Anyone who has tried to find a local shop that still sells CDs knows that CDs are going the way of Grateful Dead concerts. Those same folks who are still searching out CDs probably already have a number of CDs in their music libraries, so they still need a top-quality disc spinner to play them on. Enter the Cary DMC-600SE, which can not only play your CDs but also handle all the digital streams from your computer, Bluetooth aptX device, or any digital source that uses an SPDIF, Toslink, USB, or AES/EBU connection. In short, the Cary DMC-600SE was designed to be a complete digital hub for all of your digital music. At its list price of $7,995, the DMC-600SE represents a substantial outlay, but it could well be the last digital device you will need to purchase for a very long time.
Cary makes two versions of the DMC-600: a standard version ($5,995) and a special edition SE model ($7,995). Of course Cary sent us the SE version for review. According to Cary, "the DMC-600SE utilizes super premium reference-grade components within the analog output sections for further performance enhancements, as well as a clock input for use with an external master clock for recording studios and professional or semi-professional use." The DMC-600SE supports PCM formats up to 32/384 and DSD up to 256X via its USB input, as well as PCM up to 24/192 via SPDIF.
Instead of one or two DAC chips, the DNC-600SE uses three DACs consisting of six channels (three per side) to create a fully balanced parallel circuit. Digital signal processing, upsampling, and clocking duties are performed by a separate 128-bit DSP engine, which allows the three DACs per channel to be used solely for digital-to-analog conversion. The DMC-600SE also employs something that Cary calls "TruBit Upsampling," which uses a 128-bit DSP engine to generate ten different user-selectable upsampling rates that can extend up to 768 kHz. In addition to the upsampling engine, the DMC-600SE also performs "OSO Reclocking" of all digital signals to lower potential digital jitter. For USB sources, the DMC-600SE uses an XMOS xCore asynchronous interface to support USB 2.0 sources. For Mac OS, the DMC-600SE is plug and play; for Windows, the latest drivers are available on Cary's website.
Although Bluetooth is still primarily a "convenience" input due to its lossy quality, the CSR aptX compression scheme offers the highest fidelity currently available from Bluetooth. Combined with Cary's TruBit Upsampling and OSO Reclocking, Bluetooth through the DMC-600SE promises to sound as close to uncompressed audio as possible.
Many audiophiles vacillate between using DACs with tube and solid-state output stages. A big feature in the DMC-600SE is something that Cary calls its "dual independent output" stage, or DIO. Instead of a single output circuit, the DMC-600SE offers two completely independent user-selectable output stages: one solid-state and one tube-based. Cary's documentation states proudly, "It's like having two source machines in one, allowing you to get the most out of your recordings. The result is fantastic sound for all your digital sources in one cost-effective machine."
The DMC-600SE's front panel contains all the necessary buttons; so, even if you lose the dedicated remote control, you will be able to operate the unit. Front-panel control buttons include: on/off; tube/solid-state; clock input; sample rate selector; CD player controls for open/close, play, stop, previous, and next; and input selectors for CD, optical, coaxial SPDIF 1 and 2, AES/EBU, Bluetooth, and USB. The center of the front panel is occupied by a two-line display and CD tray.
The back panel of the DMC-600SE includes both single-ended RCA and balanced XLR outputs, as well as input connections for all digital inputs (including a Bluetooth antenna) and an AC power receptacle. While not super thick or jewel-encrusted, the DMC-600SE's chassis is solid, with well-designed support "feet" that may make the need for additional physical isolation superfluous. Its overall size is slightly larger than most components, so you may need some additional headroom if you plan to place it on the middle shelf in your equipment rack.
Initial setup and installation were simple and straightforward. I connected the balanced outputs to a preamplifier while attaching all available digital inputs to the DMC-600SE. Since the DMC-600SE has a built-in volume control, you can use it sans preamplifier, connected directly to your power amplifier. I tried all the inputs and found they all successfully accepted signals without any glitches. Even pairing my iPhone 5 with the DMC-600SE's Bluetooth was a simple operation, although the phone does not support aptX. After the phone discovered the DMC-600SE (which was almost instantaneous), I could immediately stream any of my TIDAL album favorites through the DMC-600SE. The Bluetooth pickup range was good; I only began experiencing dropouts when my phone was approximately 40 feet away.
My primary source for the DMC-600SE was a Mac Mini via its USB connection. I tried several music playback applications, including iTunes, Amarra, Pure Music, Audirvana+, Roon, and TIDAL. They all worked correctly with no glitches or failures. I also used the CD transport. This is not a universal disc transport; SACDs will not play if inserted into the tray, but CDs and CD-Rs played without issue.
I was disappointed to learn that the upsampling feature does not work with USB sources, which is where almost all of my MP3 files reside. I was looking forward to hearing how upsampling could improve MP3 sources; but, unless your MP3s are disc-based, you're almost out of luck. At least the upsampling feature works with Bluetooth streams from portable players, smartphones, and computers with Bluetooth capabilities.
Although Cary calls the DMC-600SE a "digital hub," there are some chores the DMC-600SE can't perform. While it can play CDs, it can't rip CDs to your computer's music library. Also it can't recognize and play files directly from a NAS drive. If you want to play music from your NAS device, you will need to hook up a computer to the DMC-600SE and use the computer's NAS-aware connections.
When a player has so many different adjustments that can affect its overall sound quality, it can be difficult to identify its intrinsic sound quality. With the DMC-600SE, on all sources, you can change the output device from solid-state to tubes and, on most sources, use any of the upsampling options. During my initial listening sessions, I used my music files' native rates and listened primarily to the solid-state output. I could definitely hear the difference between the DSD masters and my own downsampled (via Audiogate) 44.1/16 PCM versions of the same files. On my 128X DSD recordings of the fine husband-and-wife duo (augmented by two additional sidemen) Taarka, the DMC-600SE preserved all the depth cues and subtle spatial information that were not as easy to hear on the 44.1/16 version. And while I wanted to see how upsampling via the DMC-600SE would improve the fidelity of the 44.1/16 version, since the DMC-600SE does not support upsampling via its USB input, that wasn't possible.
