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Azur 340A integrated amplifier
as reviewed by Ed Kobesky
Hi-fi is alive and well in England, especially at the entry level. Just look at the packaging of Cambridge Audio's new integrated amplifier, the $250 Azur 340A. With its convenient carrying handle and zippy graphics, it's like a happy meal for your ears, the ultimate takeout order for the budget-minded music lover. Along with the rest of the Azur line, it's a huge hit in England. In America, the 340A seems too small to be quite so successful. In a land where your yard boy leases a Lincoln Navigator, and $250 buys a monster home theater receiver with about sixty inputs and two dozen simulated surround-sound modes, the 40-watt-per-channel 340A is hopelessly out of place. It may even be a tough sell in the audiophile community, where massive credit card debt is worn like a badge of honor, and $250 is what you spend on interconnects, not an integrated amp.
That would be a shame, because the 340A is a wonderful amplifier. It cuts corners so artfully that you barely notice the compromises. This should come as no surprise to those familiar with Cambridge Audio, which has a reputation for offering audiophile-quality sound at the lowest possible price. Until recently, their products have frequently been so close in price to higher-performing units from Rotel and NAD that they have been overshadowed. The new Azur line of integrated amplifiers, digital players, and phono stages has changed all that, yet it's the bottom of the line, the 340A, that is the most exciting. It offers remote control, a headphone jack, and excellent build quality. It's a slim design, like Rotel's $500 RA-02, which has similar specs. Unlike the Rotel, there is no phono stage, but the 340A costs half as much.
The 340A and its remote come in luxurious, blue, cloth-like bags, the hi-fi equivalent of Crown Royal at Christmas time. You may think Christmas has come early when you peel away the bag, because the 340A looks and feels far more expensive than it is. It weighs about the same as its bigger brothers, the 540A (50 wpc) and the 640A (65 wpc), and it is graced with a thick aluminum front panel. The review unit was finished in black, and was very handsome, with dark blue LEDs for power and input selection. A pair of defeatable tone controls was a pleasant addition. Around back, you'll find two sets of standard-issue binding posts (for two sets of speakers), plus five line-level inputs and a tape loop. The inputs are labeled both upside down and right side up, a nice touch, and one that you will appreciate when you are making connections from above. A detachable power cord is provided, which is probably sufficient, but it's nice to know you can upgrade later.
Inside, the 340A is based around an oversized toroidal transformer and good-looking parts for the price. The amp section, using dual differential pairs, includes overload and short circuit protection. Switching between the five line-level inputs is accomplished noiselessly, thanks to an electronic muting system. The remote control is long and slim, with a heavy aluminum top panel that has more than a bit of high-dollar swank. For $250, I don't expect a remote at all, so this one was a very pleasant surprise. It covers all of the amp's basic functions, as well as those of a Cambridge Audio CD or DVD player.
Headphone users should be quite happy with the headphone jack. It sounded lean and bright compared to standalone units, but it also sounded clean and was fairly quiet. It partnered well with Grado SR60s, and made an adequate showing with the power-hungry Sennheiser HD580s. If you mostly listen through speakers, it should be all you need to occasionally enjoy a wide variety of headphones.
Given the 340A's mind-bogglingly low price and extensive features, I wasn't expecting much—perhaps an improvement over the average receiver. I was startled when the 340A played music. Even when it was new, its timing, tonality, and definition were very, very good. A certain stiffness and one-dimensionality intruded during break-in, but after about ten hours the soundstage opened up, voices lost their initial hardness, and the notes really began to flow.
I paired the 340A with a Rega Planet 2000 CD player, a Rega Planar 3 turntable with Linn Basik LV V tonearm and Denon DL-110 cartridge, plus a Rotel RA-970BX phono preamp. The speakers were Sony's overachieving SS-K70ED floorstanders (see that review here)—not the easiest load but not unreasonable, either. At no time did I feel like the 340A belonged in a lower-end system. On the contrary, having quality components upstream only showed how capable this unit truly was. Nevertheless, the 340A won't set your toes tapping by itself. Pair it with a laid back source like the Sony SCD-CE595, and laid back is what you get. The amplifier definitely benefits from the extra push it gets when aided and abetted by "pacy" gear.
