Wondering what a hi-fi system is? Here’s your answer!
Cambridge Audio has been making affordable yet robust amps and receivers for a long time now. My first proper high-end component, a modestly priced Azur 540A V2 integrated, was from them, and it held a special place in my hi-fi rack for a long time.
That’s probably why I got so excited when I heard about the Cambridge Audio AX series, a budget line of four amps and a CD player (ranging from $225 to $600) that promised to be not only high-value but high-quality as well. They’ve been out for a couple of years now, but their specs and build still make them an intriguing choice for first-time/upgrade hi-fi buyers.
Cambridge Audio sent out two pieces from the line, the $600 AXR100 Stereo Receiver, a Class AB 100 watt per channel receiver with 8 and 4-ohm capability, and the matching AXC35 CD player that retails for $350. The AXR100 is the most powerful amp in the AX series, basically what you would call the “flagship.”
Cambridge markets these AX components as the ideal entry point to genuine hi-fi gear, and I have to say they have the ideal look and feel. The AXR100 has heavy-duty metal casework, a brushed aluminum faceplate, along with a large toroidal transformer which cuts down on noise and gives it impressive heft.
The matte grey color and minimalist design of both the receiver and CD player are reminiscent of Cambridge Audio’s mid-level CX series (which we loved when we reviewed it), giving them a premium appearance. This is definitely no coincidence.
The AXR100 receiver has tons of connections for building a system, including three analog line inputs, a good-sounding phono input compatible with Moving Magnet carts, three digital inputs (one coaxial, two optical), and two outputs (rec out, sub out).
You also get two pairs of speaker binding posts for either hooking up two separate pairs of speakers or to bi-wire a single pair.
There’s a 3.5mm aux input in the front, something of a throwback to the iPod days, and a 1/4“ headphone output for private listening.
While there’s an aux input to plug in a smartphone or music player, most people will use the built-in Bluetooth connection for quick listening sessions. While the SBC BT codec used on the AXR100 doesn’t sound quite as good as the aptX HD connection on the step-up CX integrateds, it sounds good enough for when friends come over and want to play DJ.
Also on the receiver’s front are input selection buttons, buttons to operate the AM/FM tuner, a large volume knob, and a menu button that gives you access to Bass/Treble/Balance controls.
As far as the AXC35 CD player goes, it feels pretty solid with relatively smooth operation on the drawer and an easy-to-read display. It doesn’t have the fastest mechanism, but it’s pretty quiet, which is the most important thing.
If you like to burn CDs (do ppl still do that?), it will play CD-R, CD-RW, and CD-ROM discs. It will also play discs with MP3 and WMA files, but I don’t know anyone who still listens to those.
More importantly, you get multiple outputs. There’s one RCA output that taps into the AXC35’s internal Wolfson DAC, plus a coaxial out, which lets you use the player as a transport, going to an external DAC like the MQA equipped DacMagic 200M. Gapless playback is also part of the package.
The AXR100 remote is durable, easy to hold, and controls all functions on both units, which is excellent.
You don’t get built-in Wi-Fi streaming at this price, but you can add a budget streamer like the Andover Audio Songbird for about $149, and if you want a step up sonically, you can go for the iFi ZEN Stream for around $399. If MQA is a need, you can check out the new Bluesound Node for $599.
Listening to the Cambridge Audio AXR100 Stereo Receiver/AXC35 CD Player Combo:
I spent quite a bit of time looking for speakers to go with this gear, and at the end of the day, I settled on the Wharfedale Diamond 12.2 Bookshelf Speakers. At $599 a pair, they match up nicely pricewise, plus they are some of the most balanced and transparent speakers at the price point.
The Diamond 12.2 brought out the best of the AXR100/AXC35 combination, allowing the pair’s excellent imaging and control to shine through. Listening to Carey Bell’s rocking Blues tune “Sweet Little Woman,” I got just about everything I want from an entry-level rig.
First of all, I didn’t hear the edge present in many budget amps, which was refreshing; there was also a deep, controlled bass and an excellent mid-range that brought out all of Bell’s signature growl.
The presentation also had nice weight, which drove the rhythm, and there was nice imaging that placed the instruments clearly off to the left and right of the vocal.
Of course, with a modestly priced rig such as this, you’re not going to get razor-sharp images, and the resolution will not be up to the level of 4-5 thousand dollar systems. You also won’t get the depth of more expensive systems.
That said, this system is quite musical, painting a vivid picture of the recording and sometimes surprising you with how well it conveys the performer’s emotions or the instrument’s character.
The Wrap Up
To sum things up, the Cambridge Audio AXR100 Stereo Receiver/AXC35 CD Player duo is a highly impressive setup for less than a thousand dollars. The amp has plenty of clean power plus connections for expansion, and the CD Player sounds damn good.
For six hundred more, you can add a good pair of speakers like the Wharfedale Diamond 12.2 Bookshelf Speakers and have an engaging rig for about $1500 if you don’t need a Wi-Fi streamer. If so, the Andover Audio Songbird will sound really good for $150.
When they released the AX series, Cambridge promised the “perfect balance between value and quality,” and I think they hit it out of the park with this duo. If you’re looking for a proper introduction to high-end audio, you can’t go wrong with the Cambridge Audio AXR100 and AXC35 CD. Highly Recommended!
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I’m an audio writer who started as a young audio salesman/consumer electronics professional back in the late 90s. That’s where I discovered the magic of 2-Channel sound. My hunger for great sound has led me on a delightful music quest that continues today.