Cambridge Audio Minx Xi Digital Music System REVIEW

$1299

5 Stars

Cambridge Audio has done it again with a diminutive amp/streamer that deals with aplomb to a wide variety of file formats.

CAMBRIDGE AUDIO BILLS the Minx Xi as a “stylish little music system that does it all”, and they’re spot on with that description, because with the exception of spinning silver discs, the Xi pretty much does do it all. In any event, there’s an entire generation of digital-domain music lovers who’d no more spin a CD than they’d spin a 78, so the Xi’s discless digital orientation makes a lot of sense. Oh, and it’s pretty stylish too, available in gloss white or black.

Features & Construction

Inside the compact and solidly built 90 x 270 x 285mm (H x W x D) chassis, you’ll find a 40 Watt (into 8 Ohms) Class A/B amplifier and a large toroidal transformer, which accounts for the unit’s 6kg weight (which is pretty hefty considering the form factor). Connectivity is extensive, so much so that it’s easier to cover the options in list form:

Wi-Fi
Ethernet
3 x USB media inputs (with device charging)
Toslink digital input
S/PDIF digital input
2 x RCA analogue inputs
3.5mm analogue input
Headphone output

To add another dimension to the Xi’s wireless capabilities, the unit is also supplied with the BT100 Bluetooth receiver that plugs into one of the USB inputs. The analogue inputs mean that you could plug in a CD player or even a turntable if you wanted to, so despite being called a “digital music system”, there’s a great deal of flexibility on offer here. Many users simply won’t bother with the analogue inputs, but they’re nice to have. The only reason I plugged in a SACD player was so I could judge the absolute sound quality with a known high-quality source.

The Xi comes preloaded with a 20,000+ station internet radio along with built-in streaming service support including BBC iPlayer Radio, Rhapsody and Pandora, so strictly speaking, you could get up and running without a phone or a computer. Access to music files on the network is handled using UPnP, and the Xi offers high-res support (up to 24-bit/96kHz).

As a digital music streamer the Xi works beautifully, and it’s easy to set up too. I had it paired with my iPhone using Bluetooth in under a minute, then while I was listening to a Pandora stream, I configured the Wi-Fi network, downloaded CA’s Stream Magic App to my phone and then chose a couple of familiar stations on Pandora, saved them to memory and started playing direct from the unit using the App and the Xi’s remote control to drive song selection. Total time involved was about five minutes and it took about as much brainpower as firing up a wok to make my dinner. A scary, hard to operate streamer this isn’t.

The App is nicely designed, and allows deep control of the Xi, right down to remote power on via the network. Accessing UPnP servers, searching for streams and internet radio stations, even setting bass and treble can be done from the app, which makes the Xi the kind of unit you might never actually have to touch once it’s set up.

Sound Quality

For the review, I paired the Xi up with CA’s own $699 Aero 2 stand mount speakers (review coming soon). While the $1299 Xi could well be matched with more expensive speakers, the BMR (Balanced Mode Radiator) equipped Aero 2’s prove that the asking price of hi-fi gear isn’t the best way to judge its capabilities – they’re very capable indeed.

Like much, or indeed all of the CA gear that’s crossed my path over the years, the Xi is quite a performer when it comes to making music. This kind of unit has an uphill battle to fight because in terms of outright sound quality, it’s fighting a battle against a slew of integrated amplifiers in the $1000 to $1300 price point, and all of them have it easy. After all, the only thing they really need to do is sound good, no streaming, no Wi-Fi, no built-in internet radio. In fact, with few exceptions, most have minimal bells and whistles compared to the Xi. That’s slowly changing but even Rotel’s superb Product of the Year award-winning RA-11 (review here), while stunningly feature-rich, isn’t a streamer. NAD’s D3020 is currently in for review and has USB and digital inputs plus Bluetooth but no Wi-Fi, no streaming and no App.

So to the point of that long preamble – the Xi is a complete digital music system and that’s how it needs to be judged. It should be obvious that for $1299 you can buy an integrated amp that’ll sound better than the Xi, but said amp won’t be more than a stupidly shaped paperweight without a source, where the Xi is the source. And a damn fine one it is too.

The Xi was given a long time to run in by just playing 128k streams from its built-in Pandora service. Actually, the run-in part is only partially true, I was just enjoying the way the Xi sounded via the Aero 2’s so much that I used it like this for weeks.

I could choose the station, forward tracks, adjust volume and more from the Xi’s front panel controls and display, or the remote or the app, which is another area where the Xi proves its versatility. Unlike a Bluetooth connection to my phone, when playing back via Wi-Fi, the music just keeps playing when the phone has to do phone related things, so all the notification bings and bongs don’t interfere, and if a call comes in, it’s easy to just mute the Xi. Much as I appreciate Bluetooth (which of course the Xi handles with aplomb), this strikes me as a genuinely civilised way to listen to internet music.

The sound quality with the streams was good. The Xi is smooth and easy to listen to, with only the expected loss of top end and midrange detail putting in an appearance, along with the slightly restrained dynamics. That’s absolutely typical with lo-fi streams though. There’s not much at all to choose from Bluetooth and playing directly from the built-in Pandora stream but of course, the Bluetooth option allows playback of higher quality files stored on a device, where the built-in version gets you 128k maximum (with ads). The 320kbps files on my iPhone sounded better than the 128k Pandora streams, which shows that the Bluetooth connection more than does its job and has enough resolution to allow users to differentiate between bitrates. Actually, those 320kbps files sounded pretty damn fine, the kind of fine you could easily live with for long-term, albeit non-critical listening.

