Cambridge Audio CXN V2 Network Audio Streamer and CXA81 Integrated Amplifier
“From the Land of Great Rock Music.” “Great British Sound!” Both of these components came with these stickers affixed to them. And that worked for me. Partly because I have a long-time affinity for British rock (particularly from the 70s, 80s, 90s), and partly because I tend to be drawn to hi-fi equipment from the UK. Since Cambridge Audio has been making highly respected components for 50+ years now, I expected a lot from this reasonably priced duo—the British-designed CXN V2 network audio streamer and the CXA81 integrated amplifier. I will examine them individually and together, since used jointly they make up a nearly complete system—just add cables and speakers, and you can stream from your phone, PC, or network.
CXN V2 Network Player Features
The $1099 CXN V2 is the second generation of Cambridge’s very well received streamer and DAC. It is based on the dual 24-bit Wolfson WM8740 DAC with a “bit-perfect signal path” and jitter suppression. Cambridge’s proprietary ATF2 upsampling algorithm increases the bit-rate of all sources to 24-bit/384kHz, and the analog filter uses a two-pole dual-differential Bessel topology.
Available inputs on the CXN include wired USB, coaxial, TosLink, and Ethernet (UPnP) connections, along with wireless AirPlay 2 and Chromecast. Tidal and Qobuz have native support in the Cambridge app, which also provides high-quality Internet Radio streaming thanks to MPEG-DASH support and HLS. The CXN V2 is Roon-ready, but if you need Bluetooth aptX you can separately purchase a BT100 Bluetooth receiver. Compatible audio formats include ALAC, WAV, FLAC, AIFF, DSD (64), WMA, MP3, AAC, HE AAC, AAC+, and OGG Vorbis. WLAN capability (via included USB transmitter) is IEEE 802.11 b/g or n (2.4GHz).
The CXN V2 is too complex and supports too many different types of streaming and music files for me to test every single one. Even if I had high-res files of each supported type stored somewhere (which I don’t), it would be a Herculean task to try them all. But, as Cambridge is offering free shipping, a 60-day return (only slightly shorter than my review period!), and unlimited online/phone support, doing your own in-home research and auditioning is a breeze.
CXA81 Integrated Amplifer Features
The CX series is actually the midrange of Cambridge’s offerings, with the CXA81 positioned between the extremely affordable AXA35 and the top-of-the-line Edge A at a cool $6k. Priced at $1299, the CXA81 is rated at 80Wpc of Class AB solid-state power. It costs $300 more than the CXA61, but offers only 20 additional watts per channel. Since that only equates to about 1dB greater sound volume capability, which would barely be perceptible, I suspect much of the unit’s added price has gone towards refinements that improve sound quality. Cambridge does state that only the CXA81 has physically separate, symmetrical left and right channels for the analog stages.
Along with the typical four pairs of RCA analog line-level inputs, this amp includes one pair of XLR balanced ins. There are digital inputs, as well—SPDIF coax, TosLink, USB, and Bluetooth (aptX HD)—to drive the onboard high-quality DAC. (I assumed that this DAC was not quite as good as the one in the CXN V2, but more on that later.) The CXA81 features an entirely new digital board, with the ESS Sabre ES9016 D/A chip. It can handle digital files up to 32bit/384kHz, or DSD256. As for outputs, there are two sets of stereo speaker terminals, and both sets can be turned on and off independently. Also included are pre-out, subwoofer out, and a headphone jack on the front panel (plugging in ’phones will mute all other outputs).
Cambridge Audio also includes its proprietary CAP5 five-way protection system to ensure long-term reliability for amplifiers and the speakers they are connected to. CAP5 monitors for DC at the speaker outputs, over-temperature, over-voltage/over-current, short circuits, and intelligent clipping detection.
Both units come with a two-year parts and labor warranty in the USA.
Let’s have some fun. Pretending all I had was a mobile device (Android phone) and the CXA81, I started by pairing them via Bluetooth and brought up the Tidal app on my phone. I began with Sonic Temple from The Cult, another great British rock band, and the sound was decent but nothing to write home about. I blamed the Bluetooth connection. (My past experiences with Bluetooth have not really wowed me, even in its highest-fi version—aptX HD—although there is no guarantee that my phone was actually utilizing aptX HD to full effect.) Sonics could have also been limited by less-than-full-bandwidth Tidal data going to my phone (even though it was connected to WLAN). You do get full Tidal bandwidth and quality (lossless CD or even better from MQA tracks) from a WLAN or Ethernet or Windows PC-connected CXN V2. Don’t get me wrong, what I was hearing completely blew away any music I have heard directly from a phone or tablet or even laptop PC speakers. But it was not up to high-end home-audio standards.
Time for upgrade Number One. I sent the 16/44 PCM digital from Sonic Temple spinning on my Rotel RDD 980 CD transport to Input D3 on the CXA81 (SPDIF coax digital). Wow, this was more like it! Subtle details were popping out of the mix, drum beats had more power and impact, and there was a much better sense of space and reverb. It is incredible how much you are missing from data-reduced music like MP3s and Bluetooth-transferred mobile-phone streaming. With full use of all the capabilities of the DAC, preamp, and amplifier, the sound now coming out of the CXA81 was really quite good. Yes, it was capable of long-term listening satisfaction. But we’re not finished yet.
