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Cambridge Audio Azur 840E Preamplifier & 840W Monoblock Amplifiers Review

Doug Schroeder reveals how the Cambridge Azur 840E and 840W amplification system fared in today's landscape

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System I

Ayon CD-2 Player
Wire World Silver Eclipse/Silver Electra suite
Legacy Focus SE

My vaunted Pathos Classic One MkIII bridged integrateds have gone largely unchallenged in the past two years. Nothing has toppled them from being the ultimate affordable amplification scheme – until now. The Azur 840E and 840W’s have it all, power, grace, and, yes, even more pathos than the Pathos’. I find it hard to fault them for anything, save their operating temperature. When the sound of a component is so good that I pity people not having what I am experiencing, then it’s highly recommendable. I was nearly weeping for you poor souls – you should have heard it!

Just what did I hear? I heard what I consider to one of the most crystal clear solid-state rigs I have ever experienced. I have used several rich, invigorating amps with the Focus and I’ve gotten them to sound mellow, seductive, penetrating, but never as clean and flawless as with the 840W. Audiophiles are used to a certain accepted level of “electronic burden” as I will call it, a phrase to describe the insidious degradation of sound seemingly inescapable with solid-state amplification. It’s not perceived as haze or lack of clarity because nearly every design on the planet has it. It’s only perceived when it’s blown away like morning fog being cleared by the sunrise.

An image for consideration; if you let car windows go too long without cleaning, one smudge against the glass reveals a smoggy, whitish layering. Once the window is cleaned the eyes are treated to a much more pristine, and relaxed, view. It is at once more precise and easy on the eyes. In the same manner, there is a layer of acoustic “film” or “grunge” wiped completely away by the Azur amps. Once the music is heard unobscured in such clear fashion, it is hard to hear it again through “filmy” amplification. This kind of “clean window” effect happened consistently when the 840W was switched out with any amp. It didn’t matter which amps were compared, the Wyred 4 Sound, Pathos, Rowland, nothing I had on hand could cut the “fog” of SS sound like the Azur.

Here are some examples of what cleaner sound is like:

1. Intolerable Bass becomes acceptable. Case in point, the first disc by Lesiem, who’s engineer should be disciplined. You need practically a world-class rig not to experience gross distortion in the bottom-end of the music. Even with the prodigious, precise 12” twin aluminum drivers of the Focus SE, the music is recorded at such a saturated level that nearly all I could think of while listening was, “this is so distorted!” It was a minor miracle that the 840W’s could reduce the “BBLLAAAAAWWEE” of each bass note to “Blaww”. The bottom end previously was a soup of uncertainty, but cleaned up enough to detect distinct bass notes in the deepest regions. The amp made the disc listenable.

2. Detail becomes more natural sounding. When you have an amp which is so pristine you experience the reality that detail and warmth are not polar opposites, but rather complementary. It may seem incredible, but the more distinct the instruments the more cleanly, clearly they mesh. A mesh is not a mish-mash, and this amp meshes instruments, it does not mish-mash them. I must admit that most electronic music I enjoy, be it Alan Parsons Project, Mars Lasar, and the like rapidly becomes mish-mash to my ears as the density of the music increases. It’s not that I cannot hear the detail, it’s that the equipment usually can’t keep up with the ears. Even with $50K in gear it seems so many times all the little elements of the music disintegrate into cacophony. Not so with the Azur pre and amps. Like no other amps I have used, every part seems in its place. It is the precise juxtaposition of all those parts which leads the ears to hear a beautiful mesh of sound, not a mish-mash.

It is thrilling to hear in complex synthesized music background twittering that flits between left and right tweeters, all the while a pulsating 16 Hz wave ebbs and flows. But it’s also stimulating to hear how extremely quiet passages are handled. Annie Lennox sings “Hush, Hush, Hush” on Herbie Hancock’s Possibilities, and her voice sounds like she uses 20 percent diaphragm and 80% air as she mostly whispers her way through the song. It’s quite the emotional disconnect to hear the voice of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” half crooning, half pleading with seemingly every fiber in her body.

3. Like the elimination of ambient light which obscures what can be seen through a telescope, the 840W XD amp seems to be devoid of noise. This is not done in a subtle fashion, but in the most dramatic way. As stars which were previously hidden stand out in the inky darkness of night, so did minute details jump out while listening through the Azur amps. I am not speaking of just a cleaner sounding amp, but a cleaner sounding class of amp. There is a gulf between traditional solid-state designs of this price category and the class XD technology in terms of clarity and presence. I have not heard any solid-state amp in my room come close to this level of transparency.

