It’s safe to say I’m a fan of Cambridge Audio. My first ‘real’ amplifier was a Cambridge Audio A5, and you could argue that it is thanks to that amplifier sparking my interest in high-end audio that I’m sitting here, writing for you now. That was some years ago; before the 1968-founded British audio brand introduced their premium Azur component range including the 3, 6 and 8 series; components which shook up the audiophile community thanks to their exceptional sound and build quality, feature counts and premium yet affordable price tags.
Some years on, and it’s time for the Azur range to hand over the reins to Cambridge’s new offering; dubbed the CX range. The CX range comprises 7 components; 2 integrated amplifiers, 2 AV receivers, a universal disc player, a dedicated CD transport and a network streamer. The range sits in a price bracket between the 651 and 851 series, with the CXN network player replacing the Stream Magic 6 V2, the CXU universal player replacing the 752BD, and the CXR120 and CXR200 receivers replacing the 551R and 751R receivers respectively.
The CXC dedicated transport replaces both the 351C and 651C offerings, and is designed to feed the digital inputs of either the CXA60 or CXA80 integrated amplifiers, which themselves replace the 351A / 651A respectively.
Inside, the CXA80 features a dual-mono class AB amplifier and a high-current power supply based around a large toroidal transformer with dual transformer taps, twin rectifiers and separate PSUs for the left and right channels. The transformer is centrally mounted away from the preamp section to minimise interference, while the PCB layout is optimised to reduce crosstalk.
Large extruded heatsinks are used (1 for each channel), with the symmetrical PCBs featuring the shortest possible signal paths, and a component count reduced from 46 in previous models to 24. Circuits comprised of 500 supporting components and dynamic thermal-tracking output transistors ensure that the CXA80 is always running at its optimum performance.
The CXA80 outputs 80W per channel into an 8 ohm load; that figure rising to 120W into 4 ohms. Both the CXA60 and CXA80 feature Cambridge’s CAP5 protection system to protect both the amplifier and your speakers against overheating, overcurrent, DC, shorted outputs and clipping.
On the preamp side, volume control is handled by a motorised alps film potentiometer, with relay-switched input selection, speakers, and tone controls. 4 RCA inputs, plus a 3.5MMM front panel input and a single balanced XLR input (on the CXA80 only) feature in the input side, as well as the dual optical, single coaxial, USB and bluetooth inputs catered for by the internal DAC.
That DAC features a WOlfson WM8740 chipset, supporting sampling rates of up to 24-bit, 192KHZ on both the digital and USB inputs. The USB input is both class 1 and class 2 compliant, though a free driver is required for windows users to stream high-resolution files in class 2 mode. The APT-X bluetooth codec is supported, though bluetooth compatibility requires the optional BT100 dongle which, disappointingly, is not included as part of the package.
As elegantly designed as it is heavy, the CAX80 is clad in a new CX chassis. The new sleeker styling incorporates a front plinth spanning almost the length of the unit, a contoured volume dial and a thick, brushed aluminium front panel. While I personally prefer the styling (not to mentioned the large damped rubber feet) of the previous generation Azur range, I appreciate the efforts to which Cambridge have gone to give traditional boxy, boring hi-fi a makeover; and there’s no doubting that the CX components add a touch of class to any hi-fi rack.
The CXA80 feels supremely solid as it’s lifted from the lavish, premium packaging. The packaging is not dissimilar to that of the Cambridge Audio products of yesteryear, with large foam supports keeping everything in place and the amplifier itself wrapped in a neath cloth bag.
In a cloth bag all of their own, the accessories include a remote, a control bus cable, some documentation and 3 AAA batteries. Finally, both euro and UK power cables are included, positioned beneath the amplifier. It’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into the packaging; and the presentation results in an excellent, lasting first impression.
With everything unboxed, we turn to the front panel. Immediately noticeable is the rebranded Cambridge logo; with the notable absence of the ‘audio’ in the brand name. There’s a union jack, hinting at Cambridge’s British heritage and current design HQ, where each product is conceived, designed, developed and engineered before being manufactured under close supervision in China.
