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- Written by Sathyan Sundaram Sathyan Sundaram
- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created: 15 December 2018 15 December 2018
Call them network players, music servers, or, as London-based Cambridge Audio does, network streamers -- these devices have become an almost essential source in home audio systems, whether as a separate box or integrated into another component, particularly integrated amplifiers and CD players. In the last few years I’ve bought far more music as files than as spinning discs, and I don’t think I’m alone -- with the likes of Spotify, Tidal, and Primephonic, streaming services are becoming ever more important. All we need are elegant and effective ways to integrate these services into home audio, and having a computer in the listening room is less than ideal.
The competitive market for network players includes a wide range of prices, from two to five figures. At $899.99 USD, Cambridge Audio’s CXN (V2) network streamer sits in the middle of that range. The CXN (V2) is a nearly full-size component, measuring 16.9”W x 3.4”H x 12.2”D, that looks at home in a traditional audio rack. Available in black or silver, it weighs 7.7 pounds -- enough to stay in place for connections and button presses. Its brushed-aluminum faceplate nicely sets off a 4.3” full-color display surrounded by eight pushbuttons -- the CXN (V2) can be navigated without resort to its remote-control handset or mobile app. In addition, there are a standby button, a USB Type-A storage input, and a large, multifunction knob with appropriately weighted resistance. Instead of three or four feet, there are two circular feet in back, and in front a tapered trapezoid that runs most of the faceplate’s width -- the entire affair looks as if it’s hovering just above the shelf. In its black case, the CXN (V2) is among the better-looking devices I’ve had in for review, with a build quality you’d expect to pay more for.
Around back is an impressive array of connectivity, with both 100Mbps Ethernet and 2.4GHz Wi-Fi IEEE 802.11 b/g/n (via an included dongle), optical TosLink and coaxial RCA S/PDIF inputs and outputs, two more USB Type-A ports for storage (for that dongle), a USB Type-B for computer audio, and an IEC inlet for the power cord. Analog output is sent to both balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) sockets. System integrators can take advantage of the IR input and control bus pass-through. Bluetooth with support for aptX is available with the optional BT100 dongle ($75), and appears among the inputs when installed. I was glad that Cambridge Audio printed the ports’ labels right-side up and upside down -- they’re readable whether you’re facing the rear panel or leaning over the unit from the front.
The CXN (V2) combines two Wolfson WM8740 DACs with Cambridge’s own Adaptive Time Filtering (ATF2) and Anagram Technologies’ 24-bit/384kHz upsampling support. It can read the popular streaming formats RTSP, MMS, HTTP, and DASH, along with decoding WAV, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, WMA, MP3, OGG, DSD64, and AAC, all in non-DRM incarnations. A notable omission is MQA, but that’s not typically found at prices this low. The three most common playlist formats -- ASX, M3U, and PLS -- are also supported; it found these files deep within my DLNA server’s directory structure.
With support for so many music options, usability could be an issue but the CXN (V2) is well organized with buttons around its screen for menu selection and playback control. On power-up, the display flashes a reminder that 2018 is the 50th anniversary of the release of the P40 power amplifier, Cambridge Audio’s very first product. Then comes a menu granting access to Internet Radio, Presets, the physical Inputs, Bluetooth, and the Music Library. Interestingly, Spotify is under Inputs while Tidal is in the Music Library, alongside the DLNA server. You then navigate a text-based menu structure to dig into the sources. One thing I didn’t like was that, sitting across the room and using the remote control, I found it hard to tell which line in the menu I’d selected: the highlighting is white on dark gray, in contrast to the white-on-black lettering of the unselected items. Hopefully, a firmware update can address this.
When you’re navigating long lists -- of, say, Internet Radio stations -- you can use an interesting feature of the knob on the front panel: the faster you spin it, the faster it scrolls. With very long lists, first letters become available as an additional, overlaid menu -- you can just skip down the alphabet. Even the navigation of long lists went quickly, as the CXN (V2) has faster processing components than the CXN. The CXN included several more streaming services, such as Pandora and SiriusXM, managed through Cambridge’s StreamMagic website. Native support for these has been dropped, but they and many more services can be accessed from mobile devices and sent to the CXN (V2) via Apple AirPlay and Google Chromecast.
I connected the CXN (V2) to my network switch via Ethernet and my NAD C 356BEE integrated amplifier via an unbalanced RCA link. To the digital inputs I connected a Chromecast Audio and a Music Hall MMF CD-25 CD player, and to the USB Type-B input my current FLAC streamer, a Raspberry Pi2.
