A veteran of AVRev.com, Jim Swantko also wrote home theater and audiophile component reviews for HomeTheaterReview.com in the early days of the publication. His focus was on mid- to high-end audio brands like Mark Levinson, Classé, Noble Fidelity, Cary Audio, MartinLogan, and Paradigm.
If you are like most consumers, your audio/video library contains a myriad of small silver discs comprised of the elderly Compact Disc, the middle-aged but graying digital videodisc and the new kid on the block Blu-ray. You may even have some of the more obscure but excellent formats such as SACD, DVD-Audio, DTS CDs or even HDCD. With this in mind it has become more necessity than luxury to own a universal player that can play them all. The $699 Azur 650BD is the first universal player from Cambridge Audio and promises to make the most of any disc you ask it to play.
The 650BD was designed to accompany their Azur 650R 7.1 receiver and therefore shares its decidedly high-tech styling. The visual highlight of the unit is the thick, brushed aluminum face, which adds a bit of high-end cache and helps the Cambridge stand out among its competitors. The handsome face is logically laid out with buttons clearly labeled with bright white text that is not only extremely legible, but also adds to the visual impact. The left side of the face contains a power button and a USB port. The disk tray and display are stacked in the center. The Cambridge utilizes a bright blue display centered on the face for all the relevant information that one comes to expect. The display is bright enough to be read from across the room without strain, even in a well-lit room. To the right of the display are buttons for tray access, play/pause, stop and track/scan forward and back. All buttons have a solid feel although the disc tray could be a bit sturdier.
Turn the unit around and you'll find all the expected video connections including HDMI 1.3c, composite video, S-video, and component. A pair of digital outputs in coax and optical are available should you use an external DAC or external AV processor/preamp. Somewhat unexpectedly, you will find an Ethernet port, even though this player does not allow streaming of content like some of its competitors do. This port is for BD Live, which allows the user to access interactive features with some Blu-ray disks. Rounding out the rear panel are the 7.1 analog audio outputs and another USB port.
Overall, the Cambridge Audio 650BD has a feel of quality and rates high on the pride of ownership scale. In comparison, some of the 650BD's competitors feel downright flimsy and disposable. Yes, you can get a pretty capable Blu-ray player for $150 at Best Buy or from an online retailer, but they don't instill the feeling of quality that an audiophile or enthusiast will want. This player does just that.
The competition in this "added value Blu-ray" market category is respectfully tough. Consumers will likely cross-shop with the Sony PS3 which offers streaming content from Netflix as well as being a gaming machine. I would be remiss to leave Oppo out of the mix as well. I'm sure many of you are wondering if the Cambridge 650BD is simply a re-badged Oppo, which is the case for other manufacturers. I asked this question to Cambridge and was told straight up that it was not. In fact, I was told, "We (Cambridge) have zero, none, nada, zip relationship with Oppo." There are some common components however, as both use the Mediatec video processors as their cores; as does nearly every other Blu-ray player that offers SACD / DVD-Audio / Redbook CD. There are also differences such as higher quality casework, AC power supply implementation, different resistor and capacitor suppliers and a remote, which operates other Cambridge devices. Menu and rear panel configurations are identical; however as these are Mediatec elements. Hopefully this clears up any confusion on this somewhat confusing topic as the forum guys specifically make a big issue out of these topics.
The Cambridge player arrived securely packed in double boxes and form fitting Styrofoam supports for the unit, and the internal box. I was a bit disappointed to see that no cables were supplied with the unit. It did however include a very sleek silver remote control, which was very intuitive in the hand. As mentioned previously this remote will also control basic functions on the matching Cambridge receiver such as volume, power and source input. These thoughtful features came in extremely handy and I see the advantage of buying products designed for each other as these obviously were.
