Cambridge Audio, which is part of Audio Partnership, has grown from its position in the 1990s when it was redefined as an entry-level hi-fi brand — solid yet affordable, a little like NAD, and re-established (by then in its third incarnation) as a house brand for the UK’s Richer Sounds hi-fi stores, with which Audio Partnership had, well, an audio partnership.
But in Australia, Cambridge Audio has instead held its own (and rather higher than entry-level) reputation. And as time has passed that rep has risen everywhere with the lifting levels of models and performance.
Yet this is the first time in many years that the company has gone to the level of the Edge. Indeed some might think this a first ever tilt at the upper echelons of hi-fi delivered to celebrate the brand’s 50 years. But as Audio Partnership’s James Johnson-Flint notes in our interview (click here to read the interview online, or above to see the original magazine pages), there were 20 years of Cambridge products before his company redefined the brand, and among those was the world’s most expensive CD player at the time, the two-box Cambridge CD1.
There’s more harking back to that early past in the product name, not merely a pointer to its edginess or cutting-edginess, rather memorialising Gordon Edge, the inventor of Cambridge Audio’s first product, the P40 integrated amp. Edge was not only the notable first to put a toroidal transformer in an audio amplifier, his career as an engineer inspired so many other engineers and innovations during his lifetime that he’s seen as central in the city of Cambridge’s reputation as a research and innovation hub.
Meet the Professor
The name of the Edge range commemorates Professor Gordon Edge, who designed the very first product for Cambridge Audio Laboratories as the company began life as a division of Cambridge Consultants in 1968.
Professor Edge, who attended Brunel University and started his career with Pye in Cambridge, was one of those driven British engineers who overcame technological obstacles seemingly by sheer enthusiasm as much as engineering acumen. A later colleague John W Lewis described this as his ‘reality distortion field’, remembering one meeting where someone pointed out that Professor Edge’s latest suggestion “contravened several fundamental laws of physics. His response... ‘I don’t see why we should let that stand in our way...’”
This attitude may explain why that first Cambridge Audio integrated amplifier, the P40, was designed with such a low casing, a fine piece of industrial design to be sure, yet leaving the young engineers around him with quite a task to fit everything inside.
“You cooked up this iconic industrial design with Roy Gray from Woodhuysen Design in about 1968,” remembered Peter Lee in a commemoration after Edge’s passing in 2013. “It was only two inches high (in old money) and I remember the shiver as I contemplated getting a 90VA transformer in the box…”
That transformer was one of Edge’s innovations. Cambridge Audio claims the P40 as the first amplifier in the world to use a toroidal transformer, now a standard component inside virtually every high-end audio amplifier (the Edge W has two of them). And the P40 was indeed well-received — perhaps too well received, as it proved difficult to scale up production to meet demand. A fresh 2 x 25W P50 amplifier design was required to allow the growth that was clearly possible at the start of this golden era for hi-fi. By 1971, the required investment for still greater growth saw the company pass into the hands of CE Hammond & Co Ltd.
Professor Edge went on to other fields — wildly diverse fields, indeed, joining the engineering and science brains at Cambridge’s PA Consulting Group and later leaving there to form Scientific Generics, both problem-solving R&D organisations fostering innovation which included, according to his PA colleague John W Lewis, everything from inflatable bicycle seats to military optical devices, from jumping spider toys to biotechnology, from chocolate-coating machines to the UK’s first pay-phones, from telecoms networking to large-screen television projection systems. From these companies came so many spin-offs and entrepreneurial engineers that Edge is seen as playing a huge part in the city of Cambridge’s reputation as a hub for British technology and engineering.
It’s appropriate, then, that the products bearing his name come so loaded with the latest technological innovations, as well as presenting such solidity and presence. The range includes the ‘A’ integrated amplifier priced $7999, but for this review we received the separate preamplifier and power amplifier combination, the Edge NQ, and the Edge W. And they are quite the pair, sharing seriously massive aluminium cases, the preamp 12cm high, the power amp larger at 15cm high, both a full 40cm deep and weighing, respectively, 10.2kg and a massive 26.5kg. And they are, in a way, a diverse pair, with the preamp loaded up on options and connections, the power amp kept pure as pure can be.
