CXN (V2) Network Streamer Review
Company & Product Overview
While Cambridge Audio has been around for nearly 50 years, they are a relative newcomer to Audio Advice. They are known for their value, and since we brought them into the Audio Advice family a little over a year ago, we have been very impressed with what you get from their products for the money.
Their very first product, the Cambridge P40 was a small integrated amplifier that was groundbreaking at the time for its use of a toroidal power transformer. Those of you familiar with high-performance audio probably know that this type of power supply is still being used in some of the higher-end products on the market today.
Most British high-performance brands tend to lean towards natural sound reproduction and staying true to the music. While music is of course all about personal enjoyment, most of us at Audio Advice are music purists and adhere to a similar philosophy. This made Cambridge a perfect fit for us and our customers.
Cambridge pays specific attention to maintaining the timing of the music, which is extremely hard to do at the level that their products attain — particularly at their price points.
Today we will be reviewing a brand new network streaming device, the Cambridge CXN (V2) — an updated version of the CXN which was originally released back in 2015. The CXN itself was actually a replacement for the Cambridge Stream Magic 6 V2, which was an update on the original Stream Magic.
All of this to say that while lots of companies are just now jumping into the increasingly popular world of music streaming, Cambridge has been at this for some time. The original CXN has been named the “Best Streamer” by the coveted UK audio magazine “What Hi-Fi?” 3 years in a row!
Before we dive in, we think it’s worth noting that the CXN (V2) can actually be used not only as a network streamer, but also as a full digital preamp (if you are going to just do digital and streaming music, and already have a power amp). To use it as a preamp, during the setup, simply change the output from fixed to variable.
Design & Build Quality
The CXN (V2) is a full-sized audio component and is available in a brushed black or silver finish. It’s got an interesting design, with an arched bottom that instead of typical rubber feet which makes it look like it’s floating in your audio stack.
The front panel features a large, full-color display with 4 buttons on either side. A small power button is on the far left and there is a large solid knob on the far right which is used for selection, or as a volume knob in preamp mode. While the CXN (V2) is a sub $1,000 unit, all of the buttons and particularly this large knob reminds us more of something we’re used to seeing in much more expensive components.
Cambridge prints all of their input names both right side up as well as upside down on the back of all of their components. This is a simple, yet incredibly thoughtful idea. Often times when you are hooking things up or changing connections, you are doing so from the front, leaning over and looking at the back of the unit. Having the inputs labeled this way makes them so much easier to read and is a really thoughtful touch that we wish every audio brand would adopt.
Any time a brand is known for their value, it is important to inspect the build-quality. We know that this is an area that Cambridge excels, but we still like to get into the weeds as many of you guys enjoy learning about the details.
The Cambridge CXN (V2) is designed and engineered in the UK, like all Cambridge products, and is assembled in China. We decided to pop the top and take a peek inside to really see what is going on inside the CXN (V2). The internal design is extremely well thought out, with a network streaming board similar to what we’ve seen in $4,000 streamers. The power supply board is totally separate from the critical audio path. They even moved the audio board about 3” back from the front panel display to remove any chance of noise creeping in. All of your inputs and outputs are direct connections to the network audio board as well.
The build quality is as good as you will find in its price range. Of course, it’s not to the level of a $10,000 Mark Levinson piece, but it’s also 1/10th the price.
Features & Technology
The upgrade of the CXN (V2) over the original CXN brings with it a faster processor, a richer internet radio experience and a finer level of playback control.
The CXN (V2) allows you to access your digital files and streaming music in a variety of ways including internet radio, Pandora, Napster BBC iPlay Radio, and Spotify Connect. A software update will also be coming sometime in early 2018 which will make Tidal available as well.
When you take a look at the rear panel, you’ll find a hard-wired ethernet connector and an antenna for WiFi. The CXN (V2) has full NAS Drive / UPnP compatibility as well.
There is a port for a local USB stick drive and the typical USB connection for using the CXN (V2) with your computer as a USB DAC. You also get two digital inputs — Toslink and Coax digital.
If you’re an iPhone user, the CXN (V2) will show up in your Airplay list as well.
If all of these options aren’t enough for you, simply add the optional $75 Cambridge BT100 adapter and you’ll have AptX Bluetooth as well.
The only thing missing that we would have liked to see is a headphone jack, which would allow you to use it at our desk for headphone listening.
The CXN (V2) supports a wide range of audio formats, including ALAC, WAV, FLAC, AIFF, DSD (x64), WMA, MP3, AAC, HE AAC, AAC+, and OGG Vorbis.
On the output side, you’ll get Toslink and Coax digital outputs, though we’re not really sure why you would want to use these considering the CXN (V2) has a great internal DAC. Finally, on the far end, there are two sets of audio outs: standard RCA and balanced connections as well.
