Cambridge Audio CXA81 integrated amplifier Page 2

As Stereophile's Recommended Components list attests, just because a product is built to a $1200 price point doesn't mean it won't pack a wallop. This held true for the CXA81, which consistently impressed me with its ability to challenge competing amplifiers in a similar price range and by how good it sounded with different speakers. The CXA81 had me uttering "wow" (several times) at its transparency to the sound of upstream electronics and recordings. When I switched between my Thorens and Kuzma turntables, for example, the difference was clear, immediate, and profound, as if there was no amp in the signal chain. For a component at this price, the CXA81 didn't editorialize much, instead faithfully bringing forth what's buried in the grooves and pits.

Still, the CXA81's mien was forgiving of lesser recordings, even as it brought out the best—or much of the best—from better ones. Relative to my reference amplification components, there was some dryness at midrange and treble frequencies. The low end was solid, bass energy abundant. The CXA81 consistently created a large, atmospheric soundstage with solid images. Tonality was less saturated, less sweet and drier than my ideal (as embodied by my far-more-expensive Shindo separates), although this dryness (and dearth of sweetness) was apparent only on some recordings. Dynamics were good.

Spinning vinyl
Using my Thorens/Jelco/Hana/Luxman setup, I had a total blast spinning black discs through the CXA81. The two sets of speakers highlighted the amplifier's flexibility and user-friendly appeal. 1960's Poll Winners Three! features guitarist Barney Kessel, drummer Shelly Manne, and bassist Ray Brown in a super-swinging jazz fest (LP, Contemporary S7576). A classic Roy DuNann recording, Poll Winners is flat-sounding, with great immediacy and dynamics. With the Cambridge powering the Polk L100s, the trio's performance of "Mack the Knife" had energy, snap, and warmth. Brown's bass sounded comfortably rich and Manne's cymbals imaged with pinpoint definition. The CXA81 drew the music in a large, reverberant space, with Kessel's guitar soaring above the other instruments.

Full immersion. In the moment, I found nothing wanting. I was caught up in the music, which is the goal. The Cambridge Audio/Polk pairing was simpatico.


XTC's 1982 classic, English Settlement (LP, Virgin V2223), is a subtly anarchic recording with some of leader Andy Partridge's best songs and a gigantic soundstage courtesy of producer Hugh Padgham. I'm lucky to own the 12", 45rpm single, "Senses Working Overtime" (Virgin VS462-12), which has one of the most powerful, smack-your-skull recorded bass drum sounds I've ever heard. The song begins with gently plucked acoustic guitar and atmospheric frame drum and tambourine. Soon, Terry Chambers's bass drum pummels two and four, dead center. The CXA81/L100 pairing delivered that explosive bass drum with excellent energy, weight, tone, and definition. The song unfurled within a colossal soundstage with exciting colors and power. The CXA81 recreated this classic English rock epic with energy, dynamics, and force.

Fifteen years later in British rock history, Radiohead released OK Computer (Capitol Records 7243 8 5522918). Where XTC was extroverted, largely upbeat and energetic, Radiohead's music was by turns depressed, brilliant, and introverted. Nonetheless, OK Computer is also a classic, evidenced in the twinkling, sad/beautiful "Let Down," which throbs and thrums like an anguished lost child. The CXA81/L100 duo's presentation of the song bathed me in rich guitar tones, shimmering bell sounds, and thumping drums in a large-scale, womblike soundstage. Though this album has not worn well from a production viewpoint, sometimes sounding shrill, the CXA81's power and drive enabled its big soundstage to fill my room and nearly warp my senses. The Cambridge Audio/Polk tag team had me at the needle drop.

CXA81/Quad S2 speakers
The CXA81 brought out the best from the Quad S2's ribbon tweeter, producing upper-midrange and treble frequencies with tactile richness and great sense of life. Further down, Kessel's guitar was big, glistening, and well-defined in time and space, and Ray Brown's acoustic bass was tightly focused. Dynamics were to die for. The drums and percussion in XTC's "Senses Working Overtime" were more textured and delicate via the CXA81/S2 pairing, and that massive bass drum punch grew more focused and cleaner. Leading edges were better defined.

