Surround Sound Speaker Systems

Affordable Systems Reviews: Mordaunt-Short Aviano and Cambridge Audio Azur 650R

ARTICLE INDEX

Introduction and background to the Mordaunt-Short Aviano and Cambridge Audio Azur 650R

Looking at a system is intrinsically more involved than looking at a single component. Evaluation of a single component typically holds the balance of the system constant so the performance of the test item can be determined. How then is a system evaluated? The test of a system examines several variables, not the least of which is the reviewer's component selections. Unfortunately, an in-depth review of each component then falls beyond the scope of the review. So rather than an in-depth discussion of each minutiae that differentiates the various products in the system, the discussion will focus more upon the rationale behind the selection of each component along with discussion of system setup and performance in use.

The Budget System series of articles investigates a number of system configurations at several discrete price points. The exercise actually approximates what a typical buyer might undergo in selecting a new home theater system. There is no set formula regarding the number of components or the distribution of budget between the components. A typical constraint, however, might be the brand selection available at the local store. Even in the age of online shopping, it is advisable to audition at least the speakers, if not the entire system prior to purchase.

Balance is an aspect of systems that is emphasized to varying degrees by a given system designer. I am certain nearly everyone can cite instances of imbalanced systems where a glaring weakness in the chain is evident. I would tend to say, for varying reasons, that electronics are often the recipient of a larger proportion of a system's overall budget then warranted. How many times do we see the latest and greatest kilo-buck receiver matched to a set of lifestyle satellites and a "subwoofer"? Am I guilty of doing the same thing with this system?

Please help us develop these reviews by posting comments at the end of this review about what you like or didn’t and what else you’d like to see in the next one. If you’re thinking it, chances are, you’re not alone. Even better yet, join us at the CAVE and post your thoughts on the Really Affordable System Forum.

The target budget for the system was $5,000. Within this envelope, I chose a speaker system and receiver while electing to forgo a matching Blu-ray player in favor of a pre-existing PS3. I believe this represents a fairly common arrangement, and election of tradeoffs. The two brands being matched up are Mordaunt-Short and Cambridge Audio. As is becoming more common, the two brands are connected by a common parent company, Audio Partnership. Established in 1994, Audio Partnership holds Mordaunt-Short and Cambridge Audio as its two flagship brands.


Price Range: Medium ($2,501 - $5,000 MSRP)

  • System MSRP: $5000.00
  • System Street Price: ~

System Rating:

System Rating

Our criteria for rating systems is shown below. Click on the graphic to see the full sized version.

rating criteria

System Selection & Design

Here is a brief overview of the system under review. The target budget for the system was $5,000. Within this envelope, I chose a speaker system and receiver while electing to forgo a matching Blu-ray player in favor of a pre-existing PS3. I believe this represents a fairly common arrangement, and election of tradeoffs. The two brands being matched up are Mordaunt-Short and Cambridge Audio. As is becoming more common, the two brands are connected by a common parent company, Audio Partnership. Established in 1994, Audio Partnership holds Mordaunt-Short and Cambridge Audio as its two flagship brands.


Cambridge Audio Azur 650R Receiver

Specifications

    Azur 650R:
  • HDMI Switching 1.3c, 3 inputs 1 output
  • Decoding formats: LPCM, Dolby Digital / Dolby Digital EX, DTS / DTS ES Matrix/Discrete, PLII/PLIIx, DTS Neo:6, Dolby True HD, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS-HD Master Audio, DTS-HD High Resolution Audio, Multi-channel PCM. All in 5.1/6.1 or 7.1 variants
  • 32-bit DSPs, 24/192 capable DACS
  • Separate stereo DAC for left/right from surround channel codec
  • Audio Inputs: 8 line analogue, tuner (FM/AM), 7.1 analogue input, 5 digital coaxial, 6 digital optical
  • Video Inputs: 5 composite, 5 s-video, 3 component video, 3 HDMI
  • Audio Outputs: 7 amplified speaker outputs, 7.1 preamp outputs
  • Video Outputs: 1 composite, 1 s-video, 1 component video, 1 HDMI
  • Recording Audio outputs: 2 line level analogue, 2 digital coaxial, 2 digital optical
  • Recording Video Outputs: 1 composite, 1 s-video
  • Other Connections 1 1/4" / 6.35mm headphone output,
  • Audio:
  • Power Output: 7 x 100 watts rms per channel, 8 ohms (all 7 channels driven)
  • 2 x 120 watts rms per channel, 8 ohms (two channels driven)
  • THD: <0.006% @1kHz
  • Crosstalk: <-60dB @ 1kHz
  • Frequency Response: 10Hz -20kHz - 1dB
  • Signal to Noise Ratio: >90dB ‘A’ weighted
  • Max. Power Consumption: 1400w
  • Dimensions (H x W x D): 150 (inc feet) x 430 x 420 (inc volume knob and speaker terminals) mm
  • (5.9 x 16.9 x 16.5 inches)
  • Weight: 15kg (33lbs)
  • MSRP $1,799

