Cambridge Audio Evo 150 Review

Now flushed with success in the EISA 2021-2022 Awards featured this issue (see p30), this Evo 150 smart streaming amplifier is the more powerful and the better equipped of two new all-in-one solutions from the UK’s Cambridge Audio. The lesser Evo 75 looks exactly the same as its pricier sibling from the front, with the same 31.7cm-wide black anodised aluminium chassis fronted by a 17cm full-colour LCD panel, the same luxurious two-section knob available for control on the right of the fascia. But moving up to the Evo 150 doubles your available power from the Hypex Ncore Class-D power modules within; it also adds facilities around the back – the Evo 150 has a phono stage where the Evo 75 has none, a USB-B computer connection too, a pair of balanced XLR inputs enabling connection of a better class of component, RS232 control, and two sets of speaker binding posts rather than one. There’s also a DAC upgrade: the Evo 75 uses an ESS Sabre 9016K2M (as used in Cambridge’s CXA81 amplifier) while the Evo 150 upgrades to the 9018K2M, which offers a noise floor some 10dB lower.

So there’s more to the higher model than simply more power, and we’re not in the least surprised to hear that, contrary to expectations, Australian hi-fi lovers are choosing the Evo 150 in similar numbers to the lower and cheaper model. It is, on the rather pretty face of it, a highly attractive proposition.

Equipment

The modern breed of smart amplifier has developed as an inevitable consequences of music streaming being added as a bonus set of abilities on hi-fi amplifiers, rather than requiring a separate streaming source to plug in. The earliest came from the multiroom world, with the Sonos ZonePlayer 100 adding not particularly impressive amplification to its ZP80 streamer to make a streaming amp, the likes of which was followed faithfully by all multiroom systems that followed.

But in hi-fi terms the next wave of higher performance came as those multiroom systems became modularised and then bolted on to more hi-fi levels of amplifier. Many if not most modern amps and receivers from major brands now offer some level of app-controlled streaming as part of the product, often a multiroom ability too. Cambridge avoided such inclusion on its Edge A integrated amplifier, and also in its CX range, which has a purist pair of amps with a separate streamer to plug in. And there is a good argument for keeping all that noisy digital processing out of the way of delicate preamplification processes, although Cambridge clearly doesn’t consider that too strong a barrier to integration, as it did have its own streaming system, StreamMagic, aboard its very toppermost preamplifier, the Edge NQ.

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But while streaming smarts are now de rigeur on even the most plain-looking of integrated amplifiers, only a few companies have managed to integrate them entirely effectively, so that the streaming is front and centre of the whole product, making them friendlier both to view and to use. Indeed this seems to be a peculiarly British occupation – witness Linn’s high-end network players, and particularly the Naim Uniti series, which one suspects might have had some direct influence on Cambridge’s development of the Evo, with their colourful front displays and their thrilling knobs.

“The Evo 150 gets everything right, looks gorgeous, and puts Cambridge firmly in the game for anyone considering this breed of all-in-one smart amplifier…”

Indeed Cambridge has its own thrilling knob here, a concentric dial in two parts: a fluidly-rotating forward section which controls the volume, and a milled outer wheel at the back which clicks around for input selection or menu browsing. This provided an early moment at which we connected emotionally with the Evo – for once it wasn’t the music, nor the design with its colour screen and neat magnetically-attached side panels. It was when we turned the volume knob and saw that the volume numbers on the adjacent display have been made to rotate around the knob in time with its motion. ‘Oooh, nice!’, was our response, and far across the oceans we could see the satisfied grins of the engineers that came up with this delightful synchronisation.

Those magnetically-attached side panels are another nice design touch, especially given you get both options supplied in the box, rather than them being sold as optional extras. Our sample arrived with walnut wooden side panels fitted, which may be a nod back to Cambridge’s P40 amplifier, released in 1968 by the original Professor Edge. But you also get the option of black patterned side cheeks, which are made, we gather, from a material called Richlite. This is fashioned from pressed blocks of recycled paper saturated with resin, the result as dense and durable as hardwood while being resistant to water, heat and fire. Some modern miracle technology of the green age, you’d guess? Not at all – Richlite was originally developed 70 years ago, when it was used for machine tooling by the aerospace industry; it is only more recently that designers and architects have cottoned on to its merits, which include it being certified by Greenguard and the Forest Stewardship Council,. It is now being used to make everything from mobile phone cases to furniture to skateboard parks.

