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Cambridge Audio Azur 840C CD Player Review

Doug Schroeder details how the $1,499 Cambridge Audio Azur 840C CD player is made to survive the demise of the disc, plus new postscript on the 840C's

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The conclusion that the Azur 840C is an excellent player is only half the truth. This machine is outstanding as a transport. The quality of Cambridge’s design for their transport cannot be overemphasized. High quality Mabuchi motors and Sanyo laser blocks were fitted into their own mechanical parts. In fact, the utmost effort to avoid skimping at any point is obvious. The circuit is fully differential, with dual differential AD1955 DACs, differential amplifiers and filters all the way to the XLR outs. There are zero capacitors in the signal path, as it is all DC coupled. A flux toroidal transformer, large electrolytics, all polypropylene caps, and 24 separate regulated power supplies reside inside. A commonality I am seeing in contemporary upscale components is the preponderance of power supplies. Not that it is an infallible guide, but one might get a good indication of build quality by asking one question: How many regulated power supplies are inside? The newer players seem to be dropping them in like candy, and the results are glorious.

Car buyers slam doors. I do, and I assess the sound of the door slamming. Is the seal tight? Does the door carry enough weight when it’s slammed? Does it move smoothly? Millions of data points are calculated as I watch and hear that door close. I also watch and listen to the way a CD tray closes. Does it move in a lurching or gliding fashion? Does the motor sound quiet and refined or noisy? Is there mass to the tray or is it flimsy plastic? While this is not even close to an infallible indicator of quality playback it is a factor. I believe the number of companies which would go to the effort to make a quality transport and put crappy components inside is small. Conversely, not too many manufacturers who work with cheapo transports are going to move decidedly upscale in their topology. With the Azur 840C the evidence is under the hood, and it’s beautiful! This player is as electronically and mechanically pleasing, as it is sonically. That’s not the reason a person buys a player, but it speaks volumes to the passion with which a player is designed and executed.

That’s why in one sense it is a shame that the 840C is best used through bypassing half its internal components! A waste, you say? Not at all; the “Pass Through” function allows the unit to operate as a transport, while the SELECT function reserves it for a DAC to be used with up to 2 sources! Ah, what genius, what heavenly bliss to this design – two streamlined operations which can serve seemingly irreconcilable sources!

‘The purists are right; the best sound is when the CD player does nothing to the signal except push it to the DAC, and the Azur sounds like it does absolutely nothing to the signal.’

This player is a study in extremes executed exceptionally well. On the one hand, the player can add data to the hilt, and on the other it can pass along the data adding nothing better than any other cdp transport I have used. One does not realize just how much digital grunge is present in even good CD sound until one hears it removed. If the DSP processing is not wanted, all one needs to do is set the unit to pass along the signal without treatment. The purists are right; the best sound is when the CD player does nothing to the signal except push it to the DAC, and the Azur sounds like it does absolutely nothing to the signal – the epitome of a neutral presentation.. This is a very, very good thing for any outboard DAC as the resultant sound is euphorically clean.

The “Pass Through” function is available for normal playback as well. The Owner’s Manual is a bit confusing as it discusses “raw data” output, as it may lead the audiophile to conclude that a DAC is mandatory for the “Pass Through” feature. However, one can take the signal direct out via “Pass Through” to the pre/integrated of your choice. The resultant sound is the Zenith of the Azur 840C’s capabilities.

Cambridge Audio Azur 840C CD Player

System

Allow me now to describe the critical distinctions between four listening modes I used operating the 840C. I will begin with the two modes which most closely resemble each other, upsampled CD playback followed by operation as a DAC for a digital source. I will then proceed to discussion of the unit as a transport in the “Pass Through” mode. Finally, I will return to the 840C solely operating in “Pass Through”.

