Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
There’s this pervasive notion in the world of hi-fi that if a box does more than one thing, it simply must perform worse at its multiple functions than separate boxes performing the same tasks. In other words, there are people who argue that a separate amplifier and preamp will by definition sound better than an integrated amplifier with identical specifications, and that an integrated amp and standalone DAC will certainly sound better than an integrated amp with a DAC built in. The argument, as I understand it, is effectively: “something’s gotta give somewhere.”
I’ve touched on this topic in a couple of different articles, trying my best to explain why sometimes separates are the only right answer (although mostly in the home-theater domain) and sometimes fully integrated solutions are the right choice. Going forward, though, I think I’m merely going to point at Cambridge Audio’s Evo 150 all-in-one player ($3249, all prices USD) and let it make my arguments for me.
Simply put, aside from converting electrical energy into mechanical energy (you’ll still need a pair of speakers for that), this thing does it all in terms of music reproduction. So, whence the compromise?
Well, it’s hard to knock the Evo 150 as a source. The unit relies on Cambridge Audio’s StreamMagic platform for streaming and digital library management, and although I’ve had some quibbles with StreamMagic in the past, the latest iteration is pretty snazzy. In fact, I’d say it’s far more intuitive in day-to-day operation than Sonos, and although it doesn’t support nearly as many streaming services as that platform, it does work with Spotify Connect, Tidal, and Qobuz, plus internet radio. And for any apps that aren’t natively supported, it also boasts AirPlay 2, Chromecast, and Bluetooth (version 4.2 with support for SBC, aptX, and aptX HD codecs), and it functions as both an MQA Decoder and Renderer. It’s also fully Roon Ready.
How about if you want to bring other source devices to the table? Well, OK, you might grump a little if you have a ton of analog sources you want to connect to your system, as the Evo 150 only sports a single MM phono input and an additional Aux analog in with your choice of single-ended RCA or balanced XLR connections. But as for digital connectivity, it’s pretty well-equipped, including two optical ins (TosLink, up to 24/96), one coaxial in (RCA, up to 24/192), a USB-DAC connection (up to 24/384 or DSD256), a USB media port, and a proprietary one-plug connection for Cambridge’s as-yet-unreleased Evo CD transport. And as is becoming more common in the world of connected hi-fi, the Evo 150 also sports an HDMI 1.4 ARC port, though of course it will accept only a PCM audio signal. Still, connect this thing to your smart TV and add a couple of speakers, and you’ve got not only a full-fledged audiophile two-channel system, but also one heck of a soundbar replacement (or AVR alternative) without much fuss at all.
OK, then, surely it skimps on the amplification, right? Nuh-uh. Not even a little bit. The Evo 150 delivers 150Wpc into 8 ohms, which is—to put it lightly—very generous. But that’s probably the least interesting thing about its power section. Far more compelling is the fact that Cambridge is using Hypex Ncore amp modules (specifically the NC252MP, best I can tell), very similar to the architecture employed in the NAD C 399 I reviewed and loved a few months back.
While Cambridge doesn’t list these specifications, Hypex specifies this module as also being able to deliver 250Wpc into 4 ohms, and by all indications the amp is stable down to 2 ohms. So you can’t knock anything in terms of the amps. The Evo 150 also has A and B speaker outputs, in case you need them.
And then there’s the design. I know I’m harping on aesthetics a lot here lately, but let’s be honest: at this level, with a company that’s as well-known an entity as Cambridge Audio, you can very nearly take performance for granted. More often than not, what sets products in this class apart is a combination of features, ergonomics, and looks. And while the Evo 150 succeeds on all three fronts, it’s the latter that really grabs you.
And it’s not merely the overall look of the unit, which is undeniably eye-grabbing. It’s also the feel of it. The gigantic volume knob, for example, may be a little light on mass for my tastes, but it’s oh-so-very smooth in operation. And it’s surrounded by a knurled metal ring that serves as the Evo 150’s source selection. Turning either triggers a gorgeous rotary popup that dominates the unit’s 6.9″ color screen, but only momentarily.
