A Visit to Cary Audio
Having worked in manufacturing before, first for Mesa Engineering and then Meadowlark Audio, I have a good sense of what to expect when visiting a specialist high-end audio manufacturer up close and personal. However, Im not at all sure about what to expect size-wise of the Cary factory. As must be obvious to any regular Stereophile readers, Cary Audio has consistently and heavily advertised in Stereophiles pages, often with two full-color pages per month. Anyone will realize that this necessitates an enviable advertising budget which, considering the longevity of this campaign, has to be backed up by substantial sales to make economic sense. Massive sales could equal ostentatious digs. Company Lear jets, anyone? Such off-the-charts ruminations are quickly dispelled upon first approach when we released the landing gear of my private Chevy Bronco ride.
Or not to splurge
Situated in a small business park, the brick-faced Cary building, sporting the familiar company logo, opens its doors to a no-fuss, roll-up-your-sleeves operation thats no bigger than it needs to be. A front office opens into the entry way with a window behind which a receptionist greets visitors. She intuitively ascertains whether they are benign music lovers, card-carrying audiophiles, industrial spies, or worse -- a reviewer from the solid-state camp of rightness looking for scathing evidence of vacuum-tube wrongness. The light bulb above my head, which has begun to emit a bright glow ever since landing in the friendly, unhurried, moisture-rich atmosphere of the Carolinas, must signal my friendly intentions and vacuum-tube alliances. I am quickly whisked inwards.
To the left I discern the office of head designer, founder and main dude Dennis Had. Adjacent to his office is the ubiquitous "mad scientists" anteroom replete with test bench, prototypes and the kind of organized disorder thats the sign of work. Billy Wright, partner and joint principal, in keeping with his family name, has his office to the right. A conference room next door doubles as an informal listening room; the larger listening room is Hads living room at his home.
On the other side of the test-bench chamber is command central for Carys kit division, which is also home to chief technician Kirk Owens. His walls are stacked to the rafters with shelves containing all the necessary parts for the different projects home solder slingers can tackle on the cheap to build Cary-designed preamps and amps. While the mailed kits contain step-by-step schematics, Kirk on occasion talks customers through the more challenging phases and, if need be, completes a project himself if a customer gets stuck or finds himself overwhelmed.
The main assembly area is an open, warehouse-type structure subdivided by parallel workbenches. At the rear, a shipping bay doubles as parts storage and opens to the outside for UPS deliveries or pickups.
In sync with the Southern vibe that strikes this West Coast boy as an extremely attractive, down-to-earth throwback to the Real World that is alive and well outside Southern Californias plastic mentality, the factory feel is decidedly low-key. I count about a handful of assemblers, each at work on a piece of gear in that state of becoming that still has vital parts strewn about like intestines of a gutted animal. For those who relate to their stereo gear as animated totems filled with spirit, sights like these could be sober reminders. What appears so jewel-like in ads, gets lovingly polished and dusted weekly once installed, and positively entrances during playback of great music is, when under construction, merely a metal box waiting to be filled with circuit boards, capacitors, resistors, inductors, chips and hook-up wire.
Take the wax-impregnator, for example. It fulfills a very important function, namely injecting wax sealant into the transformer cans to embed the trannies and isolate them mechanically to reduce parasitic vibrations. This home-of-Frankenstein device, complete with frozen-in-time wax stalactite dripping from its nozzle, is the antithesis of gleaming high technology. Its presence makes a suitable contribution to the heady air of yesteryears thermionic devices in late 90s' amplifier designs. Anyone expecting automation at Cary Audio is in the wrong building. Built by hand, with pride in America -- thats more like it. The guys and gals -- yep, Carys an equal opportunity employer -- working the stations seemed contented and happy doing what they were doing, very much like an extended family.
