Cambridge Audio Azur 840A - part deux

E

Effem

Guest
This is an abridged version of the full review

My last encounter with a Cambridge Audio component was in the shape of an A1 integrated amp which had the unique knack of turning lack of weight and slam into a positive virtue by producing the most beguiling and delicate brushstrokes of sound across the whole frequency spectrum, so you were never once was aware of it's limited power output and restricted current delivery. It turned some sow's ears into silk purses too, because it gelled so well with almost any budget ancillaries you cared to partner it with and the remainder of the CA range was voiced to synergise well with it too. It was a popular budget amplifier for that reason and justifiably so. It fitted in very well too in the way the brand was marketed and sold, but where it was a positive in that era of the marque, this new addition to the Azur family is well and truly not of the same mould and set to cause a few ripples in the budget end of the spectrum.

Enter the new Cambridge Audio Azur 840A integrated amp.

At first glance it looks pretty much a nondescript rectangular box with a selection of knobs and buttons to fiddle with, plus a rectangular LCD display smack in the middle of the front panel. In the beauty stakes it isn't a catwalk candidate by any means, nor will it provoke catalogue/web browsers into drooling fits from it's first visual impact. My take on this is that those with a flashy exterior don't have to much on the interior to get excited about and in most cases this proves to be true. Not so the CA 840A; go for a closer look and you will see that someone has spent considerable time in adding useful little touches like adding a headphone socket, upside down legends on the rear panel inputs and outputs for those poor souls that have to cantilever themselves over their hi-fi rack for making connections. Reading the words "TAPE INPUT" is a jolly sight easier to decipher than reading "TUPNI EPATE" with cross eyes and a crick in your neck for good measure. Couple that to an XLR balanced input for good measure, Icognito multi-room distribution facility, AV system integration, pre amp out for bi-amping, two sets of speaker binding posts, the list goes on and totals up to a highly competitve well performing package.

Whereas previous CA offerings have been lightweight in both build quality and sonic attributes, this new integrated amplifier suffers with neither of those and the minute you pick up it's box you know there is something rather substantial inside it. Open the box up and you are greeted by a beautifully printed manual and a quality remote control that have no real right to be residing in some "budget" component packaging. The manual is full of relevant easily understood information with clear illustrations. Well built too is the remote control handset which has a wonderfully crafted "veneer" of brushed aluminium over a plastic body - infinitely preferable to the flimsy afterthoughts so commonly encountered nowadays. Simple, but very effective and a neat way of keeping the costs down while maintaining a quality look/feel. Top marks to Cambridge Audio again.

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This particular review sample I have been sent is in a black finish, silver is also available too if you prefer it. Controls are logically laid out and clearly labeled, with nothing radical to greet the eye apart from the central backlit LCD display having black legends on a pale green backround which would in my view look perfectly fine on a silver cased example (as you see above), but with the black case surrounding the display the contrast levels between the black and the illuminated green glow is just too much, so the eye is constantly being drawn towards it. Of course there is the option to dim the display in two steps then down to off, but I would much rather see the green legends on a black background for the black coloured variant. To the left is the standby switch (the main isolation switch is on the back panel) and above that is a blue LED to indicate the standy mode. Not the usual sear your retina out kind of blue LED that is all too common nowadays, but just sufficient brightness to tell the owner it's in standby mode and no more. A neat touch (some would say 'retro' here) is the tone controls which are flush with the front panel until depressed, whereupon they pop out by a few millimetres for the necessary adjustments, then pressed back in again. A tone defeat option is incorporated into the circuitry and pleased to say the slope of the controls is just enough to tailor the sound to your choice without going to the extremes. It boasts no less than 8 line level inputs individually nunbered 1 to 7 with the last set aside for the tape loop. No phono input for all you vinyl afficiando's but Cambridge Audio's response is that it produces seperate add-on phono stages in the shape of the 540 and 640 as a buy later option. A large volume knob is to the extreme right of the fascia and not conventionally mounted onto a variable potentiometer with end stops. It's almost as though it has been geared down, as it takes several cranks of the fingers to get it to respond up to a level you wish to listen to. It's not a fault as such, just that most folks are very much used to equating turn of knob into increase in volume, so that by the 10 o'clock position is about right whereas with the CA's indirect digital coupling it has taken a few twists of the wrists to achieve the same result. At long last someone has paid serious attention to the state of the speaker connections and considering this amp is targeted at the newcomer to the world of hi-fi seperates who is easily bamboozled by such technical tomfoolery as wiring up the speaker cables, then this little "self test" the amp goes through at startup to check for speaker connection integrity could save that awful smell of bonfire if the cables are not properly connected. It monitors DC conditions, temperature, short circuit conditions and overload on the output. If all is well the display shows "Speakers OK", which is very reassuring. Another neat little feature is the amp's ability to recall the last volume position before it was set to standby mode; a few clicks can be heard coming from within via the resistive ladder rack relays while the volume bar graph display moves up to the point where it stored the previous setting.

