Cary Audio Design Cinema 12 Surround Processor & Model 7.125 Multichannel Amplifier
Over a decade ago, while writing for a now-defunct audio magazine, my editor shipped me a pair of monoblock Cary tube amps he’d never gotten around to reviewing. Something must have shook loose during transit, because instead of music, all I got when I powered them up was a wisp of smoke as one monoblock sadly committed hara-kiri! The Cary Cinema 12 and Model 7.125 are an eternity of light years away from those fragile forays into bottle socketry. They exude an air of quality and reliability that physically and musically justify their significant price.
Call me weird, but I get excited when I see XLR connectors on my audio gear. Time spent in my fledgling home studio has taught me why pros prefer them. The Cinema 12 offers both single-ended RCA and true, differentially balanced XLR outputs, an arrangement and circuit design mirrored on the Model 7.125 amplifier. The Cinema 12 even offers a pair of stereo analog XLR inputs and a single balanced digital input beyond the roster of seven single-ended analog input pairs. Audio purists will appreciate the fact that you can bypass all digital conversions for your analog sources, including the 7.1 analog input you might use with an SACD player.
Cary sells a separate, extensive video processor, the Cinema 11v, so the company’s not uncomfortable whipping, chopping, and pureeing your video signal. But the Cinema 12 is sold as an audiocentric component that eschews video processing. This doesn’t mean you won’t find video inputs. There are four 3D-capable HDMI 1.4a inputs that provide switching to feed your display with all the Blu-ray and sat TV you’ve got—up to four sources, that is—albeit without the slightest bit of processing and with no adulteration of the signal. (You can check our Video Test Bench to see how well it fared.) Don’t go looking for component, composite, or S-Video inputs and outputs around back, or any ability to upscale lower resolution sources.
The absence of video processing means no onscreen displays, either. Even your initial setup must be done using the Cinema 12’s front panel display. I’m a straight-wire-with-gain kind of guy, so I didn’t lament the Cary’s lack of video controls already available on my Pioneer Kuro plasma. But the inability to superimpose volume level or surround mode changes on the screen is an inconvenience that required nestling a pair of Nikon binoculars between remotes on the end table so I could read the front panel from afar when needed.
The supplied microphone used for speaker setup and room equalization is encased in a heavy, rectangular, perforated metal cage. The manual describes how the mike should be positioned for the automated setup process, but after several failed attempts, I did what the manual highly recommends—set speaker levels and distances manually with a sound pressure meter. The automated setup software was buggy and misbehaved in my room, audibly pushing test tones through the subwoofer and then informing me I had none. It also had problems getting phase correct and calculated speaker distances that were wildly off. Perhaps this is one area where Cary might benefit from an off-the-shelf solution like Audyssey.
The manual setup can be as perfect as you want it to be, and it is very easy to do. As is often the case, you may have to fine-tune the subwoofer level by ear after ideally setting the channel levels with an inexpensive RadioShack sound pressure meter, which in my case resulted in bass that was at least 6 decibels too hot. Speaker distances can only be specified to the nearest foot, not nearest inch or half-foot, which seems a little coarse, but shouldn’t be readily audible. Crossover frequencies can be selected not only per speaker pairing (front, surround, etc.), but per speaker (front left versus front right), a fairly useless feature and one I probably wouldn’t even have noticed if the automated setup worked. There are 10 EQ bands from 80 hertz to 16 kilohertz for all channels except the subwoofer (which has its own 10 bands from 20 Hz to 125 Hz). If a dealer is going to perform a professional setup, there is certainly enough control to fine-tune many rooms.
A small remote is provided for essential operations for the processor’s second zone. The second, larger, universal remote controls your main rig and features a small color display screen near the top with five buttons that run down its left and right sides. The text displayed next to the buttons changes to show you relevant options as you progress. It’s slick enough in theory, but not in practice. When I listened to a two-channel digital signal (via HDMI) and pressed the PL IIx surround choice button, processing flipped between Dolby PL II Movie and native PCM. To switch to the PL IIx Music mode, you have to press a separate button called Surround. It would have been much simpler if you could just keep pressing the Dolby PL IIx button to access all four PL II and PL IIx surround modes. Ditto Neo:6—one button to pick Neo:6 and the Surround button to switch between its Music and Cinema modes.
The Cinema 12’s predecessor, the Cinema 11, has only two HDMI inputs, and as I’ve noted, the 12 doubles that number. That should be enough for most users, but a second HDMI output might have been nice, especially considering the possibility that anyone who can afford the Cinema 12 can probably afford both a flat panel and a projector. On the other hand, there are plenty of optical and coaxial digital audio inputs (seven of each) available. Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio surround processing via HDMI will get the most out of your latest Blu-ray releases, while audiophiles will be delighted with the DTS 96/24 available on many concert DVDs. Cary lets you set up two special Listening Profiles to quickly switch between different speaker setups. I used one profile for my 5.1 theater and another for two-channel audio (without a subwoofer).