The world of hi-fi has many storied brands that have been around for decades, and the ones that thrive do so because they are able to adapt to changing customer needs, technologies, and competition. Perhaps the toughest shift in recent years has been to an increasing dependence on software expertise – streaming, mobile apps, and all-around more sophisticated user interface design. The way I see it, Cambridge Audio is a brand that has consistently managed to navigate these choppy waters.
Cambridge’s products have always been solid performers, while from an industrial design standpoint they’ve been clean but conservative – well-executed for the price points but not much in the way of aesthetic flair to make them really stand out. After more than a half-century in business, that’s changing with products like the curvaceously muscular Edge separates, and the mid-century modern inspired Evo super-integrateds. Cambridge has also been in the digital UI game with its StreamMagic system and accompanying digital interfaces, first launched ten years ago.
In recognition of the design strides Cambridge has been making, on March 31st, 2022, the firm was awarded two prestigious Red Dot Design Awards for recent products: the aforementioned Evo line, and its Melomania 1+ wireless earphones.
To find out more about how the company is shifting its approach I reached out to Ged Martin, head of design, and he talked through their design process for both hardware and software.
Martin joined the company almost ten years ago. “It’s gone by incredibly quickly!” he says. “I’ve had a hand in many things over the years but I’m most proud of Edge and Evo. Before Cambridge Audio, I wasn’t exposed much to traditional hi-fi, but I had done a speaker project at Manchester Metropolitan University [where he got his 1st class honors degree in Product Design] using a BMR driver and so it was a good gateway into the company.” (Balanced Mode Radiator is a driver technology used in Cambridge’s speakers.)
“I’ve always liked music, and music production especially, and so it seemed a really good fit. Before Cambridge Audio, I had one year at a design consultancy in Nottingham where I worked on a variety of products from shaving products to crossbows and educational furniture.”
He cites famed Braun designer Dieter Rams as an influence on his approach, and you can see that in the geometric forms and clean surfaces. However, there’s also a richness of details – some quite playful – that you would never have seen on a Rams product. A reflection perhaps of one of his other influences, Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa who brings a humanistic and some whimsy to his work.
“I hope our design is perceived as understated, subtle and crafted,” Martin says. “We are clear as a company what our values are, and we try to emulate these in the products. We avoid any superfluous details and keep everything as honest as we can.”
With the recent product launches and the just-passed 50-year anniversary, I asked Martin about the apparent expansion into some new aesthetic and price territories.
“Yes, it has been a considered move to place more emphasis on the physical design over the last few years, which I‘ve really appreciated. Back in 2015 Cambridge Audio embarked on an in-depth introspective study. The output was an extremely useful document that detailed, amongst other things, what we believed to be our core values. We embraced the fact we are a small company with some serious heritage and should stop trying to compete with larger companies and following what others were already doing.”
The Edge and Evo products resulted from that study, according to Martin. The Evo super-integrated amp/streamers in particular grab the “lifestyle” moniker with both hands by offering an alluring furniture-inspired look with side panels that can be swapped out to match the surrounding home aesthetic. I was intrigued to see that some of the panels are made of Richlite, a sustainable material composed of highly compressed paper infused in resin. It’s dense (therefore anti-resonant) and durable and can be machined like plastic as it has no grain. It’s used in everything from architecture to skate parks, and my wife and I used it for our kitchen countertops. I asked Martin what led to its use on Evo.
“I love Richlite, and would like to do more with it in the future. It ticks so many boxes for this application, and I love the fact that its core material is recycled paper. With Evo right from the very first concept, we focused on trying to make the form simple enough so that we could use the sort of sheet materials you would use on a high-end interior design project or a piece of furniture.”
“It’s funny you mention countertops as we were also looking at materials such as Corian, Durat, and Fenix NTM which are often used for countertops. We were exposed to these sorts of materials through design shows around London, which we try to get to every year. We found Richlite at a show aimed more at interior design and architecture, but it just fit the bill really nicely. We were experimenting with these sorts of materials to try and find a way to take a complex technological product and make it fit in with your home. We wanted it to complement and fit in with people’s tastes and having the changeable side panels allows this.”
Change is the name of the game in hifi these days, as companies stretch to attract new, younger buyers who have different priorities than OG audiophiles. I asked Martin about how Cambridge plans its future products.
