GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published May 1, 2001


Cambridge Audio A500 Integrated Amplifier, Cambridge Audio D500se CD Player and Polk Audio RT35i Loudspeakers


Upon first seeing the silver-faced, blue-LED-display Cambridge Audio A500 integrated amplifier and D500se CD player with their full-function remote control, one might be tempted to dismiss it as "all show, no go." Hi-falutin’ audiophile types might automatically assume that true high-quality 65Wpc integrated amplifiers or CD players employing a 24-bit/192kHz chip would have to cost a lot more than $450. But the truth is, equipment doesn't have to be plain or expensive to sound good.

Affordable gear is frequently dismissed as "mid-fi." Originally, this was meant sneeringly -- it was the performance that was supposed to be "mid," but lately it has begun to mean "mid-priced" and that's all right. After all, affordable does not have to involve sonic sacrifices. In fact, those who have never listened to the best that so-called mid-fi has to offer might be shocked at how good it can be. To illustrate this point, I’ll introduce you to a complete system under $1500. It makes zero excuses for its low price. In fact, it makes some expensive systems look just plain silly. So, if the promise of good sound for less appeals to you, read on.

...and potions

Cambridge Audio was founded in England in the late '60s, at the height of flower power and Sergeant Pepper's. Since then, this brand has garnered numerous awards -- from a British Hi-Fi Choice "Best Buy" to five French "Diapason d’Or" listings, from two Class C Stereophile "Recommended Components" nominations to a five-star What Hi-Fi? rating and "Best Buy" status. Designed in England, Cambridge's components are built offshore in ISO 9001 facilities, with custom key components sourced from major players like Sony. (ISO-certified operations are routinely shopped by assurance spies to document compliance with their established standards -- in other words, the QC and fit’n’finish measures are as high as they come in large-scale manufacturing.)


The Cambridge Audio A500 integrated amplifier and D500se compact disc player are part of the Cambridge 500 series, which also includes the matching T500 double super-heterodyne tuner. The A500 remote-controlled integrated amp is rated at 65Wpc into 8 ohms. According to measurements conducted by Paul Miller of Hi-Fi Choice, it actually delivers 107W into 4 ohms/195W into 2 ohms/246W into 1 ohm under dynamic music conditions. This kind of low-impedance stability is positively unheard-of in amplifiers at anywhere near the A500’s asking price. It speaks of exceedingly well-designed, stiff high-current power supplies. In fact, the power transformer is a custom-designed tight-wind low-flux toroid.

Two tone controls with a central detent allow +/- 6dB tuning at 100Hz and 10kHz and can be bypassed entirely via a Direct button. Connectivity includes four line-level inputs. One of these can be converted to phono with an optional $60 moving-magnet plug-in card. Kudos to the firm for making this an option rather than penalizing non-turntable folks by charging for a feature they won’t use. There’s also a tape loop, a tape monitor function and a pre-out to facilitate biamping with the matching 65Wpc P500 power amplifier. Two loudspeaker-terminal pairs per channel allow discrete biwiring without shotgun cables, but the "banana holes" are permanently plugged with non-removable metal inserts. Crud! While I appreciate the benefits of a one-size-fits-all universal model that withstands those persnickety Euro regulations, I’d prefer removable plastic inserts so us fearless Yanks can go bananas. But the silk screening that identifies the rear panel socketry is a nice touch. The writing is both right-side-up and upside-down. This really helps once the component is installed and you look at the rear panel from above, not below. Further, just as with the CD player, the power cord is detachable to allow the use of after-market power cords.

Cambridge Audio
A500 Integrated Amplifier

- and -
D500se CD Player

The D500 Special Edition CD player uses 24-bit Delta-Sigma Crystal DACs and refined jitter-reduction circuitry. The DAC board is modular to allow for easy upgrading in the future. A "very large scale integration" control chip, designed exclusively for Cambridge Audio by Sony, is said to dynamically adjust focus, tracking and output level of the laser for maximized data retrieval. A unique jog shuttle controls next/previous track selection and fast forward/rewind. Very surprising in this price sector is a massive BNC-fitted digital output next to a more common optical TosLink (BNC is a superior digital interface connector normally found only on the most expensive digital gear).

