STEREO GUIDE verdict
The Cambridge Audio Alva is a record player for a wide variety of applications. It works on a phono input, but also on a normal high-level input and even via a Bluetooth interface thanks to a switch. There are also numerous needle options for subsequent sound tuning. Plus solid workmanship and a balanced sound - in short, a great overall package for the money.
Ease-of-use / Connectivity9.5
A record player is pretty much the most classic hi-fi component you can put in your living room today. So what is the Cambridge Audio Alva ST doing in the review of a Future-Fi portal? A lot! The success of our guides to turntables with Bluetooth and turntables with built-in preamplifiers has shown us that younger listeners also like LPs, as long as the connectivity is right.
And the Cambridge Audio Alva ST does this twice over: it has both a built-in phono amplifier and a Bluetooth transmitter. And all of this can be switched off, upgraded and at the unbeatable price of 600 euros for the complete set including mounted pickup. In return, it not only offers the aforementioned connection options, optionally also to a normal phono amplifier, but also other convenient functions: Selectable speed (33 or 45 revolutions) and a motor cut-off after too much silence in the run-out groove.
Classic drive construction
With so many features, is it possible that quality has been compromised? On the contrary! The Cambridge Audio Alva ST makes an all-round high-quality impression. The drive is quite heavy and surprisingly precise for the price. The arm, which is made of a fairly light aluminum tube – the classic weak point of inexpensive turntables – makes an extremely smooth and solid impression here. A minimal residual play in the two cardanic bearings could be eliminated with a screwdriver and a lot of feeling. The arm does not have many adjustment options. But this is not necessary, as the pickup can be upgraded with different needles “plug and play”. A solid tonearm lift and magnetic, adjustable anti-skating round off the positive impression, which goes far beyond the usual price range.
The one-piece cast aluminum plate relies less on mass and more on an inner, very large ring on the underside. This absorbs the power from the motor via an external belt and thus ensures good synchronization with little design effort.
This makes fitting the belt an exercise in dexterity, even for those with less manual skills. This is because a small recess in the plate requires it to be stretched in order to hoist the belt over the motor pulley when the construction is in place. But you can’t do anything wrong.
Motor with direct current control
The motor is an electronically controlled DC model. The speed can be switched between 33 and 45 using a button, which also starts or stops the record run. To improve synchronization over a longer period of time, the motor has a small optical tachometer and a corresponding correction loop in the electronics. Accordingly, we had no problems whatsoever with eggy disks or unstable playback during the entire test procedure. If playback remains silent for more than 20 minutes – for example because the needle has reached the end groove or the user does not release the pickup from the lift – the motor switches off automatically.
Pickups and electronics
Apart from the motor control and a more or less clever way of routing the signals from the pickup, normal turntables do not have many built-in electronics. The Cambridge Audio Alva ST is different: it can also send unamplified signals to the RCA sockets, for example when connected to a classic hi-fi amplifier with a high-quality phono input.
You should make sure that the built-in phono amp is deactivated by a switch, otherwise you will enter a new world of distortion. This option allows connection to any analog input with line level, making virtually any active speaker or all-in-one system with its own volume control the Alva ST’s preferred playing partner.
The third way is the built-in Bluetooth transmitter. This can also be activated or deactivated as required. To dispel concerns about Bluetooth transmission as a sound bottleneck, the manufacturer has installed a chip with one of the highest quality codecs available: aptX HD. If the Bluetooth speaker (or headphones) does not support this, the whole thing is of course downwards compatible for aptX or SBC.
Cambridge Audio Alva ST in practice
The Alva ST can be connected to any Bluetooth playback device that can control a volume setting via Bluetooth. These are almost all wireless speakers and most headphones. In order for the two devices to pair, the loudspeaker or Set the headphones to Bluetooth pairing mode. If a corresponding key combination is not available, all existing devices must be disconnected. Then simply press and hold the pairing button on the Cambridge. This worked perfectly in our review with several models, including older ones.
However, the hi-fi gods have put assembly before wireless listening: the Alva ST is delivered pre-assembled in a package, but not ready to play. Minimal manual skills should be enough to place the turntable on the mandrel, pull the pre-mounted belt over the pulley and attach the headshell with the pickup to the arm.
The next step is to attach the counterweight and power supply and adjust the anti-skating (the scale refers to the contact weight for normal needle cuts such as the pre-mounted elliptical diamond). Is it starting? No, not quite. Everything is pre-assembled, but the contact force of the needle must be adjusted and checked during final assembly
Tip: How to upgrade the sound of the Cambridge Audio Alva ST
With a record player costing 600 euros, is the cost of sound tuning at all in proportion to the overall result? Not normally. The Cambridge Audio Alva ST does. This is due to the fact that effective sonic measures can be implemented particularly easily and quickly with this model.
Adjustment costs nothing
The Alva ST comes pre-assembled from the factory with a perfectly aligned pickup. Only experienced analog specialists should change this!