To see if the DMC-600ES's upsampling would have some utility, I put together an A/B test comparing identical tracks from the TIDAL fed from my Mac Mini USB output and from my iPhone 5 via Bluetooth. I was surprised to find that the upsampled lossy stream from my iPhone was equal to and on a few selections even seemed to have better fidelity than the native, lossless signal from the Mac Mini's USB feed. The image was slightly more precise on the upsampled Bluetooth signal, and both had equally large soundstages and similar depth retention. Later I did another A/B test comparing the native CD feed versus a version upsampled to 705.6 kHz via the Bluetooth connection from my Mac Mini. This way I could upsample any of the 320-kbps MP3s in my music library. Using this wireless Bluetooth connection from the Mac Mini, I heard more consistent improvements from more tracks than when I used the iPhone 5 as my Bluetooth streaming source.
Using CD sources, which can also be upsampled, I spent quite a bit of time seeing if the DMC-600SE's upsampling features would yield any universal sonic improvements. After several different sessions spread over several days, I had to conclude that the upsampling was highly source-dependent. On many CD tracks, I couldn't discern any audible difference between the various sample rates. But with a small percentage of CDs, the soundstage was definitely larger, more well defined, and easier to listen into than the native rate.
Unlike the upsampling-rate feature, the sonic differences between the tube and solid-state outputs were easily discernable regardless of the source, sample, or bit rate. Part of this was due to the differences in output levels--the tube output is several dB less loud than the solid-state output. However, even when their relative levels are equal, the tube output sounded softer and sweeter, but with less dynamic punch and low-bass control and extension. The tube output also had a slightly richer lower midrange and upper bass, as well as a less analytical perspective overall. My own personal preference the majority of the time was for the solid-state output, but on aggressively mixed pop music, the tube output was a useful and welcome alternative.
While the DMC-600SE is a very flexible digital device with a lot of output options, it's pretty hard to screw up the sound. Whether I used its tube or solid-state output, upsampled or native rate, Bluetooth, CD, or USB sources, the DMC-600SE always sounded nothing short of superb. I was especially impressed by the bass definition, power, and low-frequency extension. I have a pair of JL Audio F112 Fathom subwoofers in my system, and they had ample opportunity to strut their stuff when the DMC-600SE was the source. In fact, during the review period, I had to add additional foam stand-offs behind several hung pictures in adjacent rooms to prevent them from sympathetically vibrating energetically from the bass transients.
Although the DMC-600SE promises to be a complete digital hub, it's missing a few features that some prospective owners might like. While DSD playback is supported via USB, SACD disc playback is not supported via the transport. If you have a large SACD disc collection, you will still need to keep a universal disc spinner like an Oppo BDP-105D around to play them. Also, the DMC-600SE lacks any provision for reading and playing music directly from a USB thumb drive or external USB source; Cary designed this piece to work directly with a local computer as opposed to being a network audio device. Another issue is that the DMC-600SE does not permit you to rip your CDs into a digital library; the CD tray can only play discs, not rip them.
As I mentioned in the sound section, I found the upsampling and tube output circuits were not universal sonic panaceas. In both cases the sonic improvements they made were dictated more by the source material--sometimes upsampling was an audible improvement, but other times not so much. I noticed the most audible improvements in sound quality from upsampling were when I streamed TIDAL via Bluetooth. Unfortunately the upsampling does not operate on the USB input. But if you are using a computer with Bluetooth built-in, such as a Mac Mini, you can play your MP3 files via iTunes and stream them to the DMC-600SE via Bluetooth to gain the benefits of upsampling lower-resolution music files.
Comparison and Competition
You have many excellent digital players, servers, DACs, and music streamers to choose from when you have a budget sufficient enough to consider the DMC-600SE. I have heard only a fraction of them, but I have some experience with two that I consider market leaders. I've been living with the PS Audio DirectStream DAC ($5,999) for several months, and it was quite clear after the first couple of listening sessions that the DMC-600SE was its sonic equal. Pricewise the PS Audio DAC is two thousand dollars less, but it lacks the DMC-600SE's disc-playing capabilities unless you add the PS Audio Memory player ($3,999), which causes the package price to balloon to almost $10,000, making it more money for similar functionality.
Another digital player that has similar sound quality but quite a different feature set (and price) is the Sony HAP-Z1ES music player ($1,995). Sonically the Sony's upsampling technology is on a par with the Cary--it does wonders for lower-res material. The Sony can't play discs or connect directly with your computer, but it is a network-aware device that can easily connect with your NAS drive without requiring an additional computer interface. The Sony also has a connection to accept an additional external USB drive to augment its internal 1TB drive.
Obviously there are far more competing products than the two I've mentioned. Each manufacturer has it solution (and there are many) to the problems of digital music transmission. I advise any prospective owner to carefully investigate the capabilities of any streamer or player to see if it has the right input options, output options, and playback capabilities for your desired uses.
All audiophiles crave a complete digital hub that can play any format from every available digital input type and storage device. The Cary DMC-600SE comes close to achieving that ideal. MP3s and Bluetooth streams sound excellent even before the DMC-600SE's upsampling can work its magic. And having the option, at the push of a button, to go from a solid-state output to tubes is an especially nice feature. While not exactly bargain-priced at $7,995, the Cary DMC-600SE still delivers a whole lot of value and flexibility to go along with its impeccable sonic performance.
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