I was going to write about the setup experience, but it was so fast and seamless that there’s not much to say. I powered on the CXN (V2), which launched the setup wizard. It found my wired network -- for Wi-Fi, you’d have to select an SSID and provide a password key -- and was very quickly listening to music. I was amazed at how quickly the Cambridge found my Synology NAS. Every other configuration is optional -- or, more accurately, the default options are reasonable choices.
That said, I made a few changes. I set the Network to always use a wired connection; switched the USB Audio Class from 1 to 2, thereby enabling 24-bit/192kHz playback from Windows 10, Mac, and Linux-based operating systems with Audio Class drivers; and gave the inputs friendly names that indicated what type of devices they were connected to. It’s also possible to configure the CXN (V2)’s analog outputs as preamp outputs, for direct connection to a power amp; in that case, the big knob on the front controls the volume.
While the CXN (V2) can do much more, I see it mainly as a way to access a collection of music files. It has no internal hard drive for storage, so the music must be read from the network or a USB flash drive. The volume name of a FAT32- or NTFS-formatted USB drive inserted in the USB port -- even when CXN (V2) is running -- will be displayed under Music Library. For my listening, I used the DLNA server on my Synology DiskStation 211j NAS, which contains mostly FLAC but also some DSD and AIFF files. The CXN (V2)’s interface lets you browse by folder -- which works for well-organized collections -- but also by Artist, Album, Genre, Album Artist, Track, Smart Playlist (a rule-based list of tracks), or Playlist, as determined by the DLNA server. This classical-music fan wishes he could also browse by composer, as Synology’s AudioStation app lets me do; browsing by format/sample rate would also be helpful. But I found a workaround: build custom playlists via Python script, then queue those playlists.
I’d been using a Raspberry Pi2 ($35) running Volumio as my DLNA renderer with the same DLNA server, so some comparison is worthwhile. Without any manual tweaking, the Volumio software recognized the CXN (V2) as an Audio Class 2 device, and was able to send it FLACs of resolutions up to 24/192 for playback. During the review period I had zero problems of reliability, inconsistency, or instability with the CXN (V2) -- the Volumio, however, requires periodic reflashing, stops playback with power fluctuations, and its interface has a tendency to hang up. Beyond that, and leaving aside the Volumio’s setup process, which has improved with software updates -- you no longer need to write bash scripts and configure them as cron jobs -- anyone who can use a CD player can use the CXN (V2).
As is typical of Classical-period concerti, melodic lines were handed off fluidly between solo flutist Ana de la Vega and the orchestra on her recording of concertos by Mozart and Josef Mysliveček, with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Stephanie Gonley (24-bit/96kHz FLAC, Pentatone/eClassical). De la Vega’s delicate vibrato was rich in microdynamics in the first-movement cadenza of Mysliveček’s Concerto in D Major, and the second movement’s exposed passages for the flute’s upper range elucidated a natural, open tone where lesser DACs can begin to sound brittle. And despite the final movement’s rapidity, delicate tremolos emerged unhesitatingly over the strings, communicating a good sense of space and openness.
This openness struck me again and again as a trademark of the CXN (V2). “La Bella Cubana,” from jazz clarinetist and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera’s Grammy-winning Portraits of Cuba (24/96 FLAC, Chesky/HDtracks), elicited warm bell tones and tight ensemble in unison lines that then fell away to expose the soloist. The CXN (V2) distinguished itself with a pleasing tonality, exemplified by the sweet yet nonsaccharine sound in “Tu,” among energetic runs by the entire ensemble. It all made long listening sessions enjoyable and engaging.
This was the first review sample I’ve had in quite some time that has supported DSD files. As specified, the CXN (V2) supports DSD64 (equivalent to SACD), but not DSD128 or DSD256. When I tried to play files of the latter two resolutions, they were displayed as tracks, queued -- and failed to play. It would be better if the CXN (V2) didn’t show them as tracks available for queuing at all. As with other formats, the CXN (V2) converts DSD tracks to PCM and then upsamples them before playing them. I have few DSD64 files, but found I could play such files from NativeDSD, 2L, and Channel Classics. In “Come Away, Come Away, Death,” from Finzi’s Let Us Garlands Bring (DSD64, 2L), a minimal arrangement for voice (mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland) and piano (Sergei Osadchuk) provides stark clarity on an open, spacious soundstage. “Krambupolka,” from Gjermund Larsen’s Diplom, performed by solo violinist Geir Inge Lotsberg with Oyvind Gimse conducting the Trondheim Soloists (DSD64, 2L), makes good use of space with a racing, perpetual-motion fiddle tune over driving cello. As the medley proceeds, open tones were reverberant, sounding warm and natural.
