Cary Audio SLI-80HS integrated amplifier Page 2

Ella Fitzgerald has always swung me into next week, but through the Kuzma, Cary, Tavish, and DeVores, her 1962 LP Ella Swings Brightly With Nelson (LP, Verve V6-4054) moved me. I heard greater soundstage depth and air compared to that of the Ragnarok, and stronger center fill, which gave Ella's voice a heightened sense of corporeality. The Cary resolved Ella's sure sense of pitch, her distinctive delivery, her natural swing.

Through the SLI-80HS, the 1989 Japanese reissue of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour (LP, EMI/Apple Records TOCP-8514) sounded small. The superior 1971 German reissue (LP, Apple Records HôRZU SHZE 327) was better fleshed out but still thin overall by contemporary standards. The Cary also refused to gussy up the rather shallow production of various mid-'60s Atlantic Records by Carmen McRae. And an electronic record I've loved for its lush electric bass and dreamy synthesizer, Air's Premiers Symptômes (Parlophone RP1 47245), was exposed for its obvious digital lineage. The Cary told the truth, and sometimes the truth hurts. Yet when I spun Kruder and Dorfmeister's remix of Rockers Hi-Fi's "Going Under (Evil Love And Insanity Dub)" from 1998's The K&D Sessions (5 LPs, G-Stone Recordings !K7073LP), the Cary dispensed sub-bass frequencies so tangible, I swear I heard thrusting air swoosh by and the precise moment of impact between beater and bass drum head: thump! Drum size was evident.

The Cary also delivered new revelations from Kirsten Flagstad's 1956 Wagner Recital with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch (LP, London 5259). In tandem with the DeVore O/93s, it exposed the beauty of Flagstad's heavenly instrument, reproduced with intense spatial presence and depth plus fine color and musical nuance. Later, I also played the Flagstad LP via the Cary's headphone amp and a pair of Master & Dynamic MH40 headphones ($249); the sound's dimensionality was similar to that of its loudspeaker output.


I detoured for a moment, switching the SLI-80HS from triode mode to Ultralinear. Immediately apparent: even more low-end depth from the Hammond B3 pedal notes but also a loss of bloom, sweetness, and spaciousness. Too much to bear—back to triode.

It's true that many of the best-sounding Blue Note LPs are mono; with that in mind, I played Horace Silver's classic No.1518 (cognoscenti always refer to Blue Note records by their catalog number), also known as Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers (LP, Blue Note BLP 1518). A compilation of material from two 10" discs, the lineup of Silver on piano, Kenny Dorham on trumpet, Hank Mobley on tenor saxophone, Doug Watkins on bass, and Art Blakey on drums is at times surging ("Room 608"), serene ("Creepin' In"), and droll ("Doodlin'"). Through the Cary, the LP's mono image was larger and more luxurious than my Greenwich Village apartment. The amp unleashed the charging dynamics in this deep-groove, "47 West 63rd" Blue Note pressing: Mono pressings from the late '50s/early '60s often have more drive and slam than their stereo counterparts, and I heard that in the sound of Watkins's bass, which felt like an 80,000lb tractor-trailer blowing past. Blakey's cymbals had tons of air, and, although reverb had been added to the mix, the sound remained sweet, not shrill. The Cary facilitated this sonic glory as well as I've heard it in my apartment, damn anyone who says different!

With the Klipsch Forte IIIs
This was a nigh-on saintly pairing, the rich timbre and mountain-sized bloom of the Cary creating juicy, lifelike images via the Forte III ($3998/pair) and its horn-loaded tweeter and midrange, 12" woofer, and 15" passive radiator.

The soundstage was larger than that of the DeVore Fidelity O/93s, with deep bass that sounded clear, detailed, and reasonably extended. The Klipsch/Cary combination generated the greatest number of Hallelujah! moments. Flagstad's voice was integrated better with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra while losing none of her—or the recording's—silken sharpness: I heard Flagstad, the orchestra, and the hall. Similarly, Horace Silver's Blue Note disc yielded more visceral low notes and midrange meat within a shimmering expanse of air, as the music's natural echo reflected off the wooden cathedral ceiling of Rudy Van Gelder's Englewood Cliffs studio.

