Cambridge Audio AX & CX Series Comparison
One of our favorite staff picks at Audio Advice is Cambridge Audio. When someone new joins our team, it does not take them long to get the desire to improve their music system. Usually, their first pick will be a product from Cambridge Audio.
The AX and CX series from Cambridge Audio covers a wide range of prices and use cases. We thought it would be interesting to look at the various models in these two series to help you understand which ones might be the best fit for your system.
We have reviewed several of them individually and you’ll find links within this article if you want to read about a particular model in more detail.
Cambridge Audio History
Founded in 1969 by some budding engineers in the UK at Cambridge University, the company has always been about making high-value products that do not alter the sound of the incoming signal. The Cambridge Audio team will spend countless hours evaluating the component parts used in their designs to pick the ones that sound the most neutral.
Their gear has gained an incredible reputation for being extremely musical that also allows the sense of rhythm in the music to come through. To our ears, Cambridge Audio equipment is just flat out fun to listen to!
Two of their core values have been to use toroidal power transformers, and to keep the signal path as simple as possible. As a matter of fact, they pioneered the use of toroidal power transformers with their very first integrated amp and the audio world followed suit as almost all high-performance audio gear makes use of toroidal power transformers these days.
Cambridge Audio also makes great use of something we love to see in audio companies, trickle-down technology. The engineering team at Cambridge Audio was given a goal of making a new line of the best sounding gear they could, with the price being a distant concern. This resulted in the highly acclaimed Edge series which is their top of the line series of 3 components.
Much of the new technology they learned when producing Edge was incorporated in the new AX and CX series. Had they never made Edge, these new technologies would not have existed to incorporate into the new AX and CX models. You can learn more about the Edge series in our full Cambridge Edge overview.
AX and CX Series Shared Characteristics
With 4 models in each lineup, we thought it was pretty neat that Cambridge Audio decided to give both series the same cosmetic appearance so you can easily mix and match them. All eight products come in a new lunar grey finish and have a floating look from the front with a slightly curved foot under the front part of the chassis.
All of the amplifiers and receivers use their classic toroidal power transformer for better sound and every one isolates the various parts of the signal path to reduce noise. Another classic Cambridge trait we love is the way they print all the labels on the back both right side up and upside down. The first time you lean over the back of a component to try and make a connection, you’ll have a great appreciation for this nuance. We can’t understand why other audio companies don’t follow their lead on this!
The amps and receivers in the CX and AX series all use very high-quality speaker binding posts which is pretty amazing to see on something as inexpensive as the CXA35. The front panel layout is also super clean and easy to figure out without having to pull out a manual. And as we said, not only do they match in color, but the layouts are done in the same style to make mixing within the lines no issue from a cosmetic standpoint.
And of course, every single unit has that classic Cambridge Audio sound that we have come to love at Audio Advice.
Now let’s take a look at the different models to help you find the best match for your system.
Cambridge Audio AX Series
The Cambridge Audio AX Series were replacements for the acclaimed Topaz series which had won tons of press for being such a great audio value. It got a completely new look and a lot of tech from their more expensive models.
Cambridge Audio AXA35 Integrated Amplifier
The AXA35 is the entry-level integrated amplifier of the Cambridge Audio AX series, but by no means is it entry level sound. While this amp is rated at 35 watts per channel, its massive power supply makes it sound a whole lot bigger than you would think. This is the perfect product for someone stepping up into their first separate analog audio system. We’ve written a full review of the Cambridge AXA35 that details all of its features.
There are no digital inputs on the AXA35, but it comes with a very decent built-in moving magnet phono preamp. You also get 4 more rear analog inputs and even a record out for those of you going retro with an old school cassette deck. You’ll even find a powered USB connection on the rear to supply power to a USB charger or add on streaming unit.
The front panel offers up a real headphone amp and another mini plug analog input. Bass, treble, and balance controls can be accessed via the menu or remote.
This is the perfect amp to pair up with a good set of bookshelf speakers to create a great starter analog audio system. With plenty of inputs for other sources, which could include a streamer or CD player, you get that great Cambridge Audio British sound for well under $400.
Cambridge Audio AXR85 FM/AM Stereo Receiver
The two AXR units are stereo receivers, which means they are an integrated amp with an AM/FM tuner built-in.
You sure get a lot more for your $50 with the AXR85 over the AXA35. Some people may not need the extra power, AM/FM, or Bluetooth 5.0 input, but if you need any of them, the $50 is well worth it.
The AXR85 takes all of the great features found in the AXA35 and gives you a power section that is rated at 85 watts per channel. To accomplish this, the physical chassis did get almost twice as tall, so you will have more space taken up than the sleek AXA35 does, but in return, you will get better dynamics and, to our ears, more bass impact.