SOUND QUALITY

The CA840 was auditioned in both of my own systems comprising a Krell MD-10 transport into an EAD digital to analogue convertor, with Triangle Antal loudspeakers and with pure silver wiring throughout to see how the amp would perform in a sector it wasn't actually intended for. The comparisons done within my second system with a Marantz PM7200 will appear in the full review. The resident amplifier in the primary system is a Musical Fidelity Trivista 300 integrated amplifier, so if we are to have a David vs Goliath match with the CA 840A then the MF is as good a candidate as any for the task.

Reference music played was Dire Straits "Calling Elvis", not because it has any tortuous sonic hurdles to overcome, but it is a lot more complex sound mix than most people realise at first hearing, having some very deep bass lines that readily fall into boominess while at the same time wiping out the subtle microdynamics that reside way backin there. Mark Knopfler's voice is also quite difficult to reproduce faithfully because it sounds fairly nasal to begin with and easily slips into sounding asthmatic and wheezy at the drop of a hat in the wrong system. I also listened to Ravel's "Bolero", not because again it's a gruelling assault course for systems, but because I find it's only a heartbeat between being a nondescript repetitive dirge (I'm not a classical fan!!) and being comprehensively drawn into the music savouring every beat and note, so by the end of the excerpt it brings a dose of huge disappointment so you want a second hearing. Any system that can do that is something rather special in my book. Finally, some James Newton Howard and Friends on Sheffield Labs direct recording for some dynamic and well recorded close miked musical adrenaline that I know has bass lines that are punch in the stomach powerful and snare drum riffs that can clear your ears of wax in less than a few seconds given the right volume settings.

Some would say the 840A shouldn't really have been slotted in with other components are not in the same price/perfomance level it would normally be paired with, although I believe this is where the Cambridge Audio amplifier showed what it's really capable of achieving with good partnering source, cabling and speakers. At first hearing using the supplied mains cable, what really did let the CA down though was a slight congestion in the upper bass registers and a sort of fog over the midrange although a swap of power cable to a silver one, likewise with silver interconnects did eliminate that. With the power cord change the sound quality leapt forward unexpectedly to what the Trivista amp delivers, which was rather scary to say the least, considering there is something like a £3,250 price difference between them. "Calling Elvis" sounded airy and spacious with background recording ambience clearly shining through, Mr Knopfler's voice had none of the nasality or chestiness that some amps exhibit, the deep subterranean bass lines were reproduced without any boom or overhang while at the same time the playing of the high hat cymbals remained subtly tucked in behind the cacophony going on around - top marks. It ws the James Newton Howard CD however that finally highlighted why there is a £3k+ price difference between the Trivista and the CA 840A; with the CA 840A you could definately hear where it was drawing upon it's energy reserves and just stopping short on dynamics while the Trivista was giving the perception it was a very long way from that stage (at three times the power rating of course). Bear in mind though while reading this, the volume control of the CA was showing "-15" on the scale which isloud by anyone's standards and yet still it was maintaing exceptionally clean transparent music without sounding "loud" in the least i.e. producing distortion we often mistakenly translate into high volumes. Although there were signs of some hesitancy and the amp casing was getting rather hot, it never once gave any indication that it was going to clip. No doubt this is due to CA's new
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technology which has redefined how Class B amplifiers needn't be cursed with audible crossover distortion. Having said that, working within it's rated 120 watts into 8 ohms envelope, it will produce well controlled distortion free transparent power right up virtually to clipping point, notwithstanding that it also wasn't shamed or upstaged by an amplifier with a £4k price tag, which is indeed a credible achievement for any amplifier designer. It will therefore have sufficient competency to sustain many upgrades to the rest of the partnering components without letting the side down to become a weak link in the chain. From the results of the auditioning in my second budget level system it is also clear that the CA 840A doesn't have any hangups about the company it keeps and that's a refreshing change from those neurotic highly strung amplifiers that are finnicky in what they are coupled with.