I can safely report that in most subjective respects, the SLI-80HS outperformed its solid-state sibling, the Cary SI-300.2d integrated amplifier ($5995), which I reviewed in the December 2016 Stereophile—although the more expensive Cary offers more power (300Wpc), a DAC, and Bluetooth capabilities.

In my system, the tubed SLI-80HS sounded great with conventional loudspeakers and horns alike, and with all styles of music. It provided an uncluttered pathway to musical satisfaction, LP after LP. The Cary possesses all the qualities tube aficionados seek—and, perhaps due to its solid-state rectification, good if not spectacular grip on low-end fundamentals. Most important—and here's where it shares more than just wood-finish choices with Klipsch—it's tremendous fun.

In triode mode, which I favored, the Cary's 40Wpc won't drive every speaker—but with that consideration noted, the SLI-80HS ranks near the top of all the many tube integrated amps that have passed through my door.

Cary Audio
Chapel Hill Road
Raleigh, NC 27607
(919) 355-0010

Doctor Fine's picture

Just wondering why there was no comparo against the wonderful Rogue Audio Cronus Magnum III with KT120s for tube power?
Seems like the Rogue is way better for half the price.
Doesn't Stereophile ever think about the competition?
This looks like a nice amp.
But the Rogue seems like it mops the floor with it.
For half the price.
Did I mention it is half the price?

Ortofan's picture

... some integrated circuits, those "cheap chips" that tube amp aficionados find so abhorrent.

Cary amp for comparison:

Dead Wax's picture

I used to own a 2010 SLI-80 and I just listened to a Rogue C3 last evening. I felt the sonics of my old SLI-80 (let alone the updated SLI-80HS) were much superior. Dynamic range was better against a blacker background and a much more natural organic sound. I think i generally prefer a KT88 over a KT120 to be fair and in fact KT77 may be my favorite. Point to point and better caps do matter.

The other thing to point out is noise from the CR - even the CRIII. In my experience Rogue Audio offers cheaply built products with bad grounding schemes. What do you expect for a tube integrated that is so cheap yet puts out 100 watts? Prima Luna Dialogue HP is a better comparison with the Cary and they cost the same and perform very similar - go figure! You guys who just see a tube integrated vs another and a cost differential assume the higher cost one must be a rip off. Just wait until you hear all the hum, buzz, and hiss pouring out of the amp and speakers. I'm not sure what the SLI-80HS is like but my SLI-80 was dead quiet! With the HS SS rectification I'd expect it to be even quieter than the old model.

Poor Audiophile's picture

[Doesn't Stereophile ever think about the competition?] Yes, they often make camparos.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Get a couple of smiley faces for $4,495 ........ (see fig.11 and fig.12 in measurements section) :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Rogue Audio Cronus Magnum III integrated amp ($2,995) 100 WPC ultra-linear, is probably a better value for the money than this Cary integrated amp ........ The Rogue integrated probably measures better as well :-) ..........

MhtLion's picture

I haven't heard either. But, at least Cary looks better. :) Also, not sure if you can get a discount on Rogue, but more likely you can grab this Cary around 3.5k in a short time. That being said, I'm looking forward for a good review on Rogue Audio Cronus Magnum III. It really does look like a super amp for the price.

tonykaz's picture

I read ( and re-read ) this exciting experience wishing that I was there.

Those Klispch Loudspeakers were part of it ( along with all the rest of the gear working properly ).

I used to have fun evaluating unknown gear ( along with my Sales Staff , after hours, with Pizza and Vodka ).

This Review reads like an important discovery being made. I'm suspecting it's the Loudspeakers rewarding a darn good Amplifier performance.

It kinda feels like Mr. Micallef's writing is floating off the Magazine Pages to form images. Phew.

