A couple of years ago I reviewed Cambridge AUdio’s award-winning Stream Magic 6 network player. At the time this was Cambridge Audio’s flagship streamer; and it’s safe to say I was a fan thanks to its exceptional sound, extensive feature count and fantastic control app. Since then, the Stream Magic 6 was upgraded to V2 status (encorporating an entirely new stream magic module along with many other alterations), and more recently our old favourite has been retired to make way for Cambridge Audio’s new premium streamer; The CXN; which sits as part of their CX range just below the flagship 851N.
Looking at the specifications, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was simply a Stream Magic with a prettier front panel; and indeed the 2 are fairly similar. They even appear to share the same aluminium top case, minus the raised Cambridge Audio logo found on the previous models. Inside, the CXN features the latest Stream Magic module and a DAC based on 2 Wolfson WM8742 DACs and featuring Cambridge Audio’s proprietary 2nd-generation ATF2 upsampling technology to upsample the incoming audio to 24-bit, 384KHZ.
The CXN supports MP3, WMA, AAC (including AAC Plus and HE AAC), OGG, ALAC, FLAC and WAV file formats at up to 24-bit, 192KHZ. Over 20,000 radio stations are onboard as well as Spotify connect, Appel Airplay, and built-in USB and UPNP media streaming. ASX, M3U and PLS playlists are supported; though despite the CXN having a queueing feature, playlists created on the unit cannot, for now at least, be saved for later recall.
Like the Stream Magic units before it, the CXN offers 2 power modes. Network standby mode keeps the network and micro controller circuits active allowing the streamer to be power cycled via the app, while an eco mode shuts down all circuits, reducing the streamer’s stands power consumption to a an eco-friendly 0.5W and requiring the streamer be brought in and out of standby via the remote control or the front-panel power button. The standby mode can be configured in the settings. Network standby mode is active by default; in this mode, a long press of the power button will shut the streamer down entirely. As with the rest of the CX range, an automatic power down feature puts the streamer into standby mode after a period of inactivity, configurable in the settings.
The CXN shares the same packaging as other components in the CX range. Its sturdy box is lined with large foam blocks to hold everything in place, with the streamer and the accessories encased in cloth bags. Those accessories include a CX series remote control, a control bus cable, some batteries, some documentation and a USB wifi antenna. As with all Cambridge components, the package includes both UK and European IEC power cable, packaged beneath the unit. An excellent first impression.
Externally the CXN shares the new sleeker styling of the CX range; including the floating case design, with a central front foot spanning almost the length of the unit, and an all-metal, acoustically damped chassis. personally I do prefer the more traditional ‘boxy’ styling of its predecessor; I also prefer the old damped rubber feet, which I felt offered better vibration isolation. However I’m pleased to see that Cambridge haven’t strayed too far from the design of a traditional hi-fi component; and I can appreciate the effort to which they’ve gone to make their premium hi-fi range a little more stylish than is the norm, and I don’t doubt the new design will appeal to many who are looking to add a touch of class to their hi-fi rack.
Around back, both balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA line level outputs are provided, along with optical and coaxial digital outputs. 2 USB jacks allow for connection of a media storage device or the optional BT100 bluetooth dongle, one of those doubling up as a dedicated port for connection of the included USB wifi antenna. Cambridge make no mention as to why this port specifically must be used, but specify that only this input should be used both in the manual and on the rear panel.
There’s a USB B input for your computer, and both optical and coaxial inputs enabling you to use the streamer as a DAC for other digital sources. The input names (D1, D2 and USB Audio by default) can be customised in the CXN’s settings menu.
The USB input can operate in both USB audio class 1 or 2 mode (though windows users will require the class 2 driver, offered as a free download on Cambridge Audio’s website). In class 1 mode, the streamer supports file formats at a resolution of up to 24-bit, 96KHZ, and in class 2 mode 24-bit, 192KHZ formats are supported. There’s also a ground lifts switch to eradicate hum should it become a problem. The optical and coaxial inputs support resolutions of up to 24-bit, 192KHZ.
