The AX and CX series from Cambridge Audio cover a wide range of prices and use cases. I thought it would be interesting to look at the various models in these two series to help you understand which ones might be the best fit for your system.
Founded in 1969 by some budding engineers at Cambridge University in the UK, the company has always been about making high-value products that do not alter the incoming signal’s sound. The Cambridge Audio team will spend countless hours evaluating the parts used in their designs to pick the ones that sound the most neutral.
Two of their core values have been to use toroidal power transformers and keep the signal path as simple as possible. They pioneered the use of toroidal power transformers with their very first integrated amp. The audio world followed suit as almost all high-performance audio gear makes use of toroidal power transformers.
Cambridge Audio also makes excellent use of something we love to see in audio components, trickle-down technology. The Cambridge audio engineering team set a goal of creating a new line of the best sounding gear they could, with the price being a distant concern. This resulted in the highly acclaimed EDGE series. Much of the new technology from EDGE was incorporated into the new AX and CX models. These new technologies would not even have existed to incorporate them into the new AX and CX models if they never made EDGE.
First, I’ll go over the things both product ranges have in common. With four models in each lineup, I thought it was pretty neat that Cambridge Audio decided to give both series the same cosmetic appearance, so you can easily mix and match them. All eight products come in a new lunar gray finish and have a floating look from the front. All of the amplifiers and the receivers use their classic toroidal power transformer for better sound.
Another classic Cambridge trait I love is how they print all of the labels on the back, both right side up and upside down. The first time you lean over the end of a component to try to make a connection, you’ll have a great appreciation for this nuance.
The amps and receivers in the CX and AX series all use very high-quality speaker binding posts, which is pretty amazing to see on something as inexpensive as a CXA35. The front panel layout is also super clean and comfortable to figure out. As I said, they match in color, but the layouts are done in the same style to make mixing and matching within the lines no issue from a cosmetic standpoint. Let’s look at the different models to help you find the best match for your system.
Cambridge Audio AXA35
The AX models replaced Cambridge Audio’s acclaimed topaz series, which had won tons of press for being such a tremendous audio value. It got a completely new look and a lot of tech from their more expensive models. The AXA35 is an entry-level integrated amp, but by no means is it entry-level sound. While this amp is rated at 35 watts per channel, its massive power supply makes it sound a whole lot bigger than you would think. This is the perfect product for someone stepping up in their first separate analog audio system. There are no digital inputs on the AXA35, but it comes with a very decent built-in moving magnet phono preamp. You also get four more rear analog inputs and even record out for those going retro with an old-school cassette deck.
The front panel offers up a real headphone amp and another mini plug analog input. Bass, treble, and balance controls can be accessed via the menu or remote. This is the perfect amp to pair with a good set of bookshelf speakers to create an excellent starter analog audio system. With plenty of inputs for other sources, you get the excellent Cambridge Audio British sound.
Cambridge Audio AXR stereo receiver AXR85
The two AXR units are stereo receivers, which means they are an integrated amp with a built-in AM/FM tuner. The AXR85 takes all of the great features found in the AXA35 and gives you a power section rated at 85 watts per channel. To accomplish this, the physical chassis did get almost twice as tall, so you’ll have more space taken up than the sleek AXA35 does. But you’ll get in return better dynamics and, to our ears, more bass impact. The phono preamp is the same as the one in the AXA35, and the addition of a Bluetooth receiver is a pretty big bonus for streaming from a smartphone. There’s one less analog input on the AXR85 compared to the AXA35. You lose the charging USB port on the back. But the tone and balance controls remain as well, along with the record outs for a cassette deck.
You’ll also get the ability to have two pairs of speakers connected to the AXA85 with switching for either a, b or a+b. This unit is truly one of the audio world’s jewels with its feature set and classic Cambridge sound. It’s so good you can take the money you save and spend a little more on speakers to get more bang for your buck.
Cambridge Audio AXR stereo receiver AXR 100
The significant advantage of AXR100 is the addition of digital inputs. Everything else is identical feature-wise to the AXR85. It has two Toslink and one coaxial digital input. While it’s rated at 15 watts more per channel, that is up to 100watts. I didn’t experience a huge difference in perceived power output or performance. The DAC in the AXR100 is high resolution capable, so it’s likely to sound better than the digital stage of an older CD player you might want to use with it. If your CD player streamer or TV has digital outputs, we recommend using the DACs and the AXR100 for most cases. The bottom line here is if you need the digital inputs, get the AXR100. But if not, the AXR85 is the best value.
Cambridge Audio AXC35 CD player
While vinyl sales have now surpassed cd sales, there are still lots of CDs out there in the market, and it’s getting kind of hard to find high quality, reasonably priced cd player. That is one reason why we love the little AXC35. This is a simple to use single-disc CD player with reasonably high-end Wolfson DACs and gapless playback. It even has digital out should you wish to use it as a CD transport with an even better DAC like you might find in the CX series gear. Since this styling matches either series, you can pair it up with the CX series, and it will look like a matched stack of components. This unit has an excellent warm sound with no trace of digital edge.