I primarily used two configurations of associated equipment. Consistent throughout these comparisons were Legacy Focus HD speakers as well as Wire World’s suite of cables comprising Equinox 5 Squared speaker cables, Electra 5 Squared power cords and Gold Starlight Coaxial Digital cable. Amplification was provided by Jeff Rowland’s Capri preamp and 501 mono blocks in the solid-state category, and the Pathos Classic One MkIII tube hybrids in mono mode as tube representatives. These are the two strongest performing rigs in their respective categories. The results of my comparisons between the three modes of operation for the 840C never varied due to the amplification being solid-state or tube. This bodes well for both transistor and tube lovers when it comes to implementing my recommendations for how to use the Azur player.

Also consistent was the use of Wire World’s Equinox 5 Squared interconnects, however one pair was balanced and the other single-ended. This was critical to the discovery that the “Pass Through” mode was superior to all other forms of operation.

To make the distinction between the three modes easier to follow, I will refer only to one disc of the dozens that I tested over the weeks, GRP Gold Encore Series: A Jazz Romance. This disc has some of the loveliest acoustic instrumentals and vocals, as well as one of the most ghastly vocal pieces I can summon to mind! Diane Schuur and Patti Austin are ethereal in their treatment of “Speak Low” and “First Time Love” respectively. Carl Anderson emotes so well on “Pieces of a Heart” that you think he’s lost several of his. But then… what’s with the moaning, groaning “Attack of the Zombies” vocals of Dave Grusin’s “Hurricane Country”? Yikes!

Let’s start with the worst and work our way upward. Grusin’s moribund song (What does moaning like a monster, “YEEaaaah….YEEAAAaaa,” for the better part of an entire song have to do with Hurricanes?) worsened as I moved from regular (upsampled) playback to the upsampled signal sent to the Monarchy M24, to the untouched signal in “Pass Through” mode sent to the Monarchy. It was insufferable in “Pass Through” direct to the amplification!

At first the singing was not so bad, a more nebulous bass warbling with semi-twangy guitar as heard through the normal playback mode. Thankfully, other vocals were enjoyable. A warm glow, relaxed but not the last word in definition type of sound characterizes the upsampled playback. This likely sounds heretical to those who have heard the 840C, as it is tremendously refined sounding to most who hear it in this mode. Carl Anderson’s voice was ever so tight, just a touch piercing. I find that this happens when a player has the “right stuff” but has the wrong cable attached, or perhaps needs a different amp. In this case I was intimately familiar with the amp and cables so I figured that it was the 840C. Sure enough, when I passed the upsampled signal to the Monarchy M24 tube DAC, the strain in his voice, the smudging of the instrumentation cleaned up nicely.

I’m being highly critical here, you must understand. As a teacher might push a student with rare gifts, I am “pushing” the assessment of this player. In stock form it already is superb.

The sampling frequency, as stated above, in this mode is 384kHz. However, when sent to the M24 it fell to 96kHz, which seems to be the Monarchy’s upper limit. Still, the sound was cleaner, deeper in sound field, and more palpable. But there was much better to come in the form of the pristine, absolutely untreated signal sent in “Pass Through” mode to the Monarchy DAC. I was initially surprised to see the Monarchy register “441” on its display, meaning that the incoming signal was sampled at 44.1kHz – the standard Redbook frequency. That made sense, since the 840C processor was now out of the loop. But what was wholly unanticipated was the massive jump in quality in every respect! Depth, intensity, timbre, integration of instruments, flooding and filling of the venue with liveliness – it all came together in this mode.

Consequently the “near death experience” of the hurricane man’s moaning grew ever more unbearable! It was bad enough that he groaned, but now I heard his wretched warbling and low echoes. I was getting some great sound – lousy singing with moaning – but great sound! Carl, on the other hand, sounded much livelier even though his heart was being ripped to pieces. There was no hint whatsoever of tightness in his voice.

But the Zombie Man of the Hurricane was not yet done with me. He was to move from the incorporeal world to the living when I used “Pass Through” with balanced outs right into the Jeff Rowland Capri preamp. This was it, digital playback fleshed out to the finest details. I couldn’t listen, he sounded so dreadful – and that meant the sound was absolutely delightful!

