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Cambridge Audio Azur 640c V2.0

CD Player

Product: Azur 640c V2.0
Manufacturer: Cambridge Audio - UK
Serial number: YN 640c V2.0-B UK 0508 0067
Approx. price: 400 €/250 £
Reviewer: Maarten van Casteren - TNT UK
Reviewed: November, 2005

[Cambridge Audio Azur 640C V2.0]
[Italian version]

Foreword

The Cambridge Audio Azur 640v v2.0 has a very long name, but is an otherwise unassuming CD player. Still, it is the top CD machine of this English brand. This is the second version (V2.0) of this player. Although there are no changes to the exterior there are many internal differences compared to the first version. This model employs two Wolfson WM8740 converters where the first version only used one.
This means that each channel now has its own DAC chip, working in symmetric mode. This should improve channel separation, sound stage and improve resolution and signal to noise ratio in general. On top of that a new toroidal transformer has been fitted and the analogue filtering has been redesigned. So, they could have claimed it to be a completely new model, as far as I'm concerned. In spite of all these changes the price has stayed the same, at a very modest 250. Reasons enough to investigate.

The unit comes packed in a very practical box, with a handle for easy carrying. Everything is well packaged and the user's manual is clear, informative and to the point. Installing it is simplicity itself and the only thing I noticed when I loaded the first CD is that the CD drawer doesn't seem to come out far enough: the CD actually is several millimeters inside the player when it is in the open drawer. Hardly a problem, though. The casing itself feels sturdy and the whole finish is surprisingly good, taking the price into account. The remote control unit is very stylish, in my opinion, and feels solid and well made.

[Azur 640C remote control]

Listening

I put the Isotek system enhancer CD in it and left it on repeat to burn the player in before auditioning. After 6 hours I had a quick listen but things were still quite raw at that point with high frequencies and attacks sounding very hard and forward. I gave it another try after 20 hours and things had improved quite a bit. Peter Gabriel's first solo album always is a good test to see if a player behaves, and it did a good job with that. The sound stage was deep, if not very wide, and individual instruments were nicely separated even in complex bits. Treble was still a bit hard and it lacked some control in the bass. I left it to burn in for another day and things did improve a little bit more. After about three days it seemed to have reached its maximum, so I started to do some serious listening.

The overall impression of this CD player is lively and energetic. Resolution is good and the sound is quite clean and relatively free of digital 'edge'. Especially the attack, or leading edge of sounds is portrayed very clearly, making this a fast and rhythmic sounding machine. Percussion sounds very clear indeed, and so do all other sounds that depend on strong attacks, like bells, clicks, acoustic guitar and piano. Bass is full and deep and the total balance is good, with neither bass nor treble dominating. The player also doesn't seem to add too much noise or grain and the sound is nice and clear of the speakers. Even instruments that are almost straight behind a speaker do not seem to come from that speaker but from a space behind it, which is an impressive feat indeed. Where other affordable players harden up in complex parts and make the whole sound blurred and flat this Cambridge Audio is able to cope with much more than I expected, with the sound only getting slightly aggressive when the going gets really tough. Voices sound natural and with very little added sibilance. Intelligibility is excellent. The impression of 'air' is very good, with echo's and reverberation from the recording's acoustical space impressively clear. Spatial separation between instruments is excellent, with the player always sounding focussed and transparent, even in louder and complex parts.

So, an excellent player, especially for the asking price. But, of course, there are a few minor points to criticise. Don't think you'll be buying a perfect CD source for this kind of money. After a few days of concentrated listening some less attractive properties start to emerge. Treble isn't completely clean. Loud piano tones in busy parts do sound a bit hard and the sound can become a little bit brittle at times. Bass lacks some control and a fraction of bass detail is lost because of his. Bowed double bass sound a little rough with less feeling of an actual physical instrument than I know to be possible in my setup. At this point I have to tell you that my own CD player is a Micromega Stage 3, which is perhaps old but has been upgraded with a new clock and countless other tweaks. Not a good reference in the sense that you cannot get hold of one yourself, but still a very good player indeed. The Micromega is warm, but controlled and quite musical in the sense that the sound is smooth and never aggressive. The amplifier was the Anatek A50, modified with a Dact CT-2 volume control and my speakers are Dynaudio Contour 1.8 mk2. Overall I preferred the sound of my own player in this setup, but by a remarkably small margin.

