Cambridge Audio’s first product, designed by Professor Gordon Edge in 1968, was the P40 integrated amplifier, which Cambridge claims was the first amplifier ever to use a toroidal (i.e., donut-shaped) transformer. While continuing to make amplifiers, Cambridge has come a long way in the half-century since then, producing CD players, D/A converters, surround-sound receivers, loudspeakers, and, more recently, network streaming devices and a 4K UHD universal BD player. They also make turntables, moving-coil phono cartridges, and phono preamps. Many of their products list for well under $1000 USD, and have earned Cambridge a reputation for providing extremely high value.
In 2018, to celebrate their 50th anniversary and honor the company’s first designer, Cambridge Audio introduced the Edge line of top-flight electronics. The Edge models comprise the Edge NQ preamplifier-network player ($4000), the Edge W power amplifier ($3000), and the subject of this review: the Edge A integrated amplifier-DAC ($5000). Though not unreasonably costly by high-end standards, the Edges’ prices are new territory for Cambridge.
I’ve always had an affinity for integrated amplifiers -- and, recently, for integrated-DACs -- for the savings in cost and the simplicity of having a single small enclosure that houses multiple components. Even so, when I saw the new Edge A integrated-DAC at High End 2018, in Munich, I was smitten with its gorgeous case and impressive specifications, and requested a review sample. After waiting for what seemed an eternity, I received a shiny new unit very well packed in a solidly constructed shipping box. I couldn’t wait to set it up in my system.
My experience with Cambridge Audio doesn’t go back quite 51 years, but in the last two decades I’ve reviewed several of their products, including a surround-sound receiver, an integrated amplifier, and DVD-Audio and universal DVD players. But while I found those products well made and offering excellent performance for entry-level components, they were nothing like the new Edge models. In fact, when I first saw them at High End 2018, I thought the Edges were one of the most significant product introductions of the show.
Unboxing the Edge A and seeing it up close in my own home didn’t change those first impressions. Measuring 18.1”W x 5.9”H x 15.9"D and weighing 53.7 pounds, the Edge A is a formidable piece of audio gear. Five grand is a lot of money for an integrated-DAC, but judging by the Edge A’s construction and feature set, you’d be forgiven for thinking it must cost a lot more.
The Edge A’s overall execution -- its high quality of fit and finish, its smoothly curving looks, its many advanced features -- is uncommonly impressive for its price. There’s a lusciously thick, curved faceplate of aluminum, and equally luxurious and dense black heatsinks that form the side panels. The rear panel is of the same thick, curved, beautifully finished aluminum as the front; these and the similarly finished metal top plate give the Edge A an almost brick-like solidity and a classy appearance. The remote control is the antithesis of the tiny, lightweight plastic handsets provided with many components these days, and which I abhor -- made of a metal similar to the Edge A’s case, it’s fairly large, and perhaps even a bit too heavy.
The Edge A’s front panel is a study in simplicity. At center is a large knob that acts as both volume control and, with its concentric ring, source selector. In the faceplate’s lower left corner is a small power button, at the center of which is a tiny LED that glows bright blue to indicate that the Edge A is fully turned on, and less bright for standby mode; complementing this at lower right is a 1/4” headphone jack. The central control knob is surrounded by nine small LEDs indicating the source selected: Incised in the front panel are labels for the analog (A1-A3) and digital (D1-D5) inputs and the Bluetooth antenna, but they’re all too small to be seen from any distance -- my aging eyes found them difficult to read even from up close.
Cambridge says that the complex control knob consists of 31 precision-milled parts. It has an extremely positive feel, and an appropriate amount of travel to adjust the volume. However, when I adjusted the volume using the remote, the knob sometimes traveled too far with a single button press, increasing or decreasing the volume too much. In contrast, using the knob to adjust the volume was a tactile treat. Cambridge describes the volume/source selection control as being fly-by-wire with the selector’s position monitored by a microcontroller unit (MCU) that switches the input relays at the rear of the amp, close to the connectors, to minimize the length of the signal path and thus reduce the possibility of electrical interference. For the same reason, the IC resistor ladder for the volume control is on the input circuit board at the rear of the Edge A, the position of the knob monitored by another MCU that selects the correct path through the ladder.