The amplifier features 13 buttons including power, input selection, speaker switching, and tone/balance controls. The tone and balance controls protrude when pressed to allow for adjustment, receding into the front panel when pressed again. There’s a large volume knob fronting the alps volume pot which when turned feels beautifully smooth with just the right amount of resistance.
Sadly the same cannot be said for the tone controls which feel a little cheap and tacky in comparison, much like they do on the 8-series. I bypassed them and left them pressed in for this review, and would suggest you do too. The aforementioned 3.5MM line input is present, along-side a second 3.5MM jack for connection of headphones. Connecting headphones releases the speaker relays, muting the speaker outputs.
Spin the amp around and you’re greeted by plethora of rear connections. 4 RCA inputs are provided, as well as a preamp output and the balanced XLR input. There are 2 optical, 1 coaxial, and the USB B computer input (with associate ground lift switch), and a USB A input for the BT100 bluetooth dongle (not included). Cambridge also have also continued their tradition of labelling the connections in both orientations; meaning they can be easily read when leading over the amplifier; a nice touch.
The entire CX range is designed for the digital generation; and, like the Azur range before it, both the CXA60 and CXA80 lack a built-in phono stage. This isn’t a problem as Cambridge Audio themselves manufacture 2 exceptional phono stages (the 551P and 651P) which are perfect partners for the CXA amplifiers. I was however disappointed to note the absence of a line level record output; while admittedly few people own recording devices these days, many people choose to archive their vinyl via the record output of their amplifier; and some of us, god forbid, still own a tape deck. Given that adding a line level output would add very little to the bill of materials, this is a sad omission on Cambridge’s part.
2 sets of speaker connections are provided, used either for bi wiring or running a second pair of speakers in another room. The binding posts support bear wire or (once the end caps are removed) banana plugs. They feel a little flimsy in comparison to the rest of the amp, flexing slightly as banana plugs are pressed into place. They’re in very close proximity to one another making them fairly awkward to turn, and if you opt for the bear wire approach you’ll need to be especially careful not to cause a short.
The top panel of the amplifier features a plastic-covered ventilation grille to allow the amplifier to expel some of the heat it generates. While the CXA80 produces far less heat than I expected even at high listening levels,it does need room to breathe. I’d advise against stacking it with other components, or at the very least positioning it at the top of the stack.
The CXA80 is supplied with the same remote control as its smaller companion (the CXA60), as well as the CXN network player and CXC CD transport. Similar to that supplied with the 8-series components, this solid remote features a selection of neatly organised controls for each component in the range, with the central controls (including the volume) raised and curved for easier, more comfortable access.
Those controls offer up a precise click when pressed, and feel great to use, as does the remote itself. It sits perfectly in the hand, has a nice rubberised texture on the rear panel for extra grip, and is perfectly weighted once the 3 AAA batteries are added. The control’s code set follows the RC5 standard, meaning there’s a strong possibility it will control other components in your system; or that controls supplied with other components will be able to control the CXA, as was the case with many of the remotes for other components I had sitting around.
The Control Bus
The CXA amplifiers feature Cambridge Audio’s control bus, allowing them to control (and be controlled) by other supported components or custom installation systems. An orange cable is supplied with each component for this purpose, and the CXA80 is no exception. Connecting the CXN, also supplied for review, allowed the volume and power status of the CXA80 to be altered via the CA Connect mobile app.
It does have its limitations though. Power on / off commands don’t appear to sync between units when controlling the power either via their front panel power controls or the controls on the CX remote control, and powering on the CXA80 via a CXN and the CA connect app doesn’t switch the amp to the require input. I’d like to see the ability to power on a source component when pressing a respective input on the amplifier; so, for example, were i to press input number 1, the CXN would come out of standby, and pressing input number 2 would shut it down and power up the CXC CD transport. I’d also like the ability to control the entire system via the CA connect app; including the ability to switch inputs on the amplifier and to control CD playback via the CXC transport.
In usage, the CXA80 is very intuitive and simple to operate. As always I neglected to read the included documentation or the online manual and was still up and running in a matter of seconds. Powering up the amp emits a series of relay clicks; selecting inputs produces similar noises, which I found quite charming and characterful.
