The Cary SLP05 Tubed Pre-Amp Review 2022.

The Cary SLP05 Pre-Amp Ultimate Upgrade Review 2022.

By Steve Huff. April 2022.

My Video with thoughts and opinions on the SLP-05 

 

Coming off of my recent review of the Cary Audio DMS650 Streamer I am here again today with a Cary flagship product. A product that has been around for over 15 years yet is still the top tier pre-amp from this American HiFi company.

Cary has been around since the 1980’s and have offered a plethora of beautiful tube and solid state products over the years. A few of which a few have become legendary. Take for example their SLP98P pre-amp.

The absolute Classic Looking Cary SLP-98 P Pre Amp. This was the first piece by Cary Audio that I owned back in the 90’s. I cherished this piece for years. 

This “Sweet Little Preamp” has been owned by many an audiophile over the years, including the person writing this, ME!

I owned the SLP98P twice in life as I loved it so much I regretted selling it the first time and re-purchased it a year later! I had the standard SLP98P in the lovely red finish and then later the SLp98 F1 edition in silver and black.

The little SLP98 preamp has something about it that speaks to the heart and soul. Meaning, music that flows through it has a way of reaching our ears, our brain and it connects on an emotional level. It’s all about the artist and the vocals along with a nice full and large present midrange. It’s truly a classic in style and gives off much more of the “tube glow” in sound than most modern day tube preamps do. In fact, it doesn’t get more classic or simple than a Cary SLP-98P PreAmp.

If you want lush, big, warm, spacious and eery vocals without the etched detail some modern preamps bring, the little SLP-98P can be had new today for under $4500 direct from Cary. Under $3800 if you do not want an included phono stage. It’s warm and offers up the real sound of tubes, like it or not.

The little 98P takes me back to my early days of HiFi when it was all about warmth, making a human connection with the music and enjoying said music. It wasn’t about extreme details, hidden inner details or listening with a magnifying glass. It was purely about the music and emotion rather than making music something it is not.

The SLP-05 Arrives in 2006 (and now in 2022)

I remember when the SLP05 came out around 2006 or so. When I saw the first images of it I fell in love with it almost instantly just due to the design. The style of this preamp harkens back to the glory days of HiFi, especially in Silver. It’s a legit work of art and even today in 2022 it looks just as sharp as it did back in 2006. It has a timeless design and it is much larger than the little SLP-98.

I believe (from memory) that when the SLP05 first launched back in 2006 that it was $6500 (though I could be wrong). I remember thinking there was no way I could afford it back then but it always remained on my radar, in the back of my mind.

There was just something about this piece of HiFi that pulled me to it. Maybe it was the universe telling me back then that this could be “the one” for me, lol. Who knows, but it would take a long time before I could find out just what it was.

That image of a Silver SLP05 remained in my mind for years and years but I was never able to secure one for myself for various reasons.

As time moved on and the years went by I ended up going in a different direction from tubes, and separates.

Sixteen Years

Fast forward to the present day. Here in April of 2022 I am reviewing more audio gear than ever and I decided to reach out to Cary to see if I could review the SLP-05, finally getting a chance to hear the pre-amp that has haunted my mind for sixteen years.

Also, the SLP-05 is now offered with a massive upgrade simply called “The Ultimate Upgrade”. This brings the now 16+ year old pre-amp into the modern day with improvements to the sound in all areas.

Here is what Cary says about this Upgrade to the SLP-05. It is offered to existing SLP-05 owners for $1,795. 

“The power supply portion of the upgrade consists of “maxing out” the filtering capabilities along the entire power supply chain, all the way into and including the preamplifier. Purifying DC voltages is extremely important to providing a clean, clear, smooth sound quality that is free from grain, noise and strident artifacts. This also improves imaging qualities as it provides a much blacker background. The type and quantity of capacitance are important as we are not just adding an extra 1200uf of UCC electrolytic capacitance into the main B+ (high voltage) supply but also an additional total of 125uf of Polypropylene capacitors throughout the B+ line. This includes a huge 100uf Polypropylene capacitor right at the line stage PC board. The rest of the additional capacitors are used as bypass capacitors across each UCC electrolytic filter capacitor. This provides a dramatically smooth, sweet sound quality.

In the line stage circuit, we change the resistors to high quality 1% Vishay metal film plate load and cathode resistors. This parts change improves the midrange and bass substantially for a fuller, more textured midrange. You will notice more body and texture to vocals and acoustic instruments, etc. Bass is more authoritative and tight. Highs are smoother yet detailed.

