$350 can buy a wide range of items in 2019. A custom suit from Suit Supply made from Italian wool or a pair of well-made dress boots. It will even buy two bottles of drinkable Scotch to enjoy with your Rabbi during the High Holidays, or a brand-new pair of hockey skates for your teenager who just made the school team. But none of those will provide you with the long-term lasting enjoyment of the Cambridge Audio AXA35 integrated amplifier.
Only the AXA35 will stay up with you into the wee hours of the morning and provide soothing background music as you cradle a crying six-year-old with a horrible case of bronchitis. She did remind me to wipe down the remote. Smart kid.
Having owned amplifiers that cost more than sixteen times the asking price of the Cambridge Audio AXA35, one would think it would be hard to find much joy in a piece of entry-level kit that retails for only $350. My long-term love affair with the $1,950 Croft Acoustics Phono integrated amplifier is almost four years old; that’s forever for an audiophile, but I must confess to using the Cambridge piece a lot more of late.
It’s not that the AXA35 is better than the Croft; the gap is actually pretty wide when it comes to how the more expensive amplifier injects a sense of presence into every piece of music, and the resolution and transparency of the phono section. Huge gap.
But for $350 – the AXA35 is one helluva entry drug into our frustrating, and somewhat silly cult.
Something the high-end industry needs a lot more of to combat the tidal wave that is the active smart loudspeaker.
Cambridge Audio are not the only brand that understands the need for such products like the AXA35; Pro-Ject Audio Systems, NAD, and Schiit Audio have been delivering some exceptional affordable products for the past few years that are bringing music listeners into the fold for the first time and that needs to be our focus if we want to create a new base that will push high-end audio forward into the future.
$100,000 loudspeakers, $20,000 amplifiers, and $3,000 power cords are not resonating with anyone under forty years of age.
So what’s under the hood?
The AXA35 is uber minimalist from a design perspective. Placed next to the recently reviewed NAD D 3045, it drew a mild yawn from my wife, an award-winning industrial designer who has never said a kind word about 90% of the audio equipment that has graced our home for the past 17 years.
“It’s plain Jane looking. The NAD piece looks far more interesting,” she remarked.
“Try picking them up,” I replied with some inane degree of pride as if I had given birth to either one.
Pro-tip: Never tell a woman from Staten Island what to do.
She walked through the infamous Wu-Tang Clan’s Park “Killer” Hill section of Staten Island to get to school as a kid.
The AXA35 is heavy; thirteen pounds of aluminum and steel that feels more substantial than any entry-level amplifier I’ve reviewed in a very long time. It’s also well assembled and finished with a quality looking front faceplate and ventilated top cover. Chunky is a good word for it.
The display is bright and easy to read from about fifteen feet away (just got my first pair of glasses), and lets you know which source you are listening to and the volume level.
Under the hood, everything is very tidy and neat, with a sizable toroidal transformer occupying the front left corner of the chassis. The AXA35 offers 35 watts/channel into 8 ohms but proved to be a lot more powerful in real use with most loudspeakers.
The front panel offers a volume control, five source selection buttons, ¼’ headphone jack, 3.5mm auxiliary input jack, and a menu button to access bass, treble, and balance controls.
The rear panel has input jacks for five sources; including a phono section that works with a moving magnet, or high-output moving coil cartridge. Cambridge Audio have also included a USB input for charging your smartphone. The binding posts are not the best quality and one would think that a manufacturer that sells as many amplifiers as Cambridge Audio could do a little better at this price.
The supplied remote control works just fine (it’s actually a full-sized unit which can access every feature on the amplifier), but you can tell that it’s a recycled design from other components.
If you’re looking for a one-box solution that includes an internal DAC, Bluetooth connectivity, and fancy touch-panel LCD display for $350 – you’re going to be looking for a very long time.
The NAD D 3020 V2 offers all of that (minus the touch-panel display) for $450, but I’d give the AXA35 the nod in terms of power, and overall sound quality. The NAD is an excellent option if you care more about Bluetooth support, and 24-bit/192kHz digital playback.
No subwoofer output. Bummer.
You need a DAC. AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt or the Schiit Audio Modi Mutibit will work perfectly.
She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid…
There is something undeniably surprising about the Cambridge Audio AXA35 integrated amplifier.
Like the Millennium Falcon, it just punches through everything with an attitude. Han Solo swagger that did not disappoint with any of the four loudspeakers that I tried with it.
My second favorite of the four combinations, the RP-600M is rather ideal for the AXA35 with its high sensitivity, bold presence, and slightly tilted top end.
The AXA35’s tonal balance falls somewhere in-between neutral and warm, giving everything a decent amount of meat but without obscuring detail that a speaker like the RP-600M can unveil. Hank Mobley’s Workout (Tidal, 16-bit/44.1kHz) poured out of the Klipsch’s metal drivers with vitality, presence, and a slightly less edge on top. The Klipsch can accentuate a degree of hardness with horns depending on the amplifier, but not so with the AXA35.
The AXA35 does not possess a vise-like grip on the bottom end; but it does deliver a surprising degree of punch with the right loudspeaker; the Klipsch RP-600M, and PSB Alpha P5 both benefitted from that with alternative rock like the Smashing Pumpkins, The The, and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine.
The S-2 have an incredibly revealing ribbon tweeter that does something special with horns, vocals, and well recorded strings. The wrong amplifier will create too much of a good thing; and inject a hardness and smearing of detail and airiness. The Cambridge AXA35 doesn’t have enough power to really drive the S-2 properly to experience its capabilities, but at low-medium volume levels, the sound was nothing to sneeze it.
PSB Alpha P5
Both products cost the same amount of money, and even though the Alpha P5’s quoted sensitivity rating seems a tad generous based on my experience with five amplifiers, there was a synergy with these two products that I couldn’t better.
The Alpha P5 require some punch to deliver sufficient low end response, and the AXA35 delivered with almost every track; Metallica’s “One” from And Justice for All(CD, 16-bit/44.1kHz) energized my den and it never sounded like the wheels were coming off the train. The P5 could benefit from a subwoofer, but in a den, office, or bedroom – this combo was full of piss and vinegar.
Vocals were always impressive with the AXA35; both with digital sources, and the three phono cartridges that I ran through its phono section; Dynavector 10×5, Grado Black1, and Nagaoka MP-200. I’ve certainly heard better sounding phono sections, but what the AXA35 delivers with a good cartridge is more than sufficient.
Who needs this?
The Cambridge Audio AXA35 integrated amplifier works so well for $350, that it’s really for anyone looking for an integrated amplifier that can serve as the backbone of an entry-level system up to about $1,500 in price. Paired with the right loudspeakers, it will more than surprise you with its swagger, warm tonality, and unbridled presence with all types of music.
Very highly recommended.