Cambridge Azur 851A integrated amplifier Page 2

I couldn't tell exactly where the mikes were placed, but in the three Embryons desséchés (Dried Embryos), I felt I was back home, sitting next to my childhood piano teacher. The piano sounded as I imagine it sounded to M. Thibaudet while he was playing it. In the first movement, both Thibaudet and the Azur 851A got the cabaret-like "purring" of the holothurian just right. Pianist and amplifier seemed in sync—I could feel the varied forces of Thibaudet's fingers as they struck the keys. At this point in my listening I could best describe the sound of the Azur 851A as relaxed and enjoyably colorful, in a class-A triode sort of way. It sounded more naturally toned and weighty than my Creek 3330 or my Line Magnetics LM-518IA, and showed none of that off-putting grayness or brittleness often heard in low-priced, high-powered amps. The only negative thing I noticed with this totally engaging Satie recording was a bit of stretched-taffy softness (as distinct from a fuzzy-furry softness).

Sweet Pea
"Poor little Sweet Pea, Billy Strayhorn, William Thomas Strayhorn, the biggest human being who ever lived," said Duke Ellington. "[H]e successfully married melody, words and harmony, equating the fitting with happiness." When I listened to Ellington's 1967 tribute to Strayhorn's grand talent, ". . . and his mother called him Bill" (LP, RCA Living Stereo LSP-3906), I felt not only that happiness, but the sadness in Ellington's heart. "Lotus Blossom," the last song on side 2, was recorded after the session in Studio A was completed. It was late; Duke was sitting at the piano, improvising, dreaming, thinking about Billy. Through the Azur, I could not only hear the musicians talking as they packed up their instruments in the background—I could hear (and see) the room. I swear, I thought I could feel the screens on the mikes! (Hallucination auditive?)

As I said at the beginning, with a high-quality, "essentials only" line integrated amplifier, the sound character can be easily upgraded and refined with the choice of superb sources and the amp-speaker combination of your dreams. For the tribute to Strayhorn, I was using some slightly more exotic audio bits: Zu Audio's DL-103 MC cartridge, Intact Audio's nickel-core 1:10 MC transformer, April Sound's BB1 tubed phono stage, and the DeVore O/93s. With this setup it was easy to enjoy the tone and rhythms of Ellington's piano, but it was also clear that these notes and tones had originated in his heart. Record after record, the Azur 851A showcased a transparent beauty, and something I can describe only as sonic effervescence. Music had a bubbling, exciting energy that I had never experienced with an audio component at this price level.

The Doctor is in
On side 1 of Dr. John's In the Right Place (LP, Atco SD 7018), one Mac Rebennack tune, "Same Old Same Old," opens with Allen Toussaint on electric piano. On any same ol' day in the Kingdom, it should have you up, bobbing your head and step-marching like an old drunk on his way to the bar. Listening through the Azur 851A, I could barely put my laundry away—I just kept marching and bobbing as I played the song four times. I never really liked Dr. John—once I started hanging with Boozoo Chavis, Clifton Chenier, and Professor Longhair, I got too hip to step down to faux voodoo. But now I was digging Dr. John and his catchy pop zydeco as I never thought I would. I wasn't even feeling like taking out the DeVore O/93s and putting in the KEF LS50s. The Cambridge Azur 851A was doing it all. I forgot about audio and was dancing to some artist I don't usually enjoy. Maybe it was because I'd surrounded this excellent integrated with some well-chosen stuff. The total price of my Dr. John system was about $15,000, including cables, jambalaya, and Bananas Foster.

In case you haven't guessed, I'm a texture freak and a color whore. I don't need gear at any price if it can't do wood, metal, and animal skins, and I'm willing to trade a bit of transparency or soundstage definition to get them. A great midrange should be overflowing and "ripe" with texture and color. In fact, only rarely have I heard enough texture. Amps or speakers that many audiophiles call transparent achieve their apparent transparency, I believe, by losing small-signal textural and color information. I also believe that how well an amp or speaker conveys temporality and mass at low volumes indicates the level of distortion it's producing.

With these thoughts, I replaced the DeVore O/93s with the KEF LS50s and slid into the CD player Sir John Kenneth Tavener's Theophany, with Richard Hickox conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (CD, Chandos 9440). As I mature, my need deepens for reverie-inspiring music with long, slow beginnings. The dreamy but chillingly dramatic Theophany is just such a work.

A theophany is a visible manifestation of a deity, and Tavener describes his work as "an attempt to show the presence of God in all things." Throughout, the sounds of soprano, bass, and orchestra float over a prerecorded tape that, among other things, portrays the "unearthly sounds of God." Tavener has said that, in conceiving this work, he "heard such strange sounds in his head that he could not imagine them being created by human means."