I hunker down opposite Dennis Had in his corner office, burgundy blinds partially closed so I dont have to squint. I formulate the kinds of questions I imagine a SoundStage! reader would ask in my place, especially a reader who doesnt know a lot about the Cary history -- like yours truly -- and Had very graciously tolerates my inquisitiveness. Take a look at the tubes he holds in his hands -- there are things brewing at Cary Audio. But first, heres the yeast that, 40 years earlier, begins to ferment in a country boy, to eventually gestate into the Dennis Had who sits across from me today, overlooking his small audio empire from behind a simple desk in a simple office in a simple neighborhood.
For his seventh-grade science-fair project in Lyndhurst, Ohio, young Dennis Had produces a 2A3 single-chassis tube mono amp and walks away with the coveted medal. Considering that KT88, 6L6 and 6V6 tubes are the catch of the day, I want to know why Had settles for the 2A3. Turns out that a neighbor on the street is a ham-radio operator, and the immediate neighbor next door is Sonys very first US representative and also handles the Fisher brand. While a 300B would have cost young Dennis the stout fare of $9.90, the 2A3 comes free, compliments of this next-door mentor. The remainder of his system comprises a BSR changer with ceramic cartridge, spindle cut off to banish the low-fi changer mechanism from sight. Then theres the 5" full-range Norelco table-radio speaker in a 3'x3' open-backed box, the latter a function more of funds and skills with the saw than any ulterior engineering motives. Maybe in these modest beginnings one detects a later concern for a no-nonsense approach and a realistic appreciation for the cost of things.
Young Dennis dad is a European immigrant who played violin in Salzburg and later taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music, while his grandfather owned and operated a wood mill in Linz, Austria. The lad grows up around music, and Had today fondly remembers the weekly chamber-music gatherings of his dads string quartet that would subsequently air on the WTAM radio show the following Saturday, as well as a huge selection of steel-cut records. When audio designers are accused of working in a test-bench vacuum far removed from any day-to-day familiarity with live music, Had doesnt feel called upon. Besides his upbringing in close proximity to music, every one of his children has turned into an amateur musician, and the occasional family gathering today sees guitar, flute and piano in relaxed practice jams in his backyard. In another reverse-gear maneuver down memory lane, Had lights up when he recounts how he kept using middle C on his piano for weeks on end until an amplifier prototype could reproduce it precisely.
At 20, Had begins work as a hi-fi salesman for Olson Electronics in Cleveland, Ohio, and a year later he becomes manager for the Rocky River outlet where he stays on for two more years. The hot items of the day are the Fisher 500c receiver at $395 -- "sold the piss out of them," he declares, grinning -- and AR 2 or 3 speakers, with AR and Dual turntables, or Gerrards for those who didnt know better.
The next five years, until 1974, see him in the financial industry as first a stock broker, then underwriting syndicate manager for the Murch Company handling initial public offerings. But destiny has more auditory than audit matters in store, and in 1974 Had is founding the Dentron Radio Company in Twinsburg, Ohio to design and manufacture RF-communications equipment. Queried on which tubes were used in radio broadcasting then, Dennis mentions 8875, 3-500, 572B and 3CX1500 operating on plate voltages from 1500 to 4000 volts. Sensing the potential for rather catastrophic close calls with heart-attack-inducing fingers in the wrong sockets, I press my luck.
"Yeah, I had to fire this guy after he repeatedly mis-wired power transformers by reversing the cold side of a plug-in-card to the tune of 4400 volts DC, which netted 3000 volts AC." I dont pursue this line of questioning further, but try to imagine what 3000 volts AC applied to the human body might cause. I reckon the comparatively puny voltages applied to audio amplifiers for home use would have someone with Hads background feel as safe as a professional mountain climber scaling an anthill.
Six years later when his company sells to EDI Industries of Dallas, Texas, the tides of business see Had involved with buying and selling new and used medical-imaging equipment under the auspices of DTR Medical Co. of Stow, Ohio, of which he is president and founder. But the audio virus is alive and well in his veins and produces what must have been a sight to behold: a 19" wide, 6' tall single-ended amplifier using the 3CX1500 tube, with 3800 volts on the plate, 1200 watts in and 300Wpc out. To appreciate the enormity of this monster, envision it stationed out of sight in his library where a Dayton furnace blower cooling system vents through a heat exhaust system to the outdoors. Had estimates the total weight to have been around 600 pounds, installed in sections. Think Captain Nemos submarine and you get the idea. The source component of the day is an Empire turntable, and speakers the popular Acoustic Research 3A. Long before sound distribution becomes popular, Dennis has speakers all over the yard and around the pool, with wire buried around the horse barn.