And finally, for the pièce de résistance. We are removing all of the coupling capacitors and installing (10) Mundorf MCap coupling capacitors throughout the entire line section. This is the final addition that completely allows the sound qualities of the SLP-05 to shine through, resulting in a sweet, fluid, full bodied yet delicate delivery of every single instrument and natural vocal detail. It is done without adding brightness, and yet delivers an amazing amount of air and detail revealing the acoustics of the room and instruments with breathtaking natural realism. There is body, texture and fullness to instruments that break through with such ease and delicacy no matter the complexity of the music.

The “Ultimate Upgrade” is not just an upgrade. It elevates the SLP-05 to a whole other level of sound quality. It retains the attributes of the SLP-05 that you know and love but gives you more of everything.”

Cary got back to me and said they could send me a silver SLP-05 with the Ultimate Upgrade for a review. I was told by Billy Wright, head honcho at Cary, that it is his belief that this SLP-05 with the upgrade can compete against any pre-amp made today and equal it or best it. Strong bold words indeed!

I was excited and I spent the next two days prepping my reference system for the Cary. This was sixteen years in the making! 

The Cary had some big shoes to fill as I spent the prior few weeks listening to a nearly $20,000 Nagra Classic Pre-Amp in an all Nagra Classic ($50k+ retail) setup. The Nagra set impressed me greatly and as a package that Classic system was probably the best I have ever heard in my home or well, anywhere. It was incredible but man, those prices made my eyes water.

I wasn’t sure how the Cary would perform but this is the Cary flagship, so I knew it would be, or had to be… superb.

The SLP-05 is an all tube pre-amp and it houses eight 6sn7 tubes, my all time favorite pre-amp tube. In fact I own a few very rare POPE 6sn7 tubes and they were absolute MAGIC when I last used them back in 2002 in an AES/CARY DJH Preamp.

The old Cary/AES AE-3 DJH Version Pre-amp, This little guy punched WAY above its weight and I used to have this hooked up to a set of Cary/AES Six Pac tube amps. I also rolled in some Pope tubes which made this little guy sound like a very serious and magical preamp. You may be able to find one of these simple little pre-amps used for under $800. 

When inserting the stock tubes into the 05 I remembered my time with those NOS Pope tubes. They were MAGIC. I started to dream of loading in a full set of NOS tubes but first I had to listen to this piece STOCK so I could understand where it was coming from. After I get an idea of the stock sound, I will pop in those Pope tubes to see if they are as good as I remembered.

The Cary ships with lower cost stock EH 6sn7 tubes as Cary knows most will tube roll or add in some nicer tubes later on. That’s part of the fun with tube pre-amps. We can “roll” in new tubes and actually change the sound up a bit. Some tubes will bring more highs, some more lows. Others may bring more air, space and magic. While NOS (New Old Stock) tubes are the most sought after, there are new production tubes one can place in that do not cost a fortune.

Even with the tube shortage in 2022, there are plenty of 6sn7 tubes to be found.

The SLP-05 also comes in two pieces. One for the power supply which houses a 5AR4 rectifier tube and two snazzy very deep blue displays that glow with an ethereal and dark blue glow. The other box is the pre-amp itself and I have to say that this piece, both pieces, are works of art.

This is the most beautiful HiFi I have ever owned or tested without question, period. I’ve never seen a more beautiful HiFi pre-amp in the flesh. 

The design of the SLP-05 is tactile. It’s old school with physical metal switches and knobs. It has the look of a classic tube piece and it doesn’t get any better than this when it comes to style and function.

The paint is actually an automotive finish. High gloss Jaguar Anthracite black on the body of the preamp. It is gorgeous and absolutely stunning. The silver faceplate with the blue lights perfectly match the Pass Labs XA60.8’s I have as well. Overall, without question, this is a well made, well built and well designed piece. Made here in the USA to boot.

When the SLP-05 arrived I unboxed it and noticed the packing was incredible. Cary is one of the best in the business for packing their gear for shipment and it all arrived safe and sound without issue. After installing the tubes (which were all numbered for their respective slots) I connected it to the Pass Labs amps and my Fleetwood Deville Speakers, which are now the “SQ” variety.

Using a Weiss 501 DAC for my digital streaming I was ready to hear some tube magic.

Upon powering it all up I instantly realized that this pre-amp has a lot of gain. Where the Nagra and even the Pass Labs XP12 had lower gain (the Nagra had a switch for low or high gain use, which was awesome) this SLP-05 had some serious gain.

For example, with the Pass Labs XP12 I would have to turn the volume dial all the way to 72 (out of 100) for the sound to REALLY fill my space with magic. The Pass is a low gain design. With the Cary I can turn the dial to around 9AM and it get very loud filling my space with ease. Luckily I can adjust the Weiss DAC 501 to a lower output. I set it to -20db and it was a perfect match to the SLP-05.

NOISY?

