Cambridge Audio SX-80 Floorstanding Loudspeaker Review
SX-80 Floorstanding Speakers
AUD $1,199 RRP
It’s been thirty or so years since Cambridge Audio established itself – as an affordable audiophile brand. Before that, like a nineteen seventies supergroup, it had a couple of earlier incarnations. The first began with the release of the P40 integrated amplifier in 1970, and the second coming of the brand was the CD1 CD player of 1984. Both products – and eras – were considerably more upmarket than the DACMagic digital converter and CD-4SE CD player that followed in 1992. Yet, it was in the company’s third guise that it finally found lasting success.
The SX series continues this tradition; this loudspeaker range goes back to 2013 but has recently been relaunched to include SX-50 and SX-60 standmount speakers, SX-70 centre, and SX-120 subwoofer – plus the SX-80 floorstander you see before you. You get a tallish 240x980x338mm (WxHxD) cabinet that weighs an impressive 16.9kg apiece. Of course, it’s no parade of natural wood veneers and exotic front baffle materials; the SX-80 is finished in a basic vinyl wrap but looks surprisingly swish all the same.
There’s little sense of “welcome to the cheap seats” here. Put simply, your friends and family wouldn’t think this to be a discount loudspeaker were they to visit you. In fact, you could easily mistake the SX-80 for something selling for twice the price – it’s only the slightly loose fixings on the plasticky front grilles that remind you that things have been built down to a price. Even the brand logo has been changed to a cleaner and classier looking design.
The driver complement comprises twin 165mm mid/bass units with a 25mm silk dome tweeter squeezed between, D’Appolito-style. The latter is foam damped to reduce resonance. The manufacturer is sketchy about the crossover, saying only that it is “precisely optimised”, which will come as a relief to us all, I am sure. The cabinet is made from MDF, as per most speakers at this price point – or often considerably more – and is reasonably ‘dead’ when you rap it with your knuckles. To this, the matt black vinyl wrap is applied. Of course, Chinese manufacturing makes this possible; the SX-80 would be dramatically more expensive were it made in the UK. Design and engineering are done in Cambridge Audio’s central London head office, as ever.
In terms of its measured performance, the SX-80 is thoroughly modern. The company claims a frequency response of 40Hz to 20kHz but predictably forgets to publish cut-off points. Even if we assume these to be -6dB as a worst-case scenario, then it’s still good for the speaker’s size and price. The 87dB claimed sensitivity is fractionally lower than I’d expect for a design of this size, but that’s me splitting hairs – any modern amplifier can push it to high sound levels. The 8-ohm nominal impedance figure is a little above average, as many of its rivals are 6 ohms these days – meaning it’s nice and easy to drive.
I found this loudspeaker very simple to position; its rear-mounted port means that you can’t run it too close to a boundary wall, but 30cm out is okay. It likes being toed in slightly, but aside from that was rather forgiving. The cabinet has four little pillars emerging from each corner, and to these you can attach the spikes provided. This done, it’s reasonably stable for something with such a narrow front baffle. Some will use the supplied foam port bung, but as is often the case, what you gain on the roundabouts, you lose on the swings. The bass tightens up a little but the speaker sounds less expressive too.
The best way to describe Cambridge Audio’s SX-80 is self-effacing – a sort of stealth fighter of budget speakers. Unlike almost all its price rivals, it doesn’t announce its presence very much at all. In the world of floorstanders at this price point – more of the budget must go on the cabinet and not on the drivers – the speaker that draws the least amount of attention to itself is king.
Think about it. After you’ve factored in shipping, distribution, profit margins, taxes, etc., there’s vanishingly little money for building the actual speaker. So to get the sonic results that the SX-80 delivers must have taken quite some doing. It doesn’t boom, it doesn’t clang, it images well, has a nice, musically articulate character and maintains the listener’s interest. None of this would have been possible at this price without some seriously clever design work, knowing exactly where to save money and where to spend it.
It’s all the more impressive because most cheapo floorstanders are pretty soul-destroying things to listen to. I had a pair of these going in my reference system for a week. Of course, I tried them with an inexpensive source and amp, but ended up using a system that’s well into five-figure territory, and they seemed perfectly happy. This speaker doesn’t broadcast its humble origins, and that’s its greatest achievement.
The SX-80’s greatest strength is its smooth tonality, allied to great composure. The speaker has a wide bandwidth, but crucially doesn’t emphasise one part of the frequency band over another. Everything sounds fairly seamless, with no screechy upper midband or marshmallow-like bass that plays along half a beat behind the rest of the music. The human ear can instantly home in on any part of a loudspeaker’s performance that is amiss, and yet there’s nothing here that sends out an SOS.
Instead, you get a super-smooth but slightly airbrushed sound. The latter isn’t so much a criticism as an observation. This speaker tells you the truth, but not the whole truth – and the reason for this is that it costs less than what some people spend on a mains cable. That’s perfectly fine for me; I span up a DVD-A disc of New Gold Dream by Simple Minds through my Sony Blu-ray player and Chord Hugo 2 DAC, feeding an Exposure 3010S2 integrated amp, and was quite beguiled. True, I didn’t get a hugely detailed midband or crashing dynamics, but it was still respectable in those departments. I found myself really getting into the groove, being whisked away by this dreamy, ethereal slice of early eighties pop, rather than being distracted by the sound of 100Hz bass peaks, awkwardly executed drive unit crossovers at 1.5kHz, or nasty dome tweeter resonant modes at 10kHz.
Indeed, the bass proved quite something for a speaker at this price. It was reasonably extended, fairly firm and decently tuneful. This track has thumping, post-punk style bass guitar work and can sound quite leaden through the wrong speaker, but not so here. It was fairly agile and quite expressive; you could hear when the bass guitar string was really being attacked. It was no less impressive with electronic music, with New Order’s Vanishing Point proving lots of fun. This has a lot of sub-bass which sends many budget speakers into a panics, yet it stayed tuneful and reasonably controlled with impressive extension that belied its price.
Soundstaging was very good indeed. A pair of SX-80s serves up a wide expanse of sound in your listening room, inside which you can enjoy well-spaced instruments. 4hero’s Give In – a superb modern drum and bass-infused soul recording – was large and impactful, giving a strong central lead vocal that really moved me. Stage depth wasn’t great, but that’s not really something you can complain about for this money. The overall effect was big, sumptuous and physical, yet smooth and civilised. I was left wondering how much better any speaker in this section of the market can sound – especially considering how loud it can go cleanly, without becoming strained.
It’s only when you cue up well recorded acoustic music, such as the slick modern jazz of Herbie Hancock’s I Have a Dream, that you realise this budget box doesn’t completely break the rules of physics. It has a slightly plasticky tonality, lacking the transparency of the best floorstanders at twice its price. Instruments such as trumpets and piano can sound a tad processed, just a bit too opaque to really convey their natural timbre. Factor in a slight softening of dynamics, and it’s not a total miracle worker – magical value as it may be.
Cambridge Audio’s SX-80 is a spectacularly good floorstander considering its price. I’ve been auditioning cheap speakers for many decades now and haven’t heard better in this particular market sector. It does a lot rather well, and the things it doesn’t do so skilfully still don’t draw particular attention to themselves. This latter point makes it so impressive as really cheap speakers that don’t offend the ear are few and far between. If you’re putting together a budget system, this is an essential audition – or you could even slot it into a mid-price system so you can spend more on the source or amplification. Either way, hear it if you can.
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.