Carver Cherry 180M Mono Block Amplifier
Everything is Better with Cherries on Top
The Carver Cherry 180M mono blocks are one sweet set of amps, but quite frankly were not the reason I contacted Carver to arrange an amplifier review. But, after getting these babies into my listening room, I was thrilled that then Carver Vice President of Operations, Tony Ferrero, was kind enough to respond to my humble request for a review of Carver’s Black Beauty Amps. The Black Beauties had recently received great reviews so Ferrero asked if perhaps I would be interested in reviewing the Black Beauty’s sibling, the more modestly priced Cherry 180M mono blocks. While I was hoping to test the Black Beauties on my rather demanding Revel Salon 2 speakers, I had several other speaker options available to test the Cherries, so I gladly accepted the invitation.
I was familiar with the relaxed sound of other Carver products, as I owned a Carver–designed Sunfire stereo amp many years ago. I pulled the trigger for the Sunfire amp since it was one of the few solid state amps that I auditioned that was extraordinarily musical, with the smoothness and warmth of a tube amp, without the cool edginess of solid state designs of the time. So, when I read about Carver’s new tube amps and their extreme musicality, I was anxious to give one a try. I wasn’t disappointed. The warmth and smoothness that I remembered with the Sunfire amp was back with the Cherries arrival, but with much greater weight and texture in the midrange.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how great the Cherries would sound with all the speakers I had on-hand. From the very demanding Revel Salon 2 to the high efficiency Vaughn Triode III that was in for review, and several speakers in between. More on that subject later, but suffice it to say everything sounded so relaxed and musical with the Cherries regardless of which speaker or music I played. What I wasn’t prepared for was how good these amps would ultimately sound.
Flexibility is a Good Thing
Part of reason the Cherries were able to sound so good with a wide range of speakers is the built-in adjustments that Bob Carver provided with the amps. Options are always a nice thing in the stereo domain. After all, a system’s satisfaction is largely a function of how the various parts interact with each other. In other words, synergy is everything. Optimal synergy was more easily attained with the Cherries, because of the flexibility built-in, which allows youto change the sound to suit your listening preference. There are basically two ways to tweak the sound character of the amps on the fly. First, simply flick a switch to change from the Classic mode to the Modern mode or secondly by adjusting the bias setting. The Classic mode provides that old school sound of vintage tube equipment, albeit with more robust dynamics. While the Modern mode leans toward the current crop of tube amps, with a tighter less laid back character. The bias is controlled for all output tubes by a single small knob on the back of the amps. So adjusting bias and the related sound character of the amp takes a few seconds. A tad more bias tightens things up a bit and backing it off brings out a more euphonic laid back character, similar to the Classic mode. So you get the picture here… essentially there are two simple ways to tweak the sound to your preference.
I found that my favorite settings on “the switch” and on bias changed a bit with the music I played and the speakers I used. But, once I set both, I generally did not mess with themtoo often. I generally tended to go for a more laid back presentation using the Classic mode and bias toward the lower side of the equation (a smidgen below 100). But, if a CD needed to be tightened up a bit, a mere flick to Modern or a bit more bias generally achieved the desired result. If you prefer a more laid back presentation for older edgy sounding CDs a switch to Classic and you are in business, or simply back off the bias, or a bit of both. Easy as pie.
While the Cherries arrived with only100 hours of play time they sounded pretty darn good right off the bat. As they settled in a few days later they were markedly better and continued to improve more and more as the break-in continued. At about 250 hours the readily apparent improvements seemed to subside, with the amps seemed to reach their peak performance at approximately 300 hours of play time. It was at this point that I was no longer was able to notice discernible improvements. Up to that point the amps became more and more focused as they logged time.
So What Do The Cherries Sound Like??