“It isn’t a linear process, and we get input from many different sides of the business. We tend to start with a very loose idea which may have been determined by marketing, by the board, or anywhere internally really. We mock-up a brief based on this and start to do some early work and concepts around that.”
“From here myself and the team will start doing some research looking at existing products, design trends, and try to identify potential customers’ needs and wants. We want to empathise with the end user. We then define some important aspects and insights from the research, put these into an early spec and start coming up with some ideas on how to solve the problem – or even determine if it’s the right problem to solve. This will take the form of sketches, quick models made of high-density foam, 3D prints, renderings, etc. We will keep circling around this process until we have something that we are all happy with.”
“I consider myself to be part of engineering. I do the ID (industrial design) and mechanical engineering, along with one other colleague. In our team we also have electronic engineers, software engineers and product testers, so the back and forth is pretty seamless. We speak and see each other every day. Because we all work so closely together it allows us to keep the concept very close to the original design, which I believe is important. Nothing gets changed unless it benefits the design. This is much easier for us as we have a small team and we are all under the same roof.”
Given Cambridge’s ongoing development of its StreamMagic platform, associated mobile apps, and the increasing prominence of displays on its products, I was curious about how much of the interface design is done in-house, versus reskinning 3rd-party platforms or outsourcing a custom app. Turns out, all user interface work is done in-house. It’s not a trivial undertaking to design and engineer for an ever-changing landscape of target hardware (iPhones and Android phones), connection standards like Bluetooth, Chromecast and Spotify Connect, and then do ongoing maintenance, updates, and customer service. It requires a far more expansive skill set than creating and selling purely hardware products.
“Getting it right is a big challenge,” says Martin, “as it straddles several disciplines, and we are still trying to find the right balance on this. Traditionally this has been owned by software as the UX/UI is so important on apps. But on Evo it was important that the mechanical, electronic and software elements all worked seamlessly together due to that huge display and dual concentric knob. It was a major challenge to get that right.”
“For example, the outer dial of the knob on Evo that controls the sources is not physically attached to a pot. We chose to do this so we could get the exact click feel we wanted. So instead it has a laser printed set of lines on the rear that is read by a photo reflector which is set back slightly in the unit. As the knob goes through one click, the information is communicated to the unit and then shown to the user by the source symbol moving concentrically on the display. To get something like this working well is quite complex, but hopefully worth it to the end-user.”
One pet peeve of mine is the cheap-feeling remotes that often come with high-end hifi, so I love that the Evo comes with a bespoke remote. Martin agrees, “There is nothing worse than getting a beautifully-made product only to find it ships with an off-the-rack remote. Now that so much of the interface has shifted to our phones we touch these types of products less frequently. But we made a conscious decision to invest in the physical parts that you still interact with. It gives you the reassurance that this is a quality product, and just increases the enjoyment of using it.”
Given that Cambridge is a fairly small company yet makes everything from power amps to turntables to earphones such as the Melomania 1+’s, I asked Martin if the process changes based on the category.
“Every project is different. The contrast between a power amp and earphones is a great example. For earphones, one of the primary concerns is ergonomic fit, and so much of the process is a circular loop of sketches, renders, 3D prints, testing, repeated until the fit is perfect in as broad a range of ears as possible. Earphones also have to be designed quickly as the market and technology move so fast, so the approach has to match that and be quite fluid.”
I was interested to hear that Martin is also involved in the packaging that the products ship in. “The packaging on our larger products like power amps is always a challenge. We try to be as green as we can and use paper pulp [like egg carton material] wherever possible. The packaging for Evo started out as entirely pulp, but when the first samples were tested and shipped around several times, the pulp had started to split and wasn’t quite robust enough. It was disappointing, but you have to make sure the product gets to the customer in one piece. So we added in a small amount of EPE (expanded polyethylene foam) to make this possible.”
“We’re always investigating ways to make our packaging greener. Looking around the industry I don’t see many others putting as much focus on these sorts of things. From a design point of view, I really think we take everything down to the last detail, and I am really proud to be a part of that.”
In thinking about the path forward, Martin observes that “In the past Cambridge Audio was maybe considered a good value brand, which is no bad thing. But in the future, I would love us to be perceived from a design point of view as also creating understated, well-crafted, and honest products.”
Further information: Cambridge Audio