Edge Series Review
The new Edge lineup consists of a power amp, a combination streamer and preamp, and an integrated amplifier.
Company & Product Overview
As Cambridge Audio was thinking about their upcoming 50th anniversary, they decided to develop a new line of products, the Cambridge Edges Series, to honor one of their original co-founders, Professor Gordon Edge. Professor Edge helped design the very first Cambridge Audio integrated amp in 1968, the P40,which was the first amp to use a toroidal power transformer and set the world on its ear for its much cleaner sound and lower distortion than the competition. Ever since that first integrated amp, Cambridge has tried to produce gear that brings the listener closer to the music. They also hold weekly Friday afternoon concerts at their factory to keep their entire company in the loop on what live music sounds like.
Since the early days of 1968, Cambridge has been all about producing simply amazing sounding gear with a price that almost everyone can afford. They have helped thousands and thousands of people build great audio systems and get closer to that sound of a live performance. With Edge, they tasked their engineers once again with making gear to get you as close as possible to a live concert, but this time, money was no object. The only criteria was to make the Cambridge Edge Series sound as good as possible. Throughout the entire design process, every single part in the signal path was listened to, and only the best sounding components made the bill of materials. They were told to not let the price of a part sway their opinion, so if it sounded better, they picked it!
Now this could have led to a lineup of gear that cost more than a high performance sports car, but the engineers at Cambridge also have another design goal they always follow...to keep the number of parts in the signal path at an absolute minimum. A design philosophy like this does two things if done right: it results in far better sound, AND it does allow you to use the best possible parts as there just are not that many of them. For instance, in the Edge amplifier, there are only 14 parts in the signal path!
The new Cambridge Edge Series consists of three pieces, a power amp, a combination streamer and preamp, and an integrated amplifier. While we will get into how they sound a little later, we will never forget the day the people from Cambridge brought in the first product released in the line, the Edge integrated amp. After the opening bars of the first demo track had played, several of us looked at each other and observed we were all grinning ear to ear!
The Cambridge Edge Series
Edge NQ - Preamp and Network Player
The first product in the Cambridge Edge Series is the Edge NQ, a preamp and network player. The beautiful front panel of the Edge NQ is very clean, consisting only of a high contrast display and a quite large multi function knob. We love their clean design of a somewhat sculpted, recessed top panel and got a kick out of the fact that in fine print on the each side of the NQ is the longitude/latitude coordinates of the Cambridge factory. It’s only when you look around at the back, business side of the NQ do you realize just how capable it is! Cambridge thought of just about every possible input you might ever need with the NQ. From an analog perspective you get three inputs, two are RCA, and one balanced. Cambridge opted to not include a phono section as their separate Duo is a great one. Moving to the digital side, you get three again, two toslink, and one coax. In an interesting move we applaud, they added an HDMI input as well. This lets you get audio from your TV using the Audio Return Channel feature most TVs have. We are seeing more people doing a great two channel audio system but still want to get TV sound into in, and this gives you another option. Things do not stop there though as you’ll get a USB input for computer audio and another USB jack to connect up a USB stick or hard drive with music. That takes care of the physical connections, but the world of streaming is also available to you on the NQ. You can pull in music from your network and use Cambridge’s award winning streaming software, use the built in Chromecast, which will do up to 24bit/96khz resolution to use any streaming service from your Android phone, or use their high resolution Bluetooth with aptX HD. Finally you’ll also get Airplay and Spotify Connect. These sources give you full coverage of everything we can think of in ways to get music these days!
Output wise, to connect up to a power amp, you’ll get both RCA and balanced audio outs. There is even a high quality headphone amp in the NQ with a connection on the front panel for a full sized headphone jack.
Of course, getting music to a product like the Edge NQ is just the first step in the equation for great sound. You’ll find some of the best Digital to Analog convertors around inside the Edge that can through most of the wired connections give you up to 32bit/384kHz and DSD 256 reproduction. Cambridge gives these great DACs all of the support circuitry they need to perform at their optimum. When we pulled the cover off the Edge NQ we found a power supply bigger than what we see in a lot of power amps! It is far larger than you would expect to see in a preamp, but remember, the engineers were not cutting corners with Edge!