I first tried the Cherries with my reference Sun Union Dragon Prince speakers and was surprised how good they sounded so soon after being unpacked, without much time to settle in from the shipping. The Princes are very revealing and immediately highlight any system changes. What they immediately revealed was a nice musical and warm presentation. After a few days of play time, I moved the Cherries down to my second listening room in the basement to allow for some additional continuous play time for break-in without disturbing the entire clan. I was caught off guard by how good they sounded with the high efficiency Vaughn Triode III speakers I happened to have on-hand for review.Even though the Cherries are rated at200 watts @ 8 Ohms, 230 watts @ 4 Ohms and 215 watts @ 2 Ohms, I figured uhhh, why not give them a listen with the 97dB Triodes. But, yo yo yo, hold the presses because these powerful amps even sounded amazing with the highly efficient Triodes. They added a whole new level of detail, nuance and weighty depth. There was warmth not previously present to the same extent with the low power SET amp I was using just before I dropped the Cherries into the system. Yeh, the Cherries didn’t have quite the intimacy of the SET amp, but with only a bit more than 100 hours on them they impressed the heck out of me. I noted added lovely warmth, with plenty of detail, but with way more kick than the SET. Essentially, a ton of weight and texture was added in the midrange.
Weeks later when the Cherry 180Ms were fully broken-in they really made the Triode IIIs sing. While the Triodes can be driven with as little as 5 watts, they were wonderfully engaging with the Cherries.The Triodes are a very musical speaker in their own right, but they seemed to reach a new level of swing and body, when the Cherries entered the picture. That musicality just got better and better as the break-in days went by.The musical picture continued to get more defined with better articulation. The attack and decay of notes became more apparent, and I just scratched my head wondering why these 200 wpc tube mono blocks sounded so darn good with these high efficiency speakers. But, the fun was only just beginning.
Tube Rolling to Your Taste
While the Cherries come standard with mostly Chinese tubes and only one vintage tube (a 6AL5), I was able to get even more refined sound by replacing the input-stage and pre-driver stage tubes with some vintage tubes. I first replaced the input-stage Chinese 12AX7 tubes with Vintage RCA 7025s and things tightened up quite a bit with added focus and detail. I then tried vintage Telefunken smooth plate 12AX7s, which added more sparkle on top but retained the overall more focused and refined sound of the RCAs, but with more warmth. Next I added some vintage Mullard 12AT7s to the mix for the pre-driver stage and was happy to be embraced into a blanket of added overall warmth. I then dropped in a pair of 1962 NOS Ratheon 12AT7s, which after break-in didn’t quite have the warmth of the Mullards but added a more refined and detailed presentation, and seemed just right with the Telefunkens in place. So, my preference for tubes was definitely the Ratheon12AT7 Telefunken 12AX7 combo, nice warmth and sufficient detail with a tad of smooth sparkle on top.
All Set and Ready to Listen
I was ready for some serious listening now that the tubes were maximized and the amps had sufficient break-in time. I popped Alison Krauss & Union Station’s latest CD, Paper Airplane, into my CD player and was swept away into musical nirvana. As Track 6, “Dimming of the Day,” began, I could hear the attack and reverberation of the guitar strings. They sounded like they were in the room. Alison’s beautiful voice gently enters smoothly but with subtle tone inflections, as the guitar reenters the picture. It brought me back to the Myerhoff Symphony Hall where I had recently seen Alison perform from the third row. Although that happened many months back, I kept thinking how close to the live performance track after track of this CD sounded. Right here in my listening venue. Nice. The added top end sparkle of the Telefunken tubes definitely added to the musical performance and enjoyment. I had listened to the same CD the day before without the tube upgrade and it was just not as engaging and realistic sounding. The attack and decay of instrumentswere so much more pronounced and I was hearing a lot more stuff than I remembered hearing the day before. It was so good that I just sat back and enjoyed the music. Track 13, “APlace Outside,” was so beautiful that it brought an ear to ear grin to my face. I put down my laptop and took in the rest of the music until the end of the CD.
But the true test was yet to come, when the Cherries had about 300 hours on them and improvements from break-in appeared to have subsided. That was when I decided to introduce them to the very demanding big boys, the Revel Salon 2 speakers with 6 drivers, an 86.5 dB rating and a 6 ohm load. The Cherries would certainly be put to the test.
My first impressions with the Revels was WOW….these babies have no problem driving the big boys. The most impressive thing was how musical the Revels sounded with the Cherries. No they didn’t have the kick of my solid state Parasound JC-1s in the bass, but most amps don’t. The bass was very good, however, for a tube amp, especially when it was tightened up a bit with the flick of the switch to Modern mode. Most importantly, the overall musical flow just pulled you into the listening experience. While I thought the Revels benefited from the sheer power of a hefty solid state amp like the JC-1s, they were so musical with the Cherries that it made me think about perhaps bi-amping to get the best of the both worlds.