The rear panel is populated with multiple high-quality input and output jacks, with plenty of space between them. The digital inputs comprise two TosLink, one coaxial (RCA), one HDMI, and one Type-B USB. There are balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) analog inputs and preamp outputs. The IEC power inlet can be switched between 120V and 230V, and the DC input and output triggers are accessible via 1/8” jacks. There are also a switch for activating the Auto Power Down sensing circuit, an RS-232 port, and a jack for the Bluetooth antenna.
The interior of the Edge A is chock-full of neatly arranged circuit boards -- its tidy layout and high quality of construction reminded me of Bryston’s well-built, rock-solid Bryston 4B3 stereo power amp. The Edge A’s power-amp section is claimed to output 100Wpc RMS into 8 ohms or 200Wpc RMS into 4 ohms, with <0.02% THD at rated power, 20Hz-20kHz, or <0.002% THD at 1kHz at rated power, both into 8 ohms. The amplifier topology is described as class-XA, which Cambridge says is similar to class-AB but differs by “adding voltage to a traditional class-AB design, shifting the crossover point to a position where the audio distortion is not audible to the human ear,” and to be similar to Cambridge’s class-XD topology used in their 851-series amps. Judging by how warm the Edge A got in use, I suspect that it’s biased relatively highly into class-A. Its two big, stacked toroidal transformers are symmetrically opposed to cancel out magnetic interference.
In addition to its analog inputs, the Edge A’s internal DAC supports up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD256 via USB, 24/192 PCM via S/PDIF, and 24/96 PCM via TosLink; its Bluetooth 4.1 input is aptX HD capable. Although Cambridge doesn’t specify the model, the Edge A uses an ESS Technology Sabre DAC chip chosen for its “sonic merits -- not price, not specs, nor measured performance.” They go on to say, “Our justification for the choice we make is very simple -- we go with the one that sounds the most musical. Often, we find that what measures the best, or costs the most, doesn’t necessarily sound the best. The ESS DAC we chose is a good example.” I’ve heard similar things from several respected audio manufacturers. Hegel Music Systems’ H80 integrated-DAC, which I reviewed a few years ago, used an older Texas Instruments DAC chip because Hegel felt it sounded better in the H80 than did newer, more expensive chips. Anthem’s STR Integrated and my own reference preamp, Anthem’s STR Preamplifier, both use a midpriced DAC chip from AKM that sounds wonderful in both components.
Cambridge Audio warrants all Edge models for five years with registration of product; without registration, the warranty is for two years.
I used the Edge A to drive my reference MartinLogan Masterpiece Classic ESL 9 speakers, listening primarily to digital bitstreams from my Lenovo IdeaPad (running Windows 10, Roon, and foobar2000) through a Bel Canto Design mLink USB-to-S/PDIF converter connected to the Edge A’s coaxial digital input or USB input. I also assessed the Cambridge’s sound with components connected to its S/PDIF and HDMI digital inputs, and to its balanced analog inputs. Sources included an Oppo Digital UDP-205 4K UHD universal BD player, the Bel Canto mLink, and an AudioQuest JitterBug. Everything was wired with my usual mixture of interconnects and speaker cables from Analysis Plus, AudioQuest, and Nordost, and power cords and power conditioners from Blue Circle Audio, ESP, and Zero Surge. I also tried the Edge A as only a preamplifier-DAC, sending its preamp-out feed to a SensaSound TPO-7300 power amplifier.
