Cambridge Audio Alva ST
• aptX HD Bluetooth
• Onboard phono stage
• Great performance
• Fully manual
• Counterweight markings $1,699
Despite having been in the hi-fi business since 1968, Cambridge Audio didn’t build a turntable until after the turn of the century, with the release of the TT60. It was then over a decade before its next turntable, the Alva TT, which the company claimed was the first turntable in the world to offer aptX HD Bluetooth streaming.
It wasn’t quite so slow to release its third, the Alva TT V2, which arrived in 2022, just three years after the original. The V2 model came with a pre-installed high-output moving-coil cartridge and a built-in phono preamp, plus continued with support for aptX HD Bluetooth.
However, Cambridge Audio used 2022 to release yet another turntable, the Alva ST, which is on test here. This deck also has a built-in phono cartridge — though moving-magnet, rather than moving-coil — and a built-in phono preamp (exactly the same one used in the TT V2), as well as support for aptX HD Bluetooth (again, the exact-same circuitry). It even has exactly the same tonearm as the Alva TT V2. But this turntable does have two very obvious significant differences from its Alva TT V2 sibling.
First, it is belt-drive rather than direct-drive. And second, the its retail price is approximately half that of the Alva TT — though this has been difficult to discern since the Alva TT V2 started out at $3,699 before dropping to $3,299 and is now sometimes available on special just shy of $3k, while the Alva ST started out at $1,799 before dropping down to its current $1,699.
It turns out there is another, albeit not so obvious, significant difference: whereas the
Alva TT V2 has a platter made out of synthetic polyoxymethylene (an engineering thermoplastic also known as polyformaldehyde that Cambridge refers to as ‘POM’) that weighs in at 2.2kg, the Alva ST has a die-cast aluminium alloy platter that weighs 645g (or 930g if you include the weight of the rubber platter mat).
So what do you get for what is obviously a very significant saving? That’s what we’re all about to find out in this review...
One of the things you get for your money is a very good-looking turntable indeed, and one that not only includes a pre-installed, prealigned Audio-Technica AT-95E moving-magnet phono cartridge, a phono preamplifier, and Bluetooth aptX HD (and thus also SBC and aptX) streaming, but also a clear Perspex turntable cover (often an added-cost optional extra these days), a decent set of phono interconnects complete with earth wire, and an Ortofon ‘seesaw’ style stylus down-force gauge.
It turns out that including a down-force gauge was a not-entirely generous gesture by the British brand but actually an essential accessory for the simple fact that the counterweight on the Alva ST’s tonearm does not have any of the usual down-force markings engraved on it. OK, so it does have some lines engraved on it, but there is no indication of what these markings might mean, either on the counterweight or even in the user manual. The turntable also comes with an outboard switchmode power supply (SMPS) in the form of a plug-pack (aka ‘wall-wart’) whose lead is fitted with a standard DC power plug.
The plug-pack is designed to be universal by means of using slide-in sections of plastic fitted with different pins to suit the different wall sockets used in different countries around the world.
My Alva ST sample came with three slide-in adaptors that would enable it to be plugged in anywhere in Europe, the UK or the USA, but there was no slide-in adaptor that would work in Australian power points.
However, because I, like most Australians, have an adaptor for travelling overseas (needless to say it has been gathering dust during the past few ‘Covid years’!), it was easy enough to use this in conjunction with the Euro adaptor to get the Cambridge Audio plug-pack up and running.
Rather annoyingly, although Cambridge says the Alva ST requires a 12V DC power supply with a 2A rating, it does not reveal the polarity required for the DC socket on the rear of the turntable (tip-positive or tip-negative). Instead, the company rather unhelpfully advises that we should ‘Use supplied PSU only!’ — which is fine
until it fails, or you lose it.
In common with almost all belt-drive decks, the Alva ST’s platter is supplied separately inside the packaging, requiring you to fit it (and the belt) yourself, thereby giving you the opportunity to check how everything works. On the Alva ST you will observe that the brass drive pulley is fixed directly to the shaft of the DC drive motor, and that there is no suspension — the motor is fixed directly to the chassis. You will also see a rather weird cogged wheel that appears to be made of ABS located immediately below the drive pulley. I have absolutely no idea what the purpose of this cogged wheel might be!
As you would expect, the aluminium platter is, on its own, quite resonant — which is the very reason Cambridge Audio uses a non-resonant synthetic polyoxymethylene platter on the Alva TT V2! But once you have fitted the supplied thick rubber platter mat to the top of the platter, those resonances are no longer audible. As for the mat itself, its very thickness means that Cambridge has been able to mould a circular depression at its centre to accommodate the great many LPs whose label area is higher than their groove area. This is a very welcome and desirable nicety not often found on platter mats.
