Cambridge Audio must employ mind readers. I know it’s got my number. I feel as if Cambridge made the new Azur 550A integrated amplifier and the 550C CD player especially for me—took into account my listening expectations and connectivity considerations as well as my budget. I’m not paranoid, but someone was watching. But if you must know I don’t mind that my privacy has been violated. My music and I are having too good a time.
Outwardly the Cambridge Audio Azur 550A and 550C—each priced at $599—are the same handsome components they were in an earlier incarnation as 540v.2 models. But they’ve been revitalized with thicker brushed-aluminum front panels, a contoured wrap-around top plate, and no visible screws. Sweet. There are nifty new dual-layer damped feet that improve performance via resonance control. The front panel is coherently laid out around the central Bunyanesque volume control—actually an improved high-specification Alps volume pot designed for better tonal stability and channel balance at lower levels. A smaller balance wheel resides to its immediate right, accompanied by a mini-jack for portable music players and a row of input pushbuttons, and to its left by bass and treble knobs, a tone control bypass, and headphone jack. Per Cambridge practice, the back panel features “downside up” input labeling for the majority of us who attach wires and interconnects by squinting over the back edge of the amp. As with its predecessor there’s no option for an internal phonostage, but CA continues to offer the 540P and higher-gain 640P phonostages at $109 and $199 respectively.
The real story lies on the inside. There’s a robust 60Wpc on tap thanks to the oversized toroidal transformer and a redesigned output stage bristling with new high-current Sanken output transistors. There’s also extensive use of WIMA polyester caps and metal-film resistors. The double-sided surface-mount technology reduces the signal path to a minimum. Additionally, Cambridge Audio’s CAP5 protection technology has been fully updated and retuned.
The Azur 550C compact disc player retains the Wolfson WM8740 DAC, a select audiophile grade 24-bit/192kHz-capable converter. It also features a Cambridge in-house-developed audio-only transport (with a new bracing mechanism for rigidity) rather than the computer-derived CD-ROM drives that are designed for data-streaming—a difference of significance for Cambridge engineers. This is accompanied by a new servo chipset and processor. There are an improved high-contrast display, dual user-selectable filters, and a digital output, too. Finally each unit is supplied with a newly designed Navigator remote control with a center thumbwheel, which unifies the amp and player and iPods docked with the optional Cambridge iD50 docking station. Furthering a commitment to greener power, Cambridge developed both units to be Energy Star certified by designing an ultra-low-power standby circuit that uses less than 1W.
As I cued up familiar reference music I was immediately entranced by the rich spectrum of audio criteria the amp was expressing. The midrange was richly detailed, with natural acoustic timbres and lower-midrange heft and transparency. But what really raised my eyebrows, conveying the weird sense that the amp was personalized for me, was its uncanny ability to grab a recording, lock in images, and mount a soundstage with unerring tonal balance and harmonic energy. Dynamically, this amp had legs. I revved up some of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” and even side-stepped the clutch for another chorus of Tom Waits’ “Come on Up to the House.” But, no dice. The amp lends a weight to recordings that belies its modest sixty watts. There’s a sense of grandeur and scale and sophistication that is generally the hallmark of much larger uptown efforts.
It’s worth noting that with 60 watts per channel speaker-matching is always a bit more perilous for an integrated like the 550A than for a fully-rigged flagship amp like CA’s own 200Wpc Azur 840W. However even pressing up against an immovable object, which low-sensitivity loudspeakers tend to be, the Azur 550A never lost its composure or behaved out of character. Asking it to drive a Magico V2 might seem as insane as urging a team of chihuahuas to pull a sled in the Iditarod, but amazingly the 550A was more than game, exhibiting only minor sonic subtractions. Its character remained sweet and stable even though complex layers of images were a little less focused, dynamics softened, and the soundstage shorn of a portion of its manicured perimeters. My point here is not that the 550A is likely to be matched with a Magico; rather it’s a performer that still retains its musicality in the face of a very demanding high-resolution loudspeaker.
And there are a plentiful number of applicants who would easily perform their best driven by the Azur. Try the B&W 685, Focal 705V, or the one of PSB’s new Image Series, particularly the shorter T5 tower for the full-range effect. But I also got terrific results with the new Verity Audio Finn, a three-way bass-reflex design that I’ll be reviewing in a forthcoming issue. Although its sensitivity is listed at 91dB, the Finn is demanding of the quality of power it receives. It clearly relished what the 550A was serving up and I found myself losing myself in the humid, bayou-backbeat of Alannah Myles’ classic rock ballad “Black Velvet” as soon as the needle hit the groove. That is what the high end is about for me.
My initial impressions of the Azur 550C CD player left me scratching my head. The player was dynamic, fast, smooth on top, and extended on the bottom. A bit forward and cooler in the mids—a characteristic fairly common to all but the most upscale digital. And fast-loading to boot! Also having selectable filters is a cool feature, although there wasn’t necessarily a clear “winner” as I shifted from one to the other. I typically found the “slow” or shallower filter more to my liking, with a relaxed laid-back sound and greater perspective. The steep filter, on the other hand tended to sound harder and more in-your-face, more “hi-fi-like,” but, again it often depended on the material and mood. Even Cambridge notes that there is no right or wrong choice.
Even more than the Azur 550A integrated, the Azur 550C was quite comfortable in the company of more expensive components. Everything I’d desire in a sub-$2k machine—oops, that’s sub-$1k machine. Truth is, the Azur 550C will take you pretty far down the road sonically. Naturally there are increasingly intricate levels of sophistication that pricier digital components use to stock the sonic larder. So, in that spirit, I decided to put the digital output of the 550C to use and further investigate what else I could sonically achieve running the player into a pricier DAC—in this instance the converter of the Simaudio Moon CD3.3, which uses the Burr-Brown PCM1798 ultra-high-resolution 24-bit/192kHz, and internal upsampling with 24-bit/1.41MHz processing. For this “compare and contrast” I noted differences that were at best subtle but consistent. The Cambridge came impressively close to matching the softer, more settled, and graceful perspective of the Simaudio. There was a similar amount of speed and attack but with the 550C slightly rougher edges, too. Its sound remained just a row or so forward for my tastes, while the Simaudio and even the Esoteric X-05 retained a more velvety presence and air and dimensionality. Overall it’s just a bit more general in terms of dimensionality and depth of images, and it doesn’t suggest the kind of vast space of the top-flight warriors. Am I being too hard on these components? Nope. It’s a tribute to their over-arching strengths that their modest limitations are only revealed in the company of much pricier gear. And in this aspect the Azur 550C, like its sibling the 550A, can proudly hold its head up. Way up.
In this competitive climate it’s not enough to market consistently great-sounding, well built gear to match a given price segment. Many companies do it and do it well. The hat-trick is to execute the preceding and offer class-shattering performance—gear that competes outside of its league. The Cambridge Audio Azur 550A and 550C fulfill this role brilliantly and most importantly, musically. I know they’ve got my number. You could be next.
Cambridge Audio Azur 550A integrated amplifier
Power Output: 60Wpc (into 8 Ohms)
Inputs: Five RCA single-ended, two tape loops
Dimensions: 16.9" x 4.7" x 13.8"
Weight: 17.6 lbs.
Cambridge Audio Azur 550C CD player
Outputs: Line-level RCA, S/PDIF, Toslink
Dimensions: 16.9" x 3.4" x 12.2"
Weight: 10.6 lbs.