The latest product to arrive at The Perfect Vision for an upcoming review is Cambridge Audio’s Azur 650R 7.1-channel A/V receiver ($1799), which was announced a the CEDIA Expo 2009. Ordinarily, I like to offer “First Listen” articles after I’ve had a chance to install a new piece of review equipment, but in this case I’ll have to provide “First Look” instead, since the Cambridge only just appeared on our doorstep—meaning that I only just unpacked it before writing this blog. Even so, I thought readers might enjoy taking a look at the new arrival and hearing some thoughts on why I think the 650R holds the potential to be a very special piece of equipment.
Cambridge Audio, as the second word of the firm’s name seems to imply, is a company whose dominant focus is and always has been sound quality. And, if you’re a follower of our high-end audio-oriented sister magazine The Absolute Sound, you already know that Cambridge has been on a roll for the last several years, having created an ongoing (and more or less unbroken) string of critically acclaimed products that have become known for high performance you can not only measure but—more importantly—hear. Unlike equipment that tends to exhibit “too clever for its own good” design philosophies, there is typically a fundamental straightforwardness and simplicity about most Cambridge products—qualities that make the components a joy to use and that potentially increases their long-term reliability and robustness.
There is also the matter of value. In my experience, Cambridge gear is rarely the least expensive solution you could buy for any given application, but neither is it the most expensive (not by a long shot), while perceived performance levels are almost invariably higher than you would expect for the money. In practice, this means that customers often come away with the sense of having gotten than their money’s worth—an experience that’s becoming all too rare these days. I’m certainly hoping that the newly arrived 650R will demonstrate a high performance/dollar ratio.
Part of what makes this kind of lasting value possible in any audio product, and in fine A/V receivers, is disciplined decision-making on the part of the manufacturer. As near as I can tell, the key is first to focus on the basics of high quality amplification. In a forced choice between beefy, low-noise, low-distortion amplifiers and more techno-gadgets, gongs, and whistles, I’m voting for the big-boy amps every single time, and happily Cambridge thinks the same way. The Azur 650R puts out a conservatively rated 7 x 100 watts/channel, . Interestingly, and in stark contrast to many other AVRs on the market today, there really isn’t a big difference between the 650R’s claimed power output with two channels driven (2 x 120 watts/channel) vs. power out put with all seven channels driven.
But another key is that companies like Cambridge tend to approach AVR design from an audio-first mindset. Accordingly, Cambridge claims that the 650R’s “seven 100E audiophile grade fully discrete amplifiers are kept as separate as possible from the processing and input stages and feature a large power supply with a low flux toroidal transformer.” Another clue to the robustness of the 650R’s design can be found in markings that appear above the receiver’s speaker terminals, and which invite users to connect “4 – 8 Ohm” speakers—this in contrast to many AVRs that are rated for use with speakers of 6 Ohm impedance or higher (the implication being that competing receivers might not have adequate current drive and/or cooling capabilities to keep up with the demands of lower impedance speakers).
Yet another key involves knowing which technical features are genuinely useful and beneficial vs. those that look good on paper, but that are essentially there for purposes of adding “eye candy,” complexity, and—of course—cost. Personally, I’ve always admired and recommended designs that take an “everything that you really need, but nothing you don’t” approach, and it looks to me as if the 650R stands a good chance of fitting that profile. Accordingly, the Cambridge provides the latest high-res Dolby and DTS surround sound codecs, but deliberately provide a boatload of add-on sound effects mode most listeners neither need nor would be likely to use. The receiver does provide a simple and straightforward mechanism for using two of its seven amplifier channels to bi-amplify front channel speakers because, quite frankly, that’s exactly the sort of thing an audiophile end-user might really want to do. And, recognizing that many listeners (even ones with years of experience) are often intimidated by multichannel system setup, the Cambridge provides a new automated CAMCAS (Cambridge Audio Mic Controlled Auto Setup) system—a first for Cambridge, I believe—to help guide users through speaker distance and level setting tasks.
I can’t wait to put the 650R through its paces, if only to find out if it lives up to the reputation that past Cambridge stereo products have earned. Watch for an upcoming review that will first be published in an upcoming (FREE) The Perfect Vision Guide to Multichannel Electronics (our working title, for now) that will appear later this year.