In 1968, I was a 2-year-old toddler living in Paris, Francemy birthplaceon the 14th floor of a diplomat-occupied apartment complex overlooking the Seine. My dad, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was stationed in Paris, working security at the Canadian embassy. My mom and I were there with him.
At that moment, six hours away by car, across the English Channel in the country next door, a new audio company sprung up and surprised and delighted the audio world with its inaugural product, the 20Wpc Cambridge Consultants P40 integrated amplifier. It sounded especially good and made history as the first amplifier to use a toroidal transformer.
Cambridge Audio emerged from the shadow of Cambridge Consultants. It built amplifiers, tuners, and transmission line speakers and, starting in 1985, the world’s first two-box CD player, the CD1. That was followed by two iconic products: the DacMagic D/A processor and the 30Wpc A1 integrated amplifier.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Cambridge Audio left an indelible mark on me, a young audio idealist of modest means. Along with a handful of other salt-of-the-earth audio companies of that time, Cambridge made near-cutting-edge gear I could aspire to own and instilled in me a belief that while audiophile products might cost more than the ones you could buy at the nearby big-box store, the advantages in performance almost always justify the difference in price.
The EVO 150
The EVO 150 continues Cambridge’s tradition of offering near-cutting-edge products that don’t break the bank. In hi-fi economics, $3000 is neither especially cheap nor expensive, but when you consider that the EVO 150 is a streaming DAC, amplifier, and preamp all in one and that you don’t need to buy interconnects, it’s an attractive price if it works well and sounds good.
The EVO 150 is a network streamer with built-in class-D amplification, two technologies that have begun to find favor among hi-fi enthusiasts after some early reticence. Class-D has suffered from stigma associated with early class-D that frankly didn’t sound very good. Streaming has long been associated in many audiophile minds with lowbit-rate lossy compressiona correct perception until just a few years ago when Tidal started streaming at 16/44.1; soon after that, hi-rez streaming came along.
And yet, there has been some resistance to streaming as a central listening activity. I’m a good example: On my office computer system while I’m doing something else? You bet. On my main rig where the point is to focus on the music? For me, the experience hasn’t lived up to its theoretical promise of being a superconvenient, endlessly rich repository of new musical discoveries. Compared to playing a CD or LP, streaming has long felt like a cheap copy of the real thing. Maybe I’ve been unfair to the medium. Maybe it’s just a question of habit.
As a person who craves musical connection and loves new musical discoveries, I want streaming to work as advertised, for it to matter not just because it’s convenient but because I want to listen to it. Through the big rig. Because it sounds good. So when I saw this statement in a paragraph from Cambridge Audio’s product literature, the gauntlet was laid down: “Unless (streaming) sounds great, what’s the point?” I read. “Our in-house engineers designed StreamMagic to be the best-sounding streaming platform around, and 10 years into its development that’s exactly what it is.”
Was that the doorbell?
The EVO 150 is Roon Ready, which means that it’s a network-enabled device that communicates with the Roon core device via Roon’s Advanced Audio Transport (RAAT). In addition, it supports aptX HD Bluetooth, Chromecast, Spotify Connect, Apple AirPlay 2, Qobuz (although not here in Canada yet), and Tidal, including Tidal’s MQA-encoded Masters series. It is said by Cambridge to be future-proof regarding new formats and streaming services, presumably because software and/or firmware updates can expand its streaming features. The EVO also has a headphone jack and a moving magnet phono stage said to be similar to the company’s standalone model, the Solo.
The EVO uses the NCore class-D module rated at 150Wpc into 8 ohms, built by Netherlands-based Hypex Electronics, which has been in the class-D business since 2003. The EVO 150’s DAC operates asynchronously via USB and uses the same Sabre ES9018K2M chip used in Mytek’s Liberty DAC, which Art Dudley reviewed in the November 2018 Stereophile. He liked it.
The EVO 150’s back panel is a connection playground: two sets of speaker terminals; preamp and subwoofer outputs; USB connections for both a source (server or computer) and a storage device (flash drive, hard disc, or SSD); one pair of balanced analog inputs (XLR); one pair of unbalanced analog inputs (RCA); a pair of moving magnet phono inputs (RCA); three S/PDIF digital inputs (one coaxial, two TosLink); and a TV HDMI ARC (audio return channel) connection so that the EVO can conveniently handle audio from your television or other A/V source. Via USB Class 2, the EVO can accept up to 24/384 PCM and DSD256. If you’re streaming from a PC, you should download a custom driver to access Class 2. If you’re a Windows audio user, you probably already know that drill.
Installation and setup
The EVO came snugly packed and double boxed. Sliding it out from its burlap sleeve, what I initially took to be the shine of the top plate was instead a stiff, semigloss instruction sheet that promised I’d be “listening in no time.” It depicts five easy steps, four of which are unpacking the EVO and downloading the StreamMagic app. The other step, sandwiched in the middle of the other four, shows how to hook the EVO up: into the speakers, into the electrical outlet, into the Ethernet jack. I wondered and hoped: Can life really be this simple? It was.
My EVO 150 came with the walnut side panels said to have been inspired by the company’s P40 integrated amplifier. Prefer black side panels to match the rest of the chassis’s color? Just switch out the walnut panelsthey’re magneticfor the wave-rippled ones made of Richlite, a material made mostly of recycled paper; both are included in the box. I found both sets attractive.
On seeing the EVO for the first time with its walnut-paneled accents and oversized, jewel-like volume and source selector, my son, who watched me extract the EVO from its sleeve, exclaimed: “Hey, it looks nice. It looks premium!” It did.
The EVO aesthetic extends to the remote control, a satisfyingly weighty metal one with a well-appointed, well-organized pushbutton layout. I was happy that it came with batteries; as a youngster I was scarred by the “batteries not included” period in toy history (footnote 1). I was forced to download the full manualit wasn’t in the boxbut then this is a streaming DAC: it’s intended for extracting data from the internet, so no surprise.
Using the simple, clear directions in the quick-start guide, I hooked up the EVO. When its widescreen display flashed alive with big, bold letters etched across it, I decided it was the most visually arresting screen I’d seen on an audio productand that was before I saw its radiant album covers and the roulette wheellike volume knob that spins on the right side of the screen. I was feeling lucky.
What’s better than unboxing a new piece of equipment? Listening to it! No sooner had I downloaded the StreamMagic app on my phone and selected the prelisted American Roots radio station than I was listening to Colter Wall, George Jones, and Brent Cobb sing “Plain to See Plainsman,” “The Door,” and “Black Crow,” respectively. I knew then that the EVO was a product after my own heart, a carrier of good taste and disseminator of mythical musical culture.
Footnote 1: Who wasn’t?Jim Austin
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Cambridge Audio USA
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