The cost of a fully universal CD, SACD, DVD-A and DVD-compatible Blu-ray player has just been decimated - literally - thanks to the Audio Partnership's Cambridge crew
So far there’s been no answer from Yamaha, Pioneer or Sony to the universal Blu-ray behemoths launched by Denon and Marantz. Since they were exclusively reviewed in Hi-Fi News [Oct ’09 and Dec ’09], the £4500 DVD-A1UD and £5000 UD9004 have only been joined by slightly cheaper variants from the same stable. Although Marantz’s £2450 UD8004 could hardly be described as ‘cheap’. Instead, the first truly entry-level universal disc player has been launched from leftfield, from where no-one was looking – courtesy of the restless but hugely talented engineering team at Cambridge Audio. No less than the house brand of Richer Sounds [see boxout]. At first sight, the £400 Azur 650BD looks just like Cambridge’s previous generation of DVD/BD players – slim, black and not especially elegant. Nevertheless at over 4kg its chassis is considerably beefier, the wraparound bonnet less resonant and the alloy fascia decidedly thicker. But this new Cambridge disc player has not just been pumping the iron, it’s been at the books too.
LOCK AND LOAD
Thanks to a two-part Mediatek processing solution, the Azur 650BD not only handles CD, DVD, DVD-A and SACD audio media but is also a fully paid-up Profile 2.0 Blu-ray player with just about the quickest BD loading times I’ve witnessed. The most tortuous of Java-based menus, typically beloved of Disney and Pixar animations, are seemingly loaded in a trice by the 650BD. Moreover, its memory and automatic resume facility allows almost any 5in disc to be ejected, re-loaded at a later date and playback picked-up where it was interrupted (with a five-disc limit). In practice, the 650BD is compatible with commercial Blu-ray, DVD-V, DVD-A, SACD and CD (inc. HDCD) discs in addition to BD-R/RE, DVD±R/RW, CD-R/RW and Kodak Photo disc media. It also includes 1GB of internal memory which can be managed along with external ‘persistent’ storage via its USB ports to retain BonusView and BD-Live features after the player is switched off. Compatibility with every disc type (except HD-DVD, may it rest in pieces) is reinforced by on-board decoding of Master Audio and High Resolution Audio tiers of DTS-HD along with Dolby TrueHD via its 7.1 analogue output channels. SACD’s DSD code is also processed and/or routed via HDMI in the same transparent fashion as Dolby/DTS HD bitstreams. However, within the player, DSD is downsampled to 88.2kHz LPCM before conversion to analogue audio, a ‘corruption’ of SACD’s bitstream that’s avoided in both of the two heavyweight universal players from Denon and Marantz. Don’t confuse this with the ‘SACD Output Mode’ (PCM or DSD) available from the 650BD’s Audio Format menu as this refers to the HDMI stream, and not what is actually converted to audio within the player itself. Nevertheless, due deference to the audiophile is illustrated by Cambridge’s ‘Pure Audio’ mode which defeats the player’s internal video processing when playing back audio media of any type. However, as HDMI audio still requires a video clock by way of synchronisation it would be rather pointless switching it off altogether – instead Cambridge outputs black/inactive video frames while retaining the sync clock. The new vacuum fluorescent display is also muted in Pure Audio mode, the blue window instantly reinstated at the touch of any button on the matching RC-650BD remote [see picture, p48].
Previous Cambridge DVD/BD players have featured reasonably primitive on-screen setup menus, but the Azur 650BD offers an intuitive GUI that’s firmly removed from the technological Stone Age. Sure, it’s not as colourful or comprehensive as the icon-driven encyclopedia behind the Denon/Marantz players, but then neither is it so damn’ confusing. All its video, audio and device setup menus are text-based and readily accessible, Cambridge saving its one big graphically-driven menu for the speaker setup page. This allows each of its 7.1 channels to be viewed simultaneously, with large, small or ‘off’ speaker icons complete with individual level and distance settings. The crossover frequency, rather than being user-defined, is fixed at 80Hz (the THX default) for all bass management operations between small speaker channels and the LFE effects (sub) channel. This is a minor concession to price, in my opinion, as the major saving has come from utilising the all-in-one Mediatek MTK8520/MTK8575 DSP for audio/video processing in place of big ticket silicon from Gennum or Silicon Optix, for example. Not that the Azur 650BD is short of video scaling options via HDMI, offering everything from 576i/480i PAL/NTSC all the way up to 1080p at the 24Hz film rate and 50/60Hz video rates. Extra resource has been spent on the 650BD’s audio section, however, which employs separate CS4345 and CS4361 DACs – both from Crystal and each 24-bit/192kHz capable – for the main two-channel and additional 5.1 channel outputs, respectively. Similarly, the entire 7.1 channel analogue output features a bespoke preamp section driven from, not a switchmode, but a heavyweight linear power supply.