Great Music, Great System, Great Writing, Great Reviewing, Great Find !

The 5 Gs

Thank you for a Great read.

Tony in Venice

misterc59's picture

It's not digital! Can't possibly be selling well, nor be convenient, what with replacing tubes and all.


tonykaz's picture

Great Tubes create magic, lesser tubes deliver mediocrity. My time being a Dealer for Conrad Johnson supports me with that conclusion.

No.2 ) I'll wager that Cary will only make a hundred of these Amps, so, it probably won't ever be a "Seller" like Schiit are doing with their Product Runs.

Amps deliver AC which is Analog, isn't it? Even Class D is Analog, as far as I can tell.

Tube Sound Quality is the Variable that scares me now-a-days. Owning Tube Gear demands & requires a certain devotion to Tube Sourcing from folks like Kevin Deal and others. Just discovering Tubes and tube-rolling is a Complete Hobby onto itself ( they even have their own network on Head Fi ) .

Great Tubes in good gear becomes Spectacular... a Price $$$.

Tony in Venice

misterc59's picture

However, I find your comment a bit out of character since you have previously been known to "condemn" analog products.
You have extolled the virtues of digital, thus my consternation.

Please enlighten me. (exorbitant and extreme characterizations for either digital or analog notwithstanding as both have budget products for sale)

I listen to both digital and analog with spectacular results.


tonykaz's picture

All Audio is Analog

Back in the Day, my Day, all sources of music were delivered as Analog sources. I was ( and still am ) deep into Analog Mediums and Analog Playback Systems.


I recognize and embrace the efficient Red Book Storage System. I fully recommend it in preference to the Super Expensive ( by comparison ) Vinyl Playback Systems.

Here's Why:

Vinyl is pricy to buy, good vinyl ( Chad Kassem's ) is super pricy ( as it probably should be ).

Vinyl requires a Storage System: Sturdy Shelves and a safe room to house same. Storage is pricy commitment.

Vinyl Playback is fragile in terms of Transducer purchase ( which mandates regular upgrading & maintenance regimens ). I ended up collecting the musical Koetsu Range.

Vinyl Record Players can last Decades but seem to get upgraded every year or so. The Big VPI is the Hot One Now. ( I'm a VPI fan and was one of their Dealers during Shela's Era. )

I love the Modest Sumiko MMT Arm but regular Vinyl people seem to gravitate to ever more expensive Arms.

Wire is critical to the performance of Phono Cartridges, so upgrading the little phono wires becomes a useful improvement. See Karen Sumner at Transparent for help here ( bring a couple grand )

Phono Preamps ( RIAA ) have a range desirable performances and costs. Better ones are often within reach financially ( like that $4,000 one being reviewed in this issue ).

Proper Record Cleaning is required and involves equipment, chemicals, space and Time. The best record cleaning mandates a 30 minute process and a $800 investment minimum.

IN Contrast

Red Book CD played thru the PS Audio Player is a simple system.

Now-a-days the Streaming outfits will transport we Audiophiles ( Stereophiles ) into the 21st Century without the complexity I've been living with since the 1950s.

Phew, for gods sake!

Tony in Venice

ps. and you don't have to listen to another dam Beatles song for the millionth dam time

Ortofan's picture

... for under $1K.

Why would you ever want to use a moving-coil type cartridge?

tonykaz's picture

Thanks for mentioning this device


it's no-longer of interest to me, personally.

Vinyl is my Commercial and personal history.

Now-a-days my Lifetime Vinyl Collection is in Storage, safely packed away, waiting to be inherited by some yet unborn Audiophile, to whom I would/could legitimately recommend a nice 16/44 System for it's preferential utility.

By the way:

Moving Coil Phono Cartridges have far less suspended mass. They also feature improved Compliance making them easier for Arm Mass to resist.

Moving Coil is probably more fragile than MM so Annual Costs will be horrible in today's market where a proper Phono Cart. will cost $15,000 plus. for gods sake, pppppphhhhheeewwww !

