Cary Audio Design has been producing shining examples of high-end audio gear for over 20 years and with the Cinema 11a processor, that trend continues into the world of AV preamps. Over the last decade, Cary has divided their product offerings into four lines - the Classic Series, Concept Series, Xciter Series and Cinema Series, each serving a different segment of the market. The Cinema 11a is part of the Cinema Series and priced at a reasonable, with respect to its performance, $4,000. Cary designs their products to cater to audiophiles searching for true high-end audio, minus the stratospheric price tags typically associated with high-quality, high-end components.
The Cinema 11a includes two HDMI v1.3 inputs capable of processing all of the new high resolution audio codecs, including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. An important note: the Cinema 11a's HDMI inputs do not include video processing; they are simply designed to pass-through the video signal. In my opinion, this is a welcome feature as I prefer to have my Blu-ray player handle the video processing. Not to mention the fact that with Blu-ray discs and 1080p/24 material, you wouldn't want the processor meddling anyway. One constant with Cary products is the use of only the highest quality components; in this case the Cinema 11a features a Cirrus Logic CS49700 series chipset and a Burr-Brown DSD 1796 DAC. The 11a measures a little over 17 inches wide by four and a half inches high by nearly 17 inches deep. It features a gorgeous blue display screen and an anodized aluminum finish which is also available in black. Components in this price range should be aesthetically pleasing and the Cinema 11a, along with all of Cary's products, passes this test swimmingly. The audio connectivity options on the rear panel should leave nothing to be desired; highlights include 7.1 XLR and RCA outputs, seven TOSLINK digital inputs and 7.1 analog audio inputs for SACD and other multi-channel components. For those looking to drive sound from the 11a in more than one room, independent Zone 2 functionality is included, along with a second remote - a welcome touch. It's also worth mentioning that the Cinema 11a includes an HD radio tuner and antenna, which I had up and running in about five minutes. Finally, the 11a features dual 32-bit DSP (digital signal processing) engines, providing room equalization, auto sound setup, bass management, etc.
Unlike some of the high-end products on the market today, the Cinema 11a is a true plug and play processor. Of course most of those in the market for a system of this caliber are tweakers, but it's nice to actually be able to listen to the system while making your tweaks. I connected the Cinema 11a to a Cary 7.125 power amp using Equinox 6 balanced interconnects from Wireworld. Continuing the setup, I used the two HDMI inputs to connect my Panasonic Blu-ray player and Verizon FIOS DVR. For SACD and general two-channel listening, I connected my Oppo player using 5.1 analog interconnects, also from Wireworld, Inc. Sadly, my Xbox 360 was left in the lurch as it features an HDMI connection and I had already used the two HDMI inputs. Oh well, not the end of the world as HDMI switchers are inexpensive and readily available. The biggest issues are finding an open power outlet and space on the rack for the switcher. Lastly, I connected my Logitech Squeezebox using one of the myriad TOSLINK inputs. Cary wisely included a slew of audio inputs, allowing for multiple connection options, as well as the luxury of not having to remove one component in order to connect a new one.
While the Cinema 11a features auto sound setup, I double checked it using my trusty SPL meter and achieved similar if not identical results. While I almost always prefer manual sounds setup and typically will defeat any sort of room correction on a processor, the 11a provides an in-depth room EQ that allows you to measure the sound from six different listening positions. This is beneficial for those with sonically challenging rooms and/or less than desirable speaker placement options. Not to mention the fact that not everyone feels comfortable with a sound meter and a measuring tape.
Thankfully, the manual for the Cary was not written only for MIT grads and the 11a's menu is also fairly straightforward. One feature of note here is the ability to select different listening profiles, one for movies and one for music - very nice. Once I set the speaker configuration, distance and output level of each speaker, it was time to play. I should note that this entire process took about 40 minutes and nary an F-bomb was uttered. Having dealt with processors with handshake issues, complex and overly detailed menus, etc. a seamless and pleasant setup routine was a welcome relief.
I was able to listen to just about every form of audio - MP3, CD, lossless audio, DVD-Audio, Dolby TrueHD, SACD, and even had my first experience with HD radio, thanks to the included tuner. So let's jump right in, shall we? One of the most notable features of the Cinema 11a is its ability to sound consistently neutral, open and engaging, regardless of the source material. I've listened to plenty of high-end gear that only sounded high-end when playing well recorded, uncompressed audio. My Squeezebox, which churns out a mix of lossless and compressed-to-the-moon MP3 tracks from my library and Pandora, has never sounded better thanks to the superior DAC found in the Cinema 11a processor.
