The amplifier may not be the most glamorous element of the hi-fi chain, but it is most certainly crucial. At their core, amps should make little signals large, without changing their nature in any other way. Sound easy? It isn’t. There are as many ways a to design an amp circuit as there are ways to design a loudspeaker. And these days, that’s just the half of it.
The rest covers all the secondary tasks an amplifier is now expected to do. Where once there were just a few analogue inputs, now we want lots of them, and digital inputs for modern sources too, so that amplifiers are very often DACs as well (indeed once we all have digital amplifiers, the market for standalone DACs will presumably recede once more).
Cambridge Audio is a UK brand which made its modern name with some rock-solid but impressively priced amplification, one of its great early successes, the A1 (and later the A3i), coming quietly from the design board of Mike Creek (who tells us that back in 1995 he was given a whole month to design it). From such pressures do success grow, and here we have the thoroughly modern CXA80 (80 watts per channel), big brother to the CXA60. But there’s a lot more to it than a few more watts. The CXA80 is dual mono; the CXA60 isn’t. The CXA80 has a USB DAC; the CXA60 doesn’t. The CXA80 has balanced inputs; the CXA60 doesn’t.
It has a proper toroidal transformer, though this is shared by both signal paths (so not purely dual mono), and the component count in the direct signal path has been drastically reduced, adding a great many “support” components but keeping that essential direct path pure.
The CXA80 also has an interesting anti-clipping system. When pushed to deliver more than rated power, many amplifiers just do nothing about it, others put clipping indicators on the front panel which flash to alert you, still others (NAD for example) artificially ‘round off’ the edges of the waveform to minimise the audible effects (‘soft clipping’). The CXA80’s anticlipping circuit just turns the volume control anticlockwise a few notches, dropping the output level to stop the clipping — it’s a quite brilliant solution.
Meanwhile the Cambridge is loaded with inputs both analogue and digital — six analogue inputs (including an option to switch one to balanced sockets), plus two optical digital, a coaxial digital input, and two USB inputs, one B-type to play from your computer, and one A-type intended for use with Cambridge Audio’s BT100 Bluetooth dongle (sold separately for $140) which allows you to stream Bluetooth and aptX Bluetooth.
The CXA80 is an audibly powerful amplifier — its Class-AB high power output combined with the ability to drive low-impedance loads, and beautifully clean-sounding when doing so, able to deliver the intricacies of a musical performance while still sounding musical.
We were also impressed by the superb build quality (including an ALPs film type volume potentiometer) and we like the sophisticated industrial design here; even the remote control was of a very high standard, and logically laid out.
This is an amp which fits in traditional systems, but offers throughly modern connections and operation, plus high power performance. Price is $1699.
More info: www. synergyaudio.com