Usually these kind of high gain preamps can bring in noise to your system, but not the SLP-05. For being a tube unit (with high gain) it is quiet in my system and there is zero hiss or noise coming from my speakers, which are 91DB efficient. Impressive to say the least. I recently inserted an all tube integrated amp into my system for testing and it buzzed and hummed like mad. So much so I had to remove it and send it back. The Cary is impressively quiet for being an all tube preamp.

Being a higher gain pre it also seems to feed my speakers with more power. It isn’t, but it’s just delivering the power quicker to the speakers which results in them sounding even better than before. I love the gain on the SLP-05 as it seems to really wake up my entire system. It has drive, kick and balls with the SLP-05 in place.

I think it would be cool if Cary upgraded the SLP-05 and added a gain switch for Low or High Gain. The Nagra Classic has this switch and it makes it super easy to match up with any amps or sources. This would cover any and all situations for any user. As is though, I have had not one issue with the high gain of this preamp, in fact, I like that it’s a higher gain design.

Let’s face it, when you turn the volume up it gives a sense of having a more powerful system when it fills the room without having to turn the volume dial much. It brings serous oomph factor to the system. With the low gain pre-amp, going all the way up the volume dial for room filling sound makes it seem like I have weak amps. This is not the case, it’s just an illusion of sorts but I prefer having that extra bit of gain on tap to awaken my system.

The Cary, being higher gain and low noise is the best of both worlds for my tastes. Oh, and when you turn this 05 up, it just brings more of the good. It doesn’t get congested, bright, harsh or hard or grungy. It stays buttery smooth and composed no matter how loud you go. This is a true sign of a well made, well designed high end piece.

The build is top notch with the Cary. The tube sockets are strong and firm, never wobbly and the tubes fit nice and snug. The fit and finish is as good as I have ever seen in a HiFi product, regardless of the cost. The dials feel solid, smooth and high end. The two part design truly helps with sound quality as well. Keeping the power supply separate is usually a sign that a product is going to sound very refined and beautiful.

The blue lights really add to the aesthetic here, as in a dim room or late night listening the duo is absolutely knock out gorgeous. I can not talk about this enough, as when you see this piece in the flesh you will be floored. It makes the Pass Labs XP12 look plain and boring, and I love that preamp. It makes the Nagra look small and overpriced and it seems to be just as well made as the Nagra, art least on the exterior.

For design and build equality this gets a 10/10 all day long.

The Sound. Does it deliver where it matters?

SPOILER: This is without question the finest pre-amp I have ever tested or owned. After some new tubes I actually prefer it to the $18,500 retail Nagra Classic Pre. The reason? It has a humanity about it. It has that something very special that touches my heart and soul, and it has a sweetness about it that is pure Cary. It makes music rather than special effects and boy, what sweet music it makes.

Keep in mind that this pre-amp sells for under $7500 at Cary Direct. Add the Ultimate Upgrade and that cost goes to just over $9k. Yes, this is expensive when we compare it to pre amps in the $2k range but compared to something like the Schiit Audio Freya + (which I also reviewed)  the Cary is in another league, just as it should be. While the Freya+ sounds great for the cost (under $1k), it is not nearly as refined, big, smooth, or holographic as the Cary.

The Freya + is not as quiet, not as refined nor does it have the “magic” of the Cary. It doesn’t have the build, or style of the Cary though the Freya + is 100% cool for the cost and looks very nice indeed, I enjoyed my time with the Freya + but the SLP-05 is in a different league really.

Compared to the $18,500 Nagra Classic, the Cary is warmer, fuller and  bigger sounding. The Nagra is more about speed, detail and impressing us with transparency, of which is has gobs of. While the Cary is also quite transparent, the Nagra bests it in this dept. With that said, the Cary is much more musical and real sounding to me. It draws me in to the music even more so than the Nagra. Hard to imagine, but it is what it is and it is synergy at work here.

With the Cary SLP-05 the highs are airy yet a bit rounded off to avoid glare, harshness or headaches. The bass is deep, powerful and bombastic at times. Easily the biggest bass and most oomph I have had in my system to date. The midrange is where the magic lives and this is a midrange-centric amp. It delivers body, warmth and yet with the air and spaciousness of some of the best designs. It is sweet, smooth and big. Drums are huge and have slam and power behind them. Weight…it’s here. Nothing lean or thin about the Cary.

This pre-amp sounds amazing with all music genres and it drops the mic with rock, metal and anything that has boogie, rhythm, force or impact. It also transforms into a magical piece for small scale Jazz or vocals. Ive never heard vocals so big or real coming out of my Deville’s. The Cary is not the last word in separating every instrument from one another in surgical detail but it is more about painting a whole musical picture. One that sounds more right and natural.

But this SLP-05 doesn’t sound like the even more classic CarySLP-98P. It somehow manages to keep the best character from the 98P but it does so with even more transparency, more dynamics, more smoothness, more detail, more air and even more refined musicality. The 98P is CLASSIC. The 05 looks classic but mixes some of that classic sound with modern sound.