Indeed Cambridge advertises the W power amp as having just 14 components in its signal path, none of which is a capacitor. The designers of the Edge firmly pick on signal-path capacitors as audio nasties, deeming them relatively low tolerance components susceptible to mechanical vibration. So they have replaced them by using a DC servo system which measures then cancels any DC current offset produced from the op amp (which is the second component of the 14), rather than blocking it, as is the norm, with a capacitor. This ‘DC injection’ technique is also used in the NQ preamplifier.
Meanwhile for its power reserves the W has not one of the toroidal-type transformers pioneered by Professor Edge back in 1968 but here two of them, one per channel in opposing symmetry (stacked, back-to-back) with the goal of cancelling electromagnetic interference. Power caps (80V, 10,000μF) are still allowed!
The front panel of the W is deliciously bare save for the power button on the left, and this you may never need to touch as the amplifier turns on from standby either by trigger from the NQ (or from an external controlling system), or simply by sensing a signal on its inputs from the NQ (though see below). In its supplied default mode it slips into standby automatically after 20 minutes of non-activity, though this can be prevented by toggling the ‘auto power down’ switch around the back to its ‘no’ position.
Above this switch, on the entirely symmetrically arranged back panel (see above), are balanced and unbalanced inputs, also useful balanced and unbalanced loop outs which may be used for various purposes but most usefully for using additional W amps in a biamped system. The speaker outputs are rock-solid multiway binding posts.
The amplification itself is described as Class XA, which adds a bias voltage to the traditional Class-AB amplifier design, shifting the point of crossover between the two transistors away from zero to a point where crossover distortion will be less audible. This is claimed as Cambridge’s own technology, a refined version of the Class XD found in its 851 series amplifiers, and its goal (like Arcam’s Class G) is to give Class A-like performance at most listening levels while having the reserves available to deliver more for dynamics or reference-level listening. The quoted output is 2 × 100W into eight ohms or 2 × 200W into four ohms, with <0.002% THD at 1kHz at rated power, or <0.02% 20Hz-20kHz (the full bandwidth is quoted 3Hz to 80kHz @-1dB).
That’s the power section, then — the W sits quietly, or not so quietly, doing its business. Your day-to-day interaction will be with the equally luxurious NQ preamplifier (Cambridge describes it as “preamplifer with network player”, to emphasise its streaming abilities). Its front panel is dominated by the colour display and the two-shank volume/selector knob — the rear outer ridged section controls input selection, while the central front smooth knob controls the volume, and pleasingly this has a proper hard start point, rather than going round and round. (In our interview, James Johnson-Flint further describes the level of mechanics achieved in this 31-part knob.)
We applaud that when adjusting the volume knob there’s no change of the front-panel display; this can distract especially if you’re doing it surreptiously (as when nudging up the volume without the missus noticing). Indeed the front display never seems to show the volume level at all, which is rather unusual, and potentially perilous if relying on signal-sensing to auto power-up the W power amp. It won’t sense the input at all if the knob is at zero, so you have to turn it up before being able to hear the music, and twice we had it far too loud and belted our speakers with a painful blast of W power. We learned to power on the W manually (or you could use the trigger cable, or set the W permanently on).
The display is used, then, mainly to indicate the input selection, which is shown on the display as a segmented blue ring along with the input names where available. There are three choices for control — the delicious front-panel knob, the high-quality remote control (which even without its three AAA batteries is weighty enough to qualify as an offensive weapon), or the Edge app, which is available for iOS (10+) and Android (5.0 and higher).
The inputs are labelled A1 to A3 and D1 to D5, with no initial indication as to what these are — the USB input is D5, for example, but the display shows this only once you’ve selected it. D4 comes up as ‘TV’ because this is an HDMI ARC socket. A1 and A2 are the two unbalanced RCA analogue inputs; A3 is the balanced XLR analogue input option. D1 and D2 are both optical digital inputs; D3 is coaxial digital in. We couldn’t find a way to name or rename these things in the app, but owners will learn them quickly, so that only visitors may complain (and they shouldn’t be touching your hi-fi anyway). Another curious choice is having input options other than the currently selected one greyed out in the app (see below left), which might seem logical but has the side-effect of making it harder to find the other options when you want to change.
