Since most Blu-ray players are sold on price, there are few extras, and little attention paid to audio. Cambridge Audio's CXU $1,299 (£899, AUS$1,747) player changes all that by being both hugely impressive and massively expensive.
From the off, the heavyweight (five kilos!) CXU's brushed black aluminium chassis screams quality, and is a sign of the treasures inside. Audio-wise, it's Cambridge Audio's own ATF (Adaptive Time Filtering) up-sampling that takes all music to 24-bit/192kHz quality. But the CXU is primarily about home cinema; cue Darbee Visual Presence video processing for the images and a Wolfson WM870 DAC for each of the surround sound channels.
Naturally, the CXU – a universal disc spinner if ever there was one – plays nicely with Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio soundtracks found on Blu-ray discs.
Ins and outs leave nothing to chance either. Alongside one HDMI input and two outputs (both Audio Return Channel-compatible) are both digital optical audio and digital coaxial audio outputs, Ethernet LAN, two USB slots, an RS-232C port, stereo audio outputs, and a full suite of 7.1 analogue audio inputs.
The front panel is sleek indeed, with a large screen surrounded on one side by discreet logos, and flanked on each side by just a couple of small buttons (standby, scan, eject and play/pause). On the right-hand side is a fourth HDMI slot (MHL-ready, so able to take a feed from a phone or tablet) and a third USB slot.
The CXU also works as a music streamer, streaming MP3, WAV, FLAC and ALAC music files across a home network. There's no app (it's all configured on the front-panel's screen) and there's not even Wi-Fi as standard, though a dongle is included in the box.
But who wants to use a dongle?
Apple AirPlay or even just Bluetooth wouldn't go amiss at this price either. That third USB slot works as a home for a dongle, though it's perhaps best reserved for either a USB stick full of digital files (though forget 4K video – the CXU doesn't support them) or for recharging a phone or tablet.
The CXU will play almost anything chucked its way. Thanks to the latest Mediatek chipset, it supports a dizzying array of discs from 2D and 3D Blu-ray and DVD to AVCHD and HDCD (as well as Kodak Picture CD, CD-R/RW, DVD+-R/RW, DVD+-R DL and BD-R/RE, though not HD-DVD).
This being Cambridge Audio, it also supports some of the hi-res audio discs that the mass market has forgotten, namely SACD and DVD-Audio. Fans of classical music, particularly, continue to rave about these formats, though players that handle them are rare. No mainstream deck from the big Asian brands has supported them for almost a decade.
Meanwhile, the CXU's user interface is basic, yet clean, though the presence of a couple of apps – YouTube and Picasa – merely serve to highlight the CXU's deficiencies when it comes to other apps. If you're not offering Netflix and/or Amazon Instant, you probably shouldn't bother.
Picture and sound quality
The CXU also plays CD, which is where I start with a copy of Bob Dylan's Shadows In The Night, featuring smooth top-end and impressive depth. Next it's on to an ageing SACD of Holst's The Planets, where during Neptune the mystical voices in the background are revealed by the CXU much earlier than on the CD version.
Finally it's over to multichannel with REM's part-audio, part-video Reveal on DVD-Audio, which bridges the gap between hi-res audio and video. The CXU draws out some previously inaudible underlying harmonies in the song Imitation of Life, which is hyper-detailed, yet warm.
While the Mediatek chipset inside the CXU handles all of those formats, it's Darbee Visual Presence video processing that's the backbone to the CXU's startling video performance, which even extends to upscaling Blu-ray discs to 4K quality.
A spin of a DVD of anime classic Spirited Away shows the CXU's clean, contrasty and noise-free upscaling to hi-def, while a play of Jurassic World on Blu-ray demonstrates easily visible extra detail, and even shadow detail within blocks of dark colour, while toggled to 'Full Pop' mode using the Darbee Visual Presence on-screen menu. The 3D version impresses, too, with zero crosstalk evident.
With such depth and detail delivered in a clean and precise manner, the CXU's video or audio performance is outstanding. But can it match cheaper 'smart' Blu-ray players for pure convenience?