Bringing it All Together:
I finally came to the conclusion that my existing digital music libraries, collected over the past 20 years or so (including CDs) needed to come together under one central source.
I wanted a separate music hub, the one hub to rule them all!
Like 70-80% of the electronics consumers out there; I did my research.
One brand came up every time with the right look, feel, sound and price range: Cambridge Audio.Read moreNow, there's something about buying a British product that feels right, that British engineering feeling.
I had previously delved into the DAC arena with the Dragonfly Cobalt, by Audio Quest, which is an amazing product and extremely versatile. I wanted something that was going to sit with my Vintage Yamaha AX-730 power amplifier, powering a pair of Yamaha NS-1000x's, so I was looking for something uncoloured, transparent in the music chain but something with high clarity and separation.
I have heard, watched and read people's experiences with good music systems, where they talk about a sound stage that you feel you can walk around, a holographic feel that separates the instruments and the singer with space between them all. In its own limited way, my Yamaha amp and speakers do just that so I wanted a DAC that would feed the music into that system.
What Cambridge DAC?:
For me, there was a choice of the CXN (V2) or the Azur 851N both fulfill the DAC/Network Player and Pre-amp role.
However, I wanted to bring an option to my system that would be able to sit for a decade or indeed indefinitely and not feel dated, become outdated quickly. I also wanted a DAC that was really going to bring the music effortlessly. The price point between the CXN (V2) and the Azur 851N worked out to be less than I thought, as the guys at Audio Trends in Ringwood, Melbourne were there for me. I did my normal shop around for real prices and Audio Trends price matched and also gave me a great deal on the additional cables I needed.
Azur 851N - Number 1:
I ordered and received the 851N from Audio Trends and plugged everything in. It came with a large USB Wi-Fi dongle, that you plug into the dedicated USB port and then link the 851N into your home Wi-Fi network. So far so good.
It looked great with a brushed charcoal metal front panel and large 4.3 inch (11 cm) TFT display.
I immediately noticed that when I plugged in the cables into the back, the back panel was very crackly and full of static. I checked my other amps and found no static at all. I thought at the time this was unusual but new components can behave differently.
I fired up the Azur 851N, with my iPad Pro connected directly via USB. The sound was amazing, exactly what I was hoping. I also purchased a new Western Digital 4 Terabyte drive, to put on my additional music.
One thing I learned, is that the Azur 851N ports do not provide power, only music connection/pass-through. USB drives will not work without power so you have to choose your drive/s carefully and use ones that have their own power via a power cable and plugged into the mains power. I believe USB sticks work, as they require no real power, because they use chips and not full working hard drives.
I could play my normal Apple iTunes playlists with 80+ GB of music from the iPad and then switch to the Cambridge Audio app and play music from the hard drive. The Cambridge Audio app was great, in that it was a hub that controlled everything else, digital radio (of which there are 1000's of stations to choose from). It could also switch to Bluetooth, to allow a Bluetooth device to play through and control music through the Azur 851N. I didn't get the Bluetooth USB adapter until later.
Then, it began, on the first day; the Azur 851N began shutting down and restarting, at first intermittently and then on a regular basis. I persevered for a few weeks, until the unit restarted itself continually and that was it.
The other thing that this 851N didn't like after a short while, was when I had the iPad plugged into the dedicated USB music port. It simply wouldn't let it work and shut itself down.
I contacted the help area of Cambridge Audio online and Chris there, in the UK was very helpful. He advised me to return the unit to where I purchased it from. So, sadly, I returned the first 851N to Audio Trends and ordered a replacement.
Azur 851N - Number 2:
Audio Trends were great, they let me borrow their display 851N and I set that up. Everything seemed to work perfectly at first. The iPad connected via USB worked perfectly and this example just really emphasised how great the 851N sounded.
Then, after a couple of days the Wi-Fi dongle didn't work. It appears that when the unit updated it's firmware, it switched the Wi-Fi dongle off and a message would then appear when the unit stated up, that it couldn't find the Wi-Fi network.
I had the loan 851N for two weeks and used it only with the iPad Pro. It was a truly fantastic experience. Then on the day before the guys at Audio Trends called me, to tell me the new 851N was in, the Wi-Fi dongle sprang back to life, did a firmware update and worked properly for the remainder of that day.
The next day, when I switched the loan 851N on, it was back to the Wi-Fi dongle not working and the display stating it could not connect to the Wi-Fi LAN!
I had sent Cambridge Audio some emails asking them about the issues with the USB Wi-Fi dongle and again, Chris was very helpful. He suggested getting a new Wi-Fi dongle from my supplier.
