What Hi-Fi? Awards 2016 winner: Cambridge Audio 851N network streamer

314268cambridge_poty_best-music-streamer-1000-2000_cambridgeStreaming is big business, whether you want your digital music to play through the whole house or if you want cutting-edge sound on a traditional hi-fi, there’s now a product out there for just about anyone. Ever-present at the forefront of this revolution is Cambridge Audio. 

Having just ushered in a whole new range of mid-tier (and utterly brilliant) hi-fi components, the CX series, the London-based brand have also found time to create their first high-end streaming component, and the subject of this review, the 851N.

Previous entries in the 851 range have been received well in the hi-fi press. The products are tank-like in their build and construction, and generally offer technological wizardry that stretches way above their price tags. With a CD player and DAC already making up part of this range, a streamer was the next logical step.

The 851N, on first look at least, keeps the family tradition in fine stead as the solid aluminium casing is exemplary. Around the front, the first eye-catching detail is the large, full-colour LCD display. In practise this proved a very user-friendly feature indeed, able to show tracklistings, album artwork, and generally making navigation a breeze.

Specification is where it really counts with a digital product, and the 851N is no slouch here either. The Cambridge’s twin Analog Devices AD1955 DAC chips are among the best in the business, and their 24-bit status keeps them at the cutting edge. As music in digital form keeps increasing its bit-rate and resolution, so too do the machines that play this audio back. The 851N can natively play files back across its many inputs and via its streamer at anything up to 24/192kHz, and beyond that it can upsample music to 24-bit/384kHz – an enormous figure!

The 851N can bring out the best in older components too.

The 851N can bring out the best in older components too.

You can also connect other digital devices at the back, utilising the onboard decoding to get the best possible sound out of older products. To this end, two optical, two coaxial, three USB and an AES/EBU connection are provided for hooking up other devices, making this a fantastically specced DAC as well. Outputs are provided by traditional RCA, but also balanced XLR connections, too. This suite of inputs also holds the key to another important design decision – the inclusion of a digital pre-amplifier. By plugging the 851N into a power amplifier (of which Cambridge currently offer two models), the unit can work as a volume control and input switch, cutting out the need for a separate integrated amplifier altogether.

Our listening was mainly of FLAC files in various bit-rates from the shop NAS drive, but there’s also internet radio and Spotify Connect. Other services are planned to be added in the future, but for now anyone with a Spotify account at home can stream their music through the 851N for a real boost in quality.

With the two technologies going hand in hand, it was always likely that Cambridge would continue support for its control app for this device. This app is certainly a handy way of navigating through your music, however the front display is bright and clear should you want to use the traditional remote control included.

Time to knuckle down to some listening, we paired the 851N  with the 851E/W pre-amp and power-amp package, and the DALI Ikon 6 MK2 speakers. The streamer was mainly used without the inbuilt pre-amp being utilised, but a quick change mid-way showed good results when it was called into action.

Playing Aphex Twin’s album ‘Syro‘ it sounded full and fantastic, with the timing of the tracks kept in check superbly. Occasional high pitched synth stabs never sounded shrill, and the quieter bridge sections sounded lush. Listening to this album again on this system was a real ‘I love my job’ moment, and fortunately many more were to come.

When we moved on to ‘Compulsion‘ by The Doves, its thundering drums and huge soundstage were lapped up by this hugely impressive system. Scale and dynamic shifting were the key here, with everything sitting comfortably in its enormous soundstage, and shifting about perfectly when needed – fantastic stuff!

Without wanting to fall to pure hyperbole, the system used is one of the best examples of ‘system synergy’ that I’ve heard. The 851N complimented this setup fantastically. Not only was the hardware itself a joy to behold, its music playing capability was second to none. For all the talk of vinyl revivals and CD still holding on, if streaming really is the future, consider me sold. Hugely recommended!

To audition the 851N streamer, or to find out more contact your local store today.

Author: Chris, Liverpool store