Theophany unfolds in three sections that move from dark stillness to light, and sonically from near silence to startling cacophony. Tavener's orchestral vision is forged in rich colors and bas-relief textures; rhythm and harmony are minimized. To understand this music, the listener must surrender to the full implications of the composer's highly structured and extremely painterly use of tone and texture. Driving the KEF LS50s, the Cambridge Azur 851A seemed to show me everything. For the first time ever with this music, I felt it was all there before me.

I became a Tavener zealot. I played the CD over and over, day and night, for three days. The other work on this disc, Eis Thanaton (Ode to Death)—with Hickox conducting the same singers and, this time, the City of London Sinfonia—features stirringly prayerful counterpoint between Stephen Richardson's hypertextured bass and Patricia Rozario's solemn soprano. Tavener composed the ode in response to the death of his mother. I find the music literally frightening in how it swings from enchanted hopefulness to a morbid rejection of all earthly pleasures.

Review samples of Tekton Design's Enzo XL speakers ($2100/pair) arrived amid my Eis Thanaton obsession, so I installed them and pushed Play. That was yesterday morning, and I'm still feeling all tingly as I listen once again to Rozario and Richardson. Driving the un-broken-in Enzos (review to come), the 851A presented music with deep, deep, well-defined, tuneful bass, elegantly stated detail, and startling dynamics. What a giant-killer match!

Right now I'm sitting, listening, and thinking: I love all the newest amps from Pass Labs—I'd buy one if I could, but I can't afford them. Steve Guttenberg swears by his. In John Atkinson's review of the Pass Labs XA60.5, he called it "the best-sounding amp I have ever used." That is quite a statement. But now, as I type, I'm still listening to Rozario's ethereal soprano singing into that huge, stone-walled space, and I'm not kidding—the Cambridge Audio Azur 851A is sounding like a modest man's Pass Labs amp. I'm talking under $5000 for amp, speakers, and cables that play with the impact, sophistication, color, and refinement of systems costing maybe $20,000 or more.

Cambridge Audio's Azur 851A integrated amplifier appealed to my listening habits and taste. To this audiophile, the Azur 851A represents a versatile and extraordinarily musical cornerstone on which to build a truly enjoyable high-end system that can play all types of music with righteous aplomb for little cost. My only caveats concern its charming azure lights and their programmed ability to flash aggressively scary warnings, and those nice little plastic tone controls, one of which got stuck and stopped working. Why not give me old-school, hermetically sealed, military-spec pots and switches? If they work in an F16, they'll surely outlast all these fashionable, programmable, namby-pamby, chip-based interfaces.

Nevertheless, in my room and with my recordings, Cambridge's newest integrated made me binge and gorge, disc after disc. Nights of listening with the Azur 851A left me drunk on music and high on moderately priced audio. Earnestly recommended!

Cambridge Audio
US distributor: Audio Plus Services
156 Lawrence Paquette Industrial Drive
Champlain, NY 12919
(800) 663-9352

iosiP's picture

I mean, the first sample did not work, the second had problems in the right channel. And these are samples send to reviewers, not purchased by the unsuspecting customer.
I know they are making them in China but for close to $2k I certainly expect better QC!

Erik's picture

I've been wanting to demo this amp for a while and this didn't change that one bit!

Totally get what you say about texture and color, and from one junkie to another, you should have a look at the Hegel H80. Never mind the built in DAC, the amp gels superbly with the Rega in apodizing mode.

BaTou069's picture

Hello Herb,
Great Review! You mentioned the Rogue Audio Sphinx as Associated Equipment but didn't write a word of comparison. I find this comparison rather interesting, both integrated being fully analog, almost same price range, but different approach. Could you fill in? Thanks's picture

One blew up, one had other major problems. Makes me want to stay away from the whole company. Consumers dont have test gear, we sort of have to hope that things work..... Can you imagine what a hassle the dealer would give you if you tried to return a product saying the right channel sounds distorted? Its great that stereophile can find these faults with measurements, but that does little for the average consumer who just got screwed. Terrible. All cambridge product are off my list

damir's picture

My Cambridge Audio 840C cd player died twice.

First fix cost me 700 USD.

A year later, it failed, the same way it failed the first time!

I gave up on Cambridge Audio, although that DAC was really doing magic while it worked.

Same thing I can say about NAD C370... had two of them bridged... both died the same way.

Right now, I'm on NAD m51 and m3... fingers crossed master series will last longer.

corrective_unconscious's picture

What problem was that exactly that happened twice to the CD player? It was out of warranty and you repaired a $1200 to $1500 component for $700.... What shop or dealer handled the $700 repair? I assume you contacted the same people when it happened the second time...whether out of the repair warranty period or not.

damir's picture

Yes, it was just out of warranty, I paid for the fix. I liked the sound and several digital inputs it offered.