Combine all that with the chassis itself—which to me looks like what people living 200 years from now will think early video game consoles like Intellivision and Atari 2600 looked like—and you’ve got all the makings of something that sets itself apart in the marketplace in more ways than one. Even the lack of visible ventilation (due to the reliance on Ncore modules, it doesn’t need more than the air intakes on the beveled bottom surface) contributes to a design that just looks fancy. In the words of Kiko from Gorgeous Tiny Chicken Machine Show, “This is the feeling of a rich and comfortable lifestyle.”
Not bad for less than $3300.
Setting up and configuring the Cambridge Audio Evo 150
Turn this gorgeous all-in-one player and integrated amp around, and the swank factor doesn’t diminish a bit. As you might expect, given the number of input options, the back panel is quite densely packed, but it’s logically laid out and all the guzzintas and guzzouttas are quite accessible and clearly labeled.
The Evo 150’s speaker-level connections—two sets, labeled A and B—are gorgeous and sturdy and don’t get in the way of anything else. Since the binding posts are on opposite sides of the chassis, and since the A outs are outside and the B outs are inside, it really didn’t take much thought or attention at all to know exactly where to plug in the pair of Elac Sensible speaker cables running to my Paradigm Studio 100 v5 towers. I also connected my iFi Audio Zen One Signature DAC to the Aux (single-ended) input of the amp and ran USB outputs from my Maingear Vybe media PC to both the iFi and the Evo 150.
I also briefly tried a setup including a pair of RSL CG3 bookshelf speakers and an SVS PB-1000 Pro subwoofer, but quickly ditched that when I discovered that the Evo 150—despite having a dedicated subwoofer output—sports no form of bass management that I could find. And sure, I could use the low-pass filter capabilities of the PB-1000 Pro, but I’d prefer an actual crossover. Barring such, a 2.1 setup would really tell me more about the speakers and sub than the integrated amp, so I let my Studio 100 v5 towers do all the heavy lifting for this review.
At any rate, if the Evo 150 did have bass management, those settings would be found within the StreamMagic app, Cambridge Audio’s control app and streaming interface, since the unit itself doesn’t have a menu system. It’s been a few years since I fiddled with StreamMagic, but its performance this time around improved upon my memory of older versions. It’s still a little limited in overall streaming service support, as I said in the intro, but it’s stable, it’s ergonomic, it’s nicely navigable, and overall, I like it quite a bit better than, say, the Sonos app.
StreamMagic also prompts you to select specifically which inputs you’ll need in regular rotation, which is a nice touch. With other platforms, this might not be as big a deal; who cares, after all, if the system thinks you’re using the Phono input you’ll never use? But with the Evo 150’s style of input selection, it does make a difference. Since the name of each input pops up on a rotary dial any time you switch sources, keeping the list limited to the actual sources you’re going to use cuts down on clutter.
Of course, you don’t have to use the rotary knob to select inputs. You can also select them from a list within the StreamMagic app. My only real beef about the whole input selection process is that non-connected sources (like the Aux input) kinda look unfortunate. Given that you can’t extract artwork and metadata from a non-networked source, these sources are represented by gigantic graphics that would look fine at, say, half the scale, but just look a bit tacky when blown up to fill so much of the Evo 150’s screen, and they still manage to leave way too much blank screen at that. Mind you, that’s not a big deal for me, given that most of my listening comes from streaming these days, but if you spend a lot of time listening to your turntable, for example, it’s something to consider. The more analog sources you connect to this thing, the more it loses something in terms of aesthetic swagger.
My only other real nit to pick with the Evo 150 in terms of operation is related to its remote. It’s a darned fine-looking clicker, mind you. It’s hefty, it’s well-built, and there’s this sunken bevel centered on the volume controls and source selection buttons that pulls your fingers toward it. The problem comes from the fact that Cambridge has gotten so twee with its graphical design that sometimes the remote is difficult to use, despite how good it feels in the hand.
