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July
2005

Reviewed by
Roger Kanno
REVIEWERS' CHOICE 2005


Cambridge Audio
Azur 540D
DVD-Audio/Video Player

Features SnapShot!

Description

Model: Cambridge Audio Azur 540D

Price: $379 USD
Dimensions: 17"W x 4"H x 12"D
Weight: 13 pounds

Warranty: Two years parts and labor

Features

  • Crystal six-channel 24-bit/192kHz audio DAC

Features (cont'd)
  • DVD-Audio capability
  • MP3 and Kodak Picture playback
  • Built-in Dolby Digital decoding
  • 12-bit/54MHz video DACs
  • PAL and NTSC compatible
  • Component (progressive), RGB (SCART), S-video, and composite video outputs
  • Low-resonance chassis and aluminum front panel
  • Removable IEC power cord
  • Remote control

The market for DVD players has shifted toward the bottom end of the price spectrum -- there are now many brand-name players priced below $100. Some specialty manufacturers still offer players of extremely high quality starting at around $1000 and often costing much more. However, only a few build midpriced players that bridge the gap between the very inexpensive and the incredibly expensive models.

Cambridge Audio is a British company known for selling entry-level audiophile gear at very reasonable prices. Their most expensive DVD-Audio/Video player and the subject of this review, the Azur 540D, retails for only $379. Most specialty audio manufacturers would struggle to produce an entry-level CD player for $379, let alone a DVD-A/V machine.

The color of Azur

The Cambridge Azur 540D is built more like an audiophile CD player than a budget DVD player. It comes in a full-size (17"W x 4"H x 12"D) metal chassis with an aluminum faceplate and weighs a surprisingly heavy 13 pounds. The 540D is available in black or silver finishes, and shares its simple but smart-looking cosmetics and robust build quality with the other components in Cambridge’s Azur line of electronics.

The Azur 540D includes progressive-scan component-video output in addition to S-video and composite video. It also includes an RGB SCART video output and supports both PAL and NTSC formats. It lacks a digital video output such as HDMI or DVI-D -- not surprising at this price. The video processing uses six 12-bit/54MHz video DACs.

The audio processing includes support for DVD-Audio and built-in decoding for Dolby Digital, but not DTS. DTS signals can still be passed via the digital output for external decoding by a receiver or processor, but the Azur 540D will not provide any signal from its analog outputs from DTS discs. Its six-channel Crystal CS4360 DAC can provide up to 24/192 resolution for two-channel DVD-A and 24/96 resolution for multichannel DVD-A. In addition to its six-channel analog outputs, the 540D has a set of stereo-only analog outputs and both coaxial and optical digital outputs. It can play back most optical discs, including DVD+/-R, DVD+/-RW, CD-R/RW, MP3, and Kodak Picture CDs -- but not SACDs or VCDs. As a bonus, my review sample was able to play a Region 2 disc I had on hand, which supports the rumor that the player is region-free. It also output 24/96 stereo digital bitstreams from each of the roughly 20 DVD-A discs I tried.

The remote is a heavy-duty, handsomely built unit with a brushed-aluminum finish. However, the small identical buttons and even smaller print are difficult to differentiate and use, especially in low light. Nor are there any number keys to allow direct access to individual tracks or chapters. These must be selected from a DVD’s menus or, in the case of a CD, jumped to using the skip buttons.

Other features include variable zoom, video adjustments, variable analog output and muting, and a removable IEC power cord. Channel levels are adjustable from –10 to +10dB in 0.5dB increments, and audio delays in increments of 10cm from 0 to 170 for the center channel, and 0 to 510 for the subwoofer and surrounds.

Although it had a few operational quirks, I was extremely impressed with the Azur 540D’s features and build quality, especially considering its reasonable price. To keep my expectations from getting too high during the review process, I had to constantly remind myself that this surprisingly well-built DVD-A/V player costs only $379. The three pairs of interconnects and the power cord I used with it cost roughly that much.

Small price, big sound

I genuinely enjoyed listening to DVDs and CDs through the Azur 540D. The sound was exceptionally open and clear, neither thin or lean. In fact, the 540D’s solid, well-defined bass gave a great sense of weight and authority to film soundtracks and music CDs alike. Its ability to extract a lot of information from soundtracks while producing plenty of deep, rumbling bass made Blade 2 sound fantastic -- the club scene in chapter 10 engulfed my room with tons of low-frequency information from the throbbing dance beat. There was also a great sense of space when the action moved into the cavernous hallways and rooms of the House of Pain. The final dogfight from the remastered DTS soundtrack of Top Gun was full of the roar of jet engines, but the 540D was also able to deftly reproduce the somewhat cheesy-sounding background music as well. At certain points in this scene, the synthesizer riffs in the rear channels were amazingly clear.

