When I was starting out in my hi-fi journey, aged 11 or so, I was lucky enough to receive a new amp as a Birthday gift. That amp was the Cambridge Audio A5 and was mid-2000s budget model of the brand, at the time distributed exclusively by Richer Sounds, both brands under the ownership of Audio Partnership PLC. A lot has changed since then. Even budget hi-fi is dominated by flashy displays and electronic controls, and you’ll pay a lot more for much less in terms of actual specification. E-commerce is bigger than ever and Cambridge have followed the times, selling most products directly via their online outlets and even a Facebook shop though they can still be purchased through Richer Sounds retail stores.
What haven’t changed are the configurations of products Cambridge offer at the budget end of the market. Rather than offering a streamer to accompany their latest budget amplifiers, the 7-strong AX range includes a pair of similarly specified CD players without a digital input or USB / network jack in sight. The two amplifiers in the range are strictly analogue too. The cheaper of three receivers adds Bluetooth, the midrange model adds digital inputs and the top of the line brings a DAB+ tuner to the party, along with increases in power output but with an aesthetic and electronic design consistent across the range.
The fact that you can still buy a budget amplifier that doesn’t contain a DAC pleases me more than I can put into words. I have many unpopular opinions where audio equipment is concerned, one of them being that DACs have no place within an integrated amplifier at any cost. Digital technology is undergoing constant improvement and refinement, with new formats, standards and technology arriving year-by-year. Analogue amplification has improved demonstrably in the last 5 decades, but the basic design and implementation of an amplifier of today is identical to that of an amp built 50 years ago.
An amp made 50 years ago will still work with any modern kit with an analogue connection. Conversely a DAC built 20 years ago will boast features like 18 or 20-bit oversampling, or buffered bit-perfect playback that were intended to improve the fidelity of the 16-bit, 44.1kHz CD media. In actuality many of those features were marketing gimmicks to help shift stocks of last-year’s models in a landscape when CD, DAT and MiniDisc were all evolving at a rate every bit as rapid as computer-based digital media is today. And if you want another prime example of the pace of digital evolution, look at the number of revisions to the Bluetooth communication standard over the last 20 years.
I’d rather have an amp that was entirely analogue, and pair it with an outboard DAC. You may argue that not everyone wants a stack of gear – and you’d be right. But an outboard DAC need not have a footprint anywhere close to that of a hi-fi separate. The DAC board in a typical integrated amplifier, especially a budget one, would fit into a case the size of a pack of cards. Add an external power brick and you’ve got an amplifier and DAC combination that takes up hardly any extra room, and half of its capabilities won’t be obsolete in a decade.
A Brief History
And Cambridge know how to build an analogue amplifier. The company launched in 1968 with the P40, an analogue integrated amplifier that was unique in its design and the first to use a toroidal power transformer, an expensive doughnut-shaped coil of wire that you’ll find in the vast majority of modern high-end amplifiers. It didn’t hurt either that it, along with the P50 that followed soon after, were two of the finest-sounding solid-state amplifiers around, with bags of power and a sound that, while still unmistakably reminiscent of its era, is more clinical and tonally neutral than the warm and wooly norm.
Cambridge has always been very good at building products that pack tons of useful features into top-notch aesthetic designs, at prices other manufacturers simply couldn’t match. The 851A for example; in my opinion is one of the best analogue amplifiers ever made. It has more inputs than you could ever want, a fully balanced typology, novel amplification circuitry that does away with the audible effects of crossover distortion; and besides a couple of minor niggles is built like a tank.
Similarly the 851E preamplifier remains one of the finest analogue preamplifiers the industry has ever seen. It was thoroughly underrated and never received the hype and marketing push that it should have. Now sadly discontinued, used examples of the 851E can fetch more money than the preamp retailed for brand new in 2014. If Cambridge re-introduced the 851E unaltered, or a similarly specified analogue preamp in the Edge range, they would be producing one of the finest preamplifiers on the market at any price.