The A500 comes with a full system remote that controls volume but not input selection on the amplifier. It duplicates the main functions of the CD player’s dedicated remote and also controls the tuner and Cambridge Audio’s RCL-01 light dimmers. A blue status LED blinks whenever you change the volume with the remote. The CD remote is fully functioning and doesn’t skip a feature except for display dimming -- but the blue display is such an attractive shade against the silver that I doubt anyone would want to turn it off. My only minor quibble: The blue-on-blue read-out has such low contrast that I can’t make out any display information sitting across even a tiny listening room. Both units are available with black or silver aluminum face plate, while the chassis, like the remotes, are finished in a very attractive charcoal gray.

Judging by weight, appearance and features alone, these silver surfers from Cambridge Audio are "seriously heavy, dude" and dispel any notion that sub-$500 gear must scream funky black plastic sameness or be feature-challenged.

Happy Polk-a dots

Let’s dispel another audio myth: only small, labor-intensive, cottage-industry speaker shops that charge handmade prices can produce genuine high-performance products. Not! In fact, only the truly large-scale speaker manufacturers possess the requisite in-house R&D facilities and economies of scale to bring good sound to ever-lower price points. While being large doesn’t automatically guarantee high quality -- consider Bose -- it doesn’t preclude it either.

To cite two examples: The smaller players would love to do their own injection-molded speaker baffles, but they just can’t afford the very substantial initial tooling costs for the necessary dies. They flaunt their more expensive flat MDF baffles as superior to the minimum-refraction sculpted synthetic baffles the best large-scale manufacturers employ for both cost and sonic reasons. They also make much of their use of designer drive units purchased at great expense from the likes of Audax, Dynaudio, Scan-Speak or Vifa, rather than 'fess up that they can’t afford to manufacture drivers in-house or have proprietary drivers OEM’d.

The Polk Audio RT35i is a two-way shielded bookshelf loudspeaker with a 6.5" polymer/mineral composite mid/woofer and a 1" tri-laminate polymer dome tweeter that uses micro-layers of stainless steel and aluminum, vapor-deposited on a soft polymer base. Both drivers are unique to Polk and benefit from full-field heterodyning laser interferometry research to minimize cone break-up and resonance distortion in the drivers’ geometries. The RT35i 's enclosure is rear vented, employing what Polk calls a Power Port. Its plinth also doubles as a wall mount bracket. The Power Port, rather than venting straight into the room, vents into a molded cone insert that reduces "chuffing" air turbulence and its concomitant loss of up to 3dB in bass output. The small port on the front baffle is an acoustic resonance-control vent designed to smooth out midrange response by breaking up cabinet resonances. These ports are tuned to the cabinet’s resonant frequency 180 degrees out of phase with the driver output, which cancels out resonance peaks, avoiding that chesty quality that can obscure the midrange.

The RT35i is 15"H x 8.125"W x 11.5"D. It sports a single pair of gold-plated five-way binding posts, weighs 18 pounds, and features a nominal 8-ohm impedance. At $219.95 each, you’d expect it to have a vinyl finish. That’s exactly what Polk would have given you last year. However, their almost fully automated cabinet facility in Baja/Mexico now allows application of real-wood veneers in maple, cherry or black ash without a price penalty. The RT35i, by the way, was designed to sound best with the grilles on. That’s how I used it.

Putting it together

I connected everything with Cardas Audio’s entry-level cable and placed the speakers on Triangle Electroacoustique’s elegant Boomerang stands, before letting the system run for 24/7 -- at very reduced levels while I was in-house and cranked to eleven when I was away. (A comment on break-in: Being mechanical devices, speakers undergo a "conditioning" period. The rubber surrounds and internal fabric spiders need to be used before they will soften and reach their proper compliance. Different designs may vary in the amount of break-in time required, but it’s fair to say that most speakers don’t sound as good out of the box as they do with a few days, or even weeks, of playing time.) After a week, I sat down to listen, pencil and paper in hand, and took notes.


This system is ridiculously good. In my room -- 13' x 19' x 10' -- the RT35is, despite being bookshelf speakers, put out all the bass I need. This bestows a richness and warmth on the sound -- an attribute that‘s often lacking in smaller speakers that can’t pour a concrete foundation. The RT35i, gripped by the A500's iron-fisted control, exhibits wonderful definition in the lower registers, resulting in fast, taut bass with good pitch delineation, startling impact, and realistic scale. When a pianist thunders down the clefs to make a major fortissimo statement, you don't just hear it, you feel it.