The unit can be used in digital preamp mode to directly feed a power amplifier. In this mode, the volume is controlled by the DSP (digital signal processor) and the signal is kept in the digital domain until the last possible moment.
Central to the front panel is the new full-colour 4.3” display, the brightness of which can be altered in the CXN’s settings. This display is used for navigating the CXN, and also display album artwork and stream / track info. Pressing the info button allows you to toggle between displaying a combination of track / stream info and album art, album art only or track / stream info only. When streaming from a UPNP device, the album art must be embedded within the track metadata. If using USB media, album art must be located in the same folder and be in 1 of the common image formats (JPEG, or PNG) and must follow the typical naming standard (folder.JPG, folder.PNG etc).
The front panel also includes a selection of navigation and transport controls, though the filter button found on previous models is absent here and the manual makes no mention of that feature being present on the CXN. A 3rd front panel USB jack allows for connection of storage devices, and a rotary dial with a contoured design designed to match the volume control of the CXA amplifiers allows for navigation of the streamer’s menu system. the dial smooth in operation, though it does have some discernible play or ‘wobble’, suggesting that the digital encoder in use is perhaps not the best quality component in the unit.
The CXN includes a CX system remote control, the same as that packaged with the CXA amplifiers and CXC CD transport. The remote resembles that supplied with the new 851 series components, with the same central section comprised of a selection of raised clicky controls which feel great to press. The remote has a rubberised rear panel offering better grip, and takes 3 AAA batteries which slot into the compartment at the rear.
The remote can be configured to use an alternate set of IR codes to control the CXN in case of a conflict with another device. The code set is switched by holding the controller’s ‘power’ button while inserting the batteries. The corresponding setting must also then be altered on the CXN to allow it and the controller to communicate.
The CXN can be controlled either via its front panel, the aforementioned remote control or via the new Cambridge Connect mobile app available for both iOS and android. Like its predecessor, this new app is able to control all of the streaming features of the CXN, 851N and Stream Magic 6 V2 players, including internet radio and UPNP streaming, and also allows music to be streamed directly from the device in question. The app also enables you to switch inputs on the CXN, power on / off the player (assuming the network sleep mode is active), and even initiate a firmware update if one id detected (though there appears to be no way to initiate a manual check).
Cambridge AUdio’s control apps are the best in the business; and this is no exception. It’s extremely stable and just works; though it does have a few limitations. Perhaps the most annoying of which, at least in the case of the iOS app, is the inability to stream content from your mobile device with the screen locked or with the app running in the background. This means you’ll only be able to stream content for as long as your device can keep the screen powered up (usually a matter of hours), and you can’t use your device for anything else while you listen.
It’s also lacking the ability to alter several of the device’s key settings (some of which could be altered using the previous Stream Magic app), and there are a few accessibility issues which need to be ironed out. That said, the app is a joy to use; and makes a refreshing change from the positively awful control app of my resident streamer. Cambridge Audio develop their apps in-house, and feedback is always well received and quickly acted upon so it is highly likely these issues will be ironed out in a future app version.
The Control Bus
Cambridge Audio’s Control Bus allows unmodulated IR commands to be received by and sent from the CXN and other supported components. This allows them to be integrated perfectly into a custom installation environment, and also enables the CXN to control the power status and volume of a supported Cambridge Audio amplifier (including the CXA60 and CXA80). Setting up the control bus is as simple as connecting the provided orange cable between the CXN and the other desired components. There is also an IR input jack located on the rear panel for use in custom installations to utilise an external IR receiver. The RS-232 port, also used by many custom installation systems and present on previous models has been omitted.
A setting in the CA connect app allows the CXN to control the volume of a supported amplifier or AV receiver via the control bus. Enabling this setting enables a volume option in the CA Connect app, which when pressed pops up a pair of volume controls and a mute button. Toggling the power of the CXN via the app will also power on / off the connected amplifier and any other components in the chain.