In 1980, Had revisits the RF arena and establishes Ameritron Inc. in Hudson, Ohio, once again designing and manufacturing RF communications equipment. When the company sells, he creates Amp International of Cleveland, Ohio, where he adds Medical RF equipment to the production roster and also OEMs for military and medical-electronics companies. In 1989, just returning from a prolonged Saudi Arabian contract, Had discovers a new high-end shop in Cary by the name of Advanced Audio. Anticipating the opening day with a kind of fever, he is initially disappointed. The front sound room sports in-wall and Monitor Audio speakers and McIntosh solid-state gear. However, his mood quickly changes when owner Tom Hoffman escorts him to his sanctum sanctorum. There a pair of Eminent Technology panel speakers are driven by high-power VTL tube amps and produce what at the time is truly memorable sound.
The sight of tube amps -- it is now 1989 -- in a newly opened audio establishment hits Dennis like a bolt of lightning. He immediately buys a VTL 75 from Tom and ends up with every single VTL amp that eventually malfunctions or requires service. When Tom Hoffman discovers the wild and wondrous home lab his savvy customer uses to repair and modify his amplifiers, a friendship develops and things begin to snowball. Not unlike Richard Vandersteen, whose original Model 2 so impressed a local dealer that its creator decided to get into the manufacturing business, Had, with help from Tom Hoffman and financial backing from an investor, opens Cary Audio in October of 1989.
The very first production run nets 20 pairs of CAD-100s and four pairs of the 300SEs. The 1990 Winter CES becomes the unwitting host for four brand-new Cary products. Besides the CAD-100, Dennis introduces the passive PD1 line stage with tubed phono section; the CAD-45, a four-channel hybrid surround sound amp with 12AX7-based driver stage and Toshiba output chips; and the original CAD-300 SE, 8-watt single-ended tube amps employing the Cetron 300B tube. After the first day of that eventful CES, Cary Audio writes $170,000 worth of business. By the end of the show, this amount has nearly doubled to $300,000, with most orders going to Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea. One single importer, Henry Chang of Taiwan, orders 50 pairs of CAD-300SEs during the second day of trading -- ahem, demonstrations. Stereophile reviewer Dick Olsher comes to the Cary suite and is impressed by what he hears: a micro-powered, American SET, which, at that time, is about as rare as a discussion about Alien abductions over breakfast.
From 1990 to 1994, $630,000 of venture capital is raised to support the fledgling companys growth. In 1991, during the Chicago Summer CES, Cary Audio rents a private hotel suite outside the show activities and invites selected dealers, importers and investors to visit. The North Carolina-based Triangle Bank sends a representative who is so impressed with the demonstrations and response that home-based bank funding ensues. By 1996, a complete buy-out makes Dennis and partner Billy Wright sole owners.
How are the American dealers responding to Hads initial public SET offerings? Had singles out Ken Gould of NJ-based Audio Nexus as his first big US dealer, coming onboard in 1989. Others, like John Zimmerman of Audio Connection in Seattle, follow suit later. Twelve international distributors balance the initial 12 dealers in the US, but domestic sales only amount to about 30% of the total gross business. Interestingly enough, 80% of all Cary amps sold then are 300B SETs going predominantly to the Orient. Like their compatriots in France, the Asian audiophiles are in the know about single-ended tube designs much in advance of their American counterparts, who still revel in big-bore engines, drag races and 84dB-efficient, 4-ohm speakers.But the times are a-changing: today's dialogue about low-power amplification has come out of the closet, and surgery to the dark heart of preconceptions is performed each time a music lover is exposed to single-ended amplifiers with appropriate speakers and listens with his ears, not test gear. This, of course, requires dealers to dare showcase such "offensively wimpy" stuff. In turn, it requires consumers pestering dealers and waving the magic green stuff in front of their eyes to get the whole process of familiarization with this strange animal called SE -- short for Srajan Ebaen, hee hee -- going.