Here Come the Quads
Having tried the Cherries with three very different speakers, it was time to try the last and most revealing speaker I had on hand, rebuilt Quad ESL 63s, that had recently been upgraded by Kent McCollum of Electrostatic Solutions (email@example.com), with new clamping boards that allow higher powered amps, like the Cherries, to be used with the Quads. So, I had a nice test for both the Quads and the Cherries. I was really surprised how clean and detailed the Cherries sounded with the Quads, while retaining an overall warmth. It was the perfect balance of dynamics and euphonic ease. The overall presentation was extremely musical without missing any beat of dynamics and nuance. As usual, I was hearing a lot more with the Quads than with other speakers. Not surprising since the Quads tend to reveal details other speakers just don’t quite pick up to the same degree. But, with the Cherries in the picture there was just an overall smoothness to the presentation. Quad owners take note. Not only did the Quads sound great on the Classic mode, but when switched to Modern modethey retained the overall warmth, but with kicked up bass and a tad more tightness. While other speakers seemed to lose sparkle on top when switched to the Modern setting, the Quads not only retained most of their detailand sparkle on top, but gained the weight and tightness on the bottom end.
I love good acoustic music, so I was loving life listening to Track 11 (“Baby”) of Dave Mathews SOME DEVIL album. I was in listening heaven taking in the articulate attack, sustain and decay of the notes. I was startled by just how good and natural the guitar sounded. Dave’s voice was smooth and natural sounding with just the right amount of weight and texture. It doesn’t get much better than this. I just wanted to listen for hours and hours. Song after song from the same album I was impressed with the engaging and musical nature of the presentation. Smooth, smooth, smooth, but without missing a dynamic beat. I wanted to pull out my collection and see what everything sounded like on this combo. I kept switching back and forth between Classic and Modern, enjoying the distinct benefits of each. More open and detailed and sparkly with Classic and tighter and a bit more refined with Modern setting,with more discernible bass articulation. However, after listening to many songs and switching the modes many times, I ultimately liked the Classic mode the best because it was more open sounding and detailed on top without sounding edgy. I could hear more into the music and the overall experience was more musical.
Settling in on the Classic mode, I threw in Jackson Brown’s wonderful collaboration with David Lindley, Love Is Strange, which I happened to catch a glimpse of live at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. So, I was most familiar with all the music and what it sounded like in a live venue. Crazy as this may sound, it actually sounded better in my Quad/ Cherry system than I remembered it sounding at Red Rocks, but admittedly the Rocky Mountain venue was something to behold, so in that respect, there was no comparison. But, from a shear sonic standpoint, I preferred the clarity and warmth right here at home. Although, admittedly, that could have been due in part to the rain event mid-way through the concert,which definitely put a damper on the evening. Thankfully, some locals took pity on me and my son and gave us some bags to put over our heads, since the folks behind us were not very tolerant of our umbrellas.
Back home with Jackson the music unfolded with such engaging details and smooth laid back character I was simply immersed into the musical experience like I was there. “Call It A Loan” cued up next, with a beautiful guitar intro followed by Jackson’s voice with subtle nuances easily discernible. Throw in thearticulation of the guitar, so realistic that I just sat in my chair with my mouth hanging open. Then Jackson’s voice came in with the background harmonies and it took me back to Red Rocks but without the rain. I think I like this better…. Clearer harmonies, more distinguishable nuances… and best of all NO RAIN…. Wow is all I could say when the song ended.
I sometimes fast forward to the next song and listen to a bit of each, but not now baby, I wanted to hear each and every note of “Looking East.” Tons of detail, but smooth, smooth, smooth. Owners of Quad ESL 63s, I strongly urge you to at least try this combo. The laid back character of the Cherries with the intricate details of the Quads was just an AWESOME experience. Back to Jackson introducing Carlos Nunez on the “Crow In The Cradle,” and I was again pulled in and mesmerized by each and every note, hearing them in ways that I had not previously heard, smooth and warm and yet intricately detailed.
