We've reviewed a whole host of products to bring you the best hi-fi systems on the market for £2000. We kick things off with a streaming ensemble featuring some sensational kit from Arcam, B&W and Cambridge Audio...

What do you do when you have music stored in bits and pieces all over the place?

Say you’ve ripped your entire CD collection and have stored it on a NAS device or your laptop. Or you’ve ventured into the realm of downloading high-resolution files for that leap into higher-quality sound.

And then, of course, there are all the songs and playlists you have on your smartphone – it’s a mishmash of file types, and you simply can’t stick to just one format. What you need is a streamer to bring them all together...

The system

Streamer - Cambridge Audio CXN £700

Amplifier - Arcam FMJ A19 £650

Speakers - B&W 685 S2 £500

Total cost £1850

Choosing the components

Cambridge Audio’s new CXN streamer is the perfect foundation for your hi-fi system if you have music stored over various devices. Its extensive streaming features mean it can play just about any music file from anywhere (by wired or wireless means), and it’s a joy to use, too.

We originally started off the system with the five-star Pioneer N-50A (£500). But once we heard the new Cambridge CXN, we switched instantly. It’s a richer, more detailed and entertaining performer – easily worth the additional £200.

Add to that a tried-and-tested combination of the Award-winning Arcam FMJ A19 stereo amplifier and B&W 685 S2 speakers, and you have an exceptional system that fits together like pieces in a puzzle.

The Arcam A19 amplifier’s impressive detail and refined tonal balance lend a lot to the system’s overall smooth sound. Played through the punchy B&W 685 speakers, you get a sound that’s full-bodied, packed with bold rhythms and full of vibrancy. The speakers aren’t afraid to go loud, either: they can easily fill a medium-to-large room with big, spacious and dynamic sound.

MORE: Arcam A19 review

More after the break

Sound quality

The smooth approach bodes well for a varied music collection, as the system isn’t fussy whether you’re playing an MP3, a 24-bit/96kHz FLAC or if you’re streaming songs from Spotify. While you’ll be able to spot a poorly recorded album when you hear one, this CXN/A19/685 combination feels no need to snub its nose at the quality. It’s far more interested in delivering the smoothest, most enjoyable performance possible.

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That rumbling bassline in The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army sounds deep, punchy and agile enough that you’ll be humming it the second you hear it. The tempo changes are deftly handled, and the screech of distorted guitar riffs full of grunt and aggression. There are no hard or sharp edges at any point, nor does the snappy rhythm ever miss a step. 

The crunch and crackle in Massive Attack’s Teardrop is crisply delivered. There’s also plenty of breathing space in between the harpsichord, drums and delicate, breathy vocals – it’s an immersive listen. What strikes us most is just how solid the system sounds. The Arcam’s refined subtlety permeates through the song, while the B&Ws lay on the muscle and excitement.

Go up the price scale and you’ll find that components at £1000 each will offer greater precision and insight, but this combination of products is very hard to fault at this price. 

MORE: B&W 685 S2 review

Design and control

You wouldn’t think it at first glance, but the Cambridge and Arcam actually match visually. They share similar dimensions and uncluttered fascias. The Arcam is available only in black, but the CXN comes in silver or black. You can get the B&W 685 S2s in black or white, too. The speakers are well made, a protective grille covering the delicate metal tweeter, and the striking yellow Kevlar mid/bass driver adds a splash of colour.

The A19 isn’t quite as flash as the sleek, modern design of the CXN, but we can’t argue with its sturdy build quality. The display just spells out the input name and volume in large letters – it’s appealingly simple and easy to read from a distance. In contrast, the CXN’s more informative display shows off the track, artist, sampling rate and album artwork in full colour.

We love using the CXN streamer. It has a lovely control dial that responds smoothly with the menu, while the included remote and free Connect app are just as intuitive.

The app can be used on Android and Apple devices, and is handy for scrolling through radio stations and your music collection. It’s a breeze to use. Arcam’s remote is a bit more basic, but works just as well when adjusting the volume.

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Setting up your system

For setting up, the first thing you’ll need is a good network connection. We always prefer the stability a wired connection gives you, so we’d recommend hooking up the CXN to your home network using the ethernet port. You can still go the wireless route: Cambridge includes a wireless antenna in the box that you can plug into the back panel. A network is quick to set up and our CXN had no problem picking up our two NAS boxes and accessing internet radio.

Once you have your devices – laptop, smartphone, tablet – connected on to the same network, all you have to do is press play. Streaming is seamless and uninterrupted, and we experience no dropouts with the CXN.

Those with Apple devices can stream over AirPlay, but it’s not the best sound quality you’ll get out of this system. Plug your smartphone into the USB port if you want to play stored songs (it will charge your phone as well), or use Spotify Connect to stream your playlists.

MORE: How to set up Apple AirPlay

You don’t have to go wireless all the way. There’s a USB type B input for plugging in your laptop, while optical and coaxial inputs are also available. All the digital inputs are capable of playing high-resolution files of up to 24-bit/192kHz, while the USB port at the back panel supports DSD64 files.

Once you’re set up with your streamer, plug it into any of the Arcam’s six line-level inputs. We used the tuner input to keep things simple (the input’s name will show up on the amp’s display), but there are enough inputs if you want to plug in your Blu-ray player, CD player, set-top box and more. The A19 also houses a good-sounding moving-magnet phono stage, should you want to dust off that old turntable and give it a spin.

And now for the finishing touch: the speakers. While the B&Ws can be propped up on top of a shelf, we would advise against it. They need a bit of space to breathe, and you don’t want to restrain the immense sense of scale and space they can produce. Invest in a good pair of stands (the Custom Design Signature FS104s are long-standing favourites at £200) and secure the speakers with little blobs of Blu-tack. You can biwire the 685 S2s, but it’s not necessary: single-wiring works just fine.

Read all our B&W news and reviews

Verdict

If you want the most convenient system for playing your sprawling music collection, this is it.

Not only is it packed with features and seamless to use, the sonic performance is among the best you’ll find at this sub-£2000 price.

We can’t think of a better combination in this price range, and we don’t think you’ll want to stop listening.

Streamer - Cambridge Audio CXN £700

Amplifier - Arcam FMJ A19 £650

Speakers - B&W 685 S2 £500

Total cost £1850

 

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