Could it be that one reason Canary Audio makes a big deal out of its 100% American manufacturing is that it has a name that sounds slightly oriental? Or am I over analysing things a little. Canary is most definitely a North American company, after all it builds a range of tube components from the ground up in California. The construction is more hardcore than that would suggest however, the CD-300 looks and feels as if it comes from further north, Oregon perhaps. And it is probably one of the lower mass components in the range but it’s a proper lump, and it’s only a CD player. The build reminds me of Bryston, and the best way to describe it is solid. Heavy gauge steel casework with a machined aluminium facia and control buttons that give a reassuring click when depressed. This is a man’s CD player make no mistake.
Fortunately the sound suggests that it’s rather more than a brute force piece of equipment, that weight isn’t just there to impress but rather suggests that the transformers inside are decent pieces of ironwork. It is also a large player, it wouldn’t fit in my usual rack and had to go on top, it’s a full 19 inches wide and 16.5 inches deep, clearly not a toy. The back panel is clearly layed out with an array of digital and analogue outputs on high quality connectors. There’s not an input in sight which is rare in these days of multifunction devices, nearly every CD player that comes along has at least a digital input and many now have USB. The purist approach of the Canary’s back panel tells you that this is a no-compromise machine that’s designed for one purpose only.
Under the substantial lid there is an upsampling 24/192 digital to analogue converter, a tray loading disc drive which Canary has mounted on a nylon block for resonance control, a tube output stage that based around a pair of 6922/ECC88 triodes. These are the heart of a traditional line amplifier with metal film resistors and UpTone MusiCap capacitors, UpTone, formally Hovland, is one of the most highly regarded names in tube electronics. The PCB is a thick military grade type and all wired connections are by PTFE insulated silver plated copper. There is also a substantial potted mains transformer, a rare sight in any piece of audio electronics. It’s a proper job in other words, not radical nor leading edge but tried and tested and done to the highest standards.
The handset is rather nice too, all aluminium with silver buttons on a black anodised body, quite a lot of buttons too, some of which are not related to the CD-300. The back panel has analogue outputs in XLR and RCA forms alongside three flavours of digital output; AES/EBU, RCA coax and Toslink optical. Quite why you’d want digital output on a product that has had as much effort put into its analogue output stage is another question.
The CD-300 details what it’s up to with a dot matrix display in blue that is usefully clear, it has four levels of brightness as well as off for dim the lights full immersion listening.
That’s something which this player encourages with its tonally deep yet rhythmically tight presentation, the faster the music the more impressive the player becomes. It doesn’t speed things up but reveals all the leading edges of notes so that you can hear each time a stick hits a drum skin or a string is plucked. With Zappa’s The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution (from Sleep Dirt) there is a lot of this going on, bass player Patrick O’Hearn and drummer Terry Bozzio are to coin a phrase, on fire. Spurred on by Zappa’s strangely zither like guitar sound they play like demons and the Canary tracks every note, it can stop and start faster than the musicians themselves. This is a quality that I’ve encountered with tube components in the past but which rarely get the profile it deserves, glass audio is at least as fast as solid state but tube heads appear to be more interested in the dynamics, clarity and tone.
With slower paced material these qualities are brought to the fore, with Rainer’s Live at the Performance Centre you can hear all of the harmonics on his acoustic guitar alongside the glorious timbre of the instruments itself. You get the full effect of the live event, the atmosphere and the beauty of this much missed musician. The opening piece Improv in E is not obviously a blues piece but it couldn’t be anything else, it was in his soul and this player makes that much very obvious. It works extremely well with voices of all registers, John Lurie has a rich, gravely, single malt voice and the CD-300 places him right in the room when he ‘sings’ on the fabulous yet inexplicably out of print Legendary Marvin Pontiac album. Many solid state players get bogged down in the richness of the voice and thicken it slightly. This one gives you its depth and tonal luxury without falling into the same trap, at the same time you can appreciate the subtleties in the backing vocals and just how good the band is. People talk about pace, rhythm and timing in relation to certain transistor based electronics but this reveals that tubes are more than a match.
It also has genuine poise which is surprising given its bulk but appearances can be deceptive, that output stage is capable of considerably subtlety as it revealed with La Folia. This recording has a lot of early instruments on it and it’s obvious here because you can revel in the characterful harmonics of each, the harpsichord caught my attention first and then the flugelhorn because of the depth of reverb it produced. I made a comparison with the nearest player I had in price terms to the Canary, this is Leema’s Antila IIS Eco (£3,295) which is not in quite the same ball park but is a strong player that fights above its weight. After the Canary it sounded constrained and damped with a clear loss of harmonics, it’s focused and has greater bass weight but lacks the ability to reveal the exuberance of a good acoustic recording like La Folia. Going back to the CD-300 made me appreciate just how juicy it sounds, which one expects with tubes rather more than the discovery that the timing is tauter and that images are projected into the room in such convincing fashion. It really brings the music to life. How ‘accurate’ that is is open to discussion but there’s no denying that even lo-fi recordings are hugely enjoyable.
On Steely Dan’s Bodhisattva for instance you can appreciate the way that all the various instruments have been treated to create the overall sound. It’s also easy to see the way that different players are placed in the soundstage, the guitar is rather more upfront than the voice for instance. It makes what can be a rather forward sounding track rather more rewarding in a tonal sense, not by smoothing it out but by getting the timing right, it sounds abrasive with some players because they make a hash of the interplay between musicians. Adding the Kondo Persimmon power cable, that distributor Definitive Audio put in the box, makes it sound more fulsome and fluid compared to a standard IEC lead. It doesn’t need a cable of this calibre but certainly benefits from its presence.
I don’t listen to CD players in a critical sense as much as I used to but this solidly built machine made me realise that there’s a lot to enjoy in the format and that although file streaming has advantages it’s not a universal panacea. I am rather intrigued by Definitive’s turbo charged version of this player too, apparently they have some Kondo inspired aftermarket upgrades that bring the Canary up more than a notch or two. As it is this is more solidly built and consistently entertaining than most CD players, don’t let its bulk fool you it’s quicksilver fast and as juicy as a ripe mango, or even a persimmon.