Where the CXA81/Polk combo made Radiohead lush and warm, the CXA81/Quad duo brought out the music's tremulous nature, with intricately framed vocals and gossamer guitar layering within an ethereal atmosphere. Whereas the CXA81 juiced the Polks to a lifelike experience, it enabled the Quads to create their more elegantly assembled soundstage with delicate timing and textural cues. It recreated well the upper air and shimmering sounds of this Radiohead classic.


CXA81's DAC meets the BorderPatrol DAC SE
Built-in DACs in integrated amplifiers are sometimes afterthoughts; in an integrated amplifier this cheap, it's almost to be expected. But when I played "American Reckoning" from Bon Jovi's 2020 (24/48 MQA, unfolded to 24/96, Island Records/Tidal), John Lennon's "How Do You Sleep" from Gimme Some Truth (24/48 MQA, unfolded to 96kHz, Capitol/Tidal), and Aria from Lang Lang's take on the Goldberg Variations BWV 988 (FLAC 24/48, Deutsche Grammophon/Tidal 481), the CXA81's ESS Sabre ES9016 DAC acquitted itself well.

Bon Jovi's elegiac "American Reckoning" pays tribute to George Floyd ("When did a judge and a jury become a badge and a knee?"): It's a simple, powerful arrangement for vocal, guitar, strings, and percussion. The CXA81's rendering was large in scale and atmospheric; Bon Jovi's voice was giant in the mix, dry in texture but nicely outlined. The BorderPatrol DAC SE created a deeper soundstage with more detailed images; Bon Jovi's voice had more richness and depth.

John Lennon's classic material has weathered the years well, losing none of its power or intimate sincerity. "How Do You Sleep," a Paul McCartney–directed slap to the face, unfurls lazily with Nicky Hopkins's golden Rhodes piano, George Harrison's biting slide guitar, Alan White's flat-funk drumming, and Lennon's sleepy, attack-mode vocal.

Still, even remastered, this 1971 track didn't give either DAC a lot to work with. The song sounded crisp and clear with good imaging and top-end air via the CXA81's DAC. It also sounded a mite thin and lacking in midrange body, which is about how the recording sounds. The BorderPatrol DAC gave the slow-grooving tune more depth, better tone, and a fatter, more dense portrayal overall, but it wasn't night-vs-day better.

It was easier to notice the differences between the CXA81 and the BorderPatrol DAC on Lang Lang's Goldbergs outing. As Herb Reichert has often noted, acoustic piano is the best test of a DAC or cartridge's ability to capture and express tone, texture, and physicality. Via the CXA81, the Aria to Lang Lang's Goldberg Variations—the studio version—sounded full-scale, with good imaging and texture. Through the BorderPatrol, the tone was richer yet darker-sounding than through the integrated's DAC. The BP provided a better sense of hammers striking strings and an improved sense of scale.

Considering that the BorderPatrol DAC SE costs half again as much as the Cambridge Audio CXA81 amplifier with DAC, the CXA81's DAC more than held its own in terms of soundstage, dynamics, drive, tone, and texture. Once I figured out how to operate Roon (thanks to Jim Austin, Kal Rubinson, and publicist Jaclyn Inglis, who now represents Cambridge Audio and Roon), the CXA81 mated with Roon and gave me no issues.

Compared to the Schiit Ragnarok 2
Of the integrated amplifiers I have on hand, the Schiit Ragnarok 2 is the most comparable to the CXA81. The Schiit specs out at 60Wpc into 8 ohms and 100Wpc into 4 ohms, compared to the CXA81's 80Wpc into 8 ohms and 120Wpc into 4 ohms. (I have the $1700 "fully loaded" version, with phono stage and DAC card.) The Cambridge Audio piece had better top-end air, a slightly bigger soundstage—wider and deeper—and a more laid-back presentation, while the California-built Schiit amp offered better tone, slightly better drive, and a better sense of intimacy; the Schiit was more physical-sounding. But the Schiit is also more expensive: Even the more comparably priced, "Just an Amp" version of the Schiit, without the phono stage or DAC, costs $200 more, at $1499, while the Cambridge has a DAC plus Bluetooth and a little more power.

