British companies like Meridian and Arcam have used their extensive experience in highperformance audio to springboard into leadership positions in home theater electronics—a transition tougher to pull off than one might think. Whereas it is arguably easier than it once was to play in both the video and audio worlds, many manufacturers fail to deliver both top-notch video and audio performance. But another British firm, Cambridge Audio, claims that its new Azur line of multichannel components sets new price/performance standards in both areas. Certainly the company's previous products have earned a reputation among audio enthusiasts for providing a lot of sound quality per dollar, but their video prowess has been virtually unknown. When I received Cambridge Audio's Azur 540D DVD-Audio/Video player, I suspected it would offer good sound, but I wondered whether its video performance would be "up to snuff."
As I suspected, the $399 Cambridge Audio Azur 540D offers audio performance that is very competitive with the best separate CD players I have heard for under $400, but its outstanding video and DVD-A performance caused my jaw to drop. Here's a unit from a former "audio company" that will knock some of the established video players back on their heals. In progressivescan mode, it renders natural and clean looking images that are clearly competitive with those produced by DVD players costing much more. Better still, the 540D's performance on high resolution DVD-A is the best I have heard at anywhere near its modest price.
To evaluate the Azur 540D's video performance, I connected its component video outputs to a large Sony RPTV. The Cambridge Audio unit's progressive scan output on the Video Essentials test disc was impressive without noticeable noise, high-frequency roll-off, or softening on black and white or color test patterns. Additionally, the 540D's performance rendering moving images and subtle details, like small ripples on the water, was quite good, exceeding that of a more costly, but one generation old, Denon DVD-2900 I had on hand for comparison. This is particularly noteworthy because the 2900 retailed for $999, and was praised less than a year-and-a-half ago (in The Absolute Sound, Issue 145) for its outstanding picture quality.
However, I was more interested in the Cambridge Audio unit's video performance on DVDs, rather than test discs. On a variety of demanding films, it offered better detail, color "pop," and depth (via its component outputs in progressive scan mode) than did the Denon DVD-2900. Watching the scene in The Fifth Element [Columbia/Tri-Star] where Leeloo comes crashing through the top of the taxi, I could clearly see more detail through the Cambridge Audio player, such as the reflections on the plastic separator between Milla Jovovich and Bruce Willis. Skin tone was more natural, images looked more three-dimensional, and colors had more vibrancy via the 540D, only occasionally becoming very slightly oversaturated. With its superior clarity, the Cambridge Audio ruthlessly exposed some of the cheesy models used in the Lord of the Rings [New Line Cinema], and I was able to see more fine details than with other players. Not only was the overall video performance of the Azur 540D better than the Denon DVD-2900, this new British import thoroughly trounced my previous standard in this price class, the JVC XV-SA600 DVD-A/V player. Not a bad initial effort for the new kid on the block.
What's most shocking about the Azur 540D's video performance is its film-like presentation on progressive DVDs. If your display is up to reproducing inky blacks, subtle contrasts and fine detail, you'll be amazed at the performance of the 540D. DVDs have a richness and naturalness that I've only seen in units costing far more, and there were times I thought I was looking at a high-definition source. Indeed, the 540D appears to close some of the gap between highdefinition material and 480p video, making for a much more engaging home theater experience.
One of the reasons for the Cambridge Audio's video prowess is that it employs six 54MHz, 12-bit video DACs rather than the 11-bit devices so common in this price class. Another is that the company's experience isolating critical components and designing low resonance, acoustically damped chassis for audio pays off on the video front as well, resulting in less video distortion. An example of the company's video design talent is that the 540D supports both PAL and NTSC interlaced and progressivescan video, a compelling feature if you have an international library of both types of material with a compatible display.
As one might expect, the 540D is a more than just a competent two-channel performer on conventional CDs. It rivals the superlative performance of the NAD C 542 CD player I reviewed a few months ago in our sister publication AVguide Monthly, and it sounds far better and is much more sleek and solid than the older Cambridge Audio D500 player I use as the CD transport in my reference system. This is one inexpensive digital player that gives you some of the cushion of air around the instruments that you find with good analog systems. Most CD players in this segment sound pretty flat or two-dimensional and instruments lack both body and naturalness, but the Azur 540D is quite different. Using it as a source, instruments like woodwinds and violins became more fleshed out and had better timbre, the soundstage was deeper, and music sounded more "at ease." You can listen to this unit for hours without aural fatigue. Also, on really well-recorded CDs, like Musica Sacra [Opus 3] and Tutti [Reference Recordings], I heard so many ambient cues that I thought I was listening to vinyl. With the exception of the NAD, the Azur 540D smokes the standalone CD players in this price class, and I think that you'll have to spend a lot more to reach the next level of performance, exemplified by the more than twice as expensive Musical Fidelity X-RayV3.
However, the sound of the Azur 540D on DVD-A discs definitely gets you at least to that next level on both stereo and multichannel material. It offers the best performance I've heard from any DVD-A or SACD format player costing less than $600, and possibly more. It lacks the unnatural, upper midrange forwardness and "edge" I hear on many modestly priced SACD players, which have ruled them out for me. The Cambridge Audio unit also sounded more natural, defined, relaxed, and holographic than the JVC player on DVD-A discs. Listening to "Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis" [Vaughn Williams: Orchestral Favorites/Naxos], I heard natural, rich string tone, solid and deep bass, and extended highs, with plenty of air but without stridency. The wide, semi-cir - cular arc of music the Azur projected in multichannel playback transfixed me with subtle details that came through clearly and with ease. On The Dubliners: The Definitive Transatlantic Collection [Silverline], voices sounded natural and without sibilance, the mandolin and banjo had an appealing transient quickness, and I just heard more of the music. If you haven't bought into the whole multichannel thing yet, listen to the Cambridge with DVD-As in a top-shelf stereo system. Its performance is shockingly good for a player at this price, and I could see buying the 540D for this capability alone.
If you audition the Cambridge Audio 540D using a DVD with a great soundtrack, like Ray [Universal], make sure you're seated as you'll likely be floored by its sound. This level of audio performance in a modestly priced unit is really quite special and makes this film more enjoyable and engaging. I was riveted to my chair by the soundtrack alone, and I heard new elements in the old Ray Charles recordings that had been previously obscured. Consequently, I found myself revisiting several other DVDs and discovering new details in their sound design and music tracks. If you're like me, you may find yourself sitting through entire films, just for the sound alone!
While I was very impressed with the performance of the Cambridge Audio Azur 540D, it is not for everyone. Although its S-Video capabilities are quite competitive, the 540D's striking video performance is lost if you are unable to use the component video outputs in progressive-scan mode. There are also less expensive universal players that have SACD audio and DVI video outputs that the Cambridge is lacking, but I don't think they can come close to the 540D's powerful combination of audio and video strengths. I suspect the next step up from the Cambridge Audio 540D is the Denon DVD-2910 universal player, at almost twice the price, but with several more connectivity options. That said, you should carefully compare the video and sonic performance of these two units to assess their relative performance tradeoffs—you might be surprised at the outcome.
With the Azur 540D, Cambridge Audio has proven that it is equally adept at delivering terrific video and audio performance in a modestly priced unit. While you would be justified in buying this DVD player solely for its video performance, its multichannel audio capabilities, or as a standalone CD/DVD-A player, its combination of strengths in all these areas makes this unit hard to beat at anywhere near its price. With the introduction of this new DVD-A/V player, I would say that another British firm has proven it can effectively straddle the video and audio worlds, setting new price/performance benchmarks in each. Good job!