Bright but buoyant, the 340A is light on its feet and nimble as hell. On Fleetwood Mac's Tango in the Night (Warner Bros. LP; W1-25471), it easily kept pace with Lindsay Buckingham's complex, multipart rhythms. Though snare drums sounded a bit distant, cymbals, particularly when gently brushed, were smooth, and not fizzly. Highs were extended. Separation was good, with the kind of air between instruments I expect from much higher-priced gear. Typically British in execution, the 340A exhibits good control over the midband, with tightly focused vocals, but there is a noticeable lack of command in the extreme low registers.
I wouldn't call its presentation upfront. I felt like I was sitting back a few rows, but in no way was that a bad thing. In my smallish listening room, the 340A provided just enough distance between the music and the listener to avoid being "in your face." I think most users will find its sonic perspective ideal. As you might expect, jazz, folk, and acoustic tracks fared best, with rock and classical music giving the amp intricate transients and wide-ranging dynamic shifts that it couldn't completely sort out. While playing The Gramophone's August sampler CD, the 340A was taken by surprise when confronted with quick on-off-on orchestral bursts. The leading edges of some notes were slashed, and the amp then scrambled to catch up. On the other hand, its rendering of choral and string recordings was lovely.
The 340A also did a credible job with two of the toughest tests I could think of—delicate piano, which sounded more warm than cold on the Andrew Russo/James Ehnes recording of John Adams' Road Movies (Black Box BBM1098), and thumping electronic music like Conor Oberst's latest Bright Eyes disc, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (Saddle Creek LBJ 73), on which the amp had just enough lower midbass control to sound coherent, although the deep bass was either loose or missing in action. Every piece of music I played sounded delightfully nuanced. The only blatant flaw was a consistent lack of fullness and body when compared to an integrated amp like the remarkable PrimaLuna ProLogue Two. Of course, at $1345, the ProLogue is over five times the price (see that review here).
Crank up the juice, and the 340A runs out of steam, but only after you've passed the point where neighbors start dialing the cops. At higher volumes, the soundstage flattens and the 340A throws in the white flag, so if you're into concert-level volume, you'll definitely want to consider something with more oomph (maybe Cambridge Audio's own 640A, which is a bigger, heftier design).
Beating up the 340A for its lack of power simply isn't fair. When you buy forty watts, you should know what you're not getting. The thing is, the forty watts that the 340A does deliver are of excellent, in fact audiophile quality, and more than enough for most real-world listening. Low-level detail and resolution far exceeded my expectations, and despite the somewhat challenging speaker load it confronted, the 340A ran cool as a cucumber most of the time. That's a significant accomplishment for $250. I know of nothing else at this price that even comes close to the 340A's combination of build quality, minimalist style, and musical talent.
Some audiophiles will undoubtedly say, "Why not encourage your readers to spend an extra $300, $500, or $1000, and do it right the first time?" They are partly correct. If you can afford to spend more, you will get better sound. On the other hand, I can easily imagine someone enjoying the 340A for many years without getting the urge to upgrade. It's that good. As most peoples' expectations for sound quality continue to sink into the sonic cesspool of one-box home theaters, MP3 files, and executive micro systems, it is heartening to know that real music is within the reach of just about anyone. Bigger isn't always better.
Even if you're used to more expensive gear, the 340A will surprise you with its toe-tapping drive, fleet-footed detail, and well-voiced midrange, particularly if you're already a fan of British-sounding amps. It's not solely for the cash-strapped, either. Audiophiles who suddenly find themselves short on space may question the need to pay more, particularly if they're driving efficient monitors and don't require ear-shattering volume levels. In short, the Cambridge Audio Azur 340A sets a new standard for quality at its price point. Ed Kobesky
Azur 340A integrated
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