As a DAC
The CXN (V2) can also be used as a DAC for external sources, such as a CD player or transport. Trey Henry’s bass was immersively reverberant in “What’ll I Do,” from singer Tierney Sutton’s Dancing in the Dark (CD layer, Telarc SACD-63592), and Sutton’s vibrato was well controlled. This small jazz ensemble was reproduced with subtle detail and spirited timing, particularly demonstrated by Sutton’s singing and Christian Jacob’s piano in “I’ll Be Around.” The sound was smooth but naturally so, with particular musicality in the midrange. The DAC built into my NAD C 356BEE loses microdynamic detail, the piano sounding more brittle, the voice disappearing into the mix, and Sutton’s vibrato being reduced in resonance. On the other hand, there was a bit more punch through the NAD.
I also compared the Cambridge with a more modern NAD integrated amplifier, the D 3020 V2. Kenny Barron’s piano produced a light, delicate touch in “Afternoon in Paris,” from Barron and Mark Sherman’s Interplay (24/192 AIFF, Chesky), via the D 3020 V2’s internal DAC. Sherman’s vibraphone was panned hard right, to complete a very wide soundstage. The two instruments were tightly cohesive as the players handed the melody of Barron’s “Venture Within” back and forth. Switching to the CXN (V2)’s internal DAC sent a signal that was higher in level by about 4dB. Yet, after level matching, the CXN (V2)’s DAC made the piano tone far more piano-like, with the resonances filled in; through the D 3020 V2’s DAC they’d sounded hollow, lacking punch and room acoustic.
The CXN (V2) was similarly at home with classical. It energetically delivered the complex, varied orchestral images and multiple, competing melodic lines of Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No.4, with Simon Rattle conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CD, EMI Classics 7 64737 2). The work’s first movement, written during the early stages of World War I, is chaotic and rambunctious, but the Cambridge decoded the instruments so well that I could hear their individual nuances, with a good bit of space between them. In the closing Allegro, timpani strokes were powerful and precisely timed. Overall, the CXN (V2) did a great job of extracting nuance and imaging from CDs.
The biggest problem with Internet Radio is what psychologists call the paradox of choice: there are too many options. Organization of the thousands of channels available becomes critical. With the CXN (V2), stations can be searched for by stream name/call letter, or browsed by Location or Genre. “Location” means country of origin, and with more than 10,000 results for the US alone, subdivision by state and city would have been nice. Helpfully, you can drill down using combinations of genre, subgenre, and location -- for example, Music, then Classical, then Opera, then Italy produced a more manageable list of Italian stations broadcasting opera. Nonetheless, I found it easier to identify streams on the web or using TuneIn, then search for the stream by name on the CXN (V2).
Having found a station, the CXN (V2) presents a list of streams, typically variable in quality, from which to select. Rather than go through the process every time, the CXN (V2) lets you store up to 20 presets, the first eight of which can be accessed with a single button press on the remote control. During playback, the display shows stream name, track name, bitrate, format, and, depending on the provider, station art and other metadata. While the streams of most Internet Radio stations have low bitrates, there are some better options including Linn Classical, Hi On Line Radio, and The New England Jazz Express. These stations are very listenable; I’ve taken to using Linn Classical’s 320kbps MP3 stream for background ambiance. Within the limitations of MP3, the Avison Ensemble’s rendition of Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in E Major, Spring, from The Four Seasons, with Pavlo Beznosiuk as soloist and conductor (Linn CKD 365, Linn Classical Radio), was spacious and pleasant, with a good balance of instrument sounds.
From the Spotify app on my Asus Nexus 7 Android tablet, I selected Cambridge’s Connect app and chose the CXN (V2) as the output device. That switched the CXN (V2) from the Internet Radio station it had been playing to the Spotify input -- instantaneously, the track I’d selected began to play. Track information and album art showed on the Cambridge’s front panel, which listed the format as Spotify; I was able to control the Spotify stream with the CXN (V2)’s front-panel pushbuttons, as well as with its remote control and the Cambridge Connect and Spotify apps. This was an effective and simple way to use one of the most popular music-streaming services. Hopefully, the CXN (V2) can be made to so elegantly support more such services. A cover of the Drifters’ 1960 hit “This Magic Moment,” from Lake Street Dive’s EP Fun Machine (Signature Sounds SIG 2048, Spotify), was energetic, with driving, Caribbean-flavored percussion and trumpet fanfares accompanying Rachael Price’s resonant voice. The sound quality, good enough for casual listening, was, like Internet Radio: it depended on the quality of the incoming stream.
