CXA80 Integrated Amp Review
THE HIGH NOTES
- Almost a "Straight Wire with Gain"
- Great Set of Inputs and Outputs
- Huge Power Reserves
Company & Product Overview
Over the last few years, we’ve seen a spike in demand for high-quality integrated amps. An integrated amp is a single component that includes both the preamplifier and the amplifier. It is different from a receiver because it does not have an AM/FM tuner built-in. Integrated amps are perfect for critical music listening as they have all of the necessary components to enjoy music without any of the fluff (surround sound channels, tuner, etc.).
Integrated amps have also become increasingly popular as vinyl and turntable sales have risen. If you own a good set of speakers, you’ll want to invest in an amp that can be the heart of your system and can get every ounce of performance out of the speakers.
Cambridge has four levels of integrated amps: the Topaz, CX, Azur, and the new Edge series. Today’s review is on the largest model in the CX series, the Cambridge CXA80. If you're looking for something slightly less expensive, the CXA60 is also available.
Interestingly enough, the technology that Cambridge deployed in the CX80 sounded so good, it inspired them to create their new top of the line Edge series of components. The CXA80 is a workhorse integrated amp with many features that will please an avid audio enthusiast. You can even use it to improve your TV sound if it’s in the same room as your stereo system!
Packaging, Design & Build Quality
The Cambridge CX line all have a unique look, with a tapered chassis that gives it a floating effect that looks great, especially when multiple pieces from the line are stacked. They are available in brushed black or silver finishes to complete the sleek, modern look.
The front panel features a power button, a large volume knob, source select buttons, speaker A/B select, a mute button, digital source select, output balance, bass, and treble balance. The A/B speaker select allows you to add a second pair of speakers. You can have them both on at the same time or select which pair to play.
There is also a button that allows you to give your audio signal a more direct path to the power amplifier, bypassing the tone control circuits for the purest possible sound quality. There is a mini input and a mini headphone jack (we do wish they had opted for full-size).
One design feature that we love, which we mention in all of our Cambridge reviews, is the fact that they print their rear input labels both upside down and right-side up. This is an incredibly thoughtful feature that makes it easy to hook things up while leaning over your system from the front.
Cambridge Audio designs and engineers all of their gear in the UK and is manufactured in the same factory they have used for the last 20 years. This assures consistent production of great value products.
The very first product Cambridge made back in 1969 had a toroidal transformer for the power supply and the CXA80 continues that tradition. This is a much more expensive way to power the amplifier, but it sounds better done this way.
Fit and finish, as with all Cambridge gear, is just amazing for the price. The volume knob feels good, the construction of the chassis itself is top notch, and the speaker binding posts are first class. When you are a large scale manufacturer of a Samsung phone, for example, it is easy to have a high level on a piece of gear that you plan to produce millions of units of, but it is simply amazing that a small company like Cambridge can provide this level of quality as well.
Features & Technology
The input set on the back of the CXA80 should appeal to most audio enthusiasts. You’ll find a USB input capable of handling 24/192 Hi-Res Audio files from your computer, a Coax digital input, two Toslink digital inputs, a connection for their BT100 Bluetooth adapter (sold separately), a set of balanced analog inputs, and four RCA analog inputs, although you can technically only use three of them if you use the balanced input. There is even a subwoofer out.
For future expansion, you’ll also get a preamp output, making it easy to add a large power amp to the system down the road.
Most Cambridge Audio components come with a three prong grounded power cord and they add a nice feature to the back of the CXA80 in the form of a ground lift switch. This lets you lift the ground connection in case you encounter a hum created by some sort of ground loop.
We asked Cambridge why they elected not to provide an MM phono input and their response made perfect sense. They feel a buyer in this price range would prefer a separate phono stage capable of both MM and MC cartridges. Cambridge makes such a device -- the new Cambridge Duo!
We can see many ways to connect the CXA80 up to a good audio system. You might have a laptop nearby to take advantage of its great DACs for your Hi-Res Audio files. Or, you might decide to plug in one of the many streamers on the market today, such as a Sonos, Heos, or Bluesound. Maybe you have an older CD player with digital out that you’ll decide to connect up via Coax or USB. Or, you may be lucky enough to own the new Cambridge CXN (V2) Network Streamer and will connect it up using the higher end balanced audio connections.