Call it tradition or call it stubbornness, but I always start a review with some two-channel music. In this case it was The Raconteur's Consolers of the Lonely (Warner Brothers). On the title track, Jack White's vocals were wide open and alive and the guitar/drum instrumental at the end of the song, which can sound muddy on lesser gear, was incredibly detailed and engaging, really providing a glimpse into the midrange mettle of the processor.
Sticking with The Raconteurs, I cued up the track "You Don't Understand Me," which features a beautiful piano instrumental that was present and accurately rendered. I must have listened to this track four or five times, picking up subtleties in the vocals and instrumentation that I'd never heard before. Some of the bass lines in this track also gave an indication of the low-end prowess of the 11a, which was never lacking in any of my listening sessions. There was little in the way of processed sound, rather it was raw, neutral and very close to what was heard in the studio I would imagine.
Despite my desire to dig out three or four of my favorite discs to hear them at their best, I decided to leave the two-channel realm and fire up some multi-channel music with Paul McCartney's Good Evening New York City (Hear Music) in DTS. On his well known track "Let Me Roll It," the separation between his vocals and the persistent guitar riff was exemplary. Closing my eyes and leaning my head back made me feel as though Sir Paul and his crew were in the room. Isn't that the goal of high-end audio? The soundstage was wide, exactly as you'd want it on a concert DVD, or just about anything else for that matter. I played this track several times at increasing volume and came away thoroughly impressed with the amp's ability to play loud with no fatigue.
More than satisfied with the Cary's performance on two-channel and multi-channel audio, I decided to cue up Michael Mann's Public Enemies on Blu-ray (Universal) in DTS-HD Master Audio. While I wouldn't construe it as an action picture, it does have a couple of action sequences that are good fodder for testing gear. In chapter three, "Making Money," the shootout between the cops and Dillinger's gang was really intense, and the difference in sound between each caliber of weapon was clearly articulated. In an earlier chapter, I had the 11a cranked and when the tower guard delivered a fatal shot to one of Dillinger's crew, the crack of the rifle was incredibly realistic and intense, ripping across the sound field. The Cinema 11a and 7.125 are a powerful combination, showing no signs of compression when driven to molar-rattling levels. That said, during transitional moments from cacophonous action to quiet dialogue, there was never any problem with articulation. It's not very satisfying to spend big money on a system, only to end up with something one-dimensional; that's certainly not the case here.
Sticking with uncompressed audio, I cued up Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on Blu-ray (Paramount). While not a great film, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is well mastered and an absolute torture test for a home theater system. Listening to the Autobots battle the Decepticons (did I just write that?) was an audible smorgasbord of ripping metal, gunfire and explosions - what a showcase. The Cary's reproduced every layer of sound with aplomb, throwing you right in the middle of each battle. I was pleasantly surprised to find the 11a to be equally adept with music and movies - a true hybrid. Let's face it, how many people have the space, not to mention the budget, for two systems?
It's also worth mentioning that the Cinema 11a features Dolby Headphone, which creates surround sound through headphones. I watched The Wrestler (Fox Searchlight) utilizing this feature and though I only use headphones while watching a film as a last resort, I found the virtual surround to be engaging and not over-processed. This is a useful feature for those with kids, wives, sensitive neighbors or all of the above.
Read more about the 11a on Page 2.
Despite the fact that this is an "audio only" surround processer, as
Cary states in the manual, I would like to see more than two HDMI
inputs. This is certainly no deal breaker given the Cary's sound
quality, but I'm of the opinion that any current surround processor
should have a minimum of four HDMI inputs.
The remote control is also a bit of a downer as it looks and feels no
different than the remotes you see paired with low-budget gear. That
said, most of the people in the market for this caliber of processor are
probably going to be using universal remotes and bypassing the included
remote completely as I did.
It takes a hell of a combination of solid amplification, processing,
cabling and source material to have a truly transformative listening
experience. This is what I found with the Cinema 11a and 7.125 amplifier
and it's what high-end audio is all about. Spending dedicated time
listening to components of this quality reminds me of why I got into
this business. This is the type of processor that will put a smile on
your face every time you fire it up. Whether you're listening to your
favorite CD, an MP3 that's been compressed to within an inch of its
life, or watching a film on Blu-ray, the Cinema 11a shines. One of the
best compliments you can pay to a piece of home theater gear is its
ability to make you want to dig through your collection, to find
familiar music and movies and figure out what you've been missing. This
is exactly what I've been doing with the Cary. If $4,000 for a processor
seems a little rich for your blood, go find a Cary dealer and audition
the 11a. My guess is the experience will justify a budget increase. That
said, if you want to hear what this processor is capable of, be sure to
bring a high quality amp to the party.
The bottom line is that I simply cannot find many sonic faults with
the Cinema 11a as it's the best sounding, most musical home theater
processor I've auditioned yet. To do better would cost you dearly.