Round the back there’s also the Bluetooth antenna, an RS232C socket which allows remote control (including from various smart-home platforms), an Ethernet network connection, and two USB-A slots, one specifically marked for media playback, one for inserting the supplied Wi-Fi 2.4GHz b/g/n Wi-Fi dongle — presumably a dongle is used since the case is too massive and protective to allow Wi-Fi to make it through to the inside. We used Ethernet for networking.
The remote control is good for volume, with prioritised buttons in a sensible place, while the up/down input selection works well in concert with the blue segmented circle. The remote’s style perfectly reflects that of the components, with the logo classily etched, not merely printed.
But there is more to the blue segmented circle than the physical inputs, because around the bottom it shows options for Spotify, AirPlay, Chromecast, internet radio, media libraries (UPnP), and Bluetooth.
For these networking functions, the streaming platform itself is Cambridge’s well-developed StreamMagic, here in its latest iteration called ‘Black Marlin’ (which is, according to Fishing World, the only marlin with rigid pectoral fins). The addition of Chromecast not only makes for easy compatibility with the many apps (or Chrome browser windows) which can thus cast to the NQ at up to 16-bit/48kHz, it also allows the pair to form part of a Google Home controlled multiroom system (though only receiving, not able to broadcast from its other inputs, as can more dedicated multiroom platforms). StreamMagic can go to higher quality from suitable sources, its latest chipset supporting up to 24-bit/192kHz streaming and DSD up to DSD128.
To go still higher in resolution, computer playback via USB is able to deliver up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD256 via the NQ’s internal DACs.
Inside the preamp there is continued use of the DC coupled circuitry to minimise capacitor use, and it’s perhaps a surprise to find the preamp boasting a large toroidal transformer as well — indeed the third product in the Edge range, the Edge A integrated amp, has, we gather, all three toroids, since it combines the W power section with the NQ’s preamp, lacking only the streaming abilities of the NQ. In an nice touch of pride, the Cambridge engineers involved with the development have their signatures on the different PCBs inside the amplifiers.
We had set the Edge pair up on our equipment rack, managing to slide the higher W onto a standard shelf (just), where it looks every bit the massively purposeful power amp. The black anodised heatsink fins extend on each side, but we soon found, after leaving the pair on extended warm-up duties, that the top also gets mighty warm, and we soon vacated the top turntable shelf and deck to give it full circulation on all sides!
We were impressed even by the packaging, which is certainly next level, as much flight case as cardboard box, the amplifier in foam seating inside a zipped fabric bag, inside which were further instructions on removing the W’s separate cloth, card and rubber covers.
The pair connected with XLR cables, they powered up and the NQ announced it was “downloading Cast” (likely licensing or updating the third-party Google Chromecast abilities),
So we took the time to read through the excellent full printed manual, where the first instruction was to download the Cambridge Edge Remote app, which we found was actually listed on iTunes Australia as the ‘Audio Partnership Edge Remote’ app.
The app worked impressively well, ‘finding’ the Edge NQ on the network reliably through our network switches; impressively it handled one period when our network was divided between our usual router and a mesh network on review; many apps couldn’t see from one network to the other, whereas the Edge app managed admirably well.
We lived with the two amps for about a month, listening mainly via computer USB input, using Mac and Roon to play our own collection, and Tidal’s HIFI level of streaming including MQA Masters unfolded once (but not twice) by the Tidal desktop app. But we also ran through all the various streaming options.
Using the app’s ‘Library’ UPnP playback control to stream files from a NAS drive we confirmed compatibility of AIFF, WAV, FLAC and Apple Lossless to 24-bit/192kHz, with the front panel showing track information and colour artwork where available. An MQA file of Van Morrison’s Moondance was not fully unfolded but came through at 24-bit/48kHz. Even large libraries loaded their information quickly, a 5000-artist roster loading at the rate of several hundred a second, making UPnP more navigable and so more useful a solution than on many other similar systems. We couldn’t get DSD to be recognised from our remote libraries, more likely a UPnP serving issue rather than a Cambridge receiving issue, because when we plugged in a USB stick, it was happy to play both DSD64 and DSD128 files. Mind you it took us a while to find how to play from a USB stick or drive — it comes up with a final swipe of the app’s ‘Library’ screen.