In contrast, checking and adjusting the contact force and bearing play of the cardanic tonearm suspension is inexpensive and effective. The latter can be improved with a fine screwdriver – but please be VERY careful! If the two bearings no longer wobble or rattle, but still move freely, the adjustment is correct. During transportation, they seem to have come loose somewhat on our – frequently used – test sample.
The support force is set by turning the counterweight on the rear side of the arm. The best way to do this is to use a milligram scale. Either a particularly flat one to place on the standing plate. Or you can remove it briefly and bring the scales to plate height using a support. We liked the manufacturer’s specification of 2 grams best, as it shouldn’t be too low. If in doubt, you can also use the rocker scales supplied.
Install high-quality needle without new adjustment
Replacing the cartridge and phono amplifier are usually the most effective steps to improve the analog sound. Nothing can or should be done to the amplifier of the Cambridge Audio Alva ST. It is permanently mounted and also far above the price range in terms of sound potential.
Replacing and adjusting a different cartridge are usually very time-consuming procedures that any hi-fi specialist would advise against for a record player costing 600 euros. But the Cambridge Audio Alva ST is different: it has a factory-fitted MM (moving magnet) system from Audio Technica, the VM95E with an elliptical needle. With this series, you can leave the pickup unit fully adjusted on the tonearm and only replace the needle with needle holder! Simply “click & clip” without any further settings.
Important: Make sure you choose a needle that is compatible with your own system! For all current Cambridge Alva STs, these are the needles of the VM95 system from Audio Technica! Older/used turntables may also have an AT95, the available needles are NOT compatible with the VM95.
Needle alternatives from Audio Technica
The supplier Audio Technica has a whole range of replacement needles in its program, including some obscure ones for mono records or shellac. If you only want to upgrade the sound, you will probably be a little confused by the three similarly priced needle alternatives: VM95EN (higher quality elliptical needle, orange), VM95SH (diamond with pointed Shibata cut, brown) and VM95ML (diamond with slim microline cut, red).
We clearly recommend the VM95EN if you want more dynamics, cleanliness and joy of playing with a similar sound character. Even better is the VM95SH, which also brings more accuracy, resolution and transparency to the sound. The VM95ML offers even more resolution, but also sounds slimmer and less rich, which can quickly result in a bright and fuzzy sound image with the Alva ST.
Sound assessment Cambridge Audio Alva ST
Before the sound check, let’s first clarify: Our test sample of the Alva ST was produced in 2023 and was equipped with a higher-quality Audio Technica VM95 pickup ex works. Accordingly, we can’t understand the sound assessments given for earlier models with clear criticism, which is no wonder given the very simple AT95 pickup.
In all three operating modes – with external amp, built-in high-level amplifier or Bluetooth – the Cambridge offered balanced sound, surprising dynamics and very good playability. In particular, we would not have expected the smooth-running motor and the background noise that disappears into nothingness from such an inexpensive player.
Our favorite was the built-in amplifier with analog output, which provided better impulse and detail processing than the other variants. Especially with pop, rock and electronic music, the combination was a first-class source of fun, with the round, unobtrusively integrated bass fitting in best with the musical action. However, the limits from an audiophile point of view are also very clear: the AT system is neither the highest-resolution nor the most spacious or bass-intensive. On the contrary, the sound was rather average and unobtrusive in these disciplines, but without any serious faults such as weak bass or sharpness.
Needle change needed?
For those who want to listen to more dynamically challenging music – such as hip-hop or techno – the combination may sound a little too relaxed. Then the 100 euros for the VM95EN full diamond needle are a good investment. In the same way, lovers of more complex music could take the decisive step towards audiophile LP playback with the Shibata VM95SH needle. For classical, jazz and vocal-oriented music, the resolution, cleanliness and space suggested a much more expensive combination at work.
How good that the Cambridge concept gives the listener complete freedom – with the playback variants as well as with the pickup upgrade.
Conclusion and alternatives on the market
Turntables with built-in phono amplifiers are just as popular and widespread as those with Bluetooth transmitters. The combination of both is somewhat rarer. The Cambridge Audio Alva ST has to hold its own against simpler turntables like the Pro-Ject E1 BT and more elaborate ones like the Sonoro Platinum SE. Technically and in terms of build quality, it can clearly hold its own in the more expensive league. Its electronics, such as the high-level amplifier and the Bluetooth transmitter, also have a lot of potential in terms of sound.
The limiting factor in terms of sound is the pickup stylus, but this can easily be replaced with a higher-quality one. This makes the Alva ST probably the most flexible and best value-for-money turntable under 1000 euros. Unless you absolutely need a USB connection or digital output.
Buy the Cambridge Audio Alva ST
Technical specifications Cambridge Audio Alva ST
- Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price: 600 Euro
- Dimensions (W x H x D): 43.5 x 14 x 36.7 cm
- Weight: 9 kg
- Special features: Belt drive, high-level amplifier (can be switched off), Bluetooth transmitter aptX HD (can be switched off), limit switch, replaceable needle
- More at www.cambridgeaudio.com