For about the last 25 years, Arcam has been one of the best-kept secrets in audio -- at least over here in the US. Arcam, which stands for Amplification & Recording, Cambridge, was the brain-child of John Dawson, back when he was a college student in that idyllic university town. Designed by a student for students, Arcam products' raison d'etre from the get-go has been high-value high-quality hi-fi -- a brief it has never lost sight of.
In the UK, Arcam has become huge. By focusing on high-quality affordable gear in configurations that even the regular punters on the street recognize -- which is to say integrated amps and one-box CD players rather than separates -- Arcam has become the top-selling home-grown brand in the UK, even outselling Sony in some categories.
For many years, Arcam's representation in the US was confined to a handful of specialty retailers, but that's changing. Thanks to a new marketing push by Audiophile Systems, Arcam's current importer, the line is probably now appearing at a hi-fi store near you.
Most may wonder at the workmanship
The $1499 USD A85 is part of a new line of Arcam amplifiers, dubbed DiVA (Digitally Integrated Video & Audio), which feature totally new DC-coupled circuit designs, and which are said to be extremely low in distortion and wide in bandwidth. The amps employ no coupling capacitors in the signal path. The great care taken in the PCB layout of each amplifier is claimed to ensure fast, accurate control of stable currents and the highest possible technical performance. The DiVA line is distinguished by clean front-panel layouts and by the immense flexibility built into the components' menu-driven microprocessor-controlled operating systems.
The A85's preamplifier section employs high-performance analog input multiplexers. The volume control is particularly sophisticated -- it's software controlled and has a 128dB dynamic range, which is accessible in 0.5dB steps. The preamplifier's signal path is kept short and pure, and, in direct mode, utilizes only two active stages between the inputs and the output. The preamp's power supply employs a discrete open-loop topology.
The tone controls, as a result of the sheer data-crunching power of the control microprocessor, are quite sophisticated. They use active-inductor gyrators, with a bandpass "bell-curve" bass response that allows Fletcher/Munson bass boost without generating additional subsonic loudspeaker cone excursion. Their maximum effect is +/-12dB. The balance control is what Arcam calls a "constant power" circuit, which means that total output power remains consistent as the stereo image moves from the left to right outputs and vice versa.
There are three user-selectable volume-control "laws," as Arcam calls them, with different responses for "normal," "night-time" and "reference" listening. Each input has its own software-controlled preset gain trim, and the tone controls can be assigned as global or per source. The fluorescent front-panel display can show the volume level in graphic or numeric form and includes double-height display characters for across-the-room operation.
The 85Wpc power amplifier has a fully symmetrical, class-B, current-feedback, complementary bipolar output-stage. (Whew!) Arcam claims this produces a very fast slew rate with low distortion and very low output impedance. Build quality is exceptional -- for instance, the output transistors are Sanken SAP dedicated-audio output devices optimized for low distortion.
The A85 has five line-level inputs and two tape loops. It has an empty slot on the rear panel that can accommodate an optional MM/MC phono card ($150) and a large slot intended to provide a variety of "future" options -- including a multichannel-music module. The matching P85 power amplifier is also modular, allowing for the addition of a third channel of amplification (so that a two-channel A85 and a three-channel P85 power amp could provide five channels of amplification for surround purposes). There's also a power-in/pre-out loop for driving an external amplifier for biamping applications and a switch that disconnects the signal flowing from the preamp to the power amp. Two sets of high-quality EU-approved screw-down speaker connectors are provided -- these are controlled by front-panel switches, so they could be used for biwiring or for two pair of speakers.
The casework for the A85, which measures 17"W x 12"D x 4"H and weighs 20 pounds, is heavy-duty and quite handsome. The unit comes in natural aluminum or black with natural aluminum controls. My review sample had the two-color livery, and I found it extraordinarily attractive compared to all the boring black boxes out there.
