A veteran of AVRev.com, Jim Swantko also wrote home theater and audiophile component reviews for HomeTheaterReview.com 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 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.
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.
• Read more stereo preamplifier reviews from the staff at HomeTheaterReview.com.