Audio News & Reviews

Cambridge Audio Edge NQ Preamplifier with Network Player

When a manufacturer considers adding a new product to its lineup, are essentially three options: replace an older product with a new one; produce a new product line fills a hole in the budget range; or introduce a new product line that breaks with (at least internal) tradition in terms of performance and price. Cambridge Audio chose the latter with its Edge NQ Preamplifier with Network Player: a flagship, top-of-the-line component designed to deliver great performance, elegant ergonomics, and unique styling. So, does the Edge NQ set a new standard for what consumers should expect from a preamplifier/network player/DAC priced at $ 4,000? Let’s see. 

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Product Description
The Edge NQ is not your standard silver or black box. It is physically large, weighing 22.4 pounds, but with rounded corners and a minimalist front panel with one button, one knob, and a modestly-sized color display panel, all of which rather evokes Classé in appearance. 

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In terms of functionality, the Edge NQ is a streaming device, digital-to-analog convertor, and analog preamplifier all in one box. It supports digital formats up to 384/32 PCM and DSD256 via its USB 2.0 input. The Coaxial S/PDIF digital input can handle up to 192/24 while the Toslink is limited to 96/24. Supported digital audio formats include WAV, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, WMA, MP3, AAC, OGG Vorbis, and DSF and DFF DSD formats. Accepted streaming protocols include RTSP, MMS, HTTP, HLS, and DASH. It even features an HDMI input with ARC capabilities.

According to Cambridge Audio, the Edge NQ was designed “with a unique PCB (printed circuit board) that used a DC-coupled topology that replaced conventional capacitors in the circuit.” The Edge NQ also employs a “solid-state” volume control, about which Cambridge Audio claims, “the end result is a clean signal path that’s perfectly balanced at any volume.”

The Hookup
Installing the Edge NQ into a system was easy and straightforward. I connected it to my Ethernet network via a hard-wired connection, but you can also connect via Wi-Fi. Once connected, you can use the Edge App to configure and customize your setup. The Edge NQ also has wireless input provisions for Bluetooth (AptX HD), Airplay, Chromecast, Spotify, Tidal, and Internet radio. It also accepts up to two attached USB drives, as well as single-ended and balanced analog inputs. 

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The Edge App permits you to rename any of the inputs as well deactivate the ones you will not be using. And even with the limited real estate on my iPhone SE, I found the app easy to read and use. You can also control the NQ via Roon, since it is compatible due to NQ’s Chromecast capabilities. When using Tidal (or Qobuz via Roon) the NQ had all the features, libraries, and search functions of the dedicated app.

Another way to operate the Edge NQ is via its supplied wand-shaped remote control. It has all the standard buttons for volume up/down, source selection, and pause/play for streaming sources. The most important button, the mute, is centrally located and easy to get to at a moment’s notice. Although it doesn’t light up, the Edge NQ’s remote is big enough that it’s hard to lose but still only requires one hand to operate. My only quibble with the remote is that the sensor on the Edge NQ has a limited angle of acceptance; If your hand is too high, too low, or too far off to one side it may require moving your arm to get the remote to work.

Outputs available include one pair of single-ended RCA and one pair of balanced XLR analog outputs, but no digital outputs of any kind. You can, via the app, turn off the volume attenuator so the NQ’s analog outputs are at a fixed level, which could be useful if you wish to use it coupled to an outboard analog preamplifier or separate analog volume control.

Performance
So, how does the Edge NQ sound? Like music reproduced in an extremely lifelike manner that is limited more by the original recording, mastering, format, and transmission method than by limitations imposed by the Edge NQ itself. Bass was impactful, with excellent attack and punch. And while the bass and lower midrange was full-bodied, it was not thick or slow. A good cut to demonstrate this was “16 Steps” by Martin Jensen and Olivia Holt. The low synth bass parts didn’t muck up or interfere with the mid-bass. Both were dynamically independent with no smearing or confusion. I also enjoyed the Edge NQ’s overall natural tonal balance and relaxed timbre. Even at higher listening levels I never heard any hint of untidiness or lack of control from the system. The room began to complain before any component in the system.

When I tried out the Edge NQ’s headphone amplifier, I was impressed by its ability to handle a wide range of headphone types and impedances almost without issues. Even with my own live recordings, which were purposely recorded at somewhat lower levels to accommodate the triple forte sections without any compression, the Edge NQ’s headphone amplifier had enough power to drive a pair Beyerdynamic’s DT 990 600-ohm version to satisfying levels with some room to spare on the volume knob.

Switching to the 117-dB sensitive Empire Ears Phantom CIEM, I could hear a very low-level continuous tick, tick, tick that did not increase or decrease regardless of the volume or input settings. Although I couldn’t hear the noise while music was playing, during silences it was a distraction. Perhaps a high gain/low gain headphone amp setting could be included in the Edge NQ’s next firmware upgrade to eliminate this issue.

High Points

  • Cambridge Audio’s Edge NQ preamplifier/network player/DAC boasts an elegant physical design and flexible ergonomics.
  • Setup is easy due to the dedicated control app.

Low Points

  • The lack of digital outputs is potentially concerning for some.
  • The NQ does not currently natively support MQA or Qobuz.
  • The acceptance angle of the remote sensor is limited.

Competition and Comparisons
Nowadays, you have multiple options when it comes to Preamp/DACs that support multiple digital and streaming inputs. If you’re on a tight budget, you could build one yourself, and if you have boatloads of money and no spare time, you could go with a system from Aurender or DCS. So, in the overall scheme of things the Edge NQ is mid-priced. There are, though, some components that offer nearly all of the Edge NQ’s features at a lower price, such as the Project Pre-Box S2 Digital, which includes MQA and is only slightly larger than a travel pack of tissues. 

I had the PS Audio DSD Jr ($ 3999 MSRP) in my system before I set up the Edge NQ. Since the DSD Jr is a Roon endpoint, it had a similar level of ergonomic functionality. But the DSD Jr lacks the Edge NQ’s HDMI ARC input (which is handy for getting the audio from TV). The DSD Jr also lacks analog inputs. To use any sources that do not have a digital output, you need an outboard analog to digital convertor. I definitely preferred the sound from the Sony HAP-Z1ES when connected via balanced analog connections to the Edge NQ versus using an outboard A/D connected to the DSD Jr.

On identical digital sources, I found the Cambridge Audio Edge NQ and the PS Audio DSD Jr sonically comparable, but not quite the same. The NQ consistently delivered more precise lateral focus while the DSD Jr. had a slightly superior sense of depth when I compared them using both the Edge W or Pass 150.3 power amplifiers driving a pair of Elac Andante AF-61 loudspeakers.

Conclusion
Except for no MQA or native Qobuz support (which could change via a firmware update), the Cambridge Audio Edge NQ DAC/Pre/Streamer certainly delivers everything you could ask for from an audio component. It has its own control app, a dedicated remote control, and suave sound to go with its elegant good looks. While there are less expensive components that can duplicate the Edge’s functionality (often with the added assistance of the Roon app) there are none that accomplish it with the aplomb and overall physical and ergonomic style of the Edge NQ.


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