Cambridge didn’t start out making high-end separates, though there were a few notable products – namely A couple of highly affordable pre/power combos in the ‘80s with the A75 / C75 and the C500 / P500 in the early ‘2000s after the Audio Partnership buyout. And of course, the first multi-box CD player, the 1984 CD1. The CD1 was a landmark product born out of engineer Stan Curtis’s dissatisfaction with the two-year old technology. The CD1 incorporated mechanical improvements to its Philips CD104 mechanism, mounting the laser on a spring and rubber damper and then a lead beam suspension tuned to a 1Hz resonance frequency. The idea was to minimise as much as possible any mechanical error, so that the CD servo and digital error correction algorithms only had to deal with errors present on the disc itself.
The CD1 also had three completely independent power supplies with their own transformers for the analogue, digital and logic stages, and a novel DAC circuit unlike anything else at the time, with a triple-DAC arrangement in which two parallel DACs are implemented per channel, with a third for ranging. The CD1 used Philips’ 14-bit, 4X oversampling system though with added dithering to round the resolution up to 16-bit. all of this tech was spread across two physical boxes – one containing the transport, power supply and controls and the other the DAC and output stage. An optional third box, the aptly named ‘Quality Assurance Module’, completed the full CD1 player and showed error rate readings.
The first product following the buyout in 1994 was the A1 amplifier; a 25-watt per channel budget classic with an aesthetic design that was carried forward for the best part of a decade into many a product including at least 4 revisions of the A1 itself. The A1 could give many an amplifier a run for its money at double the price, and a later special edition version gave it a few notable upgrades including a toroidal transformer. The only literature I can find suggests an A1 without the optional £20 moving magnet phono stage module sold for £80 in 1998, approximately £150 in today’s money adjusted for inflation. A mint A1 can easily fetch £60 on the used market, but it’s money well spent.
Several versions of the A1, the A2, A3I and A5 were introduced over the years, later co-existing along-side budget models in the Azur lineup. First introduced in 2003, Azur was Cambridge’s move into higher-end components with the same value for money for which the brand was famed. Though upper-echelon products in the Azur range brought technological improvements such as crossover displacement and the ATF2 (adaptive time filtering) digital upsampling technology, the first step on the Azur ladder was a budget lineup that offered a significant step up from the A series. Notably the 340, 350 and 351 iterations, in all cases with a matching amplifier and CD player and even a tuner in the 340T. The middle of the road 500 and 600 series’ were similarly appointed. Of particular note were the 640T, 650T and 651T tuners.
The 651T is probably one of the finest DAB+ tuners ever made as it paired a top-notch DAB+ module with a Wolfson WM8740 DAC, which made DAB not only listenable (no mean feat) but actually better than FM broadcasts. The 651T had dedicated analogue tuners for FM and AM, and a slick user interface that did away with the annoyances of every other DSP-based tuner; in particular the choppiness when searching the frequency band without a tuning dial.
As a reviewer, I will always remain impartial and I have no blind loyalty to any one brand. But the simple fact of the matter is that Cambridge have produced some top-flight products, some of which should still be on shelves today. That 651T is one of them as no matter how much choice we have online, no internet radio interface can compare to that of a real tuner. Let’s not forget that Cambridge were the first to develop an entirely digital tuner, that claim to fame thanks to Stan Curtis who took on the project having put renowned designer Douglas Self in charge of amplifiers. Douglas was also responsible for designs in the Azur range, including the patented class XD crossover displacement technology first seen in the 840A and later in the 840A V2 and 851A. A revised version of Class XD, now known as Class XA, powers Cambridge’s current flagship ‘Edge’ series.
The AX Series
Cambridge’s budget lineup eventually gained ‘Topaz’ branding and a lineup of two amplifiers, two CD players and two stereo receivers. If that sounds familiar it’s because some of the AX models appear to have been plucked straight out of the Topaz line and given a facelift and price hike to bring them in line with Cambridge’s current aesthetic and combat the effect of the Brexit farce. There is probably some truth to that; the AXR85 looks a lot like the Topaz AM-10 I reviewed a few years ago. But the changes are clearly more than skin deep as all but one of the amplifiers feature a digital control interface without an analogue potentiometer or clunky rotary switch in sight, and there are notable spec bumps across the range too.
