Cambridge Audio Azur 751BD Universal Blu-ray Player Review

March 10, 2012

Regular readers will know that I advocate keeping a CD or SACD player in your system even if you have moved all of your CDs to a music server. The reasons for this are many, primary among them psychological. I believe you are more likely to actually listen to the music if you go through the ritual of selecting a disc, sitting down and reading the liner notes and focusing on the music at hand than if you just cue it up on your computer screen. I think it is one of the reasons why vinyl aficionados enjoy their LPs so much. I say that having ripped my entire CD collection to iTunes in 2005, and having a half a dozen years to consider the subject. I also have been without a CD player since 2008, and regret having sold my Meridian 506. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but turned out to be a mistake. The bright side is that I am now in the market for a replacement.

I reviewed the Arcam FMJ CD17 CD player several months ago and came away favorably impressed. However, I do have some SACDs and DVD-As in my collection and thought it would be interesting to explore the possibility of using a universal Blu-ray player as the disc spinner in my two-channel system. Daniel Jacques at Audio Plus Services, Cambridge Audio’s North American distributor, recommended I give the Cambridge Audio Azur 751BD ($1299) an audition, and sent one along to me following its introduction at CEDIA 2011.

The front panel of the Azur 751BD is straight forward and well laid out. On the left side is the power switch, the IR sensor, a USB port covered with a plastic plug (which undoubtedly will soon be mislaid) and a switch implementing your choice of digital playback filters and corresponding indicator lights, about which I’ll have more to say in a moment. The drawer and display occupy the center section. The drawer mechanism itself is smooth and quiet, unlike most others in this price range which tend to be clunky. The display tells you everything you would ever want to know about the disc in play, though honestly, after putting in the first CD, DVD-A and SACD, and seeing that they were recognized as such, I didn’t give it another glance. The right side contains the basic transport buttons. Thankfully there are only a few front panel logos, unlike some players that bear more logos than you’d find on a stock car at a NASCAR event

Around back there are a lot of connections, including an ethernet port for firmware updates and the dreaded BD-Live content, composite and component video outputs for legacy displays, two HDMI outputs, USB and e-SATA ports for external storage, IR and RS-232 ports for remote control, coaxial and optical S/PDIF outputs, unbalanced stereo and multi-channel audio outputs, and the ubiquitous IEC inlet. It is, in fact, identical to the rear panel of the Oppo BDP-93 with the notable exception of the dedicated two channel analog outputs. However, as noted below, appearances can be deceiving.

My hope was to have the Azur 751BD plug and play straight out of the box. I put on a CD and it played right away from both the analog and digital outputs. I put on an SACD and, while the SACD light came on and the transport numbers ticked along, there was no sound from either the analog or digital outputs. I put on a DVD-A. It too was recognized as such, but the transport stopped dead in its tracks and displayed the mysterious word “root” on the VCD. So much for plug and play. It was then off to eBay to order a 20 foot HDMI cable so I could connect the Azur 751BD to my computer monitor across the room to do the setup.

A few days later the cable arrived and in no time I was staring at a clean, well-organized setup screen which, like its rear panel, is similar to that of the Oppo BDP-93. However, as shown in the photographs below, Cambridge Audio has made some significant hardware changes indicating some real engineering going on. This is not a situation like Theta which took a stock $500 Oppo BDP-83, swapped out the SMPS with a linear power supply, put on a fancy front panel and charged $3000, or worse yet Lexicon, which took the same $500 Oppo BDP-83 and dropped it, chassis and all, in a fancy enclosure and charged $3500 for the privilege.


Oppo BDP-93


Cambridge Audio Azur 751BD

While it appears that Cambridge Audio has left the excellent Mediatek and Marvell Qdeo based video section on the left unmodified, it is obvious that they have replaced the audio section at the rear in its entirety. It is a completely unique affair, offering five Wolfson 8740 DAC’s combined with Anagram Q5 DSP upsampling of all digital signals to 24/192. For disc playback, the Azur 751BD also gives you the option to select among three different digital filters. To the best of my knowledge, it is unique in that regard.

