Is this really the best time to launch a high-end Blu-ray player?
What is the Cambridge Audio CXU?The CXU is Cambridge Audio's new flagship Blu-ray player with universal support - that means it can play 2D and 3D Blu-rays, DVDs, DVD-Audio discs, SACDs, HDCDs and CDs. It also has a high level of build quality, plenty of connections, a nicely designed remote control and an effective menu system. Once you include superior video upscaling, audiophile components and Darbee processing, the CXU goes some way towards justifying its hefty price tag of £899 - although that's still considerably more than most other Blu-ray players. However with Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray just around the corner, is this really the best time to be launching an expensive Full HD Blu-ray player? Let's find out...
DesignThe CXU is certainly a nice looking player, with a design that is all clean lines and brushed metal. The black finish and minimalist front panel make for an attractive addition to any equipment rack, whilst the build quality is excellent. The player sits on two large feet at the rear and a supporting bar under the front panel, which provides plenty of stability. To a certain extent that's what you're paying for with these expensive players and the CXU doesn't disappoint, with a well-engineered feel and plenty of weight to the unit itself. In terms of actual specs, the CXU measures 82 x 430 x 312mm (H x W X D) and weighs in at 5kg.
On the left hand side of the front panel is the power button and the skip forwards/backwards buttons, whilst on the other side we have the eject button and the play/pause button. Our only complaint would be that the buttons themselves are impossible to see in the dark, so at the very least an illuminated eject button would be handy. There's also an additional USB 2.0 port and an extra HDMI input that supports MHL (Mobile High-definition Link). In the middle there's a disc tray that's suitably smooth and quiet in operation and beneath that there's a large and informative display that's easy to read from a distance and can be dimmed if necessary.
The CXU sports an attractive minimalist design, with a well-engineered finish and great build quality.
Connections and ControlThe CXU has a large selection of connections at the rear, which allow it to be both an audio and video hub within your system. First of all there are two HDMI inputs (one on the front and one at the rear) and two HDMI outputs. These are HDMI 1.4a compliant with support for 3D, CEC and ARC (Audio Return Channel). There are three USB 2.0 ports, one on the front and two at the rear, although one of these will need to be used for the wireless dongle (802.11 b/g/n, 2.4GHz). There's also an Ethernet port for those that would rather use a wired connection and an RS232 serial connector.
In terms of audio connections, the CXU has an optical (TOSLINK) digital input and a coaxial (S/PDIF) digital input. It also has an optical (TOSLINK) digital output and a coaxial (S/PDIF) digital output, along with 7.1-channel analogue outputs using RCA/Phono connectors, as well as dedicated stereo outputs that also use RCA/Phono connectors. However when you consider the price and the CXU's audiophile credentials, it's surprising that there's no balanced XLR stereo outputs as well.
Aside from the basic controls on the front panel of the player itself, all other control is done via the provided remote. This controller is nicely designed with a soft rubber back and a black brushed metal effect on the front to match the player itself. The remote is comfortable to hold, easy to use with one hand and includes a backlight. The overall layout of the buttons has been simplified and their positioning is much better, making the remote more intuitive to use. It's definitely an improvement over the previous remote controls that Cambridge Audio have provided with their Blu-ray players.
Cambridge Audio CXU Unboxing Video
Features and SpecsCambridge Audio have designed the CXU to be the best Blu-ray player they have ever made, one that can deliver superior video and audio performance whilst also providing increased connectivity and the ability to be used as a central home cinema source. In terms of playback the CXU can handle just about any disc you throw at it, including BD, BD-3D, DVD, DVD-A, AVCHD, SACD, CD, HDCD, Kodak Picture CD, CD-R/RW, DVD+-R/RW, DVD+-R DL, BD-R/RE. Phew... so that's pretty much everything but HD-DVD!