rating criteria

Cambridge Audio recently released their top of the line Azur 650R receiver. This receiver provided the starting point for the system selection. While I considered using the Azur 540R instead, as discussed below, ultimately the decision was to go with the newest product which provided the most up-to-date codec support in the line. The unfortunate downside of being a boutique manufacturer, however, is their up-to-date models are often a generation behind the consumer brands. In this case, though, there is little lost. The system is not configured to take advantage of the height or width channels generated by the most recent iterations from Dolby or Audyssey. The 650R does support the Dolby True HD, DTS-HD Master Audio and of course LPCM. The revision of HDMI supported is 1.3c, which means 3D, 4K, Ethernet and audio return are absent. I would wager this is not a list of features whose absence our readers would lament. The tradeoff is audio performance now versus future proofing against what may in the end be a gimmick. The 650R packs a massive toroidal transformer which alone likely weighs more than most of the mass market receivers. Cambridge Audio also designed a unique cooling system dubbed the X-tract for the receiver. A ducted assembly runs down the center of the receiver with a draft induced by a large, low RPM fan mounted on the rear of the unit. In operation, the fan is barely audible from the front of the unit.

The video switching found in the 650R is similar in philosophy to the auto setup. Specifically, it is designed to make your life easier without getting in the way. The video processing is restricted to transcoding the various inputs, but performs no processing or up-conversion. In other words, a 480i analog signal will be transcoded to the HDMI output, but it will remain a 480i signal. I actually find this a refreshing approach to video processing. All the inputs are first digitized using an Analog Devices ADV7401. The digital signal is then output using a Silicon Image SIL9134 transmitter. An analog signal is concurrently provided using an Analog Devices ADV7322, which converts the digital signal back into analog. The HDMI inputs are handled with a pair of Silicon Image chips (SIL9185/SIL9135). My display uses Gennum VXP processing, so it is a pretty short list of video processors that can do a better job. I would rather every component in the chain not have onboard video processing because the marketing department has a bullet point quota to meet.

The 650R provides a capable assortment of inputs and outputs. I know it is incredibly difficult for a manufacturer to shed legacy connections, but it would be nice to see one of these days. I could forgo one (or all) of the S-Video inputs for an additional HDMI input. Similarly, I would give up any and all of the analog video outputs for an additional HDMI output. My primary display is a front projector, so there are times where I do not need an 80” wide display and can make do with a normal size display. I would think at this price point, the additional output would be well received. Lastly, while the 650R provides the token front panel connections, an HDMI input on the front panel would be welcome, especially with the proliferation of HD camcorders.