Listening to the Cambridge Audio Evo 150
As I said in the intro, with a product like this you can almost take performance for granted. But where’s the fun in that? So after a few weeks of casual listening, I sat down to dig in for some critical evaluation. First up, a cut from 3rdeyegirl and former New Power Generation guitarist Donna Grantis’s Diamonds & Dynamite (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, eOne Music / Qobuz). The first track from the album, “Mr Majestic,” is one of a growing handful of tunes that I could use in isolation to tell you everything I need to know about a DAC or integrated amp.
Right from the giddy-up, the track’s delicate percussion rang through beautifully, with stunning soundstage depth and wonderful image specificity. Overall, the sense of space was simply immense with everything from the bongos to the laid-back keyboards to the hypnotic bass. With this song in particular, if I’m listening via an amp that isn’t stable below 4 ohms, the mix can tend toward sounding thin through big three-way towers like my Paradigms, especially with the volume cranked, but that was never the case with the Evo 150. Far from it. Overall tonal balance was exquisite no matter where the volume knob sat.
Since I know this song so intimately, I used this opportunity to make some comparisons between the Evo’s own internal digital-to-analog conversion and that of iFi Audio’s Zen One Signature DAC. Mind you, neither DAC has selectable PCM filters, likely as a consequence of the fact that they have MQA decoding that can’t be disabled. So I expected any differences to be minor.
And indeed, with levels matched, differences were minor at best. But here’s the thing—the way I choose to describe those minuscule differences will, no doubt, give you the sense that I found one preferable to the other. If I say the iFi is ever-so-slightly more polite and smooth, you might read that as me saying that the Cambridge is in-your-face or rough-edged. If, on the other hand, I describe the Evo 150’s D-to-A conversion as resulting in slightly more energetic attack and a bit more zip, you might infer that I’m describing the iFi as dull.
The fact of the matter is that both sounded amazing, and any preferences I had between them were so inconsistent as to be useless for illustrative purposes. And indeed, those exceedingly small differences were way more pronounced with something like “Mr Majestic” than with, say, “Reminiscing” from the 2010 remaster of Little River Band’s Sleeper Catcher (16/44.1 FLAC, EMI Music Australia / Qobuz).
This is another one of those tracks I go to in order to gauge whether an amp can deal with the relatively low impedance of my Paradigm towers between ~150 and ~250Hz. If it can’t, the low-end recedes and Glenn Shorrock’s vocals sound a little too forward, plus George McArdle’s bouncing bass can be rendered as not only recessed but also a little uneven.
I also noticed something else about the Evo 150’s reproduction of this track that’s worthy of note. And it’s probably just because I was drawn into this aspect of the system’s delivery of “Mr Majestic,” but “Reminiscing” also came through with a level of soundstage depth I’ve never really noticed in the song before. Not saying it’s never been there; just that the Evo 150’s performance makes it hard to miss.
Wrapping things up, I turned my attention to a relatively new album that I must admit I haven’t had a chance to audition through a ton of gear just yet, so I can’t speak with much authority about what it sounds like when things go wrong. But Colm McGuinness’s “The Adventure Begins . . .” from Welcome to Tal’Dorei (320kbps Ogg Vorbis, Scanlan Shorthalt Music / Spotify) is nonetheless a gorgeous symphonic composition that will be going into my regular rotation of test tracks. The piece is largely a study in contrasts between plucked and bowed strings, with some delicate but haunting wind instruments mixed right under the surface. Right around the 2:30 mark, there is a short passage that gets quite dense, and via the Evo 150, it was just a delightfully beautiful presentation, with great tonal balance, wonderful attack and decay, good detail, spot-on dynamics, and what I perceived to be an accurate representation of the timbres of the instrumentation.
I should also note here that the Evo 150 has a much more robust built-in headphone amp than you might expect given its reliance on a 3.5mm output. I had to use an adapter to plug in some of my bigger, thirstier cans, like the Audeze LCD-2s, but the amp had more than enough oomph to drive them with impeccable dynamics, good detail, and nice tonal balance. The unit also has volume memory, so when you unplug your cans, it goes right back to your previous listening level, which is a nice touch.
What other all-in-ones in this class should you consider?