The phono preamp is the same as the one in the AXA35 but adding a Bluetooth receiver is a pretty big bonus for streaming from a smartphone. There is one less analog input on the AXR85 compared to the AXA35 and you lose the charging USB port, but the tone and balance controls remain as well along with the record outs for a cassette deck.
You also get the ability to have two pairs of speakers connected to the AXA85 with switching for either A, B, or A+B. Throw in a subwoofer output and you have one heck of a receiver for under $400!
This unit truly is one of the jewels of the Cambridge Audio AX series, and of the audio world. With its feature set and classic Cambridge sound all in one package, it has enough power to drive just about any speaker you would think of pairing with it. It's so good, you can take the money you save and spend a little more on speakers to get more bang for the buck.
Cambridge Audio AXR100 FM/AM Stereo Receiver
We’ve written a full comparison of the AXR85 vs AXR100, but the big advantage that you get by stepping up to the AXR100 for an extra $100 is the addition of digital inputs. All other features are identical to the AXR85. It has two Toslink and one coax digital input. This allows you to connect the digital output from a television or streamer and take advantage of the pretty good digital section found in the AXR100.
While it is rated at 15 watts more per channel, we did not experience a huge difference in perceived power output or performance.
The DAC in the AXR100 is a high resolution capable up to 32/192, so it’s likely going to sound better than the digital stage of an older CD player you might use with it. If your CD player, streamer, or TV has digital outputs, we would recommend using the DAC’s in the AXR100 for most cases.
The bottom line here is if you need the digital inputs, get the AXR100, but if not, the AXR85 is the best value.
Cambridge Audio AXC35 CD PLayer
If you have been following the letters in the Cambridge Audio AX series model names, you might have noticed “A” means amp, as in the UK integrated amps are just called amps, “R” means receiver, so as you might have guessed, “C” means CD player.
While vinyl sales have surpassed CD sales, there are still lots of CD’s out in the market and it's actually getting hard to find high quality, reasonably priced CD players on the market. That is one reason why we love the little AXC35!
This is a simple to use single-disc CD player with fairly high-end Wolfson DACs and gapless playback. It even has digital out should you wish to use it as a CD transport with an even better DAC like you might find in the Cambridge Audio CX series gear.
Since its styling matches either series, you can pair it up with the CX series and it will look like a matched stack of components.
We challenge you to find a better sounding CD player out there under $500 as this unit has a nice warm sound with no trace of digital edge.
So if you need a good little CD player for those shiny silver discs you might have, grab an AXC35, you will not be disappointed!
Cambridge Audio CX Series
The CX series has been around in the Cambridge line up for years. Their latest versions offer refreshed cosmetics and internal updates they learned when they created their top of the line, award-winning EDGE gear. These units are all about stripping back anything some might consider “extras" to allow their engineers to focus purely on creating the best possible sound for the money.
They are all a pretty big step up in sound from the Cambridge Audio AX series models and you’ll also notice an upgrade in pure physical beefiness as all of these units are quite stout!
Cambridge Audio CXA61 Integrated Amplifier
When you compare the CXA61 or CXA81 to the AX series, you get a far bigger power supply and a much more stout power amp section. These amps can drive just about any speaker load except for demanding speakers. The CXA61 has a lively sound that will pull you deep into the music.
Input-wise you get 4 analog inputs on the rear, plus a mini-plug analog on the front panel. There is one coax digital input, two Toslink digital inputs, and a USB digital input for computer audio. The DAC Cambridge Audio chose for the CXA61 is an ESS Sabre ES9010K2M.
This is a DAC capable of Hi-Res Audio going all the way up to 16/24bit 32-192kHz PCM on the coax input and up to 32bit 384kHz PCM, up to DSD256 or DoP256 on the USB. Bluetooth is included and when you step up to the CX series, Bluetooth gets upgraded to aptX HD for better audio performance.
Compared to the AX series, you do lose tone controls and the phono preamp. When you get into this quality of an amp, Cambridge Audio feels you would prefer a separate phono preamp (and they make two very good ones). We agree on the phono preamp but would have liked to have seen the tone controls stick around but they told us they put the money those circuits would have cost towards better components in the signal path.
You will also get a preamp out, subwoofer out, and two sets of speaker connections for A, B, or A+B. We also like the fact they added a ground lift to the USB computer input to eliminate any possible hum coming from the computer connection.
When we first heard the CXA61, it just felt right. You’ll experience a much better sense of dynamics and bass impact compared to the AX models and for us, the music sounds like it's coming from a quieter background. The stereo soundstage when you are sitting right in the center of your speakers is also much bigger and wider.