The actual cost of Phono makes it prohibitive for "normal" folks that just want to have music.

My point of view is that Vinyl nowadays is a Con ( super ouch ). That coming from a person that was selling $1,500 Koetsu Phono Cartridges.

Tony in Venice

ps. I'm prepared to take all the HEAT this Industry wants to inflict on me. RedBook is the only practical solution for us Practical Stereophile readers not having a lifetime commitment to music reproduction. Yet, I still admire Chad Kassem and all the work he and his crew are doing. Chad stands alone as the Man of Integrity in the Vinyl World.

Ortofan's picture

... "the actual cost of Phono makes it prohibitive for "normal" folks that just want to have music."

The cost of the AR turntable and Stanton cartridge - not including a phono pre-amp - that I started out with a few decades ago equates to about $1200, when adjusted for inflation.

$1200 today will buy a Technics SL-1500C turntable, which includes a pre-mounted Ortofon 2M Red cartridge and a built-in phono preamp.

What Hi-Fi gives in a 5 star rating, calling it "a beautifully made, fuss-free record player that sounds great."

What more do "normal" folks that just want to have music need for phono playback?

tonykaz's picture

Phono is quite normal for what "we" consider Normal.


21st. Century Normal is being sorted out, folks are blending the iPhone 12 feature set into their daily lives, Tesla Programers are creating the Driverless Car and the entire World is returning to 100% Solar Power.

I suspect that Fossil Based Music Storage Systems will not find wide acceptance as Society & Civilization advances and evolves.

As a 1st. Generation Audiophile, I feel like I'm a Jurassic Era holdover thanks to digital MRI, Catscans and the University of Michigan's skilled Cardiologists. I now have a wide range of optional hobby activities to pursue: Woodworking with traditional hand tools, Bicycling my 500 miles per month as I now live in a Bicyclist's Paradise, Kayaking Florida's inland waterways is wonderful, maintaining a Tropical Botanical Garden, frequent peaceful Sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico, socializing with neighbors who are suffering from "Acute Loss of Lifelong Friends" syndrome and I now have Florida's High Quality of Life on daily offer.

I won Life's Lottery and Live in a Incubator for old people.

My hearing tapers off over 8k. but I don't notice it as much as my Wife. ( I often don't hear what she's saying )

Tony in Venice

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Mr.Tony, you are making some of us around here feel jealous, describing your current life style :-) ........

tonykaz's picture

Converse of today, I lived my entire life in stinky, filthy, noisy, Ultra-dangerous Factories.

By some quirk of technology, I'm surviving where my ancestors & peers only lived 50 years or so.

High quality Life is now available.

Click the Ruby Slippers together and return to Paradise, ( just like in the Wizzard of Oz )

This is my last Stop before I move to Oakwood Cemetery,

Tony in Venice

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Vincent Audio MM/MC PHO-8 phono-stage $450 ......... Audio Advisor is selling it for $300 :-) ..........

JRT's picture

Consider the inflexibility of the integration in this integrated amplifier in a system where the amplifier imposes very significant signal processing of limited variability.

In the phrase signal processing, in this context, I am referring to the mix of linear distortions further modulated by varied load impedance, and the addition of nonlinearities (nonlinear distortions and noise) which are also modulated (nonlinearly) by variation in signal, by variation in load impedance, and by variation in back EMF. It imposes signal processing integrated into the design and is not separable, cannot be removed from the signal chain, and that inseparability is the problem.

This amplifier was intentionally designed to _not_ provide load invariant clean gain, as would be provided by other very different choices in amplifiers such as the Benchmark Media AHB2 (is not an integrated amplifier, but provides good example of load invariant clean gain).

Rather this amplifier under review is intended to change the sound, analgous to a red pizza sauce where the flavor of the sauce can be changed by adding a mix of spices. And that is where the integration is a problem. In using this amplifier, the same pizza sauce is applied to everything. While you can swap tubes to change the flavor of the sauce, you cannot easily change the circuitry and output transformer, so while you can change the amount of some spices in the pizza sauce, it will still be pizza sauce. And that pizza sauce might not be what you want on your pancakes, on your sushi, on your beef steak, on your fish tacos, on your icecream, in your wine, in your scotch whiskey, in your vodka, in your rootbeer, etc.