It has the ability to do all of this while never getting congested, grainy or overly warm/dull sounding. The bass from the SLP-05 is thunderous but tight. Seriously, the Bass performance here is otherworldly and makes the Pass XP12 sound a little anemic in a side by side. It makes the Nagra sound lean and forward in comparison. Things I did not notice until a side by side was done.

This is the first time I heard a Cary piece that had that human touch, sweetness, that glorious midrange and an expansive airy treble as well. This preamp can image and it does it extremely well. It can do soundstage, and it does it with the best of them. While the treble is nice and extended it’s also not in your face. So it’s smooth with zero harshness or grit.

For those who like big presence treble and sharp brighter style cymbal hits, the 05 doesn’t do this to the level of a Nagra, Audio Research or Mark Levinson. For those who like an extended but smoother treble, the 05 will be right up your alley.

I feel my Weiss 501 DAC contributes to this as well and together with the Pass Amps, the Deville’s and SLP-05 the sound has impact, body, soul and that ever important wow factor without being over the top about it.

The magic here also lies in the stunning midrange performance. In fact, the midrange is so realistic it is one of those products that deliver scary real vocals that make it seem as if your favorite artist is there with you.

When all the stars align and you have your system setup correctly, this preamp will deliver pure magic in the vocal region. It’s so beautiful to experience. Keep in mind though, you will need a good DAC, Speakers and Cables to get the most from the SLP-05. When you step into the realm of high end audio, everything makes a difference.

There is no one piece that will make your system perform magic, it will be a combo of all of your pieces that do this within your space, and your space, your room, is most important! So feed this Cary well (good source and cables) and it will reward you with beautiful music.

All in all there is nothing exaggerated here when it comes to sound. Nothing is missing or lacking. The full sound spectrum from top to bottom is extraordinary and I have to stress again, there is nothing about the SLP-05 one could ever describe as thin or forward. It’s got some major body and kick which is missing from many modern day pre-amps. Some may feel it is a bit relaxed on top and yes, this has a nice mellow relaxed yet extended top end but it’s a nice to never ever hear any digital glare within the music.

The tubes make the difference here. In fact if you want to hear a Tube piece that will show you how tubes sound, look at Cary Audio.

Many manufactures today make tube products that sound like Solid Sate. Octave Audio, Lab 12, Nagra, Audio Research, Vinnie Rossi, Pathos, etc. Most modern day tube pieces do not sound like what you think tubes should sound like. Cary does, and I love that. 

As I sat and listened every day for the first week I felt hypnotized at time. From the beauty of this piece as well as the sound it was delivering to my space. In fact, while I listen to a ton of music with all gear, with the Cary in place I listened even more. It never failed to bring me into the music.

It was grand, it was big, it scaled to heights I never experienced in my space. Meaning, the music became larger and as big as life, almost as if it was a life force all its own (and it was). My entire room felt pressurized from the immense power this pre-amp was delivering from the all class A Pass Labs XA60.8 amps.

Swapping back to the Nagra Classic Pre with the Pass amps, the sound became less involving and smaller than with the Cary, as if some of the human touch went missing. The Nagra was leaner and had more details being thrown at me. It was amazing do not get me wrong! Just different. It took my ears a few songs to adjust to the differences when going back and forth.

The Nagra impressed out of the gate with a wow factor but with some music it became almost too much of a good thing.

The Cary presented the music with a more natural flow and much more slam and oomph. More warmth. A more ethereal kind of sound. Something that reminds me more of the Line Magnetic 219ia all tube SET amp. Different presentations indeed.

I was blown away by this Cary. So much so I had to bring Debby in for a listen.

I played Enigmas “Confessions of the Mind” and she sat, looking hypnotized herself. When it was over she said “it was like I was taken to another world, I became so focused on the music I forgot I was sitting here listening to music”.

With the Cary SLP-05 in in place it was like my system was now a living, breathing thing. That emotion was there, oozing from the speakers. The realism, musicality, and large as life reproduction was allowing me to just sit back and enjoy the music.

Not once during my listening sessions did I think of “how could I make this even better?” as I was just so pleased with the sound as it was. As I listened more I realized that the Cary SLP-05 is 100% an end game pre-amp. I do not care if you spend double, you will not get “better” than this (just different). The fact that it’s a design from 2006 blows my mind, and it proves “NEWER” is not always “BETTER”.