The unit's remote is its Achilles heel. It is similar to the DV88 remote (see the review on Home Theater & Sound) in that it has one huge round knob (volume and balance) and a raft of tiny little buttons with minuscule dark-gray labels on a light-gray background. Because the labels are unreadable, the controls are laid out non-intuitively, and all the buttons are identical, using the remote for anything other than volume and balance is nearly impossible. On the plus side, once you get the A85 set up the way you want it, just about the only controls you'll need are volume and balance.
Still, given all the engineering effort that went into designing the ease of use of the A85's software, it's a pity to see it hobbled by a poorly thought-out remote.
A wonder and a wild desire
That said, I've now exhausted my entire catalog of complaints about the affordable A85. Looks good, works good, sounds great. What more need I say?
A lot, really.
We audiophiles are living in a diamond age these days. It's getting hard to buy a bad-sounding loudspeaker, and the resolution available from affordable CD players (and even affordable record players) is orders of magnitude beyond what was offered just a few years ago. Now, with affordable amplifiers such as the DiVA line from Arcam, or the recent Creeks, or even some of the models offered by the huge Japanese companies, we can put together phenomenal-sounding systems on a budget.
When I call the A85 "affordable," please understand that I am simply saying that its cost seems modest compared to its performance. It's certainly not cheap at $1500. But neither does it seem particularly expensive given its flexibility, build quality and sound. You can buy separates costing twice as much, without necessarily gaining much sonically or in terms of features. Of course, you can also buy amplifiers that cost a lot less that are still very enjoyable. You can even buy some separates for less.
To some audiophiles that would be an indictment. But the Arcam has all the functional flexibility of separates without the need for an extra (never cheap!) interconnect. It joins that very small group of integrated amplifiers that weren't built on readily apparent compromises -- a group that, perhaps, originated with Krell's KAV-300i ($2350) and now includes the Mark Levinson No.383 ($5995). In that company, the A85 seems a bargain. And keep in mind that it's the flagship integrated amplifier for a line that includes two less powerful and less expensive integrated amps: the A65 ($799) and A75 ($999).
Worship is transcendent wonder
During my onhifi.com review of the Epos M15 loudspeakers, I employed the A85 and Sony's SCD333es SACD player and was totally besotted by the system's sound. It was huge and warm and detailed. It was engrossing and enthralling. I gamboled in it for weeks.
But I had a nagging suspicion that it was too good -- possibly the result of system synergy that takes two or more good products and makes them sound far better as a system than any of them might individually. (The classic system of this sort was the NAD 3020 driving the Pyramid Met 7s.) So I pulled out my old stand-by reference monitors, the ProAc Response One Ses and listened. Holy cow! The Arcam sounded even better than I thought!
Rodney Crowell's The Houston Kid [Sugar Hill SUG-CD-1065] hit me like a shot of high-test hooch. The driving guitars, choogling organ and bubbling bass of "Telephone Road" filled the soundstage from wall to wall to the middle of the street. It was big and bouncy, and Rodney's high tenor cut through the music like a sword through silk.
Some amps are made so you can sit and listen inattentively for hours. The A85 isn't one of them -- it screams listen to me and then kicks you in the rear and makes you dance. If you're looking for background music, look elsewhere.
For all our high-falutin' audiophile vocabulary we still haven't come up with a way to describe something as basic as this quality. Oh, we mumble about musicality and we pretend that this essential property is somehow beside the point. But it's not -- when an amplifier (or any other component, for that matter) gets everything right -- rhythmically, timbrally, dynamically -- it's not surprising that it becomes as impossible to ignore as live music.
And I'm not being snide when I say that you might not want an amp that forces you to pay attention to the music you're playing. A lot of people don't -- they keep their music on constantly, just below their threshold of attention. It's a comfort. Or it shields them from the noise next door. Or it keeps the loneliness at bay. I can understand all of these reasons for listening to music.
But they aren't mine. I want to be engaged -- challenged or comforted or transported. I want music to be as big and messy and paradoxical as it can be. And the Arcam A85 is an amp that can deliver all that -- and then some.
