Which company makes the best budget hi-fi separates? The answer to that question has been surprisingly easy over the last few years, and it’s not one to make Cambridge happy.
In our opinion it’s Marantz that’s king of budget stereo kit, and it has been for a while. That company’s 6004 series CD player and PM6004 amplifier set the standards below the £500 mark thanks to their fluid, refined yet entertaining sound. Their fine build quality and a comprehensive feature list doesn’t hurt either.
The task facing Cambridge’s 351 components (above) is a daunting one, but first impressions are good.
We really like the 351C CD player, which we tested with its partnering amplifier, the Cambridge Audio Azur 351A. It’ll come as no surprise to find it shares the amplifier’s fine build and finish: this really is a smart bit of kit.
Cambridge Audio 351C: Build quality
The player’s display is large and clear and the transport responds to commands with swiftness and minimal noise. Cambridge makes a big thing of using a proprietary CD mechanism, and it’s right to do so.
Most rivals use multi-platform transports that are designed to accommodate both DVD and CD replay. These transports run at multiple speeds and aren’t optimised for CD use. The one in the 351C is, and it shows.
Elsewhere the 351C’s engineering shows the same attention to detail as that exhibited by the amplifier’s design. The power supply arrangement is generous and there’s plenty of evidence of good quality components being used in key areas.
Cambridge Audio 351C: Sound quality
The 351C’s sound character mirrors that of its partnering amplifier. There’s the same overt clarity, and the ability to dig up plenty of detail. The leading and trail edges of notes are rendered with precision and there’s no shortage of speed or articulation.
Where the 351C pulls ahead of its relative is the ability to communicate nuances, deliver low-level dynamic shifts and give a music space to relax when needed.
It’s this broad spread of talents that mean the 351C sounds right at home across the whole gamut of music right from Johnny Cash’s low-key but power version of I Won’t Back Down right through to Hans Zimmer’s bombastic Gladiator original soundtrack.
With each recording the Cambridge respects the music’s needs and conveys it with sympathy. Want fire and passion? This CD player will do that as well as anything at this price level, but it can change down gears and chill out too, when required.
Cambridge Audio 351C: Verdict
As we’d expect the CD player and amplifier work well together, the common sonic signatures dovetailing well. Buy the pair and we think you’ll be pleased, but for us the CD player is the real star here. When it comes to disc spinners at least, Marantz finally has something to worry about.