James Johnson-Flint is CEO of Cambridge Audio and founder of Audio Partnership, which bought the company in 1994. We talked about the past, present, future, and in particular, the Edge range of electronics.
SOUND+IMAGE: So Cambridge Audio had several incarnations prior to Audio Partnership’s taking over ownership in 1994. How did you see the company back then, why did you buy it, and how has its market position has been developed since?
and founder of Audio Partnership,
which bought the company in 1994.
JAMES JOHNSON-FLINT: Back in 1994 I saw in Cambridge Audio a brand down on its luck, but with tremendous potential. Back in the early nineties a stack of separates was a must-have in every music lover’s home, and within a relatively short space of time we
had a team of designers to deliver some great value product to a market hungry for quality at a fair price. Two years later we won our first What Hi-Fi? Award in the UK — for our very first DacMagic — and we haven’t looked back since.
Today, I’m immensely proud that Cambridge Audio is a globally successful British manufacturing company that develops all of its products — hardware, software and mobile apps — in-house in the UK. We are the only London-based specialist audio company and, 25 years on from 1994, I still love this business, despite the fact that everything we do is so much more complex that it was when we made amps, basically, with knobs and switches on them. Today Cambridge Audio has one of the largest in-house specialist audio engineering teams in Europe — we employ nearly 100 people in five countries around the world, and with 21 engineers based in our UK offices.
S+I: The Edge is a level (or two) above previous Cambridge products. When did this idea develop, and where were they designed?
JJ-F: Well, actually this is by no means a sudden leap into the ‘higher level’. Back in 1987 Cambridge Audio launched the £2500 CD1 two-box CD player, the first of its kind having transport and DAC separated into two boxes. It was the most expensive CD player in the world at the time, and an iconic product.
While in terms of performance we’re delighted that Edge is being talked about in the same breath as other product costing more, we wouldn’t necessarily refer to it as ‘ultra high-end’, as it still lives up to our core brand promise of offering exceptional value. However you listen, whatever your budget, our goal is simple: give you the best possible sound, at the fairest possible price.
It was designed and engineered in London, and the project brief was simple, though risky in hindsight — there was no budget limit set, no other restriction put on time or what it would take to deliver, and engineers being engineers, they could have got very carried away! But the challenge given to them was simply to design and deliver the ultimate no-compromise range of components that would raise a few eyebrows and send a tingle down people’s spines when listening. In total nine engineers worked full-time on Edge, with more than 20 involved along the way.
S+I: Was the plan always for an integrated amplifier and pre-power combination? Is the day of source separates like CD players over, given that integrated and preamps are kinda sources anyway via streaming?
JJ-F: Yes, the plan was always for an integrated and pre-power combination. As for sources, given the breadth of content and quality of audio available, it’s little wonder that streaming services have, for many of us, become the de facto way in which we consume music. However, physical media certainly isn’t dead yet, as the resurgence in vinyl sales over the last few years has shown, and the fact that our CD players still sell well, especially overseas in Asia.
Our latest product — the Alva TT direct -drive turntable [pictured right] — seeks to give customers a solution that bridges the gap between analogue and digital music set-ups, thanks to it being the world’s first aptX HD Bluetooth record deck. It can be connected to any Bluetooth receiver — a speaker, headphones, or indeed the Edge A or Edge NQ — and deliver your vinyl at up to 24-bit/48kHz quality audio. [Editor’s note: aptX HD uses mild compression, see avhub.com.au/aptxhd]
S+I: What were the goals for Edge in terms of aesthetic/industrial design? Who are you appealing to?
JJ-F: Our customers have traditionally been attracted to our products’ combination of sound and build quality, but more recently great design and easy operation have become more and more important. Our own engineers were responsible for both the industrial & mechanical design of Edge, and worked hard to deliver on the brief to deliver both a stunning aesthetic and functional simplicity. Take the volume/selector knob, for example — this mechanical marvel comprises 31 precision-milled engineered parts. Yet, this complexity inside enables the most intuitive and purest of interfaces for the user. The selector’s position is monitored by an microcontroller, then that decides which input relay to switch. And these relays are situated at the rear of the amplifier on the input board, close up to the connectors — where they should be, rather than bringing the audio signal all the way up to the front of the amplifier [for switching] and back to the rear again, and so risking picking up interference.
The volume control is also monitored by another microcontroller which selects the correct path through an IC resistor ladder for the required volume level. This IC is, of course, also situated at the rear of the amplifier on the input board — for the same reasons I mentioned before.
S+I: And how much of the W’s massive physicality is to deliver that aesthetic, and how much really required by the needs of the technology?
JJ-F: The Edge W’s physicality is largely dictated by the two opposing toroidal transformers. We adopted these to help cancel out electromagnetic interference and maintain tonality regardless of volume level.
It’s the same principle as acoustic engineers used to use in the past to avoid centre speakers interfering with your CRT TV. A second magnet would be added to the rear of the pole piece in reverse orientation to the main magnet to cancel out stray fields. A toroidal transformer is an electromagnet rather than a passive ferrite magnet, but a magnet all the same, so the principle applies in the same way. We also apply a silicon-steel screen tape around each transformer to reduce stray fields, then any that is left is cancelled out by the opposing arrangement. The result is that far less electromagnetic radiation interferes with the sensitive input stage of the amplifier.
S+I: The W’s amplification is not Class-D, nor AB, nor A, but a biased Class-AB. Discuss! Is this like twin-rail systems such as Arcam’s Class G?
JJ-F: With Edge, we adopted Class XA. Class XA shifts the bias position away from the zero crossing-point — where effectively there is no signal level and any distortion can be heard/measured — to a point in the waveform where there is a higher signal level and any distortion is effectively masked. It’s less efficient than a Class-AB amplifier, but more efficient than Class-A, yet with the same sound quality benefits.
S+I: Only 14 components in the signal path of the W, impressive stat! Can you list them?
JJ-F: Ha! Resistor, op-amp, resistor, resistor, transistor, transistor, transistor, diode, resistor, transistor, transistor, resistor, inductor. The geeks tell me there are products at twice the price that don’t come close! To remove all possible barriers between listener and music, we worked really hard on this and as a result I really do believe Edge delivers a more faithful reproduction of the original recording: a highly detailed three-dimensional sound, with striking staging and focus. I hope you agree!
You may also notice in our 14 components that there are absolutely no capacitors. However good they may be, capacitors, as components, have the biggest detrimental impact on the sound because they have wide tolerances and are basically made from a wound metal foil with a dielectric in-between. This makes them susceptible to microphony, so they will transform mechanical vibration into unwanted electrical noise. Removing them results in a cleaner signal path that is less susceptible to distortion. In Edge we replaced capacitors used normally used in the signal path with DC coupled technology, which injects an equal and opposite amount of DC into the signal to cancel out any DC offset, rather than using a capacitor to block it.
S+I: Why no phono stage?
JJ-F: We appreciate that many customers in this space who have turntables will already have an external phono stage. Alternatively, they will be in the market for a dedicated separate unit. Our Solo and Duo phono stages complement Edge perfectly — they’re even finished in the same lunar grey.
S+I: The W runs very hot after a while, nice for your cold English homes but here we might be at 35°C with power up to 250V. Should we worry?
JJ-F: No, you shouldn’t be worried at all. As part of our development and quality control processes, we test all of our audio products at both high and low mains voltages compared to ‘normal’ mains, so the fluctuation you mention will not be an issue.