Sera Una Noche [MA Recordings 52] is a record that's guaranteed to transport me every time I listen to it. Through the A85, I could clearly hear just how huge the recording venue was -- in this case, the stone chamber at the Monesterio Gundara. The instrumentalists are arrayed from one side of the soundstage to the other and the rhythmic interplay between Santiago Vasquezs percussion and Pedro Aznars handclaps sketches out the volume of the room -- it's huge and reverberant and totally alive. The clarinet, bass clarinet, guitar, cello, and bandoneon fill the room with bursts of color and texture, while Aznar's supple, lightly textured voice fills the spaces between the instruments. And the bombero legero (big bass drum) is huge and deep and powerful -- it rumbles like thunder decaying in the distance.
That's another thing about the A85 -- it ain't no wimpy little "affordable" integrated amp. It's a monster that can devour any challenge you throw at it. I didn't attempt to pair it with a man-eater like the Thiel CS7.2s -- more to save my back than because of any doubts about the Arcam -- but I did unpack the Dynaudio Contour 1.3 Mk IIs, which will challenge most small amplifiers with their demand for raw current.
The Arcam didn't even break a sweat. In fact, of all the speakers I tried during the review period, the Dynaudios best matched the A85. The Epos's bass was a tad ripe and overfull, while the ProAc seemed to soften the overtones of cellos and tenor voices, smoothing things out ever so slightly. But the Dynaudio sounded powerful, with deep authoritative bass and extended highs that seemed to hover in the air languidly decaying when they damned well felt like it. I found myself running through all my favorite recordings again and again -- once to see if they really were as good as I remembered, and once again just for fun.
And that pretty much says it all, doesn't it?
Wonders and marvels
Well, maybe not quite all. You might be wondering how it stacks up to other integrated amps. I keep a NAD 340 around as a "real world" reference (and because I like it too much to let it go), so it seemed logical to compare the A85 to it.
The NAD is rated at 50Wpc, but it puts out a solid 100Wpc of dynamic power. It retailed for under $400, but, like the A85, it was one of those products whose performance went well beyond what its price tag seemingly promised.
The 340 acquitted itself well driving the Contour 1.3 Mk IIs on The Houston Kid, but it seemed to emphasize the midbass a tad more than the Arcam, thickening the texture of the organ on "Telephone Road" and slowing the bass slightly, while giving it a slight boominess. The transient snap of the acoustic-guitar overtones also lost some of the sparkle they exhibited through the Arcam. The NAD seemed fuller through the vocal range though -- not so much a thickening here as a sense of "filling in" the spaces. Some listeners might prefer this sound, although I found the sense of space between the instruments on the Arcam more realistic.
On Sera Una Noche, the deepest bass of the big drum sounded even fuller on the NAD, but its decay seemed quicker and less textured. The Arcam just seemed to control everything better. It also exhibited a snap and bounce that made everything seem more tuneful -- what Martin Colloms has dubbed "superior rhythm and pace." Music just seemed more alive through it.
The wonder of the age
The Arcam A85 is a remarkable integrated amplifier. It's about as user-friendly as a hi-fi product can be -- other than the minor irritation I experienced with the remote. Its adjustability extends to the way the volume and tone controls work and the way its display presents information. It has provisions for the addition of a high-quality phono section or even a future multichannel-music module.
It's about as well built as an audio product can be, without ever slipping across the line to audio excess -- I like half-inch faceplates as much as the next mug, but let's face it, somebody's got to pay for that audio jewelry. Inside, where it counts, only the highest-quality parts are used. The A85 is also a good-looking component, in case that matters to you.
As to its performance, it ranks among the very best integrated amplifiers I have heard -- and that includes the Krell KAV-300i and the Mark Levinson No.383. Is it the equal of those genre-busting integrateds? Well, not in terms of power, certainly, but in terms of sound quality, the A85 doesn't cede much, if anything.
The Arcam DiVA A85 is an exceptional hi-fi product no matter how you look at it. But when you consider that it only costs $1500, it's nothing short of miraculous.
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