The AX range components come in Cambridge’s latest ‘Lunar Gray’ finish and mimic the floating design first seen in the original CX lineup. They manage to be purposeful in the way that a stack of traditional hi-fi usually is, yet with a degree of elegance which should see them excepted into more domestic settings. Fit and finish has improved over the years too, with the AX range sporting aluminium fascias, smoothly textured painted casework and few apparent screws when the components are in situ.
The A5 in contrast was very much the essence of a budget analogue amplifier though that was no bad thing. Ovular controls for bass, treble and balance flanked a large central volume knob, with tone bypass, tape monitor and power switches. I’m not sure if the front panel was anodised or painted – but it had a slightly rough texture that was always a magnet for dust, especially with the decorative lines running above and below the controls. Its switches were incredibly satisfying however; the power button gave a pleasing ‘clunk’ as did the rotary input selector, and the volume control had just the right amount of drag. It was a well-made amplifier that cost, if memory serves, £120 at the time mine was purchased.
‘Evolution’ these days however means digitisation, and progress has certainly left its mark on the AX series components besides the AXA25 which remains stubbornly analogue. Evolution is no bad thing though, as the lack of discrete controls rids the front facias of everything but source selection and menu buttons, a control dial and a jack or two. You also get a remote control, something my A5 never had, and a headphone jack; the one and only feature I found the A5 lacked as I used headphones a lot at the time. The remote does feel like something you’d get with a £20 Argos DVD player (or the cheapest Walmart model if you’re across the pond), it does the job and that’s about the best you can say of it.
Purchasers of the AX range are likely hi-fi first-timers, or people looking to buy a simple, high-quality system that they will keep indefinitely. It is therefore sensible to review the AX range in partnership; so Cambridge sent over the recommended pairing of an AXA-35, AXC-35 and a pair of SX-60 standmount loudspeakers.
I hooked up my Cambridge CXN V2, going via its analogue output rather than my usual DAC, and my Technics SL-1200G turntable with an Audio-Technica VM95ML cartridge into the onboard moving magnet phono stage of the Cambridge amp. At over ten times the price of the Cambridge AXA35 the Technics is not a price-appropriate match by any means, but I don’t have another turntable to hand and the VM95ML at £149 is an ideal cartridge for a budget vinyl setup. Cables were the Cambridge Atlantic interconnects that were purchased with my A5, and some decent speaker cable that, like any other speaker cable, is nothing special; just a few tens of tightly-wrapped wire strands, perfectly adequate to get power from A to B.
A few words on pricing. The RRP for the AXA35 and AXC35 is £299 each. Factor in a pair of speakers – the Cambridge SX60s at £229 for example – plus a pair of interconnects and speaker cables, and your so-called ‘entry level’ system will run you the best part of a grand. That’s before you’ve added a Bluetooth streamer or a small network streamer to bring it into the modern age. How many twenty-somethings want a CD player? Not many.
It’s partly the result of inflation, and partly Britain’s five-year stint of some of the worst decisions we’ve ever made under the hands of a government dangerously close to becoming a dictatorship. I wouldn’t be surprised if prices rise even further before we make it through the other side, and that’s to say nothing of our cost of living. But we must make the best of it, and music is one of the best distractions to get us through.
I can’t quite decide whether these components are priced based on what Cambridge think the buyer will pay, or a reflection of what the products actually cost to produce with a sensible profit margin and distribution costs on top. I’m leaning toward the former. Don’t get me wrong, their quality components compared to similarly-priced rivals. But the asking prices are steep and they’re not a steal. Realistically you won’t entice first-time buyers, particularly the younger generation when the price of entry is so high.
They’ve got serious competition too, especially from the big Japanese players. Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer, Teac, Yamaha and even Sony all have competing products, some of which cost less than the Cambridge and on paper offer more for the money including Bluetooth, which is an essential requirement for the vast majority of younger buyers and general consumers. The Topaz range was more aggressively priced. If memory serves the cheapest amplifier offered as part of the Topaz range was the AM1, costing £79.99 in Richer Sounds. Paired with a £50 pair of Wharfedale Diamond 9s and either a cheap CD player or a £20 Bluetooth receiver, you had a cracking starter system with change left over from £200.
