Cambridge Audio Azur 650BD Universal Blu-ray Player

Cambridge Audio may have been a little slower to enter the Blu-ray arena than other manufacturers but when the company finally made the step, it went full steam ahead. The Cambridge Audio Azur 650BD is not a Blu-ray player like most – like its name suggests, it is a truly universal Blu-ray player. What exactly does that mean? You can place just about any disc in its tray. In addition to playing Blu-ray discs, DVDs and music CDs, this machine can also play SACDs, DVD-Audio discs and even HDCDs. Priced at a reasonable $799, this just may be the last disc player you’ll ever need to buy (until of course a new format comes out).

From the video perspective, the 650BD delivers 1080p, 24 frames per second video and meets the Profile 2.0 Blu-ray player specification, enabling BD Live and Bonus View functionality. Its design is based on the Mediatek MTK8520/MTK8575 architecture and video processing solution. 1 GB of internal memory allows for storage of BD Live content, which can be further expanded by plugging in a flash drive or an external hard drive into one of its USB ports. Like all Blu-ray players it up-converts standard DVDs to the 1080p resolution via the HDMI connection. Aside from Blu-ray and DVD, the 650BD can play a multitude of other video formats including XviD, WMV, WMV HD, VCD, AVCHD, MPEG ISO, JPEG and JPEG HD. Video connections include HDMI 1.3c, which supports 10 bit and 12 bit DeepColor and x.v.color, as well as legacy connections including component video, S-video and composite video. An Ethernet port allows the player to connect to the internet for BD Live features and firmware updates. And to top it all off, the 650BD promises lightning-quick power-up and Blu-ray disc loading speeds.

Audio can output by the 650BD via HDMI, 7.1-channel analog outputs or optical and coaxial digital outputs. The 7.1 analog outputs are provided for those with older AV receivers which don’t have an HDMI input. The 650BD promises to attain a high level of audio performance thanks to its Crystal CS4345/CS4361 24 bit/192 kHz DACs and meticulous attention to audio circuitry design. While watching Blu-ray discs, the player can internally decode or send the bitstream of Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS-HD Master Audio and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio to a compatible AV receiver. Similarly, when listening to SACDs, the player can internally decode them and send the PCM to a receiver, or send the native DSD format to a receiver for decoding. In addition to these, the 650BD also supports MP3 and WMA playback. A “Pure Audio” mode allows the user to turn off all video circuitry with the click of a single button on the remote, achieving the best possible audio performance from this player.

The 650BD features the new Azur wrap-around casework design and a new low resonance, acoustically damped chassis. The supplied remote control follows the design of other Cambridge Audio component remotes, featuring a plastic casing topped with a thick metal plate, soft-feel buttons and a multi-directional pad. Although they lack a backlight, we’ve always enjoyed using these Cambridge Audio designed remotes. The buttons are very pleasant to touch and the multi-direction pad works very well.

As I opened the box, I was pleased to see the player wrapped in a cloth material cover – something I’ve come to expect from Cambridge Audio. I connected the 650BD via HDMI to my reference system which includes an Arcam FMJ AVR600 AV receiver, KEF iQ speakers and an Axiom Audio EP500 subwoofer. The 650BD has an IEC power connector, allowing for the power cord to be upgraded.

To start things off, I decided to try a few multi-channel music discs starting with the Dire Straits SACD, a recently discovered disc which very quickly made it into one of my top five multi-channel albums. Listening to the first three tracks left a huge grin on my face – the sound was absolutely first grade. The soundstage was huge, with near-perfect definition and the vocals were perfectly centered. The details and the richness of the sound swallowed me whole and engaged me in the music like never before, listening to a player in this price range. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon multi-channel SACD never sounded better on my system. The surround channels produced a seamless three dimensional soundstage at the side and rear of my room when listening to tracks from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon SACD. Regular CDs also came to life with a renewed richness and a great amount of detail. Although I had the player connected via HDMI, it should be noted that the 650BD has a respectable analog audio section which uses Crystal CS4345/CS4361 24 bit/192 kHz DACs. When connected via HDMI and listening to a CD, the signal is processed using the player’s DACs and then sent to the receiver as PCM.