Heres an example of how a customer can affect his dealer: John Zimmerman in Seattle, listed earlier as one of Carys first domestic dealers, just recently -- nine years after signing on as a Cary purveyor -- brought into the shop his very first ever Cary single-ended amp (as opposed to push-pull) when a customer inquired about a headphone amplifier. Had did the selling via phone himself. First off, John wasnt even aware Cary had a headphone amp, and second, he was incredulous at the price of the Cary CAD-300SEI integrated with headphone jack, to be used by this customer exclusively for headphone use. Surely no sane music lover would shell out massive shekels for just a headphone amplifier. Had begged to differ and made the proverbial offer one cant refuse: he sent out a CAD-300SEI with the proviso of unquestioned return privilege should neither dealer nor customer want to keep it. Ever thought of a dealer as sales-prevention agent? Needless to say, one very enthusiastic owner now enjoys a $4000 Cary for the isolated privacy of his headphones.
But theres more to this episode. This customer, after falling under the single-ended headphone spell, has the audacity to hook up his Chapman T7 speakers to see what would happen. A week later, he orders Cary CAD-805s. But theres more still. Digging into his substantial record collection, our convert now realizes that, while knowing records to sound better than CDs, the gulf between both formats is even greater when the amp is single ended. He now orders a new turntable from John Zimmerman and, of course, a Cary phono preamp. Do you think Dennis Had deserves a part of the dealers profit?
The moral of this story? If theres anything out there youre curious about, and you have the funds to back up your requests should you fall in love, go wrestle with your local dealer. You may need to show patience, finesse or outright cunning, but in the long run everybody wins. The dealer will appreciate you for it because his wallet responds gurgling contentedly to digest the increase in sales.
Speaker compatibility is an important issue any potential purchaser of an SE amp needs to embrace willingly. I am thus curious to have Dennis talk about which available-in-the-US speaker designs were complementary in the early days of Cary Audio. Monitor Audio comes to his mind first, perhaps because he became quite familiar with them through the local hi-fi store when he beta-tested the first amplifiers. But it is the ProAc brand, brought to his attention via Bob Swimme of Audio Excellence in the early 90s, that lights his fires, especially the Response 1S. The combination proves so fruitful that, according to Had, ProAc importer Richard Gerberg saw his business increase significantly because most domestic Cary amp sales were packaged with ProAc speakers. B&W is added later as a suitable line of SET-friendly speakers. Then the Swan Baton emerges in 1992. Had recalls customers with Legacy Audio and VMPS speakers as well. But it was his contribution to ProAcs US business that compelled Had to ask himself why he wasnt addressing the speaker market himself.
Hence, 1996 sees the introduction of the Soliloquy loudspeaker brand, which sports two low-power-requirement models that feature a very stable, non-reactive impedance curve: the original model 5.2, and the 8.2. But a concomitant sharp increase in Cary amplifier sales at the time forces Had and co-owner Billy Wright to concentrate their financial and manpower resources on what theyre already known for: building tube amplifiers. The rights to the name Soliloquy, the designs and already-built inventory are sold to Bernie Byers, present-day owner of Soliloquy. While the current Soliloquy line-up does echo some of the original design principles of low power requirements and benign load behavior, the models have been re-voiced and re-engineered and, thanks to some very savvy manufacturing prowess, priced considerably lower. They also feature much higher power handling, which makes them equally suitable for solid-state amplification and significantly broadens their market appeal outside the admittedly narrow confines of existing SET enthusiasts.
Due to the ongoing shortage of readily available, affordable SET-friendly speakers, a special-application Soliloquy model, the SM-2A3, is co-authored by Had and Byers in late 1998 and demonstrated at the HI-FI 99 show in Chicago, where Cary Audio premieres their micro-power 2A3-based 5-watt monoblocks. A second model, the forthcoming Soliloquy Model 6.2, is slated to revisit the SM-2A3 neighborhood, but this time as a floorstander. Unlike with the SM-2A3 monitor, the 6.2 will embrace the particular demands of low-powered triode amps while simultaneously maintaining the high power handling the rest of the current Soliloquy line provides.
