Introduction - What is the T+A Caruso R?
The T+A Caruso R is a ‘just add speakers’ all in one system. We (deliberately) test a great many of these as, collectively, they have changed the nature of two channel audio over the last five years. Where once, they were a more elegant but intrinsically compromised alternative to a separates system, they have become devices that combine a set of features that isn’t just hard to match from separate units at the price but actively impossible. In response, affordable separates themselves have changed their functionality and design to give themselves a little clear air. It has been an interesting few years and, in evolutionary terms, we have a way to go yet.
The Caruso R is interesting for two reasons. First of all, it leaves the extremely competitive c£2k segment to others to fight over and instead moves up a rung to contest the £3,000 price point, something that Naim and NAD have done a fine job of largely carving up themselves. Secondly, the Caruso R has an unusual origin point, one that we have already tested. Effectively, it is the interface and functionality of the Caruso all in one system; in this case a true standalone device with its own speakers on board. That remains one of the largest and most audacious devices we’ve tested so far. Does removing the speakers turn it into something that goes toe to toe with devices that exist only to drive external speakers? Time to wire it up and see what it does.
Specification and Design
Just so we are absolutely clear, me saying ‘The Caruso R is a Caruso with the speakers removed’ isn’t me being glib or oversimplifying the case. Much of what the Caruso does is carried over verbatim so, for the purposes of brevity and simplicity, I will avoid going over all of it again and focus instead on what that means for a device competing in this particular category.
The major difference is that all the speakers attached to the Caruso have gone. The Caruso R will do nothing without a pair of speakers or headphones attached to it. To power the speakers, the multiple amps of the single chassis unit have been dumped and in its place is a more conventional stereo pair of amps that offer 50 watts into eight ohms and 100 into four. These connect to speakers via a single pair of sturdy speaker terminals. On paper, this is less power than many rivals, especially those with Class D amps. In reality, the Caruso R doesn’t seem to struggle in the test space with a variety of different speakers.
At its core, the Caruso R is a network audio based system, using the same basic module as the all in one. This means you get 24/192 PCM support but no AIFF or DSD capability. This is something that exists between ‘on paper annoying’ and ‘genuinely irritating’ depending on what your previous hardware could do. I personally rather like AIFF as a format; it is entirely uncompressed and has none of the metadata issues of WAV but it’s not a mainstream option for most people so, unless you’ve been habitually using it up to this point, it won’t be an issue. DSD is something that tends to get people a bit het up so I’ll avoid going too far into that argument. In my experience, unless you are using hardware that is designed to process DSD natively (as opposed to simply converting it on the fly to PCM), it’s generally not worth the bother. The only slight oddity to this is that T+A does have such a system that made an appearance on the DAC8 and very good it is too.
Rather better news is that the same selection of streaming services that the Caruso has are on board, so you get Spotify, Deezer, Tidal and Qobuz. There is, at the time of writing (June 2021), no support for Amazon or the newly Hi-Res Apple Music but it’s early days in terms of third party support for these services and it doesn’t currently put the T+A at any great disadvantage. You can stream to the T+A over AirPlay and Bluetooth with both AAC and aptX support though and there is an example of both an optical and coaxial input on the rear panel, although an HDMI ARC connection would be useful, as noted before, not so much for performance but for convenience.
Something you do get though that only Naim’s Uniti Star really matches (and even then, not exactly) is the presence of a CD mechanism. If you haven’t got around to ripping an extensive CD collection, the T+A isn’t going to require you to do so. It feeds into a narrative with the Caruso R that T+A isn’t chasing a headline spec but is instead going long on features that they feel customers will actually use. While the ‘die off’ of CD is an inevitability, the speed it is happening is frequently overstated (because collapsing sales does not suddenly eliminate the significant amount of material in existence).
Tying everything together is a control interface that is again lifted from the Caruso and this is no bad thing. The T+A has three main control points; a small IR handset (still lovely, still equipped with the means to charge via USB which is something far more companies should offer), the front panel touchscreen and the control app. The touchscreen has shrunk a little over the original Caruso but it is still a big, vibrant and easy to use thing. As with the original Caruso, the most significant aspect of the Caruso R is that the display itself is responsive in a manner that makes it a pleasure rather than a chore to use. Like a few bits of technology, touchscreens found their way into Hi-Fi before they were truly ready and it meant we were ‘treated’ to some absolute horrors but what you have here is a touchscreen as it should be.
This is complemented by a very good control app. The Caruso app does all the things I want such a piece of software to do. It is a close match to the front panel controls, so if you can operate one, the other will follow. It is stable (not unconditionally so - I have had an app crash under test but just the one) and responds quickly and consistently to inputs and it has detailed areas of personal preference like not operating on a queue system. Against this, it has some minor quirks; no quick access alphabetical option for album and artist and some inconsistencies in terms of looking at ‘favourite inputs’ versus all the other options being the most pertinent. What you don’t get, at least at the moment, is Roon compatibility. I personally think that the Caruso R occupies a price point where this might be genuinely useful - helping to tie a house of different equipment together for starters - but equally, the control app is good enough to ensure that you don’t ‘need’ it.
Aesthetically, the Caruso R is - rather unsurprisingly - closely related to the Caruso. The overall height has been reduced a little but, at no less than 21cm high, this is still a sizeable unit and one that didn’t fit on the middle shelf of my rack (the top shelf spot being occupied by the even larger Technics SU-R1000) which is something you might need to keep an eye on depending on where you choose to place it. The build quality is absolutely superb, even judged at the significant asking price of the Caruso R. The brushed metal top plate is immaculate and everything feels like it’s going to last a long time.
