Cary Audio SLP-98L Preamplifier Reviewed

Published On: October 27, 2009
Last Updated on: October 31, 2020
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Cary Audio SLP-98L Preamplifier Reviewed

The retro good looks of the Cary SLP-98L feature exposed vacuum tubes, and hand-soldered point-to-point wiring. With stunning sonics the SLP-98L rates high on the performance to price ratio. The reviewer was so impressed by the SLP-98L that they bought one.

Cary Audio SLP-98L Preamplifier Reviewed

  • A veteran of, Jim Swantko also wrote home theater and audiophile component reviews for in the early days of the publication. His focus was on mid- to high-end audio brands like Mark Levinson, Classé, Noble Fidelity, Cary Audio, MartinLogan, and Paradigm.

Cary-Audio-SLP-98L.jpgCary Audio is one of those rare companies that don't constantly revise audio products as a ploy to resell their current client base and/or get a PR boost from a slightly improved model.  When they have a product which works well they leave it alone, as they have done since they opened their doors in 1989.  The Cary SLP-98L is one such product that is so well-designed that it continues to stand the test of time 10 years after it was first released.

Additional Resources
• Read more stereo preamplifier reviews from the staff at

As the name vaguely implies, the SLP-98L was released in 1998 and has gone unchanged since its inception.  The SLP, which stands for sweet little preamp, is Cary Audio's idea of the preamplifier reduced to bare essentials. The SLP comes is available in two flavors, the $2,595 98L, which is line-stage only, and the $2,995 98P, which adds a phono stage.  Let me begin by saying that the line-stage reviewed here is simply stunning to look at.  The small black chassis with surface mount components, such as capacitors and tubes, in plain sight is pure elegance.  I'm convinced that the external power supply was chosen as much for aesthetic reasons as it was for isolation from the audio circuitry.  If you are so inclined, flip the unit over and remove the bottom panel and you will be shocked to realize that every connection is hand-soldered with individual wires.  There are no pre-printed circuit boards in the SLP.  The face contains all the necessary controls to operate the preamp, even though a remote control is included.  A nice touch is the addition of two separate input level controls, one for each channel.  This allows the user to compensate for components with slightly different gains between channels.  Anyone who has one channel slightly louder than the other will surely appreciate this feature.  The rear of the unit is neatly laid out and utilizes only single-ended connections, a downside due to the unit's small footprint.

So how does it sound, you wonder?  Listening to the Cary, you will immediately realize that you are hearing a tube preamp.  It produces a large, open soundstage and makes midrange sound just magical.  Voices particularly are rich and wonderfully textured.  The low frequencies are a bit less controlled than on the very best tube preamps, although they are still quite good.   If you are willing to sacrifice a little punch in the bass department for an extra helping of velvety richness, this preamp is one you should seriously consider.  In this price range, one would have a hard time finding a more musical preamp.

Read about the high points and the low points of the SLP-98L on Page 2.


High Points
• The SLP-98 has a fantastic performance to price ratio.  It makes beautiful music that draws you into the performance and is absolutely quiet in doing so.
• The Cary is one of the most physically beautiful components that you can add to your system.  It is elegantly simple and exciting at the same time.
• Cary Audio has some of the best customer support you will ever experience, should you require any service.  Everyone I spoke to at Cary has been an absolute pleasure in my dealings with them. There is no outsourcing of their customer service calls to New Delhi at Cary, and thank God for that.

Low Points
• I've been spoiled by preamps that allow full functions from the remote control.  The Cary only offers volume and mute functions from the remote.
• I would like to see at least one pair of XLR inputs and outputs, as all of my cables are balanced.  Having to replace them with single-ended cables was a hassle, as was having to go through cable break-in again.

The Cary SLP-98 is a great preamp, especially when you consider its modest price.  It sounds great, although you may miss a little bit of the extreme low-frequency dynamics of your solid state preamp.  The midrange more than makes up for it, in my opinion.  Top to bottom, I really enjoyed my time with the SLP-98; in fact, I now own one.  There is a reason this preamp hasn't been changed in over 10 years.

Additional Resources
• Read more stereo preamplifier reviews from the staff at

• Find a receiver to connect to the SLP-98L. 

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