Besides the already-mentioned speaker brands, Had further lists the Canadian Verity Audio models, Ruark, certain Alůns, and Meadowlarks as excellent present-day choices for the current Cary line-up of lower-powered SETs. Asked about his competition, Had singled out Wavac, Lamm and Welbourne Labs as SE brands that pursue the same qualities he strives for.
Coming soon to a dealer near you
The infamous Cary double-decker amp with the humongous Western Electric 308 tube that wooed many showgoers at HI-FI 98 in Los Angeles will finally become production reality. When WE withdrew production on the 308, Had lubed and greased some of his NOS contacts and eventually located a serious cache of 304TLs, substantial enough to guarantee years of secure supply. The upcoming CES 2000 in Las Vegas will see the re-introduction of a slightly modified Cary double-decker amp, this time powered by 304TLs, to produce an awesome 100Wpc of zero-feedback triode output.
Another product that has already been introduced without much ado but simply as a response to requests is an integrated version of the current 2A3 monos, which will retail for $3995 and should be shipping by the time this article goes online. A third project in the blue-print stage is "a really affordable integrated." Pressed to divulge further details, Dennis merely smiles a wait-and-see grin, but I have a feeling "really affordable" could mean something around $1000.
Looking at the plethora of amplifiers currently making up the Cary Audio product line, Im surprised to see push-pull amplifiers of the 100- to 200-watt output variety. Didnt I hear Dennis say that 80% of his gross business is in 300B single-endeds? Before he has time to respond, I volunteer a top-of-the-head theory about needing product to get into dealers -- and customers -- doors that arent yet hipped to the glory of single-ended. His nodding while I proceed says it all, and the earlier Zimmerman case illustrates it nicely as well. This is later confirmed yet again when I ask him what his personal favorite Cary product is to date. I actually get two answers. The official one is the Cary CAD-300SE. The unofficial one, revealed here in blatant disregard to a signed non-disclosure agreement -- poppycock that, cant you tell? -- is the Cary 2A3. Thats what Had listens to at home, powering Soliloquy SM-2A3 monitors via Kimber Select cables, fed by a direct-coupled Cary SLP-50 preamp and either the Cary tubed CD-301 CD player or an ancient but very impressive turntable.
Why is this the unofficial truth? I guess for the same reason that a 5Wpc amp is even more esoteric than a 15-watter. It takes conviction to shell out a couple of big ones for so little go juice if a cool grand buys you mega wattage in the form of a solid-state bruiser. Dennis, however, is utterly convinced -- and who am I to challenge him, seeing I just purchased the Art Audio Jota? -- that the zero-feedback triode magic is utterly addicting once tasted. The challenge is in getting folks to take the first whiff. And thats a serious challenge when even dealers remain hesitant. But Had, ever the optimist, is determined to continue buttering his bread on both sides. He introduces muscle SETs with more power -- see the current iterations of the 300B amps with the KR Enterprise 300BX that increases the amps output rating to 20 watts -- while simultaneously broadening the micro-power base of 2A3 amps of the 4-5 watt variety. Might there be a 2-watt amp in the foreseeable future? I dont dare ask.
Expect some reviews of Cary products in these cyber pages soon. SoundStage! will do its part to spread the news wherever good product is to be found. Those Southern gentlemen at Cary Audio, Dennis, Billy, Kirk and the rest of the gang, gals included, have a good thing going. My internal vib-o-meter pegged seriously, indicating that working at Cary Audio is an enjoyable and civilized pastime for those involved, and one that just so happens to pay the bills. Isnt that something we all ought to strive for -- living our passion? Dennis, while in his early 50s by now, is as passionate about audio, and SET triode amps in particular, as any hormonally challenged teenager is about the opposite sex. Maybe listening to SETs keeps you young. Now theres a marketing strategy just waiting to be implemented.
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