The Cambridge Audio Alva ST turntable is a brand new proposition from the British hi-fi brand.
It released the Alva TT – the world’s first aptX HD Bluetooth turntable – in 2019, and that deck has been successful enough to not only spawn a successor – Alva TT V2 – but a brand new turntable, the Alva ST, which we have on review here.
While it may look similar to the older model, a completely new belt drive design, new tonearm and cartridge, new platter and lower price tag make this Cambridge turntable an intriguing option – but whether its audio performance hits the mark is another matter.
At £849 / $999 / AU$1799, the new Alva ST takes Cambridge into the sub-£1000 price point for the first time, bringing it into more affordable realms for many. Considering it has many of the same premium features as its pricier sibling, the Alva TT V2 (£1699, $1999, AU$3699) – Bluetooth streaming skills, switchable phono stage, same cosmetic design and finish – that’s not a bad deal at all.
Of course, the Alva ST is up against tough competition, such as the award-winning Technics SL-1500C deck (£899 / $1199), and on the cheaper end we have the entertaining five-star Dual CS 518 (£649 / $799 / AU$1299).
There are also rivals from Pro-Ject Debut Pro (£699 / $999 / AU$1079) and Rega Planar 3/Elys 2 (now £799) that, while they don’t have phono stages built in, are strong contenders for those looking to buy a turntable in this price range.
The Alva ST’s clean design is classy and the build quality looks and feels premium. It has the same elegant “lunar grey” finish as the older Alva TT, an aesthetic which fits seamlessly with the rest of Cambridge Audio’s range of products, from the CX amplifiers all the way to the high-end Edge range.
It may look identical to the Alva TT at first glance, but there are plenty of changes and new elements when you look closer.
One of the biggest differences in the Alva ST is that it’s a belt drive design as opposed to the Alva TT’s direct drive, and as a result, a new platter and top plate are introduced.
The new 17mm platter is die-cast aluminium and furnished with a 5mm rubber mat that’s designed to reduce unwanted resonance. Below the platter sits a well made plinth, which has a 1mm-thick aluminium top plate and features a damped MDF construction.
The deck is simple enough to set up and use, with the included belt easily looped around the platter and motor pulley. There are three neat buttons on the plinth: two electronic speed change controls (33⅓ and 45 RPM) and a power button that glows dimly in standby mode, growing brighter when turned on.
Type Belt drive
Tonearm included? Yes
Cartridge Audio Technica AT-95E moving magnet
Phono stage? Yes
Bluetooth? Yes – SBC, aptX, aptX HD
Speeds 33 ⅓, 45
Speed change Electronic
Dimensions (hwd) 435 x 139 x 366.7mm
The other big change is that the Alva ST has a new tonearm. It’s a nicely-finished arm, but we’re struck by the excessive amount of free play in the bearings. This is something that rarely bodes well for sound quality. Considering how good the general build quality of Cambridge products usually is, the lack of quality control here is disappointing.
The tonearm has a removable headshell, which makes it easy to upgrade the Alva ST by swapping out the given cartridge with one of your liking. Our review sample is fitted with an Audio Technica AT-95E moving magnet cartridge, although Cambridge Audio has said future Alva ST models will have the newer AT-VM95E cartridge supplied as standard.
Fitting the headshell (with pre-mounted cartridge) to the tonearm is straightforward, as is setting up the turntable in general. It’s worth applauding Cambridge Audio for including all the cables and accessories you’ll need in the box. This is helpful if you’re a new user or just want to start playing straight away without needing to buy new cables. The Alva ST comes with a set of phono interconnect cables to connect the deck to your amplifier and a grounding wire for when you want to bypass the built-in phono stage and use an external one.
Cambridge Audio has made plenty of user-friendly updates that make the Alva record player more flexible to use in your existing system, as well as a way to upgrade your deck down the line.
Along with offering a detachable cartridge headshell, the Alva ST’s built-in phono stage – based on the superb Duo phono preamp – can be switched off. This means you can bypass it and directly connect the deck to your existing amplifier’s phono stage – a feature missing from the older Alva TT. It’s a nice touch from Cambridge, and also means that if you’re looking to upgrade your system’s sonics, you can theoretically simply add on a new phono stage rather than replace the whole deck.