On the edge of my seat
I first cued up the Carpenters’ With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (24-bit/192kHz FLAC, A&M/HDtracks). The Cambridge Audio Edge A’s sound was as awe-inspiring as its high quality of construction and fabulous good looks -- Karen Carpenter’s voice was supersmooth. Granted, on this album her gorgeous contralto will sound liquid and enticing through just about any system -- but with the Edge A, there was an astoundingly crystalline quality and incredible transparency that were totally breathtaking.
The brief “Overture,” by Richard Carpenter and Peter Knight, is a large-scale work for orchestra and what sounds like a chorus of multiple overdubs of Karen’s voice -- it’s pleasant but not particularly memorable. But it segues into “Yesterday Once More,” and when it did I was immediately struck by the immediacy and palpability of that voice. I replayed the song several times, just to be sure that the sound was as good as I thought it was. The first few lines of lyrics, in which Karen is accompanied mainly by Richard’s piano, had an absolutely pristine clarity through the Edge A and ESL 9s. The ultra revealing electrostatic panels of the hybrid MartinLogans tend to reveal shortcomings in upstream electronics, but with the Edge A there were few. The midrange, as evinced by women’s voices, sounded about as clean and smooth as I could have hoped for -- as did the high frequencies, which had a sparkling quality with the RPO’s percussion and brass instruments. The Edge A also exerted good control over the two 8” woofers of each ESL 9 when Karen’s drums joined Richard’s piano 0:37 into “Yesterday Once More.”
The Edge A seemingly had power to spare, and amazing timbral accuracy throughout the audioband. It was also adept at presenting a wide, well-defined soundstage with excellent imaging that made Esoteric’s remastering of Maxim Vengerov’s 1995 recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado (DSD64, Warner Classics/Esoteric), stand out. The sound of a full orchestra is of course impossible to reproduce at actual size in a living room, but the Edge A sure made this recording seem realistic in this regard -- the strings in the opening of the first movement sounded slightly distant, behind and to the left, with Vengerov’s Stradivarius more toward the front center of the stage. In Esoteric’s remastering of this recording, the delightfully nimble interplay of solo violin with the orchestral strings -- and, especially, woodwinds -- sounded sublime through the Edge A.
But the Cambridge could also really gut it out. When I cranked up “Got Me Under Pressure,” from ZZ Top’s Goin’ 50 (16/44.1 FLAC, Warner Bros./Rhino), Billy Gibbons’s wicked, distorted guitar licks were magnificently loud and biting, with perfect imaging and placement of the band’s instruments in front of me that didn’t break down even at gloriously excessive volumes. In the more subdued “La Grange,” the renowned blues-rock power trio was placed so convincingly in front of me that I felt the band was giving me a private concert. From the rockabilly twang of Dusty Hill’s electric bass and Gibbons’s Fender Stratocaster to Frank Beard’s drums keeping perfect time to Gibbons’s John Lee Hooker-esque “A-haw-haw-haw,” delivered in the perfect lazy drawl, the Edge A’s ability to reproduce the sound of this intimate but nastily rockin’ track was remarkable.
While the Edge A impressed me with its ultra-refined sound, Anthem’s STR Integrated ($4499), which I reviewed last year, could better control the low frequencies. Whether this was due to its higher power output (200Wpc into 8 ohms, 400Wpc into 4 ohms), its ARC room correction, or both, I never once thought that I needed more or better bass from the STR. For instance, Karen Carpenter’s drumming is slightly buried in the mix of “Yesterday Once More” -- a shame, as she was an accomplished drummer. With the Edge A, I thought there could have been a bit more definition and separation of each drumstroke -- this was not the case with anything I played through the STR Integrated. Using the Edge A as a preamp with the more powerful (200Wpc into 8 ohms) SensaSound TPO-7300 power amp tightened up Carpenter’s drums, differentiated them more from the other instruments, and restored much of the bass control I’m used to hearing with my MartinLogan Classic ESL 9 speakers.
