Cambridge Audio CXA81 integrated amplifier

During my tenure as a Stereophile writer, I've reviewed a lot of integrated amplifiers. The mostly moderately priced integrated machines I've reviewed have included the Heed Audio Elixir ($1195), Luxman SQ-N150 ($2795) and L-509X ($9495), NAD C 328 Hybrid Digital ($549), Octave Audio V 80 SE ($10,500), Rega Brio ($995), and Schiit Ragnarok 2 ($1799 as equipped). Regardless of price, all these integrated amplifiers engaged my senses and made engaging, dynamic, colorful music from LP grooves and ones and zeros.

Decades ago, integrated amplifiers were full-featured beasts—and then there was a move toward minimalism, at least at the higher end. Today, things have swung back again: With some exceptions, today's integrated amplifiers once again offer myriad extras. Today there's more to offer. In addition to the traditional phono stage and headphone jack of decades past, today there's Bluetooth, internal DACs, streaming, implanted mood-enhancer chips, and integrated cappuccino/latte/espresso machines—all at a competitive price point.

The Cambridge Audio CXA81 integrated amplifier ($1299) is a feature-rich machine. It doesn't have Ethernet, and it lacks a phono stage and coffee machine, but otherwise it offers everything popular with today's music- and hi-fi– loving suburban bon vivant: a built-in DAC that converts up to 32/38 and DSD256 (delivered via DoP) files and streams. It has an asynchronous USB input, the best kind. There's Bluetooth, which makes it easy to send music from portable devices, and because it's aptX HD, it even sounds good. There's headphone support and even mood enhancement, although it's the old-fashioned way: with music.

Measuring 16.9" wide, 4.5" high, and 13.4" deep and weighing just under 20lb, the CXA81 has a steel chassis and an aluminum face. It's supported in the rear by two footers composed of silicone rubber and ABS, and in front by a case-wide, ½" black-plastic ridge finished with a long rubber strip, which created the illusion that the CXA81 was floating above the shelf on my Salamander rack. It's a subtle but effective design element that suggests that thought and care were taken in the CXA81's design.

The minimalist front panel concentrates most of the controls—everything but the standby/on button, the 3.5mm headphone jack, and (thank you) the large volume control knob—onto an acrylic center window with backlit LEDs: Four analog source-select buttons labeled "A1" through "A4," a "Protection Indicator" light (which indicates clipping, over-voltage, overheating, or short-circuit), a button to toggle between A and B speaker options, a mute indicator, three digital source-select buttons marked "D1" through "D3," a tiny button stamped with the universal sign for USB, and that large volume control knob. Sharp eyes are required to read the labels. A universal remote—included—duplicates the CXA81's front panel controls, and then some.


The unit's back panel is smart: Each jack is labeled both above and below, making it easy to read from most angles. On the left side, there's an IEC power input followed by an RS232C connector, a pair of control-bus inputs (RCA), IR in, and one pair of trigger-out jacks, and two sets of speaker-binding posts with large, easy-to-grip plastic caps. On the right, there are digital inputs across the top: a Bluetooth antenna, a USB input, three S/PDIF inputs (one RCA and two TosLink). Farther down, there's a single subwoofer out (RCA), pair of pre-out jacks (RCA), four pairs of analog inputs (RCA), and two balanced inputs (XLR).


Inside the case, the CXA81 has an amplifier section that drives nominal 8 ohm speaker loads with 80Wpc and nominal 4 ohm speaker loads with 120Wpc, in class-AB. There's a remote control and unbalanced (RCA) and balanced (XLR) inputs; one does not often see balanced inputs at or near this price. It's "Roon tested," which just means that Roon tested it, and, like most DACs, it works with Roon. It doesn't have Wi-Fi or an Ethernet connection.

Cambridge Audio literature says the CXA81 has "separate, symmetrical left and right channels." Tony Stott, training and development manager for Cambridge Audio, elaborated via email: "It has symmetrical and separate transformer taps for the left and right channels, twin rectifiers, and separate PSUs for the power stages."

Stott described the improvements in the CXA81 compared to the original CXA80, which was introduced in 2014: "The analog signal path has been fine-tuned after meticulous and extensive listening sessions." Those listening tests were carried out, he told me, using PMC OB1 speakers. "The preamp section utilizes sound-oriented JRC op-amps. Tone controls have been bypassed, and both the signal chain and power supply have been upgraded with class-leading Wima, Rubycon, and Nippon Chemi-Con capacitors."

There's no phono stage, which is reasonable considering the CXA81's size and price. "Space was extremely tight, and there is no way to guarantee adequate results if integrating a phono stage."

"We recommend [Cambridge Audio's] Alva Solo ($179, MM) or Duo ($299, MM/MC) phono stages for a performance in line with CXA81 level," Stott said.

Considering the CXA81's modest price, I thought my 1957 Thorens TD 124 turntable with a Jelco TS-350S MKII tonearm ($799) and Hana EL MC phono cartridge ($475) would make a good match. The Hana's output was amplified and equalized by the Luxman EQ-500 phono stage ($7490), temporarily replacing my Tavish Audio Design Adagio Vacuum Tube Phono Stage ($1990). The rest of the system was either the Polk Audio Legend L100 or the Quad S2 standmount speakers (both currently $1195/pair), both supported by 24" Sanus speaker stands, BorderPatrol DAC SE ($1925), and an Asus laptop running Roon. Cabling included a Furutech GT2 Pro USB cable (3.6M GT2 Pro cable, $450), Auditorium 23 speaker cables, and Triode Wire Labs Spirit II interconnects ($339).

The lightweight, compact CXA81 slid easily into my Salamander Designs five-tier rack.

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.

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.

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.