Internet radio yields variable quality, of course, but a wealth of international music, and the navigation on the Edge app has a nice innovation in showing the number of stations under each category — so browse Australasia and you can instantly see not only 628 Australian stations but two from the Cook Islands, nine from Guam, and so on. A little streaming edginess aside, we enjoyed some swaying tunes from Matariki FM 99.9. Oh the wonders of the internet.
The built-in Chromecast is a massive boost of convenience. Watching YouTube on a Chromebook browser, we could throw the audio straight to the Cambridge NQ. Watching the same YouTube on our iPhone, we could throw it with AirPlay. On our network (and how networks do vary), the AirPlay connection was both more robust and significantly smoother sounding than the Chromecast delivery.
Flicking the NQ’s lovely knob to the Bluetooth position made it available for pairing, so we had a third way to throw the YouTube audio to the Cambridge. Surprisingly we preferred this to the Chromecast delivery, though below the AirPlay connection; this being from an iPhone we did not have the option of the aptX or aptX HD codec and their mildly lossy CD/24-48 transmission, but the front-panel display did confirm that the Bluetooth spec also includes AAC, which lifts Apple devices above the base-level SBC codec. It was perfectly listenable, and highly enjoyable. It’s clear that however you consume your music, you can flick it on to the Cambridge amps with a minimum of fuss.
But my goodness, the most entrancing performance came via computer over USB. We spent most of our month this way, serving tunes from our file collection via Roon and Amarra/iTunes (Roon could address the USB input or the AirPlay input; the USB is obviously the purer path), and also streaming from Tidal’s HIFI-level subscription, with which Spotify simply can’t compete on audio quality. Deezer and Google Music are also each a mere touch away on the Edge app.
Even during its early warm-up duties (we got them entirely factory fresh), the Edge pair’s delivery of bass had announced itself when the pulsing bassline of The Propellerheads’ History Repeating came through the ceiling while we rested in the lounge below, the nuclear vocal of Shirley Bassey arriving quite separately down the stairwell. Returning to the music room we were thrilled by the depth, solidity and tightness of the bass emerging from our speakers; we noted the clarity and staging granted to the background chatter over the second bridge, and the sheer unrestrained size of the presentation.
Still on random warm-up play we heard a mere 320k AAC file of Miles Davis’ Freddy Freeloader generating such a depth plane out to the walking double bass during Wynton Kelly’s left-channel piano solo that we had to fetch our Absolute Analogue white label vinyl pressing to compare (pressing-droppers, we), bringing the phono signal of our Thorens to one of the Cambridge’s analogue inputs through our usual Musical Fidelity phono stage, as Cambridge has chosen not to include their own. [Why no phono stage?, we asked Mr Johnson-Flint in our interview, who replied it’s bring your own, because at this level, that’s exactly what many users will want to do.] As for the vinyl, let’s just say we’d forgotten it was vinyl until being surprised when the side ended. There’s quite the shitfight over the best pressing of ‘Kind Of Blue’, but this presentation of the Absolute Analogue white label was perfect enough for us.
The Edge delivered some complete surprises — the sudden clarity of ‘Sky 2’, a time-trip back through the cracked layers of Tricky’s Hell is Round The Corner, Wings’ Live and Let Die delivered as the barnstormer that it so often isn’t on lesser gear — big wide and deep, instrumentation with timpani and brass given full tonal strength.
Never before have we so enjoyed the weight of the bass opening up Page & Plant’s Blue Train, a wide proto-’Raising Sand’ soundstage before crashing out into the middle eight and presenting Jimmy’s solo in all its frightening imperfection.
The quality of this pre-power combination is evident in its ability to get out of the way and push out the music. Old stuff, new stuff: it was a bottomless well of powerful performance. From Tidal we played the Master file (unfolded to 96kHz by the desktop Tidal app) of the Joni Mitchell 75th birthday concert, and it was one wow after another. How full and tuneful the bass in Snorah Jones’ take on Court & Spark, how delicious her throaty vocal! How emotive James Taylor and friends’ Woodstock! What’s up with the mike on the first vocal of Big Yellow Taxi? This was all about the music — not the amps, which is what happens with hi-fi that hits reality levels. The Edge pair just can’t do ‘background’. Working on some routine emails while listening, I found myself returning to consciousness, hands frozen on the keyboard after drifting away, transported by the coda of Paul Weller’s ‘Strange Museum Live at the Royal Festival Hall’, again streaming and unfolded to 88.2k by Tidal’s desktop app and on to the preamp. But all the tech was transparent to the music; I’d spent minutes simply sitting in the sound, inhabiting the space, out of my head. As I mentioned last issue in my comment piece, this is hi-fi as meditation; it soothes, it heals, it mesmerises.
