While I was evaluating the Cambridge receiver in The Perfect Vision listening room one project I was working on involved compiling a list of ten favorite soundtracks for evaluating surround sound systems, and a I listened to candidate films through the 650R I was struck repeatedly by three things. First, this receiver seems to reproduce subtle low-level sonic information with a certain self-assured clarity that few other AVRs can match. Second, it offers top-shelf surround sound imaging—provided, of course, that your speaker system is up to the task. Third, it delivers dynamics that just don’t wilt under pressure—not even when driving large, near full-range main speakers rich in bass content. Put these qualities together and you’ve got an AVR that does an unusually effective job of putting listener in the center of the action seen onscreen. An example drawn from the film Apocalypto will help illustrate these points.
The film Apocalypto uses frequent shifts between literal and figurative images and sounds to deliberately blurs lines of distinction between conventional narrative story telling and the invocation of prophetic (or apocalyptic) visions. The chapter “Ravage” shows this process in action, opening with a scene of a forest village near dawn that is supported by delightfully realistic and (highly three-dimensional) jungle sounds of birds chirping, wind sweeping through the trees overhead, and a dog barking in the distance. But soon the scene and the soundtrack shift to an off-kilter sequence where the story’s protagonist Jaguar Paw’s experiences a prescient dream of warning where a frantic fellow villager (who has plainly had his heart cut from his chest) warns him, in a slightly distorted and phase-shifted voice, to “Run!!” The reason for the warning soon becomes apparent as Mayan warriors attack Jaguar Paw’s village, and the sound designer deliberately “spotlights” selective sounds of violence for greater, while interweaving the film’s dark, otherworldly score as the action reaches a violent crescendo.
Through the 650R, those natural sounds at the start of the chapter sound strikingly vibrant, lush, and detailed. But then, as the chapter progress, the 650R seems to track perfectly with the sound designer’s intentions, first nailing the subtle distortions of the warning dream, and then exploding with the full force of the graphic violence that follows. The Cambridge distinguishes itself by maintaining clarity and unflappable dynamic composure through it all.
The Azur 650R really comes into its own when driven by high-quality source components playing high resolution music files. A good example would be “Bye Bye Blackbird” from Patricia Barber’s Nightclub [Mobile Fidelity SACD], which—as you might expect from the title—faithfully recreates the intimate sound and “vibe” of a small jazz club. On the track referenced, for example, the Cambridge caught the dark, smoky, almost sultry sound of Barber’s voice, the sublimely restrained and delicate brushwork of percussionist Adam Nussbaum, and the deep, earth, full-bodied growl of Marc Johnson’s bass. If your disc player is good enough, the Cambridge will also convey the clean, percussive attack of Barber’s piano, and will even let you hear the sounds of high harmonics from the various instruments energizing and then reverberating within the walls of the recording space. What’s significant here is that I found myself instinctively comparing the 650R not to other AVRs, but rather to high performance audio components. As one colleague put it, “it’s as if the Cambridge is primarily a big, multichannel, high-end integrated amplifier that just happens to offer the functions of an A/V receiver as well.” I second that assessment.
Part of what makes the 650R so enjoyable is that it not only gets the core sound of instruments and vocalists right, but also—on well-recorded material—conveys a sense of the context or setting in which the original recording was made. To hear what I mean, try listening to the track “Grandmother” from Rebecca Pigeon’s Raven [Chesky SACD]. At its best, this track should offer an unusually deep, wide soundstage so that you are in essence transported from your listening room to the recording space where Pigeon and her backing musicians are arrayed before you. Relatively long reverb times and sounds that are slow to decay give you an idea of the size and acoustical qualities of the room and make the performance seem much more believable. Where some AVR’s render the track from a somewhat flattened, two-dimensional perspective, the Cambridge lets it unfold—as it should—into three dimensions, with performers taking their places onstage with almost sculptural solidity. These may seem like fine distinctions to make, but they spell the difference between good performance and something more.