Then, you guessed it, I had the CXN V2 revved-up and ready to go for upgrade Number Two, with the same tracks from Sonic Temple streamed to the Tidal app on my PC via WLAN, and the CXN V2 connected to the A1 analog input on the CXA81 with balanced XLR AudioQuest Mackenzie interconnects. This was another real step up in sound quality! Billy Duffy’s guitar distortion had sharper teeth. Ian Astbury’s voice had a more convincing gravelly grumble. Subtle sounds and details were even more noticeable. Things which should be smooth and pure were, like solo vocal and sustained notes on solo guitar. The reverb gave me an enveloping sense of the size of the room (or artificial space) The Cult was playing in. Each individual instrument was easy to follow in the mix; even when things got busy and loud, nothing was covered up by anything else. The bass guitar was well fleshed-out as well.
To cross-check, I also tried my CD transport connected to a coax digital input on the CXN V2. Listening to Theater of Pain by Mötley Crüe, I started feeling there were some limitations to the recording quality of this album. So I switched to Mötley Crüe’s self-titled album from 1994 instead. The more sophisticated recording quality on that album brought out some very good qualities of the Cambridge duo. All of this just served to reinforce what I had heard when going from my second to third configuration: that the CXN has a much more serious DAC than the one that is built into the CXA81. Dynamics were more powerful, as if the drummer were hitting the drums harder. Subtleties about guitar sound, distortion, and effects had more character. Voices were more natural and liquid. There was a greater sense of space.
Most of my listening now included the CXN V2, through either Tidal or CD transport to the CXN’s digital input. These two provided the best sound, virtually identical in quality (unless the album had been remastered in the last 15 years or so, where the more recent Tidal version sounded better). For Tidal I tried navigating directly to albums from its menu and remote, which was annoying due to the small display, limited buttons, and slow scrolling I faced with large lists (my album favorites are over 600 now, and growing). I also tried using Cambridge’s StreamMagic app on my Android tablet. That was easier, but had its own issues, as after I’d selected and listened to a track it would move on to some other track that I’d been listening to before, forcing me to manually click on each new track I wanted to hear. (This app was recommended in the Quick Start sheets that came with both units, partly because it includes some configuration and set-up controls for the CXN V2.) You would think the default playback mode for an app would be the same “play the whole album from start to finish” that we’ve become accustomed to since the LP was invented in 1948.
Then I discovered the Cambridge Connect app, which is much better, and installed it on the tablet. Easier to navigate, clearer in layout, easier to search, nearly comparable to the Tidal app itself. I could let an entire album play (or a playlist), or pick and choose individual tracks like a DJ. And, of course, it was using Tidal native, with full data rate and sound quality (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC) but with no MQA decoding, which was an issue. Many albums that I love are available in MQA on Tidal “Master,” and even my humble Windows PC with Soundblaster Audigy sound card is capable of decoding MQA (at least the first unfold, which is the most important one). There is a major noticeable upgrade in quality going from CD (Tidal calls it “Hi-Fi”) to MQA, even though the overall data rate is the same. So I decided to try “casting” to the CXN V2 from Chromecast (Google Home app), and my tablet was able to pair with it and send sound to it. Then I brought up the Tidal app and played from that, hoping it might decode MQA. However, I was not getting full fidelity from this configuration. It obviously sounded worse, data-reduced, (even with CD-quality albums), as if there were another CODEC chain the music had to pass through with Chromecast to the streamer. So that option works, but not if you want the best sound.
Chinks in the Armor?
I know for a fact that my B&W 804 speakers have metal-dome tweeters with a resonance peak around 25–26kHz. I was wondering if I might be hearing some of that peak intruding more than it used to with older equipment that rolled off the response above 20kHz—not hearing the actual frequencies themselves, mind you (my hearing doesn’t go up that high), but perhaps some modulation artifacts an octave or so down. There was some stridency and harshness up in the highest frequencies (upper treble) that made the music less natural. I think it was more the fault of the CXN V2, since I heard similar results when coupling it with my own single-ended Class A amps instead of the Cambridge integrated. So, for comparison, I swapped the B&Ws out for the much smaller Rogers dB101s, which have polymer tweeters.
I put on one of my favorites, Steve Reich’s rhythmic 1970s avant-garde classical masterpiece Music For 18 Musicians. Wow, all the top-octave harshness was gone. These speakers and this recording came together in a synergistic harmony. Apart from the obviously missing low bass, the sound was incredible—one of the most natural and convincing renditions I have ever heard of this music. When hit with mallets, the marimbas were incredibly woody, as if I could touch them and feel the exact density of the hardwood the tone bars were made from.