Two CDs that illustrate this perfectly are Jimmy Haslip’s Red Heat [Unitone 13702-4802-2] and Jacques Loussier’s The Bach Book [Telarc Jazz 83474]. Haslip, the Yellowjackets’ bass player, writes tunes that demand a rich lower register. Played back via bass-deprived speakers, his songs plainly don’t cut it -- half of what you should be hearing is gone, leaving behind a sonic skeleton that’s boring and simply dead. Ditto for the Loussier Trio’s jazzy excursions into baroque material. The Bach Book features some of the best-recorded upright bass you’ll ever hear. As Vincent Charbonnier descends into the lowermost register, the loudness of his instrument diminishes. Can you discern its lowest notes clearly? Are they as well defined, and do they have as much body as those a bit higher? With the Polk speakers, driven by the Cambridge integrated amplifier, the answer is a resounding yes. That’s important. There’s more to bass than just bass. Without it, the tonal balance of the rest of the audible frequency spectrum shifts upwards.

Certain systems go low but do so ponderously, dragging the music as though through water. The Cambridge/Polk combo almost entirely avoids this effect, erring only ever so slightly on the side of warmth. The RT35i seems to manifest a minor midbass rise. While this commonly disguises the absence of 20-40Hz low bass, here it seems done in a very subtle and utterly benign fashion. I have the $495 per pair Triangle Titus XS speakers on hand -- more about those in our semi-monthly site update -- so I’m confident in saying that this bloom is not the amplifier’s contribution.

The Cambridge/Polk duo’s warm and musical rendition is equally apparent in the treble. It’s utterly devoid of sizzle, harshness, brightness or any other tizzy artifacts. Nothing here detracts from pure enjoyment. This is a very important compliment. The relentless brightness in certain speakers -- the sound some listeners initially mistake for resolution and detail -- always induces listener fatigue downstream. The sign that all is well is the enjoyment of long listening sessions over the months following the original purchase. This rig falls on the musical side of the equation rather than the analytical.

However, the amount of ambient retrieval it portrays is magnificent, bordering on the absurd. Instead of cardboard images etched like shadows against a glaring white background, you obtain a clear sense of not only the recording venue but also the space surrounding the performers. This is an audiophile quality that many really affordable systems don’t manage well or overlook altogether. But there’s more. You also get harmonic nuance -- perhaps not as developed or liquid as from the best tube components, but very respectable and not at all synthetic or dry. The soundstage is huge, well delineated and nicely layered.

Voices sound very realistic. Even divas at full boogie won’t cause you to frantically grab for the volume control -- high praise, indeed. While you can turn things obnoxious by pushing too hard, that would require playback levels in excess of what’s realistic. Unless you’re a rowdy head-banger, you won’t feel shortchanged.

And while cymbals and triangles don’t linger as long before total fade-out as they do with my $5500 tube amp and $3000 CD player, let’s maintain perspective. This is exemplary performance from components with such reasonable price tags.

All together

When speaker or electronics designers are presented with a very limited budget and a laundry list of required features, the engineer’s art resides in balancing all requirements and choosing the compromises carefully. The same is true for assembling a system, which can only be as good as its weakest link. It’s easy to become enamored of certain attributes and shape a rig to really excel in those areas. Having lived with this system for a while, I can confidently state that a potential owner will enjoy a very musical and surprisingly refined balance -- even when compared to reference-level systems costing ten times more.

Yes, you can buy more ultimate resolution. Yes, you can buy lower bass. Yes, you can buy more air or bloom. But -- except for a momentary and soon-forgotten comparison side by side -- would you care, or, enjoying this combination on its own merits, notice any room for improvement? In all likelihood, not! Hence, without further ado, hand me that stamp. If the United States Department of Agriculture can affix a stamp of quality to a piece of dead meat, we can honor a complete $1500 audio system that makes your favorite music come startlingly alive! Long live the Cambridge Audio A500/D500se/Polk Audio RT35i -- it represents high end performance for not all that much money


En route or already in-house are the Audio Refinement Complete combo of 50Wpc integrated amplifier and matching CD player, an equivalent electronics package by Arcam, and speakers by Triangle and Acoustic Energy. We’ll first hitch the new speakers to today’s Cambridge stack to report on what changes. Later, we’ll attack the Audio Refinement and Arcam gear and again play musical chairs with the speakers. This exercise of interchanging core components to arrive at different system configurations should enlighten us as to the various sonic signatures of these components. We’ll also learn how to accentuate certain qualities to appeal to different listeners’ preferences. Check in again in two weeks.

Prices of equipment reviewed this month:

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