Usually “NEWER” is a cash grab and products that stand the test of time are the ones we should be taking a closer look at. Many times I have had “new” products come to me that were replacing older products and I preferred the older product. It has happened within audio and cameras both. In fact, with cameras there are not any new models as of April 2022 that I really enjoy or recommend. Oh, besides my iPhone 13 Pro Max ; )

So just because the SLP-05 is from 2006, it doesn’t mean its old. It just means it’s really THAT good, So good that it doesn’t have to be redone or replaced. The ultimate upgrade took care of that, and how cool is that of Cary to offer a $1795 upgrade instead of bringing out an all new $15k pre-amp with these upgrades. It’s rare to see a company do this and it means owners of the original SLP-05 can get turn their preamp into an all new preamp for under $1800.

In fact, it’s part of the reason I have Pass Amps here. They do not play that constant upgrade game either. It’s why I love the Fleetwood Deville’s. They will still be as good, as magic and as relevant in 15 years without having to buy a “Mark II” or newfangled version made to sell product. I love companies in the HiFi realm who share this philosophy.

FACT: Truly great audio products last and stand the test of time. 

TUBES

As I talked about earlier, this pre-amp uses EIGHT 6SN7 tubes. IMO, the best pre-amp tube in the world. It’s also available in many varieties and flavors. The power supply has one tube, which is a 5ar4 rectifier. It ships with a cheap one and I had a NOS Mullard on hand, which many say is the end game in tube rectifiers! Usually rectifiers do not make much of a sound difference (though they sometimes do) but I wanted a good one in the power supply for stability.

When I powered it up with the $300 NOS Mullard I nowhad a bit more bass performance and it was startling as it was a major jump. So much so I had to reposition my speakers a bit. I can’t say I like it better than the stock as it did get warmer (due to the added bass), and I miss some of the airy details that the stock tube brought. I love the bass of the Mullard but may switch back to stock and see which I prefer.

Back to those NOS Pope tubes I spoke of earlier. As luck would have it, I have six of them in my tube collection. So rather than dream about loading it up with popes I went ahead and did it.

Some say this tube is “God Like” which may be why some big tube dealers sell them for $300-400 a piece these days. They are rare, in short supply and considered a tube that is all about MAGIC.

When I had these in an older CARY AES DJH Pre, it truly made the then $799 preamp sound like a million bucks, they literally blew my mind which is why I invested in a few over the years.

The Holy Grail Pope 6SN7 Tube. 

While the SLP-05 has EIGHT slots for 6SN7 tubes, you do not need to replace all of them to benefit from sound improvement. The manual shows you which tubes effect the balanced outputs, the single ended RCA outputs, the buffers, etc. So you could get away with less than eight.

The two tubes on the right side of the SLP-05 are for the Headphone amp, so they are the two I would never replace as I do not use the headphone amp on the SLP-05.

After I placed in SIX Pope tubes the sound stepped above and beyond what I was hearing with the stock tubes. I had an instant increase in space (3D) and reverb trails that would leave notes hanging in the air. I had more of that air and a more present and textured midrange.

It was like I was taken to a different planet where the music was all that mattered, and musicality reigned supreme. This was musical heaven. While I can not recommend everyone run out and buy these expensive tubes, it goes to show how we can improve upon the SLP-05 and make it ours just with our tube selections.

Make no mistake…It sounds amazing with the stock tubes but the NOS tubes pushed it up several layers in the magic dept. Now the soundstage was wider, imaging was more ethereal and the sound character was just about as big, smooth and layered as it gets. Detail was never overdone, and while some may ask for more treble detail we must remember this is what the tube sound is all about. It’s not solid state and this is obvious within the first moment of music emanating from the speakers.

The SLP-05 comes with a nice modern day universal remote. 

The SLP-05 does come with a snazzy remote these days, filled with all kinds of buttons, lights, and a small screen. The problem is the remote is overkill. I would prefer a remote like they used to offer with this preamp. I remember the remote from one of their best CD players back in the day. It was a solid metal slab and even lit up at night. Very cool and unique at the time.

The old Metal Slab remote that came with the Cary 306/200 CD player. 

The remote they include with the SLP-05 today is very advanced looking but only the volume control works. You can not change inputs, nor power down the unit with the remote. Just the volume up and down. The screen, while nice to look at is useless for this piece.

Oh, the mute function works as well if you slide the mute switch up on the SLP-05 itself. An odd design choice when it comes to function. Why even have the mute switch on the device? When I mute it at the device, nothing mutes. Instead I have to use the remote to mute it, but I can only do this when the mute switch is flicked  “on”.

The Original SLP-05 Remote matched the function perfectly. 

This is ok with me as the SLP-05 begs to be touched and controlled with a human hand. The large dials. The metal switches. It’s a hands on machine and I am OK with that as all I need is the volume control with a remote. If you need more in a remote, then the SLP-05 may not be for you.

This preamp also has a cinema bypass mode, and is fully balanced. Yes, a tube piece that is fully balanced. Another rarity.

