Cambridge Audio CXA81
Stereophile|January 2021
INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER
KEN MICALLEF

During my tenure as a Stereophile writer, I’ve reviewed a lot of integrated amplifiers. The most moderately priced integrated machines I’ve reviewed have included the Heed Audio Elixir ($1195), Luxman SQ-N150 ($2795) and L-509X ($9495), NAD C 328 Hybrid Digital ($549), Octave Audio V 80 SE ($10,500), Rega Brio ($995), and Schiit Ragnarok 2 ($1799 as equipped). Regardless of price, all these integrated amplifiers engaged my senses and made engaging, dynamic, colorful music from LP grooves and ones and zeros.

Decades ago, integrated amplifiers were full-featured beasts—and then there was a move toward minimalism, at least at the higher end. Today, things have swung back again: With some exceptions, today’s integrated amplifiers once again offer myriad extras. Today there’s more to offer. In addition to the traditional phono stage and headphone jack of decades past, today there’s Bluetooth, internal DACs, streaming, implanted mood-enhancer chips, and integrated cappuccino/latte/espresso machines—all at a competitive price point.

The Cambridge Audio CXA81 Integrated Amplifier ($1299) is a feature-rich machine. It doesn’t have Ethernet, and it lacks a phono stage and coffee machine, but otherwise, it offers everything popular with today’s music- and hi-fi– loving suburban bon vivant: a built-in DAC that converts up to 32/38 and DSD256 (delivered via DoP) files and streams. It has an asynchronous USB input, the best kind. There’s Bluetooth, which makes it easy to send music from portable devices, and because it’s aptX HD, it even sounds good. There’s headphone support and even mood enhancement, although it’s the old-fashioned way: with music.

Design

Measuring 16.9 wide, 4.5 high, and 13.4 deep and weighing just under 20lb, the CXA81 has a steel chassis and an aluminum face. It’s supported in the rear by two footers composed of natural silicone rubber and ABS, and in front by a case-wide, 1/2 black-plastic ridge finished with a long rubber strip, which created the illusion that the CXA81 was floating above the shelf on my Salamander rack. It’s a subtle but effective design element that suggests that thought and care were taken in the CXA81’s design.

The minimalist front panel concentrates most of the controls—everything but the standby/on button, the 3.5mm headphone jack, and (thank you) the large volume control knob — onto an acrylic center window with backlit LEDs: Four analog source-select buttons labeled “A1” through “A4,” a “Protection Indicator” light (which indicates clipping, over-voltage, overheating, or short-circuit), a button to toggle between A and B speaker options, a mute indicator, three digital source-select buttons marked “D1” through “D3,” a tiny button stamped with the universal sign for USB, and that large volume control knob. Sharp eyes are required to read the labels. A universal remote—included— duplicates the CXA81’s front panel controls, and then some.

The unit’s back panel is smart: Each jack is labeled both above and below, making it easy to read from most angles. On the left side, there’s an IEC power input followed by an RS232C connector, a pair of control-bus inputs (RCA), IR in, and one pair of trigger-out jacks, and two sets of speakerbinding posts with large, easy-to-grip plastic caps. On the right, there are digital inputs across the top: a Bluetooth antenna, a USB input, three S/PDIF inputs (one RCA and two TosLink). Farther down, there’s a single subwoofer out (RCA), pair of pre-out jacks (RCA), four pairs of analog inputs (RCA), and two balanced inputs (XLR).

Inside the case, the CXA81 has an amplifier section that drives nominal 8-ohm speaker loads with 80Wpc and nominal 4-ohm speaker loads with 120Wpc, in class-AB. There’s a remote control and unbalanced (RCA) and balanced (XLR) inputs; one does not often see balanced inputs at or near this price. It’s “Roon tested,” which just means that Roon tested it, and, like most DACs, it works with Roon. It doesn’t have Wi-Fi or an Ethernet connection.