IN USE AND LISTENING
When it came to integrating the Alva ST into my system, I used only the wired connection route, and I mostly used the onboard phono preamp connected to a high-level input on my preamplifier. However, I did do a brief assessment with the phono preamplifier bypassed, just to gauge its sound quality compared to the external phono stage I usually use.
The connection method I did not use was the wireless one, for the very simple reason that the sound quality when using wires is far better than when using Bluetooth. And there’s a very simple reason for this, which is that despite what anyone might tell you, Bluetooth is a ‘lossy’ transmission medium that cannot deliver ‘CD-quality’ sound, let alone ‘high-res’ sound.
So why would Cambridge Audio fit Bluetooth in the first place, given that it’s a sonically inferior connection method? The simple reason would be that lots of people want to use Bluetooth
(and I can certainly see the attraction), so the company is simply meeting consumer demand. What are those attractions? First, it means you can put the turntable anywhere you like (though obviously you still need to provide power) so, for example, you could put it out of the way of curious toddlers. Second, it means you can send the turntable signal to any Bluetooth speaker(s) within range or listen to the spinning record via a pair of Bluetooth-equipped wireless headphones. Although I am still a cable hold-out (unlike my wife and one of my two children), I have to admit that aptX HD has a suciently high bitrate (576kbps) that it can sound pretty good (though if you were wondering what type of bitrate you would need to deliver CD-quality audio, think along the lines of 1,441kbps!)
Turntable operation is straightforward. The ‘Power’ button located between the ‘33’ and ‘45’ buttons has an LED inside that glows dimly when power is available. Press it and the LED glows brightly, but the platter does not rotate. Initiating platter rotation requires you to also press the ‘33’ or the ‘45’ button. When you do this, the platter starts up, but unlike some turntables, whose lights flash on and o until the required rotational speed is acquired, this does not happen with the Alva ST — there is no indication of when it’s actually rotating at the required speed. That said, it comes up to speed so quickly that a visual indication would be a superfluous inclusion.
When I started playing my very first LP on the Alva ST, it was immediately obvious the platter was spinning way too fast and for a moment I could not work out what I’d done wrong. I even tried turning the active and neutral pins on the power adaptor the other way around just on the o chance. Eventually, I thought to check I had fitted the belt to the drive pulley correctly (which with the benefit of hindsight was probably the first thing I should have done!) and discovered that the flat belt was curved over the upper rim of the drive pulley, rather than sitting down where it should be, between the two rims. This must have been my mistake when initially fitting the belt — a mistake I’ve never made previously, which is perhaps why I didn’t think of it at first. However, it
... what makes it stand out from the crowd of competitors at this level is that it just oozes class
could also be to do with the design of the pulley itself, so I would advise that after you have fitted the belt, you should rotate the platter by hand — for multiple revolutions — to make absolutely certain it is sitting where it should be on the pulley, before fitting the rubber platter mat.
Once I’d fixed my belt placement error, the same LP played at the correct speed, so I used it for the specific reason I’d put in on in the first place, which was to see if I could hear any wow and flutter. That LP was one by Dutch pianist Jeroen Van Veen in two different versions (both of which are on a double-LP set pressed by Brilliant Classics) titled ‘Erik Satie Slow Music: Gymnopedies, Gnossiennes, And Other Works.’ Van Veen achieves a sublime perfection in the
Gymnopedies in particular that eludes most pianists.
I suspect his success might be due to the fact he is not only a composer too but also considered by many experts to be one of the leading exponents of minimalism in the world today. These traits, along with him being a great pianist, are obviously what’s required to make this music sound its best! And when I say ‘minimalist’, if you look at the score for this work you will see that it’s almost blank, with some spaced-out chords that don’t require much of a finger-stretch and then only crotchets everywhere else — there’s not a quaver to be seen, much less a hemidemisemiquaver. All of which would seem to suggest that the work is easy to play. But appearances can be deceptive — it’s actually exceedingly difficult to make the notes flow, as many good amateur pianists have discovered to their chagrin.
On this album, van Veen stretches the concept of slowness to the extreme, and yet despite his incredibly slow tempi, I did not hear any wow or flutter effects that could be attributed to the Alva ST. This will mean that you won’t hear any wow or flutter when playing any other music styles either, because if you can’t hear wow and flutter with slow piano music, you’ll never — ever! — hear it with any other type of music.
So far as speed accuracy is concerned, I’d recently had my piano tuned, and when I played the same chords as van Veen, they were in perfect tune with those on the album, so all good on this score as well!
But it’s not only speed accuracy and rotational instabilities (wow and flutter) you have to worry about with turntable playback; one also has to consider whether the motor and/or the platter bearing are generating any low-frequency noise (rumble) that could be added to the music. To test for this I use a special test record that is completely silent: it has no music recorded on it at all. Using this LP, all I heard was silence — there was no mains hum or unwanted low-frequency noise. So another tick on the scoreboard for the Cambridge Audio Alva ST.
Sonically, it was immediately obvious why Audio Technica’s AT-VM95E is one of its bestselling cartridges and has been identified by one UK magazine as “one of the best-selling cartridges of all time” — and thus, no doubt, why Cambridge Audio selected it for use for the Alva ST. It has a smooth, rich sound quality that makes for very easy and very enjoyable listening, particularly on well-worn records. It
Sonically, it was immediately obvious why Audio-Technica’s AT-VM95E is one of its best-selling cartridges
not only sounds very good but also tracks very well, coping very nicely with all the LPs I use to test tracking, as well as performing decently on a Shure Trackability Test Record.
The Cambridge Audio Alva ST/AT-VM95E combo delivered all the songs on Neil Young’s wonderful ‘Harvest’ smoothly, fluidly and very musically, particularly on its most inappropriately named track, The Needle and the Damage Done (note that I say ‘inappropriately’ only within the context of this test because the AT-VM95E tracks so beautifully that it will do your albums no harm at all). All the songs on this particular album — not least the title track, Heart of Gold, as well as Alabama and Old Man — are amongst Young’s finest works, but if I were to pick his best three ever they would be Helpless, After the Goldrush and Only Love Can Break Your Heart. And for the best versions of the first two, I’d put k.d. lang’s covers of them (which are both contained on her album ‘Hymns Of The 49th Parallel’) way above Young’s originals.
For the best version of the Only Love track, you need only listen to Rickie Lee Jones’s cover of it on her album ‘The Devil You Know.’ Michael H. Smith (The Vinyl District) wrote of her cover: “Guitar, some organ, piano, and the barest of backing vocals give Jones the space she needs to slowly destroy you, if you’re hurting or have ever been hurt by a lover.”
On Mary J. Blige’s No Drama, the Cambridge Audio Alva ST turned in a cohesive and musical performance with a surefooted and robust presentation that remained unflustered even as the song became more demanding. All of the finer details in the work were clearly audible and the music was rendered with a lovely composure, though this was perhaps partly because it the extreme highs were just a little rolled-off in level.
In order to test the AT-VM95E’s ability to deliver the sound of a massed orchestra, which would require the cartridge to demonstrate its tracking ability when fitted to the Alva ST’s tonearm, I span up Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 and the pair did an outstandingly good job of rendering this mighty symphony’s scale and power. The extraordinary orchestral dynamics were delivered fluidly and in their entirety, while at the same time the resolving power of the combo was such that I was easily able to follow the subtle instrumental strands that help culminate the climactic moments.
Some might argue that the Audio-Technica AT-VM95E cartridge is not an ideal price-match for the Alva ST for the simple reason that it retails for around $80. There is a simple solution for this, which is to replace the VM95E stylus in the cartridge with an AT-VM95EN stylus that retails for around $200.
The cantilevers on both versions are fitted with elliptical diamonds, but the diamond on the ‘EN’ version is nude-mounted directly to the cantilever, whereas the one on the ordinary ‘E’ version is glued onto the end of a metal shank that is itself glued into a hole in the cantilever — a technique called ‘bonding’.
The Audio-Technica AT-VM95’s platform is extraordinarily flexible because the company also makes other compatible styluses for it that have conical diamonds and nude-mounted Microline (ML) diamonds. This means that you could insert one of the cheaper ‘C’ or ‘E’ styluses into the cartridge body when playing worn or scratched vinyl, and reserve your ‘EN’ stylus for your more pristine LPs. Furthermore, if you wanted to make a digital copy of a brand-new LP, you could buy and briefly swap in an ‘ML’ version specifically for that purpose.
The fact that swapping styluses in and out of the AT-VM95 cartridge body is so quick and easy made me wonder why Cambridge Audio had bothered to use a tonearm with a removable headshell, since if you stick with the AT-VM95 platform you’ll likely never have need to remove the headshell, and other things being equal, a tonearm with a fixed headshell will always outperform one with a removable headshell.
Yes, the Cambridge Audio Alva ST performs very well and is certainly great value for money — and even more so if you would otherwise have needed to buy an external phono stage and/or a Bluetooth transmitter. But what makes it stand out from the crowd at this level is that it just oozes class. The Cambridge Audio Alva ST looks fantastic for the money, so it won’t only be a pleasure to own but you will also be proud to put it on display in your home.
Brand: Cambridge Audio Model: Alva ST
Warranty: Five Years Distributor: Synergy AV Address: 107 Northern Road, Heidelberg West, VIC 3081
T: (03) 9459 7474
E: email@example.com W: www.synergyaudio.com
Readers interested in a full technical appraisal of the performance of the Cambridge
Audio Alva ST Turntable should continue on and read the LABORATORY TEST REPORT published on the following page. Readers should note that the results mentioned in the report, tabulated in performance charts and/ or displayed using graphs and/or photographs should be construed as applying only to the specific sample tested.