The CXU also includes video processing, allowing it to upscale content to 4K resolution and convert 2D to 3D, as well as output over two separately configurable HDMI ports. It even includes Darbee Visual Presence Technology which is adjustable, allowing you to customise the visual enhancement to suit your needs. And for ultimate flexibility, you can set your preferredDarbee mode individually for each of the different video inputs, so the CXU can also be used as a video processor for other sources.
In fact the CXU can be used as a complete digital hub thanks to its two HDMI inputs, digital optical and coaxial audio inputs, and three USB inputs, which allow connection to almost any source . These can then all be up-sampled or processed for the best possible audio and video experience. The front HDMI input also supports MHL, for mobile device playback from smart phones or a digital camcorder, making the CXU a flexible centre for all your audio video entertainment.
The CXU features five separate Wolfson WM8740 DACs and Cambridge Audio's proprietary ATF audio upsampling (Adaptive Time Filtering). Whatever the source, the CXU upsamples all audio to 24-bit/192kHz, for high-resolution playback. Any digital jitter, which effects all digital audio, is removed via ATF and a dedicated two-channel analogue output delivers superior stereo sound. In addition the Pure Audio mode shuts down all video processing to prevent any audio signal interference.
The CXU can be connected directly to a power amplifier or active speakers for a simple and highly versatile system, without having to worry about volume control. Whether using digital or analogue outputs you can control the volume, even on 2- and 7.1-channel set ups, directly from the CXU remote control. The CXU also has a wired or wireless network connection, which means it can connect to your home network and play back audio, video or photo files from UPnP and DLNA servers and from NAS drives.
If there is one area where the CXU is at a definite disadvantage to even the cheapest Blu-ray player, it's in terms of smart capabilities. There really are no smart features to speak of, aside from YouTube and Picasa, so if you planned on accessing Netflix, BBC iPlayer or Amazon Instant then you're out of luck. However there is an intuitive on-screen colour display and simple user-friendly controls, plus the remote for the CXU can also control any matching Cambridge Audio AVR or Hi-Fi amplifier.
There's universal disc playback, audiophile components and Darbee Visual Presence processing.
There's is often a lot of confusion when it comes to Blu-ray players, with consumers thinking that if they buy a more expensive player they will somehow get an improvement in picture quality. However, as long as the player isn't doing anything it shouldn't, then any Blu-ray player will look identical to any other Blu-ray player over HDMI. The CXU was flawless with 1080p/24 Blu-rays, which is exactly what we would expect, with the player outputting exactly what's on the disc. The CXU includes picture controls, so it's important that you leave these off, the player should just send a direct source to the display, which is where any image calibration will be performed.
As with 2D Blu-rays, so it is when playing back 3D Blu-rays and once again the important point is to make sure the player is sending an unadulterated signal to the display. The CXU also performed flawlessly in this regard, sending the 3D signal to our display without affecting it in any way. You have the option to enter the screen size of your display, which is fine, but any other controls should be turned off because things like depth and parallax should be left to the filmmakers and not random choices on your player or display for that matter. As with 2D Blu-rays, we would expect any Blu-ray player to ace these 3D tests regardless of its price.
Although you probably find yourself watching less DVDs these days, this is one area where the superior video processing of the CXU can actually add value. The player did a wonderful job of deinterlacing and upscaling standard definition DVDs, whether the were PAL or NTSC. In fact the CXU was particularly good with the latter, allowing anyone with a large US collection of DVDs to squeeze every last pixel of image detail from their discs. Since the CXU also has two HDMI inputs and can connect with your network, it provides the opportunity to take full advantage of this deinterlacing and scaling by using the CXU as a video processor for other standard definition sources.
Whilst the CXU does not support Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray, it can upscale lower resolution content to ultra high definition (3840 x 2160). Just how useful this feature is in reality is debatable, the majority of Ultra HD 4K TVs and projectors we have reviewed have been excellent at upscaling lower resolution content to the native 4K resolution of their panels. Certainly when comparing the 4K upscaling of the player to the upscaling on a UHD TV, there was no perceivable difference but it could be a useful feature to have, especially if you feel your TV doesn't handle standard definition content very well.
