Cary Audio Cinema 11a Surround Processor and Model 7.125 Amplifier
Core Audiophile Values
During the last decade or so, specialty audio manufacturers have seen the marriage of home theater and high-performance audio become contentious at best and life threatening at worst. These days, companies have fewer financial resources and longer R&D lead times. Relatively small audiophile-oriented companies that sought the A/V path have been overwhelmed. Sometimes, fast-moving, shelf-life-shortening developments—such as the adaptation of new audio and video formats—have burned these companies outright.
Forays into A/V have caused serious financial damage to some of the bigger companies. When they financially committed to develop extraordinarily expensive DVD players and surround processors, it led to short-term explosive growth and long-term dizzying downturns. The sound-quality-conscious buyers who flocked to these products had their investments wiped out by fast-moving obsolescence. They also realized that no matter what designers did to enhance sound quality, compressed audio formats yielded limited results.
Cary Audio Sees the Window Open
Dennis Had founded Cary Audio as a manufacturer of exotic 2-channel tube gear. In the past decade, the company has moved cautiously into A/V. It has introduced a limited, well-regarded line of high-performance surround processors and multichannel amplifiers, while it continues its core two-channel business.
The relatively recent introduction of HDMI switching and lossless audio formats (Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio) has rendered another generation of relatively costly surround processors obsolete. This includes those manufactured by high-performance audio companies like Cary Audio. However, this also presents an opportunity to finally design and produce superior-sounding, audiophile-grade A/V gear that isn’t limited by the legacy compressed audio formats.
When I removed the Cinema 11a surround processor from its box, I expected a minimalist feature set. Still, I was shocked when I only saw a pair of HDMI 1.3 inputs and a single output on the back panel. My reference Integra DHC-9.9 costs half as much and offers four HDMI inputs and two outputs, along with multiple component and composite video inputs. It also upconverts legacy sources using the ultra-high-quality HQV Reon-VX processor.
What was Cary Audio thinking? When I called the company, it said that buyers who need more switching flexibility can add the Cinema 11v multi-input, multiformat video switcher ($4,000). The Cinema 11v is almost (but not quite) ready for prime time. It features Faroudja DCDi video processing and upconversion. It also includes six HDMI inputs and two outputs, along with component, composite, and S-video connectivity. Neither the Cinema 11a nor Cinema 11v is currently compatible with 3D, which is the case for all surround processors on the market at press time. Cary is watching the technology develop and is looking into the possibility of adding 3D compatibility via firmware update later.
You might find that two HDMI inputs and a single output aren’t sufficient for you (they certainly weren’t for me). In that case, you should probably consider the Cinema 11a to be an $8,000 two-box surround processor. However, the second box’s quality is an open question until it’s released and tested. After you add the Model 7.125 amp ($4,000), you’re up to $12,000 for the three-box combo.
More from Less
The Cinema 11a is a compact, relatively heavy unit. It features a sturdy chassis that makes the less expensive competition seem like it’s housed in aluminum foil. The Cinema 11a’s industrial design is either no-frills basic or refreshingly clean, depending upon your aesthetic perspective. But don’t think of the attention Cary paid to the chassis as window dressing. A high-resolution system like this demonstrates the improvements that come from preventing sonic effects of micro-vibrations from reaching the internal circuitry.
The Cinema 11a is available in either an anodized black or coated aluminum finish. The front panel features a large volume knob and an expansive but minimalist fluorescent alphanumeric display. It includes buttons for power on/off, AM/FM or HD radio bands, station presets, audio inputs, ProLogic II/IIx, Dolby, or DTS surround modes, and Neo:6 and 7.1 modes (discrete, all stereo, all mono). There’s also a five-button navigation cluster, a headphone jack (featuring Dolby Headphone processing), and an infrared receiving window. And that’s it!