I rambled on at great length about the heritage of Cambridge’s Audio’s AX range and the company itself in my AX series summary, so I won’t rehash that here. Instead I’ll dive straight into the subject of the forthcoming paragraphs, the AXC35 CD player. This is the better of the two CD players in the AX lineup, though aside from a coaxial digital output there’s nothing to set them apart.
That coax output allows you to use the AXC35 as a digital transport into an external DAC should you so wish, though it is designed to be paired with one of the matching amplifiers which are strictly analogue in their input options, or with one of the receivers which do have digital inputs but of no obvious advantage over the CD player’s digital hardware. In essence what we have here is nothing more than the most basic CD player, but that’s no bad thing.
Many CD players these days, particularly budget models, pile on extra functionality for people who don’t actually want to play CDs, and would probably have been better off with a streaming solution or a DAC to improve the sound of their smartphone when fed into an amplifier. These extra features include digital inputs to utilise the CD player as a DAC for external digital sources – a Blu-Ray player, a TV, a games console or a computer for example. Some – models from Marantz, Yamaha and Denon to name just a few – implement primitive USB playback functionality, whereby the player can directly access digital files on USB storage media albeit with the obvious limitations of a traditional CD player’s user interface.
This all makes perfect sense. After all, the DAC inside even the most basic of modern CD players is up to the task of handling streams of a far greater resolution than a 16-bit, 44.1kHz CD. But often CD playback becomes an afterthought; and if there’s one thing that older, simpler CD players do really well, it is playing CDs.
These latest models from Cambridge are certainly more akin to no-frills CD players of old, and are very reminiscent of a time when the company produced some cracking budget CD players that were as simplistic as they came, and cost little more than the cheaper DVD players of the time. But simplicity means nothing if the player doesn’t substitute a shortened feature list for heightened performance.
I owned a Cambridge CD-36 for a short while when I had my Cambridge A5. I bought it used and it wouldn’t be unfair to say it had character. It was a relatively well built unit with an attractively-styled fascia, though the buttons required pin-point precision and jackhammer force to get any response. At times the tray would eject at supersonic speed and at others it would crawl from the closed position with a squeal of dodgy belts and a death rattle. It often needed the help of what I like to call ‘percussive therapy’ (a good whack) on its front panel to get the disc seated properly in the mechanism. It always played perfectly though, and it was a dynamic listen that had me run the A5 wide open on more than one occasion. I loved that player.
It’s always interesting to observe evolution even in the case of a tech product. At the £299 asking price of the AXC35, dodgy drawers and temperamental buttons would be unacceptable. Neither of those traits are evident here. Cambridge had a reputation for many years as a budget brand of the Richer Sounds retail outlet, and it wasn’t until the Azur lineup, in particular the 6, 7 and 8 series that they started to flex their engineering might and demonstrate the benefits of a team of fine engineers and far-eastern manufacture.
Build quality of those products was, and still is, leagues ahead of what they were producing in the budget arena for obvious reasons, and exceeded a lot of the boutique high-end kit too. A lot of that has trickled down into the budget ranges over the last 15 years or so to the point where the AX models bear more of a physical resemblance to the CX range than any of their predecessors.
The most obvious styling queue taken from the CX range is the floating chassis design, with a front foot spanning almost the full length of the unit set back from the front panel just enough to disappear into its own shadow. The AX models come more smartly dressed than their predecessors too with a new ‘Lunar Grey’ finish and chunky casework constructed in a way that affords natural damping. The case screws are set back in deep recesses to hide them from view when the player is in situ.
Though light, the CD player feels substantial. The buttons have a hefty click to them and there aren’t many of them, only basic transport controls and a power button. Even the tray fascia is aluminium, and the tray, despite being plastic, feels and sounds well made. In some areas its build quality betters my Cambridge CXC which is a £400 CD transport with no inbuilt DAC.
Lift the lid on a modern budget-level CD player and you’ll find little more than a box of air. Most of the control and servo logic has been implemented into single chips so you won’t find boards stuffed with discrete components like you would only a decade ago. The digital to analogue conversion and output line stages have been similarly condensed. Such simple circuitry doesn’t place any great demand or dependence on the power supply, so a small switch-mode unit is perfectly sufficient to get the job done and cheap enough to keep profit margins high. It’s not uncommon for the primary circuit board of a current budget hi-fi CD player to be smaller than the disc itself.
Inside the AXC35 is a digital to analogue conversion stage based around the WM8524 from Wolfson Microelectronics. The line output stage is based around the NJM 4580 op-amp specially designed for use in audio circuits. The player uses a universal disc drive which, if I had to guess judging by the sound its optics make, is of Sanyo origin.
