Cambridge CXN Review
Cambridge CXN Review – New logo, new look and all-new CX series, James Parker discovers if the same old Cambridge magic still remains
New range, new name, new markets: that’s just about the story of the Cambridge CXN network audio player. Not only does the new model carry the company’s new, abbreviated corporate identity, shorn of the word ‘Audio’, it also leads off an all-new CX range of hi-fi and home cinema components with freshened-up styling, and takes its streaming products into the mid-market hi-fi arena.
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That places it above the likes of the existing Cambridge Audio Stream Magic models, but this isn’t quite the flagship streaming music model. That accolade goes to the new addition to the upmarket Azur 851 range, the 851N, which was launched alongside the CX range.
Both models are built around the same inhouse-developed streaming module, code named Zander, and can be driven by a redesigned Cambridge Connect app on smartphones and tablets. However, while the 851N has adopted the same digital-to-analogue technology as the other digital products in the 851 range, the digital heart of the CXN is the familiar Wolfson-sourced solution seen in previous streaming products from this company – but with some new twists.
The CXN shares the new look of the rest of the CX range, being available in black or silver, with a simple, clear fascia layout (including a striking dished main rotary control and crisp graphics), and a curved under panel to break up the lines and move it beyond a simple, slimline slab.
The ‘engineered in the UK’ theme is played up in the packaging and the fascia, with Union flags much in evidence. The CXN even boots up with the flag and ‘Great British Sound since 1968’ on the display, and I half expect to hear Land Of Hope And Glory through the speakers! Cambridge makes great play not only of its inhouse engineering expertise, with a strong design team based at its London HQ working on everything from electronics to software coding, but of how it’s managed to simplify the products in the quest for improved sound quality, shortening signal paths and ditching superfluous components.
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Neither is this just a streamer/network player/whatever you choose to call it. The CXN is also designed as a DAC and a digital preamp, having a range of inputs including an asynchronous USB, plus a choice of fixed or variable analogue outputs on both RCA phonos and XLRs. It also has AirPlay and Spotify Connect capability, with a choice of wired or wireless network connection, and can additionally be used with the optional Cambridge Audio BT100 aptX Bluetooth receiver for wireless music streaming from smartphones, tablets and computers.
It can handle content at up to 24-bit/192kHz over network connections or from USB storage devices, for which a Type-A USB socket is provided on the rear panel (alongside another used for the wi-fi antenna that comes supplied), with a further socket on the fascia. It’s worth noting, however, that these sockets aren’t designed for the connection of Apple iOS devices, so for those you’d best stick to AirPlay.
The CXN also has both optical and coaxial digital in and outputs, while its Type-B USB input will also handle DSD content, albeit using the DoP protocol rather than in native form, and has a ground lift switch should you encounter hum when connected.
All inputs are upsampled to 24-bit/384kHz using Cambridge’s second-generation in house Adaptive Time Filter processing, running on a 32-bit Analog Devices SHARC processor. This also provides the digital volume control when the CXN is used in preamp mode, allowing resampling at every volume level, rather than the more common ‘bit-reduction’, which can impact on sound quality.
It’s also worth noting that while the Zander streaming module used for network playback has all sorts of technical advantages, according to Cambridge – not least of which is the fact it’s “some 10 times faster than some off-the-shelf modules” – it’s impressive in other ways too. As well as it being striking that a UK-based company has developed its own streaming solution, which of course is a classic case of ‘doing things the hard way’, it also brings with it a clear display, complete with album/radio station artwork, and that slick smartphone/tablet app interface.
Cambridge Connect is unlike many familiar network player apps in that it browses UPnP servers directly, rather than doing so via the player, and then hands playback duties back to the hardware when playing begins.
This method of cutting out the middleman and harnessing the processing power now available in Android and iOS handheld devices makes it considerably faster than if it were purely working as a network connected remote for the player with which it’s working. And the CXN/ Cambridge Connect combination is certainly one of the speediest and smoothest interfaces out there, a delight to use, and one from which other manufacturers could learn a lot.