Mordaunt-Short Aviano Speakers

Specifications

    Aviano 8 floorstanding speaker
  • Sensitivity 88dB
  • Frequency response 35Hz - 22kHz
  • Nominal impedance 4-8 ohms
  • Drive units (1) 1" aluminium dome tweeter
  • (1) 6.5" CPC aluminium mid-driver
  • (2) 6.5" CPC aluminium bass driver
  • Crossover Damped 2nd order with DVP
  • Recommended amplifier power 15-200 Watts
  • Magnetically shielded within 50mm of cabinet
  • Dimensions (h x w x d) 950 x 205 x 320mm
  • 38 x 8.2 x 12.8"
  • Weight 18.5kg (40.7lbs)
  • MSRP $1,495
  • Aviano 1 bookshelf speaker
  • Sensitivity 88dB
  • Frequency response 55Hz - 22kHz
  • Nominal impedance 4-8 ohms
  • Drive units (1) 1" aluminium dome tweeter
  • (1) 5.25" CPC aluminium mid/bass
  • Crossover 1st order with DVP HF
  • Recommended amplifier power 15-100 Watts
  • Magnetically shielded within 50mm of cabinet
  • Dimensions (h x w x d) 275 x 179 x 267mm
  • 11 x 7.2 x 10.7"
  • Weight 5kg (11lbs)
  • MSRP $495
  • Aviano 5 centre speaker
  • Sensitivity 89dB
  • Frequency response 70Hz - 22kHz
  • Nominal impedance 4-8 ohms
  • Drive units (1) 1" aluminium dome tweeter
  • (2) 5.25" CPC aluminium mid/bass
  • Crossover 1st order minimum phase with DVP
  • Recommended amplifier power 15-120 Watts
  • Magnetically shielded Yes
  • Dimensions (h x w x d) 179 x 456 x 229mm
  • 7.2 x 18.2 x 9.2"
  • Weight 7.5kg (16.5lbs)
  • MSRP $449
  • Aviano 7 subwoofer
  • Sensitivity Line-in 200mV (for maximum output)
  • Frequency response 35Hz - 200Hz
  • Drive units (1) 10" CPC aluminium long-throw woofer
  • Crossover Active – variable 50Hz-200Hz
  • Recommended amplifier power 175W active
  • Power consumption 360W (maximum)
  • Dimensions (h x w x d) within 50mm of cabinet
  • Dimensions (h x w x d) 423 x 305 x 361mm
  • 16.7 x 12.0 x 14.2"
  • Weight 17.5kg (38.5lbs)
  • MSRP $695

rating criteria

The speaker system was selected from Mordaunt-Short's Aviano line-up. The Aviano is flanked by the Carnival and Mezzo lines, below and above respectively. I looked at moving up to the Mezzo line, but doing so would have required stepping down to bookshelf units all around, at a total MSRP of $4,080. This would have left $1k for the electronics, which would have necessitated going with the Azur 540R. While I think this might actually be a great set-up for many, I have become a fan of floorstanding speakers which pushed me back toward the Avianos. If I was inclined to outfit a 7.1 or even 9.1/11.1 system, I would have been able to do so with Carnival line for between $1,700-$1,900. That temptation, however, has lessened recently due to a recent realization that most source material available is only encoded with a 5.1 mix. From my understanding, even the few 7.1 mixes on the market are remixed from a base 5.1 mix.

The Aviano line benefits from a number of technologies trickled down from the Mezzo line. The CPC aluminum driver design enables more linear movement of the driver with the reduced inertial mass, allowing for better overall response. The Aviano also benefits from the use of better internal damping similar to that found in the Mezzos. High density, die-cut wadding is used in place of more common loose fiberglass batting. The improved internal damping combined with a rigid speaker box provides a solid platform for the driver arrays. A 1” aluminium dome tweeter can be found across all the Aviano models. The entire line features dual binding posts which allows for bi-amping or bi-wiring, if desired. The "sculpted bullet terminals" do not sacrifice function for form, and take spades, banana plugs, and bare wire equally well. Lastly, all the Avianos feature a curved front baffle to improve dispersion characteristics by limiting the influence of the front speaker face on sound transmission from the driver array. The Aviano line is available in a selection of three very good vinyl finishes: black, dark walnut and rosewood.

Front

Given the budget constraints, and my desire to have floorstanding mains, I elected to go with the Aviano. The Aviano 8 is listed as 3-way tower design, comprised of a 1" aluminum tweeter, and 3 x 6.5" CPC aluminum drivers. The crossover is a 2nd order dual value parallel capacitor (DVPC)

Surround

The Aviano line does not contain a dipolar speaker for surround channels, so the Aviano 1 bookshelf speakers were chosen to fulfill that duty, partly to remain within budget and also due to the slightly smaller footprint. The Aviano 5 utilizes a 5 1/4" CPC driver with a 1" aluminum tweeter.

Center

Each speaker line is served by a single center channel. The Aviano 5, in this case, as the name would imply is the center channel for the Aviano line. It is a fairly typical MTM array sharing the tweeter from the rest of the line, and utilizing the same 5 1/4" mid-drivers found in the Aviano 1's.

Subwoofer

There is the axiom you can never be too rich or have too much bass. Unfortunately, in this case the two are at odds. At this point all that remains in the budget is $762, which conveniently is just enough for the Aviano 7 subwoofer. The Aviano 9 is just out of reach with this configuration at $995. This is a capable subwoofer with a 175W amp, and 10" CPC aluminum driver. It is rated down to 35Hz, so it will not be able to reach the lowest octaves, but it does enough to hint at the depths found in modern soundtracks. The Aviano 7 is powered by a Class D amplifier and MS has certified the unit to meet EnergyStar requirements.


