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Cambridge Audio Azur 751BD Blu-ray Universal Player Reviewed

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Cambridge_Audio_Azur_751BD_Blu-ray_player_review_close-up.jpgOnce upon a time, there was a universal player, the Lexicon BD-30 that aspired to be the high-end alternative to the growing number of affordable universal players entering the marketplace. At $3,500 retail, the BD-30 was expensive in comparison to other universal players, but not so outlandishly priced as to warrant discarding it right away. However, trouble was afoot and it didn't take long for enthusiasts to discover that the BD-30 was the emperor's new clothes, in that it wasn't much of a high-end solution at all, but merely a dressed-up impostor. Shamed, Lexicon reeled back their excitement for the BD-30, practically killing it in the process. Many enthusiasts and journalists alike rejoiced at their victory and the great Oppo BDP-93 became the undisputed king (at the time) among universal players. The end.

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• Read more Blu-ray player reviews written by HomeTheaterReview.com's staff.
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The problem I have with the above story isn't that it's not true - well, not all of it; Lexicon did do a piss-poor job of educating consumers about what they actually did to improve upon Oppo's design, but that's not my issue. The issue I have is that Oppo came away from the fight a champion, when one could easily make the argument that even the Oppo wasn't an Oppo. You see, Oppo doesn't make the platform from which their universal players are based; they get it from Mediatek, an OEM company that also happens to supply Cambridge Audio. So while the Lexicon may have been an adaptation of the Oppo BDP-93, the Cambridge Audio Azur 751BD (751BD) reviewed here is not.

At its core, Oppo's newer, higher-end BDP-95 has more than a few similarities to the 751BD, in that they both use the Mediatek chipset, which grants them the ability to be compatible with all audio/video formats. This in turn means that some of the menus, connection options and controls are going to be similar between the two brands - though it does not mean they're the same or that one is merely a re-badge of the other.

Turning my attention solely to the 751BD reveals a fine-looking player, one that has virtually no visual similarities to the Oppo in any way, at least from its front panel. The 751BD has a deep, almost black brushed aluminum finish that looks more high-end and feels more substantial than the competition. The 751BD itself measures a little over three inches tall by nearly 17 inches wide and 12 inches deep. The 751BD tips the scales at 11 pounds, which is heavy for a Blu-ray player, though not quite as heavy as Oppo's BDP-95, which bottoms out at 16 pounds. There are manual controls across the front of the 751BD that control play/pause, stop, chapter skip and eject, as well as a single control marked "filter," which allows the user to set the curve, if you will, of the 751BD's internal DAC - more on this in a moment. There is also a front-mounted USB input that can access compatible music and movie files for playback through the 751BD. The 751BD's disc tray is located in the center, just above its narrow display window, which is clear as day and able to be read from distances in excess of ten feet.

Cambridge_Audio_Azur_751BD_Blu-ray_player_review_rear.jpgAround back, you'll find a myriad of connection options. Going left to right, these include its Ethernet port, second HDMI output, component and composite video outputs, IR Emitter, second USB input, e-Sata input, first HDMI output, dual digital output (optical and coaxial) and RS-232C port. A quick word on the 751BD's dual HDMI outputs: they're both HDMI 1.4-compliant, meaning they support 3D and can power multiple displays, which I'll get to in a moment. It also means that you can send 3D video to your 3D-capable HDTV while sending the audio to your non-3D capable AV preamp or receiver, thus extending the life of some of your components if they're not 100 percent up on the times. Above and to the right of the RS-232C port rests the 751BD's 7.1 channel analog audio outs. To the right of them are the analog stereo outputs, all of which are unbalanced. The Oppo BDP-95 offers balanced stereo outputs, as well as unbalanced ones, and also showcases its use of a fan when comparing the two universal players' back panels. To the far right of the 751BD's analog audio options is its detachable AC power cord. The 751BD's back panel is clearly and intelligently laid out and allows for easy cable management should you connect it via a single HDMI cable or in multiple different ways as I did, which I'll get to later in the review.