I used my Cardas Clear reflection XLR interconnects throughout and they sounded better to me over the RCA version of the same brand so I run it balanced, how it was designed to be run.

I am sitting in my sweet spot now listening to/Streaming  “The Blue Notebooks” by Max Richter.

Beautiful, rich, expansive, deep, and I will say it again…HUMAN. Meaning, the music is soul touching. Part of it is the SLP-05, part of it is the Class A amps I am using and part of it is also the Fleetwood Deville Speakers (of which I now have the SQ versions in my space). They all work well together to form a synergy, the best to date within my reference system.

I have heard a lot of HiFi in my 35 years of assembling systems. This is a lifetime hobby and for those of us who are in it. I have had many disappointments in my audio journey but also many rewarding moments. I have had pieces of gear I swore to keep for life and those I couldn’t get rid of fast enough.

IT STAYS

After living with the SLP-05 for a while I have realized it will be the next piece in my system that stays for the long haul. It will join the “End Game Club” I have going on here that consist of the Fleetwood Deville’s, the Weiss DAC and the Pass Amps.

It’s the best preamp I have ever heard and I also feel it’s the best design/style I have ever seen in a preamp. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of audio gear made today, period. It’s high end, it’s quality and it comes from Cary Audio who I have had bought from for over 20 years.

Yep, I have owned a plethora of Cary product over the years. Some I loved, some I did not but at the end of the day Cary makes some amazing legendary audio gear. I feel they do not get the accolades they deserve in this day and age as something like this SLP-05 is probably in the top 3 pre-amps of all time.

While it is expensive with the upgrades, it’s something that will be/can be with you for life.

Ive talked about many review items that I have fell for and purchased. I have talked about many items that I loved, adored and then sold later on. Why would I sell products I have raved about? It’s simple…being a reviewer I get to hear A LOT of gear. When something comes along that speaks to me, I make a purchase if I can. It stays until it is either bested, breaks down or I have a financial need.

Products like the $27k Vinnie Rossi integrated I reviewed a few years ago was sold due to a move and house purchase, and I talked about that at length. A house trumps an amp any day ; )  The Nagra gear came and went quick as I had too much money tied up in them, and the accessories like the vibration plates were just too much for me to swallow cost wise. They were the best I have heard, ever, but I decided I could not have that much tied up in the system. I sold and got my money back without loss as I bought used myself. I was able to try them, review them, love them and offload them at no loss. I miss them but at the end of the day, too rich for my blood.

While I still own three sets of Klipsch Heritage speakers (can’t bring myself to sell them) the Deville’s replaced them because they are a much better speaker for me and my main reference system.

Over the last year I have discovered some products that would or could never leave me. The Deville’s, Pass Labs Amplification, the Weiss 501 DAC (that beat out the Chord DAVE,  Nagra Classic and even DCS Bartok). These pieces are in it for the long haul and now the Cary SLP-05 will be a part of this club that make up my reference system. My Klipsch LaScalas are also part of this club but they reside in a different space.

I feel blessed and oh so lucky to be able to do what I do as it allows me to hear so much gear and choose what I like best within my system. My journey to the SLP-05 was one that took 15+ years of keeping this pre in the back of my mind, hoping one day to hear it. Today I just told Cary I will buy the review unit.

THE NEGATIVES OF THE SLP-05

This being a review I have to point out the negatives, or what I would like to see changed. I did find a couple of things to take note of with the SLP-05.

**Wish it had a low/high gain switch. The gain may be too high for some amps and speakers. For example, if your amp has high gain and your speakers are very sensitive you will barely need to move the volume dial on the Cary. It gives the impression of having immense power and it also makes my Fleetwood Deville sound better. It opens them up easier. The flip side is that at low level listening late at night is more of a challenge, meaning you will have a big full sound at low volume with just a touch of volume. I will say though, even with the higher gain there is no noise or hiss coming from the speakers and I am happy about that as I can not stand noise and hiss coming from speakers. A low/high gain switch (instead of the mute) could be awesome, and work for everyone.

**The remote is too much of a good thing. It has countless buttons, lights and even a small screen. Sadly, none of these do anything for the preamp. Just the volume and mute works. I’d like to have a simpler remote with just the volume and a mute button. Make it metal like the old school Cary 306/200 remote which appeared to be hand carved from solid metal. I loved that remote back in the day, lol. Even if they went back to the basic simple remote I wold prefer it to the new one.

**I do not understand the mute function. I can not mute the device from the switch on the device. Yes, there is a mute switch but it does nothing when turned on..UNLESS you also turn it on via the remote. I feel there should not even be a mute switch on the device. Just leave it off and we can use the remote for mute. Just not sure why this switch is there if it doesn’t physically mute the device when flicked on.

That is about it for the negatives, and they are not dealbreakers for me.