If you don’t need more than 75Wpc of class-D output (you probably don’t) and assuming your listening experience is mostly dominated by streaming (that I can’t speak to), you’d be silly not to also consider Cambridge Audio’s Evo 75 as a very viable alternative to the Evo 150. It looks identical as long as you don’t peek around back, and it sells for a truckload less at $2499. It doesn’t have a phono input, though, or a USB-DAC input, or B speaker outputs, or balanced ins. You’ve got your network connection, one each optical and coaxial digital in, one stereo line-level input (RCA), one HDMI ARC port, that proprietary connection for the as-yet-unreleased Evo CD, and that’s that.
In terms of connectivity, power, features, etc., I’d say NAD gives the Evo 150 a much more competitive run for its money with the M10 V2 ($2999), another fully featured all-in-one that also relies on Hypex Ncore amp architecture (though with NAD’s own modifications or specifications, which I discussed to a degree in my review of the C 399). The M10 V2 takes a different approach to “retro-future” than does the Evo 150, but it’s still a dead-sexy piece of kit. It’s also unusual in the two-channel domain because it features Dolby Digital decoding and can be combined with other BluOS gear to create a surround sound (4.0- to 4.2-channel) system. Add Dirac Live room correction and good bass management, and it’s certainly a compelling piece that deserves your attention if you’re sniffing around in this territory. Check out Vince Hanada’s excellent review over at SoundStage! Simplifi for more info.
If for whatever reason you’re biased against class D, maybe check out the $3799 Naim Uniti Atom, a fantastic-sounding little all-in-one that boasts class-AB architecture—but only 40Wpc of output. Mind you, during my time with the Atom, I found its output more than sufficient to drive my big Paradigm towers, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Other class-AB units worth considering include the recently reviewed Marantz Model 40n ($2499), which is, quite frankly, one of the best-built pieces of gear I’ve put my paws on in ages. If you told me this thing was $10,000, I wouldn’t bat an eye, and although it lacks the Evo 150’s display screen, its HEOS streaming ecosystem is a little more fully featured than StreamMagic and checks a few more boxes in terms of service support. It also has excellent bass management, a remote that could make do as a murder weapon if you found yourself needing one, and an industrial design that just speaks to something deep within my soul.
TL;DR: Is the Cambridge Audio Evo 150 worth the coin?
This one’s tricky to sort out in terms of value. I do wish Cambridge had added bass-management capabilities to the system. The lack thereof does limit it a bit unless you have a subwoofer with built-in speaker-level inputs and outputs. Something like the Dayton Audio SUB-1200 would be a perfect match for the Evo 150 and would make up for its only significant shortcoming.
But how much does its beautiful build quality, ample output, excellent sonic performance, and inimitable styling make up for that lack? That’s not really for me to decide for you, but I’ll say this: when it comes to my two-channel system, I’m very much a hands-on guy. I didn’t even bother adding the Evo 150 to my Control4 home-automation system, because I like touching my stereo gear. I want to twist the twisty knobs. I want to touch the buttons. And physically interacting with this Cambridge piece has brought more joy to my dark goth heart than nearly any other piece of gear in recent memory (except perhaps for the Marantz Model 40n).
Since virtually all of my listening these days is via streaming, since I don’t have a turntable, and since I don’t need B speakers, I would probably be better served by the Evo 75. But it’s hard to deny that the additional inputs and greatly increased output are worth the extra $750.
. . . Dennis Burger
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
- Speakers: Paradigm Studio 100 v5, RSL CG3.
- Subwoofer: SVS PB-1000 Pro.
- Speaker-level connections: Elac Sensible speaker cables.
- Line-level connections: Straight Wire Encore II analog interconnects.
- Sources: Maingear Vybe PC; iPhone 12 Pro Max.
- Power protection: SurgeX XR115 power conditioner.
Cambridge Audio Evo 150 All-in-One Player
Warranty: Two years, three if the product is registered.
Cambridge Audio USA
3057 N. Rockwell St.
Bldg. 3, Fl. 2, Ste. 201
Chicago, IL 60618
United States of America
Phone: (312) 636-4817