As evidence of the efficacy of this technology, I observed that with the use of XD, the Legacy Audio Focus SE speaker became far closer in nature to the hot new Wilson Maxx 3 than it has a right to. I burned into my memory the experience of the Maxx 3’s in the Lamm, Kubala Sosna, NeoDio system at CES 2009 . The rig was scintillating, exuberant, plus about ten other favorably descriptive adjectives. I didn’t think I would ever hear a huge slice of that perfect of sound in my room, but I have it! A large measure of the beauty of that Maxx 3 system was the lack of electronic smear, the “electronic burden” I spoke of earlier. When you have it in your system you can’t hear it, but when it’s removed, you can’t help but notice it. What accompanies the removal of the haze in utilization of the 840W’s is an increase in immediacy due to far more nuances being heard.

4. The XD technology is not cold/analytical sounding. To the ear it is significantly warmer sounding than the switching amps I have used recently, namely Rowland, Channel Islands, PS Audio, and Wyred4Sound. Truly it sounds as a beguiling blend of Class A tonality and Class D power. I do not hesitate to suggest it to those in the market for more power but wanting beauty more akin to bronze than stainless steel.

Cambridge Azur 840W rear

I will give two examples of this relationship of clarity with warmth, the products of the Azur combo. Randy Crawford’s rendition of “Purple Rain” (on the Naked and True disc) is a lazy, loafing summer daze of a song. The trumpet spins lazily upward in the background while she lets her alto voice rise and fall with wave-like repetitiveness. The drumstick and cymbal strikes are so light yet sharp, like acoustic pins and needles. All the while the carefree ambient background wraps around the entire affair. Prickly treble taps, like cactus needles – sharp but not sharp enough to stab the ear – protrude from a vacuous backfill. These components executed it perfectly.

My second illustration, from the same disc, involves a relative of the xylophone, an instrument my grandmother played with panache. I recall her using two sets of mallets to hammer the instrument with masterful precision. The wooden toned percussive “plunk” the instrument makes is nostalgic to me. This is likely why I enjoy Crawford’s version of “Holding Back the Years”, which features the xylophone.

I am taking a risk with the next few sentences, as I have not “done my homework” first. I am going out on a bit of a limb in declaring that the instrument used in the track “Holding Back the Years” is not a xylophone, but a vibraphone. As I am writing this I’m referencing a note I made a few days ago while listening to that piece, “Metal – Xylophone/Vibraphone – Not wood,” but I never looked to see if I was correct. This instrument’s sound on the song is indistinct as heard through many amps – it’s difficult to determine if the instrument’s bars are of wood (xylophone) or aluminum (vibraphone) composition.

As heard through the Azur system the question is answered; I am confident as I write that those bars were aluminum. At the time I wrote the note I recall clearly hearing the metallic ring of the bar as it was struck. In fact, I have such confidence in this conclusion that I am going to check the disc’s jacket for confirmation right now! If I am wrong, I will speak my Mea Culpa to the world!

(Push in the keyboard and rise…walk to the listening room… there it is, Naked and True…slip out the cover… precisely as expected, “Holding Back the Years, Vibraphone: Uli Schroter”… return to computer).

That is exactly how the above two paragraphs of this review were composed. I knew it was a risk; I have been speaking of how clear and realistic these amps are and if I didn’t hear it clearly, if I had been wrong, I would have egg on my face as a reviewer. It’s not the kind of writing roulette I would play often, but I am confident of my hearing acuity. I knew I could trust the level of realism in music from these amps, and as can be seen, they did not disappoint! Thankfully, neither did my ears! I could catalogue more revelations, but this suffices to illustrate.

The importance of the super-clarity of the Azur components was also confirmed while using the Emerald Physics CS2 speakers. (The Emerald Physics CS2 has been discontinued. –Ed.) In my notes, I noted how dramatically the speaker was impacted by the substitution of higher grade interconnects between the speaker’s active processor and the amplifier channels. Similarly, the amplifier channels themselves were critical to upgrading the performance of the speaker. Initially I was unimpressed at what the CS2 could do in terms of delineating detailed material, but it improved markedly with the Azur amps. I strongly suggest that anyone with two-way or concentric-driver speaker designs consider the 840W if there is a desire for more acuity in the performance.