The inputs are chosen via the dedicated buttons on the front panel or the remote, with the balanced input accessed by repeatedly pressing the ‘A1’ input. The tone controls can be bypassed (though not on a ‘per-input’ basis) using the direct button. Bypassing them results in a cleaner signal path and ultimately better sound quality, and therefore it was in their bypassed state that they were left throughout this review. Unusually the direct button does not bypass the balance control.
The CXA amplifiers feature a hidden settings menu accessed by holding the speaker A/B button in standby mode. The options are accessed and altered using the A1 through A4 controls which will illuminate in accordance with the selected option. Settings include auto power down, the USB audio class and the ability to disable the clipping detection, which causes the amp to nudge the volume down if clipping is detected. Leaving the latter option enabled is recommended, as clipping detection is part of the CAP5 protection system and helps to protect both the amplifier and the connected speakers.
I’m blessed with extremely sensitive hearing and that, coupled with a quiet listening room and a pair of Tannoys with extremely sensitive tweeters, means a noisy, hissy amplifier can drive me mad. Fortunately, that’s not the case with the CXA80; in fact the levels of background noise it produced were inaudible. The massive toroidal transformer does emirate a slight hum in operation; however this is to be expected, and again is inaudible unless you’re leaning over the amplifier.
The CXA80 belies its 80W P/C rating with an explosive nature that is simply bags of fun. If there’s ever an amplifier that urges you to raise the volume to unsociable levels, this is it. It exploded through Shinedown’s ‘Devour’ from their ‘Somewhere in The Stratosphere’ acoustic set with a rhythmic adeptness and force of impact that put my reference gear to shame. Yet when I slid Jack Johnson’s ‘In-between Dreams’ into the CXC and ‘Better Together’ began to play, the CXA80 delivered the bouncing bass line and calm, carefree way that left me leaning back in the listening chair, grinning to myself like a complete idiot.
Unusually for an amp designed for the digital age, the CXA80 excels with a turntable as a source. The amp charged through Queen’s ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’ from ‘Live at The Rainbow’ with the same explosive energy and rhythmic aplomb it displayed with the tracks above, and never appeared to struggle even when the volume was raised to the 3 quarter mark to compensate for the lower output level of the phono stage.
Headphone performance is also excellent. Connecting a pair of headphones results in the same fun, energetic performance with phenomenal stereo separation and 3-dimensional sound staging. It drove every pair of headphones on hand with ease, including the notoriously difficult HD650s.
At lower volume levels, the headphone output on my review sample occasionally produced an odd static noise; most noticeable with the balance control rotated to either extreme. Switching the amp off and back on again often resolved the issue, and I couldn’t get the amp to reproduce the issue on demand. After a month of continuous usage, this issue appeared to correct itself so I can only assume the components required some run in time or that the issue was caused perhaps by some interference on the AC power line.
Given the asking price, I’d like to see better tone controls (or for them to be omitted altogether), better speaker terminals and perhaps a line-level output or 2. I’d also like to see the £70 BT100 bluetooth dongle included as part of the package. But minor quibbles aside, the CXA80 is a phenomenal amplifier.
It’s as neutral as it is fun and exciting. That could be seen as a contradictory comment, but it’s the most accurate way to describe the amp’s character. It simply gets the best from the sources you feed it. Input a digital signal into its onboard DAC, or a digital track via the matching CXN network player connected to the analogue inputs and you’ll get a fun, energetic sound that’ll have you up and out of your seat in minutes. Feed it a vinyl, and that energetic drive is complemented by the warmth that only analogue can bring.
And that can only mean one thing. An amp that sounds its best no matter the material or the source component must, quite simply, be one of, if not the best amp in its class. Rarely do I enjoy reviewing an amplifier as much as I have the CXA80; and given the pedigree and quality of some of the amplifiers that find their way onto my review rack, that’s no small compliment. The CXA80 deserves the top spot on your amplifier shortlist. I can’t stop listening to it; and therefore, I can’t recommend it enough.