The first filter is a standard linear phase filter, which exhibits both pre- and post-ringing in small and equal amounts. The second filter is a minimum phase or “apodising” filter. It exhibits virtually no pre-ringing, but greater post-ringing. Proponents of the minimum phase filter point out that since pre-ringing does not occur naturally, it is more objectionable than post-ringing, and that while greater in amplitude, the post-ringing is masked by the tone itself. Meridian and Ayre both utilize minimum phase filters in their digital designs. The third filter is referred to as a Steep Filter. It behaves like a linear phase filter, but rolls off the high frequencies to minimize the effects of aliasing at the Nyquist frequency (22.05kHz). It causes the frequency response to be 2db down at 20kHz, and reduces aliasing by 80db at 22kHz. The differences among the filters are subtle but audible, particularly the Steep Filter. I preferred the minimum phase filter for most recordings, though your preference may differ based on your particular system, recordings and sensibilities. I left the minimum phase filter engaged for all of my listening sessions.

So, with substantial manual in hand, I made the following selections from the menus to set it up for my two channel system.

Playback Setup

SACD Priority: Stereo
DVD-Audio Mode: DVD-Audio
Auto Play Mode: On
Auto Resume: On
Play Back Control: Off

Audio Format Setup

Secondary Audio: Off
HDMI Audio: Auto
Coaxial/Optical Output: LCPM
LPCM Rate Limit: 192k
SACD Output: PCM
HDCD Decoding: On

Audio Processing

Speaker Configuration: Left/Right: Large; Subwoofer: Off; Downmix to 2 Channel
Dynamic Range Control: Off

Once set up, CDs, SACDs and DVD-As all played automatically without a hitch.

A couple of notes are in order. In the Play Back Setup menu, the only way to get SACD output from the coaxial or Toslink outputs is to set SACD Priority to CD Mode. Of course, then you are going to lose access to the high resolution tracks and may as well be playing a CD. I left the SACD Priority setting at Stereo and used the stereo analog outputs of the Azur 751BD for playback. In addition, you must set Play Back Control to Off. Otherwise, you won’t be able to play a DVD-A without a monitor connected. Finally, in the Audio Format Setup menu, you must set SACD output to PCM; otherwise, you will get no sound from the analog outputs. Bear in mind that I had the Azur 751BD connected to a Benchmark DAC1 HDR though both its analog and digital inputs rather than to an AVR with HDMI input. Setup for playback through the HDMI port is another process all together, one I did not undertake. The Meridian HD621 to partner with my Meridian G68 beckons.

Before I begin, I want to say a few things about SACDs, DVD-As and high resolution files in general. Truth be told, unless the provenance of the master is explicitly stated, you do a fair amount of leg-work, or you actually analyze the audio file with professional software, you really do not have any idea whether the recording you are listening to is high resolution or not. There are lots of early SACD releases where the Redbook CD master was remastered in DSD and pawned off as high resolution. In such cases, notwithstanding DSDs sampling rate of 2.822GHz, at best the frequency response of the recording is limited to 22.05kHz, and often much less depending on the steepness of the anti-aliasing filter employed in the original Redbook CD master. The DSD remaster may sound different – sometimes worse, sometimes better – than the Redbook CD version due to differing choices made by the mastering engineer, but it would not be high resolution. The same is true with DVD-As, though to a lesser extent, as a greater percentage of DVD-As were new recordings rather than reissues. The “high-resolution” download market suffers from the same issue. Be careful out there. Read the liner notes carefully. Don’t assume that just because it is an SACD, DVD-A or 96/24 download, it is a high resolution recording. Caveat emptor.

