The Cambridge Audio Azur 650T DAB+ is a high quality DAB+/FM tuner, but it lacks some of the features of its rival and mercilessly uncovers the flaws in digital broadcasts.
If digital radio was a person, we'd say it's only just started to talk — even walking is a way off yet. In real terms there are still no in-car DAB+ radios — only add-ons — and there is a single pocket model available at the moment. It will be some years before it is a mature format. Given that it's been hyped as "better than FM" it makes sense that people would want to listen to it in their lounge rooms as well as on the go. But, given that no A/V receivers have yet shipped with DAB+ on-board, we must instead look to stand-alone units like the Sangean WFT-1D+ and this model: the Cambridge Audio 650T.
Given that hi-fi is the national sport of British shut-ins it makes sense that they know how to make a piece of good-looking equipment. Cambridge Audio is based in London, and the 650T shows off the Brits' stylish, no-nonsense aesthetic. The casing is available in a choice of silver or black and features a large slab of brushed aluminium slammed onto the front. The rest of the case is steel, and the top of the unit features the Cambridge Audio symbol stamped into the metal.
The front of the display features 12 buttons across the fascia — six for directly accessing station presets — and a series of navigation controls. These buttons flank a dimmable blue LED display, which displays two lines of text at a time. Unfortunately, it has a fairly low contrast and is hard to see from a normal distance. By comparison, the Sony STRDA5500 receiver we were using as a test bed has a lovely, high-contrast screen which would be perfect for scrolling DAB+ information such as artist and song names.
The remote control is a faux-metal device which looks impressive and comes with pleasantly squishy buttons. Some of the function buttons are a little obscure though as they feature symbols instead of names.
In comparison to the similarly-priced Sangean WFT-1D+ the Cambridge Audio is fairly light-on for features, with DAB+ reception its main selling point for metropolitan listeners. It lacks features like pausing and rewinding, and doesn't even have a video out which is a shame as many stations are now broadcasting cover art, weather and station IDs alongside the music signal. If this information is important to you you may instead look to a device like the Pure Sensia which includes a 5.7-inch colour screen.
While the 650T lacks for features it funnels its attentions in a different direction: audio quality. The tuner has completely separated FM and DAB+ sections, with the digital section featuring a high-end Wolfson 8740 DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) — the same as in the DacMagic. The 650T even features two different antenna ports for each section, but as most people don't have a specialised DAB+ antenna in their house the company includes a strip antenna in the box.
The tuner also includes digital outputs (for DAB+ only) so you can connect it to your receiver or an even better DAC if you wish. Note: the first tuner we received was one of a small initial batch that didn't have the digital output enabled. If you find that your tuner has the same issue contact the place of purchase and they will arrange a free upgrade for you.
The manual is comprehensive but at times frustratingly vague — for example, resetting the tuner presets asks you to hold down "Select" on "power-up" but it was only with a little trial and error that we discovered it meant you should do this after flicking the hard-switch on the back of the unit and not the power button on the remote.
We had a bitter sweet experience when testing the 650T: while FM broadcasts sounded great with plenty of bass and detail, though a reticent treble due to the nature of FM transmissions, DAB+ broadcasts were a different animal altogether.
We tried a number of different radios for our tests, the Pure One Classic DAB+ connected using the line out, the 650T and the on-board FM tuner of the Sony 5500 receiver.
As DAB+ is a compressed format based on AAC you've got to expect some give and take when it comes to sound quality, but we were surprised that the most "high brow" stations sounded the worst through the 650T. The ABC has a number of stations catering to different genres but its use of a relatively low 80Kbps bitrate across the board really shows itself here. On these stations there is a little too much treble presence on rock and blues stations like Triple J or ABC Digg — more of a distorted shoosh sound really — that makes it sound exciting but also very fatiguing in comparison to the FM equivalent.
But, if you listen to a station like Triple M, which is blessed by a slightly higher bitrate, music sounds fine and less "squashed" than FM. Plus you get the addition of song and artist data as well. In comparison, the Pure One Classic was a little less hyperactive in the upper register though it did suffer from a really bloated bass. As this is a desktop radio and not designed to be plugged into a stereo we'll forgive it for that.
But the reason you'd really want to buy a digital radio is to listen to AM stations in digital quality, and they're the real stars here. Talk stations sound infinitely better than their AM equivalent, and music is actually in stereo. But we do have to wonder if people listen to 2GB on their home stereo...
Is this tuner for you? Well, it depends on what you like to listen to. If you like commercial rock or dance then we'd say it's worth looking into it — the majority of the extra digital channels cater for your tastes and the sound is of sufficient quality that it can easily substitute for FM. If you like AM you may be better off getting a portable DAB+ radio, but at least easy listening stations like 2CH can now be heard in full stereo quality without the awful interference problems of the past. The limitations of this radio are as much to do with the quality of Australian broadcasts as they are about the unit's lack of features. It could be that this unit is just too good to be used on Australian DAB+ broadcasts.