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Superb CD player from Cambridge Audio (but it's not what you think)

Discussion in 'Hi-Fi Stereo Systems & Separates' started by Ovation, Jun 7, 2004.

  1. Ovation

    Ovation
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    Well, I took the plunge and bought my hi-res players. Yes, players (even though one of them is a universal player--I got two). I spent weeks (and weeks and weeks) researching players re: features, cost, bass management/time alignment, reliability, build quality, availability, warranty, etc. After much consideration (and lots of valuable input from folks on a few forum sites), I decided to buy a Marantz DV6400 for hi-res duties and a dedicated CD player for redbook playback. For that purpose, I’d decided to audition the 540C by Cambridge Audio, as the press and feedback from individuals were compelling. A couple of people had told me to compare the 540C to the Cambridge 540D for CD playback performance. The rule of thumb is a dedicated player should be better than a multi-use player at the same price point, as all of the engineering is specific to that one purpose. As the two Cambridge players are identical in price, and I had the chance to compare them, I gave them each a try. The results were quite surprising, both to me and the salesperson.

    While I didn’t conduct a “double-blind” test, and while I’m aware of all the psychoacoustic effects that can come in to play (as amply demonstrated elsewhere in various forums), I believe my exercise had some “objective” merit, even though I admit it was not a rigorous scientific experiment. I will describe the exercise, and let the “objectivist” and “subjectivist” camps weigh in at their leisure, if they wish to do so at all.

    My first goal was to determine if I could audibly identify a difference in sound quality between the player’s DACs and the receiver’s DACs via optical input. If I could not tell the difference, then I might have chosen a less expensive player to use as a transport. The first test was the 540D (a DVD-A/V player) vs. the receiver (the Cambridge Audio 540R). I have a different receiver, but they share the ability to defeat DSP on all analogue inputs (this was important for comparing the 540D to the 540C). I configured the receiver to small front speakers, sub on (the salesperson told me the crossover is fixed in the receiver at 80hz in this setup). I configured the 540D to small front speakers and sub on (the crossover, according to a different store’s salesperson, is 80hz within the player--though I must point out that I’ve found no literature or website to confirm this, nor do I own equipment to verify this). With the receiver and player set up in this manner, I could toggle between the receiver and player via one button on the remote. I found the sound changed largely in width of soundstage. With the player doing the work, the soundstage was wider, but the lower frequency range seemed a bit more “polite”, or less pronounced than when the receiver was doing the work. I could not discern an appreciable difference in volume output, but I did not have an SPL meter on hand. I can’t say one was better than the other, just slightly different (either one might be preferable depending on the type of music being played). A salesperson (not mine) walked into the room while I was toggling and made the same observation (he did not know which device was doing the work, but I did). The DACs in the receiver and the DACs in the player are from the same company, but not the same model number.

    I then wanted to compare the 540D to the 540C, which I expected to sound better, as did my salesperson. As he was retrieving the unit (540C) to hook it up to the same system (so the speakers and listening room conditions would remain the same), he told me if I liked the 540D, I’d almost certainly like the 540C better. After all, it’s a dedicated CD player, it’s DACs are from a different company than those in the receiver and DVD player I’d been listening to, etc.
    He connected the unit to the receiver using what appeared to be expensive interconnects (I’m not convinced of the impact such cables are said to have over my Radio Shack Gold cables--but that’s for another thread). I did not examine the interconnects for the DVD player. I configured the DVD player to large front speakers, sub off, as the CD player has no bass management capabilities, and the receiver was set to analogue, front speakers large, sub off, to make things equal. Two commercially purchased copies of the same CD were used, one in each player. Playback was synchronized so that toggling back and forth between players would be as seemless as possible. As before, I was left alone in the room to listen at my leisure (the store was great in that regard--in fact, it was a great shopping experience all around). After a few minutes of listening and toggling back and forth, I found a very noticeable difference in sound. The 540D behaved as before, with a wide soundstage and good detail and clarity. The 540C, however, was a disappointment. It sounded muffled in comparison, as though I’d placed a blanket over the speakers. I went to get the salesperson and made him listen (for the first few toggles, he was unaware of the source of playback). He concurred with my observation and then I told him which was which. To say he was surprised would be an understatement.