SUMMARY

Of course the burning question in your minds right now is do I think the Cambridge Audio 840A is worth the £750.00 outlay? For that money you are getting an awful lot of well designed, featured, built and great sounding amplifier. I'm not though going to give it a silly label like "giant killer" because it isn't, as I think it slots into exactly the price point and market it is aimed at and setting out a new marker post for where thedescription of"budget" begins and ends - better by far than mostofferings and not being pretentious or gaudy

enough to wander off into so-called high end territory to claim something which it isn't. It is however closely approaching the critical £1,000 barrier which is fairly well populated with other amplifiers vying for equal consideration and I'm not going to trample on CA's marketing strategy, but I feel the CA 840A could be leapfrogged over for more trendy/fashionable labels, which I think is a great pity.

If my one and only criticism is the colour of the case clashing with the LCD display (Had I been given a silver example this probably would not have arisen) you can rest assured it has been given my total seal of approvals in price target, build quality and sonic attributes.

 

Uncle Bob

Wammer
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Sep 23, 2005
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1st class review Effem! Informative and comprehendable (is that a real word? anyway you know what I mean - I hope)

I take it the full review is to appear in your forthcoming web-mag?

UB

 
E

Effem

Guest
Yes the full review will appear in Hi-Fi Insights magazine and what's above is an abbrieviated version, hence the grammar and syntax goes a bit awry at times

 

SSM

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I really enjoyed this one, Effem. :^Tis fascinating to have the luxury of double reviews for the same hifi component. Like glimpsinga diamond from two different perspectives. Your clipped, slightly crusty and salt-of-the-earth, style also contrasts strongly with Earl's. Hadyour writing approach been the same, this review would have felt like deja-vue.

Only complaint I have is: you could have prettified up the fonts and colours for your text, like Sod did for his. Then again, you are indeed a straight man.
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SS

 
E

earl of sodbury

Guest
Nice one Frank - quite relieved you've got a similar impression of the amp to myself...
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E

Effem

Guest
solidstateman wrote:

Only complaint I have is: you could have prettified up the fonts and colours for your text, like Sod did for his. Then again, you are indeed a straight man.
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SS
I think the Earl's lucidstyle ofprose isthe perfect foil and a true compliment for his summer attire,so it's a shame we cannot have appropriatefonts to match, SS. I wonder if the Wigwam would benefit from pink Paisley or Hawaiin Peach Tartan font colours
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E

Effem

Guest
earl of sodbury wrote:

Nice one Frank - quite relieved you've got a similar impression of the amp to myself...
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I bet I gave it a harder time than you did Paul and it still came up smelling of roses. Credit to CA for this one it is a very flexible and highly competent designand the bonus isthose useful features included as standardthat mostother manufacturers have deemed we are no longerworthy of

 

TIU

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So Frank, what did you think of it then?

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:sw:
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gsrai

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Gents

I've just flicked through what hi-fi and they've tested this cambridge against the Nait, Cyrus, Rotel, Roksan etc. and guess what, the Roksan won but the Cambridge got 3 stars
shock.gif.7732780fe7e208b945ce79ca96402fca.gif
:doh:now what's that all about!

Can't remember the exact comments just they felt it was generally inferior but a MK 2 version would blow the competition away (they agreed with the no compromise build and engineering).

 
E

earl of sodbury

Guest
gsrai wrote:

GentsI've just flicked through what hi-fi and they've tested this cambridge against the Nait, Cyrus, Rotel, Roksan etc. and guess what, the Roksan won but the Cambridge got 3 stars
shock.gif.7732780fe7e208b945ce79ca96402fca.gif
:doh:now what's that all about!