CONCLUSION

Not only is the Cary SLP-05 (with the ultimate upgrade) hands down the best pre-amp I have ever heard or tested for my tastes, it’s also the most beautiful piece of HiFi that I have ever come across. The design, build and sound is as good as it gets if you like your music to connect with you on an emotional level.

The way the Cary brings the music to your amps and then speakers is hauntingly beautiful. It does everything so well. Imaging, soundstage, midrange, bass, treble and it even does the big 3D thing superbly. It has weight, body and texture yet it also delivers that airy treble delivery that brings the magic.

While it does all of this it remains true to the Cary sound. Big, slightly warm, rich and human. Never lean or forward so if you want those lightning fast surgical thinner sounding details you may need to look elsewhere (or add a Chord DAVE DAC).

Oh yes the details are here as well, with micro details floating in space at times but this is not Nagra or something I would call lighting “fast”. It’s more about beauty and musicality than special effects for the 05. This preamp makes seriously beautiful music, no matter the genre.

It can get surreal with some music. The bass is super strong with a presence and heft I have not yet experienced with my speakers but Cary has been known for their big presence and bass. The midrange is large, eery and has a presence about it that is magical. Another thing Cary is known for.

That is the word that best describes this legendary pre-amp from Cary Audio, MAGICAL. It’s just as relevant today as it was when it was released. It sounds better than ever due to the modern day upgrades Cary has made and the fact that it has been their Flagship for all of this time speaks volumes about its quality. I LOVE when companies keep a truly great product in the line up.

Instead of making you think you must upgrade every 2 years with a new version, Cary knows you do not need an all new preamp to enjoy your music. They made the SLP-05 to last, and stand the test of time. It has done just that and I do not know of many companies today that follows this philosophy. Most companies release the all new products on a regular basis and then tell you how much better it is than what you have. With the SLP-05 Cary already delivered the goods, and now have upgraded it (once in 15 years) but kept the same model number and design. Super cool.

This means if you have an older SLP-05 you can send it in for the Ultimate Upgrade rather than buying an all new PreAmp.

The cost of the Ultimate Upgrade is $1,795 and that is a deal in todays world.

Wether I played vocal, jazz, ambient, rock, metal or funk this pre-amp delivered it all with the most beautiful and human sound I have heard to date within my system. If you are looking for this kind of sound, be sure to check out the Cary SLP-05 PreAmp. I can not imagine anyone being disappointed with it if you go for the Upgrade. It’s a lifer, a special piece.

This one is as good as it gets if you enjoy music and a healthy dose of magic, warmth and beauty with that music. Pair it with the right amp for your speakers and you nay never want for more in a preamp. This piece truly excited me and I was happy to write about it as well. For me it is up there with my Fleetwood Deville’s, the Pass Amps, the Weiss DAC 501 and it is a World Class Pre-Amp when you go for that Ultimate Upgrade from Cary.

Bottom Line: If you are looking for “THAT” tube sound, look no further than Cary Audio. Made in the USA, been around since the 80’s and they make some of the most lovely tube gear around. Just take a look at their 805 RS, the SLP-05 or 98, or even the 300SEI and you will see and hear what tubes truly sound like. The SLP-05 is one of the finest pre-amps in the world, even today in 2022 sixteen years after its release. That alone should tell you that this is a special piece, and. yes my friends, it is.

End game worthy if you enjoy the Cary sound as nothing else sounds quite like Cary.

You can see more about the SLP-05 at Cary’s website HERE. 

13 Comments

  1. Awesome review Steve. We share a love for the Cary SLP-05 and QLN Prestige 3 as both are on my to acquire list having spent time listening to them. One question though, You pictures one of the globe 6sn7’s in you review. Do they fit in the SLP-05? Thanks and keep up the good work. Hopefully I will be an owner of one soon myself!

    • Those globe tubes are 6SN7’s but I can not say for sure if they fit. I have not tried them. I thought they looked pretty cool but no idea on performance or fit.

  2. Nice review and I agree with your findings. I have had a SLP-05 for about 12 years and had it upgraded as soon as that was available. The upgrade is well worth it and Cary was nice enough to replace a couple of parts that were not part of the upgrade so it was like getting a brand new preamp. In the last few years I have replaced everything in my system except for this preamp. Currently I have it feeding a pair of Cary 211 FE amps which replaced a pair of the 211AE Cary monos. The pairing of the two Cary products is just plain magical.

  3. Completely off-topic Steve: I was introduced to mirrorless cameras here back in the day, 2012 2013-ish. I bought the RX1 and my first Sony Alpha 7 (A7R) after reading some of your reviews. Many years and many Alpha 7’s later (thanks to G.A.S.), I recently purchased the A7 Mark IV. It is everything I wanted my A7R to be, with just a few MP’s less which feels like the sweet spot for resolution. For me is the perfect balance between stills and video. Is there a chance you might review it? Would be great to hear your “real world” take again on this latest A7 iteration. Thank you.

