Options to upgrade from Cambridge Integrated

I currently have a Camridge Audio 540A v2 integrated amp for our 2 channel setup. It is connected to some Altec bookshelf speakers. We will be moving to a new house soon and with some of the "freed up" equity I am looking at upgrading the speakers and possibly the amplifier. I don't have a huge budget but would like to have the upgrade be worthwhile. I am looking at Totem Arro, Vandersteen 2Ce's, B&W 603's etc. as possible speakers. The listening room will be mid sized and listening volume will be moderate. Classic Rock, Blues, Jazz are primary with a little Classical and Vocal as well. What are some possible options for a budget of $400-$600 (used/Audigon is fine)for the amplifier portion? My budget for speakers is $500-$1000. Source material is a Squeezebox and possibly audio in from TV, nothing else as we have a seperate home theatre setup already. Should I consider seperates or perhaps just a better integrated?
An exceptional integrated in that price range is the Audio Refinement Complete. It's beautifully built and sounds absolutely wonderful. Here's the Soundstage review: http://www.soundstage.com/revequip/srajan01.htm
I second the Audio Refinement Complete. I like it better than the NAD integrateds (and I like the NADs better than the Cambridge amps). Others to consider would be solid-state amps from Creek and Rega.

I would also consider inverting the priorities and spending a little more on the amp and less for the speakers. That might get you into tube amp territory. Audio Space (from Hong Kong) make very nice tube integrateds.

I would not consider electronic separates unless I were spending over $2K. There are just too many good integrateds in that range.
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agree totally with Bob.....focus on speakers. the cambridge will drive most just fine.
Well, I guess you're going to get every opinion possible here. Do the integrated, spend more on amps, spend more on speakers, etc. They're all right, of course, it all matters. Notice how we're trying to drive up your budget here -- "spend it all on speakers (or amp) now" -- the implication of course being that you'll later come up with the same amount to spend on the other piece later!

I also vote for the speakers. In particular, choose the speakers first. Then you'll know how much you have left to spend on the amp! And you can demo amps with your actual speakers (once you own them) which is important. So even if you buy them close together, I'd do speakers first.

I will say that I am not a big fan of integrateds. I shopped hard for integrateds about 5 years ago, and compared the Cambridge, NAD, NAD silver series, Arcam A60, Marantz, AR Complete, all head-to-head. In the end, I went with separates. I do think the AR is smoother and less forward than the Cambridge. But if you can save your pennies and buy separates with a $1000 (used) or $2000 (new) budget, it's a big leap up. Integrateds in that price range don't sound as good, at least not on my speakers. In the $500 range you'd need to stick with an integrated, but I just wonder if you will hear a significant enough difference over your current amp.
I absolutely agree with Jaybo and Bob_reynolds that there's more bang for the buck with money applied to speakers and with Ehart that finding speakers you really like should be your first priority.

Having said that, if what you're looking for are pieces you plan to live with for awhile, my experience is that you'll want to find an amp that's reasonably well in balance with the quality of the speakers you buy.

I owned the Cambridge 540, the first version, at the same time I had the Audio Refinement Complete, bought it for a friend's system, and the difference in sonics between the Cambridge and the ARC was greater than you'd expect for the difference in the prices, certainly greater in a relative sense than the difference between the ARC and the Simaudio I-5 I bought to replace the ARC.

When the Cambridge went to my friend to replace a Rotel integrated, because she wanted remote control, there wasn't much difference either of us could hear but when I found a good deal on a Creek 4330 and swapped it for the Cambridge, the difference was obvious, certainly worth the difference of $175 between what we sold the Cambridge for and what the Creek cost.
I agree with Ehart when he says the AR is smoother and less forward than the Cambridge. I don't think you have to go with separates to better any of the integrated amps he lists. I think there are other integrated amps--Qinpu, Vecteur, SimAudio, perhaps Bryston and Creek too--that will outdo any of them and sound better than any similarly-priced separates. (That's without even looking at tubes.) Those amps are all more pricey than you want, though.