The “Pass Through” mode to a refined sounding DAC is the highest expression of what the Azur 840C can do. So, was it the Digital to Analogue Converter, the Monarchy, responsible for all this?

I thought I would bring the lowbrow champ Oppo 970HD into the rig to find out. If it was everything but the transport that made the most difference, then swapping the Oppo for the Azur should be not so devastating to the sound. But, it was. The Oppo details like crazy, but it was not an authentically high-end sound. Even the well-tempered Monarchy could not keep a lid on the brightness of the Oppo. Everything was brighter and “amped up” sounding, like a gain control had been added and turned up a few notches. The bass was bright and light, the percussion was bright, the voices were bright, etc. There was a complete dropping out of weight and warmth to the bass. It all reminded me of a hyped car stereo with an in-your-face attitude as opposed to the gracefulness of a fine home rig. Those who would substitute this excellent, economical DVD player for a quality transport are shortchanging themselves. For persons who truly value excellent two-channel playback, money spent on equipment like the Azur 840C is money well spent.

I conducted one other test over the weeks I had the 840C. I used it as a DAC for my Sonos Digital Music System review. Sonos is a hardware and software solution for multiple rooms in one location. It sources its music from either online music services, which are streamed, or one’s NAS (network attached storage). I set up both and used the Azur for the DAC. The convenience was compelling, as all I needed to do in switching sources was utilize the SELECT button on the player.

The 840C was not the absolutely best DAC solution for online sound. The Monarchy, as might be expected, was better at retrieving the best from the streaming audio. However, at no time did the music services or the NAS best CD played back via the “Pass Through” function directly to amplification. In the end, as mightily as I tried, I could not surpass good old Redbook as a source. Did the internet streaming audio through the Monarchy come close enough to reference CD playback to make me eschew the Azur 840C? No, it did not. It is still a dream to obtain CD quality music from internet sources. It is getting close, very close, but it is not quite there yet. It did not take too much critical listening to find that the Azur is mighty tough to beat.

In the end, the Azur’s upsampled sound was bested, by itself! Put some XLR interconnects on it, set it to “Pass Through” output and you’re done. Done as in no longer looking for the Holy Grail of authentically pleasant digital sound. Done shuffling players. Done with digital glare. Done with effects from jitter. Done lamenting that Redbook will never captivate like vinyl. There is no escaping the excellence of this player; in its “worst” mode it outshines many, but at its best it can be considered a beloved source for rigs $50k and above.

Used in the gloriously uncomplicated “Pass Through” mode, simple acoustic pieces like Ramsey Lewis’ “Sara Jane” (on the same GRP disc) fill marvelously to encompass the entire front of the room. With many sub-$3k CD players, a cluster of acoustic instruments does not entirely cover the stage, but each instrument stays localized. It is an eerily life-like experience to hear the sound waves of an instrument reach across and touch those of another. The cavity which seems to separate instruments in front of the listener as heard through other players simply fills ever so delicately, leaving no void on the stage. One hears a quartet’s instruments not intruding into each other but sonically linking up and synching. In the normal playback and output to external DAC, I did not hear to this extent the holistic relation between instruments. However, it happened direct with the Pass Through mode as the signal was passed through the balanced outputs.

Therefore, I heartily recommend those committed to the Azur 840C to seek preamps and integrateds with balanced (XLR) inputs. The performance of the Azur is marginally better utilizing the balanced outputs versus single-ended, but do not let this stop you if you have only single-ended (RCA) inputs on your pre/integrated! I can’t imagine a poor result in system matching but I can dream of several manufacturers which I long to hear with this player! It is quite possible, since we are speaking of preferences at very refined levels, that you might find a DAC which pairs up well with the 840C to bring your personal Heaven. The fact is you really cannot go wrong with this machine. If you have a CD collection and other digital sources to deal with, you will obtain exceptional results, and I think be most pleased no matter how you utilize it.