Just like with all Cambridge products, but especially in the Edge series, Cambridge is all about keeping components in the signal path to a minimum to get you closer to the musical truth. With its cover removed, if you are audio geeks like us, you’ll notice a very clean board design with a lot of the capacitors one would normally see replaced with a DC coupled technology. While we could not tell exactly how many parts are in the signal path, Cambridge assures us it is held to a minimum, but there is certainly no lack of beefy support components that keep those parts critical to the music operating at an optimum level.
This brings us to the super cool large control knob on the front panel of the NQ. The back section of the knob serves to select your inputs. When you move this, you see what we mean by the tons of input choices because it circles around a wheel of inputs on the front panel. Once you settle on one, you’ll hear a little click on the inside when that one is selected. This is the modern and better sounding way to do this by not having the knob be a big selector, and instead using electronic switching. The outside portion of the knob is your actual volume control. While we normally would not make a big deal about a volume and control knob, this one is just really cool and feels great to use. There are actually 31 precision milled parts on the inside all made from aerospace materials. If you don’t want to go old school, there is a handheld remote, or you can download the Edge app and control everything easily from your smartphone or tablet.
Build wise, the Edge is very similar to what you would expect to see from something like a Mark Levinson or any other very high end brand. Only the best connectors are on the back panel and the fit and finish is just perfect. It’s actually pretty impressive for a $4,000 box that does so much!
Edge W - Power Amp
The Edge W is the power amp in the Cambridge Edge Series. Its perfect companion is the Edge NQ, but it will be equally at home as an amplifier upgrade for about any audio system using separate components. The W comes in the same type of beautiful chassis as the other EDGE components with rounded corners and heat sinks inset into the sides. The back panel sports some very high quality binding posts, a choice of RCA or balanced input connections, and another thing we love to see, a set of loop out connections for hooking up a second amp. The loop outs also give you both RCA and balanced outputs. The Edge W is such a great performer for its somewhat modest (in the world of high end separates) $3,000 price, so we see some people using two of the W amps on their main speakers to vertically bi-amp.
When you try to lift up the Edge, you’ll find it's quite stout, weighing in at over 51 pounds. Most of this weight is from the massive toroidal power transformers inside the amp. Yes, we said transformers plural! There is one transformer for each channel! As a matter of fact, except for the shared power cord, you effectively have two monoblock amps inside one box. Cambridge pioneered the use of toroidal power transformers in the 1960s and even though they are very quiet, having two of them in one box could lead to some noise. In a very clever design, they figured out a way to make two better than one! By placing them back to back and perfectly aligning them, the noise fields actually cancel each other out so two is actually quieter than one.
The W is rated at 100 watts per channel and uses what Cambridge calls a Class XA amplifier design. All power amplifiers have transistors that reproduce each half of a musical waveform. Class A is technically the most perfect type of design as in Class A. The transistors never turn off, so there is no switching distortion. However, the problem with Class A is that you can normally only get 20-30 watts per channel out of a pure Class A amp before it runs into heat issues. Some of the very early Class A amp designs were actually known to set curtains on fire because they got so hot! Class AB has been widely used for years because you switch the transistors on and off for each part of the waveform. This allows you to get far more power with less heat. XA is very interesting because it comes up with the best of both worlds. It essentially runs at Class A when the musical demands on the amp are low, then switches over to Class AB when things really get going.
The goal to keep parts at a minimum in the signal path led the team at Cambridge to come up with another very unique method to eliminate some parts you normally find in a solid state power amp. The end result was less parts and better sound! This is a bit technical, but quite brilliant. When an audio signal passes through an op amp some direct current is generated. A designer needs to eliminate this direct current because speakers do not like to see it! The typical way has been to send the signal through filtering capacitors to knock out the DC. However, this is yet one more thing in the signal path that could alter the original sound. The engineers on the Edge W project developed a DC servo system that measures the amount of DC produced as the signal passes through the operational amp. They then inject an equal, but opposite, amount of DC into the audio signal, which totally cancels out all of that nasty DC. What a cool idea!