Cambridge Audio literature says the CXA81 has “separate, symmetrical left and right channels.” Tony Stott, training and development manager for Cambridge Audio, elaborated via email: “It has symmetrical and separate transformer taps for the left and right channels, twin rectifiers, and separate PSUs for the power stages.”

Stott described the improvements in the CXA81 compared to the original CXA80, which was introduced in 2014: “The analog signal path has been fine-tuned after meticulous and extensive listening sessions.” Those listening tests were carried out, he told me, using PMC OB1 speakers. “The preamp section utilizes sound-oriented JRC op-amps. Tone controls have been bypassed, and both the signal chain and power supply have been upgraded with class-leading Wima, Rubycon, and Nippon Chemi-Con capacitors.”

There’s no phono stage, which is reasonable considering the CXA81’s size and price. “Space was extremely tight, and there is no way to guarantee adequate results if integrating a phono stage.”

“We recommend [Cambridge Audio’s] Alva Solo ($179, MM) or Duo ($299, MM/MC) phono stages for a performance in line with CXA81 level,” Stott said.

Setup

Considering the CXA81’s modest price, I thought my 1957 Thorens TD 124 turntable with a Jelco TS-350S MKII tonearm ($799) and Hana EL MC phono cartridge ($475) would make a good match. The Hana’s output was amplified and equalized by the Luxman EQ-500 phono stage ($7490), temporarily replacing my Tavish Audio Design Adagio Vacuum Tube Phono Stage ($1990). The rest of the system was either the Polk Audio Legend L100 or the Quad S2 stand-mount speakers (both currently $1195/pair), both supported by 24 Sanus speaker stands, BorderPatrol DAC SE ($1925), and an Asus laptop running Roon. Cabling included a Furutech GT2 Pro USB cable (3.6M GT2 Pro cable, $450), Auditorium 23 speaker cables, and Triode Wire Labs Spirit II interconnects ($339).

The lightweight, compact CXA81 slid easily into my Salamander Designs five-tier rack.

Listening

As Stereophile’s Recommended Components list attests, just because a product is built to a $1200 price point doesn’t mean it won’t pack a wallop. This held true for the CXA81, which consistently impressed me with its ability to challenge competing amplifiers in a similar price range and by how good it sounded with different speakers. The CXA81 had me uttering “wow” (several times) at its transparency to the sound of upstream electronics and recordings. When I switched between my Thorens and Kuzma turntables, for example, the difference was clear, immediate, and profound, as if there was no amp in the signal chain. For a component at this price, the CXA81 didn’t editorialize much, instead faithfully bringing forth what’s buried in the grooves and pits.

Still, the CXA81’s mien was forgiving of lesser recordings, even as it brought out the best—or much of the best—from better ones. Relative to my reference amplification components, there was some dryness at midrange and treble frequencies. The low end was solid, bass energy abundant. The CXA81 consistently created a large, atmospheric soundstage with solid images. Tonality was less saturated, less sweet, and drier than my ideal (as embodied by my far-more-expensive Shindo separates), although this dryness (and a dearth of sweetness) was apparent only on some recordings. The dynamics were good.

Spinning vinyl

Using my Thorens/Jelco/Hana/Luxman setup, I had a total blast spinning black discs through the CXA81. The two sets of speakers highlighted the amplifier’s flexibility and user- friendly appeal.

1960’s Poll Winners Three! features guitarist Barney Kessel, drummer Shelly Manne, and bassist Ray Brown in a super swinging jazz fest (LP, Contemporary S7576). A classic Roy DuNann recording, Poll Winners is flat-sounding, with great immediacy and dynamics. With the Cambridge powering the Polk L100s, the trio’s performance of “Mack the Knife” had energy, snap, and warmth. Brown’s bass sounded comfortably rich and Manne’s cymbals imaged with a pinpoint definition. The CXA81 drew the music in a large, reverberant space, with Kessel’s guitar soaring above the other instruments.

Full immersion. In the moment, I found nothing wanting. I was caught up in the music, which is the goal. The Cambridge Audio/Polk pairing was simpatico.

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