Setup of the system

Receiver

It is apparent that despite being a full featured A/V receiver, the 650R seems focused on minimizing the clutter presented to the user. This is both from an interface standpoint, and from the elimination of what have become largely superfluous listening modes. This extends to the setup of the receiver itself. While automatic setup incorporating room correction has become commonplace, Cambridge Audio elected to provide a straightforward setup process branded CAMCAS (Cambridge Audio Mic Controlled Auto Setup). The receiver detects correct polarity then proceeds to set the appropriate gain and distance of the speakers. The subwoofer is excluded from the automatic distance setting which is a realistic concession to the fact that a typical setup microphone located at a single location usually does a poor job of accurately locating the point source of low frequencies. The setup algorithms did an accurate job of detecting speaker distances to within 0.5 feet from my measurements. I did not check the gain setting separately, but will say from the listening tests that the settings did not seem out of line.

The remote supplied with the 650R follows the same minimalist design aesthetic. The buttons are well spaced, and respond positively to user input. The remote also has a nice heft owing to the metal face construction. It is not backlit, but I am not one to normally criticize remotes for inclusion or exclusion of this feature. I tend to remote-by-touch fairly quickly, and this is well designed for that style of use.

The 650R can assign any of the digital inputs to the source buttons. I used 3 sources with the Azur: PS3, digital satellite, and Mac Mini. All three sources were connected using the HDMI inputs, with the PS3 and digital satellite providing both audio and video through the HDMI connection. The Mac Mini audio was connected using one of the TOSLINK connections.

There are two minor quibbles I had with the 650R. During my testing period, one of my HDMI flex connectors failed. Due to the handshaking that occurs between the source, receiver and display it actually took a bit of troubleshooting to determine where the failure occurred. If the output is not responding appropriately, the 650R seemed to attempt re-initializing the entire chain starting at the source. Initially, this lead me to believe the fault existed between the source and the receiver. After running different iterations of cables between the different sources and receiver and display I determined the flex connector was the culprit. I will address the second quibble at the end of the Performance in Use section.

Speakers

The Aviano 8's were slightly toed-in, and placed approximately a foot from the front and two feet from the side walls. The Aviano 5 was placed about two feet off the ground, and a few inches from the front edge of a solid table. The Aviano 1 surrounds were placed slightly behind and 6" above the main seating area. The subwoofer was placed in the front left corner, adjacent to the left channel. The Aviano 7 was tuned using low frequency tracks provided by Mordaunt-Short to set the gain and notch filter. My listening exhibited significant room gain between 50-80 Hz, so the notch filter was set to reduce the spike in the subwoofer output. The process is certainly not automated, but is effective and reasonable for level of benefit achieved from the one-time exercise.

Mordaunt-Short states their speakers should go through a burn-in period in order to sound their best. Rather than subjecting my family to a day of white noise, I started using the system in day-to-day television watching. Rest assured, however, I will not be writing about my listening experiences with the Avianos and the Backyardigans.


In Use

The vast majority of time with the system was spent watching as compared to listening. As odd as that might sound, the home theater system was used predominantly for watching shows and movies. First an overview of my general impressions of the system, followed by some specifics from my viewings.

Starting at the bottom, the Aviano 7 does a great job, for the size, in filling the lower registers. It does not recreate the lowest tones nor provide the physical presence possible with larger subwoofers, but it would not be expected to at this price or size.

I am mixed in having direct radiators for the surround channels, as they can tend to localize the surround effects too much. I did not find that to be the case with the Aviano 1 which blended well with the remaining speakers. Obviously, sharing drivers between the units lends to greater homogeneity in tone.

Looking at the front channels, there was not a perceivable gap between the center and left/right channels with respect to range. The Aviano 5, while not a large unit, is large enough to minimize any potential disconnects between itself and the main channels when it comes to frequency response. Somewhat contrary to my experience with the Aviano 1 used as the surrounds, I found the Aviano 8 to a bit tighter than I am accustomed. The soundstage seemed to fit in the room rather than extend beyond it. The imaging and overall tonality was very good, but I was left hoping for broader imaging in a few instances. As the listening room was a new one, however, I am not certain how much is attributable to the room, and how much to the speakers.

Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers

Representing the most action filled of the trilogy, the Blu-Ray presentation is spectacular. Notable scenes include the duel between Gandalf and Balrog, the battle at Helm's Deep, and Frodo and Sam at the gates of Mordor. As I noted, the 7 did a great job with the deep bass, but was missing just the last bit at the bottom. You hear but do not feel the horn sound or the gates move. The orchestral soundtrack was one of the areas where I felt a larger soundstage was lacking. However, this was not the case for the action sequences.

Mordaunt-Short Aviano and Cambridge Audio Azur 650R

Hurt Locker

This is a very tense movie that does a great job of conveying the war without the dubious politics. To be honest, until the press raised the fuss about Kathryn Bigelow being the first female director to win, I did not realize she would have been the first. The dialog came through as cleanly as the gunshots and explosions.

Mordaunt-Short Aviano and Cambridge Audio Azur 650R

Sherlock Holmes

This was definitely an interesting take on Sherlock Holmes. This was also where I noted some of the peculiarities with the video discussed below. As a typical blockbuster the requisite action and explosions fill the screen. Again, there was little the combination of Mordaunt-Short and Cambridge Audio could not handle. If the budget could fit the larger Aviano 9, it might have pushed the whole experience right to the top of the scale, but that is coming from a bass junkie.

Mordaunt-Short Aviano and Cambridge Audio Azur 650R

Glee

This is admittedly the most music that was played through the system. Glee is a very interesting take on its high school namesake. The cast covers a broad range of voices and musical styles, so in the end provided a good audition of the system. It was a definite departure from the booms and bangs from the movies.

Mordaunt-Short Aviano and Cambridge Audio Azur 650R

Returning back to the minor issues I noted in the Setup section, the 650R had issues passing the signal from the Mac Mini through to the display correctly. Initially, it looked as though the 650R was applying some processing to the signal, but I was assured by Cambridge Audio that this could not be the case. The only "processing" performed by the 650R is transcoding between the inputs and outputs. Beyond sending any input signal to any desired output of equivalent or higher capacity, the unit does not perform any processing, including deinterlacing.

In normal computer use, text and desktop widgets were not displayed with the clarity with which I am accustomed. After much consternation and troubleshooting, I determined the 650R had issue with the 1080p signal sent by the Mac Mini. When the signal was switched to 1080i, the artifacts disappeared. There was not, however, the expected reduction in resolution stemming from an interlaced signal. I am not sure where the fault lies, but I do know the HDMI switch I normally use has no issue in sending the signals from any of my sources to the display without issue. The 650R definitely appears as an intermediary between the display and source, as evidenced by its identification as the display by the Mac Mini, as compared to a pass-through scenario where the actual display is identified. I took the issue up with Cambridge Audio, but there was no clear resolution. I do not think sending a DVI signal is a niche operation given the relative convergence of display protocols, but at least a simple workaround is available until the root of the problem can be determined.

The artifacting I saw is shown below in a scene from Sherlock Holmes. Figure 18 is the output directly from the Mac Mini into the display. Switching through the 650R results in the image shown in Figure 19. The image exhibits contouring in a contrasting color, with highlights being particularly susceptible to the degradation. The lower left and right portions of the fuchsia dress demonstrate the artifacts in question. The image in Figure 20 is the same file as displayed through the 650R and the PS3, and does not exhibit the same artifacts.


Conclusions

So what is garnered at the end of the exercise? Even in a partially bound selection process, system selection is filled with tradeoffs. Each of the components in the test system performed admirably, with a few caveats listed. I bemoaned the fact that most systems are imbalanced in favor of the electronics, with a rather disproportionate amount of the overall budget being devoted to the electronics as compared to the speakers. Despite knowing and saying this, I find myself in a similar position. I am inclined to say that while the Aviano is an entirely capable speaker, the Azur 650R seemed just that much more capable. The Aviano system faithfully reproduced the source material, and projected an adequate soundstage in most circumstances.

On the whole, the 650R was constrained by the mating with the Aviano. That there were a few minor technical issues with the 650R, despite the overall philosophy of functional simplicity merely serves to illustrate the immense complexity embodied in a modern receiver. Given the audio performance of the unit, and the rather specialized application in which the issues arose, I would still highly recommend the 650R be on the short list of receivers in its class. Just be mindful that the overall budget should stretch somewhat north of the $5,000 allotted in my exercise.

Mordaunt-Short

Cambridge Audio