Under the hood, things get really interesting. The 751BD is compatible with and can play back 3D Blu-ray, DVD, CD, HDCD, DVD-Video, DVD-Audio and SACD discs. Its primary HDMI output features the Marvell QDEO video processor, which provides it with motion-adaptive noise reduction, as well as up-scaling to 1080p for legacy source material. The 751BD can decode all of the latest surround sound formats, including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. These codecs can also be sent via bitstream over HDMI to your AV receiver to decode if you prefer, or if you have an older AV receiver that cannot accept decoded Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio signals. In the audio realm, the 751BD employs five (one per channel) Wolfson WM8740 24/192kHz digital to analog converters or DACs, as well as Anagram Technologies' Q5 192kHz upsampling technology and a choice of digital filters that help tailor the DAC's overall sound. The filter can be set to linear phase, minimum phase or steep. Fans of Cambridge Audio may be thinking to themselves that much of the 751BD's analog and/or DAC capabilities seem similar to what can be found in their DacMagic DACs, and they wouldn't be wrong, for the 751BD employs a lot of the same circuitry. The 751BD also has a Pure Audio mode, which shuts down all video processing to ensure the purest audio signal. In comparison, the Oppo uses a SABRE32 Audio DAC from ESS Technology, though it only uses two, one for its multi-channel outputs and the other for its two-channel output. Lastly, the 751BD uses a switch mode power supply, as opposed to a standard toroidal transformer (like the Rotel sourced power supply in the Oppo), giving it better efficiency and a standby draw of less than a single watt.

The 751BD ships with a wireless dongle that connects to the back of the player and provides it with the ability to connect to the Internet, thus taking advantage of BD Profile 2.0 material and other features that now come standard with many Blu-ray discs. Of course, you can also access the same material via a hardwired Ethernet connection, but it's nice to see Cambridge giving you a wi-fi option, albeit with a dongle. I should also point out that the 751BD does have some internal storage in the form of 1GB of memory.

But what about price? It's true we've become more consumed with price than ever before and are willing to often get less if it means saving a buck or two. On the flip side, we're more prone to judge a product as better because of its price, which can get confusing. Thankfully, the Cambridge Audio Azur 751BD player doesn't cost an arm and a leg. Better still, it isn't that much more expensive than the Oppo BDP-95, to which it has been compared. The 751BD retails for $1,249, though I've seen it for less through legitimate dealers. At $1,249, the 751BD is only marginally more expensive than the Oppo at $999, though if you go over the feature set again, the slight up-tick in price appears justified.

Cambridge_Audio_Azur_751BD_Blu-ray_player_review_front.jpgThe Hookup
Installing the 751BD into one's system is pretty straightforward if you plan on using a single HDMI connection into either your AV preamp/receiver or HDTV. However, for the purposes of this review, I connected the 751BD to my reference system in a variety of ways, beginning with its HDMI outputs. I ran one to my Integra DHC-80.2 and another to my Anthem LTX-500 D-ILA front projector. The bulk of my review period with the 751BD was spent evaluating it via an HDMI connection to my Integra AV preamp. I should also point out that I disabled my Integra's internal video processing so as not to infringe upon the 751BD's video performance.

Next, I connected the 751BD to my Integra's CD inputs via a pair of unbalanced analog interconnects, courtesy of Crystal Cable. In order to make a true reference comparison, I used my trusty Mapleshade Clearview interconnects as well.

I also connected the 751BD to my reference DAC, the Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2, and to my affordable reference DAC, Cambridge's own DacMagic. It should be noted that the DAC-2 uses the same DAC chipset as the one found in the Oppo BDP-95. I connected the 751BD to my DacMagic in order to test the similarities and differences between the 751BD's internal DACs and the DacMagic. All digital connections were made via generic coaxial and optical digital cables.

The rest of my reference system played out as follows. I have Panasonic's TC-P50GT30 50-inch HDTV plasma, which I've had professionally calibrated to THX standards, courtesy of Ray Coronado of SoCalHT. It should be noted that Ray did a calibration to the 751BD itself for, out of the box, the image was a touch bright and the contrast too high. Calibration of the 751BD can be tackled via a disc such as Digital Video Essentials. I also used my reference Anthem LTX-500 D-ILA projector, though it was not calibrated to the same THX standard as my Panasonic plasma. My two screen choices included a Dragonfly high-contrast screen from SnapAV, as well as a Vutec Letric III with Vutec's BriteWhite (1.3 gain) material.

For two-channel listening I used Pass Lab's X250.5 two-channel amp to drive my reference Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamonds, both of which were connected either to my Integra AV preamp or to the speakers themselves using Crystal Cable. For multi-channel listening, I used my Parasound 5250 v2 five-channel amplifier, which powered three Episode 900 LCRs across the front, and my two Noble Fidelity L-85 LCRS in-ceiling speakers for the rear channels. I used generic speaker cables and interconnects for the multi-channel setup.

Performance
I began my evaluation of the 751BD with two-channel music, courtesy of Amos Lee's self-titled debut and the track "Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight" (EMI). Using the 751BD's internal DACs, Lee's vocals had a natural and organic presence to them with an immediacy that felt live. The entire midrange had a sort of sultry, sweet quality to it that was seductive without sounding recessed or veiled. The delicate piano notes hung effortlessly in space and possessed a natural sense of air and decay throughout. The subtle double bass had nice definition and texture and plumbed deep enough to ground the performance and give it a palpable edge.

Read more about the performance of the 751BD on Page 2.

continue to page two
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