    • Not sure if I will but enjoy it! Not sure if there is much interest as its been out a while and there are hundreds of reviews for the A7IV. I have shot with one and it seems like a fine continuation of the III. Thank you!

  4. Nice review. Lots of thoughtful commentary on sound and functionality. I do find it odd that you took the time to provide us separate photos of tubes, yet no photos of the rear.

  5. Hi, Steve. I’m curious your thoughts on sound, dynamic range, holographic qualities compared the the Cary SLI-100, Raven Audio Blackhawk (made in the USA) with their 6L6 tubes or the Lab12 Integre4 with the KT150 tubes. I realize these are integrated amps as opposed to separates. Thanks again, always look forward to your reviews!

    • I have had the Raven Blackhawk here and reviewed it a while ago. It was great, a very nice integrated amp with a nice transparent and sweet expansive sound. It was a great integrated for the money, and with a great DAC it can be all one could ever ask for in a tube amp. The Lab 12, I have one here and it has a fault. It not only has loud transformer buzzing, it brings forth a buzz from the right speaker and massive hiss from the left. It’s a defect, so sending the review unit back. I am not impressed with the build or design of the Lab 12 for what it costs. There is also a loud THUMP when powering it off that comes from the speakers. I was told this was normal. Ouch.

      The SLP-05 is a pre-amp, and does not include an amplifier. As a preamp only it costs double that of the integrated amps you mention, and you still have to add an amp. I. guess it all depends on budget and how much you want to invest in a system.

      The SLP-05 with the Pass Labs XA 60.8’s is hands down, flat out, no questions asked the best sound I have had in a system.

      The Nagra was up there, but the Cary and Pass combo for me is just perfect due to the way the 05 does weight, body, bloom, 3D and space as well as sounding so “right” and never ever sounding hard, thin or “off”. The Weiss DAC helps with this (DAC’s make a huge difference once you get into the $5k and up range) as do my speakers. They just work so well together as a whole.

      The SLI-100 can be had for half the cost of the SLP-05 alone. It is fantastic, powerful, has kick and drive and a huge midrange. It’s not as tube sounding as the SLP-05 but it has the Cary sound of big bass and a large midrange presence. It will be less refined than the SLP-05 and a good amp. The SLP-05 is for me, a pre-amp that can’t be bested for pure musicality and enjoyment of music. If there is one out there I have not heard it.

      When I heard the Nagra Classic set it was the best I have heard, and it should have been for the cost. When I inserted the SLP-05 it surpassed the Nagra for me in all out enjoyment of the music. The SLP05, Weiss 501 DAC, Pass XA 60.8’s and the Fleetwood Devilles make for one amazing system.

      I get to hear and try A LOT of gear. More than I ever expected to. I only review what I feel is worth a look, and I buy the pieces that I feel are special for my tastes. Some of those pieces eventually get sold or changed when better comes along but some stay for the long haul, and a few will be with me until I am gone (then my son will get it all).

      The Devilles will be staying as a permanent speaker in my life. I still own six other speakers but they will not get used much anymore, and a few will be sold off this year.

      The Weiss 501 is my end game DAC, and I have heard 14 other DAC’s now. None have bested it for my personal preferences, it stays for the long haul. The SLP-05 will always be my reference pre-amp. The SLP-05 stays as it’s such a special piece. Unless it breaks down or gives me issues it will stay for the long haul. It’s one of those pieces that can bring some serous “magic” to a system.

      Thank you!

  6. Hey Steve, absolutely great review (just like all others) on the Cary Audio SLP-05. Like you I twice owned the “LEGENDARY” SLP-98 in both stock and F1 versions and at times still long for them, I now live very happily with a Icon Audio LA4 MKIII Signature Edition, in my system it brings what the SLP-98 once did-just more of it, highly draws you into the music.

    My question is this, being once owners of the SLP-98 couldn’t you just turn down the input gains to get a better range on the volume control, that seemed to have worked for me with the SLP-98.

    Highly enjoy your reviews, I find them to be SPOT-ON as I have also owned some of the same you have previously reviewed.

    Juan Valentin…………………

    • Hey Juan! Yes you can lower the input volume dials, but there is one thing that I do not like about doing that. You will never get both levels exactly the same as there are no click stops, or way to adjust them evenly. No marks, nothing. So one channel will always be ever so slightly off. The DAC or Streamer can also be set to a lower output (what I do). Well, many DAC’s allow this but not all. Thank you for reading!

      • Absolutely true, though that was the method I used I always did feel it was a compromise going this route while also not help but feel that it also veiled the sound a tad.

        Once again always a great read, Juan Valentin……………..

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