Cambridge Audio Azur 650BD: multichannel music and multiregion modification

Now the review of the Cambridge Audio Azur 650BD 'universal' Blu-ray player is online, time to add an update on what I've been up to with the player. I've had a second sample of the machine for some time now, working towards a review in the June issue of Gramophone – yes, amazingly long lead-times! – and as well as using it to play Blu-ray discs and DVDs, I've been doing lots of work on its abilities as an audio player.

That's involved spinning both stereo CDs and multichannel SACDs, as well as the odd DVD-Audio title I happen to have on the racks, and both connecting through an HDMI link to my home cinema system and using the player's analogue outputs.

I've also hacked the player to handle Blu-ray discs from multiple regions, which is something of a prerequisite in this household. Now for most users this won't be needed, since many of the titles from the States and ostensibly Region A (we're in Region B) turn out to be region-free: sites such as the excellent Movietyme are a good source of information on the real status of such titles.

However, when more of your discs come from points east than points west, the ability to change regions comes in handy. So as I had with the ill-fated Oppo BDP-831, I turned to the online shop for a multiregion solution for the 650BD.

What arrived in the post was a single small circuitboard and a couple of multipin connecting leads. And this is how simple the mod is to install, although of course it must be pointed out that doing so will invalidate your warranty.

First, and with the power disconnected, pop the lid on the player: this involves undoing two screws on each side panel, plus a few at the rear, then sliding the lid off. Oh, and going to find a plaster while sucking the thumb you just cut on the sharp edge of the lid, revealed when it's removed.

Wound attended to, all you need concentrate on is the connector handily marked with a red circle in the shot above, from Bluraychip's excellent instructions.

Unplug the black cable's connector from the socket – a little gentle levering with a jeweller's screwdriver was required – and plug it into one of the two sockets on the 'hack' circuitboard.

Use the cable supplied to link the other socket on the board to the one from which you unplugged the cable, and finally connect the board to the spare power supply socket on the player's main board, again with a cable supplied by Bluraychip.

And that's it: sticky pads on the bottom of the board hold it in place, and you now have a player with a totally reversible multiregion modification.

As Bluraychip explains it, 'By default, your bluray player is now region free for DVD. To set the bluray region to A, B or C, please press “1”, “2” or “3” on the remote when the player is in standby.

'The player will automatically power on, when “1”, “2” or “3” is pressed. To disable the automatic power on, press the blue button on the remote once. To enable automatic power on again, press the yellow button once.

'To select a specific DVD region, press green button followed by a number from "0" to "6". For automatic all region free - select "0".'

The other addition has been a wireless Ethernet bridge to link the player to the internet for firmware updates and BD-Live content. Those who remember my blog on the stillborn Oppo BDP-831 will recall the USB-powered Belkin bridge I bought then, and which works just as well with the Cambridge Audio player: there's a convenient USB socket on the rear, close to the Ethernet port, as well a front-mounted one under a cover.

Alternatively, you could use a mains-powered wireless adapter, or simply connect the player to your home network with an Ethernet cable.

So that's all the housekeeping done: the rest of the time I have been enjoying the Cambridge Audio's ability with an ongoing diet of multichannel music discs I receive for review in the audio pages of Gramophone each month – both SACDs and the odd audio-only Blu-ray title, plus some BD-video releases of operas, concerts and the like.

And the 650BD is good – very good, in fact. As noted in the WHFSV review the initial favourable impressions created by the substantial build – injury notwithstanding! – and fast start-up/disc-loading are backed up with very good performance when playing video titles, both BD and upscaled DVD.

But as you might hope, given the word Audio in the manufacturer's name, it's in the sound department that the 650BD really shows what it can do, both when used as a transport firing DSD down an HDMI link to my trusty Onkyo TX-SR875 receiver and when employing its own decoders and digital to analogue conversion.

In fact I'd go so far as to say I reckon this player gives little away to similarly-priced CD-only hardware – and remember we're talking £400 here – and really shines when fed higher-resolution audio.

Recent listening has included this excellent new release from Norwegian label 2L, an audio-only Blu-ray title with a choice of 24/192 5.1-channel or 24/96 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, 24/192 LPCM stereo and, on a second disc stereo and 5.1 DSD, all originated on 352.8kHz/24-bit DXD. In other words, not only a chance to compare formats, but also a fine way of giving the player a serious work-out. Oh, and with unfamiliar music, too – violin concertos by 19th century composer Ole Bull – so no preconceptions.

Simply, the 2L discs, like all the label's high-resolution releases, sound stunning through the Cambridge Audio, with rich, powerful bass and superb atmosphere and detail. That holds true whether you use the HDMI link or decode onboard, so those with older receivers having no HDMI audio capability needn't feel shortchanged.

And while Linn may have decided to stop making disc players, its record company is still turning out some superb SACDs, of which the new release of Mozart symphonies, with Sir Charles Mackerras conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, is among the finest to date.

It's the second such set from Mackerras and the SCO on Linn, and both are not only demonstration-quality, but also show just what the Cambridge Audio player can do.

Striking, too, is the catalogue available on the London Symphony Orchestra's own LSO Live label: not only are the discs multichannel SACD hybrids, they're also budget-priced at just £7.99 a pop.

Of late I've been playing the superb Mahler 4, conducted by the orchestra's principal conductor Valery Gergiev, and Strauss's Eine Alpensinfonie, with Bernard Haitink waving the stick, and both are the kind of recordings able to give you real 'wow' moments when played through a high-quality multichannel system.

And it's in just such a system that the Cambridge player deserves a place.

In fact, I've been spending so much time playing music through the 650BD of late – in between those 'nothing on the box' movie sessions that have, of late, taking in everything from Up and Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea to The Hurt Locker, that deadlines for the Gramophone review are starting to loom large.

So, if you'll excuse me...

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Andrew has written about audio and video products for the past 20+ years, and been a consumer journalist for more than 30 years, starting his career on camera magazines. Andrew has contributed to titles including What Hi-Fi?, GramophoneJazzwise and Hi-Fi CriticHi-Fi News & Record Review and Hi-Fi Choice. I’ve also written for a number of non-specialist and overseas magazines.