My search for a great sounding, affordably priced high-end system brought me to two very different companies, Cambridge Audio and Era Design. The former is a 30-year-old British firm that has recently transformed itself into a first-rate electronics designer and manufacturer. The latter is an American start-up loudspeaker company looking to make a statement with a $600-per-pair mini-monitor engineered by Aerial Acoustics’ Michael Kelly.
Cambridge Audio’s Azur 540A v2 integrated amplifier caught my eye at the recent Consumer Electronics Show. The $439 540A delivers 60Wpc into 8 ohms and features a remote control, nice metalwork, and what appeared to be high-end build-quality. The matching 540C v2 CD player is based on a custom-made transport mechanism and employs the same high-quality Wolfson digital-to-analog converter chips found in some $3000 machines (see sidebar for the technical details).
Era Design was founded by Signal Path, the North American distributor for Musical Fidelity electronics. Searching for a small speaker that would blend into any décor yet deliver true high-end sound, Signal Path engaged the design services of Aerial’s Kelly for driver design. If you’ve ever met Michael, it becomes apparent within thirty seconds that this man lives and breathes loudspeaker design. After experimenting with many off-the-shelf woofers for the Era Design 4, Kelly proposed to Signal Path that he design a driver from scratch just for the model 4—which is exactly what he did. The ported model 4 is finished in real hardwood veneer and sports a 1" silk-dome tweeter. Brackets allow the 4 to be wallmounted if you choose not to mount them on stands or on a bookshelf.
It was apparent that few corners were cut in the 4: The binding posts are very high quality; a layer of foam rubber inside the grille reduces diffraction (which reportedly obviates the need to remove the grilles for best sound); and the company logo is diamond-etched metal rather than stamped plastic. The tiny cabinet made of .5"-thick MDF even has an internal brace. Real hardwood finishes include rosewood, sycamore, and cherry. Piano black is available for an additional $60.
I mounted the Era Design 4s on stands and wired the system up with Kimber 4TC speaker cable ($146 for a six-foot pair) and Kimber Hero interconnects ($125 per pair). (Also consider Kimber 4VS cable at $92 and Kimber Timbre interconnects at $84.) The total system price with cables is $1748 ($1653 with the less-expensive cables).
Right out of the box, I was impressed by the system, both musically and sonically. One would expect a rather bass-shy presentation from such a small enclosure with a 4" woofer, but the system had astonishing weight and bottom-end extension. The Era Design 4 didn’t have the depth and power of (much) larger speakers, but I nonetheless found the bass extremely engaging and musically communicative. The reason the bass sounded so rewarding was the system’s absolutely mind-blowing midbass articulation, dynamics, and resolution. The fundamentals might not have been there, but the convincing and musically right reproduction of the overtones rendered that point moot. I spent quite a bit of time with the JVC XRCD release Audiophile by pianist Victor Feldman, a compilation of two stunningly recorded direct-to-disc LPs released in the early 1980s on the Nautilus label. Bassist Abraham Laboriel’s funky, dynamic, and highly melodic playing on this record was beautifully served by the Cambridge/Era Design system. I could clearly hear every note, inflection, and playful run. Similarly, the drum kit’s low-tuned mounted toms had real weight and punch rather than being reduced to sounding like pencils on oatmeal cartons. The Era Design 4 has to be the winner in the “best bass from the smallest cabinet” contest.
This impressive articulation extended well up into the midrange. I heard a sense of transparency, resolution of fine detail, and timbral purity I associate with electronics and speakers costing far more. One characteristic of high-quality audio products that mass-market systems don’t deliver is clarity and the ability to hear instruments as separate entities in space rather than as a flat and congealed wall of sound. The soundstage this system threw was open and expansive, with good dimensionality. The Cambridge/Era Design system got this fundamental prerequisite of musicality right.
There was only one sonic shortcoming, but it was apparent only occasionally: The upper treble sounded a bit ragged when there was strong high-frequency content at high levels, such as a cymbal crash. This could be the consequences of driving the low-sensitivity 4s (84dB) with just 60 watts. I must stress that this characteristic was not a constant, but a periodic event triggered by just the right combination of signal frequency and level.
To discover what the Cambridge electronics could do with a full-range, challenging speaker, I connected them to the Wilson MAXX 2. Although this is a gross mismatch, I’m glad I tried this, because the highresolution MAXX 2 revealed much about the 540A and 540C. For starters, the 540A had absolutely no problem driving the MAXX 2s to a moderate-tohigh playback level. This amplifier had plenty of oomph and dynamic headroom. I was surprised by how dynamic and clean the 540A was at high listening levels. The 540A even reached down into the lowermost octaves with authority. The 540A’s large power transformer and generous heatsinks no doubt allowed the amplifier to sound more powerful than its 60Wpc rating (it can deliver 90Wpc into 4 ohms). It got into trouble just once when I was admittedly pushing its limits; the 540A shut off and the front-panel LED blinked in a pattern of three pulses, which the owner’s manual says is indicative of an under-voltage/over-current condition. The CAT5 protection circuitry (see sidebar) worked perfectly.
Musically, the 540A and 540C had a remarkable tube-like quality. Mass-market products at this price usually sound a bit bright and hard in the treble and thin through the mids, with little soundstage definition. The Cambridge’s high-end design and parts-quality were easily audible; the presentation was smooth and even a little soft in the upper-midrange and treble, a quality that fostered a sense of ease and musical involvement. The mids were surprisingly liquid and free of grain. Completing the tube-like presentation was a bottom end that was full and warm rather than lean and tight. It added up to an engaging musicality that belied price.
The Era Design 4 delivers astonishing performance when operated within its limits. At moderate levels, you’d think you were listening to a more expensive speaker. It won’t fill a large room with deep bass, but it will convey the essence of music in a way that no $599, 4" twoway has any right to. The Era Design 4 really is an amazing achievement.
I was similarly impressed by the Cambridge 540A and 540C. These products are designed and built with sound quality as a goal, and the effort shows in the listening room. Forget your prejudices about how entry-level electronics sound; the Azur 540 Series delivers the essence of what high-quality music reproduction is all about.
When assembled as a $1748 system including Kimber cables and interconnects, this package produced a musically engaging, enjoyable, and satisfying presentation. I suspect that its sound quality is better than anything 98% of the population has ever heard. That is cause for both consternation and optimism; consternation that many consumers will spend the same or more on mass-market dreck, and optimism that sound this good can be had for so little money.