I think Ehart has another point when he says a $500 integrated may not give you a big enough step up to be worthwhile. We're not trying to drive your costs up here, but a too-small step can wind up more expensive than a big one in the long run.

Ehart and I do seem to have a different take on the relative importance of speakers and amp, and certainly there may be good reasons for going either way. If I were you I guess I would do just as you are doing--replace the speakers first, since they are the weakest element in the chain just now. After you get used to your new speakers, you may find you have a better idea of exactly what you want in an amplifier. The search will likely be a lot easier (although not necessarily less expensive) once you know that.
I think Tobias and I are on the same page here. I agree that an amp upgrade is important (when budget permits), and also with choosing the speakers first so that you can try amps to see what sounds best with your speakers and room.

I have not tried the integrateds that Tobias mentions. People also speak well of the Plinuis integrated, by the way. The problem for me was that most of these were out of my price range (and most were not available to demo locally). I paid $1200 (demo gear) for separates that listed for $1800. For that money, I couldn't find an integrated locally that sounded as good (it's counter-intuitive, but in many cases you pay more for a good integrated, and there seem to be fewer "deals" on integrateds).

Some of this may be specific to the speakers you have. I use an old British pair (Celestion S300) that I like and have had drivers replaced on. These have a reputation for presenting uneven loads across frequency range (in other words, requiring a powerful amp). I found that the typical 60WPC integrated just didn't cut it (but might do great with your speakers). It seems to be relatively easy to build (and cheap to buy) a 135WPC power amp. But harder (and more expensive) to put the same power into an integrated -- 100WPC integrateds are quite a bit more expensive than the 60WPC flavor (and are more expensive than reasonably priced separates).

Integrateds have advantages, of course -- small space requirements and clean/simple/elegant installation (fewer cables, etc.). Separates have advantages too -- if you think you will want to do further upgrades, it's nice to be able to upgrade pre and power separately (I later replaced my amp with a large step up, but have my original pre-amp -- which is where most of the money went on the original purchase).

I don't doubt that you can find an integrated that will sound great (and maybe even in your price range). The AR Complete *does* sound better than the Cambridge. And I expect the SimAudio and Plinius would be excellent (if you can afford them). Again, I suggest you pick your speakers first, then try some integrateds and separates. I recommend buying locally so you can haul your speakers in to a shop to demo (or even better, bring gear home to try).

I don't think the advice you're getting is really that different from person to person, just different emphasis. I hope that helps, and best to you in your search.
Thanks for all of the feedback. It has been very useful in helping me prioritize based on my budget/needs. I think, based on my budget, that I should focus on upgrading the speakers 1st then the amp. I have added the Monitor Audio Silver RS6 and Revel concerta F12 to my list of candidates. Now all I need to do is spend some time listening to them to narrow the field. Any other speakers I should consider in the same price range?

I won't make the final decision until we are in the new house which should be by the end of the year. After I have decided on the speakers I can look at the amp side of the system.
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You've got a good list of speakers there, but they each have a very different sound, with different strengths and weaknesses. So it's really key to audition before you buy. Paradigm and PSB also make some high value speakers. Have fun and bring a lot of music you love and know well with you when you audition--the field will narrow quickly.
Ok, its been a few weeks but here's an update.

We have found a house and will be closing/moving in by Dec 1st or so. The issue now is that the listening room is much bigger (22x25 or so) and is a "great room" with two-story vaulted ceiling. Our listening preferences have not changed, just the room. My question is will the short list of speakers still work or not and what about the 60wpc Cambridge integrated? What would be some suggested options keeping the same budget in mind ($1000-$1500)
Hi Rule,

I think you will find all 60WPC integrateds meek in your new space. I did when I demoed them in a large living room.

The most bang for the buck on amplification will be to pair a high-quality pre-amp with a lower-quality but decent amp. You can always upgrade the amp later, but the pre-amp is the bigger factor.

