Cambridge Audio has engineered some of the most consistently well-reviewed electronics this magazine has covered. Very recently I fell hard for the elite Cambridge Azur separates, the 840E preamp and 840W amplifier [Issue 186]. Editor-in-Chief Robert Harley was over the moon for the Azur 840C CD player [Issue 174], and Playback Editor Chris Martens was smitten by the Azur 840A integrated amp [Issue 167]. Surely something has got to give. Every team has an under-performer, right? The .200 hitting percentage benchwarmer? At least this is what I was thinking as I unpacked the $399 AM10 integrated amplifier and the identically priced CD10 compact disc player, key components in Cambridge Audio’s new entry-level Topaz line. Would these be worthy of making the starting lineup or simply end up being the proverbial swing and a miss?
Cambridge Audio considers its Topaz components its “basics” range. Beyond the 35Wpc AM10 integrated amplifier and the CD10 CD player reviewed here, there is the SR10, a stereo receiver with 85Wpc priced at $650. With Topaz, clearly Cambridge is targeting the prime sub-$700 territory—NAD country. In fact you might say Cambridge is making a BEE-line in that direction.
Generally speaking the high end is not a very inviting place for gear of modest means. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve brought friends around and invariably they’ll look right past a humble little amplifier like the AM10. But there’s a long history of little amps that have been hugely underestimated.
The AM10 might be a “just the facts, ma’am” integrated but it’s hardly undernourished. Its brushed aluminum exterior and thick front panel are inviting and stylish. Judging by its surprising heft there’s a pretty good size toroidal transformer inside too. The back panel houses five pairs of RCA inputs, and there’s even a built-in phonostage for moving magnet or high-output moving coils. A nice touch given the selection of budget turntables and superb LP reissues currently available. Tone and balance controls are software-driven via the setup menu—sadly, no tone bypass though. And there is a front-panel headphone jack and mini-jack for a personal audio player. The AM10’s display is easily readable and gives full source and volume feedback. Finally, a nicely featured remote is supplied and able to control both amp and CD player.
Okay, 35Wpc doesn’t sound like a lot of power. But let’s put this in context. Amps only know they’re small in a big room or with the wrong speaker. Shackled to a low-sensitivity loudspeaker in a palatial listening room and urged to perform routinely in the 95dB+ range, we would indeed have a Houston-level problem. But that’s not the AM10’s job description. The AM10 exists for the smaller application—to provide high-level musicality in tighter confines.
In that context, the AM10 does a great many things right. It throws a spacious soundstage with solid depth retrieval and a locked down central image on vocals. It’s strongly midrange weighted with a gradual softening of response as it inches toward the frequency extremes. I very much liked what I heard with Kissin’s piano during Pictures at an Exhibition, quick but not strident on top with realistic resonant cues. And Arturo Delmoni’s violin possessed an even balance that to my ears touched all the right harmonic and timbral bases. Both the AM10 and the CD10 comported themselves with a blend of presence and tonal honesty that is more consonant with high-end ideals than blue-plate values.
Obviously there are limitations. In dynamics and low-frequency extension the AM10 is no piledriver. Headbanger rock—like the reissue of Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power [Atco] reviewed elsewhere in this issue—makes clear that guitar and percussion transients are a bit suppressed. The AM10 shows a little too much character in its drier upper register. I found the harmonized vocals during Linda Ronstadt’s performance of “Blue Bayou” (from the recent Mobile Fidelity reissue of Simple Dreams) to be a touch brittle without the elbow room the collective voices typically have. Likewise, Clark Terry’s trumpet on One on One [Chesky] has a whiter signature in its upper octaves. You can hear a little bit of the AM10’s electronic fingerprint in the acoustic space around the musicians and, at times, the imaging among players seems a little more vague and the orchestral layering less than distinct. Mostly I missed what you shell out the big bucks for—that ethereal cushion of air that underlies, embraces, and immerses the listener in a well-recorded acoustic performance. Listen to the Ray Brown Trio’s take on “Cry Me a River” from Soular Energy [Groove Note], and you’ll know I’m not jiving.
