The Every-Disc Player: Cambridge Audio 651BD

05/12/2012


Available from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

As a music lover, and especially as a reviewer for MusicWeb International, I am confronted with a number of different types of optical discs. CDs and DVDs are, of course, the most common, and have been around for a long time. But in the past couple of years, Blu-Ray discs have come into the market, and they are especially desirable for recordings of classical music concerts or operas.

But even CDs offer a variety of formats. In addition to regular CDs – which follow the “Red Book” standard – there are SACDs, and these come in two types: either in stereo or with multi-channel sound, and they are at a much higher resolution than standard CDs. While most SACDs sold today are hybrid – featuring a CD layer and an SACD layer – there are still some that are not. In addition to offering more channels or higher resolution, SACDs also offer much greater capacity, potentially providing a playing time that exceeds CDs.

Another format is the HDCD standard, which is not widely used. However, I have dozens of HDCD discs, because one of my favorite rock bands, Grateful Dead, issues all their recordings in this format. HDCD claims to offer better resolution than standard CDs, yet these discs are compatible with standard CD players.

There is one last form of “hybrid” disc: the DVD-A, or DVD-audio disc. This is a DVD, just like one used for a movie, but where there is little or no video. (There are generally only menus and/or still images.) The advantage of using DVD-A is longer playing time – up to several hours – and higher resolution files in stereo or multi-track.

When it comes to DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, there are also audio formats that need to be decoded, such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.

So, with all these formats of optical discs, it can be very useful to have a device that can play them all. This is the case with the Cambridge Audio 651BD, which handles all of the above formats, including 3D Blu-Ray discs.

I hadn’t owned a CD player in a long time, having digitized all of my music so I can stream it to my stereo. As for movies, I previously had a standard, consumer-grade DVD player, not really thinking that there would be that much of a difference. I wasn’t that concerned about SACD or HDCD – even though I have dozens of the latter discs, playing them as standard CDs is fine with me. However, after Cambridge Audio sent me a 651BD, I changed the way I look at all of these pieces of plastic.

First, I had long thought that there wasn’t much of a difference between the video playback of an average DVD player compared to better devices. My last DVD player was a Sony that cost about €100 when I bought it a few years ago. (Similar players seem to run about €75 today, though you can get others much cheaper.) However, when I started watching movies, concerts, operas and TV series with the 651BD I was very surprised by the quality of the image. It is much sharper, and much more fluid, especially when there is rapid movement. I don’t pretend to know much about video (I’m an audio guy), but I’m pretty sure this has to do with what Cambridge Audio calls “motion adaptive noise reduction.” Not only do fast-moving films look better, but I noticed much cleaner video when watching older TV series on the 651BD, those shot in 4:3, with much lower quality than today’s techniques. One series in particular that I had been watching on my Sony DVD player had interlacing artifacts which, on the 651BD, were imperceptible.

But what about the sound? If you’re going to spend this much for a disc player, you probably want to play both movies and music. This player uses a Cirrus Logic CS4382A 8-channel, 24-bit, 192 kHz DAC to provide excellent sound; the device outputs both stereo and multi-channel, up to 7.1. As I said earlier, all of my music is digitized, but with the 651BD, I’ve been finding myself listening to CDs anew. The sound is richer with this device than my previous DVD player (which had, let’s be honest, mediocre sound), and the act of listening to a CD has become enjoyable again. I should add that I got this player shortly after getting a new pair of Focal Chorus 806v speakers, so my sound system overall has improved, but when I added the 651BD, before changing the speakers, there was a clear increase in CD playback quality.

I don’t do multi-channel; I really don’t see the need to spend what it costs to have the full 5.1 or 7.1 setup with decent speakers, so I only listen to stereo with the 651BD, and can’t judge its multi-channel playback. (It’s worth noting that since the 651BD does all the necessary audio and video decoding, it may allow you to play discs that your AV receiver might not be able to decode, if it is not recent enough.)

As far as usability is concerned, the 651BD has everything I need: two HDMI outputs, 7.1 RCA outputs, as well as SPDIF coaxial and Toslink optical digital outputs. (It also offers component video and composite video for those with older TVs.) It starts up very quickly – some Blu-Ray players can take a long time to get ready to play a disc – and is very quiet. The remote control included with the 651BD can take some getting used to; there are a lot of buttons, and I find that not all of them are in what I would consider logical locations. Also, if you’re watching a movie in an otherwise dark room, and forget which buttons pause, skip tracks or fast-forward, it’s hard to tell from looking at the remote. I got used to it, but not after making mistakes for a few weeks.

When you play audio discs, the 651BD sends a video signal to your TV, which contains a simple background screen, but also shows the current track number, time (elapsed and total) and the format of the disc (CD, SACD or HDCD). When playing SACDs, there is also text displaying showing the artist, title and track name. (I don’t have many SACDs, so I don’t know if this is available on all of them.) You probably won’t want to leave this on, but if you’d rather navigate by looking at this screen instead of the small LED display on the device, it can be practical to turn the TV on and off when needed.

This is not a cheap player: it goes for $800 in the US, £500 in the UK, and around €900 in France, where I live – but if you compare what it offers with other devices, it stands up well. The only comparable players that can handle all these formats – notably SACD and HDCD – seem to be Oppo’s players, such as their BDP-93, which costs about the same. One non-negligible advantage to the Oppo is its availability as a multi-zone player, which the 651BD does not offer. If you buy discs from regions other than your own, this could be a deciding factor. The 651BD lets you play back some digital files, if you connect a hard drive or USB thumb drive to a port on the front of the device, but it doesn’t support as many formats as the Oppo. (And USB devices must be formatted as FAT, FAT32 or NTFS, which means that storage devices formatted for Macs won’t work.)

Interestingly, the documentation and specs for the 651BD don’t say that you can stream audio and video files over a network – if you connect the player via Ethernet – but this is possible. The interface for selecting files is a bit clunky, and the device takes a while to buffer video, but it is possible to do this. (I have another video player connected to my TV which starts playback of files on a server immediately.) While the documentation says that the 651BD supports many formats – MPEG2, MPEG2 HD, MPEG4, MPEG4 AVC, VC-1, XviD, VCD, AVCHD, MPEG ISO, AVI, VOB, MKV (4.1), JPEG, JPEG HD – I found some files that it wouldn’t play, which my other video player handles with no problems. It can also play some music files. It plays MP3s with no problem, and, while it recognizes FLAC files, when I try to play them they don’t play; the interface shows me that they are playing, but they just remain at 0:00. The device does not, however, even recognize AAC files, which is unfortunate.

Ideally, I’d like to see the 651BD offer the ability to play audio streamed using Apple’s AirPlay protocol; that would make it a perfect device for all of my listening. (The Oppo players don’t do AirPlay streaming either.) But since I can stream to an AppleTV, this isn’t a deal-breaker. Its network playback should be more explicit, and it should be able to play more files. It would just be nice to have full convergence of all the audio and video that I use in one device.

One other things that I spotted somewhat accidentally. I have a handful of region 1 DVDs (I live in France, which is region 2), and I popped one in the 651BD one night, and was somewhat surprised to find that it played. Apparently, Cambridge Audio cannot promote the fact that this is a multi-region DVD player; it is not, however, a multi-region Blu-Ray player.

The Cambridge Audio 651BD is, for me, nearly perfect. I’d like multi-region playback and better streamed audio and video playback, but I can live without these. The capabilities of this player, the quality of the sound and video, and its flexibility make this an excellent choice if you want to move up from a standard CD and/or Blu-Ray player. And if, like me, you want to play every format of optical disc you have, then the 651BD is for you.