The point here is that the signal processing is integrated into this integrated amplifier, is inseparable. You might enjoy that processing with some material, but you will have to suffer with it on other material that would be degraded by this sort of signal processing. Separate components can be more flexibly swapped out or modified to change sound.

Or, I would strongly suggest a very different solution, one that simply separates out added signal processing. Put it inside of a processing loop that can be bypassed when it is not desired. I would argue that the main system should be comprised of neutral gain stages to avoid reprocessing material that does not need reprocessing and might be degraded by reprocessing. That system can be separate components, or can have integrated functionality, but should be capable of providing load invariant clean gain when that is desired.

I recognize that some poorly recorded, poorly mixed, poorly mastered material might have flaws corrected or masked with further processing. The processing can include tube buffers, parametric equalizers, etc., and different problems might have different processing solutions, but only include them when that flavor of signal processing is desired, and bypass when it is not desired, or vary it when a different signal processing is desired.

I would also suggest that with some recordings, it might be better to experiment and apply the signal processing in your own remastering efforts, and save those to FLAC files for later replay through systems that would then not need to provide added processing because the processing would exist in your remastering efforts.

Bottom line take away... A separate processing loop in a system with load invariant clean gain stages is a better solution than using pizza sauce on your pancakes.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

It may work ok as a headphone amp ........ The headphone output impedance could work alright even with low impedance headphones with 20-30 Ohm impedance ........ Of course, it will work well with high impedance headphones :-) .........

JRT's picture

If seeking only a headphone amplifier and no other functionality, just something that will provide load invariant clean gain to drive headphones, I see no need to look beyond the new $400 Monoprice Monolith THX 887. And that might be overkill, as less expensive solutions may be adequate.

edit (27 Sep 2019): I need to walk that back, need to retract my statement. While I am confident that the new Monoprice Monolith THX 887 has a good amplifier section, I do not currently know enough about the attenuator used to control level, the volume control, if that works well enough or not, for highest quality audio.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Agreed ......... There are some tube headphone amps selling for around $5k, which are not integrated amps and cannot be used for driving loudspeakers ......... This Cary can be used for both :-) ...........

RH's picture

JRT wrote: "A separate processing loop in a system with load invariant clean gain stages is a better solution than using pizza sauce on your pancakes."

JRT, you are thinking like an engineer. And that's great. If the approach you just wrote about described why you would never use the Cary amp, and instead employ flexible alteration that can be taken out of the loop, then it makes perfect sense to me.

Other people seem to get along well with other approaches, due to what they like along with other considerations in how they apportion their attention and time.

So for instance, I use tube amps (mostly my old Conrad Johnson amps). I've used them for 25 years because I like the subtle difference they bring to the table, which for me pay large *subjective* dividends (the type of characteristics associated with classic tube sound - a slight enriching of the sound, a bit fuller and rounder, sibilance and other artifacts seem to be less aggressive, voices seem more overall natural to me, etc).

The CJ amps are not neutral. And from what I've read whatever the distortions it may impart, it seems dubious that all of them could be replicated only by say, an eq (for sake of argument; I know other processing now exists of course). But for sake of argument, even IF I could replicated the sound using a solid state amp and an eq, I don't care to. Why? First of all, I feel no need. The slight modulating of the sound imparted by my tube amp does everything I need in nudging it towards sound I enjoy. I like pretty much everything I hear through my system, and never feel the need to twiddle anything in or out. In fact, I had a great digital eq in my system (Z-systems RDP-1) for something like 20 years and I just never felt compelled to use it (finally sold it).

So for me, the tube amp imparts a sort of "set and forget" quality to the sound, leaving me with no desire to fiddle with added eqs or processors in the loop, to alter when playing different program material.