In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that, while the conventional remote is adequate enough (and also provides whole-system control, via Cambridge’s C-BUS), and the combination of a decent display and that twist-and-push main control makes using the CXN ‘hands on’ pretty viable, I’d still invest the extra money for a budget Android tablet to run the app to make the most of this unit.
It needn’t cost a fortune – will get you a 7in Asus MeMO Pad – and even more affordable tablets are available and will do the job – but it makes a huge difference to the user-experience.
This is just the starter to what is a highly enjoyable sound from the CXN, which lives up to its promise of focusing on rhythm, timing and bass quality. Though it’s not exactly without competition at this price-level, the CXN shines through not only due to its ease of use and wide-ranging ability, but with a sound that sets it apart from those ‘streamers’ with a tendency to play things safe in the quest for a less ‘digital’ presentation.
It may upsample the digital signal, with typically finessed smoothness and refinement, but that doesn’t stop it kicking hard when you creep up on it with the latest Prodigy album, The Day Is My Enemy, in 24-bit/44.1kHz and unleash the title track. Boy, can this little player thunder and thump! The authentic Prodigy aural onslaught is unrestrained, bass lines shake the room and the electronica going on above it all is suitably sharp edged. Add in impressive dynamics and you have a real power track, being handled with just the right mix of definition and sheer attack.
Impressively, the CXN repeats the trick when things are dialled down a few notches with Blur’s reggae-tinged Ghost Ship, from The Magic Whip, (reviewed last month) dishing up a rumbling, but tightly defined, bass line while bringing out plenty of detail in the vocal and instrumentation. Play this track through a decent amplifier combined with some speakers able to handle that powerful low end and you’re not going to be at all disappointed by the results.
Getting a bit into this whole bass thing by now, I give some tracks from an Ian Dury compilation a spin, just to enjoy that whip-crack Blockheads rhythm section, and the Cambridge doesn’t let me down. Not in terms of motive power and certainly not when it comes to revealing all the clever things that the rest of this tight-knit band is doing in its usual jazzy, funky manner.
Keeping things well away from the audiophile approved, I play in some of the Concert For New York from more than a decade back, in a DSD64 rip from SACD. Again the CXN does its stuff with fine live presence on a rough and ready version of Miss You by Mick and Keef, and then a slamming nine-minute Won’t Get Fooled Again from The Who – not clean, not nice, but very definitely fun.
A swift handbrake turn into the solo piano version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, another DSD64 from the Mercury Living Presence recording, and the Cambridge delights with the focus on the piano, placed convincingly in an open, natural soundstage, a little deep behind the plane of the speakers to allow the ambience to wrap round it, but at the same time with all the percussive power of the instrument on tap when required. Not at all bad for a recording just about to hit its 54th birthday, and a fine example of what good SACD/DSD can do when carefully mastered from old analogue tapes, and then played on fine equipment.
But then whatever you throw at it, the CXN seems to shine, thanks to its winning combination of delicacy and resolution, allied to all the weight and slam that you would expect from a streamer/DAC at this level – and then some.
By any standards, this is an impressive network audio component, going far beyond the ‘buy a streaming platform off the shelf, add on a DAC and stick it in a nice box’ approach of some similar products we’ve seen in the past. Putting in the design time has paid dividends for Cambridge, and if the rest of the CX range approaches this high standard, it could just be something rather special.
Cambridge CXN Review: Verdict
A versatile network player with smart looks and great sound at the right price.
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Cambridge CXN Review: Specifications
TYPE Network music player/DAC/digital preamp
DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 430 x 85 x 305mm? Network UPnP playback/Internet radio? Apple AirPlay/Spotify Connect? aptX Bluetooth with optional dongle? DSD playback over USB from computer? Fixed and variable outputs on XLR/phonos.