Cambridge SoundWorks Radio CD 745i
More than half a century of audio evolution has produced this modest box. Its grandparents are the high-end radios of the 1950s. Its parents are of the CD generation, a 1980s format increasingly viewed as archaic by the latest generation of listeners. And it accommodates the iPod, although it keeps the latest audio revolution literally at arm's length, in a separate docking device that plugs into the back of the system. The retrofit brings an already successful product family closer to being up to date.
CD and iPod aside, the CD 745i's radio section is strictly AM/ FM. It does not support satellite or digital terrestrial broadcasting. That doesn't make it a bad investment by any means. Analog AM and FM radio have a long future in store—there is no digital transition underway in radio, as there is with digital television broadcasting. But look elsewhere (and prepare to spend more) if you need Sirius, XM, or HD Radio.
Ton of Fun
My first impression when I lifted the CD 745i out of the carton was, "Wow, this thing weighs a ton"—if a ton were 12 pounds. The power supply is built in, so there is no wall wart hanging from the power cord. The unit sports some curves at the sides but otherwise makes little attempt to prettify itself.
This "2.1 speaker design," as Cambridge calls it, places a pair of 2-inch, full-range drivers at the edges of the front panel. Their grilles are detachable, although the product's appearance doesn't improve if you remove them. A 4-inch "powered subwoofer" is built into the bottom—you can see it through its hard plastic grille beneath the right speaker. A port is underneath the hard plastic grille centered at the bottom rear. A "frequency-contoured" amplifier that delivers 13 watts powers the sub. Each of the main channels receives 4.5 watts.
My review sample came in black with a gray center panel; the white version is all white. The front panel is pure business. At first glance, there seem to be a lot of buttons, but sometimes that makes a product easier to use. The manual is only 35 pages long, and that includes vast acreage of white space. The closest the user interface gets to intricacy is the jog button, which cycles through bass, treble, and loudness controls, the latter of which provides further boosting to both bass and treble at low volumes. Also in the jog menu is a three-position control that switches among standard stereo imaging, "Wide" stereo, and mono.
Centered horizontally on the front panel, there is a CD slot at the top and a large volume knob on the bottom. To the right of the knob are transport controls identified by icons embossed into the buttons. Unfortunately, they are not distinguished in any other way (that is, by size, shape, color, or layout). The legends that surround the controls spell out their alternate uses. To the left of the volume knob are eight preset buttons. They also have alternate uses, such as CD mode and folder navigation. Two more pairs of buttons, relating to clock radio functions, flank the backlit white fluorescent display. A traditional snooze bar is the only top-panel control. It doubles as a mute button.
The supplied membrane-type remote control has 29 buttons. Here is where Cambridge's design sense kicks in. The control layout is shrewdly asymmetrical and uses background shading to group functions together, such as volume, transport, navigation, alarms, and presets.
On the back panel are only AM and FM antenna inputs, plus a 3.5-millimeter minijack and a 2.5-mm minijack that serve as line and power connections for the iPod dock. The headphone and auxiliary line-in minijacks are located on the front panel for easier access—you needn't grope around the back of the unit when you want to plug in another source (like, say, my SanDisk player).
The display can show text from RDS (Radio Data Service), from CDs, or from tagged MP3/WMA files. It dims in the dark, which actually makes it easier to read in a darkened room. You can set the sleep delay in 15-minute increments up to two hours.
At 19 inches, the docking-station cable is just long enough to allow for placement on top of the unit or perhaps on an adjacent shelf. It is hard-wired into the dock. Cambridge only supplies two docking adapters. Neither of the adapters fit my first-generation iPod nano. There is a slot behind the dock; Cambridge put it there as a parking place for the remote. I thought of an alternate use: If you've got his and hers nanos, you might keep both connected simultaneously, using the back slot and auxiliary minijack for the second player.
My first review unit did not have a functioning CD drive. The slot was obstructed, the mechanism having apparently come loose during shipment. The second unit they sent worked fine. Don't let this worry you—Cambridge maintains a 45-day no-questions-asked, total-satisfaction return policy.
Could I set the time without consulting the manual? Temptation came in the form of a clock icon printed next to a pair of plus/minus buttons. I pressed the plus button, the display read "time set," and I kept pressing until the time was correct. With a tremendous feeling of satisfaction, I proceeded to play a CD.
A natural piano sound came with my first CD selection, Scriabin's Piano Sonatas 1, 6, and 8, performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Number 6 is perfect Halloween music. The composer dreaded it so much, he never performed it, describing it as "nightmarish" and "unclean." The Decca release is one of the few early digital recordings that I've found to be consistently pleasing over the years, with a dark and smooth piano sound immersed in the ambience of London's Kingsway and Walthamstow Halls. The CD 745i kept the left half of the keyboard in pretty good proportion to the right. A quality component system would outperform the Cambridge, but most compact systems of similar size and price that I'm familiar with would not.
Michel Camilo's Spirit of the Moment, a jazz-piano-trio recording, didn't get to strut its 5.1-channel SACD soundtrack when I slipped it into the Cambridge. But the hybrid disc's CD layer immediately surprised me in the system's Wide mode, with a limited but noticeable degree of stereo separation that extended about a foot beyond the sides of the 14-inch-wide unit. The Wide mode didn't add any noticeable coloration to the overall sound, so I left it on. Camilo's piano and Dafnis Prieto's drum sound were about as substantial as anything I've heard from a small plastic-clad product—the CD 745i sounds larger than it looks. If Charles Flores' string-bass lines were not perfectly even, neither did they exhibit any glaring gaps.
Vintage alternative rock didn't faze the CD 745i at all. Superunknown, the Soundgarden classic, blasted comfortably from 10 feet away with the volume set at 20 out of 30 increments. A trace of hardness marred the moody perfection of "Black Hole Sun" at top volume. The system can conquer even a fairly large room for background listening. But, for serious listening, it would fare best in a smaller room.
When I plugged in my iPod nano, I worried at first about the lack of a nano docking adapter—my player stood unsupported in the dock. However, I stopped worrying when I realized that I could navigate the menus and operate the transport controls from the Cambridge remote without touching the iPod. The menus were visible on the iPod itself, and the iPod screen lit up to make them more readable. The CD 745i's main display showed only "Player" and the clock when the iPod was playing. When I fed it a CD-R containing tagged MP3 files, though, it did display the track and performer names.
FM-radio play revealed some boominess in voices, both male and female; I used my longtime reference standards, NPR and WNYC FM. (I listen to them daily on a variety of radios.) I knocked the nine-position bass control down one or two increments from the center position, and that eliminated the boominess. This plumping of the midbass wasn't as noticeable (or at all objectionable) with music. FM reception on my reference station was accompanied by relatively little noise, even in stereo mode. Many other radios deliver it cleanly only in mono. Even more impressive, the radio achieved this high level of performance using its internal FM antenna. I never even bothered to connect the external one.
At $400, the Cambridge CD 745i isn't exactly cheap. Although it won't win any beauty contests, it is considerately designed, and its FM reception is among the strongest I'm aware of. Add CD and iPod capability—the latter at no extra cost, despite the dock being an external piece—and you've got the makings of a tidy little compact system. I can think of at least one blood relative who uses a similar Cambridge SoundWorks product as a primary audio system—a working musician, no less. You might be equally happy with it.
• AM/FM, CD slot, and external iPod dock (supplied)
• Good tonal balance for music
• Strong bass, perhaps overly so on some vocals