What’s a network audio player, and why would you want one? Let’s dive into one of the best on the market to see what it’s all about.
Cambridge Audio is a UK firm that over several decades has carved out a place for itself as a respected supplier of high quality, relatively affordable audio gear. You may think $1699 isn’t necessarily affordable, but for performance and features, the Cambridge Audio CXN V2 (for Version 2) pretty much matches the offerings from East Asia.
So, imagine you have a high quality stereo system, but one that isn’t up to date with network streaming. You plug in the Cambridge Audio CXN V2 and now it is up to day, providing very high quality sound and connectivity to a whole world of content.
This is a component sized device – the standard 430-ish millimetres wide. At its centre front is a colour LCD display for showing menus, album art and track information. A large knob on the right is primarily for control of this (and, as we’ll see, it can double as a volume control). Eight keys around the sides of the display select various functions, and do the usual play, pause, stop and track skipping.
It has standard and high end outputs. There are RCA sockets for the majority of installations, but balanced XLR sockets for some audiophile installations. There is also optical and coaxial digital audio output for use with external decoding equipment, although given the dual Wolfson DAC chips used by the unit, that would seem to be overkill.
In addition to the network stuff, to which I’ll return shortly, there are also optical and coaxial digital audio inputs so the CXN V2 will also decode digital audio from the likes of CD players, digital TV receivers and even TVs. And unlike entry level digital network receivers, this unit has a USB Type-B socket so that you can plug it into a computer and use it as a high quality external digital to analogue converter. There is also a USB socket on the back and one on the front that you can use for connecting USB storage to play back music. Cambridge Audio is at pains to state that these “are not intended for connection to Apple mobile devices, no functionality, charging or otherwise is supported.” The rear USB socket can also be used for an optional Bluetooth dongle available from Cambridge Audio.
The main network connection is Ethernet, but there’s also an extra USB socket on the back which is intended solely for use with a WiFi dongle. And the dongle is included in the purchase price, so the unit is for all practical purposes WiFi enabled, with support for 2.4GHz 802.11b/g/n networks.
The network streaming functions are, as I write: Internet radio (using the vTuner system), Spotify Connect (you need a subscription), Apple AirPlay, and DLNA streaming (which is what’s supported by most Windows and Android devices). If you have music stored on your network, and you’re not an Apple household, DLNA is what you’re likely to be using. About the only major local streaming function not supported is Chromecast.
In addition, the higher quality Tidal streaming service is scheduled to become available via a firmware upgrade in the very near future. Again, you’ll need a subscription for that.
Just to be clear, if you have Tidal or Spotify on your iOS device, then you can just AirPlay the sound to the CXN V2. With a subscription, the device will be able to stream directly from Tidal for the highest quality.
If you like your equipment with a fulsome manual in the box, I guess this isn’t the one for you. It comes with a quick start guide, which is one sheet of glossy A3 paper covering not just this unit, but also the CD player and amplifier from the same range. And all it shows is wiring and, I kid you not, how to press the Standby/On button. Oh, and it recommends downloading the real manual from the Cambridge Audio website. (Turns out there are two of them, one of eight pages, one of eighteen.)
Fortunately, there are instructions provided on the front panel once you do press that Standby/On button. At least, instructions for setting up the network. Since I’d already plugged in the WiFi dongle, it went straight to WiFi setup. It gave the option of setting up WiFi the usual way, or via an iOS device. I chose the latter, followed the instructions, and the unit was connected to WiFi in, oh, about fifteen seconds. Whereupon it immediately wanted to download and install a firmware upgrade. Which I of course let it do. (I later had a look at the manual WiFi setup, which was straightforward, and could confirm that this unit is 2.4GHz only, since it didn’t see my 5GHz access point.)
Just about everything in consumer technology is a computer these days, and you have to keep your computers up to date.