The problem is budget. I would expect to pay $500+ for the preamp, and $300-$400 for the amp, even used/demo. If you stick with integrateds, the 100+ WPC integrateds are all out of your range as well.

If you really can't stretch your amplification budget, perhaps the best route is to go with Tobias' advice -- go with new speakers now, and live with the Cambridge until funds permit a more substantial upgrade to you amps.

Home demos of speakers will be important in your space. If the dealer is nice, try to borrow reasonably-priced electronics with more power than the Cambridge, so you can compare.


Of the speakers on the short list, I think the vandies will not only have the best overall sound, but will also work best in your large room, especially if you're able to place them out in the room at least a couple of feet. I had 2ce's and ran them with a 50 wpc cambridge integrated for a while. Worked fine, though they did sound better when I moved to a 100wpc mccormack amp and tube pre. But in with your budget, you might be able to have it all. Used 2ce's go for around 400. That leaves 1000 for a more powerful integrated or used, older seperates. Congrats on the new space I bet jazz and vocals are going to sound killer, though rock may not have the punch or slam you'd want.
Nice to have the update!

Your new listening room dimensions have indeed changed the equation. You are not looking at steadily improving your present system any more, starting with speakers (the weakest element right now) and later changing the amp. This is because neither your present speakers nor your amp is well-suited to a large room. If you want to try to match your system to the new room, you will need to take a big step.

My take would be this: unless you plan to listen nearfield (and forgo the "room-filling sound" experience), you will need speakers that can move a lot of air. That means forget monitors, you need big woofers, or multiple woofers. Such speakers need muscle unless they are very efficient, and muscle costs.

Speakers with an efficiency rating under 88 dB will need a big amp, at least 150 wpc if solid-state and about half that if tubed. If you can find a speaker you like with a 90 dB rating you can cut your required amplifier power in half. That's a lot less money, and often better sound, since IME the smaller amps take less engineering and fewer exotic parts to sound good.

My first notion would be to listen to one of the Triangle floorstanders. (I would be tempted to say, the bigger the better!) These are efficient speakers with terrific imaging, very lively and fast and not terribly costly for their quality. Their sweetness depends on what's upstream of them, though, and tubes are a good bet here. Another good bet speaker-wise would be Reference 3A, but these are more costly than Triangles. There are sure to be other efficient larger speakers I can't think of right now.

Vandersteens are not the worst idea with your current amp but I agree that this setup will sound meek, even a bit lost, in your new space. However a budget revision, upwards, may not be feasible under the circumstances.
OK Tobias, you have introduced another speaker into the mix. Now I'm going to have to listen to them, darn :)
Where can I get to listen to the Triangles. Any chance there is a dealer in the Atlanta area?

I will start listening within the next week or so. I agree that the size of the room will be better served with higher efficiency speakers, especially if I want to stay in my budget, at least for now. Post any other suggested ideas and I'll update everyone on my progress.
Another vote for choosing speakers first.
I used to own B&W 603 but they weren't compatible with my ears. Now I'm happy owner of Vandersteens. Get all advice but make your ears the ultimate judge!
I'm also doing some integrated comparison tests, including the Cambridge yet since speakers seem to be the direction this post is going, my 2 cents is to suggest the new USHER S-520's for $400, there is definite WOW factor, both musically and looks. These speakers are so hot right now they are on backorder across the country. I'm trying to pair up an inexpensive system w/ these spkrs and having my own fits about all-in-one or separates. Good Luck
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I had the same integrated amp and I liked it, although it didn't "blow me away" like I was expecting it to. So, I returned it and purchased the Rega Brio 3 and I am completely amazed at how great it sounds, it is much, much better than the experience I had with the Cambridge Audio Azur V.2. I had a Pioneer Elite before the Cambridge and it didn't sound that much better, with the Rega on the oher hand, it is an incredible difference. I also just bought the Squeezebox V.3, paired with the Rega it sound very good, not like a CD would, but still sounds great.

I hope that helps.