OUT OF THE BOX
It does not take hours of auditioning to appreciate that the Azur 650BD has been ‘voiced’ by audio- rather than out-and-out home cine-philes, such is its silky-smooth and insightfully detailed performance. This is no bad thing in my view, for if a player can reproduce two and multichannel music with convincing subtlety then you’re almost guaranteed that the orchestral score and dialogue from modern movie BDs will be rendered with similar sensitivity, regardless of the intensity of any accompanying effects. True to form, the Azur 650BD maintained the unusually delicate, almost piquant musical flavour of Disney’s Up with the same assuredness that it delivered the action and effects that would come thick and fast throughout the latest ‘re-imagining’ of the Star Trek saga. Sure enough there is not quite the wallop or sense of grand scale thrust into the room by the high-end hierachy of Marantz and Denon, but the ‘smaller’, more measured and arguably more cautious sound of the 650BD is still perfectly formed. Never was this more obvious than with the high resolution 5.1 channel DTS-HD audio option from Deep Purple’s Live At Montreux 2006 [ERBRD5008]. (This disc requires a BD player that either decodes DTS-HD or passes it over HDMI to a compatible AV amp because the default LPCM audio option is two-channel only.)
SMOKIN' IN MONTREUX
This is a performance that demands to be played loud if classic tracks including ‘Strange Kind Of Woman’, ‘Space Truckin’, ‘Highway Star’ and, of course, the tale of how it all began – ‘Smoke On The Water’ – are to be revealed in all their colourful and energetic glory. Too quiet and the performance can collapse in on itself sounding slightly moribund and compressed, but at high levels it comes alive as the unmistakable tenor of Don Airey’s keyboards and Steve Morse’s guitar tear into the night and over the waters of Lake Geneva. On the one hand I was still left wondering what difference the original band members Jon Lord and Ritchie Blackmore, respectively, would have made to the ‘feel’ of this event while on the other I was left in sneaking admiration for the manner in which the 650BD was holding this difficult live recording together. So often it can sound ragged, lacking transparency or convincing bite, but the Azur 650BD exerted its composing influence to great effect here. Of course, offer the 650BD a disc that’s been recorded under more idealised conditions – like the fabulous Japanese NHK BD release from the Saito Kinen Festival, and the civilised clarity, the see-through transparency and subtle detailing possible from the 650BD is revealed in an instant. The 5.0 channel 24-bit/96kHz audio layer of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique Op14 [NSBS-13457] sparkles through this player even if the tumultuous ‘Passions’ does cause the 650BD to harden slightly, its customary poise distracted by the massed violins that vent their considerable energy towards the conclusion of the first movement. Nevertheless the spacious acoustic of the venue, captured with two arrays of DPA4006 microphones (LCR and LsRs) spaced 4.5m apart, is well represented by the player. I’ve heard the orchestra sound slightly more vivid and the acoustics benefit from a greater sense of height, but not at £400...
DANCE OF THE FIREFLIES
Another example of the 650BD’s ability to craft a decent sense of acoustic is revealed by the Telarc SACD of Jennifer Higdon’s City Scape – Concerto For Orchestra [SACD-60620] recorded at the Woodruff Arts Centre with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The percussive sequence dances like a swarm of fireflies in the gloom of the hall with bells, chimes and blocks also gently underscored by the orchestra – a fresh and flighty sound only grounded by the tympani which sounds just a little too fat through the 650BD. My choice of two-channel CDs included favourites from Dire Straits and Chris Rea but most revealing was Michael Hedges’ Live On The Double Planet [Windham Hill 371066], the resonant bass and biting edge of his guitar instantly recognisable even if the player still exercised its now familiar caution, suppressing the last hint of exuberance from the thrust of his finger-picking for fear it should over-stretch its capabilities. Vocal ‘classics’ including Rickie Lee Jones’ eponymous CD [Warner 3296] still sound as rich and dark as ever, especially tracks like ‘Easy Money’ and ‘Chuck E’s In Love’ whose liquid honey seeps from the 650BD with the sweet conviction of the best standalone CD players at this price. Of course, there are precious few new CD players being produced below £500, so the feature-packed Azur 650BD is hardly facing an insurmountable wall of competition... One thing you could never accuse the 650BD of is sounding harsh from playing too fast and loose. Frankly the player is engineered to stick within its limits, delivering a good 90% of the body and resolution offered by the Marantz and Denon universal BD hierachy, for a similar financial saving.
You don’t get the bottom-end punch of the Marantz UD9004 or quite the sense of scale rendered by the DVD-A1UD from Denon, but for a tenth the price the 650BD provides a perfectly ‘wholesome’ and craftily-balanced alternative without serious flaw in any key area of performance. In this age of increasing belt-tightening, Cambridge is offering a couple of extra holes – so what are you waiting for?
Sound Quality: 80%
Originally published in the June 2010 issue
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