One plus in these players’ favour is the lack of any adjustments for the laser. Focus, gain, tracking and power are handled by the servo rather than analogue circuits, and won’t drift with age as passive components drift in value. They should also compensate to a degree as the laser weakens, which means you’ll get more life out of your CD player before it requires a service.
I’m not in possession of any service literature and I don’t know whether the AXC35 has a calibration procedure like some players do, and admittedly this is a technical point that few will care about. But it’s a positive of note all the same, particularly years down the line when these begin to require TLC as all electronic devices do eventually.
Thanks to inflation and the way the market is, ‘evolution’ makes the AXC35 a slight spec downgrade on the older Topaz model which had a WM8761 DAC, so the AXC35 is more akin to the outgoing CD5. I believe however that the Topaz model used an NE5532 in its output stage so the AXC35 is an upgrade on the analogue front, though I’ve not had one of those apart myself so I can’t say for certain. Unlike the Topaz CD10, however, the AXC35 does support gapless playback.
The disc drive and servo support ordinary ‘red book’ CDs of course (and hybrid SACDs) but also finalised writeable and rewritable CDs containing MP3, WMA and WAV files. We live in an age where most computers lack an optical drive at all, and the ability to burn a CD at home is little more than a historical landmark in technology. But if you do still write data to shiny silver circles, or happen across a forgotten few in a time capsule, the AXC-35 will play them which is more than can be said for most CD players with dedicated servos, including Cambridge’s own.
Around back are stereo RCA outputs and a coaxial digital output. The latter is the only difference between the C35 and the cheaper C25. There’s a figure of eight power inlet for which UK and European-style cables are provided in the box.
The presence of the figure of eight connector pleases me for one reason – there isn’t an ‘audiophile’ upgrade cable that I know of with a figure of eight connector, so newcomers to the game can’t be fooled by enterprising dealers or the word of ‘experts’ on hi-fi fora to part with their hard-earned cash on needless garbage like power cable upgrades. It would be nice to see a basic interconnect included in the box though, if only to moot the possibility of dealers selling ‘audiophile’ variants of those too.
The remote leaves a lot to be desired. It’s cheap, plasticky and clearly a universal design with obvious indents where buttons would go if they were needed. The layout is logical but the buttons have a mushy, spongy feel to them which doesn’t feel premium at all.
Given that the CD player is virtually indistinguishable in build quality from a CX-series component, the remote is in stark contrast to the machine. That there is one at all is a plus I suppose, but it could, and should, be a lot better. It does have finger indents though to make it more comfortable in the hand and it takes standard AAA batteries.
The remote transmits NEC codes and a full control protocol is available on the Cambridge website for those who want to program a universal remote. All key transport functions can be accessed via the CD player’s front panel, but repeat, random, remaining time display, direct track entry and programming functions are found only on the remote.
A press of the open/close button fires the tray forth with gusto. With a CD inserted and the tray returned with equal enthusiasm, the player takes a leisurely few seconds to read the table of contents. The transport itself is quiet, though I did notice a ticking of the focus mechanism on discs with minor scratches or dirt.
This is quite common on cheaper CD players and isn’t audible unless you’re right in front of the player. In seeking and skipping operations the C35 operates smoothly, quickly and quietly.
By default the C35 has auto power-down enabled, whereby the player will switch to standby mode after 20 minutes of inactivity. This can be disabled by holding down the power button until the LED flashes five times (APD enabled) or 10 times (APD disabled).
The player’s repeat function operates and displays in two modes – ‘RPT ONE’ or ‘RPT ALL’ in which the current track or the entirety of the disc are replayed respectively. The programming function supports the programming of up to 20 tracks in any order. Pressing the remaining time button on the remote toggles sequentially between the remaining time for the currently playing track, the total remaining time on the disc, or the normal display mode.
And the sound? For all intents and purposes it is clean and to the point. It sounds like a CD player in the best possible way. Its signal to noise ratio exceeds what is theoretically possible from the 16/44.1 CD medium, and only its dynamic range falls slightly short of what the CD is capable of. Its frequency response is ruler flat to within 0.06dB from 20Hz to 20kHz.
Because of its simplicity in design it is essentially void of tonal colour or character. Many CD players are voiced in their output amplification stages to sound a certain way, but the design of the AXC35 is about as basic as it gets.
If you want a CD player that sounds a certain way – be it ‘warm’ or ‘analogue’, this probably isn’t the player for you. But if you want a CD player that sounds like a CD player – clean uncoloured and pleasant to listen to, the AXC35 is a fine performer. Its simplistic electronics and quality disc drive should be reliable for many years. It’s well made and smart to look at, and it’s not bloated by unnecessary frills. The remote is rubbish and the £70 premium for a digital output is too steep. But all things considered it is a great bit of kit and comes highly recommended.