I just took out my iPhone, turned on my audio system with it, then called up an “Official” 2007 video of Marc Knopfler performing Brothers in Arms in Berlin on YouTube. I hit the AirPlay icon, selected the Cambridge Edge NQ network player, and proceeded to enjoy the stunningly good-quality video (with over 8.3 million views) on the phone while the music poured out of my audio system. Knopfler was right in front of me, and I paused for a moment to write this introduction. Something rattled me, and I awoke from the experience in an attempt to take it all in. I hadn’t touched anything but my phone for any function, and yet this was an evaluation of a set of electronics for The Absolute Sound. Not CNET, or Tech Radar, or some holiday appliance catalog. Could this be a brighter, more connected audio future? I had never evaluated any component or system in this way. And the moment clarified the central question for this review: Can you have it all? Can your audio experience be made simpler, all-inclusive, and qualitatively better? Can you connect all the connected aspects of your audio experience and not compromise the fundamental attributes that still bring you to read the pages of this magazine?
Can you have it all?
The Big 50 (Not Halfway There)
In a desperate, failed psychological ploy, I attempted to redefine the occasion of my 50th birthday as merely “halfway there.” I have come to realize that what began as a cute phrase of avoidance was instead an explicit and depressing acknowledgement of the end…halfway there. I should have just taken the opportunity to celebrate the 50 years that were.
Fortunately for all of us in the audio world, Britain’s Cambridge Audio didn’t waste the positive potential for celebration of its first 50 years. In anticipation of the event, it challenged nine engineers over three years to create a product series that would exemplify the company’s original vision of Great British Sound (more on that later). Unlike its other, more value-oriented ranges, this would be a “without limits” effort—a showcase of all that the company had learned and stood for. Go for it, boys and girls. “What would you do if anything were possible?”
The final result was three products in a range named for an engineer responsible for Cambridge Audio’s first innovative creation, the p40 integrated amplifier. His name: Professor Gordon Edge. The new series: Edge. We have then three Edge products: an Edge A integrated amplifier ($6k); an Edge NQ preamplifier with integrated network player ($5k); and an Edge W power amplifier ($4k). The subjects of this review are the Edge NQ and the Edge W pre/power combination.
There’s a lot going on here, and a lot that can be said. So much so that I fear losing the forest through the trees. Let’s be clear at the outset then—the Cambridge Audio Edge NQ preamplifier and W power amplifier are more-than-worthy results of Cambridge’s vision for no-limit components. We’ll get to the raw performance soon enough, but I can’t state strongly enough that the Edge products have such a completeness and polish to them that you can literally feel the pride that went into their design and execution. From the marketing, to the aesthetic details, to the packaging, to the ease of use and integration, and yes, to the performance—this level of execution suggests a rare degree of talents deployed in a singular direction. So before I go all Absolute Sound on you, just promise you won’t let me bury that lead. Some things are worthy of your attention. These most certainly are.
I’d lose more than a few of you if I called the Edge NQ a digital network preamplifier. There’d be all kinds of implied assumptions that the NQ is a digital-only plaything. Instead, let’s view it for what it is: an analog preamp with an onboard DAC and a network streaming module/software of Cambridge’s own (already heralded) development. Cambridge claims a unique circuit board where capacitors have been replaced with a DC-coupled topology. The solid-state volume is “digital” only in the control of its position. Signals entering the NQ in the analog domain stay there.
It is fair to say, however, that Cambridge Audio positions the NQ to function first and foremost as a network preamplifier. Used in such a fashion, the NQ doubles as a source, or renderer in the now common parlance of our times. This functionality is all based around a module utilizing Cambridge’s own Streammagic streaming software. Chromecast built-in. Airplay. UPnP/DLNA. Bluetooth aptX HD. Internet radio. Spotify Connect. Tidal. All through a chipset supporting 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD256 files. I’ll get into more depth later, but if you have a network-attached music service or source, the Edge NQ will be there for you. As you’ll read, all beautifully integrated.
Fourteen. That’s how many components are in the 100Wpc Edge W power amplifier’s signal path. Though a substantial 52 pounds in weight (primarily due to the opposing twin toroidal transformers said to cancel electromagnetic interference and allow for more consistent tonality and power delivery), this is really a study in less-is-more amplification. Instead of opting for less efficient Class A operation, Cambridge utilizes what it calls Class XA. A bias voltage is added to traditional Class AB to shift the crossover point outside the range of human hearing. I’ll just take its word for it (no EE writing this review I’m afraid).