There are some limitation though. There is no provision to automatically select the desired input when powering the system on via the app, and powering the CXN or the CXA on / off via the remote control or their front panel power controls doesn’t toggle the power status of the other connected devices. I’d also like to see the ability to control a connected Cambridge Audio CD player via the app, and to have greater control of a connected amplifier, including the ability to switch inputs and maybe even switch the tone direct function on / off.
Setup couldn’t be simpler. Initially, I connected up the CXN using a hard-wired ethernet connection; however wifi configuration was also a breeze, as I was able to use my iOS device to setup the wifi connection without needing to touch the streamer at all. Less than 5 minutes after removing the streamer from the packaging, I had a few internet radio presets programmed and was streaming a 320KBPS rip of Jake Bugg’s ‘Shangdi La’ via a UPNP server on the same network.
The CXN features a basic network setup page, accessible by navigating to your units IP address using a web browser. The page shows your currently connected network, device IP address and wifi signal strength if applicable. The page offers the ability to configure the device name, update the firmware (including the ability to opt into receiving pre-release updates) and alter the network settings
This page replaces the old Stream Magic website. Service accounts from MP3 Tunes, Live365 and Pandora can be linked with your streamer, personal podcasts can be added using their feed URLs, and presets can be created and edited. As with the app, the configuration page lacks the ability to alter several of the CXN’s settings; a feature which I’d like to see, as it would negate the need to interact with the streamer itself at all.
I’m completely blind, and therefore unable to operate the streamer via its largely display-oriented front panel. that said, I was able to operate the streamer in its entirety via both this page and the app, so I give props to the Cambridge Audio team for, perhaps unknowingly, developing what is undoubtedly the most universally accessible streaming product on the market.
For the majority of the review period, the CXN was used with the matching CXA-80 amplifier, though it did see some use wits a couple of other models which passed through for review at the same time. Both balanced and unbalanced connections were tested, and naturally the balanced type did offer better sound; however the character of the streamer remained largely unaltered regardless of which supporting components, cable or connection typology was in use.
As you would expect, the CXN’s ‘signature sound’ is not unlike that of the other CX components; though it is perhaps a little more tame than that of the CXA80 amplifier. Like it’s matching siblings, the sound it produces remains largely the same regardless of the chosen source or material. Only APple’s AirPlay streaming protocol different significantly from the other sources; sounding somewhat thin and lacking in warmth. That said it was still perfectly listenable, and was arguably my most used input as it was continuously used to stream background music from my mac.
AirPlay aside, the CXN produces a lively, energetic sound though one that never tends to veer towards becoming bright or harsh. Its low end performance in particular is unlike any Cambridge product I’ve heard (and believe me, I’ve heard a few). It’s fast, tight and beautifully controlled, with a touch of warmth in the upper midband and a certain high-end sparkle that could become a problem in a particularly bright system, but when properly matched serves only to add to the performance. And, like the other CX components, it’s great fun.
Evanescence’s ‘Hello’ is as haunting as The All American Rejects ‘Can’t Take It’ is dramatic. Fed by the CXC, shinedown’s ‘State of My Head’ from their recently released ‘Threat to Survival’ album thundered from the speakers, before I switched to streaming from a UPNP server and began streaming Ed Sheeran’s ‘Small Bump’ from his debut album ‘+’.
The CXN is one of those rare products which is difficult for a reviewer to sum up in words because when you start listening, the music takes over and making notes becomes something of an afterthought. The CXN’s sound had me hooked from the beginning; and it only got better as the days, weeks, and then months rolled by. Not only does the CXN include every feature the digital audiophile could possibly need, it delivers a fun, infectious, and musical performance that is hard to fault. The CXN is another phenomenal streamer from Cambridge Audio, reaffirming their position at the top of the streaming game and leaving other manufacturers to play catchup. Highly recommended.