Some reviews take longer to come to fruition than others. I've had the Cary Audio DMS-500 ($4995 MSRP) for almost nine months. And, like a human offspring, I've watched the DMS-500 grow from a bunch of potentialities into a complete entity, ready to stride confidently into the audiophile landscape. To give you an idea of how far the Cary DMS-500 has come, two months after initial delivery I contacted Cary to pick-up the DMS-500 since it wasn't, in my opinion, ready for a review. The good folks at Cary told me to hang on, be patient, and wait for the next firmware update.
Sure enough, after another couple of months and a two more updates I can now say with confidence that the Cary DMS-500 is a complete, rock-solid solution for audiophiles who want a high-performance single-box playback device for their digital media. If it's a digital file, in virtually any format, from almost any digital source, stream, or location, the DMS-500 can play it.
What, exactly, is a "media center?" For the Cary DMS-500 it comprises a single box solution to handle the delivery (though not the storage) of almost all digital media, formats, and sources. That media includes USB sources from an attached hard drive, Ethernet, Bluetooth, S/PDIF, AES/EBU, Toslink, and Wi-Fi. The only types of input sources the DMS-500 does not support are asynchronous USB from a computer and old-school analog components. If you need to use an analog source (such as a turntable) you will need an external phono preamplifier with either a built-in analog-digital-convertor (ADC) or one hooked up to an external ADC.
Besides a myriad of digital inputs, the DMS-500 also offers full MQA and Roon compatibility. Although earlier software versions did not support all Tidal streaming options (such as listing albums and tracks), the current version was complete with the same functionality of the Tidal computer application. This is a good place to re-emphasize DMS-500's Roon endpoint capabilities--the DMS-500 can receive a networked music stream from a Roon Core application on either a NAS or your computer. For anyone with multiple, large NAS drives and streaming libraries, Roon offers a way to combine all the music in one feature-laden player/library application. Not only does Roon have its own unique database with added information about artists and albums and links to other music, but it supports multiple output streams (with Roon you can have different music playing on each and every Roon-endpoint device on your home network).
One digital input that the DMS-500 does lack is HDMI. This could present a problem for someone who has AV sources that require HDMI inputs and outputs. My solution (and one anyone with a TV monitor made in the last five years can implement) was to run HDMI source into my Visio P-65 monitor and then route the Toslink audio output from the Visio to the DMS-500. Yes, this does limit the digital signal to a maximum two-channel 96/24, but for most video sources that should be sufficient. For local high-resolution digital sources, such as feed from my Oppo UDP-205, I use the S/PDIF digital output directly connected to the DMS-500.
I could easily spend the next thousand words describing all the technical intricacies inside the Cary DMS-500. But judging a digital streaming component's value solely by what's inside (as many computer audio hobbyists do) while discounting the ergonomics and execution disregards how much a complete, well-integrated, and rock-solid software/firmware implementation adds to a component's value. For those who want to peruse the inner workings of the DMS-500 I recommend visiting Cary's website. Cary also has a direct sales site, Cary Direct, where you can order Cary products, including demos and B-stock versions. The Cary site also has something called "Concierge Pricing," which offers three different levels of support, with the highest level delivering a four-year warranty and a 75 percent of retail value trade-up policy. On the DMS-500 listed on Cary Direct's site, the "Silver" level DMS-500 was priced at $3,495, "Gold" at $4,246, and "Platinum" at $4,994.
Initial setup of the Cary (back in the distant reaches of time, nine months ago) was relatively simple and straight-forward. Turn it on, hook it up to my home network via Ethernet, input Wi-Fi info and passwords, switch to Wi-Fi, set up streaming services and paths to my NAS drive, and I was done. I think the whole process took under half an hour. Subsequently, I have moved the DMS-500 back and forth a couple of times from one system to another. Each install was quick, easy, and almost instantaneous. And if you have questions, in addition to on-line and telephone support, Cary even has instructional videos.
One thing that is definitely not instantaneous with the DMS-500 is the initial turn-on time. Every time you turn on the DMS-500 it takes at least 20 seconds to fully come awake. This is because it must check all its network connections before it becomes fully operational. If you are the in-a-hurry type, I would suggest leaving the DMS-500 continually on. Yes, it will use up more power doing nothing, but life is short and the turn on time is l-o-n-g.
The DMS-500 not only comes with a quite serviceable dedicated remote control, but also an extremely good control app for both iOS and Android devices. The dedicated remote's layout is clean and easy to navigate, despite the fact that it was designed to work on multiple Cary components. I especially like the mute button placement--right at the top right corner of the remote--because when you need to mute, you need to mute right now. The iOS version of the app proved to be rock-solid and fully-featured. My only complaint is that it looks much better and is easier to use on a tablet than on my iPhone SE's smaller display.