You can control the unit using the buttons and knob on the front panel, the remote control (which comes in the box), or the Cambridge Audio CA Connect app. The app is very straightforward, with a simple interface that is easy to use. It’s not as rich or as deep when it comes to browsing your music library and learning more about the artists and songs as some of the other apps we’ve seen (Naim comes to mind), but it’s great for controlling the CXN (V2).
One of the key updates you’ll find in the CXN (V2) over the original is the inclusion of a new streaming technology known as DASH. Many internet radio stations, including some from UK’s BBC, have started streaming in 320 kbps format, which provides far better quality sound. DASH enables you to enjoy this great free content at a far higher bitrate than ever before.
The audio path found in the CXN (V2) is quite a feat and has a ton to do with its great sound. It will accept signals up to 24/192, but the true magic is what happens after that.
Cambridge uses an upsampling technology called ATF2 which is short for Adaptive Time Filtering. The engineering team over at Cambridge invented this technology to get digital sound closer to pure analog. It is a unique and very interesting approach which they refer to as polynomial curve-fitting interpolation.
In a nutshell, the system takes a look at the original digital signal coming in. Rather than drawing straight lines between each bit and upsampling (trying to add in the missing information that you lose in digital) along the lines, their process adds in the actual musical waveform, which is never a straight line but more rounded. They then upsample along those curved lines, which gets you a whole lot closer to the original recording.
Every single signal runs through this process, getting upconverted to a Hi-res 24bit/384kHz sample size. After the upsampling is done, the signal gets converted to analog using their premium dual Wolfson WM8740 DACs. This gives the sound much more warmth, subtle detail, and dimension — even on streaming music services. You’ll likely hear new details in your music that you have never noticed before.
Every Cambridge Audio component also gets fine-tuned by their engineering team through listening tests — comparing the difference in the sound of various parts, even if they meet the spec of the design. This is the way audio used to be designed. It’s an approach that our friends at Audio Research also use to design and test their components. Of course, we would expect to see this from Audio Research, with products like a $14,000 preamp, but for an $899 streamer, this is a value you just can’t put a price tag on.
When we test a piece of gear, we like to put it in a system that will reveal any flaws. To test the CXN (V2), we connected it up to a very high-end integrated amplifier and a pair of Aerial 7t speakers. We tested out Spotify Connect for streaming, as well as some Hi-Res and CD quality files from our network.
Spotify Connect is the most impressive we have ever heard Spotify. The AFT technology that Cambridge is using really does make a big difference. We can’t wait to hear what Tidal sounds like when the software update is released in the coming months.
When we listened to our Hi-Res digital files, the big takeaway (unsurprisingly) was how great it sounds for the money. We love using “Pink Houses” by John Cougar to test timing, and the CXN (V2) was spot on! Dynamics just leap out at you, yet you get a great sense of effortlessness to the presentation. Like most Cambridge products we have tried, the bass is fast, tight, and detailed, but on this unit, it just seems to explode.
For overall vocal performance and midrange clarity, we tested out a few tracks from jazz singer and American composer, Patricia Barber. We closed our eyes and the CXN (V2) paired with the Aerials had Ms. Barber singing right in front us. We also noticed that eerie silence around the notes that we have come to expect from truly great digital products. They just seem to give you even more of the sense that you’re in the room, listening to a live performance.
We test a lot of high-end equipment, so we have heard a few DACs that sound sweeter, but nothing in an audio component that comes anywhere close to the price of the CXN (V2). The Chord Mojo/Poly combo, which is portable, not as easy to use, and costs 30% more than the CXN (V2) does perform at the same level — but it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.
The only home-based gear that compares come from brands like Naim, Chord, and Ayre, and cost significantly more than this piece.
We see a few use cases for the CXN (V2). First, and the most common will be adding it to an existing audio system to jump into the wonderful world of digital music. It is simple to use and can handle just about any type of digital music you may want to throw at it.
Another good scenario would be in a very high resolution, but simple audio system. There is a whole new breed of self-contained, powered speakers on the market today (see Audioengine, Peachtree, and Kanto) that only need a source. The Audioengine HD6 is a great example. Connect the CXN (V2) up to some of these and you’ll have great digital sound.
The final example would be for a more audiophile approach. Bypass your preamp, connect this guy straight to your power amp and you’ll have a simple and elegant digital front end for under $900.
We expect the CXN (V2) will win just as many awards as its predecessor. Once again, Cambridge Audio is delivering far more great sound than you would expect for its price.
HIGH NOTES UNPACKED
Cambridge developed a digital technology that vastly improves the sound and gets you much closer to the original recording.
Digital Sources Galore
Spotify Connect, Pandora, Napster, BBC, Internet Radio, files on your network, play direct from anything on your computer, a USB stick, Bluetooth, two types of digital inputs, and Airplay. Tidal coming in July!
Premium Sound Under $900
If you are even considering adding something like a Sonos or similar unit to your home audio system, please give the CXN (V2) a serious look. It will sound far better than anything in that category and is a real pleasure to use!