Review: Cambridge Audio CXC CD Transport: The Sound and The Music

“My God! What has sound got to do with music?” ― Charles Ives

“Whether I make them or not, there are always sounds to be heard and all of them are excellent.” ― John Cage

When it comes time to listen to music, how we listen, through what medium, directly effects our experience. Radio, streaming, serving, records, cassettes, and discs, each offer up a different kind of experience. As such, they each offer a medium-specific connection to music. But this reality is often overwhelmed by notions of sound quality, as if CDs and LPs are at war with one another, and as soon as we leave the room and turn out the lights, the real fighting begins, with CDs smashing LPs and vice versa. And this is a fight to the death, where there can be only one winner.

We humans have a tendency to attribute our characteristics and behaviors to objects (and animals, abstracts, etc.). We anthropomorphize. So it’s no surprise to see much of the dialog about things like CDs and LPs take on the uniform of the embattled, with winners and losers being declared ad infinitum. The fact of the matter is, this is all just a silly little boys game, and I do mean boys. We called it War.

“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” ― John Cage

The Cambridge Audio CXC is a CD transport. Its sole purpose is to spin up CDs to the correct and stable speed so that a laser can read the pits and lands that are encoded into the polycarbonate layer of the disc. Then, by way of the CXC’s digital outputs (Coax or Toslink), that data is sent to a digital to analog converter to turn bits into analog waves. This analog signal is then sent on to your amplification device(s) of choice. Done!

The main enemies of the CD transport are read errors, noise, and noise. Read errors are caused by imperfections in the surface of the compact disc. Contrary to marketing hyperbole, the CD is not perfect.

From the company:

The disc drive in the CXC was originally developed by Cambridge Audio for its high-end 851C CD player. It’s our renowned ‘S3’ servo design, and it has class-leading levels of jitter rejection and error correction – no multi-purpose drive is able to compete with the the CXC’s levels of precision and stability.

While the laser uses light to read the disc, everything going on inside the box, as it were, makes for a perfect storm of electrical and mechanical noise that’s intent on traveling. So its also the job of every CD transport or player to deal with said noise and keep it from contaminating our precious and susceptible analog signal.

The CXC is part of CX Series 2 range of Cambridge products that includes the CXA81 and CXA61 Integrated Amplifiers, and the CXN (V2) Network Player. They all share the same machined metal chassis with an aluminum faceplate finished in Lunar Grey. It’s worth noting that both CX Series integrated amplifiers also contain DACs, which makes a CD Transport make sense, especially in Series.

I’m keen on the CXC’s staid looks, and the unit feels solid and nicely made. The font panel offers all of the controls you need to play CDs, with buttons for Standby/On, Open/Close the CD tray, Play/Pause, Stop, Skip/Scan. These commands are also available on the included remote, that can also control other models in the CX Series. The remote adds the ability to Repeat a specific track or entire CD, and play back the songs on a CD in Random order. The display shows the number of tracks on the CD, the total length of the CD, and if the disc contains CD-text data, you’ll see that as well.

If you’ve read CD Replay: A Preface, you’ll know that I am fan of the CD transport because I already own a number of DACs that I happen to love. For this review, I paired the CXC up with the stunning Denafrips ARES II DAC (see review) because I love it and the Denafrips offers two Coax inputs, which allowed me to attach the CXC and a Raspberry Pi 4 mated to the IRIS USB Digital To Digital Converter (review coming soon) for serving and streaming files. A/B baby! The cost of the Pi 4/IRIS combo comes out to roughly $600 all in, which makes for a nice cost-equivalent comparison.

The Sound of One CD Spinning

The differences I heard when comparing playing CDs on the CXC to playing music stored on my Synology NAS to the Pi 4 and converted to Coax out by the Denafrips IRIS II DDC were, for all intents and purposes, not worth mentioning. I’d have been hard pressed to know which was which when listening to the exact same music that was playing from the CD or playing from the file I ripped from that very same CD. They sounded, through the Denafrips ARES II DAC, more or less identical.

It’s worth noting that I spent 6+ years as Editor of AudioStream, where my sole job was to listen to files, streamed or served, and figure out how to get the best sound from what was originally called, computer audio. It turns out the first thing you want to do, is get the computer out of the hifi system.

Here in the Barn, my files sit on the aforementioned Synology NAS, which is connected, via a length of AudioQuest Vodka Ethernet cable, to my router. Another length of Ethernet cable, AQ Diamond, runs from that same router to a DJM Electronics GigaFOILv4-INLINE Ethernet Filter, through another length of AQ Diamond Ethernet cable and into a Raspberry Pi 4 (running RoPieee/Roon). The Pi’s USB output is connected to the Denafrips IRIS DDC, which converts that USB input into a Coax output that’s connected to the same Denafrips ARES II DAC as the CXC transport, using the same model AudioQuest Coffee Coax cable. In addition, since I run Roon I have a dedicated server that houses the Roon Core software, which is also connected to that router, and via subscriptions to Qobuz and Tidal (Qobuz sounds a bit better to my ears), I also have access to their millions-of-albums libraries.

Exhale. Some people who read that last paragraph think — never mind. Too much stuff, too much complexity. And I get that. The beauty of listening to CDs is simplicity — insert CD, hit Play. Done.

Comparing the same music, with the CD spinning on the CXC to the streamed version coming through the wires, was a bit more challenging. Tidal and Qobuz offer hi-res streaming, Tidal uses MQA to send hi-res content to subscribers, while Qobuz uses FLAC. [footnote 1] I’ve found , through listening, that hi-res, either MQA or FLAC, can sound better than CD-quality. It can also sound about the same, and at times worse. Digital sound quality depends on more than file resolutions and containers and for the most part, the quality of the recording matters more, and the quality of the music matters most. Besides, most of the music I listen to is only offered in good old-fashioned CD-quality.

When comparing a CD-quality file streamed from Tidal or Qobuz, and even hi-res titles, to its CD cousin in the CXC spin machine, the results pretty much bore out what most people say about these things — the CD typically sounded better. How much better depended on the CD and the file in question, and at times I would say the differences between a CD and a stream were negligible. But I would give the overall edge to the Cambridge CXC when it comes to sound quality, where it offered a more nuanced and resolute sounding presentation as compared to streaming’s sometimes slightly sloppier and less well defined presentation. We’re not talking night and day differences, but the Cambridge CXC won this tight sound quality battle by a pit and land. [footnote 2]

The Sound of Streaming

But here’s the thing — I will never live without streaming, ever again. I am addicted. I am addicted to music discovery on a scale I never would have dreamed of when I spun my first record in the 1960s, or my first CD in the 1980s. Using Roon as my guide, specifically Roon Radio, I come across music that is new to me every single day, and twice on Sunday. OK, more than twice on most days.

So the differences in terms of sound quality between CDs and streaming fall into the category of — who cares. For me. I spend the majority of my music listening time listening to digital music in file form, either served or streamed, and I have never stopped and thought — that doesn’t sound as good as I think it should. Ever. Not even once.

that Engleskyts CD is an old favorite but one track was unplayable through the CXC as it skipped and stuttered

Slow Down, Chief

I also love listening to records. LPs, 45s, 10 inchers. The focus and attention that playing records enforces is good for my soul. It slows me down and makes the listening experience something I have to tend to. You can’t put on a record and go do laundry, cut the grass, have a lemonade, eat a sandwich, shine your boots, and come back hours later with music still playing. As it does with Roon Radio.

Something similar happens when playing CDs. When the CD ends, music stops playing (unless you hit Repeat, something I never do). You have to get over to your CD collection, pick out what to play next, get over to your player, insert the CD, and hit play. I know this doesn’t sound like much, because it really isn’t much. But with a world of music and video and social media and stuff at our fingertips, where we can travel from a bookshop in Paris to a shirt maker in Japan to a boot maker in Spokane in the span of a few minutes without ever moving more than hand while listening to just about anything we want from that great big music library in the sky, makes getting up from a chair and walking and selecting just one thing from a finite number of curated similar things seem like something special, something nearly old-fashioned.

I Want It All

Here’s the thing. When it comes time to listen to music, how we listen, through what medium, directly effects our experience. In terms of sound quality, the Cambridge CXC mostly proved the better sound quality source when compared to streaming. That’s just that. But I’m equally, yes equally, interested in the entire experience. So playing CDs does not render streaming obsolete, it provides another form of music enjoyment. And I like more enjoyment whenever I can get it.

While I love streaming, I also like to support the artists I enjoy beyond the mostly meager trickle of money that goes their way via streaming. So I buy music, mostly LPs but also CDs and downloads, and there are about 600 CDs sitting on my CD racks. While I sold off the majority of my CD collection many years ago, I kept the special ones. Mainly contemporary classical music, most of which never appeared on vinyl and even the CDs are now hard to come by, mixed in with more recent CD purchases of music that I wanted to own that was not available on vinyl. So I’ve got the stuff to feed a CD transport and keep both of us happy for ages.

In the end, playing CDs strikes me as a lifestyle choice. Spending time with the Cambridge CXC was a very pleasant reminder that real time and attention spent listening to music pays dividends and sometimes having less to choose from makes the experience more thoughtful. Devoting one’s time and attention to listening to an album at a time, coupled with the experience of having and holding a real object in hand that includes artwork and liner notes in addition to pits and lands, allows for a different, and potentially deeper, connection to the music beyond sound.

  1. Remember that childhood game of War? There are ongoing battles over MQA and I have as much interest in those battles as I do in arguing over Billie Eilish’s figure or fingernails.
  2. I also have the PS Audio PerfectWave SACD Transport ($6499) in for review

Cambridge Audio CXC Dedicated CD Transport
: $599


Digital Audio Outputs: S/PDIF coaxial and TOSLINK optical
S/PDIF Putput Impendance:  <75 Ohms
Max Power Consumption: 25W
Standby Power Consumption: <0.5W
Gapless Playback: Yes
Remote COntrol: Yes
Dimensions (H X W X D): 85 x 430 x 315mm (3.1 x 16.9 x 12.4”)
Weight: 4.7kg (10.3lbs)
Box Contents:  CXC CD Transport, Power Cable, 3 x AAA Batteries, Remote Control, Control Bus Cable

Company Website: Cambridge Audio