Cambridge Audio CXA81 Review

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Today’s integrated amplifier is Cambridge audios CXA81. Let’s get into it. This is an integrated amp that is; it is a preamp and amplifier integrated into one chassis. It retails for around $1,299 and is available most anywhere including online. It’s an 80 watt per channel stereo only integrated amplifier from a brand that is well known for making some pretty good stuff. 

Let’s get to the meat and potatoes of how the Cambridge Audio CXA81 sounds

Now we use it in a couple of different ways. I want to preface the review by saying that because the CXA81 is more than just an analogue stereo integrated amplifier, it has digital inputs built in; that is to say there is also a DAC integrated inside which enables you to connect digital components directly to it.

In our case, we connected a Hisense 4k television. It also has bluetooth built in so we did stream via Bluetooth from my iPhone to the Cambridge Audio CXA81. Now we tested it on a variety of loudspeakers but mainly we used it with the Jamo c97ii  and our reference Klipsch heresy, MK IV. So the sound that I will be describing will be the summation of what you can expect from those two types of speakers as well as the source components that I just described.

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And so how does it sound? Well for a class A B amplifier, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the CXA81 is a little bit of a throwback; it’s not that it’s woolly, or old fashioned or soft but it does have a little bit of warmth to it. To say that this Cambridge audio is a neutral integrated amplifier would be a little bit of a mistake.

I think that it’s a little bit on the romantic side and if you are a fan of digital music or maybe you listen to a lot of recordings that let’s face it, is art of audiophile grade, then the CXA81 is going to be an amplifier that you’re going to want to put on your shortlist of options to consider. 

So let’s break it down into its individual sonic elements in terms of its bass response. It’s good. I won’t say that it’s great. I’ve definitely heard amplifiers in and around this price point be a little bit more fast on the attack and have a little bit more control down low, but it does plunge to those bottom octaves and does reach down into the basement.

It just doesn’t quite have the same level of finesse that you may find from some other amplifiers or other amplifier topologies in this market segment. Now mid range is where the for me is at its best. It’s like I said, it’s a little bit old school, it’s got a little bit of warmth around the edges which I find pleasing with vocals. 

The bass is not the most dynamically live thing that we’ve ever heard, so if you are someone that likes a little bit of forward present, that front of stage if you will, kind of presence to your performance, the Cambridge audio CXA81 is not that, it is just a little bit more.

It’s a little bit laid back. It’s a little bit recessed, but still very very enjoyable. And if you listen to a lot of singer songwriters as I do, It’s welcomed. That little bit of warmth in the mid range is actually really really nice and if you have speakers on the brighter side of the spectrum, it does help kind of reel them back. 

In terms of the high frequencies, in terms of the treble, again these are not the most extended but but they are incredibly airy; so while they may lack that last little bit of sparkle, that high frequency sparkle at the extreme, the roll off that is present with the CXA81 is so nice, so tasty.

But again, it all kind of lends itself to a sonic characteristic that is just a little bit more laid back, and the same is true for its dynamics because it is just a little bit more laid back or subdued. You kind of end up having to apply maybe just a little bit more volume in order to make the dynamics kind of spring to life and once they do, it is remarkable.

It’s a fantastic amplifier so the dynamics are present; you have to kind of coax them out so I’m not going to say that for 1299$, this is the best in class dynamically. It is good, it’s very very solid in terms of soundstage delineation. The Cambridge audio CXA81 is rock solid.

Now the soundstage does favour more lateral width than it does depth, but again at this price point, it’s really, really competitive. So on a whole if I had to summarise the CXA81 as succinctly as possible, I would say that it is a very very robust, if not slightly old fashioned sounding integrated amplifier that definitely favours the mid range in a little bit of warmth while possessing a very very nice and nicely appointed and detailed soundstage if that’s the kind of thing that you’re into. 

So as nice as the Cambridge integrated amp is, What don’t I like about it?

Well, believe it or not, one of the things that I would consider to be the amps strengths; it having a built in DAC is actually one of the things that I disliked about it because I ended up using Cambridge’s own network streamer as a DAC connected to the integrated because well, frankly, it sounded better.

And if you were going to pair these two I argue that then you’re spending money on a feature inside the CXA81. The feature being its DAC that you are not going to end up using, and so you may be better off buying one of Cambridge’s other integrated amplifiers that do not feature a built in DAC if you want to save a little bit of money and not have redundancy in your signal chain. 

Another thing I didn’t like about the Cambridge integrated was that it didn’t have a phono input. There is no built in phono input or way to connect a turntable that doesn’t already have a phono preamp built into it. To not have a phono input in there I guess, top of the line, mid fi integrated amplifier i think is a little bit of an oversight.

Yes you can still hook a turntable up to the CXA81, but you have to bring your own phono or preamp to the party and, you know, thankfully Cambridge Audio does make some pretty fine phono preamps. 

Lastly, and this is entirely subjective on my part because I do think that the Cambridge integrated is a good looking piece, I don’t know if it’s a beautiful piece but it’s definitely good looking and it is very very well constructed, extremely well constructed but the faceplate; It looks like there’s a display on the front, and frankly when I was taking it out of the box and setting it down on top of our BDI cabinet, I have expected that upon powering up, I was going to be treated to a display because well that’s what it looks like. But it’s not a display.

There’s no display anywhere on this; it’s just a swath of black plastic with some buttons on it and frankly, I don’t know if those buttons even need to be there. I honestly think that you would have been as well off if not better well off in terms of the styling to just have a selection knob and a volume knob, because then at least there would be symmetry and balance to the front panel. 

Instead you just kind of have this sort of black square in the middle and well. That’s it. That’s it. The black square exists to hide, eight black buttons and, well, I don’t, I don’t get the point. So, yes, the CXA81 is well constructed well crafted and a beautiful piece all things considered, it’s just, I just don’t feel like it’s as good looking as it could be especially compared to Cambridge’s own streamers or some of their other integrated amps, and or products. 

Cambridge Audio CXA81 vs Marantz NR1200

So what does the Cambridge Audio integrated amp compare to well at $1,299 there is no shortage of competition. One of the very first pieces that came to mind was Marantz NR1200.

It is an integrated amp much like the CXA81 but it offers a little bit more modern connectivity in the form of HDMI because it is kind of an AV receiver that caters to an audiophile market, and they both possess similar power output.

I don’t think they’re exactly the same but the power output is similar. The NR1200 is a little bit more affordable, and I’m going to argue is a little bit more flexible compared to the CXA81 so I don’t think that we can talk about the Cambridge without also having mentioned the Marantz because it is an option and for many people it might even be the better one.

We also compared it to the Naim Uniti Atom which is three times more expensive than the CX 81, and I’m not gonna lie, the Uniti atom is amazing and it does do a lot more than the Cambridge and it does sound a little bit better, but as I mentioned in the Cambridge network streamer review, if you pair the CXA81 with that particular Cambridge network streamer, the combined performance of those two pieces does come dangerously close to matching the Naim Uniti Atom at a much, much lower price point; so that is something to consider that on its own the CXA81 doesn’t really hold a candle to the Naim, but partner it with the right network streamer and the scales tip a little bit more in Cambridges favour.

But yeah, outside of that I have to say the Cambridge CXA81 is a solid piece worth considering. I’m very, very pleased with its performance. Its styling may be a little bit on the “ho hum side” for me but on a whole, the things that matter are the things that you buy an integrated amp for, this amp is fantastic and I happen to really like the little bit of old school charm that it possesses and its sound. 

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