To get the most out of the AM10, the amp/speaker match-up is everything. It’s a truism that if you don’t have a lot of power on tap, head for a speaker that thrives on the output you have. A compact like the PSB Alpha B1 is a winner, and some offerings from B&W, Paradigm, Focal, Rega, or Triangle would be great choices as well. The AM10 will thrive with a warmer speaker—one with controlled midbass support and a relaxed top-end. It’s a blue-plate value that won’t leave you asking for seconds.
Source components will perform pretty much up to spec in any setting. This is in contrast to amplifiers, which mandate a synergistic relationship with a loudspeaker to perform at a peak level. The CD10 compact disc player did not disappoint. It made an instant connection with me and quickly left its entry-level origins in the dust. Like the AM10 it’s a back-to-basics machine. It may not upsample to 384kHz/24-bit or possess the dual-differential DACs of the Azur 840C, but the CD10 still has its share of “go-fast” gear. It packs the formidable Wolfson 8761 DAC and a convenient S/PDIF output for driving an outboard DAC, and uses double-sided surface-mount boards to shorten signal paths. Nice. Operation is smooth, although the drawer of this front-loader is a little sluggish. No biggie.
From the first disc to the last the CD10 went about its business without a hitch. Tonally neutral but with a slightly forward middle range, it has enough smoothness and detail to make you think you might have stolen something. Some players convey a flatness, perhaps best described as a lack of color or rhythmic energy. But this player just had an engaging liveliness that kept me focused on the music rather than the clock. On Diana Krall’s cover of “A Case of You” from her Live in Paris disc [Verve], I could immediately settle in and enjoy the quickness and transient speed that underscores the electric moments unique to well-engineered, live recordings—right down to the occasional microphone clipping when she nails a piano key a little harder than anticipated.
Even in the face of a daunting reference player like the Audio Research CD-5 the CD10 hardly capitulated. True, the CD10 reveals a character that’s a little lightweight in bass presentation with a slight veiling overall. A signature that creates a gentled-down presence and one that tends to overly smooth the sonic tableau—and, as in the example of Krall’s piano, to slightly reduce the expressiveness of keyboard transients and cap the largest dynamic swings. But even tasked with feeding source material to a speaker like the $37k TAD CR-1, its subtractions are essentially benign. On the Norah Jones cover of Hank Williams “Cold Cold Heart”, those subtractions mostly involve a hint of treble dryness on the vocal and a less expansive, layered, and reverberant acoustic. The CD10 won’t plumb the complex harmonic waters of the stand-up bass on this track as deeply nor will it reveal the full extent of the transient attack off the string—that distinctive flutter and ripple. And, on “The Nearness of You” from the same Jones’ album Come Away With Me [Blue Note], the solo piano’s resonances seem to bump up against the virtual walls of a narrowed soundstage. However, this is what it frequently comes down to with digital—a constriction of openness, a reduction of that almost subconscious sense of dimension and bloom that analog seems to effortlessly provide. That the CD10 allowed me to bridge the digital/analog divide to the extent that it did, and do so for the price Cambridge is asking, is tribute in and of itself. Truly Topaz’s little gemstone.
With both components the Topaz rookies are rock-solid units that provide a rewarding array of the musical thrills and finesse you’d expect when getting started in the high end. No little leaguers here. And the Topaz CD10 is a real standout—a potential MVP. But the season is young and competition is keen in this segment. However, with Topaz dialed in, Cambridge’s latest hitting streak remains unbroken.
SPECS & PRICING
Topaz AM10 integrated amp
Power Output: 35 watts (into 8 ohms)
Frequency Response: (-1dB) 5Hz–50kHz
Inputs: Five plus phono, one MP3 mini-jack
Dimensions: 3" x 17" x 13.4"
Weight: 12.3 lbs.
Topaz CD10 CD Player
Inputs: One pair RCA
Outputs: One digital coaxial
Disc formats: CD-DA/CD-R/CD-RW/CD-ROM, MP3/MP3 Pro/WMA
Dimensions: 3.35" x 17" x 12.2"
Weight: 9.5 lbs.