Tragically I discovered the album of Steven Wilson’s Yes mixes while the Edge was in residence, and now of course I have to wait for another amplifier of this quality to come along before I can enjoy them again at this level. With the drum kit hitting real reference levels, and the rest of Yes going full pelt alongside, with no sense of either dynamic compression or distortion, you know you’re there. As in a real-world scenario I was leaning in to one speaker to hear the wonderful piano recording banging along in the right channel of Perpetual Change, then when tiring of that wonder, leaning back to rebalance the full soundfield. Like you’re there. The section of this track from 5:30, where three entirely separate takes combine into one performance, was gobsmacking. We near passed out during the ending, with multiple Jon Andersons layered up, channelling angels.
Still playing MQA Masters via Roon’s unfolding, we found through the Cambridge that our own rips of The Beatles 2009 CD remasters were markedly inferior to what was streaming from Tidal HIFI — which was rather annoying.
Quirks — three worth mentioning. That lack of volume indication on the front display is an oddity, for sure, and when we queried with the Australian distributor Synergy whether we had missed a option somewhere, we were told that our feedback there was not alone, and a firmware update may be made to add this.
But just possibly, not knowing the volume actually improves your listening experience. This way you’ll always set it to a level right for that music right then, rather than the same -30dB or whatever you’ve become accustomed to selecting. By thus accounting to mood, could the lack of volume indication in fact be partially responsible for the many transcendent moments experienced here?
Twice in our month with the Cambridge pair the USB input simply vanished, our connected computer (and several others we tried while fault-checking) unable to see it as an audio device. It remained on the network, available to our Mac Mini via AirPlay, but the USB input was dead, its little graphic flashing on the front panel. Switching/replugging inputs didn’t fix it, nor did a soft restart. Only a mains plug-removed reboot brought it back. Something odd happening there.
One, maybe two quirks, against a month of sheer pleasure in listening to music made real. We switched speakers several times, and the music kept on coming, free of restraint, with precision-edged soundstaging both wide and deep, headroom for dynamics, tonally untouched, musically magnificent. The anniversary Edge products were, we gather, created as a money-no-object exercise for the team of Cambridge engineers, but they have managed to hit a price level which might be call high-value high-end, rather than uber high-end. If you can stretch to this pricing, you must have the Edge amps on your shortlist. Even if you’re lucky enough to aim above, you’d be foolish not to hear them before buying something pricier. Because they raise the bar. Cambridge Audio likes to call it ‘The Great British Sound’. Nah. It’s just great sound, period.
Cambridge Audio Edge NQ and W
Price: $6499 / $4999
+ Superbly musical performance
+ Flexible preamp
+ High-end design
– No phono stage
– Power amp can run hot
Cambridge Audio Edge NQ $6499
Tested with firmware: CDB=11.00 FPC=12.06
Inputs: 1 x XLR pair, 2 x RCA pair, 1 x coaxial digital, 2 x optical digital, 1 x HDMI ARC, 1 x USB-B, 2 x USB-A, Ethernet, RS-232C, Bluetooth antenna
Outputs: pre-out XLR pair, preout RCA pair (both can be set to fixed output via the app); Link out
Streaming: Ethernet/Wi-Fi via USB dongle: ChromeCast inside, UPnP via app, internet radio, Spotify Connect, AirPlay, Bluetooth with aptX HD, Deezer, Tidal, Google play
Dimensions: 120 x 460 x 405mm
Cambridge Audio Edge W $4999
Inputs: 1 x XLR pair, 1 x RCA pair, Link in
Outputs: speakers out, 1 x RCA loop out pair, 1 x XLR loop pair, Link in
Quoted continuous power output: 100W RMS into 8 ohms; 200W RMS into 4 ohms
Quoted THD: <0.002% 1kHz at rated power
(8 phms); <0.02% 20Hz-20kHz at rated power
Dimensions: 150 x 460 x 405mm