Cambridge Audio CXN V2 Network Audio Streamer and CXA81 Integrated Amplifier
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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