The Cambridge 650 BD was powered up through an Audioquest NRG-5 power cord, which was fed from an Audio Magic Stealth power conditioner. The power for the Stealth is from a dedicated 20 Amp circuit which is only used for digital components. The Blu-ray content was sent to the aforementioned Cambridge Azur 650R 7.1 receiver via an Audioquest HDMI cable, then on to my Sony SXRD 60 inch 120 Hz display. The surround speakers were five Focal Dômes along with the matching Focal subwoofer, all using Audioquest cables.
I began my review of the 650BD with two-channel CD "Redbook" playback. I started with the catchy "California Gurls" from the Teenage Dream (Capitol) album by Katy Perry. What I first noticed, after looking lustfully at the sexed-up picture of Ms. Perry on the cover, was the powerful bass that the 650BD kicked out compared to other players. The drum bass kicks were deep and taught. When accompanied by the bass guitar licks - the song really grooves even if it appeals more to teenagers. Perry's vocals were well placed and centered high and slightly forward from my speakers creating a realistic soundstage. I was hoping however for just a bit more width and depth having been spoiled by my reference, and nearly ten times more expensive, Esoteric DV-50 universal player (which you will note doesn't play Blu-ray discs). Perry's voice was recreated with sultry warmth and life-like rasp. Cymbals were well extended and maintained excellent separation and clarity while never developing an edge. The performance of the Cambridge exceeded my expectations from a unit at this price point.
Next up was the quadruple Platinum hit "Hey, Soul Sister" from the album Save Me, San Francisco (Columbia) by Train. From the instant the track began, I knew I had something good spinning in my review player. It begins with a lone Ukulele that is placed high in the soundstage and is etched with the precision of a scalpel. Shortly after, the smooth voice of Patrick Monahan arrives on the scene and the 650BD placed it forward of the speakers and the Ukulele. The bass drum was reproduced with both weight and speed; snap may be the most accurate term. The various cymbals all maintained their individuality, were easily discernable, and most importantly - musical. At this point, I noticed the button on the remote marked Pure Audio and discovered it was designed to improve analog output performance. I'm usually a skeptic with these types of features and rarely hear much of a difference when enabled. In this case however, the improvement was substantial, producing a distinct sharpening of the audio image. Imagine a foggy day versus a clear sunny day. Well, maybe it's more like an overcast day, but I hope you get the idea; I will leave the quantification to you. With Pure Audio engaged, instruments were more clearly defined, vocal locations easier to identify, and bass performance tightened significantly. After an email to the Cambridge folks I was able to determine what exactly is taking place within the unit when the Pure Audio mode was activated. In a nutshell Pure Audio turns off all video processing, video output as well as turning off the front display. These changes significantly decrease noise and reduced the power supply load so there is more available for the dedicated audio circuitry. It's very slick feature and just plain works. Needless to say this feature was engaged from this point forward.
After a few traditional 16/44.1 resolution CDs, I decided to see how the 650BD would react to a higher resolution format and cued up "Freddie Freeloader" from the Miles Davis classic album Kind of Blue (Columbia) on SACD. This is where things got really interesting, as I was not prepared for just how good the Cambridge would sound with HD-level content. The centerpiece of the track is obviously the legendary performance of Miles Davis. The 650BD brought the trumpet to life with clarity, openness and palpable texture in ways other players can't do without costing many times more. When Wynton Kelly makes a cameo appearance on the record with his piano set far left of center, the detail was such that every hammer impact was easily discernable along with the associated note it produced. Wonderful imaging enabled his playing to cross the soundstage and pass well over my right shoulder. It was not a stretch to close my eyes and visualize the performers. For SACD content the 650BD punches way above it's weight class and came dangerously close to my Esoteric that had a slightly larger soundstage and bass that dug a bit deeper.