I greatly enjoyed my time exploring the CXA81. It helped me realize how much music can be had for such a low price. It knocked me flat with its ability to sound good in so many ways. It is versatile, well-made, and smartly designed. Most important, it sounds good to great. If you're in the market for an affordable integrated amplifier, this one should be on your audition list.

Cambridge Audio USA
1913 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Chicago, IL 60647
(877) 357-8204

Long-time listener's picture

As it turns out, I AM in the market for a good, mid-priced integrated (since the NAD M32, highly recommended by Stereophile, didn't work out so well). But my question is, if Accuphase, Luxman, NAD, and many others can offer tone controls in their much higher-priced integrateds, why can't Cambridge Audio? Their CXA-61 has them, but I guess as we go up in price, we get FEWER options. That's nice. Cross another one off the list.

JRT's picture listed on the Shiit website for $149, and might be a solution adequate to your need for parametric EQ tone control, but maybe not with this integrated amplifier, which I think trades away too much system flexibilty for that integrated functionality. Opinions vary.

Note that it has single ended I/O, so I would suggest relatively short interconnections and shared ground potential with the equipment attatched at the other end of the interconnections.

Long-time listener's picture

It's too bad it has to come as a separate unit, which means more cables, but it's interesting nonetheless. I'm not sure I like the frequencies where they have set the four EQ bands (20, 400, 2kHz, 8kHz), seems kind of odd to me, but I'd have to use it to see. For my purposes, a simple set of bass and treble controls, centered at around 80/100 Hz and 10Khz, usually accomplishes all I need, or else maybe a "tilt" control as I've seen on some amps.

JRT's picture

...Parasound Halo P6 2.1 preamplifier/DAC is good quality, includes your desired tone controls among a wide variety of useful functionality, and has balanced outputs to interconnect to monoblock amplifiers located near the loudspeakers. Nord Acoustics makes some good moderately priced Hypex NCore NC500MB monoblock amplifiers with balanced inputs.

JRT's picture

If you do order from Nord, you might want to add this £10 option for US support.

Long-time listener's picture

Will keep that one in mind for the future

Ortofan's picture

... tone controls and uses Hypex power amplifier modules.

SAllison's picture

This seems to be divisive. I see no tone controls as a big plus and am happy to see Cambridge get it out of the signal path. CXA61 also removed tone controls, it's the older CXA60 and CXA80 that had them.

Long-time listener's picture

... whenever possible, in which case I select "Direct" or "Tone Defeat." But the OPTION to use them can only be a good thing, providing a more versatile amplifier, and for me it's really necessary. I listen to such a broad range of music, with some recordings dating as far back as the 1930s, where a slight treble cut to reduce harshness or a slight bass boost to provide a more solid foundation makes the experience so much better. And out of consideration for my neighbors, I listen at low volume late at night, adding a bit of bass and treble for "loudness" compensation. Having tone controls on a unit doesn't hurt listeners like you, since you can bypass them, but leaving them off hurts listeners like me. It assumes you only listen to a narrow range of very well-recorded music from the last decade or two. Not the case with serious listeners.

partain's picture

Yea or nay ?

SimonK's picture

As I've experienced with all current Cambridge products, their speakers outputs have reversed polarity, so you need to actually go from minus to plus (black to red and red to black) to get the correct phase response. Cambridge has gotten somewhat of a reputation of being a tad laid back because of this - this is simply because they aren't when correctly wired. The CXA81 plays neutral and accurate. It is beyond me, why they don't inform their customers about this.