The hi-fi industry in general is completely misguided when it tries to appeal to the first-time buyer or the general consumer who loves music and wants a great system without breaking the bank, or becoming entrapped by audiophile moronism. I can’t help but wonder if Cambridge haven’t fallen fowl of this too, and I can’t quite figure out who the AX range is really aimed toward. The price puts it out of reach of many making their first (or only) step onto the hi-fi ladder. And if you’re upgrading an existing setup you’re probably better off looking above the AX range to justify the outlay.
Perhaps Cambridge should offer the AX / SX components as package deals, with a discount where the components are purchased as a set. Richer Sounds do offer such deals in the UK, but Cambridge could make the process easier still perhaps with an online configuration tool. Questions like “how much power do you want?” And “do you want Bluetooth or a radio tuner?” In a simple online form that then presented a suitable system to the buyer would be ideal for first-timers who don’t yet know, or don’t care, what the difference is between an input and an output or what a DAC actually is.
I’m sure there are a few first-time buyers reading this, so I’ll preface my subjective summary with some advice. Subjective hi-fi reviews are worth less than you pay for them – likely nothing at all. Our setups, our rooms, our ears and our perceptions are all completely different. There are psychological factors to consider too – our mood profoundly affects how we listen.
Besides objective measurement there is no way to judge a hi-fi component fairly. Any subjective commentary in a review is opinion, regardless of the reviewer’s pedigree. No reviewer has so-called ‘golden ears’ and in fact if you asked most to reevaluate a component a year or two down the line, you’d likely find plenty of inconsistencies in their subjective account. For this reason I don’t devote much of my writing to subjective commentary, simply because beyond a general description of my findings it means very little. Take any subjective commentary, from me or anyone else, for what it’s worth.
Having connected up the AXA35, AXC35 and SX-60s, I gave them a week of constant background playback to run them in. Electronics will stabilise within a few hours, but speakers are mechanical devices and will loosen up a bit with a few tens of hours under their belts. Bass-heavy rock or electronica is perfect to get the cones moving, and the SX-60s loosened up nicely after 50 hours or so.
The overriding impression of the AX system as a whole is one of cohesiveness. Everything has its place and there are no glaring deficiencies as you would expect from a set designed in partnership. In truth most well-designed hi-fi will synergise. Only high-end esoterica with a ‘tuned’ sound that is anything but neutral can tend to present issues in system matching. The AX / SX system has a pleasing tonal quality, and the AXA35 helps to clean up the SX-60s top end so as to not risk fatigue even with an excessively bright recording.
As I mentioned in the review of the AXA35, the amp lacks a little ‘oomf’ and as such the bass is light-footed, though still well-controlled. Stereo imaging is very good though not the widest, deepest possible image. The image doesn’t stray far from the boundary of the speakers, and determining the placement of the speaker boxes themselves in the soundscape is easy. Projection into the room is good, and the system produces plenty of volume to fill a mid-sized room though larger rooms and open-plan areas will require a more powerful amp.
Cambridge have a very competent offering in the ‘budget’ hi-fi arena in the AX series. There’s something to be said for matching components and sticking with a single brand, and the AX emphasises that with its smart aesthetic, slimline proportions and excellent sound. It will stretch the budgets of first-time buyers, and I’d be lying if I said the Topaz predecessors weren’t much better value in more wallet-friendly times. But for £600 (£829 if you add the speakers) you have a system that performs in perfect harmony and looks more expensive than it is.
I’d like to see Cambridge complement the range with a streaming solution. They do have a range of outboard digital to analogue converters that will pair well with the system. But a full-width streaming solution, essentially bringing together the DAC hardware from the AXC35 and a Stream Magic module, would be a nice alternative for buyers who aren’t interested in playing CDs.
Integral Bluetooth and an IR emitter to facilitate app control of the amp would make it a well-rounded solution. Maybe a budget-oriented standalone Bluetooth streamer to make use of the USB power jack on the back of the amplifiers would be a good shout too. If they could bring out a £50 box with Aptx HD high-res Bluetooth streaming, it would be a must-have accessory and would probably help shift a few more AX amplifiers. But there’s always the AX-series receivers for those who want digital functionality (including Bluetooth) and a radio tuner in the box, and more power to boot.