Cary Audio Design Cinema 12 HD Surround Sound Processor Reviewed

Published On: November 21, 2011
Last Updated on: October 31, 2020
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Cary Audio Design Cinema 12 HD Surround Sound Processor Reviewed reviewer Sean Killebrew integrated the Cary Audio Design Cinema 12 HD surround sound processor into his system to put it through a series of tests. Read on to find out what the results were.

Cary Audio Design Cinema 12 HD Surround Sound Processor Reviewed

By Author: Sean Killebrew

Sean Killebrew began his writing career in the '90s, covering football for UCLA (his alma mater). His first foray into publishing was in 2000, with the below-the-line film- and TV-production guide books LA 411 and NY 411. For the past decade, Sean's passion for audio/video has been poured into writing for When not chasing A/V deals, Sean spends time skiing and losing to his son in basketball.

Cary_Audio_Cinema_12HD_surround_sound_processor_review.jpgGoing from Cary Audio separates - in my case the Cinema 11a processor and 7.125 seven-channel amp - to a receiver is a depressing affair. Such is the state I found myself in about a year and a half ago, when I begrudgingly sent back the Cary separates after reviewing and thoroughly enjoying them. Flash forward to 2011 and I'm once again basking in Cary's high-end glow. This time around it's the newest processor in their Cinema Series, the Cinema 12. The Cinema 12 is priced at $4,995 and for its level of performance, it's a bargain. I'm sure some of you reading this will scoff at that last comment, but if you've heard how Cary's amps and processors perform against gear costing two to three times their price you'd understand exactly what I'm talking about.

Additional Resources
• Read more preamplifier reviews by the staff at Home Theater Review.
• Explore amps in our Amplifier Review section.
• Find Floorstanding Speakers or Bookshelf Speakers to pair with the Cinema 12 HD.

Like all Cary products, the Cinema 12 is aesthetically pleasing with an anodized aluminum faceplate and brilliant blue-hued display. The Cinema 12 measures 17.7 inches wide by four and a half inches high and 16.5 inches deep and weighs 25 pounds. There are some welcomed improvements over the Cinema 11a, which I'll get to, but the much coveted Cary sound is still present in spades. One of the most important upgrades over the Cinema 11a is the presence of two additional HDMI inputs, for a total of four v1.4a inputs. For you 3D folks out there, it's worth noting that the Cary will support most 3D formats. There are also two balanced inputs, eight analog inputs, 7.1 analog inputs, seven coaxial and optical inputs and the requisite inputs/outputs for a second zone. The outputs include 7.1 fully balanced XLR as well as RCA outputs. All lossless audio codecs are supported, including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio and, as Cary explains on their web site, the "Cinema 12 offers the very latest Burr Brown 32 bit/192 kHz surround DAC chips for the most impressive surround separation and steering, and the most accurate audio decoding."

The Cinema 12 is an audio-only processor. This means that the unit only passes through video signals; it doesn't manipulate them in any way. This is a welcomed feature, especially at this price point where those in the market for a processor of this caliber are likely using Blu-ray players with capable video up-conversion. Like the Cinema 11a, the 12 comes with an additional remote for Zone 2 functionality and it also features an HD radio tuner and antenna. I experimented with HD radio and definitely heard the sonic improvement over standard FM, yet I'm so addicted to customizable music services like Pandora that I quickly moved on. Lastly, the Cinema 12 has two separate Listener Profiles, which allows you to create one for music and one for movies, a nice touch as I like to juice up the center channel a bit for movies and leave it balanced with the other channels for music.