The inclusion of Darbee Visual Presence processing is a major selling point of the CXU and it's one of those features that is very 'Marmite' - there are those who swear by it and others that hate it. Here at AVForums we have remained largely agnostic towards Darbee processing, there are times when we find the effect distracting and other times when it can work very well. If you're a video purist that just wants their Blu-ray player to output exactly what's on the disc then Darbee processing is probably not for you. However if Darbee processing is something you're interested in then the CXU provides this feature without the need to buy a separate processor and you can apply it to other sources connected to the player.
So how does Darbee Visual Presence work? Well in simple terms in uses proprietary algorithms in conjunction with local pixel luminance adjustments to create a perception of greater detail and depth. Remember that if you're watching a Blu-ray on a 1080p display you're already seeing all the detail that's available, so what Darbee are doing is essentially a trick. Whether you like the look of this trick is largely down to personal preference and how much you adhere to the content creator's original intent. We actually reviewed Darbee's standalone unit in some detail here, so if you'd like an in-depth look at how the processing actually works and examples of the effect we would suggest you give it a read.
There are three modes - Hi-Def, Gaming and Full Pop - with each offering a greater degree of processing. You can also adjust the level of each mode, increasing the amount of processing. We found that if we were going to use the Darbee processing at all, we restricted ourselves to Hi-Def as the other two looked overly processed, and set the level at a lower percentage. Whilst we could see the pixel manipulation working well with video games, when it came to film and TV content and especially Blu-rays, we were less convinced. Ultimately we found that whilst the image initially looked sharper and had greater depth, we were also aware that it was being processed and film in particular developed a slightly 'digital' look that was certainly not the director's intention.
Cambridge Audio CXU Video Review
Audio PerformanceSince the majority of consumers buying a Blu-ray player are going to use it for watching Blu-rays, the one area where the CXU offers a definite improvement over cheaper players is in terms of its audio performance. The CXU upsamples all audio to 24-bit/192kHz for high-resolution playback and uses Cambridge Audio's proprietary ATF audio upsampling (Adaptive Time Filtering) to deal with any jitter, resulting in an improved digital performance. The player also has five separate Wolfson WM8740 DACs, so the analogue performance is even better and there's a dedicated two-channel analogue output for superior stereo sound. In addition the CXU has a Pure Audio mode shuts down of all video processing to prevent any audio signal interference. Strangely, given its audiophile credentials, the CXU doesn't have stereo balanced XLR outputs but in all other respects it offers a superior analogue performance.
We started off with a recent CD in the form of The Waterboys Modern Blues and the CXU performed admirably, especially over the stereo analogue outputs, although we can't say we really noticed any perceivable difference over digital. We then tied Scott Walker's first album Scott on HDCD and again the CXU did a marvellous job over its analogue outputs. After that we listened to Beggar's Banquet by The Rolling Stones in two-channel stereo on SACD, before moving on to a full multi-channel mix of David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, also on SACD. After that we tried the multi-channel mix of The Flaming Lips Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots on DVD-Audio. Finally we tried the new high resolution mix of Roger Waters Amused to Death that was recently released on Blu-ray, and in all cases the CXU handled the different formats and mixes with consummate skill.
As far as movies were concerned we tried a number of different soundtracks over HDMI including multichannel PCM, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA soundtracks from Blu-rays and Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks from DVDs. The CXU was able to detect all these audio formats without any problems and played each one back flawlessly. As a digital transport the CXU was excellent but if you prefer using the 7.1-channel analogue outputs because perhaps your receiver doesn't support HDMI, then you won't be disappointed either. Thanks to its high quality DACs the CXU proved to be very capable at converting digital multi-channel soundtracks and outputting the results over its 7.1-channel analogue outputs. Although in reality it was difficult to tell any actual difference when comparing film soundtracks played back over either the HDMI or analogue outputs.