The next day I rolled down to my listening room after an hour of warm-up and caught the tail end of Tracy Chapman’s Let It Rain CD. The last song on the CD,“I Am Yours,” was playing and I was immediately taken by the smooth, warm tone, with rich textures of Tracy’s beautiful voice, so palpable and engaging that I was just drawn right into the music, again sitting mesmerized by each phrase. Track 3, “You’re the One,” opens with Tracy singing and hands clapping in the background. But, the clapping was more in the room than in the background. I kept on saying this combo is so, so smooth and relaxed... Track 9, “Happy,” drew me in yet again to the point that I had to stop taking notes and just listened to Tracy’s voice that was right there dead center in the room. So hauntingly beautiful. So easy to listen to. And it just continued as I listened to this entire CD.
I was truly struggling with the decision to return the Cherries, but with two kids in college, sometimes we have to make hard choices. Reality kinda set in, with three other sets of mono blocks starring me in the face. But, let me tell you, if money was not an issue I would not have hesitated to keep these babies.Ultimately, I just could not let go of the Cherries, so I decided to pull the trigger, keep the amps and tighten my belt elsewhere (pack lunch for a year if I needed to). Priorities are priorities.
There are other systems that may be more dynamic and other amps that could sound more articulate with the Quads, but I was unable to remember hearing anything sounding this darn musical. Especially without months of tweaking to get the sound just right. But, here it was with no tweaks, no cable changes, etc. Yet, the music I was hearing was just so enjoyable to listen to. If you are from the euphonic camp, like me, the Cherry Quad combo could be the ticket to audio nirvana. It was for me.
In the end I found the review of the Cherries to be more like a musical listening experience than an equipment review. So drawn in was I to these sweet sounding amps, that I just wanted to listen and listen. With a smooth and engaging character and beautiful midrange to die for, all the vocals were just a pleasure to behold. I kept on pulling out my collection of male and female vocalists to see what each would sound like on the Cherries.And they all sounded amazing. If your preference is for warm, rich vocals with a sparkly top end, just drop in some vintage Telefunkens into the 12AX7 sockets and you are there, even with the stock tubes in the other positions.
The Cherries also simply sounded great with a wide range of speakers from the most demanding to the most efficient. But, in the end my preference was definitely mating the Cherries with my vintage Quad ESL 63s. A match made in heaven.
If you tend toward the more dynamic end of the spectrum, you have the flexibility of switching to Modern mode and upping the bias a bit to get a more dynamic/articulate presentation. If your mood changes, the Cherries are like chameleons that can adapt to your preference of the day. Not a bad option to have at your fingertips. If you have the opportunity, give the Cherries a listen. It will be an experience that you likely won’t soon forget.
Price: $7990.00 pr
Number of Line Inputs:1
Input impedance: 100 k ohms
Input Stage: 12AX7 current sourced low noise valve
Pre-driver Stage:12AT7 long tailed high gain balanced pair
Automatic DC Restoration:6AL5
Nominal Voltage Gain: 30 dB (into 8 ohms)
Output Stage Configuration: 3 complementary sets of KT88s in a push-pull configuration (6 total)
Regulated Screen Supply Voltage: 360V
Output tube late voltage: 725V
Output Tube Idle Power: Less than 9W each
Bias Adjustment: Rear panel pot, front panel meter, "Set and Forget"
Rated Power: 200 watts into 8 ohms, 230 watts into four ohms, 215 watts into two ohms
Noise: Better than 110 dB A Weighted referenced into 180 watts
Frequency Response:2 Hz to 85 kHz. (-3dB)
Full Power Bandwidth: 24 Hz to 28 kHz. Without filters
Feedback Control Switch: 20dB for Classic Amplifier Sound, 11 dB for Contemporary Amplifier Sound
Distortion:Less than 0.5%
Output Transformer:Interleaved windings, super wideband low leakage inductance design
Output Impedance:1.6 ohms
Speaker outputs: 2, 4, and 8 Ohm terminals
Built in Output Tube Tester: Yes
Construction Method:Point-to-Point hand wired axial and radial leaded components with star grounds and no circuit board traces or de-plugable connectors.
Components: High reliability wire wound and metal film resistors, Metal polyester capacitors in the audio signal paths
Weight: 43 lbs per chassis
Dimensions: 14" deep x 12" wide x 7.2" tall
Color: Cherry Red with Champagne colored trim is standard or optional Black with brushed silver trim.
Country of Origin:United States of America
Warranty:Chassis - 7 Years, Tubes - 1 Year