Cambridge Audio Azur 340R AV-receiver
Whether it's the latest Hollywood action blockbuster or the 5.1 mix of Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of the Moon', surround sound can be an enjoyable experience. What puts ordinary mortals off it though, is the apparent complexity and the fact that most affordable hardware makes a seriously unimpressive (by hi-fi standards) noise. Cambridge Audio's Azur 340R is an 'entry level', no-frills A/V receiver built with, one might say, a 'hi-fi sensibility'. Whereas the latest Japanese designs come loaded with all the bells and whistles, it's fair to say that the £270 340R is less well specified but better sounding.
Inevitably at this price there are compromises, of course. High definition Blu-ray and HD-DVD players set the technological agenda and an important part of their makeup is the HDMI interface. It renders most of the plugs, sockets and cables that litter A/V products redundant, as well as the early technologies associated with them. The Azur 340R's main limitation is that it doesn't process the signal from HDMI connectors, they are simply pass-throughs. All the same, the receiver's traditional topology can cope with Blu-ray and HD-DVD, as I will explain later...
Rated at 50 watts per channel, and equipped with five amplifying channels (this is a 5.1 receiver) the 340R may appear deficient against rivals boasting 7.1 channels of 100 watts or more, configurable to deliver sound into anything from a bungalow to a castle. However, for most people I suspect 5.1 is as complex as their homes will ever allow, or their wives for that matter. Indeed, I commonly run four-point-zero (4.0) - once termed quadraphonic. This isn't because I hanker after the 1970s, but because a centre 'dialogue' loudspeaker doesn't suit music and subwoofers by their nature wreck musical timing and often sound gross. For music and movies 5.1 is enough, but 4.0 is better I think and the Azur 340R gets a thumbs up from me here, since the centre loudspeaker and subwoofer can be (and were) switched off.
I paired the Cambridge with a Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray player, to check connection methods and difficulties, and Revolver loudspeakers. Oh, and if you look at our measurements you will see that the Azur 340R actually turns out 80 watts per channel minimum, so it isn't lacking power either.
As you cannot transfer audio of any sort - low def or high - from player to this receiver via an HDMI cable, a digital link that carries both video and audio, one of the plethora of 'legacy links' fitted must be used instead. I fed in Dolby surround sound from DVD and PCM from CD using an optical cable (S/PDIF) link.
High definition audio was taken from the player's analogue outputs to the 340R's 5.1 Direct inputs. Doing this bypasses the receiver's internal processors, so loudspeaker levels and time delays cannot be set in the receiver and must be applied in the player. In my case the Samsung Blu-ray player was unable to apply time delay. Recent DVD and High Definition players can apply time delays internally, however, so they are the best choice. A lot of movies now come with 24/96 PCM, DTS Master Audio or Dolby TrueHD soundtracks and they are a real blast, so getting a player able to handle them makes sense, meaning a recent model.
Lack of HDMI processing resulted in a spaghetti of wires and a fair bit of switching to make it all happen. The picture was fed to the TV direct from the player via HDMI and this brought up another issue: the receiver's On Screen Display menu (OSD) wasn't available. A Composite or S-Video link must be used to reveal the OSD for set up purposes, so I had to run a Composite lead alongside HDMI and switch between them on the TV!
I normally use HDMI linking to retain video quality. However, analogue Component Video linking also provides excellent quality and the Azur 340R has two Component Video inputs and an output for a TV or monitor, but the OSD isn't on this either, it seems from the handbook - a common situation on UK receivers. The Marantz SR6001 I use, with HDMI processing, makes such analogue linking seem cumbersome, convoluted and old fashioned.
Connect a CD or DVD player digitally (S/PDIF) to the Cambridge and you can play CDs in normal stereo or switch to synthesised surround sound using Dolby Pro Logic II, Movie or Music format, but no Panorama adjustment and such like are available. All the same, Pro Logic II can be impressive with CDs containing a lot of out-of-phase information, removing it from the front channels and sending it to the rear. It often works with older 'messy' recordings, rather than newer close-miked jobbies.
Cambridge include DTS decoding and various synthesised surroundsound modes like Room, Theatre and Hall that may occasionally seem appropriate. Bass management is fitted to channel lows away from miniature home cinema loudspeakers and into a subwoofer when Small is selected in the loudspeaker setup menu. For hi-fi purposes it is best to use high quality full range loudspeakers like KEF Q Compacts or Usher S-520s that take up little more space. Then selecting Large avoids bass management. The discrete low frequency channel in film soundtracks, for earthquakes, explosions and what have you, still needs a subwoofer though, if you want to hear it.
As you might hope, adjustment is available for both loudspeaker sensitivity and time delay, for any source passing through the internal processor, which excludes the 5.1 Direct analogue input. An internal noise source means you do not need a test disc.
The rear panel has the usual array of audio and video inputs, accepting and switching HDMI, Component, S-Video and Composite out to the TV/monitor. Format changing isn't provided, so an SVideo input from a camera cannot be output to the TV in Composite or Component. A Composite video input with accompanying left and right audio is fitted on the front panel for games and video cameras. There is a headphone output that automatically mutes the loudspeakers, and mixes surround-sound down to stereo - good for late night movies. The tuner provides VHF/FM, with RDS, and Medium wave, each band having 15 pre-set memories.
In spite of the low price Cambridge supply a remote control with a wide range of functions, including radio station selection, volume, mute, bass and treble controls, input selection and various processing modes.
As you might expect the Azur 340R receiver possesses much the same qualities as their amplifiers. There's a slight mid-band sheen that gently nudges vocalists forward a trifle, giving a good sense of clarity. On her 'Back to Black' album Amy Winehouse sounded deliciously louche and real on 'You Know I'm No Good', the kick drum having plenty of force behind it. Spinning the less atmospheric Scissor Sisters first album shows there's some truncation of stage depth and a certain lack of silkiness - but that is to be expected at the price. The 340R maintains rhythm well as it times cleanly and propels bass lines enthusiastically. I got an impressively tidy presentation from the Chris Botti Live concert in 24/96 PCM on Blu-ray, his trumpet cutting clearly out of the mix. The creaks and groans of a wooden ship in 'Curse of the Black Pearl' on Blu-ray were eerily apparent and the canon fire as thunderous as any normal home dweller - if not their neighbours - could wish for. VHF/FM was quiet and programme quality much as expected from measurement, a small amount of brightness adding to vocal sibilance, but making for a detailed sound too.
For the price the Azur 340R is a tidy design that does its job well. It's a great way into budget surroundsound and it does a fine job in stereo too. Lack of HDMI processing is best overcome by pairing it with a modern Blu-ray or HD-DVD player able to process Dolby TrueHD or DTS Master Audio (HD-DVD) internally. As these now cost an affordable £260 or so the final bill will not be too steep for a system able to give fine results all round for the price. Although lacking all the very latest AV adornments, the Cambridge Audio