The Cambridge Audio's character is more towards analytical than musical. There is no way you can call this a 'smooth' player, although it certainly isn't a-musical. It is just that the emphasis is elsewhere with this machine. That said, the sounds is missing a little bit of body, even though the bass itself is deep and strong enough. It is more so that individual instruments lack a bit of inner warmth, making them sound somewhat leaner and smaller than live size. This probably is the flip side of that impressive separation of instruments: if each instrument is smaller then it will be easier to separate them in the soundstage. The whole mid and treble actually sound a little bit 'bleached'. Please do realise that it took me several days to notice this, so it isn't a major problem. But if you listen to a lot of live recorded music it will become obvious at some point. Subtle tonal shades are sometimes lost, especially in slow and quiet bits. And the tendency of this player to make things sound 'fast' makes slower fragments sound a little bit hurried and unnatural. The combination of that full, slightly under-controlled bass and this slight leanness also sometimes creates strange perspectives. Deep bass is projected more forward and occupies more space while mid and treble tend to have good depth and focus but are a bit lean. On one occasion a bass drum was portrayed several meters more to the front than the rest of the drumkit, creating the impression of a drummer with very long legs. Piano also tends to be taken apart somewhat, with excellent localisation and 'air' for the mid and treble, but much less so for the bass. The feeling can be that of different instruments, or even parts of the same instrument, not occupying the same space. The whole sound is also not as rock-solid or unflappable as some more expensive players, although the difference is not enormous, to be fair.

On the other hand: fast and spectacular music does profit much from this player's approach. Certainly pop music, where tonality isn't always that important, sounds very good, powerful and with a strong sense of rhythm and drive. Of course, partnering equipment will influence this too. My Anatek amp is very precise and quick. The Cambridge Audio might do even better with a smoother amplifier that will not put its limitations in the treble into the spotlight. But if you like your music fast and energetic, even this combination will appeal to you.

I got a good demonstration of the player's strengths and weaknesses when playing Mahler's fifth (Berliner philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado) where it created great energy and gusto with the brass in the louder lively parts, but lacked some colour and subtlety in the more quiet bits by the strings and woods. This prevents the building of tension somewhat and breaks the connections between the alternating loud and quiet parts, and even between parts of the orchestra itself. It would take things a bit far to call this a player with a split personality, but with excellent and extreme recordings like this it does show its shortcomings. I do have to stress that I was still able to enjoy the performance, though.

Even after more than a week of use the soundstage was still completely within the speakers while my own trusty Micromega can project things to upto a meter outside of them. The whole soundstage stayed rather narrow, but with excellent depth and very good sense of the recording's acoustics. It made for a little bit of a 'telephoto' perspective. I rather like sources that project a deep sound stage, but if you prefer a more forward, enveloping, 'first row' kind of feeling you could be disappointed. Focus and separation were still excellent.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that this player, good as it is, still has a character and colour of its own, enough to mildly interfere with the full atmosphere of each recording. Everything has that slight stamp on it that you learn to recognise after a while. Detail is being forced upon you a bit, instead of just being there for you to explore. The details it prefers to accentuate are also somewhat masking others that it likes less. This effect is strongest at the frequency extremes, with the mid frequencies sometimes making the impression of being a little bit 'modest' in comparison with this very lively treble and full bass.

But, I do have to be honest at this point. All these qualities are actually only found in players costing at least several times more than this one. And I was judging it in a context with an amplifier costing more that 4 times what the Cambridge Audio costs, and speakers that are more than 7 times more expensive. It would be a little bit too much to expect a player to perform perfectly under these conditions. On the whole it actually did very well, certainly holding its own in these difficult circumstances, sounding quite convincing most of the time and rather good some of the time. I was able to listen to it for hours without real fatigue or irritation and it coped with all my test tracks without showing serious problems. I am sure it will perform absolutely brilliantly in a setup with other components of the same price class, or considerably above it.

The reason I went into so much detail explaining its shortcomings is more to enable you to get a clear picture of its character, and also because I want to take this product seriously. This player is setting new standards in its price class and can be judged without taking its modest price into account.
In the end my main problems are with the slight unevenness that is caused by that fast, deep and well focussed treble and the much slower bass and with a little bit of treble roughness and grain. Main strengths are its energy, its fast and lively mids and treble and its ability to reproduce complex and dense recordings without falling apart.

One thing is absolutely certain: for the money this is one hell of a player, and if you want something better you will have to pay much, much more.

© Copyright 2005 Maarten van Casteren - www.tnt-audio.com

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