The CXU delivered a flawless audio and video performance regardless of the source.
- Universal playback
- Excellent video processing
- Solid build quality and quiet operation
- Fast load and response times
- Easy to use with well designed menu system
- Two HDMI outputs
- 7.1 Analogue audio outputs
- Nicely designed remote
- Limited internet functionality
- No balanced XLR outputs
- Very expensive
Cambridge Audio CXU Blu-ray Player Review
Should I buy one?
The Cambridge Audio CXU has a lot to recommend about it, from its design and user interface to its connections, features and performance. However it also feels like a product that is being launched at completely the wrong time. The reality is that Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray will probably arrive in our stores this Christmas, which makes a Full HD Blu-ray player that costs nearly £900 a tough sell. It's also worth remembering that the video performance over HDMI will be identical to a player that costs a tenth of the price, so you're really paying for the audio performance and again, with the increase in popularity of high resolution music streaming, is there much of a market for an audiophile disc spinner?
The good news is that the CXU certainly delivers in terms of Cambridge Audio's intentions with an attractively designed and well made player. At this price point, build quality is one of the main selling points and the CXU is solid and well engineered, with a quiet and smooth disc tray, fast loading, quick navigation and an informative display. The front panel is deliberately minimalist, whilst there's a host of connections including two HDMI inputs and twin HDMI outputs. The menu system is well designed and intuitive to use, whilst the remote control is also comfortable to hold and ergonomically laid out. There's very little in the way of smart features but the CXU includes a wireless dongle and you can stream from your home network very effectively.
The CXU delivered a flawless performance when it came to Blu-ray, delivering wonderful images in both 2D and 3D over HDMI. However we would expect that from any Blu-ray player and where it adds greater value is in terms of the video processing, meaning the CXU can give DVDs and other video sources a new lease of life. The Darbee Visual Presence processing remains an acquired taste and the 4K upscaling feels more like a gimmick but we tested the CXU with every type of disc we could find and it played them all, so it certainly deserves it universal moniker. However the term universal means it plays all the different disc formats (except HD-DVD) and not that it plays discs from different regions - that would be a multi-region or region-free player.
When it comes to the more expensive Blu-ray players, what you're often paying for is the audio performance and the CXU certainly didn't disappoint in this regard. It delivered a suitably impressive performance over the digital outputs and the high quality DACs and audiophile components really came into their own when using the analogue outputs, both stereo and multi-channel. The CXU is a fantastic audio performer, regardless of the source but the absence of balanced XLR outputs is strange given the player's high-end ambitions. How much value there is in an audiophile disc spinner in this age of falling sales for physical media and the rise of streaming services is debatable but the CXU can double as an effective network streaming device.
So given all this why doesn't the Cambridge Audio CXU get a badge? Well under normal circumstances it would certainly earn a Recommended award but as we mentioned at the start of this conclusion, these aren't normal circumstances. If you only plan on using the HDMI outputs then there are plenty of cheaper options and if you want a better built player, you can also get very similar for less. However it's the imminent arrival of Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray that makes it difficult for us to recommended a Full HD Blu-ray player that costs nearly £900. Overall the Cambridge Audio CXU delivers a great all-round performance but whether you feel it can justify its price tag in the current climate is ultimately a matter of personal opinion.
What are my alternatives?
If you have decided that you want to buy a new Blu-ray player now and are prepared to pay for the superior build quality, processing and audio performance of a higher-end model then you have a number of alternatives to choose from. There's Arcam's UDP411 which also offers superior audio performance but it currently costs £995. It also can't play DVD-Audio discs, nor does it have all the additional inputs and processing. A closer alternative is the Oppo BDP-105D which offers everything the CXU does and also includes balanced XLR outputs but does cost more at £1,099. However, if you plan on primarily using the HDMI outputs then Oppo's BDP-103D could prove to be a better and much cheaper alternative, only setting you back £599.
Ease Of Use9
Value For Money7
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