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More is more: Cambridge Audio’s Edge NQ network pre-amplifier

  • What does spending £1000 more on a network pre-amplifier get us? This question popped up soon after the Gold Note DS-10 review: a £2500 streamer, DAC, and pre-amplifier whose paper-based functionality was none too dissimilar to the Cambridge Audio Edge NQ (£3500/US$5000/ €4999). Could we rightly expect the British unit’s £1000 price premium to bring us greater functionality and/or better sound?

    One thing’s immediately obvious: we get a bigger box. At 460x120x405mm (WHD), the Edge NQ is five times the size of the half-width DS-10. It’s also a looker. The wrap-around main sleeve has rounded corners, the top plate sits in a hollowed-out section. And the fascia is clean with just two key elements: a large and tactile volume/input control and a beautifully detailed LCD screen that can show album art. The overall aesthetic is exceptionally pleasing and build quality is exemplary.

    Time to delve deeper.

    Functionality
    On the analogue side, we get three inputs – two single-ended RCA and one balanced XLR. Together with both XLR and RCA outputs that can be used simultaneously (hello subwoofer). Digital inputs include USB-B for computers/streamer and USB-A for storage devices. On S/PDIF there’s one RCA and two optical inputs. A neat touch is the HDMI ARC input/output for use with a TV, making the Edge NQ real-world friendly. There’s also a headphone output on the front.

    Network connections can be wired Ethernet or wireless wifi. An in-built dongle means no protruding Wi-Fi antenna is needed. This makes the Bluetooth aerial poking up from the back of the unit look slightly incongruous; aptX and aptX HD are supported.

    The Edge NQ’s DAC chip model isn’t specified but its bit depth and sample rate are: up to 24bit/96kHz on optical, 24bit/192kHz on coaxial and 32bit/384kHz & DSD256 on USB-B (computer). UPNP and USB-A (thumb drive) max out at 32bit/192kHz & DSD128; Roon too.

    Operation / StreamMagic app
    Cambridge’s StreamMagic app gives us access to local folder shares via UPnP plus Tidal, Qobuz and Internet radio. However, the Edge NQ was recently certified as Roon Ready, which is how I (mostly) used it.

    StreamMagic isn’t quite as intuitive as Roon – the Hub screen that supposedly simplifies navigation looks busy – but it’s perfectly usable and free of annoying glitches. Roon is also better at managing large local libraries. Using StreamMagic’s UPnP functionality to search 3,500 ripped albums on my NAS drive wasn’t fun. Thankfully, UPnP playback is gapless. And I loved changing the Edge NQ’s volume using the rocker switch on the side of my Android phone.

    Elsewhere, Apple Airplay plus Chromecast Built-in and Spotify Connect are all supported to complete our publisher’s Holy Trinity of Streaming. (For the uninitiated, that’s Roon, Spotify and Chromecast).

    The supplied IR remote is reassuringly heavy and elegantly styled. Limited to 12 buttons – including 4 useful presets – it does most things we need. The Play/Pause button works with Bluetooth, Airplay, Chromecast and others. It also mutes the analogue and digital inputs. Neat.

    Using the Cambridge device quickly becomes second nature, helped by network inputs that switch automatically. Bottom line – the Edge is nice to use. Time for some listening.

    Partnering equipment
    A pair of Gold Note PA-10 power amplifiers (£1264 each) were used in monoblock mode to drive Graham LS6 standmount loudspeakers (£2300) with IsoAcoustics Gaia 3 feet (£500) applied to their stands and Tellurium Q Black 2 cables (£270) joining the dots.

    For comparisons, the GoldNote DS-10 preamplifier played co-star to the Edge NQ. Schiit’s Jotunheim headphone amplifier (£400) enjoyed a walk-on role. My regular ProMySB digital front-end – Pro-ject S2 Stream Ultra, Mytek Liberty and SBooster (£1800) – scored a bit part.

    Sound
    The Edge NQ’s overall sonic signature is similar to the DS-10’s.

    From that review:

    “The Gold Note’s overall gestalt is open, detailed, light and airy, with a wonderfully large soundstage. Bass comes on as super taut. Gold Note shows that refinement and rambunctiousness can indeed run hand in hand, presenting rock music with force and energy.”

    The Edge NQ simply takes the same ingredients and intensifies the overall flavour. The audible improvements are not subtle. Aided by more detail, the music comes across as more ‘live’, bringing to mind more than once the Klipsch Forte III loudspeaker.