    The difference in sound quality between the CD player and DVD player was much more pronounced than that between the receiver and the DVD player. In both cases, the DVD player seemed to generate a wider soundstage than either the receiver or the CD player. The receiver provided a subtle but noticeably stronger lower frequency response (though this might have been owing to less pronounced mids) and seemed to create a deeper, though narrower, soundstage. The CD player provided far less detail than either the receiver or DVD player and playback sounded like it was coming through some sort of obstruction placed between me and the speakers.

    So, in the end, I bought the DVD player for my CD playback. I could have used the Marantz for that, but, as I’ve stated elsewhere in various threads, I wanted two players for the purpose of having the best CD playback I could get for my dollar (the Cambridge player sounded better to me than the Marantz for CD playback) and I want to split the work between the two (hoping they each last longer) and, most importantly for me, I don’t want to be without a player in my primary system should one go down.

    Was my selection method rigorously scientific? No.
    Was my selection influence by pyschoacoustic effects? Likely, in part, but I know the sonic differences were there between the 540D and 540C. It was as detectable as the difference between my TV’s speakers and my front mains. As much as the DBT method is more rigorous, and has exposed psychoacoustic effects, I also think there are self evident differences in sound quality that can be asserted without the need to resort to such an exhaustive exercise. The differences in this case are of that nature.

    Caveats (nods to the objectivists out there):
    1--could have been a defective 540C, I didn’t use another one to compare.

    2--the receiver’s analogue pass-through doesn’t work as advertised or it has a problem with the CD analogue input. I was not equipped nor inclined to go that far into the testing.

    3--there was something wrong with the disc in the CD player. Possible, but unlikely. However, I did not swap the discs, so perhaps.

    4--I was aware, at all times, which device was used as a source. Didn’t have the time to get around that. If anything, I was biased towards expecting the 540C to be the best source, not the worst of the three. Take that for what it’s worth.

    Overall conclusion: I got the best CD sound that I could reasonably afford, on my criteria and terms, but from a surprising source. My system is now complete (save for speaker stands and a rack for equipment).
     
  2. Crocodile JD

    Crocodile JD
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    More likely it's down to the bass management issues. For analogue analysis perhaps you should have compared DVD against CD both coupled to a decent stereo integrated amp (the amp is by far what makes the biggest difference for stereo playback anyway) and not an A/V receiver??

    Croc
     
  3. Ovation

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    But the receiver's bass management was bypassed for both the CD player and the DVD player, and the DVD player's internal bass management was also bypassed, to avoid this issue. Coupled to a nice integrated amp, I think the effect would have been to improve the overall sound from each player, but I don't know how the difference between the players would change.
     
  4. Markie Boy

    Markie Boy
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    I have both the 540C and 540D in store where I work and when used with either an integrated stereo amp or home theatre receiver the general conclusion is the CD player wins for CD perfomance by a long shot. However I also believe in people liking what they hear irrespective of whether it should be technically better or not, so well done to you sir for doing an informative test!
    Markie Boy
     
  5. Ovation

    Ovation
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    As you sell Cambridge Audio gear, can you confirm (or deny) the internal xover frequency of 80 hz in the 540D's bass management? It's not a critical issue, as I won't return the machine if it isn't 80 hz, it's just that I like to know what my equipment is doing. If I have anything negative to say about Cambridge, it's that their owner's manuals are a bit "thin" and vague. (Guess I'm just used to the bricks I've gotten with my other gear over the years). Just a nitpick, though, as I love the sound.
     
  6. Markie Boy

    Markie Boy
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    Not back in work till late next week Ovation and the info has just eluded my ol' noggin, but Ill try and find out in the meantime. As for the manual, be careful what you say, one of our esteemed members writes the CA manuals.....step up sir, you know who you are!!!
     
  7. Daneel

    Daneel
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    Well done ovation. It's nice to see someone who reached a conclusion away from the accepted norm and post about it.
     
  8. cribeiro

    cribeiro
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    I would join to the claim that the CA manual is not completely clear... I know my english is by far worse than the one of the person who wrote it (I am not a native speaker...), but I found it a bit confusing and at times misleading. I was actually planning to write about it in the forum, but I have been quite busy with my PhD, and I am still... But hey, it's Friday...!
    I have bought both the Azur 640 Cd player and amp, and I am very happy with them. I was intending to post here my findings, but didn't find the time to do it... But above all, what is really a pity is the lack of cd-text. Anyway, most of all other areas are well covered!
     

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