CXA61 Integrated Amplifier
The Cambridge Audio CXA61 integrated amp puts out a sound that simply draws us closer to the music.
THE HIGH NOTES
- Great British Sound
- Massive Power Reserves
- Bluetooth Now Included
Company & Product Overview
This review is on the Cambridge Audio CXA61, an integrated amplifier that offers a lot of features for the money, coupled with that amazing Cambridge Audio sound.
When Audio Advice was thinking about becoming a Cambridge Audio dealer a few years ago, Cambridge Audio sent us a few pieces to test out. One of them was the CXA60 integrated amplifier. We will never forget how impressed we were when the first notes emerged from that system. The music was fun to listen to and super involving. As you can imagine, we were pretty excited to test out the latest version of that integrated amp that bowled us over that first time.
It has been over 50 years since Cambridge Audio was born back in 1969, in you guessed it, at Cambridge University in the UK. Like many audio companies of the time, Cambridge Audio came about when a group of music-loving engineers got together thinking they could make a better product. For their entire time in business, Cambridge Audio has been about great value sound and staying true to the sound of live music. To keep everyone in the company inspired about how great live music is, they have a free concert at their UK facility every Friday afternoon!
Their very first piece was an integrated amplifier that changed the audio world by using a toroidal power transformer. Today, almost all high-quality audio amplifiers use this type of power transformer.
With vinyl and music streaming systems exploding in popularity over the last few years, the integrated amplifier category has also seen huge growth. For people who want to play records or stream music, it is an ideal choice.
We will go over this great new integrated amp from Cambridge Audio. During the overview, we will also make a few points of comparison to it’s a bigger sibling, the CXA81 as we suspect some of you may be considering one over the other.
CXA61 Design & Build Quality
We always liked the look of the previous CX series in how they used a slightly tapered front panel and a solid front foot, which makes the unit look like it is floating in the air above your shelf. This design continues in the new CX models with a color update to a sleek looking Lunar Grey color.
The front panel is clearly laid out. In the center, you’ll see a display with the source selection buttons. Analog inputs are on the left and digital on the right. Right in the center is the speaker selector button which gives you a choice of A, B, or A&B. The front side also includes a headphone output and a mini-plug audio input on the left. A large, very solid feeling volume knob is on the left.
The previous models in the CX series had tone controls, and we were a little displeased to not find them on the new CX line up. Cambridge Audio made the decision to put every dollar towards the best possible sound quality, which certainly came true when we did our listening tests.
Cambridge Audio has a unique feature they put on all of their products that those of us who switch things around a lot appreciate. It can be really frustrating to lean over the back of an amp trying to read the connections upside down. Cambridge Audio cleverly prints the labels for everything both right side up and upside down, a great touch!
Fit and finish on the CXA61 is just first class. One thing that really jumps out is the quality of the binding posts, they are top rate and can handle a large spade lug. Cambridge Audio designs and engineers all of the products in the UK. Production of everything has been at the same Asian factory for almost 25 years instead of just going with the lowest offshore bid. This philosophy has resulted in a very consistent, great build quality for over two decades.
CXA61 Features & Technology
The connection possibilities on the CXA61 will cover a lot of situations. You have 4 rear analog RCA inputs, a front mini-plug analog input, 2 Toslink digital inputs, a coax digital input, and even a USB input. The older series required a separate, optional adapter for Bluetooth, but it is built into the CXA61.
We like the fact it also has preamp outs and a subwoofer output. The sub out is just a mono out with no crossover designed to be used with a subwoofer with a built-in crossover, which is how almost all subs today are designed. There are two sets of triggers on the back, an external IR input, and an RS232 connection for home control systems. You can even lift the ground on the USB input in case your computer might cause some hum, pretty neat!
If you are looking at the CXA81 in comparison, it adds a set of balanced audio inputs and gives up the front panel mini analog input.
CXA61 Rear Input Panel
CXA81 Rear Input Panel
The DAC (digital to analog converter) used in the CXA61 is an ESS Sabre ES9010 K2M. That is a lot of letters, but this is a high performance, audiophile-level DAC capable of Hi-Res Audio, even up to 32-bit/384kHz and DSD256 quality when using the USB input from a computer.
This is one area where the CXA81 does exceed the CXA61 in performance. Its DAC is also an ESS Sabre32 DAC but in the next level up in the ESS series. If a lot of your audio is in the form of digital files, you might want to consider the CXA81 for $300 more. We feel the better DAC offers a more dynamic sound, a slightly quieter background, and just a better sense of musical involvement.
The HD Bluetooth aptX HD Bluetooth receiver is built-in and it's capable of 24-bit/84kHz audio files.
For the other digital inputs, the coax input will play back up to 24bit/192kHz and the two Toslink inputs will handle up to 96kHz.
Cambridge Audio was going for a very balanced, symmetrical look on the front panel which led to them having fewer buttons than inputs. With four analog and four digital buttons, they made the mini-plug jack automatically switch to that input when you plug something in. The A4 button will glow orange when this happens. The only confusing one is the Bluetooth/USB button in the digital section. You just have to get used to toggle between the two with the USB input selection glowing orange.