Connections

The Evo’s physical allure thus ascertained, how about its utility? You could use the Evo as it stands if streaming is all you need (see ‘The app’ below), but this is also an integrated amplifier into which external sources can be plugged. Its input selection is thoroughly modern, including an HDMI socket to connect to your TV, using ARC (HDMI’s Audio Return Channel) to play sound from your TV’s inputs or streaming channels. There are three analogue audio inputs: a moving-magnet phono stage, one line-level input on RCA sockets, and one balanced input on XLR sockets. There is both a USB-A slot for connecting sticks or drives of music files, and a USB-B socket for direct playback from computer (something we often find mysteriously absent on streaming amplifiers), and capable of playback for files up to 32-bit 384kHz PCM, and up to DSD256.

There are four other digital inputs: two optical (good to 24-bit/96kHz) and one coaxial (24/192, same as the HDMI ARC), plus a little socket marked ‘CD’, though this is, according to the manual, “a dedicated connection from an Evo CD player”, something as yet unannounced, but pictured in some of Cambridge’s imagery (see overleaf), and on enquiry we were told this is hoped to be available towards the end of the year.

Additional socketry includes trigger in/outs (the input also neatly accepting an IR input), an RS232 connection for integrated control, a subwoofer output, and a pair of preout RCA sockets which could not, so far as we could ascertain, be switched to fixed output for use as, say, recording outputs.

There is an Ethernet network connection as well as dual-band Wi-Fi within, while invisible on the rear panel are the options for point-to-point streaming – starting with Bluetooth, of course, here supporting SBC, aptX and aptX HD codecs, so that Android users with phones supporting aptX can enjoy a decent level of Bluetooth quality. Apple device owners don’t get the courtesy of the Apple-preferred AAC Bluetooth codec, but they would be considered foolish to resort to Bluetooth when there’s the superior AirPlay 2 onboard, streaming via your network. There’s Chromecast built-in as well, which will similarly simplify playback from many Cast-enabled apps. The Evo supports both Spotify Connect and Tidal Connect – the latter the first time we’ve seen this nascent technology in operation.

Finally the Evo 150 is fully certified Roon Ready, and indeed popped up thrice in our Roon software’s audio settings, offering itself for playback direct via Roon as well as via the AirPlay and Chromecast options.

The app

With a system that leads on streaming, a good app is a prerequisite. Cambridge has StreamMagic, which has undergone continuous development since its first tentative steps, and now offers a nicely-designed and effective path to playback.

The app also walks you through set-up, quickly linking to your Evo if you’ve given it the benefit of a hard-wired Ethernet connection, or taking you through the Wi-Fi set-up which, in our Apple-orientated environment, was quickly achieved using the AirPlay speaker set-up functionality of iOS. We returned it to Ethernet once we’d fixed a small selfinflicted set-up problem, which occurred because of our usual procedure of plugging everything in before powering on. This can be a mistake with the Evo 150, because if you have (as did we) the USB-B connection to a computer in place when you start it up, a bewildering array of issues may then ensue – the remote control didn’t work, the automatic firmware update kept failing and retrying. We’d got as far as emailing distributor Synergy before realising that we had submitted what is known on helpline desks as an RTFM enquiry (‘Read The Manual’), since the full online literature contained a clear warning NOT to connect USB-B until later. With that connection removed, the firmware update was immediately accepted, the remote control now worked (bizarre that – why?), and we had music flowing within minutes. We ran it for a week on casual duties almost entirely through USB-B, using the medium-sized physical remote control and that glorious front knob with its matching volume display, before settling in for some critical listening and app investigation.

The app’s home screen is neat and clear, and allows handy customisation – you choose which inputs to appear there, which services you have activated. Unlike several key rivals, everything else then gets out of the way.

At the top, below a little picture of your Evo’s lovely knob, there are three options. First is to Select Output, since there are a number of options for that: Speakers A, Speakers B, both Speakers A+B, or to the headphone socket which is a minijack socket (annoying for those with quarter-inch plugs) at the bottom right of the front panel. The headphone option is redundant in one way, since the unit auto-switches anyway when you plug in or remove headphones. However, this does enable you to leave headphones permanently connected but then manually switch the output back to the speakers.