Plus, there's the "cool gear" aspect - I like tube amps. There's a romance to them as gear, the cool look, the glowing tubes, the historical aspect, that I personally don't get in owning an SS amp (and I've owned SS amps, Bryston, Harmon Kardon and others).

Now has my CJ amp added "pizza sauce" to everything? No. Not in my estimation. There are some subtle qualities I spoke of, but they are utterly dwarfed by the scale of sonic characteristics that come along with any new recording played on the system. I hear all the sonic details, all the production choices and effects, everything, that I hear when an SS amp is powering the system. Something in a dry acoustic sounds that way, a thin recording sounds thin, powerful recordings powerful...every bit of gross sonic characteristic that really makes recordings sound different is there. So it's not remotely like making everything taste the same.

It still seems to me an open question as to whether the added processing you speak of would exactly duplicate whatever the Cary may be doing in terms of distortions. But even if so, there are the above considerations for other people.

There is a similar question about loudspeakers. Given that it is easier than ever before to find neutral, balanced, well-measuring loudspeakers, why would anyone choose otherwise? If you like some coloration to your sound, well buy a neutral speaker, add an eq or processor, and then you can add or subtract as you like. Again, makes perfect sense for someone of a certain mind-set and inclinations.

But what if one discovers that a loudspeaker designer has produced a speaker with some level of deviation from neutral or coloration...but it sounds terrific to you! You play all your beloved music and you love everything you hear. Well, then that audiophile has found essentially a "set and forget" sound that he likes and there is no need to buy another speaker and fiddle with additional processing. And for many of the speakers that are colored that people have really liked, it would take some real knowledge of how to use eq or digital processing to exactly mimic the sonic/distortion profile of those colored speakers....if it's even possible! (And given the variety of ways speaker designs can sound different that seems dubious). So given certain priorities, buying the speaker that was designed in a way that already pleases your ear is the simpler move. It's like gardening; I could probably do a decent job on my garden myself, if I cared to learn about it and put in the effort. But that's not where I care to apportion my time, so I hire a gardener once a year to come by and do it. Other people really get in to gardening, so good on them!

So my point is that a totally sensible case can be made, as you have made it, for avoiding introducing colorations as a "fixed" part of the chain. But introducing some coloration in a fixed way can also satisfy other people's interests, in a rationally defensible way as well. The Cary amp may alter the sound of someone's system in just the way he enjoys, leaving that audiophile with no need or desire to fiddle with an added processor that may or may not even replicate what the Cary amp is doing.


JRT's picture

You cannot replicate the added nonlinearities with linear equalization. I did not suggest that you can.

That said, there are some relatively new digital audio workstation (DAW) plugins that utilize processing in the computer's GPU to simulate nonlinearities in the sound of some actual pro audio gear by simulating the linear and nonlinear behavior of same. (microphone tube preamps, dynamic range compressors, tape saturation, etc.)

Acoustica Audio's Acqua platform is one rather popular example.

I remain somewhat skeptical that a high quality tube amplifier might be closely replicated on a contemporary GPU.

I would suggest a tube buffer (shorthand phrase commonly used in some circles to describe a near unity gain stage that uses vacuum tubes) to add nonlinearities when that effect is desired. Place the tube buffer in a processing loop that can be bypassed.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Pizza sauce on pancakes ........ May be I should look into that idea further :-) ........

Ortofan's picture


Bogolu Haranath's picture

They look delicious ........ Wonder why the pizza chains are not making these? ........ Does Shaq read Stereophile and visit Stereophile website? :-) .........

helomech's picture

ratings are a trend among Cary amps it seems.'s picture

I'm about a month late in posting this- apologies- but "Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers" was recorded in RVG's living room studio in Hackensack, a few years before he'd built the Englewood Cliffs studio. Nice description of the sound of this classic disc, but you were not hearing the "music's natural echo reflected off the wooden cathedral ceiling of Rudy Van Gelder's Englewood Cliffs studio..." It's plain ol' studio magic i.e. reverb.