Hands On: Cary Audio PH302 MKII Phono Preamp
The Cary Audio PH302 MKII is a reasonably priced, well-built phono preamp that is versatile and sounds great. Like other analog products, enthusiasts can venture down the upgrade path with their choice of tubes and power cables to tweak the preamp.
Cary Audio has always been on a short list of top analog audio companies in the consumer electronics market. Despite having a line of popular home theater products, the company has long stayed true to those analog roots even when it wasn’t “cool” to play in that market.
Today it is reaping the rewards of remaining steadfast in its belief in analog sound, and with products like its PH302 MKII phono preamp the company should continue to be a force within the analog market for the foreseeable future.
The made-in-the-U.S. PH302 MKII is about the size of a two-channel amplifier and its sturdy construction and weight hints that it didn’t cut corners in designing the product. The phono preamp employs a direct-coupled, Class A zero-feedback circuit design, as well as a shielded R-Core power transformer, separate step-up transformers for the unit’s moving coil (MC) options and a fully regulated power supply. In true Cary tradition the PH302 MKII uses a quartet of 6SL7 tubes for gain and buffering, as well as a 5AR4 rectifier tube.
The unit’s front panel features controls for on/off, MC/moving magnet (MM) and mute on the left side. The right side of the front panel features indicator lights for power, operation and mute. The rear panel offers RCA inputs for MM and MC cartridges, and a set of RCA outputs. Most importantly for installers is the rear panel’s input impedance selector. This easy-to-use dial allows for the selection of these impedances choices: 47 ohm (default MM), to MC options for 10 ohm, 43 ohm, 100 ohm, 330 ohm, 470 ohm and 47 ohm.
I set the Cary up with three turntables: A Thorens TD-160 fitted with an Audio Technica AT440ML MM cartridge; a Pro-Ject Xpression Classic fitted a Sumiko Pearl MM cartridge; and a VPI Traveler with a Ortofon Salsa MC cartridge.
The phono preamp largely performed at an extremely high level. It did have some grounding issues with the Thorens, and after researching the problem I came to the conclusion that the problem may have been with the Thorens; grounding issues with the Thorens has been a source of frustration for decades with owners of those classic turntables.
With the new tables like the VPI, which was connected to a Jolida amplifier and Revel speakers (this was a friend’s system), I found the midrange to be slightly forward, with the bottom end and mid-bass well defined and authoritative.
Listening to the same albums, which included Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Triumph’s “Allied Forces” and Rush’s “Permanent Waves” at home with the Pro-Ject table and Bryston electronics, I thought the Cary delivered a lively listening experience with a black noise floor.
To combat the issues with the Thorens, I replaced the stock TP-16 tonearm with a Rega RB-303 and that made all the difference. What surprised me with the combination of the upgraded Thorens and Cary was the amount of detail and resolution it delivered.
Listening to Journey’s “Escape” album made me realize how much multi-tracking Neal Schon did and how much image separation the Cary/ Thorens combination created to hear all of the guitar parts Schon laid down. From a musical perspective, hearing all of those multi-tracked parts allowed me to hear the counterpoint harmony lines Schon wrote to make those songs so catchy.
The PH302 MKII is everything I’ve come to expect from Cary Audio. It is a reasonably priced, well-built phono preamp that is versatile and sounds great. Like other analog products, enthusiasts can venture down the upgrade path with their choice of tubes and power cables to tweak the preamp. Best of all, it’s a product that, because of its versatility, can be viewed as an investment with its overall quality and cartridge loading options.
Bob is an audio enthusiast who has written about consumer electronics for various publications within Massachusetts before joining the staff of CE Pro in 2000. Bob is THX Level I certified, and he's also taken classes from the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) and Home Acoustics Alliance (HAA). In addition, he's studied guitar and music theory at Sarrin Music Studios in Wakefield, Mass., and he also studies Kyokushin karate at 5 Dragons in Haverhill, Mass. Have a suggestion or a topic you want to read more about? Email Robert at [email protected]
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