Tidal’s HiFi service -- the $20/month tier -- is integrated into the Music Library. I found the login a bit tedious, as it must be performed using the Cambridge’s remote or its front-panel knob. A better solution would be to associate an account through the CXN (V2)’s web interface or the Cambridge Connect app. (You can log in to Tidal with Cambridge Connect, but it didn’t add my account to the device.) Once a Tidal account is associated, it behaves much the same way as a DLNA server in terms of browsing and queuing control, with a few extras. Mood, Discovery, Featured, and Rising are exploration mechanisms that won’t be needed for your own collection but might be useful with the 40 million tracks Tidal offers. Playback also mimicked that from DLNA, displaying cover art, Album, Artist, and Track information, along with Format -- reassuringly, everything I tried was 16/44.1 FLAC. As it can be hard to navigate a collection numbering in the millions of files, a useful approach is to build playlists, or use Tidal’s “Add to Collection” feature in the web player or app, which makes the album show under Favorites.
Arvo Pärt’s Kanon Pokajanen is a rich, multilayered choral work composed in celebration of the 750th anniversary of Köln Cathedral and recorded in Tallinn, Estonia, by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir led by Tõnu Kaljuste (16/44.1 FLAC, ECM/Tidal). Through the CXN (V2) it enveloped the width and breadth of the soundstage -- there was expressive dynamic range in Ode I as sopranos to the left sing dissonant, exposed motifs in Old Church Slavonic. Gradually the sound builds, advancing across the soundstage as other, deeper voices enter. These voices were mesmerizing, with sharp attacks, rounded tones, and bell-like decays. The CXN (V2) reveals Tidal HiFi as a beast wholly different from typical music-streaming services in terms of sound quality.
Cambridge Audio had sent me the CXN (V2)’s optional BT100 dongle so I could try out its Bluetooth functionality -- not just any Bluetooth adapter will work. The dongle comes with a desktop mount that connects to the USB Type-A media port on the CXN (V2)’s rear panel. This lets you move a Bluetooth radio, for example, outside the audio cabinet, for better signal reception. Once installed, Bluetooth appears as an option in the Cambridge’s Input menu. The BT100 can be paired with up to eight sources simultaneously, and supports both the mandated SBC and the higher-fidelity aptX codecs. Like nearly all Bluetooth devices, the dongle has a specified range of operation of 33’ (10m) -- it was able to pick up a signal from the Azio aptX dongle on my PC at a greater range than the NAD D 3020 V2, though both were well within the specified range. The BT100 reliably picked up a stream from 29’ away and through a wall.
I streamed Vltava, from Smetana’s Má Vlast, with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra led by Claus Peter Flor (24/44.1 FLAC, BIS/eClassical), over aptX from foobar2000. Both the WASAPI event and push modes failed, so I had to use DirectStream, which converts the signal to 48kHz. Compared to directly playing the FLAC -- for example, playing from foobar2000 with the CXN (V2) as an UPnP output target -- the image was smaller, as was the dynamic range, but much of the energy and drive remained. It’s nice to have the option of vendor-agnostic and widely supported Bluetooth, but since the BT100 costs an additional $75, there may be better choices for wireless music. But I have no complaints about this Bluetooth device.
Cambridge Audio’s original CXN was very well received, and the CXN (V2) upholds the standard set by its predecessor. It provides a simple way to add high-quality file- and stream-based music to a stereo system that can be scaled to support even a very large collection. The CXN (V2) behaves more like an audio component than a computer, in terms of its greater reliability and simple, familiar interface. It strikes a balance between having all the most critical features and guaranteeing broad usability. For the price, the CXN (V2) also provides great sound. I expect it will win as many accolades as the original CXN. Fifty years on, Cambridge Audio is still fulfilling its goal of “pure and natural sound.”
. . . Sathyan Sundaram
- Speakers -- Sonus Faber Principia 3
- Headphones -- Grado Labs SR80, HiFiMan HE-500
- Digital sources -- Music Hall MMF CD-25 CD player, Google Chromecast Audio, Monoprice HDX-401TA, Raspberry Pi2 running Volumio 2.2389
- Subscription services -- Google Play Music (via Chromecast Audio), Spotify, Tidal
- Integrated amplifiers -- NAD C 356BEE with MDC DAC2, D 3020 V2
- Power conditioner -- APC Line-R LE1200
- Mobile devices -- Asus Nexus 7, Moto G4 Play
Cambridge Audio CXN (V2) Network Streamer
Price: $899.99 USD; BT100 Bluetooth USB dongle, add $75.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor; three years if registered within 30 days of purchase.
Cambridge Audio USA
1913 N. Milwaukee Avenue
Chicago, IL 60647
Phone: (877) 357-8204, (312) 636-4817