Cambridge Audio Azur 851N Network player

Cambridge Audio has made its reputation by making great sounding, well-engineered products offering exceptional value for money.

On a sound for the british pound basis its entry level range is becoming a bestseller for exclusive UK provider Richer Sounds and of electronics is difficult to beat.

So when Cambridge unveils a brand new main network player you have a tendency to sit up and take notice - particularly when you have a look at the specifications for its relatively modest asking price of GBP1200.

The 851N is UPnP streamer that is united DAC/preamp with support for many current popular PCM codecs up to 24bit/192kHz, in addition to DSD 64 via a computer linked to one of the USB input signals. Included with this is built-in support for Apple AirPlay and Spotify Connect, as well as internet radio. A discretionary BT100 dongle is, in addition, readily available for all those looking to add Bluetooth capability.

Internally, all signals are upsampled to 24bit/384kHz before being passed to a couple of Analog Devices AD1955 DACs operating in dual-differential mode, while Cambridge has made use of a strong toroidal transformer for the power supply.

Both wireless and wired streaming is supported and the 851N features no less than five USB inputs - four Type A for HDD/flashdrive connection plus one asynchronous Type B designed for hooking up to a Mac or PC. Do notice that with the latter the unit must be changed into USB 2.0 mode via its menu system to support 24/192 files - with Windows users needing to download the proper driver from the Cambridge Audio web site.

Other connections include two S/PDIF coaxial digital AES/EBU and two Toslink optical inputs too as balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA analogue and AES/EBU, coaxial and Toslink optical digital outputs.

The front of the unit includes a colour 4.3-inch display for displaying album artwork plus track and menu information, flanked by the rotary volume control and little buttons for playback control and accessibility to the three digital filter options available - Minimum Phase, Linear Phase and Steep (more of which later).

All functions could be obtained via the front panel controls or the supplied fully-featured remote - but like most streamers nowadays the very best way to use the 851N is through the free committed control program (both Android and iOS variations are available) via a smartphone or tablet computer. Dubbed Cambridge Connect, it is a somewhat sleek matter allowing well as keeping favourite internet radio stations too as input selection, volume and balance control, removing, adding and browsing tracks and records from the play queue.


Feature-packed it may be, but the 851N is simple to set-up and function. Linked it took merely several seconds to find and list all music files saved on two MacBooks - and a NAS device also sharing the network. Plugging a USB stick into the front outlet also saw its contents instantly listed beneath the Music Library section of the menu that was controlling.

Switching inputs and controlling volume with all the Cambridge Connect app via an iPhone 6 Plus proved not rough, without undue time lag - and also the wireless connection remained robust throughout.

Cambridge recommends using a wired connection for file sizes above 24/96 but in practice I experienced no drop outs with streaming 24bit/l92kHz stuff wirelessly - although much will depend on your number of other data on the own network and it.

Spotify functioning was similarly fuss-free, the Cambridge creating a connection instantly and staying rock-solid throughout playback.


First thing that hits you about the 851N is how neutral and clean it sounds. This really is not among those products that attempts to impose its own sonic signature but instead generally seems to allow it to flow with as little interference as possible.

Using the Cambridge in digital pre-amp mode feeding a Sugden FBA-800 power amplifier, a 24/96 FLAC stream of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds' 'Murder Ballads' had superb. openness clarity and While Cave's vocals were suitably raw and edgy there was exceptional separation between the layers of guitar, bass guitar and drum.

It's a quality that pays dividends on complex material including the Mark Lanegan Band's 'Blue Funeral' where the Cambridge managed to cut through the slightly packed combination to reveal much more of the information that is musical, with greater detail.

A well set-up high resolution streaming system can better a similarly-priced CD player along with the Cambridge demonstrates the point by bringing a more organic, free-flowing feel than you'd get via silver disc.

No substantial difference was made by switching between the three digital filter alternatives . The steep alternative did sound a little smoother on some edgy 44.1kHz pop stuff - but the effect was extremely subtle.

Moving onto computer-based replay, I joined a MacBook Air for the DSD recording of Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony's 'Mahler No 1'. This is a visceral, dynamic operation along with the 851N portrayed it with all the required impact. Not only were the strings relayed with time and realistic pitch but the bass drum and triangles jumped out with astonishing dynamics and speed. There was no losing the sheer scale of the orchestra while the switch between passages that are light and dark was managed with aplomb - the dynamic comparisons to be handled by the Cambridge looking without batting an eyelid.

Instead it's a fine, strong display that is one step above background music but merely a shade below being true high fidelity. But as ever with Spotify, it's the convenience that pays dividends - so if the service ever catches up with the likes of Tidal with regard to providing 16bit/44.1 kHz substance afterward the choice could become seriously interesting.

If there is any criticism to be manufactured, it is that the Cambridge may be found by some a little too considerate.

Instead the Cambridge goes about its business in a evenhanded manner that doesn't draw too much attention to itself. It is not if this sounds like damning with faint praise - it is describing how assured the unit is at its cost.


In terms of great value, versatility and sound quality for the money, the 851N is tough to overcome. It's uncoloured and inherently impartial through whatever input you decide to work with, meaning it really never seems anything less than refined and surefooted. Add in its DSD ability, preamp function and promise of future software upgrades along with the new Cambridge could well set a standard at its price.

Cambridge Audio Azur 851N Network player photo