Of course, this model is twice the cost of the most expensive AX model, so it should be better, but there is no doubt in our minds, if you have decent speakers, you will easily hear the improvement.
Cambridge Audio CXA81 Integrated Amplifier
With the Cambridge Audio CXA81, you get an improvement in the DAC for just a $300 upgrade. Cambridge Audio chose the ESS Sabre ES9016K2M. You can explore more details on the CXA81 in our full written & video review.
Feature-wise, other than the DAC upgrade, you get one set of balanced analog audio inputs and an even more robust power amp section. Otherwise, the units are identical from an input/output standpoint.
To our ears, the CXA81 has a warmer, more refined sound than the CXA61. Some people may actually prefer the more upfront sound of the CXA61, but for us, we like the extra subtle details we hear and an improvement in what feels like more effortless sound quality. And there is no question to us, the amp sounds bigger than the extra 20 watts per channel. This guy has guts and can drive some pretty difficult speaker loads with ease.
Interestingly, this is also the amp a lot of the people on the Audio Advice team choose for themselves when they are building out their two-channel audio system. That is a pretty high recommendation on its own!
Cambridge Audio CXC CD Transport
The CXC is what is called a CD transport. The difference between a CD transport and a full CD player is that a transport does not have a digital to analog conversion section or analog audio outputs. It simply pulls the digital stream off of the disc and sends it to the Toslink and/or coax digital output on the rear of the unit.
You might wonder, why would Cambridge Audio not just go ahead and make a complete CD player? Well, if you noticed, both of the CX integrated amps have really good DAC’s inside already.
In the world of very high-performance CD players, you can find companies that spend thousands of dollars to try and just pull the digital information off of a disc with as little possible degradation. Cambridge made the great decision to put more money into a better transport and leave the D/A conversion to their products that already have great DAC’s built-in.
Cambridge had already developed a state of the art CD driver, known as their S3 servo for their higher-end Azur series. They used this same drive in the CXC. It has levels of jitter rejection and error correction that you might see in multi-thousand dollar CD drives. They also designed the chassis to be very well isolated so that external vibrations that could affect performance are minimized.
This CD transport is so good, we have many audio lovers at Audio Advice who use it with all brands of DAC’s. You will just not find a better CD transport for under $2,000 in our opinion.
This also leads us to the last product in the CX line, the CXN V2. This unit also has great DAC’s built-in and many people connect the CXC up to it for CD playback.
Cambridge Audio CXN V2 Network Streamer
The CXN V2 is a network streamer and is by far our most popular Cambridge Audio component as it can be used in just about any high-performance audio system. Discover what we love about it and dig into the specs in our full CXN V2 Review.
A network streamer is all about digital music and the CXN V2 covers just about every aspect of digital we can think of.
You can pull music files from your network, an attached USB drive, and Chromecast or Airplay 2. Bluetooth is an option with an adapter but with both Chromecast and Airplay, it's really not necessary. Computer audio is also ready to go with a high-end USB input. The free Cambridge Audio Stream Magic app has been around for years and is continually getting upgraded and offers a great free interface for your smartphone or tablet.
The CXN V2 also gets you into the high-performance streaming services with Qobux, Tidal, and Spotify Connect built-in. Being software-driven, the CXN V2 can benefit from future upgrades and Cambridge Audio just did one we have been asking for — they made the unit totally compatible with Roon. Roon is a subscription-based music management software that we just love.
Audio-wise, the CXN V2 uses dual Wolfson WM8740 24-bit DACs. To our ears, these are even better than the ones in the CXA81. But if you wanted to use it as a streaming source with a very high-end multi-thousand dollar DAC, it gives you both Toslink and coax digital outputs.
Cambridge also understands you may have more digital sources you want to run through the unit so they give you a coax and Toslink digital input. For connecting it to your integrated amp or preamp, you have both balanced and RCA outputs.
The final icing on the cake is the fact you can set up the CXN V2 to have either fixed or variable output. This means you would use the fixed output to run into your integrated amp or preamp, BUT if you just wanted a digital-only system, you can connect it directly to a power amp! We see many people connecting the CXN V2 to their Azur power amp for an amazing system for the money.
The CXN V2 is just flat out an incredible product for the money you can use with any system and in a variety of ways.
We hope this overview has given you a better understanding of the Cambridge Audio AX and CX products. They cover a wide range of prices and possibilities and we are happy to discuss with you which route is the best choice for your system. The AX gear is great for the music lover just starting out while the CX gear can satisfy someone looking for even more performance.
We also highly recommend people looking for great performance to not write off the CX gear because it costs less than they would expect to pay for great sound. If you are like us, it will have you grinning ear to ear as it just sounds so good for the money!