The Cambridge Audio Azur 751BD is an evolution of the company’s highly successful 650BD universal Blu-ray player, a well-rounded machine that we’ve been using as a reference player in the CANADA HiFi lab since it first came out. Technology advances rapidly and the 751BD player shows Cambridge Audio’s commitment to providing all the latest technology and features available today in its audio video gear.
The 751BD retails for $1,249 and offers a perfect upgrade for those looking to step up the performance from a run of the mill Blu-ray player and expand the playback capabilities of their home theatre system. Visually, the 751BD is a clean, simple looking component, yet it offers remarkable flexibility when it comes to media playback. Its disc drawer will accept virtually every type of disc format available today including 2D/3D Blu-ray, DVD-Video, CD, HDCD, SACD, DVD-Audio and even discs loaded with digital files. Dual USB inputs will allow you to play a multitude of digital video files including AVI, MKV, XviD, as well as lossless FLAC and WAV music files.
Under the hood, the 751BD is loaded with advanced audio and video technologies. This player offers not one but two HDMI 1.4 outputs. This allows the player to connect to a TV and projector simultaneously. It also allows owners of older AV receivers which are not compatible with 3D video, to connect one output to the AV receiver for audio while sending video from the second HDMI output directly to the display. The primary HDMI output uses a Marvell QDEO video scaler with motion adaptive noise reduction which promises to produce quiet and natural video, free from noise and artifacts. This Marvell scaler also up-scales standard DVDs to 1080p resolution. The secondary HDMI output on the other hand uses a simpler Mediatek MTK8530 decoder. As you would expect the 751BD offers all of the latest audio decoders including those for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. These formats can be decoded internally or sent as bitstreams via HDMI to a compatible AV receiver which can then in turn decode them. The 751BD does not offer any streaming capabilities from your home network or online video services like some of the other Blu-ray players on the market today, but that’s fine with me – I don’t ever use any of these features anyway. I would much rather use a player that performs well and offers a smaller set of features over a player with a mediocre performance that’s packed with features.
But its video capabilities are only half of the story. It’s no secret that this player shares a very similar platform to an Oppo disc player, however what really sets the 751BD apart from the Oppo player and other competition are its strengths in the audio section. At its heart is a large, meticulously designed audio circuit board which contains five Wolfson WM8740 24-bit/192kHz digital to analogue converters. Also on-board is Anagram Technologies’ Q5 192 kHz technology capable of up-sampling the digital data stream up to 384 kHz, thereby enhancing audio clarity, richness and dynamic range of audio. Carefully planned audio circuits allow the 751BD to achieve audiophile playback performance.
A quick look at the rear panel of the player reveals that it is one of the best equipped players in the market when it comes to connectivity. On the video side you’ll find dual HDMI and component video outputs. Audio can be output in the digital domain via HDMI, optical or coaxial and in the analog domain via 7.1 channel RCA or stereo RCA jacks. USB and e-Sata inputs allow for connecting flash memory and hard drives. The Ethernet jack enables this BD Profile 2.0 player to connect to the Internet to provide online-based Blu-ray content and features (such as BD-Live and BonusView) and firmware updates. For those who don’t have an Ethernet outlet in their home theatre, Cambridge Audio provides a wireless dongle in the box.
Although externally the 751BD looks nearly exactly the same as the 650BD, it does employ a new chassis which has been acoustically dampened to reduce external vibrations. The 751BD’s robust audio section requires a hefty power supply and hence contributes greatly to the 11 pound (5 kg) weight of this player.
The included remote is virtually exactly the same as the one provided with the 650BD player. Although it feels nice in your hand, its buttons are all the same shape and size and hence impossible to locate without searching for them with your eyes (as opposed to locating them by feel). It also lacks the much desired backlight making it a challenge to operate in a darkened room.
Since the 751BD is touted as a highly capable music player, I started my review by listening to music discs in various formats including CD, SACD and DVD-Audio. To perform a thorough evaluation I used the 751BD in two different home theatre systems during the review – one included the Anthem MRX 500 AV receiver and the Paradigm Reference MilleniaOne 5.1 speakers, the other consisted of the Pioneer Elite SC-07 AV receiver, KEF iQ speakers with an Axiom Audio EP500 subwoofer. While I used the main HDMI output of the player most of the time, I did also try its analog audio outputs. When using the analog outputs, the high quality DACs inside the 751BD perform the digital to analog conversion and hence will be the preferred connection choice for those with AV receivers that have lesser quality DACs built-in (or for owners of AV receivers that have no HDMI inputs). Since both the AV receivers I used have high quality DACs on-board the difference in sound performance between HDMI and analog connections was minimal.