Jim Austin's picture

I realize I'm answering an older comment, but it's important to correct this. As you can see from the measurements included with this review, the Cambridge Audio CXA81 preserves absolute polarity.

Jim Austin, Editor

SimonK's picture

Hello Jim

Thanks for commenting and correcting. I just re-read the measuresments and it may very well do that, but the explanation to what I hear must be then, that the digital input is inverting the polarity as you measured. What would be the idea here? For my point of view it seems like you would have a polarity issue if using both analogue and digital inputs, so that you'd need to change the speaker outputs whenever you play from one or the other source.

SAllison's picture

Hi Jim, it looks like the digital inputs reverse polarity but analog inputs do not? Is that right?

Jim Austin's picture

their speakers outputs have reversed polarity, so you need to actually go from minus to plus (black to red and red to black) to get the correct phase response.

I'm truly not trying to split hairs here; rather, because of this phrasing, I simply wasn't thinking about the digital module. Yes, of course, it is true that the digital module is reversing phase.

Why would they do that? I'm only speculating, but I would guess it's a matter of convenience: It was easier to design the component that way, and to keep the design as simple as possible. Do keep in mind that while the audibility of absolute phase has been established with certain types of music, most recordings have mixed phase, and even in pure cases it's quite difficult to hear. A manufacturer could be forgiven for thinking it doesn't matter.

Jim Austin, Editor

SAllison's picture

Thanks so much for the speedy reply!

JackHuang's picture

I recently purchased a Cambridge Audio CXA81 amplifier and consulted the engineers at Cambridge Audio regarding this issue. They confidently denied the occurrence of polarity inversion when using data input at that time.


Thank you for contacting Cambridge Audio.

You do not need to reverse your speaker connections when using this device.

If you require any further information or assistance, please do not hesitate to let me know.


Thank you for your quick response and clarification about the speaker connections.

However, my original question also included a concern about the DAC in the CXA81. I heard that the DAC in the CXA81 may produce a signal with inverted polarity. Could you please confirm if this is accurate or not?

Understanding the polarity behavior of the DAC in the CXA81 is important to me, regardless of whether it requires any changes in the speaker connections.

I appreciate your assistance with this matter.


We are unaware of any reports regarding your question "I heard that the DAC in the CXA81 may produce a signal with inverted polarity. Could you please confirm if this is accurate or not?"
This is not something that we would expect the unit to do and if it did for some reason invert the polarity, and a reset did not resolve the issue then the unit would need to be sent in for inspection and servicing.

I connected my Mac to the CXA81 amplifier via USB and played a video from YouTube, Then, I lightly placed my finger on the bass diaphragm of the speaker and it seemed like I could feel the diaphragm pushing outward first during the "+" parts of the vedio, and then retracting inward during the "-" parts.

wozwoz's picture

I am fan of Cambridge equipment, and have one of their amps in a bedroom (not main audio setup) which is a very fine minimal classic design. Having said so, I would never purchase any amplifier that has Bluetooth built-in, (a) in part because I don't want to be needlessly radiated in my own home, and (b) because Bluetooth is a suboptimal typically compressed and lossy medium that is, in my view, inconsistent with the goals of hi-fi, and it disrespects the equipment to include such a format (leaving aside radiating your brain).

LogicprObe's picture

The review states that the amp has 'natural silicone rubber' feet.
No silicone products are 'natural'.
They are all man made.
Latex is the only 'natural' rubber product.
You can't believe anything from the marketing departments of these companies.

SAllison's picture

How does the CXA61 compare? On paper it looks like the same thing with no balanced inputs, less power and a slightly different DAC for $300 less. I wonder if there is anything significantly different in the measurements for the CXA61 model?

SAllison's picture

I just want to post that 33 ohm output impedance for the headphone jack is not low. Most quality, affordable headphone amps like the Schiit Magni and JDS Atom are below one ohm. 33 ohms is frustratingly limiting; I can use 250 ohm Beyers and 300 ohm Sennheisers and that's it. I suppose I could get away with flat impedance curve planars but power output will be limited.