Seal’s Best: 1991-2004 [DVD-A, Warner Bros. 48776-9] sounded excellent. The delineation and fidelity of instruments and vocals from every channel was exceptional. The vocals were especially noteworthy, Seal’s voice providing an excellent test of my system’s midrange capabilities. "Kiss from a Rose" was stunning, "Don’t Cry" sublime. The bass on "Killer" and many of the other tracks was tight, yet deep and very powerful. Discs such as Brian Wilson’s Live at the Roxy [DVD-A, Brimel R9 73928] and the Blue Man Group’s The Complex [DVD-A, DTS 69286-01120-9-4] clearly demonstrated the superiority of the DVD-A format over CD, Dolby Digital, or even DTS.

The Azur 540D was also a surprisingly capable CD player. Most budget DVD players sound somewhat lean, and those whose sounds do have some weight and body often obscure bass and end up sounding thick or muddy. But the 540D carried the clear sound and tight bass it had produced from movie soundtracks over to its CD sound. Jennifer Warnes’ The Hunter [CD, Attic ACD 1344], which can sound boomy on some systems, sounded fast and responsive with the 540D. Although the Cambridge didn’t totally plumb the depths, the bass on "Rock You Gently" and "Way Down Deep" was rich and full without sounding bloated. The more sedate "Lights of Lousianne" was sweet and ethereal, but the strings still had a great deal of presence and weight.

Picture this

The Azur 540D’s video quality immediately struck me with its crispness and detail. On closer examination, I found that the picture had slightly exaggerated contrast that ultimately masked some detail, but gave a very sharp appearance that was pleasing. For example, simple animation from the television series Futurama on DVD looked amazingly clear. The colors of the complex visuals of Monsters, Inc. were still exceptionally bright, but minute detail was lost in the subtle shading and color gradation of its more three-dimensional animation.

Live-action films such as Closer were eye-popping in their realism. The grayness of the courtyard in chapter 2 was perfectly captured, while image outlines remained remarkably sharp. Bathed in natural light from large windows, the close-ups of actors’ faces in a photo studio looked wonderful.

Comparison

The current street price of my Pioneer Elite DV-45A universal audio/video player ($700) is similar to that of the Cambridge Azur 540D. The Pioneer’s picture was a little softer, but its blacks were deeper, its colors more saturated. This made the courtyard scene from Closer seem even more realistic and damp and gloomy. However, the brightly lit final scene, in which Natalie Portman walks through Times Square, seemed slightly dull and muted through the DV-45A when compared with the 540D. Neither delivered a completely accurate or pristine picture, but both provided satisfying video quality for such relatively inexpensive players.

Where the Cambridge Audio pulled ahead of the Pioneer was with its audio quality. DVD-A discs had more depth, and high frequencies were extended but sweet. Brian Wilson’s Live at the Roxy simply had more drive, sounding more like a live concert and less like a recording. Diana Krall’s vocals on her Love Scenes [DVD-A, Impulse! 440 053 247-9] were sultry and stunning, but lost some of their sparkle through the Pioneer. The finger snaps at the beginning of "My Love Is" came from farther back in the soundstage with the Cambridge, and Christian McBride’s bass had more body and definition.

CDs also sounded better through the Azur 540D. The wonderfully recorded a cappella vocals on Paul Simon’s Songs from The Capeman [CD, Warner Bros. 46814-2] had more "air" and extended farther into space; the Pioneer sounded closed-in by comparison. Each voice in the harmony vocals was more distinct, with a greater sense of space, through the Azur. Although the Pioneer sounded good for an inexpensive DVD player, the Cambridge Audio sounded more like an accomplished budget CD player. In short, the 540D sounded better.

It’s Azur thing

Cambridge Audio’s Azur 540D is one heck of a bargain. There may be less expensive DVD players out there that have better video performance, but I doubt there are many similarly priced players that sound as good. For the price of a high-quality, entry-level CD player, the Azur 540D is a good DVD-Audio player with respectable video quality and an enjoyable CD sound not normally associated with inexpensive DVD players. It’s also one of the most solidly built and smart-looking players at anywhere near its price.

Review System
Speakers - Paradigm Reference Signature S8 (mains), Paradigm Reference Signature C3 (center), Mirage Omni 260 (surrounds), Hsu Research VTF-3 Mk. II (subwoofer)
Processor - Anthem Statement D1
Amplifier - Bel Canto eVo6
Source - Pioneer Elite DV-45A universal audio/video player
Cables - Analysis Plus, Audio Magic, ESP
Monitor - JVC 34" direct-view CRT
 

Manufacturer contact information:

Cambridge Audio
Gallery Court, Hankey Place
London SE1 4BB, England, UK
Phone: 44 (0)20-7551-5339

Website: www.cambridgeaudio.com

 


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