As I listened more, however, I realized that these speakers were really missing part of the top octave, and that that did cut down on the sparkle of the music. There was a bit of realism missing, and also the Rogers could not play very loud without sounding strained, compared to my large speakers. None of this is surprising, as these were fairly affordable true bookshelf monitors, with small enclosures and only 5″ woofers. Nevertheless, my “experiment” showed two things. One, that the CXN V2/CXA81 system is best partnered with speakers that aren’t excessively bright. And two, that these Cambridge units can make a wide variety of speakers sound great, even smaller, modest ones. To really get the full resolution this Cambridge system is capable of, you do want to aim for getting a more serious pair of speakers eventually, perhaps in the $1000–$2000 range, with decent bass and power handling.
Now about the display in the CXN V2, which is important for track/artist info and not just for album art. If information is going to be displayed on a screen (which worked well with Tidal, for example), it may as well be at a screen-size that you can actually read from more than three feet away, and/or don’t have to get down on your knees to see, if the unit is mounted in a floor rack! Cambridge would have to increase the height of the unit, and minimize (or eliminate) the lower front-panel strip, but these changes would be well worth it, IMHO. Cambridge could then essentially double the size of the display so that it could be legible from 4–6 feet away, instead of only 2–3 feet.
Getting back to the “optimal configuration” with both Cambridge units feeding into the B&W 804s, I discovered that certain recordings can tame the harsh top octave without a speaker swap. Streaming Duniya by Loop Guru was another synergistic harmony. This far-out dance fusion (classified as World Beat or Exotic Dub by some) of looped ethnic samples has always been a lot of fun to listen to. Through the Cambridge system, the inner detail was illuminated in a new way, making it more exciting, more engaging, more toe-tapping. The resonance of the hand drums had more tone; the soundfield felt deeper and wider. The music was dynamic and pulsating, not in a forced but in a friendly way.
The integrated amp has traditionally been more popular in Europe than in North America. The reasons for this include smaller living spaces, lower prices, fewer cables needed, etc. If you view an integrated as a preamp and amp built together on the same chassis, you have to admit there are some advantages. There is a potential for better sound for the money, since the output jacks, interconnect cable, and input jacks needed between preamp and amp, and any sonic colorations they impose, are gone. As long as the designers take care to properly isolate the power supplies of the different stages from each other, very good results can be had when using an integrated amp as the heart of your main system.
At a little over $1000, the CXA81 could be the perfect start to a system that is one step up from entry-level high end. You could begin with this unit, some inexpensive cables and speakers, and a low-cost or hand-me-down CD player (use digital-out), and have a decent-sounding system. As time goes by, you could upgrade a cable here, a pair of speakers there, add the CXN V2, and bit by bit hear the improvements, until you arrived at a truly impressive setup. The whole time the CXA81 would be keeping up with the advancements and performing well enough to pass on the increase in fidelity for each change. Highly recommended!
As for the CXN V2, I also liked it a lot. It does many things well, has a plethora of features and supported files/streaming services, and, of course, sounds fantastic. The DAC alone is quite impressive at this price. With its advanced upsampling and high-bit-depth D/A chips, it could reveal more about recordings than I had been accustomed to with my own dated DAC. I just wish it had a larger display and MQA decoding. Actually I would purchase the review sample if it did have MQA, but then again I still might anyway. Also highly recommended!
I must say, good show, old chap, on the lovely British sound—and at a price that’s more affordable than traveling to London.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Network audio streamer/DAC
Inputs: Wi-Fi, optional Bluetooth, LAN, coaxial digital, TosLink digital, USB, Apple AirPlay 2, Roon-ready, Chromecast built-in
Outputs: Balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA analog, SPDIF coaxial, and TosLink optical digital
Frequency response: 20Hz–20kHz +/-0.1dB
SNR: -112dBr (at volume set to full)
Weight 4 kg (8.8 lbs.)
Type: Stereo integrated amplifier (digital-capable)
Analog inputs: 1x balanced XLR, 4x RCA
Digital inputs: SPDIF coaxial, 2x TosLink optical, USB, Bluetooth
Outputs: Speakers A+B, 3.5mm headphone, preamp, subwoofer
Power output per channel: 80W RMS into 8 ohms, 120W RMS into 4 ohms
Frequency response: <5Hz–60kHz +/-1dB
Input impedances: Input A1 (balanced) 50k ohm, Input A1-A4 (unbalanced) 43k ohm
Weight: 8.7 kg (19.1 lbs.)
AudioQuest Niagara 1200 Low-Z power conditioner, AudioQuest NRG-Y3 and NRG-Z3 power cables, AudioQuest Mackenzie and Golden Gate analog interconnects, and Cinnamon digital. AudioQuest Type 5 speaker cable. Kimber Hero and Silver Streak interconnects. Alpha Core Goertz MI-2 T-series speaker cable. Goertz MI Micro Purl silver interconnect. Rotel RDD 980 CD Transport. Assemblage DAC-3 D/A processor. Customized Zen/Bride of Zen pure single-ended class-A integrated amps. Rogers dB101 and B&W Matrix 804 speakers
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