As with the original model, the Alva ST features aptX HD Bluetooth, which lets you wirelessly stream your vinyl in up to 24-bit/48kHz hi-res quality to compatible wireless speakers and wireless headphones. It’s a convenient feature that means you can listen to your vinyl collection with a more versatile range of kit, and with no need for extra wires.
It also supports aptX and SBC Bluetooth codecs for non-aptX HD streams, although it’s worth noting the Bluetooth sound quality is as good as the kit you’re streaming it to, and we’d recommend a great-sounding pair of headphones or speakers to get the best performance out of it.
Pairing is simple: toggle the Bluetooth switch on, press the pairing button at the back, and a few blinks later it connects to our Sony WH-1000XM5 wireless headphones. We find the process works better if you place the headphones close to the deck and other Bluetooth devices are kept further away.
The Bluetooth stream is stable and clean, voices in particular coming through with clarity and ample detail. It’s an enjoyable performance, and while it’s not as detailed as listening through a wired system, it’s still a great feature that means you can, for instance, listen to your vinyl collection at night without disturbing others.
When you’re not using Bluetooth, you can now turn it entirely off. As another nod to user experience, a third switch is included that turns off the blue LED light when Bluetooth is on, so the glow doesn’t distract when you’re listening at night.
We start listening as we always do, with the turntable set up on a flat surface away from speakers to minimise vibrations, and a stack of vinyl records.
Moonage Daydream by David Bowie sounds big, bold and detailed. The Alva ST’s spacious presentation has no problem filling our large listening room, the sound is clean and relatively uncluttered.
There’s a pleasing evenness across the frequencies. Play Beethoven’s Symphony No.6 in F “Pastoral”, and the Alva ST delivers a sound stage that’s spacious enough for all instruments to flourish. The deck is also transparent enough to show off the difference in recordings, from the ’90s live Unplugged album of Alice In Chains to the newer, intricate Four Tet’s There Is Love In You.
But from the second the needle hits the groove, we’re aware of just how ponderous the turntable sounds. There isn’t the requisite drive needed to propel a song’s rhythm, nor does it sound particularly snappy or dynamically involving. Circling by Four Tet is a stern test of any kit’s sense of timing, and the Alva ST simply isn’t able to tie all the musical strands together to deliver a cohesive performance.
We struggle to tap our feet along with any song, regardless of genre. It’s not the kind of performance we’re used to hearing from Cambridge Audio products, which are normally so exciting and fun to listen to from the get-go.
Rhythmically, the Alva ST is nowhere near as precise or agile as the more capable turntables from Technics, Rega and Pro-Ject. These five-star rivals marshal each note with more accuracy and authority, basslines are pulled more tautly, while also delivering superb levels of subtlety when it comes to dynamics. They also simply sound more fun.
There’s little sense of lively, punchy dynamics when listening to records on the Alva ST, and we struggle to connect emotionally with any song. Nick Cave’s beautiful, loving vocals on Into My Arms sound flat and uninteresting. The piano notes clunk along clumsily, seemingly elongating the song’s run time into what feels like a long dirge.
We switch from using the deck’s built-in phono stage to our reference unit – the Cyrus Phono Signature/PSX-R2, which is a near-two grand jump up in price – and the Alva ST’s performance regains a touch of spark. The sound is more detailed, there’s more solidity and grip to notes, which gives us something more to latch on to. However, that ponderous character remains throughout.
To say we’re dismayed is a huge understatement. We’re used to Cambridge Audio delivering entertaining, sophisticated, punchy and superbly capable performances. Whether it’s the multiple Award-winning CX amplifiers and CXN (V2) music streamer or the latest Evo all-in-one system – we’ve always had a great time in each product’s company.
Which is why the Alva ST’s performance is so baffling and disappointing. It’s entirely at odds with what we’ve come to know from Cambridge Audio. It’s a nicely packaged turntable with some great, user-friendly features, but it’s with the all-important sound quality that this deck simply doesn’t hit the mark. It’s the hi-fi brand’s first misstep in a long time and one we hope isn’t repeated in its future products.
- Sound 3
- Features 5
- Build 4
Read our review of the Technics SL-1500C
Also consider the Rega Planar 3/Elys 2
Read our Pro-Ject Debut Pro review