Cambridge Audio's Azur range offers decent products at extremely affordable prices. For only £350, its latest home cinema receiver, the Azur 540R (Version 3), is an ideal low-cost alternative for entry-level buyers.
This is actually the third incarnation of the company's Azur 540R receiver, and several improvements have been made without affecting the price.
For a budget receiver, build quality is impressive, with a reassuringly solid construction and stiff, responsive controls -- even if the straight-edged design isn't especially imaginative.
Among the latest upgrades in the receiver's third generation is a redesigned amplifier stage, which claims to reduce interference. Digital connectivity has also been introduced with two HDMI inputs and a single output that will cater for basic video switching between compatible sources like a high-definition player and HDTV receiver.
Setting up the system is extremely simple. An attractive and bold on-screen menu system is supported by an understated but intelligently arranged remote unit. It's relatively basic but there are some advanced adjustments, including a comprehensive Bass Management system that lets you customise the crossovers for a variety of the usual surround decoding formats.
With a claimed 80W of amplification for each channel, the sound is reasonably powerful and immediately engaging. Expansive dynamics create an energetic delivery with plenty of dramatic impact that enlivens explosive film soundtracks like The Kingdom -- you can almost feel every bullet fly past during the shoot-out scenes.
The forceful sound is augmented by carefully controlled low frequencies, which remain composed even when faced with high volumes and don't overwhelm the clear presentation of dialogue. The receiver's enviable dynamics also extend to stereo performance -- still a feature that some home cinema amplifiers struggle with, especially at the budget level.
A few compromises have been made to assure the Azur 540R's affordable price, although these are generally reflected in the features as opposed to overall performance. For instance, there are only six channels of amplification -- including support for a centre rear speaker -- while other similarly priced models offer a full 7.1 configuration.
Unlike models such as Onkyo's TX-SR605, there is no integrated decoding for high-definition audio formats. This is still a rarity, though, since compatible HD players are not widely available and the receiver can still accept already decoded HD surround sound signals through its multi-channel analogue inputs.
Integrated video up-conversion is another glaring omission and analogue sources cannot be output through the HDMI connection, which can only be used for basic video switching. The absence of preamp outputs means that you won't be able to add an external amplifier as part of a future upgrade.
Most rival receivers in this class also include an automatic calibration system based on a supplied microphone that leaves the time-consuming setup process down to technology. Beginners or simply lethargic users might be put off by the lack of this system.
We didn't have too many criticisms for the receiver's enthusiastic sound performance but we did find that the occasional subtlety could get lost among all the excitement.
Cambridge Audio's Azur 540R (Version 3) is an ideal entry-level receiver that offers excellent usability and performance for an affordable price. It's missing several features, such as integrated video up-conversion and an automatic calibration system, both of which can be afforded without spending too much more in today's market.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday