Cambridge Audio Azur 851N £1399
This time last year, we said it takes something special to win a Product of the Year Award two years on the trot. The Azur 851N has just made it three.
A step up from the CXN, which itself takes another Award here, the Azur 851N remains an astonishingly complete, high-end hi-fi streamer – particularly if you’re in the market for one that can also perform the role of a pre-amp.
Punctual and decisive
While the CXN is an exceptionally muscular, full-bodied, detailed and enthusiastic performer for the money, the Azur 851N is all of that and more, delivering extra helpings of expression, dynamism and spaciousness.
The complex, collage-like construction of MIA’S Bird Flu is more solid and coherent through the 851N than it is via the CXN (or practically any other streamer, for that matter), while Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s The Mother has a greater sense of delicacy, openness and natural resonance.
Switch to Rolo Tomassi’s Rituals and rhythmic cadence and precision come to the fore; the track’s polyrhythmic structure isn’t lost on the shrewd Cambridge as it keeps tabs on the challenging drum beat and jagged guitars, enhancing the juxtaposition of the two without breaking cohesion. It’s punctual, decisive and quick on its feet with the fluctuating tempo.
With balance on point, there’s punch and depth down low and sparkling bite up top, with all-you-can-eat solidity fleshing out a clear, articulate midrange.
In Sufjan Stevens’ Jacksonville, cascading violins, treading keyboards and lucid banjo strumming are all wonderfully textured around his exalted, tender vocals. Trumpets soar freely through the mix, and the delicate bells never need fight for attention.
Striking a balance between power and delicacy, the Cambridge ensures there’s never a dull moment in Hans Zimmer’s
Supermarine (from the Dunkirk soundtrack). It has the punch and dynamics to up your pulse with the relentlessly building, chugging instrumental, and drives home the intense climax while ensuring the arrangement’s more pensive elements underneath are spared a thought.
Bells and whistles
At this price you expect all of the techie bells and whistles, too – and the Cambridge delivers in spades.
Three USB and twin optical and coaxial inputs join an asynchronous USB socket for your laptop, while outputs include a pair of RCAS and balanced XLRS, and single digital optical and coaxial sockets.
The Cambridge Connect app is the best way to access your networked music (up to 24bit/192khz) and gives access to thousands of radio stations. Spotify Connect and Airplay are present too, as is Bluetooth via a £70 dongle.
In all, the Azur 851N is a glitteringly brilliant hi-fi streamer that rivals are still finding impossible to beat.
The 851N has most of what you need built in, with an optional dongle for Bluetooth