Cary_Audio_Cinema_12HD_surround_sound_processor_review_rear.jpgThe Hookup
I've cranked out quite a few reviews thus far in 2011, but having had such a pleasant experience with the Cinema 11a and Cary products in general, this was the most excited I had been to connect a piece of gear in awhile. Packaging on the Cary was intuitive and secure, definitely on par with this price point. Once out of the box, I proceeded to connect the Cinema 12 to my current reference system, which consists of an Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray player, a Cambridge Audio DACMagic DAC, a Music Hall MMF-2.2 turntable and an AppleTV. My current amp is an Outlaw Audio Model 7900, which is a seven-channel beast of an amp at 145 pounds and 300 Watts per channel. For the connection between the processor and amp I used Oasis 6 balanced audio cables by WireWorld. The rest of the connections were made with a mix of digital and analog audio cables, also by WireWorld. My speakers are Episode 700 Series in-walls, which are only available through custom installation channels.

The setup and calibration of the Cary is simple and straightforward, thanks to a minimalist menu and the lack of video processing. Rather than using the Cinema 12's auto-calibration, I grabbed my tape measure and Radio Shack sound-level meter and set about inputting the distance of each speaker to my listening position and matching the sound level of each speaker. I set the crossover for each speaker to 80 Hz and started digging for source material.

Beginning with some two-channel music, I grabbed the 1987 vinyl pressing of Elton John's Live in Australia with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MCA). On the track "The King Must Die," John's piano danced with brilliant resolution, as did all of the many instruments featured on this track. All of the soulful texture of Elton's voice was present in spades. The typically warm character of vinyl was balanced by the neutrality of the Cary and the somewhat lively character of my Episode speakers. Such is the beauty of a fine processor, mated with the right amp, speakers, source material and cabling - they can transport you back almost 25 years, to what must have been a magical night in Melbourne.

Read more about the performance of the Cary Audio Cinema 12 HD on Page 2.

Cary_Audio_Cinema_12HD_surround_sound_processor_review_angled.jpgStaying in the two-channel realm for one more round, I popped Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge Records) on the turntable. You have to ask yourself one question: Is it five "Ga's" or six? The track "Don't You Evah" illustrated the Cary's low-end mettle with palpable, deep bass response. Like a fine French pastry, each layer of instrumentation in the song was brilliantly reproduced. The guitar riffs also stood out, with their raw and edgy grain. I ended up listening to this track several times, hearing different layers in the music each time.

So we have a seven-channel processor and a beast of a seven-channel amplifier; what's with all the two-channel stuff you ask? It's a simple test of versatility as most of us still have plenty of CDs in our collection, not to mention the resurgence of vinyl and proliferation of music services like Pandora - all of which are two-channel. Truth be told, I was anxious to move on to high resolution multi-channel audio, but after struggling to get 96/24 audio files to play through my DacMagic (turns out its USB input isn't 96/24 capable), I threw in the towel and grabbed one of my trusty DTS demo discs from CES (Consumer Electronics Show). Any audiophile will tell you that these discs are highly coveted; a quick search on eBay will validate this. I popped the disc into the Oppo and started enjoying the sweet, sweet sounds of 7.1 DTS HD-Master Audio 96/24 high-resolution audio in the form of Gjermund Larsen's Trondheimsolistene - In Folk Style. The selection "Diplom" (Folk Suite for Fiddle and String Orchestra) illustrated the Cary's ability to place you in a live concert hall. The Cinema 12 did an exemplary job of conveying the playfulness of the strings in this composition. Low frequency material was also well rendered as the Cary showed its strength across the frequency spectrum. The arrangement showed that the Cary is also a standout in terms of transient response, which was the case with the Cinema 11a as well.

Continuing with multi-channel audio, I went back to my old buddy Elton John with his One Night Only: The Greatest
Hits Live at Madison Square Garden DVD (Universal Music) in DTS 5.1. On "Bennie And The Jets," I again noticed how well the Cary conveyed low frequency material. The Cinema 12 also throws a wide, compelling soundstage, which is especially enjoyable with live recordings. What I'd heard earlier with Elton's voice was present again, with every nuance brilliantly conveyed. Absent was the muddiness that can sometimes accompany live music and/or lesser audio gear.

