the JPSLabs Aluminata and Magnan (both reviewed in this issue) connected first to the super efficient WLM Divas, followed by the Monitor Audio GS-60s (both reviewed in this issue). These tests established the voice of the amplifier and what a voice!

With the Divas in the set-up, connected with Valhalla cables, the most impressive (and astounding) accomplishment was the system's sound stage. Having listened to many monoblocks with very respectable sound staging capabilities, I didn't expect to hear this very simple system (integrated amp and speakers) match the best I have ever heard: dimensions right out of the room, basically no hint of the loudspeakers location. Still, I had the sense of where the sound stage boundaries were located, and I could easily visualize how the musicians were arranged on that stage. I was torn between the triode and ultra-linear modes but decided that, for some listening material where resolution was of importance, I preferred the ultra-linear mode. Nevertheless, the triode mode is a bit more seductive, easier on the ears and sounds quite a bit smoother, especially with large orchestral works. You know what they say about the (inner) ear of the beholder, so choose your preference; both modes are superb.

Though sonically different, the slightly brighter-sounding Monitor Audio speakers benefited from the SLI 80, especially in the triode mode. While imaging did not sound as open as with the Divas in the system, I enjoyed the added resolution, tonal balance and steadfast focus. One of my pet beefs relates to harmonics (or the lack thereof) which identify instruments, lend texture to voices, body to instruments and timbre or tonality to the music. Many amps can do some of this, but only few can do it as proficiently as the SLI 80. It executes these important musical constituents with such mastery that I could easily determine the sonic characteristics of three different pianos. My aptitude for remembering sound came in handy as I auditioned three discs, each featuring a different grand piano a Steinway, a Baldwin and a Yamaha. The amplifier clearly revealed the unique characteristic of each: a Yamaha Grand on Three Blind Mice CDs, a Baldwin on any Dave Brubeck CD, and a Steinway on most Gene Harris CDs.

Texture refers to a set of traits that defines the character of instruments and, while most electronics fall short, there are rare exceptions, the SLI 80 being one. Timbre distinguishes sounds of the same pitch when produced by different instruments or voices. It goes hand in hand with texture and relates to how many overtones are superimposed on a fundamental sound wave (tone), having a frequency which is a whole multiple of the fundamental frequency. That's harmonics and the SLI80 seems to capture them all. In audio lingo,the term body is often used in conjuction with weight to describe the power needed to handle difficult instrumental or vocal passages. The SLI 80 delivers, no diet necessary. The amp's all-round sound is neither opulent nor thin, yet it is lushly musical and tight where it counts in the bass.

There are ways to further enhance performance; try a good power line conditioner (two were reviewed in the last issue), use good cabling, choose good loudspeakers, and you'll wind up with an uncomplicated high-end system at a very reasonable price. I checked all the cables listed above and came to the conclusion that the best sound was achieved with the JPS Labs Aluminata cable, second best with the Valhallas and third best with the Magnan cables.

Synopsis & Commentary
The SLI 80's longevity in the Cary Audio line-up points to a very successful amplifier and it has earned accolades from many reviewers. This relatively inexpensive amplifier has continued to appeal to music lovers everywhere and this, the latest version, is an outright winner. Not only does it do audio, it does it better than most integrated amplifiers I've listened to. When I sit down to listen to music after a hard day's work auditioning and writing about it, it's difficult NOT to nitpick; it's in my blood, I guess. I'm forever listening for something that mars the sound and, while most of the equipment is of good quality, I routinely find some imperfections. I'm mentioning this to make it clear that even in high-resolution audio, there are nits to be picked. However, occasionally I find the magic, the component synergy that allows me to just relax and unwind. The Cary Audio SLI 80, connected to the Divas or the Monitor Audios did the trick and I found myself listening, glass of wine in hand, totally wrapped up in my favourite music. In the end, it's this kind of pleasure that makes audio fun and the best therapy to battle the tediousness of everyday life. It's also a good indication that this equipment pacifies an often anxious reviewer. This is high praise indeed coming from a very seasoned listener. This integrated amp uncomplicates your life as it provides listening pleasure, a warm feeling of excitement for the performance and a balm to those frazzled nerves.


SLI 80 Integrated Amplifier Cary Audio Design

Cary Audio Design 919.355.0010
$0,000 CDN
$3,000 US
7 (h) 17 (w) 16 (d) 42 lbs

This amplifier functions in two modes ultralinear and triode. Its tube complement includes two Sovtek 5U4 supplemented by KT88/6550 output tubes configured in push-pull mode. The unit also features specialty output transformers. In the triode mode, the amp provides 40 watt/channel and in the ultra-linear mode it delivers 80 watts/channel. Negative feedback is derived from a separate winding on the output transformer. The feedback (only 4dB) winding and circuitry is used to reduce noise floor and improve damping characteristics. The phase inverter is self-balancing and achieves the split load configuration utilizing 6SN7 octal base dual triodes.

The preamplifier circuit is a resistive-coupled class A triode amplification stage. The power supply is a 200% duty cycle laminate transformer.

The unit's high voltage section features full wave vacuum tube (CV-729, 5U4) rectification to a PI-L capacitive network. The input signal from the volume control is directly coupled (DC) to the first grid of the 6922 (input buffer tube). No coupling capacitors are in line with the input signal.

The subwoofer output is derived from a voltage divider network on the input stage. Where capacitors are used, Cary opted for paper and oil caps. An overload protection guarantees quick recovery in case the amplifier is driven into clipping.

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