Cambridge Audio CX Series
Next up is the CX series. The CX series has been around in the Cambridge lineup for years. Their latest versions offer refreshed cosmetics and internal updates when they created their top of the line award-winning edge gear. These units are all about stripping back anything. Some might consider extras to allow their engineers to focus purely on creating the best possible sound for the money. When you compare the CXA61 or CXA81 to the AX series, you get a far more significant power supply and a much more stout power amp section. These amps can drive just about any speaker load except for the most demanding speakers.
Cambridge Audio CXA61
The CXA61 has a lively sound that will pull you deep into the music. Input wise you get four analog inputs on the rear plus a mini-plug analog on the front panel. There are one coaxial digital, input two Toslink digital inputs, and a USB digital input for computer audio. The DAC Cambridge audio chooses for the CXA61 is an ESS SABRE ES9010k2m. This is a DAC capable of high-res audio. Bluetooth gets upgraded to APTX hd for better audio performance. Compared to the AX series, you do lose tone controls and the phono preamp. When you get into this amp quality, Cambridge Audio feels you would prefer to have a separate phono preamp. I agree on the phono preamp, but I would have liked to have seen the tone controls stick around. Cambridge Audio claims that they put the money those circuits would have cost towards better components in the signal path. You’ll also get a preamp out, subwoofer out, and two sets of speaker connections for a, b or a+b.
When I first heard the CXA61, it felt just right. You’ll experience a much better sense of dynamics and bass impact compared to the AX models. The music sounds like it’s coming from a quieter background. When you’re sitting right in front of your speakers, the stereo soundstage is also much more significant and broader. Of course, this model is twice the cost of the most expensive AX model, so it should be better. If you have decent speakers, you’ll quickly hear the improvement.
Cambridge Audio CXA81
The big deal on the Cambridge Audio CXA81 over the CXA61 is a jump in the DAC section. Cambridge Audio chose the ESS SABR ES9016k2m, feature-wise other than the DAC upgrade. You get one set of balanced audio inputs and an even more robust power amp section. Otherwise, the units are identical from an input-output standpoint. The CXA81 has a warmer, more refined sound than the CXA61. Some people may prefer the more upfront sound of the CXA61, but I like the extra subtle details and an improvement in what feels like more effortless sound quality. The amp sounds bigger than the extra 20 watts per channel. This guy has guts and can drive some pretty tricky speaker loads with ease.
Cambridge Audio CXC
The CXC is what is called a cd transport. The difference between a CD transport and a full CD player is that a transport does not have a digital-analog conversion section or analog audio outputs. It merely pulls the digital stream off the disk and sends it to the coaxial or Toslink digital outputs on the unit’s rear. You may wonder why would Cambridge Audio just not go ahead and make a complete CD player? Well, if you noticed, both the CX integrated amps have excellent DACs already inside. Cambridge made the great decision to put more money into better transport and leave the Digital – Analog conversion to their products with excellent DACs.
Cambridge had already developed a state-of-the-art CD driver known as their S3 Servo for their high-end AZUR series. This is the same drive in the CXC. It has levels of jitter rejection and error correction that you might see in multi-thousand dollar CD drives. They also designed the chassis to be very well isolated so that external vibrations that could affect performance are minimized. You will just not find better CD transport out there for under two thousand dollars in our opinion.
Cambridge Audio CXN V2
The CXN V2 is a network streamer and is by far our most popular Cambridge Audio component, as it can be used in just about any high-performance audio system. You can pull music files from your network, an attached USB drive, and Chromecast or Airplay 2. Bluetooth is an option with an adapter, but it’s unnecessary with both Chromecast and Airplay. Computer audio is also ready to go with a high-end USB input. The free Cambridge audio stream magic app has been around for years, and it’s continually getting upgraded and offers an excellent free interface for your smartphone or tablet. The CXN V2 also gets you into the high-performance streaming services of Qobuz, Tidal, and Spotify Connect built-in. Being software-driven, the CXN V2 can benefit from future upgrades, and Cambridge Audio just did one we’ve been asking for.
The CXN V2 uses dual Wolfson WM8740 24-bit DACs. These are even better than the ones in the CXA81. But if you wanted to use it as a streaming source with a very high-end multi-thousand dollar DAC, it gives you both Toslink and coaxial digital outputs. Cambridge Audio also understands you may have more digital sources you want to run through the unit. So they give you a coaxial and Toslink digital input. For connecting it to your integrated amp or preamp, You have both balanced and RCA outputs. The final icing on the cake is that you can set up the CXN V2 to have either fixed or variable output. This means you could use it in the fixed output mode to run into your integrated amp or preamp. But if you just wanted a digital-only system, you can connect it directly to a power amp. The CXN V2 is just flat out an incredible product for the money. You can use it with any system and in a variety of ways.
I hope this overview has given you a better understanding of the AX and CX products. They cover a wide range of prices and possibilities, and I am happy to discuss which route is the best choice for your system.
The AX gear is excellent for the music lover just starting, while the CX gear can quickly satisfy someone looking for even more performance. I also highly recommend people looking for outstanding performance not write off the CX gear because it costs less than they would expect to pay for great sound.