10 Responses to Cambridge Audio Azur 840E Preamplifier & 840W Monoblock Amplifiers Review

  1. Rudy Velickovski says:

    Hello, and thank you for the wonderful review of the Cambridge Audio 840W Amplifier.

    I just went and bought one from a local dealer and I’ve fallen in love with it. Your review was bang on in all aspects of the units sound quality.

    I had a question in regards to the bridge mode of this unit. I would like to buy another one and use them in the mono mode to increase power output.

    Everything I’ve read when it comes to bridging stereo amps, is that is leads to reduced sound quality, primarily distortion, greater cross talk, etc.

    I do not want to impact the quality of the sound in any way, at any cost. Did you notice anything by putting this amp in bridge mode?

    Thank you kindly

  2. Rudy,
    God’s Joy to you,

    Perhaps the answer can be best answered in terms of measurements vs. the listening experience. The measurements may be less tidy with use of two amps in Bridged mode, however my experience has been that use of two amps is always superior to use of one in stereo mode.

    Now, if a person is suggesting that, say, a single 250wpc amp would be superior to two 125wpc amps run in a passive biamp mode, I will not argue that. Typically one would get better results from a more robust single stereo amp. But that does not preclude improvement by addition of a second stereo amp and running them both in Mono mode.

    I still use the two Pathos Classic One MkIII tube hybrid integrated amps in Mono mode because they are so blissfully rich and attractive sounding. So, in my experience the addition of a second amp always improves, perhaps not as much as a more expensive single stereo amp, but enough that it is well worth pursuing.

    The Azur was glorious when used with two units in Bridged mode; I preferred to run them that way in most installations, if that helps you to decide.

    Douglas Schroeder

  3. David says:

    Hi Douglas

    Thoroughly enjoyed your review of the 840E and 840W’s, so much so that off the back of it I went out, auditioned and eventually bought the combination. I have since sold the pre-amplifier but have kept faith in the 840W’s, so much so that I have managed to acquire another two, so now have four in total.

    My question or comment is in relation to their ability to drive speakers and impedance handling. Up till now I have been running all four in Bridged Mono mode running a pair of tri-wireable, three-way, 8 Ohm ATC scm35 apeakers (two per each speaker one for LF, and one bi-wired to M and HF terminals), and whilst the sound is superb, the treble isn’t as precise as I would like, thus I decide to add a supertweeter (8Ohm), and here is where my problems started.

    The supertweeter did exactly what I wanted it to do in terms of sound, however the amps started to run very hot, far hotter then they had in the past (you know how hot they can get), to the point that you could quiet easily burn yourself – something is not right? Do you think the supertweeter has altered the impedance figure and as such the amps (in Bridged Mode) are finding the load too difficult? and if so, should I switch them to Dual Mono mode to avoid problems?

    Also, the manual does not give the amps “wattage” into 2 Ohms, so does this mean that Cambridge don’t recommend the amps drive 2Ohm speakers, or that they simply can’t.

    Many thanks, I always enjoy your reviews.

  4. James Romeyn says:

    Mr. Schroeder,
    Hope you are well.

    I would most likely run one stereo 840W, not two. It would be nice to get a handle on the heat issue for one amp. Recently I employed one Atma-Sphere S30 OTL (current model). How might you compare the heat? Do you know how many watts the 840W dissipates while idling? For a thoroughly burned-in sample, what is estimated duration from “off” to close-to-maximum performance?

    The load is two separate full range speakers per channel (one is an “effects” system with late-arriving output). The impedance is ruler flat above the bass range, allowing the two speakers to wire either in series (ruler flat 20 Ohm above the bass range) or parallel (ruler flat 4.8 Ohm above the bass range).

    My lifetime experience with SS amps is the higher the impedance the less audible and less intrusive are noise and distortion spectra. I presume therefor the 20 Ohm load is preferred if 90W is enough power, which it might be (low 90 dB sensitivity). Your comments appreciated.


  5. Effi Ceon says:

    Thank you very much for this detailed review. It was a big help for my decisions. Running now 2x 840W biamped with Quadral Aurum Titan VII and it will be combined with 840E soon.
    Kind regards

  6. peter jasz says:

    The Cambridge Audio 840-E must be the most under-rated preamplifier in the history of Hi-Fi.