The next selection option is the full Settings menu, which allows everything from renaming the product to controlling its auto power down timing (for us, never!), display brightness (bright, dim, or off), the USB Audio Class (it defaults to 1.0, whereas all but early Windows computers can now handle Class 2.0, which is required for higher-res playback). You can set a volume safety limit, adjust bass and treble controls (unlikely unless you have odd speakers or headphones), and prevent Google gathering more of your life’s data by turning off Chromecast’s default of opting in to sharing usage information.

The third option at the top immediately puts the unit into standby, though pleasingly it reloads to its previous position when restarting, forgetting only that we had switched to speaker playback; it played instead into the connected headphones, until we removed them again.

Next on the app’s home screen comes your list of available sources, then any recent radio stations, and then a rather impressive preset list with 99 options! It’s a shame these seem limited to radio stations, so that you can’t, say, allocate Qobuz playlists to a preset (though you could make them ‘favourites’ for future access through Qobuz).

Listening

We had both Qobuz and Tidal streaming from within the StreamMagic app; both sounded fantastic. An early delight was a 2019 remaster of Curtis Mayfield’s debut Curtis album streaming at 24-bit/192kHz, with the opener (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below We’re All Going To Go sounding as fresh, tight and extraordinary as when it arrived on vinyl back in 1970. From the solid centre the vocal sat forward and clear over the heavy payload of drums, percussion and fuzz bass, while the ping-pong horns punctuated the mix from either side. And how zingy the panned harp opening on the next track The Other Side Of Town. A full side of this quality of high-res remaster is enough to make you consider leaving your vinyl permanently in the racks.

There’s one limitation of streaming from within the StreamMagic app, and it’s one from which many others suffer – the StreamMagic presentation of both Tidal and Qobuz is primitive compared with their native apps: just text lists to start with, then small artwork alongside albums. For Qobuz there are two ways around – use the Qobuz app on your device and use Chromecast to send it to the Evo, though this is a nasty double-stream and seemed to limit us to 96kHz, and sounded harsh compared with direct streaming. Better would be to use the excellent Qobuz desktop app on computer and play via USB at the stream’s native sample rate.

For Tidal, however, Cambridge has that new Tidal Connect option, which puts your app in control of a direct Tidal stream from the internet to the Evo. Tidal Connect’s APK for achieving this is different to the way Tidal streams within the app; we’ve been advised elsewhere that in-app Tidal streaming may be more reliably pure than Tidal Connect, at least for now. This was our first chance to hear it and switch between them; things were far closer sonically than for the Qobuz via Chromecast option, but the StreamMagic Tidal did seem slightly more solid, a little fuller. Note also that the Evo 150 supports MQA-encoded high-res including Tidal Masters, for those willing to pay extra to Tidal for MQA.

Another option for enjoying either or both Qobuz and Tidal is Roon, of course, which meshes perfectly with both services as well as with your own files, then playing bit-perfect through to the Evo’s Roon endpoint, and looking gorgeous while doing it, noting only that the combination of subscriptions to do so starts getting a bit exey. We played much music this way, and can vouch for its success, and its delivery of sound quality. Moby’s ‘Reprise’ album of his classics rerecorded with acoustic instruments and orchestra is loaded with joys, and no more than the musical journey of We Are All Made Of Stars (24-48 from Qobuz) from its Sylvian-like bare-bones intro of softened piano through wide-open verses to its full-on anthemic close. The Evo 150 opened this up so wide that we felt we could almost step inside, and it left us, to be frank, moist in several places; it’s hard to ask more from your hi-fi than that.

Should you wish to distract yourself from such musical moments with hard technical information, there’s a useful info key on the remote control which shuttles the display through three screen options – artwork only, art plus info, or just info. The remote is a lovely half-wand; less bonkers than those for the Edge series and easy to follow, though the mute button is miles away from the volume controls. An eject button here is another indication of that CD player coming to join the Evo range.

There are also buttons on the Evo’s fascia, though we found these less satisfactory – their vertical strips near-invisible beside the glowing symbols that indicate their function; we actually stabbed at these symbols for a while when the remote was non-operational at the beginning, thinking them touch buttons, before finding the vertical physical buttons themselves in a long under-differentiated strip.

It was hard to pull ourselves away from the music, but we plugged our Samsung TV into the HDMI ARC to confirm operation there, and the TV audio flowed through from its attached PVR immediately, with none of the glitches we’ve experienced from some other equipment (including a unit from Cambridge). Later we found that the TV’s own Netflix app was silent, but that was quickly fixed by switching the TV’s digital audio output format from Auto to PCM.