Can't remember the exact comments just they felt it was generally inferior but a MK 2 version would blow the competition away (they agreed with the no compromise build and engineering).
shock.gif.7732780fe7e208b945ce79ca96402fca.gif
:shock:
shock.gif.7732780fe7e208b945ce79ca96402fca.gif
Which Roksan? Not the godawful Kandy :sick:they've been relentlessly hyping for the last 3 years perchance?

Whatever, it still just confirms their sheer and utter cluelessness...

 
E

Effem

Guest
If you focus on what I wrote in the review above Gobind, I said this:

"At first hearing using the supplied mains cable, what really did let the CA down though was a slight congestion in the upper bass registers and a sort of fog over the midrange"

When I first connected it up I wan't overly impressed with it to be honest because it sounded no better or no worse than any good competent amp does nowadays. Without doing a mains cable promotion here, the CA 840Areally did take off for me after I swapped the mains cord and it then showed what it was capable of,knocking close on the door of the Trivista's sound at medium listening levels. That isn't to say the other amps in the same HFC comparison wouldn't also have got a lift in a similar manner from a mains cord swap, which of course I cannot comment on.

 

gsrai

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earl of sodbury wrote:

shock.gif.7732780fe7e208b945ce79ca96402fca.gif
:shock:
shock.gif.7732780fe7e208b945ce79ca96402fca.gif
Which Roksan? Not the godawful Kandy :sick:they've been relentlessly hyping for the last 3 years perchance?

Whatever, it still just confirms their sheer and utter cluelessness...
Earl - I think it was Roksan Kandy III.L (dont know what the L does).

Frank - I hope you don't think I was knocking the review (I thought it was great) as I quite like the Cambridge amp and its the last thing I would do. I was just shocked to see a review of some kit in what hifi that actually interested me :shock:and to read the conclusion just made me think of how the world of commercial hifi reviewing operates
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I did note your point on the powercord which did get me thinking. Funny thing is I've had the Cyrus and Naim and couldn't stand the Cyrus yet it got 5 stars I think (did like the Naim).

 
E

earl of sodbury

Guest
gsrai wrote:

Earl - I think it was Roksan Kandy III.L (dont know what the L does).
Ah! That's a relief - they obviously never even bothered turning the amps on, then... ££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££ Lovely!

 

JamPal

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Good review Frank. Finaly found time to read it properly.

All looks good for hiFi insights.

all you need now is someone to sort out the graphics.
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Cable Monkey

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gsrai wrote:

GentsI've just flicked through what hi-fi and they've tested this cambridge against the Nait, Cyrus, Rotel, Roksan etc. and guess what, the Roksan won but the Cambridge got 3 stars
shock.gif.7732780fe7e208b945ce79ca96402fca.gif
:doh:now what's that all about!

Can't remember the exact comments just they felt it was generally inferior but a MK 2 version would blow the competition away (they agreed with the no compromise build and engineering).
AVReview have group tested the CA against the Naim Nait 5i, the Primare I21 and the Rega Mira 3 and the CA came out firmly on top.
 
G

Guest

Guest
Hi, I am new to this board. I have a Cambridge Audio 840A and am pleased with the sound. However, afetr reading your review I wondered how changing the power cord could improve the sound. Thanks.

 
E

Effem

Guest
Hi Kam, welcome to the Wigwam.

With my first hearing of the 840A it sounded rather congested in the bass with a slight overhang and it just sounded restrained. This isn't a peculiarity with the 840A by the way because virtually all amplifiers connected up with a copper "kettle lead" sound this way to me, so please don't take it on board that it is the 840A that has any sort of shortfall in performance using the supplied lead it comes with. If I hadn't mentioned it in the review you probably would be none the wiser.

I then connected it with an aftermarket power made from silver and the difference was truly amazing. All the congestion vanished instantly and it performed way beyond my expectations, even by comparison with using aftermarket cords with other amplifiers. Saying that, other amplifiers will give a marginal increase in sound quality, while a select few are totallyimpervious to power cord changes.

 

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