    The bigger soundstage hits you first – taller, deeper and more palpable – and to a surprising degree. It puts us closer to the players: second row, not the tenth.

    Tonally, the Edge NQ is more studio-sound than romantic rendition. Warm it is not. It doesn’t hide poor recordings but neither does it hang them out to dry. I play several older recordings; most sound surprisingly fresh, belying their age. “Dance on a Volcano” from Genesis’ Trick of the Tail is, to me, good music but a mediocre recording. The Edge NQ gives it a new lease of life as if it were remastered from the DS-10’s original.

    The Edge NQ’s bass is weightier than the DS-10’s and better controlled too. Midrange isn’t creamy but Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s cello on “Hallelujah” just soars. Vocals are precise, unadorned, but that’s a good thing. Phil Collins’ voice is easier to hear on “Volcano”.

    Dynamics are really good, whether orchestral music or hard rock. Indeed all types of music benefit from the Edge NQ’s touch. My current guilty pleasure – baroque lute – is handled well. That’s to be expected with simple music. Go grungier – early Beth Hart, Oasis, AC/DC – and the Edge NQ struts with the best, its dynamic capabilities riding upfront.

    Overall the sound encourages listener analysis without being analytical. These ears usually favour a little more tonal richness but I lapped up the Edge NQ’s more detailed dive.

    With one PA-10
    If £6k for an Edge NQ and 2x PA-10 is stretching it then using a single stereo PA-10 amplifier saves us £1264. It works well. A little clarity and control are sacrificed but not much – we still get that in spades from the Edge NQ. We also get a slightly smoother sound that some might actually favour. Mercedes comfort over BMW dynamics.

    For my money, the sound of the Edge NQ + single PA-10 beats out the slightly costlier DS-10 plus 2x PA-10. We get more detail and complex music sounds better controlled.

    It’s the preamplifier
    The quality of the Edge NQ’s preamplifier appears key to its performance. How so? I switch the DS-10 to fixed-output DAC mode – bypassing its preamplifier – and feed it through the Edge NQ’s XLR input. The sound quality difference between this combination and the Edge NQ running solo all but disappears.

    Swapping the DS-10 for the PrMySB digital front-end confirms this. Those two setups sound very similar – see the DS-10 review – so by implication, the ProMySB should match the Edge NQ’s DAC and streamer (A=B, B=C, ergo A=C). And so it turns out. All three options sound remarkably close. Clearly Cambridge Audio has expertise in preamplifier stages.

    Headphones
    Finally the Edge NQ’s headphone output; enter Schiit’s excellent Jotunheim for comparison and AudioQuest NightHawk Carbon headphones (£599). The Schiit shades it, just. It’s more open at the top end. Slightly cleaner too, complex mixes are easier to dissect. On bass, it’s level pegging, both delivering impressive control. Switching to the Meze 99 Classics (£279) solicits similar findings. Deep diving headphonistas may want to use an external headphone amplifier. Those playing at the shallow end probably won’t – the NightHawk and 99 Classics both sound excellent driven by the Edge NQ’s 6.4mm socket.

    Conclusions
    The DS-10 network preamplifier is a most excellent way to spend £2500. The Edge NQ, however, takes us to a different level, fully earning its price premium. That’s on sound quality alone, never mind the additional functionality. More than once my thoughts turned to the £5k Moon 390 network preamplifier, which has similar functionality and attention to detail. It’s similarly well rounded too.

    Cambridge invites us to pair the Edge NQ with the £2500 Edge W power amplifier (both available exclusively from Richer Sounds in the UK). I know nothing of how that pairing sounds. This review tells us that the Edge NQ will happily swim with other fish.

    If you’re looking for a high/er end network preamplifier, give the Edge NQ a listen. Even if that means scrimping on the power amplifier choices to afford it.

    The Edge NQ is a big beast. Make sure you can accommodate its size. It’s easy to operate too. On sound quality, the Cambridge impressed from the start, delivering a fresh and lively feel to music played through it. Extended listening only deepened my respect. More is more. My expectations were high of the Edge NQ yet it still comfortably exceeded them.

    Further information: Cambridge Audio

    Phil Wright

    Written by Phil Wright

    Phil is a Brit living in deepest Devon. Think: Tolkien's Shire but with killer cream teas. He's been around since digital audio's inception - he even wrote his dissertation on the introduction of the CD - but today's developments in both music and audio gear make him think 'we have never had it so good'. Phil is a Music-First audiophile with wide ranging tastes (Trad Jazz excepted): 5000 albums in his local library with the remainder coming from Tidal.

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