Sometimes I worry about stuff. Stuff like ‘is the audio industry recession proof?’ It’s all well and good recommending fantastic audio works of art that cost as much as a small village in Wales, but in a time when our economy is so broken that you could buy half of Canary Wharf for a packet of Wine Gums, we have to plant our feet back on the ground. Not everyone can afford to spend tens of thousands on audio equipment and even some of those who can right now, may have to make some serious downshifting decisions in the near future. But, can you make high-end sounds without the high-end price tags?
The good – make that great – news is that it’s perfectly possible. Cambridge Audio’s Azur 650 series is leading the charge in producing economical components that look and sound like they are more expensive than they really are.
The Azur 650C CD player is a perfect case in point. Its spec sheet could comfortably be applied to products costing considerably more than £350. It’s EnergyStar efficient, consuming less than 25W at play, less than a watt at rest. It sports a pair of 24-bit, 192kHz capable Wolfson WM8740 converter chips, arranged in a double differential, four-pole balanced topology, a very high precision clock with impedance matched clock buffering, the company’s latest servo mechanism (which makes the transport open in geological time, it must be said) and a choice of sharp or slow roll-off filters. That would read impressive for a £2,000 player; at £350, it’s almost insane.
The back panel of the CD player is sparsely populated by high-end standards. Just a pair of phonos, another set (with a minijack) for multiroom connection, a toslink and a coax digital output. Where are the balanced outputs, the RS232 port, the AES/EBU connector? Interestingly, it’s not that they are missing that’s the kicker, it’s that you are surprised to find them missing. In looking over the product, you automatically expect it to be a middleweight and the few parts that show up its bantamweight nature almost catch you out.
The Azur 650A amplifier is not quite as much of a surprise, but only because you are used to seeing its spread of controls on amplifiers at the price. There’s only so much you can do with a set of tone controls, source selection and a volume knob. Nevertheless, the product is built far better than you expect and the odd touch of class (like the start-up diagnostic that runs up and down the blue LEDs for each source, the inset logo on the top plate, the little trim ring around the volume, balance and defeatable tone controls and the red protection LED to show when it’s time to play nice) really counts. And then there’s the thick front panels and the rolled edges of the black or silver cases. It’s all very, very professional and can put many a more expensive product to shame.
Under the hood, the same impressive price-busting spec dominates. It’s essentially a stereo line preamp with a pair of 75 watt monoblocks in the same chassis. Once again EnergyStar certified (less than a watt in standby), the design sports an oversized transformer, a motorised ALPS pot and Sanken transistors and polypropylene signal caps. Like its predecessor, it features the company’s own non-invasive CAP5 protection circuit, retuned and updated to prevent the amp from clipping, overheating or going short circuit. Although the 650A does not feature the company’s clever class XD output system, this is still an exotic spec for an amp that costs this little.
The manuals for these products are so well written and comprehensive, I almost hanker after Japlish translations or florid, Cantona-esque descriptions of performance. No “fulsomely insert cable-centre leftwards toward” or “the wolves of the sea have many beards… fear them” here, just good sensible instructions about the products and their use. Cambridge Audio does not supply cables in the boxes and the amplifier is without phono stage. Cambridge Audio also supplies aftermarket interconnect cables and a phono stage. These last two sentences may be connected. Fortunately the phono stage is a bit of a honey in its own right and those who’ve tried the cables report positively about their build and sound quality.
What’s surprising on first opening the boxes is just how professional the whole caboodle is. The packaging is slick, the product is encased in its own blue cover, the remote handset is custom-designed for the Azur product line, the front panel is deceptively thick and the casework remarkably flex-free. Aside from a low whirring as the volume pot moves under its own steam, both products are remarkably free from niggles and noises (that near silent transport mechanism is especially impressive). In other words, all the things you should expect of a product costing five times as much (but are often disappointed to see are MIA).