It’s not all perfect though. Putting the headphone socket on the back is tidy but makes it somewhat pointless. Unlike fellow offenders Cyrus (who makes the socket selectable), the socket activates when a socket is plugged in so you can’t connect a pair of headphones and push it back. Then, there’s the underside light. Like the Caruso, the Caruso R has a big horse shoe shaped LED on the underside that glows and pulses and I cannot find any way of turning it off. More than anything else, it looks like one of those highlight rings in a computer game suggesting that you need to speak to this character/lift this rock/eat this for an extra life, and I can’t say I’m a huge fan on a piece of equipment at three grand.
As with the original Caruso, the most significant aspect of the Caruso R is that the display itself is responsive in a manner that makes it a pleasure rather than a chore to use
How Was the Caruso R Tested?
The Caruso R has been connected to an IsoTek Evo 3 Aquarius mains conditioner and generally tested over wired Ethernet (wireless was tested to confirm it functions). An LG 55B7 OLED TV was connected to the optical input for TV testing and an 11 inch iPad Pro was used for the bulk of app testing, with an Oppo Find X2 Neo being used to check the Android app and Bluetooth functionality. Speakers used have been the Kudos Cardea C10 and Focal Kanta No1. Test material has been FLAC, Tidal and Qobuz, TV and on demand content and a small number of CDs.
More: Audio Formats
The Caruso R is an interesting example of something that T+A seems to be very proficient at. Beyond the bald numbers, the Caruso R delivers a performance that impressed from the off and has continued to do so. No, a maximum sample rate of 192kHz and 50 watts per channel are not terribly exciting in the context of this product category but - and this is important - simply beating those numbers doesn’t mean you’ve made a better product. T+A seems to have made this an art form.
What this means in reality is that listening to the Caruso R play a ripped CD version of Ritual by the White Lies through the Focal Kanta No1 is a genuinely satisfying experience. Determining where the decoding ends and the amplification begins in the Caruso R is hard because the tonal balance across the two is so even. It’s subtly different to what Naim does with the Unitis or NAD with their M devices in that it never feels as punchy or forceful initially but the longer you listen, the more you appreciate how gloriously fluid and refined it is. It does this without sounding soft or languid and it is a deeply impressive balancing act.
What this allows for is a device that cannot easily be wrong footed by less than perfect recordings even when you have a speaker as revealing as the Kanta on hand to help you try. The bright and slightly thin White Lies album still has a tonal sweetness to it that means you can really lean on the volume if you fancy. Move to the glorious 24/96 remaster of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and the flattery that the T+A clearly possesses with less than perfect material doesn’t stop it sounding utterly glorious with a top quality recording.
Breaking down ‘glorious’ into something a little more descriptively worthwhile, centres on the Caruso R’s exceptional combination of tonal realism, detail and space. Via both the Kudos and the Focal (which is notable because both of these speakers are rather different in their own right), the T+A is able to deliver music of varying scales and styles with an unflappable sense of rightness. There is none of the slightly ‘etched’ quality that some digital decoding can bring to the way certain instruments sound and the application of space to performances never leaves them sounding diffuse.
It’s fun too. The Caruso R doesn’t have the prodigious shove of the Uniti Star or the near absolute control of the NAD M33 but it’s rhythmically engaging and possesses a flow that it’s hard not to be very taken by. Compared to both of those two key rivals, the bass response isn’t quite as deep but it is fast and consistently tuneful - and realistically something that is going to gel well with any speaker that otherwise might seem a bit overzealous in terms of low end. My personal preferences in this regard are well publicised and I would always rather have slightly less bass with total control than big slabs of slightly unruly low end and the Caruso R delivers on that brief.
As a means of boosting a TV, the results are good too. As I have noted before, the final arbiter of performance from a TV is the 16/48 signal it delivers over both optical and HDMI ARC but the Caruso R does a fine job. It handled the third ‘Not a Doctor Who episode, honest’ instalment of Loki with assurance, keeping dialogue intelligible and sounding big and engaging while it does so. Like anything that does without HDMI ARC, you will need to be content to use two remotes to use the T+A with a TV but the remote that T+A supplies is at least up the task. Testing with CD, AirPlay and Bluetooth also managed to sound good too. The Caruso R is nothing if not admirably consistent across its different inputs.
Beyond the bald numbers, the Caruso R delivers a performance that impressed from the off and has continued to do so
- Sounds consistently good
- Excellent control interface
- Decent specification
- Odd shape
- No DSD
- No Roon
T+A Caruso R All in One System Review
The Caruso R sits neatly in a category of product that we encounter from time to time at AVForums, although it might be the first time that it has occurred with an all in one. This is a product that appeals far more when you start using it than the on paper specifications might suggest. No, it can’t handle 384kHz PCM or DSD but, are these really the bulk of your listening material? The shape is a bit odd too but not insurmountably so. I’d really like to be able to turn the green light off too but, if I owned it, five minutes and a roll of insulation tape would be be a satisfactory plan B. Where the NAD M33 offers on paper greatness but sometimes struggled to turn that into genuine real world promise, the Caruso R is something where the moment you give it a chance, it starts to make more and more sense. This is possibly not quite a good enough product to topple the Uniti Star but it comes unexpectedly close to doing so and for that reason comes Highly Recommended.
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