Last Take

I had one more chance to determine if an outboard DAC would reverse my opinion on the 840C’s performance as a player versus transport. In this instance, the Van Alstine Ultra Dac had just arrived as I was finalizing this review and would make for a wonderful test for the “Pass Through” discovery. I was surprised to find that it was not suitable for such purposes as it was completely unaffected by the “Pass Through” feature of the 840C! There was no change in sound from the upsampled signal to the untreated signal. Why? The Van Alstine forces the feed from the transport into a true 16 bit parallel processed signal. So, the comparison of upsampled to direct signal was impossible. However, there are many other DACs on the market which can be tried against the Azur 840C’s internals. I guarantee you will have a grand time and experience some very enjoyable audio in the process! I do not, however, guarantee that DACs under $2k will yield better results than the Azur 840C.

With the Azur 840C Cambridge Audio has demonstrated skill in design and manufacturing on several levels – quality per dollar spent, development of technology, introduction of relevant functionality, and tremendously satisfying sound. I enthusiastically endorse this player. It is a truly exciting component because it not only delivers on its stated performance, but goes beyond by allowing the owner to leverage its functionality. With the capacity of the “Pass Through” function it can excel either as a transport or stand alone player. It is a ridiculously good value among components designed for real world audiophiles.

I wonder if Cambridge and Matthew Bond know just how well they have done in creating the 840C? It’s a terrific cdp and a sweet DAC for digital sources. One thing is for sure, the audio community seems largely ignorant of its near reference quality performance in “Pass Through” mode. Now you know it, too.

Postscript On The 840C’S “Pass Through” Function

June 11, 2008

Reader Wallace King’s inquiry:

Regarding Doug Schroeder’s recent review of the Cambridge Azur 840c CD player:

Am I correct in understanding that the “pass through” option discussed in the review is only available when using the 840c as a transport in conjunction with an external DAC?

I own the player, but have not been able to use the “pass through” setting when using the 840c as a stand-alone CD player. When attempting to select the “pass through” option, the setting automatically reverts to the standard CD upsampling setting within a few seconds. I do not use an external DAC.

Thanks.
Wallace King

Response from Doug Schroeder:

Wallace,

The “Pass Through” feature on the 840C is unusual and the Manual is not all that clear. I believe you have been engaging the Pass Through function if you have been using the steps outlined in the Manual:
Press Menu
Press Select (to be able to toggle between Upsampled and Pass Through)
Press Select again (to select Pass Through)
Here is when you might be getting confused, as the display reverts back to its native setting, showing the player’s native format. However, the digital output is at that point not being Upsampled! If you repeat the first two steps you will see that the output shows “Pass Through”.

There is a subtle, not huge difference between the two settings. On a high end rig one can hear the distinction. The difference in settings becomes even more evident as one adds an outboard DAC. However, it is not necessary to have the outboard DAC for use of the Pass Through function.

If you do not detect much difference between the two settings, then you are free to use whichever you desire. I found that with an outboard DAC (Monarchy M24 Tube Pre/DAC) and a system at about the $40k price point, I heard enough of a distinction that I preferred using the 840C as a transport set on the Pass Through setting. The player yields itself to growing the quality of the sound by at some point moving to an outboard DAC if so desired.

Blessings,
Douglas Schroeder

November 22, 2008:

Cambridge Audio Azur 840C Review Update: The week of November 17th, 2008 saw one of my purchased 840C players returned to Cambridge Audio for warranty repair. It seems the player was not locking on to a digital signal sent from the Ayon CD-3 player. It also had drop outs ( a skittering sound) operating as a stand alone player. The fault seemed centered around the DAC.

Cambridge Audio was immediate in action; they hurried the player through service, replacing the digital processing board, and returned it to me promptly. I have been running it this week without issue.

-Doug Schroeder

One Response to Cambridge Audio Azur 840C CD Player Review


  1. Pingback: CAMBRIDGE AUDIO Azur 840C/silver | NISEL

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