Take, for example, one of my favorite Bob Dylan albums: Nashville Skyline, which I happen to have on SACD. Here is what the liner notes say:

This CD is a hybrid Super Audio CD that has two distinct layers. One layer contains a newly remastered stereo mix that plays on any CD player. The other layer contains a high resolution Super Audio CD (SACD) version of the same repertoire that works on SACD compatible players. Both layers have been remastered from the original tapes to deliver significant improvements to sound quality for all listeners.

Is the SACD layer really a higher resolution recording than the CD layer? I don’t know. It depends on what was on the master tapes. Although analog tape certainly has the technical capability to capture frequencies above 22.05kHz, whether there was any such high frequency information on the master tapes is unknown to me. Perhaps when I find the time, I’ll record the analog output of the SACD layer into my 192/24 workstation and see what the actual frequency response is. Unfortunately, I don’t have the equipment to extract and analyze the DSD digital stream itself.

In the end, it’s the music that counts, so I popped the SACD in the Azur 751BD and cued up Girl from the North Country, which is a duet with the late Johnny Cash. Talk about a vocal contrast. Bob Dylan has, at best, a quirky voice, and Johnny Cash has a deep, rich baritone. Harmony is a hit or miss affair, but nevertheless, the collaboration is successful. Either the song was recorded in a large space, or, more likely, a fair amount of reverb was added; in any event, the result is a spacious presentation, which only highlights the close miking of the guitars, with rhythm across the center and lead in the right channel. Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, though both centered, clearly occupy different physical spaces, which is a good thing. To accomplish that trick, it is clear the player is extracting all the information on the disc and not muddling things up. No harshness is present, perhaps due to the minimum phase filter.

I next played a Teldec (Das Alte Werk) DVD-A of Ton Koopman playing Bach organ works on the Christian Muller organ built in 1724-1727 in the Grote Kirk in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands. It is nothing short of spectacular, not only because of the obvious deep bass, but because of the real presence you feel as if you were actually at the performance, derived largely though the ambiance of the church captured by the recording engineer. While you may not know that you know it, you would instantly recognize Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Sleepers Awake). Many organists tend to play this piece too fast for my liking, but Ton Koopman seems to strike the right balance, taking the listener through it in a relaxed and natural manner, without drama or embellishment. It is four minutes of pure joy.

At the time of this review, I had not obtained a Blu-ray audio disc from 2L, but I have no doubt the Azur 751BD would play it with the same finesse and aplombe as it did SACDs and DVD-As.

Conclusion

The Cambridge Audio Azur 751BD does everything you can ask of a universal Blu-ray player and them some. Importantly, while it may share a Mediatek and Marvell Qdeo video core, it is not just another Oppo BDP-93 knock off. Where I think it really pulls ahead is with its completely redesigned audio section, dedicated two channel outputs and unique choice of digital filter options. I could find no faults with its performance in any respect, and it therefore earns my unqualified recommendation.

- Frank Berryman

Contact Information

Cambridge Audio Limited
Gallery Court, Hankey Place
London SE1 4BB, United Kingdom

U.S. Distributor:

Audio Plus Services
156 Lawrence Paquette Industrial Drive
Champlain, NY 12919
Telephone: (800) 663-9352

Associated Equipment

Analog Source: VPI Scout; Dynavector 20X2; Musical Surroundings Phonomena II
Digital Source: Mac Mini, 2.5GHz, 4GB RAM, 27″ Thunderbolt display, Pure Music playback software; Halide Design Bridge
Preamplifier: Meridian G68ADV; Benchmark DAC1 HDR
Power Amplifier: Meridian 557
Loudspeakers: Meridian DSP5500, DALI Ikon 6 MK2
Cables: Digital: Meridian; Analog: Mogami/Amphenol (RCA), Mogami/Neutrik (XLR); Speaker: Mogami/Audioquest (BFA/banana); Power: Volex/Marinco
Headphones: Etymotic ER-4S
Accessories: GIK acoustic treatments; dedicated 20 amp circuit; Audience aR2p power conditioner