The only obvious input missing on the CXA61 is a phono input as you will find one built into their less expensive models. When we asked the team at Cambridge, we got a very logical answer. Their feeling was that someone buying an amplifier of this quality would likely want a phono preamp better than the built-in type. We totally agree! Cambridge Audio also makes two very good sounding phono preamps, the Solo and Duo. The Duo is actually pretty neat as it does both MM and MC and is also a great headphone amp. The Solo is just MM.
With 5 analog inputs and 4 digital inputs, the CXA61 can pretty much cover all the bases for any music system. We also see many people connecting up their TV via the Toslink connection for improved TV audio. If you have a music streamer with a digital output, you can connect it up that way to take advantage of the better DAC’s inside the CXA61. Bluetooth HD is the icing on the cake for streaming music from your smartphone or tablet.
Much of the technology inside the CXA61 came from the work Cambridge Audio did on their Edge series. Cambridge Audio has a philosophy of making the signal path as simple as possible with minimal parts in the circuitry. For example, the Edge power amp only has 14 parts total in the signal path. They also spend a lot of time critically listening to the parts they use in the audio circuits to pick the best sounding versions.
Compared to the previous CXA60 model, they upgraded the capacitors and op-amps in the CXA61. This great new integrated amp also gets the classic oversized toroidal transformer found in all of the amps since their very beginnings. The one in the CXA61 actually has separate windings for each channel, which makes it similar to a dual model design, which is just incredible for this price point. This type of transformer design gives you much better channel separation resulting in a better stereo soundstage.
We have to say, the people who worked on the upgraded design and listening tests get a big round of applause. This new version sounds much better to our ears, with a sense of more power and it just makes you want to keep playing tunes as it is just a ton of fun to listen to.
Do not let the 60 watts of power per channel rating on the CXA61 make you think this amp does not have the guts to drive difficult speakers. In fact, it is the opposite. With its huge power reserves, this little amp performs more like a much more powerful amp in terms of real-world listening. We find it can drive most mid-priced tower speakers with ease. However, we must state, the CXA81 for a few more $$$ does sound even more powerful to our ears with a greater sense of effortless sound.
The original CXA60 and new CXA81 had already impressed us with their ability to just make you feel good about listening to music through them, so we were not surprised at all when the CXA61 did the same thing.
We connected it up to our best selling pair of bookshelf speakers, the Klipsch RP600M speakers- which by the way is just a magical speaker for the money. Our source was a Sonos Port with its digital output going into the CXA61 Coax digital input.
This amp felt like the perfect match for these speakers as it drove them extremely well. As you might imagine, the Klipsch speakers have the ability to rock the house, which could easily be done with the CXA61 driving them, but they also maintained a really full sound when we turned the volume way down.
These bookshelf speakers can get down pretty low and the bass was full and fast using the CXA61. Stereo imaging was spot on with a wide and deep soundstage.
Just for grins, we decided to try it connected up to a pair of Aerial 7t’s which happened to be sitting in the same room. Of course, this is a crazy combination as you would never pair a $1,000 amp with a $10,000+ pair of speakers. This is where you could feel it running out of gas, although it did a quite respectable job at lower listening levels, but, if we pushed it hard, things started to fall apart, which was no surprise.
Paired with just about any speakers that are somewhat easy to drive, the CXA61 will perform way beyond what you would expect for what it sells for.
Of course, the question comes up, is the CXA81 worth the $300 jump? This really depends on how critical your ear is and how revealing your speakers are. For most moderately priced bookshelf speakers and smaller towers, the CXA61 will be great. However, if you really critically listen and have speakers that have an efficiency number lower than 88 to 89 dB, you might want to think about the CXA81. Its digital section is a pretty big jump up that you can hear on better speakers and it does have more reserve power for demanding speakers.
The CXA61 has enough inputs to satisfy just about any system we can think of. With its great build quality, it should give you decades of great sound. There is just something about the way Cambridge Audio gear sounds that draws us into the music.
We find when we listen to their products, the system takes on a quality that makes you tap your toes and want to pull out more music. It is hard to describe it until you experience it for yourself, but you will certainly have a smile on your face when playing your favorite tunes back through Cambridge Audio components.
If you are looking for an amp in the $1,000 range and down, the CXA61 should be on your list. It is definitely worth saving up for if you are thinking in the $500-$900 price point as most people keep their integrated amps for 10+ years.
HIGH NOTES UNPACKED
Great British Sound
We love the classic British sound the CXA61 is all about. You’ll be taping your toes to the music when you hear its very neutral effortless sound that just pulls you into the song.
Massive Power Reserves
Cambridge Audio pioneered the use of toroidal power transformers. These give an amp the ability to deliver tons of current on musical peaks, allowing it to never sound strained even when your music gets loud and complex.
Bluetooth Now Included
Bluetooth was an additional cost on the earlier version of this great amp. Now Bluetooth HD is included for great music streaming.
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