Basic connection of the 551R presented no particular problems. Plug in your HDMI cables, hook up your speakers to the row of 5-way posts, and call it good. Cambridge’s receiver includes its own auto-setup software, along with a calibration mike similar to those used with Audyssey and countless other robo-cal systems. This proceeds via prompts from the Cambridge’s onscreen display, and it proved simple and quite accurate, effectively nailing the settings my handheld meter would’ve suggested. But note that the 551R’s auto-cal routine adjusts only channel levels and delays (speaker distances); you must preselect the active channels, sizes, and crossover settings manually, and there is no equalization.
Cambridge touts its designs as being developed with music playback as a first priority, and nothing I heard from the 551R contradicted that claim. (That said, this sort of marketing — far from unique to Cambridge — means little. Neither electrons nor air molecules know the difference between music, movies, sound, or a PA announcement. Accurate is accurate, not is not.)
I began as always with two-channel recordings reproducing full-range through my moderately low-sensitivity two-way monitors, and found the 551R to be capable of decidedly open, detailed, and dynamic-yet-warm reproduction of a very high order. An excellent demonstration came from Flowers, a hi-rez recording by Italian singer Fabiana Martone that I stumbled across recently on HDtracks.com. Her voice is accomplished in a Joni-meets-Carole-meets-Joss sort of way, and the album is an inoffensive collection of Beatles-era covers in a mostly piano-trio idiom. But the sound is terrific: fully resolved enough to hear studio- production “corners” like mike grain on Martone’s strongest vocal notes; the not-quite-fully-absorbed slap echo of snare hits off the room’s back wall; and the ultra-naturalized sheen of reverb on her smooth-jazz rendition of “Something.” It’s actually great to hear all these edges, which are usually sufficiently softened by playback resolution losses (or production ones, often deliberate) as to disappear into the mix.
Don’t get me wrong: Flowers is a terrific-sounding production — one that reproduced beautifully via the 551R’s PLIIx Music mode as well — and the album itself is quite enjoyable. But my point is (or was, before I got sidetracked) that the 551R’s effortless transparency kept all this easily detectable, and had enough clean, unstrained oomph to deliver it at very respect- able levels. Not quite old-school control-room levels but perhaps 10 dB less, which is far more musical and much better for your hearing.
Translating this quality playback to Blu-ray was simple: Put in a disc and press Play. One of the better such demonstrators was John Carter. Despite its frequent risibility, this bizarre, largely unintelligible steampunk/sci-fi mashup has reference-grade audio and video. Modest power ratings on paper or no, the Cambridge delivered big-time slam and envelopment on the raucous arena sequence, displaying unfailing clarity and dynamic energy even at my top listening levels (perhaps 6 dB below cinema “reference”). Still, I must note that the 551R lacks any dynamic range-modifying feature like Dolby Volume or Audyssey Dynamic EQ other than the standard DRC that’s part of Dolby Digital. If you think, as I do, that many movies are still mixed too bright for typical small home theater rooms, you also may feel, as I did, the lack of any “house-curve” high-frequency miti- gating EQ (like THX Re-EQ). The Cambridge does have conventional tone controls, however.
The 551R upconverts incoming analog or digital video up to 1080p resolution over HDMI. Video processing is handled via Faroujda DCDi silicon, an older but proven chip, so I expected crisp images, and that’s what I saw. Performance on our standard rotation of test-disc patterns and segments was squeaky clean and artifact-free.
Cambridge’s setup logic allows you to assign video processing to each input individually (though the scale-to setting is global) and then dial up basic video adjustments (contrast, saturation, etc.) for each processed source. So incoming HDMI from, for example, a Blu-ray player can be left untouched as is generally advisable, while an older component can get the full 1080p monty.
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