Before actually watching movies on the 650BD, I tested the loading time of a few Blu-ray discs since Cambridge Audio has been boasting about “ultra fast disc loading times and power on time” for this player. The start-up time is astonishingly fast – just 4 seconds – this is the amount of time it takes for the disc tray to pop out, after pressing the “eject” button. For comparison, it takes my Pioneer Elite BDP-95FD 58 seconds to start up. The loading time of Blu-ray discs varies by movie – simpler discs take just 20 seconds to load, while java-loaded discs took up to 37 seconds. For example, Star Trek took 37 seconds to load, compared to the Pioneer player which took 84 seconds. In fact, in these respects, this is by far the fastest Blu-ray player I’ve ever played with. Why can’t all Blu-ray players be this quick? For me, the slow start-up and loading times of Blu-ray players are the biggest annoyance.

A run of the video tests on the Spears & Munsil High Definition Benchmark Blu-ray showed that the 650BD has exceptional video deinterlacing capabilities, passing virtually all 480i and 1080i test patterns with flying colours. It also did a fantastic job with all the frame cadences on the disc, passing ever one of the tests. These results imply that standard 480i DVDs and 1080i Blu-ray discs (concerts and documentaries) up-converted to 1080p by this player should look as good as they possibly can – and they very much did. To date, this is the only video component that I’ve tested that has outdone some of the processing of my Pioneer plasma (did I really just say that?).

Going through the multitude of tests on this test disc, I did however notice that the 650BD was a little louder when searching for chapters on the disc than some of the players that I’ve used in the past. Also, when selecting different test patterns, sometimes “snow” would appear for a few seconds on the screen before the pattern was displayed. Both of these were minor annoyances. Like all the other Blu-rays that I’ve ever tested, the 650BD did freeze up on me (although only once) and I had to reset it by holding the power button down for a few seconds.

My real world video tests started with watching a few standard DVDs including Underworld and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both movies up-converted to 1080p by the 650BD looked very sharp and had a good amount of detail. Remember that the bigger your screen is, the more important this is – I was very pleased with the resulting picture on my 60-inch plasma. This is definitely among the best up-conversions that I’ve seen from any Blu-ray player.

Since I was a child I’ve been a fan of the Indiana Jones movies and I recently added Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on Blu-ray to my collection. Regrettably the movie itself is terrible but the video and audio presentation is actually quite excellent. The 650BD delivered a sharp, detailed 1080p picture with great three-dimensional depth on my Pioneer PDP-6020FD KURO plasma TV. But perhaps it was in the audio presentation that the 650BD provided the greatest enjoyment, with this movie. This dynamically rich soundtrack sounded delightful and had great depth. Natural sounds such as water, rain, rustling leaves were delivered with true realism. John Williams’ iconic Indiana Jones theme song never sounded sweeter.

Star Trek on Blu-ray wasn’t any less impressive. The sharpness and detail level of the picture was remarkable. Of course this Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is filled with loud explosions and tons of other low frequency effects, but there is also a much more delicate side to be appreciated. The dialogue was clean and well balanced with the movie’s score and the rest of the sound effects. Subtle atmospherics and careful surround mixing created convincingly realistic environments. Discrete effects zipped around from channel to channel with fluidity. The 650BD’s sound presentation was A+.

The Cambridge Audio Azur 650BD Universal Blu-ray player is a master of many talents. It will not only play just about any audio and video format available today – but it will do so extremely well. If you’re looking to pump new life into your movie watching or surround music listening, you should definitely get your hands on the Cambridge Audio Azur 650BD. I give this player my highest recommendation!

Cambridge Audio
Distributed in Canada by Plurison 1-866-271-5689

Cambridge Audio Azur 650BD Universal Blu-ray Player
Price: $799 CDN