Cary 6 Listening Tests & Recommendations
Two-Channel CD / SACD
There's no doubt about it - the Cinema 6 is an excellent analog preamplifier, even when compared to the sort of preamplifiers that stereo purists rave over. I mainly compared the Cinema 6 with two analog only pre-amplifiers: a Musical Fidelity A3.2cr dual mono pre-amplifier, and a Sony TA-P9000ES multi-channel analog preamplifier.
Based on comparisons of the same sources across these three pre-amplifiers on the same power amplifiers (Musical Fidelity A5cr) and speakers (B & W CDM7NT), the Cinema 6 appeared to sound midway between the A3.2cr and the TA-P9000ES, sharing characteristics of both.
In terms of warmth, the Cinema 6 veered towards sweetness and body vs clean and clinical, although it did not sound as warm as the A3.2cr. But it also retained some of the crispness and the clarity of the TA-P9000ES. In other words, it has a nicely balanced sonic signature that should please most people.
As a digital to analog converter, the Cinema 6 performed very respectably, playing back CDs and LPCM tracks from music DVDs with a lot of style and panache. In comparison to my digital players, it probably did a better job than the Panasonic DVD-S97 舑 delivering more detail and better dynamics, but probably not as smooth or accurate as the E-MU 1820M on my Media Center 2005 PC.
The jewel in the crown is HDCD decoding - the Cinema 6 played back the few HDCDs that I own with an added sparkle compared to my non-HDCD players. HDCD detection can be turned on or off in the 'Other Menu'舡 in setup - when it is off, the processor no longer recognizes HDCDs. However, when HDCD detect is turned on, there is a perceptible pause whenever playback commences as the processor searches for the HDCD flag in the digital bitstream during which the audio is muted.
Given the presence of both Dolby Pro Logic IIx and DTS NEO:6, I was very tempted to see how the Cinema 6 would fare applying matrix processing on my CDs. Well, I must say I was very pleasantly surprised with both. In fact, the Cinema 6 did such a good job converting ordinary stereo CDs to 7.1 that I was eager to listen to all stereo music this way. Unfortunately, the Cinema 6 does not remember the last recently used surround processing mode. The unit will always revert to no surround processing whenever a new input source (eg. CD, DVD) is selected or when the unit is turned on. Hence, you cannot for example tell the unit to always play CDs using Dolby Pro Logic IIx or DTS NEO:6 but have to manually engage these surround modes each time you turn the unit on or switch input source."
I listened to a CD that's encoded with Dolby Surround using Dolby Pro Logic IIx Music mode: Wendy Carlos' All-New 25th Anniversary Switched-On Bach 2000 (Telarc Digital CD-80323). The experience was exhilarating - the decoded surround mix was at least as immersive as any multi-channel SA-CD or DVD-Audio I have heard, with plenty of directional cues across the rear channels.
Both Dolby Pro Logic IIx and DTS NEO:6 work best on music with lots of ambience and reverb. I next turned to Josh Groban's self titled debut album (WEA Reprise 9362481542). Again this worked very well - I was almost convinced I was listening to a discrete surround mix. DTS NEO:6 seemed to exert a touch more magic on this disc than Dolby Pro Logic IIx, with the resultant mix having more body and presence.
Dolby Pro Logic IIx had its revenge on Tangerine Dream's Optical Race (Private Music VPCD 6803) 舑 it managed to render this with a bit more sophistication and polish than DTS NEO:6 - the latter making the music a bit recessed and front centred.
The Cinema 6 is a very good Dolby Digital and DTS decoder. In particular, DTS soundtracks really sounded fantastic, particularly in 6.1 ES-Discrete mode, such as the audio tracks from the Extended Edition of The Lord of Rings Trilogy (New Line Platinum Series N5549, N6932, N6504). I kept hearing little details, like foley effects in the background, and the omnipresent musical score, that I've never noticed before. There's a sense of clarity and crispness in the decoding that is bound to bring a smile to home theater fans (and perhaps even a few gasps during loud scenes).
But even standard DTS 5.1 audio tracks from a variety of DVDs sounded excellent, at both normal and half bit rates. I tried several DTS tracks on Music DVDs, including The Jazz Channel Presents Jeffrey Osborne (Warner Vision 8573862162), Laura Pausini Live 2001-2002 World Tour (Warner Vision 5046610912) and Pat Metheny Group Speaking of Now Live (Eagle Eye Media EE 19023) - all sounded superb, and in each case the DTS 5.1 had an edge over Dolby Digital 5.1 in terms of audio quality.
Normal Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 decoding were also handled with considerable flair. The Cinema 6 seemed to give DTS a bit of an unfair advantage by decoding DTS tracks louder and bassier than Dolby Digital, but once the differences were accounted for Dolby Digital soundtracks did sound very good. For example, the Dolby Digital 2.0 256 kbps audio track on Ana Torroja and Miguel Bosè's Girados en concierto (Warner Music Vision 8573864392) was handled very well, sounding only a little bit harsher than the CD version (WEA 84915-2).
But what about Dolby Pro Logic IIx layered on top of 2.0 and 5.1 audio tracks? The Cinema 6 only supports Dolby Pro Logic IIx over Dolby Digital and not DTS, so the most you can do to DTS 5.1 audio tracks is to manually turn ES Matrix decoding on or off.
Dolby Pro Logic IIx over Dolby Digital 2.0 or 5.1 (or Dolby Pro Logic II over Dolby Digital 2.0) does work, but the Cinema 6 seemed to attenuate and compress the dynamics, making the result somewhat anemic. I was a bit surprised by this - engaging Dolby Pro Logic IIx consistently seemed to attenuate the apparent loudness by at least 6 dB. But to be fair, I've also noticed this with Dolby Pro Logic II on the Panasonic DVD-S97, so perhaps this is a "feature" rather than a bug, but the sonic degradation does reduce the value of engaging Dolby Pro Logic IIx.
One advantage of Dolby Pro Logic IIx is that Matrix mode yields an enveloping surround mix even for mono soundtracks - the Cinema 6 does not have a specific surround mode for mono, but Matrix mode is almost as good.
Suggestions for Improvement
The Cinema 6 could have been a perfect surround processor for the purist audiophile, but unfortunately there were too many implementation flaws. In particular, Cary needs to address the following "bugs" (operations documented in the manual, but which do not appear to work correctly):
- Noise burst (loud "pop" or "click") when re-locking onto digital signals (such as when a DVD player enters and resumes from pause) - Cary Audio recommends turning off Auto Detect and HDCD detect, but I found that I get the occasional click even when I turned both these features off
- Occasional static noise decoding Dolby Digital, rectified by switching the unit off and on
- Broken support for 192kHz digital input (in particular, the Cinema 6 recognized but did not decode 192 kHz output from the Panasonic DVD-S97 correctly)
- Support for simultaneous 2x upsampling and Dolby Pro Logic IIx operation
- The unit did not memorize the default input type (coaxial, optical, analog) to last selected format for each input source
- Tone controls not operational for HDCD, non-LPCM digital signals and analog inputs
- Speaker levels, time alignment and bass management do not work for analog inputs
- Matrix processing (Dolby Pro Logic II/IIx, DTS NEO:6) and 2x upsampling do not work for 96kHz LPCM digital signals
In addition, the following feature enhancements would greatly improve the usability of the unit. Some require additional hardware; others can potentially be implemented via a firmware upgrade:
- Digitization of analog input for surround processing
- Conversion of digital input signals to Zone 2 analog output
- Dolby Pro Logic IIx processing for DTS digital input
- DTS NEO:6 processing for Dolby Digital 2.0 digital input
- Default to last used surround processing mode for each input source