Cambridge Audio Evo 150 Review
David Price thinks this is one of the finest compact one-box systems around right now…
Evo 150 All-In-One Player
AUD $4,699 RRP
There's no other way of putting it – we're now in the age of the 'premium streaming system'. And why not, considering that technology has moved on in a way that makes small, one-box music machines far more practical and capable than even ten years ago? Back then, we were battling with hard disk-based 'music jukeboxes' and optical CD-ROM drives that played MP3 files – whereas now we have the likes of this. Use the Cambridge Audio Evo 150 for more than a minute, and the past suddenly seems undignified!
This is an interesting product on several levels. First, in terms of its market position, at its price, it's attempting to encroach on the territory of products like Naim's Uniti Atom. This is a hard act to follow, even more so because it's entry-level fare from a brand that's traditionally associated with high-end audio. If your memory stretches back far enough, you'll know that Cambridge Audio was also once a very esoteric name – its CD1 was momentarily the best CD player that money could buy in the mid-nineteen eighties. However, in the past two decades, the company has had a laser-like focus on high value, budget separates – and made its name in this sector.
So with the Evo, you could argue that Cambridge Audio is subtly repositioning itself. It's still reasonably priced, but you get the sort of attention to detail in terms of design that you'd associate with vintage Bang & Olufsen in its Jacob Jensen era, back in its nineteen seventies and eighties heyday. The Evo is a superbly drawn bit of kit with ergonomics to match its aesthetic purity; there is categorically nothing about it that hints at budget, entry-level audio. For me, that's the second interesting thing. Having spoken at length to the company's Marketing Director, Charlie Henderson, I think it's fair to say this is a clear sign of things to come.
Thirdly, I don't think a product like the Evo 150 could even have been designed a decade ago. Lest we forget, music streaming was in its infancy, and the hi-fi world was largely still silver-disc based. Instead, it would have centred around a CD drive or even a DVD-ROM and featured a competent but unremarkable DAC. Now, the new Cambridge Audio runs the respected, state-of-the-art ESS Sabre ES9018K2M. And in order to deliver the product's claimed 150W RMS [into 8 ohms] per channel, a 2012 Evo 150 would have to have been closer to the size of an overnight bag, as opposed to a handbag! Of course, class D power output devices did exist back then, but they really didn't sound any good – whereas this comes with the latest (and greatest) Hypex Ncore chips, which are, to my ears, the best such things currently available.
Alongside the wood-finished side panels and super clean front fascia panel with its crisp display, the most striking thing about the Evo 150 is how crowded its rear panel is. This little music machine measures just 317x89x352mm and weighs a trifling 5.3kg, but it is jam-packed with connectivity. It's hard to think what more sockets Cambridge Audio could have been added, aside from a cassette deck and MiniDisc recorder! The suite of digital and analogue inputs includes two TOSLINK optical ins, one S/PDIF coaxial in and a TV ARC HDMI input. There's also a choice of USB Type B (with USB Audio Class 1 or 2, user selectable. Factor in a moving magnet phono stage, a pair of balanced XLR analogue inputs and a pair of RCA phonos, and lots of bases are covered. There's also an antenna for aptX HD Bluetooth, which is a handy thing to have.
Its digital connectivity is excellent; 16 to 24-bit PCM at up to 96kHz via the optical input, with 24/192 possible via the USB in Class 1 mode and 24/384 in Class 2, plus DSD256. You can play local USB media, Airplay 2, internet radio, Spotify Connect, TIDAL, MQA, Qobuz and there's Chromecast built-in; it's even Roon Ready. Two sets of speakers are connectable, and there's a single 3.5mm headphone jack, plus a preamp output and subwoofer output. That's quite a lot of connectivity and functionality from a box this size! All you have to do is to add loudspeakers.