Moving on to movies, I decided to go back a few years and dusted off my Blu-ray of Black Hawk Down (Columbia Pictures) in uncompressed PCM 5.1 sound. When U.S. forces are first engaged on the ground by the Somalis, the sounds of the different calibers of weapons were incredibly intense, flying around in all of the channels. Despite the general chaos of the scene, the dialog remained intelligible and precise. As various RPGs exploded, the sound of debris rained down in the surround channels with convincing authority and detail. Watching the battle scenes in this film through the Cary ramped up my heart rate, it was a visceral experience and one that I'm sure director Ridley Scott himself would appreciate.

Sticking with the Scott brothers, I decided to boot up the Blu-ray of Tony Scott's Unstoppable (20th Century Fox) in 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio. In Chapter 20 the train blows through a pathetic roadblock attempt and the Cary again showed its mettle across the frequency spectrum. The sound of the helicopter tracking the train in Chapter 21 was another audible treat through the Cary, as it handled all of the action with visceral integrity. This was my third time watching this film, yet I'd never heard it sound this raw and intense. You've never heard more train screeching in a film than this, and it was cringe-inducing to say the least.

Competition and Comparison
While there are other processors worth a look in this price range, my experience with the Cinema 12 leads me to believe that you're going to have to spend a great deal more than its $4,995 price tag to get better performance. Even then, I'm not convinced there would be enough upside to justify the higher price. I've heard the same thing from other reviewers about other Cary products, as well. All that said, if you have the budget, then the $6,900 Arcam FMJ AV888 is probably worth a look. Even higher up on the price spectrum is the Anthem Statement D2V, which retails for $7,500 and has been well received by the audiophile community. If these prices are making your chest tighten up a bit, there's also the Marantz AV7005, which can be had for a wallet friendly $1,500 and is a capable performer.

For more on AV Preamps including the latest news and reviews please check out Home Theater Review's AV Preamp page.

The Downside
Thankfully, this section of the review will be brief as, sonically speaking, I found no faults with the Cary. In terms of general functionality, there are a couple of things worth mentioning. I don't think I'm alone when I say that we've become a bit spoiled with on-screen displays. While I did appreciate the simplicity of the Cary menu, which has the added benefit of not making you second-guess yourself on a setting, I missed seeing it up on the big screen. That said, I'll take straight video pass-through and transparent sound over an on-screen menu any day. I also had a bit of trouble with the remote, not just the universal programming aspect, which I found a bit user-unfriendly, but the fact was I found myself having to press a key two or three times for a command to register on the processor; despite pointing it directly at the unit.

While I applaud Cary's efforts in packaging the Cinema 12 with a universal remote, I've come to realize that despite all the hype that certain universals are getting these days, most are simply crap. While I certainly wouldn't construe Cary's remote as such, I'll take my trusty MX-600 remote over just about any other remote on the market.

This is my kind of review - exemplary performance and no major quibbles about the product. The Cary doesn't require an overly complicated setup process, there's no having to worry about Internet connections and firmware upgrades, etc. - just plug it in, make a few basic selections, and the next thing you know you're enjoying truly high end sound. Whatever I threw its way, be it a 25-year-old album, high-resolution music or chaotic battle scene, the Cary absolutely shined. Simply put, the Cary Cinema 12 provides jaw-dropping performance and is equally adept with movies and music. I made the statement in my Cinema 11a review back in March of 2010 that "It's the best sounding, most musical home theater processor I've auditioned yet." Now that lofty bar has been raised by the Cinema 12. As Cary says on their web site "The Cinema 12 is the highest performing home theater processor available today," and from what I've heard, I tend to agree.

Additional Resources
• Read more preamplifier reviews by the staff at Home Theater Review.
• Explore amps in our Amplifier Review section.
• Find Floorstanding Speakers or Bookshelf Speakers to pair with the Cinema 12 HD.

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