All of this great technology adds up to one heck of a great power amp that performs way beyond its $3,000 price.
Edge A - Integrated Amp
The Edge A is the integrated amp in the Cambridge Edge Series. It is basically an Edge W amp and most of the Edge NQ preamp put together in one massive box. You get almost all of the physical input connections found on the NQ but none of the wireless or network streaming options. For those of you who just want a great all-in-one piece and use analog, digital, or USB inputs, it gives you all you need. Many of you also may already have a great streamer so for you, the A is an awesome upgrade.
The amp section is pretty much totally identical to the W amp, and to keep it the same, they added another toroidal transformer for the preamp section. The A also uses the same cool multi function knob as the NQ. The nine available sources are labeled on the faceplate so you simply turn the back part of the knob to the one you desire. Since there is no streaming, you do not get the display nor is there an app to control it with. You do get the exact same DACs and all of the support circuitry found in the NQ.
For many people, the A will be the best value in the series, especially if you already have a streamer.
How Less Gives Your Ears More
The entire Cambridge Edge series is about getting you as close as possible to the music, and boy does it really do that! We have tried the Edge series on almost all of the great speakers we represent at Audio Advice, including B&W 800 series, Aerial Acoustics, MartinLogan, Revel, Golden Ear, Vandersteen, Magnepan, Paradigm, and more. The Cambridge Edge series has simply amazed us. Until we get into products costing twice as much and more, we have never heard anything come even close!
The first time we heard the Cambridge Edge Series was during an early training session when the A had just been released. We had the system set up with a pair of Paradigm Prestige 75fs, which are about $3,000 a pair. The first cut was Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side from his 1972 Transformer album. Within just a few seconds we were just mesmerized by the separation of all the instruments. When the vocals started, it was spooky how much emotion we could hear. And talk about timing and pacing, wow, we were all tapping our toes to the music, which is a sure sign of a great system.
To test the NQ and W combo we pulled out some more classic rock. If you are old enough to have seen the Rolling Stones on their 1975 Tour of America’s concert series, you probably remember that Billy Preston played with the band on keyboards. He was also part of the 1976 album Black and Blue. The song “Melody” features Preston on back up vocals and is just fantastic for hearing how the producers laid out the soundfield of this track. Every instrument and voice is just perfectly in place with a soundfield that is huge. And of course Edge keeps that rhythm the Stones are known for with a perfect sense of timing.
We turned to a high res download from HD Tracks of the 1977 classic album we have all probably heard too much, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors. Playing this through the Edge system allowed us to hear many layers to the music that we had never experienced. We have to say, the NQ is one great streamer!
In our testing of Bluetooth, Airplay, Chromecast, and Spotify Connect, everything worked perfectly with no glitches. Using the NQ as a network UPnP worked well too. While the Cambridge app is good, we do wish it was Roon Ready as the Roon music interface for this type of listening is just the best we have seen. Of course you can use it with Roon through Airplay or Chromecast, but we love the fact you can mix brands if they are Roon Ready and play from your hard drive which is not possible with the NQ, but that is our only gripe about it.
While the W power amp has a rating of 100 watts per channel, do not let this power spec cause you to look for something with more power. This guy can just drive any speaker we tested with absolute ease. The detail, depth, and clarity from this amp is just unheard of in this price range. It is just so effortless driving most speakers, and you will feel this sense of lots of reserve power under the hood.
We think Cambridge Audio has totally succeeded in what they set out to do with the Cambridge Edge Series. The sound definitely honors their co-founder Professor Gordon Edge. More importantly, they have done for the world of mid-priced high end components, the same thing they have been doing for 50 years in the more budget priced category. If you are considering anything at or 2-3 times the price of the Cambridge Edge Series, you must give these great pieces high consideration!