    It possesses the rare quality of excellent transparency/resolution with tonal realism; fleshed out instrument tone/hues from top-to-bottom. The entire frequency bandwidth is impressively revealed with particularly rare (but most welcome -and essential) low-frequency transparency and detail. The remainder of the music spectrum is equally finely resolved, nuanced and articulate, imbued with a graceful finesse – very rare, very desirable qualities.

    The interior layout precision is also impressive. As is the precision resistor/relay volume implementation.

    The 840-E also has ample inputs and control flexibility. The chassis styling, ergonomics and build quality is first rate.

    Highly recommended.

    peter jasz

  7. Marcin says:

    I’m reading about the Cambridge audio AZUR 840e & 840w set getting encourage to upgrade my current system which is Focal Chorus 836v with old NAD power amp C272 and Yamaha RX-A3040.
    1. I would appreciate your advice if, in your opinion, CA 840e+840w would be the good match with my Focals? Anybody tried that ?
    2. Would CA 840e+840w be an major step up in my stereo system ? as it cost a bit …

    Thank you for your advice

  8. peter jasz says:

    Reviews for the 840 E/W are collectively excellent -for good reason.

    Clearly, the reviewer heaps more praise upon the amplifier (W) than Pre (E).
    But, as a 840E owner (and long-standing experienced audiophile), rest
    assured that the 840E preamplifier is a superb line-stage. The resolution/clarity,
    layering, dimensionality, life-like musicality, low-noise and striking micro/
    macro dynamics are all very impressive. Interestingly, the Cambridge 840E
    wasn’t even on my radar as a possible/suitable contender. Thank goodness I
    stumbled upon it.
    ‘Pop’ the lid, and you’ll discover a beautifully laid-out interior; attention
    to detail that shames that of Constellation (garage-build) components
    (that are priced 10X that of the CA -lol)

    The down-side (and it’s something to seriously consider) is the problematic
    volume-control circuit/relay’s that fail early; resulting in nasty ‘run-away’
    ‘ volume’ levels, and or seriously loud “crackling” sounds that can easily take
    out tweeters. This appears to be due to under-spec’d relay’s, and very high
    internal heat levels; remarkably, there is no top plate ventilation on the 840E !
    (Removing the top-cover reveals ‘scorch’ marks on the underside – a sign of far too
    great heat build-up. How such an oversight escaped CA engineers is difficult to

    In any case, (superior quality) relay replacement is demanded, as would be addressing the
    ventilation concerns. So, if a used 840E becomes available, although a superb unit,
    be forewarned that a few-hundred dollars in repairs/upgrades WILL be required.
    The 851E is the 840’s “successor” -and possibly remains current. However, it’s NOT the same
    (not near as good) preamp.
    BUT, it does come with top-plate ventilation holes; the top-cover also ‘fits’ the 840E, albeit
    the color/finish does not match that of the 840E. Perhaps the 840W top plate for some much
    needed ventilation ?

    I have the amazing Classe CA-2100 as a main amplifier; the combination is amazing.


  9. Duane Gosa says:

    The 840E model is problematic.. due to the control knob for volume.. it went ballistic and blew up my 2000 dollars power amp. I turned it all on and the pre amp went to full volume before I could get the power shut down..I called Cambridge Audio and they knew about this issue, now I know mine is out of warranty which they were quick to point out. They said a few of these got out and is was not worth a recall.. so I bought the Vincent 232 power amp.. love it..but before I can turn anything on I have to make sure that the 840E is not going to do it again, once I get it stable then I turn on the rest of my amps. When I talked to them about this, they said I could ship it back for repair which they would charge me for. I live in the states they are in England and I would have to pay for the shipping and I should have the original box..or they told me that they would give me a half price on a newer model.. What a joke. Never again will BUY their product. They knew about it and still sent them out.. When I read the reviews on this pre amp oh it is so great, bullshit…no help, if they knew they had an issue like this these should’ve never been sold..some great reputation!!! Never again..this has been some time ago when I complained about this but it still pisses me off that they would not do the right thing.. who knows when I would’ve got it back and they were going to charge me for the repair also.. no good, never again.. such a great company, they do not stand by their product…yes again it was out of warranty but what pisses me off they knew about it..junk..I fight it everyday.

  10. duane gosa says:

    My 8403 preamp blew up m components. Do not recommended any Cambridge Audio stuff again, no support. Also I have a DAC from them, it quit in a month and I have called and left my number, no way will I buy this line of product..pisses me off. They do not stand behind their the product, it’s a shame that these bad ones got out but did not stop them for ending them out of protection.

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