There is a loud noise coming from the left channel when you first turn on the CD player. Turn off, turn on, turn off... let it warm up and after some time the *loud* white noise stops and you can start using it.

They replaced the complete motherboard the first time.

A year later, it happened again. I am not going to spend 700 USD again to fix it.

Cambridge Audio - never again.

corrective_unconscious's picture

It was about a $1200 component, at least two years old, which means depreciated to about $600 or $700, and you spent $700 to get it fixed.

There's a first time for everything. I wouldn't use the phrase "motherboard" for a CD player, personally. What board? A power supply board? A digital chip board? What were the symptoms of this failure? It made funny noises but after warmup you could use it normally?

What dealer did the repair? What did they say when the exact same "motherboard" problem re occurred? Didn't you complain to the dealer and to the manufacturer after the expensive repair failed in the same way? What did they have to say for themselves?

I found a nice image of the guts (C rev.) for us to look at:

mendaily DOT com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12 FORWARD SLASH Cambridge-Audio-Azur-851C-Inside DOT jpg

damir's picture

I don't understand what is confusing you. I did not want to buy a new one, I fixed the old one.

They changed the complete *motherboard* with DAC, CPU's, condensators, external connectors, everything.

What dealer? The one that represents cambridge audio and sells the CD player.

Why would I complain again? What could they say? It lasted for a bit over a year and died just like it did the first time.

I wrote in the previous message, it had loud white noise going on a left channel, until it warmed up.

Here is the photo of the motherboard:

FlyhiG's picture

Your report mirrors my experience with CA products. Great sound nice features but not reliable aa one would expect. Sold by the better stores, so not inexpensive. Just too many other makers for me to take a chance on CA gear again.

mrd745_2000's picture

In many stereophile articles you mention where the product is made. I suggest you mention it for every product. I have had bad luck with made in china products. The manufacturers seem to think this is acceptable since they provide us with a short warranty period. I disagree. This gear cost a lot of money. We should get a reliable product that should last for years. But I have made my choice. If I cannot afford a north american or european product I will buy something used or wait. Manufacturers comments that they monitor quality contol or own the factory are meaningless. No more made in China for me.

Sugarbear66's picture

OK I got mine in 2012 and LOVED it, by 2014 it was randomly turning off and weird volume knob issues. (turning it down turned it up) so I had to use remote but, that was fine. But, the turning off got worse and so 6 weeks of a repair later it came back working great and now it's 2016 I'm sending it back again for repair. I've finally lost patience with it, I love the way it sounds, I love the aesthetics of it, it's a 2k integrated but, I had to break up with it. I Just installed a Rogue Audio Sphinx v2 in my rig to replace it during the 851 repair and it's a dream. Maybe I got a lemon 851a. But, no matter my love for the Cambridge it the quirkiness did me in in the end. Happy with my Rogue.

allhifi's picture

SB66: Good call.

I have a 840E preamp -great piece, but damn the under-spec'd resistor/relay 'volume attenuation' (that constantly overheats -at high attenuation- causing hi-fi buff's to fear losing their prized kit. i.e. the up/down/runaway volume).

I understand completely the frustration, however, I've not given up on my beloved 840E (pre-amp); believing I can find a suitable (much higher quality/power/heat-dissipation resistor-relay 'board' (or necessary parts).

To think that CA couldn't fix that what plagued the 8-400 series (6-10 years on -in the 8-500 series is both laughable -and sad. For, as you say, CA otherwise has shown it can make some impressive kit.

Go figure,


allhifi's picture

Hey Frems: Solid review. Cambridge Audio has some fine product; the 851A reviewed case in point.

A few years back I also stumbled, fortuitously it proved, on a CA product; 840E preamplifier. One heck of a pre -a rare (musical) treat.

Then, as now it appears, CA has both some impressive engineering/listening 'chops', but also some glaring faux pas; the 840E's resistor/relay volume attenuation used under-spec'd (power/heat) resistors tat result in 'runaway/ shorting' volume level -replete with accompanying pops, crackles ... hellish fear -of our beloved hifi (amps/speakers).

I, as you, agree:

" ... My only caveats concern its .... nice little plastic tone controls, one of which got stuck and stopped working ...hermetically sealed, military-spec pots and switches? If they work in an F16, they'll surely outlast all these fashionable, programmable, namby-pamby, chip-based interfaces."

I'd add; dispense with those ridiculous "tone" controls altogether. And return to using a higher-spec'd resistor/relay volume implementation.

If only CA could rid themselves of a few of these glaring mis-steps, they'd have a stunning, high-performance, high-value offering that would satisfy audiophile's (rightful) expectations.

peter jasz