Spectroscopic sensing of gases can be performed with high sensitivity and photometric precision by cavity ringdown (CRD) absorption spectroscopy. Our cavity ringdown spectrometer incorporates continuous-wave (cw) tunable diode lasers, fibre-optic coupling and standard photonics and optical telecommunications components. It comprises a rapidly swept optical cavity in a single-ended optical heterodyne transmitter-receiver configuration, enabling optical absorption of gases to be recorded either as single-frequency scanned spectra or as simultaneous, multi-wavelength tailored spectra. By measuring weak near-infrared rovibrational spectra of carbon dioxide gas (CO2), with high resolution in the vicinity of 1.53 μm, we have realised a noise-limited absorption sensitivity of 2.5 × 10-9 cm-1 Hz-1/2. Analytical sensitivity limits (both actual and projected) and prospective gas-diagnostic applications are discussed. Our approach to cw-CRD spectroscopy offers high performance in a relatively simple, low-cost, compact instrument that is amenable to chemical analysis of trace gases in medical, agricultural, industrial and environmental situations.