Because the DMS-500 has a high-quality digital volume control with 0.5 dB increments and both balanced and single-ended analog outputs, there was no need to employ an additional preamplifier between it and a power amplifier or powered loudspeakers. I used it sans preamplifier in all my review setups.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
This is an appropriate place to look at one of the DMS-500's more controversial features--user-selected upsampling. Upsampling, simply stated, adds redundant digital information by doubling or even quadrupling the native sample rate of a digital file. Why would a manufacturer do this? While I've seen many reasons listed, the primary reason is most likely that the DAC processor delivers better performance when processing higher sampling rate and deeper bit-depth files. So, by raising sampling rates and bit-depths on lower resolution files, the amount of "native" musical information does not increase, but the processor's ability to handle the files with better linearity does, resulting in potentially higher fidelity.
Cary Audio calls their upsampling methodology "TruBit," which uses a dedicated 128-bit DSP engine capable of ten different user-selectable sample rates and increased bit depth. The DMS-500 also offers users the option of converting PCM sources into a DSD64, DSD128, or even DSD258. Of course, this brings up the question, "Why would you want to change the native rate of a music file?" But, that subject can, and has, generated vigorous audiophile debate, both pro and con, and for the purposes of this review all I can add of value is that with the DMS-500 I found that differences or improvements wrought by changing a music file's native rate to a higher one was software dependent. By that I mean with a majority of files (especially higher-resolution files) I found no sonic differences between the different sample rates and bit depths. But sometimes, usually with streamed sources, I did find that the upsampling improved overall decipherability and image specificity.
No matter the source, and no matter the genre of music, though, the DMS-500 delivered the goods. With Silverplanes' "Falling Asleep," it handled the natural vocals, wall-of-sound guitars, and pulsing rhythm section very well.
I was also impressed by its handling of Clean Bandit's "Solo" (featuring Demi Lovato), especially the melodious and bouncy bass line and reggae rhythm. It also did a great job of keeping the processed vocals stop and the synth lines distinct, which can be a bit of a trick with this track.
With Larkin Poe's cover of Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen"--which manages to demote Delaney and Bonnie's version of the song as the best take on the original--the DMS-500 proved itself capable of doing a lot with what is, in fact, a very simple two-instrument mix. Image specificity was spot on, and the slide guitars and vocals sounded fantastic.
The DMS-500's primary two shortcomings are both similar to each other. The DMS-500 lacks a couple of inputs that would greatly expand its functionality. First, the DMS-500 could use a way to access analog sources without having to resort to additional devices. One line-level and one phono with RIAA EQ would be extremely useful. Likewise, on the digital side, adding an HDMI input (or at least a passthrough), would make the DMS-500 more welcome in a two-channel audio/video system.
The second downside of the DMS-500 is not unique to the DMS-500, but a universal issue with sophisticated media center products from any manufacturer--unlike a power amp or analog preamplifier, a digital streamer will require periodic updates from the manufacturer, which means a consumer will have an ongoing relationship with the manufacturer, so the customer support and updating capabilities of a manufacturer need to enter into the purchasing equation. Cary, during the review period, proved to be responsive and to be continuously improving their firmware and remote apps. That kind of support is critical, and if it ceases (or the manufacturer exits the marketplace) an end user can quickly wind up with a component that has reached a technological dead end.
Comparisons and Competition
I currently have two other DAC/PREs with streaming capabilities in house, with somewhat similar price points to the DMS-500, which I'll use for comparison: The PS Audio DirectStream Junior DAC ($3999) and the Mytek Manhattan II DAC ($5999). Both the PS Audio and Mytek are Roon endpoints, and while the PS Audio isn't MQA-compatible, it can get the "first unfold" from the Roon Core. The Mytek is fully MQA compatible and can do all unfolds internally, like the DMS-500.
Neither the Mytek or PS Audio have their own dedicated smartphone apps like the Cary, but the PS Audio does work nicely with the Mconnect Control app for iOS or Android. Comparing remote controls, PS Audio has its own dedicated unit that is comparable with the Cary, while the Mytek relies on a pairing to an Apple remote, which is not as fully-featured. But, despite its less robust remote, there is one area where the Mytek edges out the other two components--it offers analog and phono inputs, which makes it more attractive to audiophiles who use analog sources.
Sonically, all three components are on a similar level of quality. Do they sound identical? No, but the differences are subtle, and each player is capable of delivering riveting sound. As to which is the best sonically--that will depend more on ancillary components, system matching, and a listener's personal tastes rather than which is intrinsically superior or closer to any ultimate sonic benchmark.
Unlike many components that I review, which usually spend less than two months in my possession, my nine months with the Cary DMS-500 proved that not only is it a rock-solid hardware platform, but Cary Audio supports and is continually improving the DMS-500's capabilities and functionality. With excellent support, this US-made media center delivers stunningly good sound combined with smooth-running ergonomics and control interfaces. Although not exactly budget-priced, the DMS-500 offers an all-digital audiophile an elegant way to access all their music now and into the future.
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