Note we tried the Evo’s HDMI connection also with the audio-only HDMI output of a Panasonic 4K Blu-ray player, but no joy there; it seems just for ARC audio down HDMI.

We ran a good enjoyable vinyl session through the moving-magnet input, which was pleasingly quiet and seemed not to be digitised in the process, at least judging from the lack of a tell-tale delay when we raised or dropped the needle. Then again, it was possible to apply EQ, so maybe it was. We enquired, and were told that it is only digitised when you apply EQ – a perfect solution. Sonically the Cambridge’s phono stage performed admirably, as we’d hope from a company with its own dedicated phono stages.

The Evo can also stream from network-attached drives and those plugged into its USB-A slot on the back. From there we confirmed its ability again with MQA (only a green dot for Van Morrison’s Moondance, though the front panel display confirmed it was ‘unfolded’ to a purported 24-bit/192kHz). It played DSD at 64 and 128 (we had no 256DSD to hand), and PCM right up to the 24-bit 352.8kHz recording of ‘Living’ by Jan Gunnor Hoff – which we rarely get to hear: it’s often played at half-speed by machines unable to interpret such a bonkers bit-rate. Hoff’s solo piano is heavily percussive and the Evo made the most of its sharp edges and room acoustic.

We checked back to notes from our time with the Cambridge NQ preamp and W power amp, blurred by tears as they were from the joys of listening and the pain of that combo’s subsequent departure. That pairing, and the power amp in particular, delivered effortless joys and continuous revelation. The Evo 150 doesn’t go so far, and as an all-in-one combo unit priced far below the Edge range, you couldn’t fairly expect it to. It uses Class-D amp modules – highly-regarded Bruno Putzey-designed Hypex Ncore modules yes, but not to be considered in the same rarefied air as the biased A-B Edge amps. Nevertheless the Evo 150 delivered many of the same characteristics – a transparency to music across genres, a real sense of pace in its timing, and of power behind the presentation. To do that on top of all the available facilities, inputs and streams, coming from a lovely-looking box with colour display and a fine knob is quite the achievement, and puts the most obvious competitor, the Uniti players from fellow Brits Naim Audio, on notice. In the UK the Evo 150 is priced similarly to the lowest player in Naim’s Uniti range, the Atom, with the Evo 75 below. Here in Australia the Atom sells at $, significantly more expensive than either Evo. That makes the Evo 150 a still more attractive option here in Australia than in its home market.

Our only fail was with the ‘Bluetooth out’ functionality, which failed to connect to any of our Bluetooth headphones or speakers; it ‘saw’ them all and tried, but failed. So our only headphone listening was after all its cables had been removed, the unit now down in the study for repacking. We gave it a mains cable only, and found it happy to network; it appeared in the StreamMagic app as normal. We plugged in a pair of headphones and played from Qobuz, and realised while doing so that although its footprint is quite large, it makes a highly enjoyable desktop streamer just for headphone playback, with the attractive display, nice knob and all. Future Evo Headphone Edition anyone?

Conclusion

If all you want is a streaming amplifier, perhaps with the TV ARC connection and speakers either side of your TV, then the lower Evo 75 may be all you need; the doubled power in theory brings only 3dB of extra volume level, after all. But the Evo 150 loads up on additional connections, system control and the better DAC, as well as the reassurance of higher power reserves. At a grand more, it would certainly be our choice. The Evo 150 gets everything right, looks gorgeous, makes beautiful music, and puts Cambridge firmly in the game for anyone considering this breed of beautiful all-in-one smart amplification.

SUMMARY

Cambridge Audio Evo 150

+ Good inputs, good streaming

+ Great sound

+ Hypex Ncore power

– Invisible fascia buttons

– Plain in-app Tidal and Qobuz

SPECS

Inputs: 1 x line-level analogue, 1 x balanced XLR, 1 x mm phono, 2 x optical, 1 x coaxial, HDMI ARC, USB-A, USB-B, Bluetooth (SRC, aptX HD), UPnP, AirPlay 2, Chromecast built-in, Roon Ready, Ethernet, dual-band Wi-Fi

Outputs: Speakers A+B, minijack headphone, preamp outs, subwoofer out, Bluetooth out

Power: 2 x 150W Hypex Ncore

Dimensions (whd): 317 x 89 x 352mm

Weight: 5.3kg

Contact: Synergy Audio-Video

Telephone: 03 9459 7474

Web: www.synergyaudio.com

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