Having developed a firm grasp on the musical capabilities of the Cambridge unit I turned my attention to its primary role as a Blu-ray player and cued up The Dark Knight (Warner Brothers) on Blu-ray disc. From the opening second of the film I noticed a subtle, yet relevant difference from my current Blu-ray source, the venerable Sony Playstation3. As the camera glides across the rooftop of the bank toward the mirrored high-rise where Joker's men prepare to launch their zip-line, there are vertical bricks circling the top of the elevator penthouses. I watched those bricks on the right penthouse and realize the PS3 had a difficult time keeping up with the camera's motion in relation to these bricks. The result was a jumpy, pixilated rendering that may not be obvious to most viewers; however it annoyed me. My eye seems to be drawn to anomalies like this so the fewer there are the happier I am. I was very pleased to see the 650BD do a much better job of keeping it real, literally. The motion was smooth and the bricks maintained their individual appearance rather than a smeared image of rectangular shapes. I also noticed that the reflections of the neighboring buildings on the mirrored high-rise building had more pop on the 650BD. The color of the school bus that served as the Joker's getaway vehicle also appeared washed out when compared back to back with the Cambridge. I performed this comparison by loading my personal copy into the Cambridge, and a Netflix copy into the PS3. I cued them up at the same time and was able to switch back and forth at will. From what my eyes were telling me the Cambridge was able to kick out black which was just blacker than the PS3 was able. The improved contrast paid dividends in every type of scene I compared, from bright daylight to shadowy dusk, they all looked better on the 650BD. A pleasant unexpected benefit was that not only did it make for a more stunning visual experience, but also reduced eye fatigue of which I am particularly sensitive. I had no intention to turning this into a battle of Cambridge versus Sony - although considering the sheer number of PS3s in homes, I thought it might be appreciated to catalog what, if anything, your extra dollars bought you in terms of performance.
Next up was Crazy Heart (Fox Searchlight), a film which was somewhat unknown until it racked up two Oscars, including Best Actor in a Leading Role for Jeff Bridges. The story follows Bad Blake, an alcoholic country music star well past his prime grinding a living out of playing in dives and even bowling alleys. As Bad travels between gigs across the southwest he encounters some of the most stunning scenery the southwest has to offer. The Cambridge does the New Mexico landscape proud, creating an infinite palette of oranges as the sunsets on the passing mountain vistas. Simple panoramic scenes of wide-open prairies and winding blacktop create unforgettable images, all displayed in stunning high-definition richness. The music is surprisingly good considering Bridges does his own singing, and is excellently recorded. The 650BD did a convincing job of letting you hear what a lifetime of hard living will do to a man. In Bad's case, what you hear are vocal cords that must be the texture of sandpaper, probably 80 grit, and a healthy dose of Marlboro tar. This makes for a shockingly believable character from an unlikely actor.
Overall, I was quite impressed with the Cambridge 650BD. It performed admirably with two-channel Redbook CD, spectacularly with SACD, and created some of the most stunning Blu-ray images I have seen. It loads Blu-rays extremely quickly and never produced even the slightest operational hiccup.
Competition and Comparison
The Blu-ray player market is one of the most fluid segments in the A/V marketplace today. New products are announced at a dizzying rate, and they occupy several distinct price points. The most common point of entry is the very popular Sony Playstation 3, which not only plays Blu-rays but is also a wonderful gaming console. While not the high end player that the Cambridge unit is - the PS3 deserves kudos for being upgradable from profile 1.0 to 3D performance.
A Blu-ray player tailored more for the audiophile is the $899 Oppo BPD-83 Special Edition that offers higher quality DAC's for better two-channel audio performance. High-end manufacturers are also in the Blu-ray game such as Lexicon's highly controversial but beautifully crafted BD-30. To learn more about Blu-ray players and or see more player reviews click here for more resources.
Read The Downside and Conclusion on Page 2
The Cambridge kicks butt with HD content but compared to other players, its Compact Disc playback was good but not quite as impressive as its HD disc brethren. Granted you need to start looking at the big bucks, audiophile players to get a lot better CD performance and most if not all of those don't play Blu-ray.