Cambridge Audio claims that the Evo 150 is easy to set up, and so it proved. After I'd plugged the speakers in and given it a mains cable, I powered it on and fired up the matching StreamMagic app. This guides you through the set-up process, which takes about five minutes – this included a firmware update which it did as soon as I'd given it the password to my Wi-Fi router. It connected easily to a Qobuz account and was playing music soon after. The app offers complete control of the device, including source selection, volume, streaming platform, etc. There's also a neat, low-profile remote control that's far nicer than most – and smacks of nineteen eighties B&O, no less.
It takes a minute or so of playing with the Evo 150 to realise how good it is ergonomically, but far less when you're talking about its sound. You only need to get through the first few bars of your favourite piece of music to realise that it's a top performer at the price. Of course, you can still do better with a separates system for the same price, but you can't do that much better – it's certainly not a case of this Cambridge Audio system being monstered by any standalone streaming DAC/preamp and power amp combination. Rather, you'll be impressed by this little box's smoothness, clarity and overall refinement – as well as its surprising musicality and power. There's no sense of having to suffer for the unit's compactness, style or ease of use; instead, you come away wondering what the catch is, considering it performs so well.
Take Rush's Subdivisions, for example, the opening song on a classic rock album that's now four decades old. Streaming via Qobuz, the unit sounded really good when you consider that it's not a no-holds-barred super-fi system. Bass was decently strong and nicely propulsive; midband was smooth and well integrated, with a decent sprinkling of detail, and treble was surprisingly silky. The result was a sophisticated sound, yet it was still engaging and powerful too. There was no sense that it was trying to be bland and inoffensive, and instead, the Cambridge Audio really got a move on. It had real musical urgency – it wanted to get right into the groove – which is pretty rare at this price, in my experience.
Steely Dan's Aja highlighted the Evo 150's expansive soundstaging. It's not the widest acoustic I've ever heard, but again considering the type of product it is, I was expecting something much more shut-in. Instead, this little box sets up a big stage when asked and never gives the impression of the music struggling to get out of the speakers. Spatial information lacks the pin-point precision of some amplifiers, but it is still there or thereabouts. It certainly gave this classic – and quite superb – recording a good outing, pushing far left and right of my speakers and dropping back more than you'd expect from something that people often call a “style system”.
Talking of loudspeakers, I tried a range – including my Yamaha NS-1000M reference monitors and another personal favourite, Cambridge Audio's own Aero 6 from a few years back. The Evo 150 had no trouble driving either and made a lovely noise. But, again, this unit's compactness doesn't have consequences for the gutsiness of the performance. It's almost the same size as my old mid-eighties Mission Cyrus One, which wheezes its way through rock music when driving my Yamahas – thanks to its weedy 25W RMS per side. This unit, however, has power to spare and can track dynamic crescendos way better than you'd expect. For example, the subterranean bass transients of Kraftwerk's Metropolis at the end of the song didn't leave it out of breath, not even one little bit. Compared to a high-end separate power amp, it's compromised, obviously – but against rivals like the aforementioned Naim, it certainly is not.
In absolute terms, there's a slight softening of the bottom end across all inputs – that lovely, lolloping bassline in 4hero's Spirits in Transit wasn't as rock-solid as it should be. Still, there's a pleasingly subtle bass bloom there that's enjoyable to hear instead. It lacks sheer midband transparency, too, giving a slightly sepia-tinted tone to vocals and acoustic instruments – but again, it's a nice sound. Its streamer lacks the out-and-out clarity and impact of the coaxial DAC input fed by a Blu-ray player; my various Blu-ray Audio discs outperformed their Qobuz equivalents. To be fair, though, it's been the same for every streamer I've tried to date. So it's not flawless, but for the price, it still sounds superb.
Easy to like and hard to fault is how I would describe this little box of tricks. It punches well above its price for sound quality and outright power and also really looks and feels the part too. It's certainly an interesting statement of intent from a company that seems to be very much on the front foot right now. So if you're in the market for a do-it-all small system, this is an essential audition.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.
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