I stared by listening to the Eagles “Hell Freezes Over” (K2HD Mastering, Japan) album on CD. This well recorded album sounded so good that I closed my eyes and got completely lost in the music. The acoustic and electric guitars in “Learn to be still” and “Hotel California” played with delicacy, details and richness. The 751BD delivered detailed, crisp highs without any digital harshness. The bass reached great depths and offered proper articulation. The midrange played with fullness and the soundstage offered a width and depth that could easily make some listeners think that they are listening to much larger speakers then the MilleniaOne I was listening to. Flipping the Anthem receiver into the Anthem Logic Music mode (multi-channel) enveloped me with sound and the clapping of the audience made me feel as if I was listening to a live performance. I’ve never been a big fan of non-discrete surround modes but the Anthem Logic Music seems to strike all the right notes – it really does provide the next best thing to a real multi-channel recording. When it came to vocals, the 751BD once again demonstrated its audio roots. When listening to Alanis Morissette’s “MTV Unplugged” the 751BD recreated the small venue, live audience atmosphere very effectively in my room. Morissette’s dynamic voice and all its subtleties made for a very enjoyable listening session. Johnny Cash’s “American IV: The Man Comes Around” raised the bar in terms of the quality of the recording and allowed the 751BD to deliver an additional level of detail. As mentioned earlier, the 751BD offers Anagram Technologies’ Q5 up-sampling which offers three filter settings: Linear Phase, Minimum Phase and Steep (much like the company’s DACMagic DAC). Switching between the three settings proved that the differences in sound are very subtle – but some audio enthusiasts will definitely appreciate playing around with this function.
After listening to numerous other CDs, I switched gears and listened to some SACDs and DVD-Audio discs. Some of these included Dire Straits “Brothers in Arms”, Pink Floyd “Dark Side of the Moon” and a couple of Nine Inch Nails albums. At the same time I moved the 751BD to the system with the Pioneer receiver and KEF/Axiom speakers. One of the high rez albums that stood out was the Flute Mystery by Fred Jonny Berg (2L, available as a two disc SACD and Blu-ray audio-only pair), an album I learned about thanks to the members of the CANADA HiFi forum. The moment I began listening to this album it transformed my room into a sonically magical, fantasy land. The surround mix of this performance is just wonderful, with carefully chosen instruments directed to the surround channels. Rather than sounding gimmicky, this surround experience raised my enjoyment to a truly higher level. The 751BD did a phenomenal job of playing this album given its complexity. There was plenty of air between the instruments as well as a great width and depth to the soundstage. From the gentle notes of the flute to the deep tones of the double bass, the musical presentation was passionate and organic. I was very pleased that the 751BD didn’t exhibit any digital artifacts in its playback but rather played very fluidly. This is without question the best sounding orchestral surround disc I’ve heard to date – a must have for classical music fans.
Following the audio sessions, I switched tracks to the video side. Like most current Blu-ray players, the 751BD is very quick at loading Blu-ray discs, even those with elaborate Java menus. I didn’t experience problems loading any disc during the time this player spent at my house.
The up-conversion of standard DVDs is becoming increasingly less important since most films are now available on Blu-ray however those who like to revisit titles from their DVD libraries will be rewarded with some of the finest up-conversion available today thanks to this player’s Marvell QDEO video processor. All of the DVD scenes that I watched offered a noticeably improved, sharper image with good details.
Moving forward with the video evaluation, I watched several Blu-ray movies with the 751BD, including “Unstoppable”, “Gran Torino”, “Star Trek” and “Brides Maids”. I also watched two 3D Blu-ray films – “Meet the Robinsons” and “Tron: Legacy”.
While watching “Unstoppable”, a film inspired by a true story of a runaway train, the 751BD offered crisp, intelligible voices complemented by a clean, highly detailed instrumental soundtrack. The powerful roar of diesel train engines sounded realistic, as did the click-clack of the train travelling along the track. With the volume turned up I often felt as if I was standing right next to a real train track. Overall, the 751BD offered a dynamic, immersive, amazingly detailed audio presentation. The video from this player was equally as impressive. Helicopter shots perfectly recreated the gloomy surroundings of the Stanton train curve in Southern Pennsylvania. The aged homes and industrial buildings displayed very good details even though the camera was panning briskly. The locomotive’s paint job was a stark contrast to its surroundings – its colours were well saturated and popped nicely off the screen. During dark scenes, the 751BD squeezed every bit of detail out of the 1080p picture. As a result character faces displayed incredible detail, with true to life skin colour and saturation.
The first time I watched “Meet the Robinsons” on 3D Blu-ray it instantly became one of my favourite computer animated movies. The futuristic landscapes and character designs lend themselves naturally to the 3D experience. The 751BD produced a first-class 3D picture that was sharp, detailed and free of image crosstalk. The fact that this movie has a very clean 3D picture to begin with helps greatly of course.
“Tron: Legacy” on 3D Blu-ray was an even greater treat. Not only does this film offer spectacular 3D imagery, it also contains an amazing sounding, almost mesmerizing soundtrack. The 3D picture was once again flawless, offering a believable, gradual depth. At times, parts of the picture leapt off the screen but without ever looking gimmicky. Daft Punk’s soundtrack greatly enhances the Tron experience and the 751BD had no trouble handling any of the sonic dynamics.
I could continue talking about this player’s audio and video performance with various other media that I tested it with – but I think you get the idea. The Cambridge Audio Azur 751BD is an extremely capable playback machine. From 2-channel music CDs to multi-channel, high rez SACDs and Blu-rays this player sailed through my barrage of tests with flying colours. Given its flexibility, performance and build quality the 751BD is worth every penny of its $1,249 price. I don’t hesitate to say – just go and pick one up!