For the vinyl lover, simply connect your phono section into one of the analog inputs. If your TV happens to be on the same wall as your stereo speakers, take it's optical out and run it over to the CXA80 for improved TV sound. If all of those are not enough, get yourself the optional Bluetooth receiver and stream from your phone. We don’t recommend this from an audio quality standpoint, but we understand that some people might want this option for convenience in a pinch.
In the early days of audio, engineers coined the term “a straight wire with gain.” This refers to the ideal amplifier, which would just be a piece of speaker wire that somehow magically amplified the signal. While physics doesn’t allow this, it is possible to minimize the parts in the signal path.
This was Cambridge’s primary focus as they developed the amplifier section of the CXA80 -- trying to minimize the number of components in the actual signal path from the preamp section to the speaker connections. While the CXA80 has a lot of components under the hood, 95% are not in the signal path. In fact, they were able to streamline the design, allowing for only 24 parts in the path.
This is the breakthrough that helped to inspire Cambridge’s new high-end range known as Edge.
They continued this design by having separate taps on the massive power transformer for the right and left channels. This effectively gives you a dual mono design, which is just unheard of in this price category. Having a design like this assures you will get great stereo separation and imaging.
The CXA80 is rated at 80 watts per channel, but Cambridge Audio amps can drive just about anything due to their massive power supplies, so please don’t let the power spec scare you off. Like a lot of British audio component designs, Cambridge focuses on current reserve and clean power. To put things into perspective, Naim, another UK audio company, makes an 80 watt per channel power amp that sells for $14,000 and sounds amazing!
You’ll notice this great attention to detail when you open the cover and look at the board layout, which even includes some isolation you would normally only find on much higher end pieces of gear.
There are times at Audio Advice when we are testing something new that one of our team members will walk by, poke their head in, and say “What is that!? It sounds great!” Well, the CXA80 is one of those pieces. It seems that we couldn’t get through a single song from start to finish without getting interrupted.
We connected it up to a pair of Bowers & Wilkins new 702 floor-standing speakers. It had no problem driving them. In fact, the minute we turned it on we could hear that classic warm, British sound. Full and with a great sense of rhythm, sure -- but it’s more than that. There is an effortlessness to the sound that will leave you spellbound. If your speakers are capable, you’ll get rich, deep, super-fast bass.
If they have the ability to produce a good three-dimensional image, the CXA80 will make the most of it.
We even had a situation with a client who had six pairs of quality in-ceiling speakers spread throughout their home, driven by an older amp. We replaced the amp with the CXA80, connected it to a 6-way speaker switch box, and it provided the best sound we had ever heard out of those architectural speakers -- driving all six pairs at once!
We’ve tried the CXA80 on most of our tower and bookshelf speakers under $5,000/pr, including everything from Vandersteen, to GoldenEar, to Magnepan, to ELAC, and MartinLogan. In every case, it just drove them with ease.
Simply put, this integrated is an absolute workhorse. We would have rated it even higher if it weren’t for the USB input. We feel that the CXN (V2) does a better job with digital music, so we were disappointed with that aspect, but these components cost almost as much as the amp itself! Cambridge simply set the bar so high that their USB input disappointed. If you’re into digital music, however, you could easily start off with the CXA80 and just add better source components down the road as your budget allows.
If you have a decent set of speakers or are considering putting together a great two channel audio system, please do not overlook this integrated amp just because it seems too inexpensive.
It will shock you at how good it sounds for the money. This amp is for the anyone who is serious about getting good sound and wants something that they can grow with. It is easy to start out with the amp and a pair of good speakers, then add components over time to improve the sound even more. We do not think you will find an integrated amp that sounds better than the Cambridge CXA80 for $1,000...period!
HIGH NOTES UNPACKED
Almost a "Straight Wire with Gain"
Cambridge is getting close to the audio holy grail of a piece of wire that could drive a speaker. Their new tech found in the CXA80 minimizes parts in the actual signal path which lets the sound pass through without coloration.
Great Set of Inputs and Outputs
We love the fact that it has several digital inputs, including a Hi-Res Audio USB input. Add to that the fact that you have balanced audio in, subwoofer out, two speaker connections, and preamp out should you want to upgrade later, and it is a great package.
Huge Power Reserves
The CXA80 has a massive toroidal transformer and huge almost dual mono power supply. It can just drive almost any speaker you can throw at it, yet it maintains a super effortless sound.