Feeding the Edge A’s balanced analog inputs with an Oppo UDP-205 4K Ultra HD universal BD player instead of using its internal DAC was a definite step down in sound quality. Karen Carpenter’s voice lost some of the liquidity and air that makes it so alluring. It still sounded good through the Oppo’s analog outputs -- but through the Edge A’s digital inputs women’s voices in general sounded transcendent, as did the entire midrange. It gave me goose bumps. Although I didn’t have an aptX HD Bluetooth device, my iPhone 5 confirmed that standard wireless Bluetooth transmission worked fine with the Edge A. But except for background listening, I don’t recommend using a standard Bluetooth connection with the Edge A or any other high-end component. And unless you have a source component that includes an exceptional DAC, I recommend using the Cambridge’s digital over its analog inputs.
The Edge A’s headphone output was also surprisingly good. I don’t usually listen to headphones unless I’m on the road, but the Edge A drove my Sennheiser HD 580, PSB M4U 2, and PSB M4U 8 headphones extremely well. With the open-backed Sennheisers, the Edge A reproduced Karen Carpenter’s voice with a pleasing richness, in addition to these headphones’ usual transparency and very open sound. The headphone amp of my Oppo UDP-205, which I consider to be quite good, made the Sennheisers sound a bit thin in comparison, the voices and overall sound lacking some weight. The sound of the Edge A through headphones reminded of Arcam’s excellent-sounding irDAC-II, which I reviewed a few years ago, and which had one of the best-sounding headphone amps I’ve heard.
Postcards from the Edge
Cambridge Audio’s Edge A had very good but not great bass, and might have some difficulty driving very insensitive speakers to rock-approved levels, but for most people it will be more than enough integrated-DAC for any conceivable application. For straightforward reproduction of two-channel recordings, I’d choose the Edge A over Anthem’s similarly priced STR Integrated, for the former’s utterly beguiling midrange and sweet, extended highs. However, if I had a room with frequency-response problems, or wanted to integrate one or more subwoofers into my system, the Anthem would probably be the better choice. Otherwise, the Edge A is an outstanding integrated-DAC with the intangible, sometimes fleeting and ethereal sonic qualities of a true high-end component that will doubtlessly endear it to audiophiles.
Some might consider $5000 a lot of money to pay for an integrated amplifier-DAC. But the Edge A’s high level of sound quality, high caliber of construction, and stunningly good looks make it an extreme value for that price. The Edge A may lack streaming capabilities and the less common feature of built-in room correction, but for those looking for a purist stereo integrated-DAC, I count it among the very few that provide near-reference-quality sound for the price. I’ve added the Edge A to my short list of true high-fidelity integrated amplifier-DACs, a list that includes models from Anthem, Bryston, and Hegel. I wouldn’t hesitate to use one in my reference system.
. . . Roger Kanno
- Speakers -- MartinLogan Masterpiece Classic ESL 9
- Preamplifier -- Anthem STR
- Power amplifiers -- Anthem M1, SensaSound TPO-7300
- Integrated amplifier-- Anthem STR
- Sources -- Lenovo IdeaPad computer running Windows 10, foobar2000, Roon; Oppo Digital UDP-205 4K Ultra HD universal BD player, AudioQuest JitterBug, Bel Canto Design e.One mLink USB-to-S/PDIF converter
- Speaker cables -- Analysis Plus Silver Apex, Nordost Super Flatline Mk.II
- Interconnects -- Analysis Plus Silver Apex, Nordost Quattro Fil
- USB link -- AudioQuest Carbon
- Power cords -- Essential Sound Products MusicCord-Pro ES
- Power conditioners -- Blue Circle Audio PLC Thingee FX-2 with X0e low-frequency filter module, Zero Surge 1MOD15WI
Cambridge Audio Edge A Integrated Amplifier-DAC
Price: $5000 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
1913 N Milwaukee Ave
Chicago, IL 60647