It’s important to note that there were no dropouts on the Wi-Fi connection as long as the network was up, even with a bog-standard Telecom-supplied router at the far end of the house. The Bluetooth also behaved itself within the usual limitations of the platform – just don’t stroll off into the distance with the phone and expect the Xi to keep playing.

So as a low to mid-resolution streamer, the Xi does the business, but how does it fare with a good CD player hooked up? Very well indeed, thank you very much. With a Marantz SA8260 hooked up to one of the analogue inputs and to its digital optical input, the Xi showed that it’s totally up to serving as an amplifier to good disc-based sources, or analogue ones for that matter if you’re into vinyl.

WD-CA-Minx-xi-rearI’ve been listening to the Looking Into You: A Tribute To Jackson Browne double CD set quite a bit lately. I’ve always had a thing for tribute albums and this set has some sweet versions of Browne’s originals on it, one of which is ‘These Days’ by Don Henley with Blind Pilot. This track (and most of the CD) is nicely recorded, so much so that it’s been on regular playback through my headphone system. Via the Xi and the Aero 2’s, it’s just gorgeous, as smooth and mellow as a fine sherry. The Aero 2’s use one driver to cover everything from 250Hz and up, which means that vocals are quite something considering the price of the speakers – clear, detailed and filled with micro detail that I just didn’t expect at the price.

Generally with both of the discs in this set, I just lounged in my chair letting the music flow while wondering how the CA engineers crammed so much stuff in the Xi’s chassis, yet still got it to sound this good. And the music sure does flow, there’s no sense that at its heart, the Xi is anything less than a really good amplifier.

It’s not all acoustic happy clappy round here though, and with more raucous electric music, the Xi sounds more powerful than its 40 Watts would indicate. The Aero 2’s are rated as being 90dB sensitive but even so, the Xi rocks hard when it needs to. With the volume well up and ‘Glory And Consequences’ from Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals’ Live From Mars playing, the Xi surprised with just how much sheer punch and drive it could push through to the speakers. The form factor is deceptive – if this was a full-sized 40Watt amp, it wouldn’t be quite as surprising but at any rate, owners should feel comfortable that the Xi isn’t a sheep in sheep’s clothing. Not even close. You’re not missing out by going with a small box but I obviously wouldn’t advise matching it with horribly inefficient speakers and then expecting to host a dance party.

The Xi’s built-in DAC couldn’t quite match the sound of the Marantz’s analogue outputs – the SACD player sounds more dynamic and more nuanced in terms of outright detail, but plug a TV, a DVD, Blu-ray player or a games console into the Xi’s digital inputs and hey presto – immediate sonic improvement. Which is another place where the Xi will be right at home; it’s small enough, not to mention chic enough to fit in easily in a modern lounge next to the TV as the basis for an extremely versatile 2.0 or 2.1 system. With a small set of speakers, the Xi will beat any soundbar to death, and that’s in terms of both sound and functionality.

The Xi does high-res playback too, and I does it well. CA recommends the Ethernet connection for high-res playback, and indeed, with my el-cheapo (free) router, it wouldn’t play 24/96 files via Wi-Fi but of course, USB media will work just fine.

At one point, I had a USB stick loaded with 24/96 tracks playing from the Xi’s front USB port and was working on some notes for another review, when ‘Misery’ by Dave’s True Story came up. The initial drum and cymbal strikes sounded so good that I actually got up to double check exactly what was plugged into what to make sure that I was in fact listening to the Xi and a set of $699 speakers hooked up with basic copper speaker cable. The detail was hugely impressive, and the depth of the bass along with the airy way this little system laid out the acoustic space literally had me doing a double take. So there’s plenty of resolving capacity in there.

Conclusion

Cambridge Audio has hit the nail on the head (again) with this product. It sounds good and does practically everything you could ask, playing an unfeasible number of file formats any number of ways. Let’s look at how I played music through it while it was in residence:

  • Pandora and other streaming services from my iPhone and Mac using Bluetooth.
  • Music stored on my devices using Bluetooth
  • Built-in Pandora and other streaming services via Wi-Fi
  • High-res music from USB (stick and hard drive)
  • Masses of MP3s from USB (stick and hard drive)
  • CD quality music from my netbook using UPnP
  • CDs from a CD player (via analogue and digital inputs)

Having all these options available is a huge pleasure because you just pick what works for you at the time. In the course of a day, I might run the sound from YouTube videos from my Mac to the Xi, then switch straight to tracks on my iPhone, wander over to play a CD, and then just let Pandora take me through the many-splendored delights of artists that are new to me – Neko Case for example. I even spent a few hours reviewing headphones via its 3.5mm headphone jack.

Regardless of what I played, the Xi made it sound sweet, and there were no hassles with reliability or functionality. The Xi’s operation was flawless and everything from app control to network setup to seeing the UPnP server happened first time without any real effort.

The Xi will work as the basis for an office system, a desktop system or a proper stereo system. It’d also be fabulous in the lounge helping a flat screen TV actually sound like something. This is one heck of a versatile little thing, and considering what it does and how it does it; it’s nicely priced too. What’s not to like? Good question. I can’t come up with a single thing. ASHLEY KRAMER

www.pqimports.co.nz

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: NAD D3020 Integrated Amplifier REVIEW

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