I did suspect there was either an issue with the 851N's electronics and or compatibility with the Wi-Fi dongle, as the dongle seemed to work perfectly for a second time. It appeared the internal clock of the 851N checking for a firmware update brought the USB Wi-Fi dongle back to life.
After I got the call from Audio Trends I returned their loan 851N and collected the replacement.
Azur 851N - Number 3 (Third Time is a charm):
I unpacked the Azur 851N and could tell immediately something was different, in how it looked. The front plate was a brushed black metal, not charcoal. It also had a new sticker on the right side, saying, 'Hi-Res Audio'.
I removed all the parts from the packing box and knew something was missing from the accessories pack - the Wi-Fi dongle!
I thought, 'Oh, no - now what am I going to say to the guys at Audio Trends?'
I looked at the 851N, then looked at its rear and there it was - plugged into the USB Wi-Fi port: a mini Wi-Fi dongle. It was tiny, the same size as the Logitech USB Bluetooth coonection for my computer mouse and keyboard.
It was then my suspicions were confirmed: this was an upgraded version of the Azur 851N. A new and improved version of what now, thinking back, was an earlier, glitchy version.
I then very carefull plugged all the cables and devices into the replacement 851N.
No static on the back panel was a good start. I then played through the various sources, WI-Fi with the hard drive, Bluetooth, USB and radio.
It hasn't missed a beat in the past 24 hours.
The reason I chose the 851N was for the quality of its components and having lived with it now for its main purpose: organisation and control of all digital music sources and most importantly the quality of sound it produces. It absolutely excels in these areas.
This is my first ever Cambridge Audio component and I had a decent level of expectation that it was going to deliver the solution I was seeking, as an integral part of my music system.
I chose something with quality, with a simple expectation that it would 'just work'.
I believed that this music component would deliver. For what it is and what it does; it does deliver and that is the reason I stuck it out and stayed with the 851N.
I feel now, right now, that I have the 851N I thought I was buying, buying into.
I plugged it in. Plugged everything into it and - it just worked, seamlessly, flawlessly.
So where did the flaw in the process of design, create, deliver and use go wrong?
I suspect that because things are no longer made in large amounts in the UK, that where ever they were made; there was a bad batch. It appears this batch is still in circulation in some places and only now, the new and improved version of the 851N is filtering through the supply chain.
My Thoughts on the Experience:
I do wish the 851N had worked straight out of the box. A used vintage Yamaha amp I have from the 80's works flawlessly - still.
As I type this, I am looking at the 851N, sitting on top of my power amp. I've decided to not let it worry me and play my music in the background, let the 851N blend into my system and not think about the past.
I did that today and it made me feel extremely happy, as the music that filled the room, just floated - simple, uncomplicated, undemanding and enjoyable.
I will probably get back into looking at the display and playing the Muse album, like they have in the Azur 851N advertisements, where the album cover's multi-coloured graphic design pops out of the screen, with lovely geometric shapes. When I do that, it feels like the 851N has 'arrived' in the room, giving a certain sense of satisfaction.
This is one review I won't give out of 10 or 100 because the journey with the Azur 851N kind of transcends that kind of judgement. When the Azur 851N works, it exceeds all expectations, well past any top mark.
The 851N is one of those components that keeps on giving (when it works). It feels like I can find more for the 851N to do for me, bringing it all together now and any ideas I have in the future.
I am hoping this is my last and final 851N.
If this one fails, I am not sure what I will do.
I don't want to abandon it, perhaps it would be a case of asking Cambridge Audio to step up and have one of their people personally check and test a unit and send me it direct, ensuring its safe delivery and assured ability of working.
The next model up in the Cambridge Audio product range is the Edge NQ - vastly more expensive and not really an option for me.
I didn't go with the bottom of the Cambridge Audio range, I opted for the mid-level Azur range, that should deliver what I need, without missing a beat.
The aim, was to future-proof my music system, to add a component that would add cutting edge technology to an older system, as right now I have more digital music than any other type of music. Integration like this has to be done with a fair amount of thought and consideration. It's not just about a price point; it's about the right component to do the job right now and into the future. The next step in my digital music path, is to add a streaming component like Tidal or Spotify, high resolution music files that will get the best out of a streaming, DAC component. The Azur 851N is designed to do this.
My requirements are not demanding for the 851N, however the 851N has demanded my loyalty and commitment, maybe not much so for the device but for the Cambridge Audio brand.
The Cambridge Audio Azur 851N experience feels more like a journey than a destination, that the longer the journey goes on for; the more pleasure and satisfaction is experienced.
I don't want all my experiences with electronic components to be like this and this has truly been a unique experience for me.
Now, I just want to enjoy using it.
This has been another Ant review.
I hope you enjoyed reading this review, as much I enjoyed compiling it.