Product: Arcam AVR 100
Company: Arcam - UK
Approx. cost: $ 999.00 USD/Euro
Reviewer: Scott Faller
Reviewed: October 2001
Now, before you try to bury me up to my neck and stone me to death, let me state this clearly up front. I am not doing a HT (home theater) review. I am reviewing this piece as a stand alone two channel integrated that just happens to have HT capability.
OK. Let's take a realistic look at the real world market. As much as we philes hate to think about it, the home theater market is polluting the public with some of the worst sound imaginable. From cheap cheesey speakers with big, high powered boomy sub woofers to poorly designed integrated receivers that are over rated and perform dismally on two channel reproduction. Between Dejan and myself, we have termed it "The Hollywood Sound". The Hollywood Sound has very little to do with accuracy and has everything to do with impact.
As much as we hate to admit it, it seems this medium might be here to stay. I did some digging and came up with some startling numbers. Checking the Dolby site, it seems they have infiltrated almost 11 million receivers and processors worldwide. Additionally, well over 36 million DVD players have been sold to date. The first half of this year alone, shipments of the Dolby 5.1 decoding software are on the pace to double the same two quarters as last year. All this makes the DVD Home Theater format the fastest growing format ever.
Why is this important? Well, the typical consumer is liable to use their DVD player as a transport and their Dolby 5.1 receiver as a DAC and integrated amp for two channel stereo reproduction. That's all fine and dandy until you actually listen to one of these combinations. These things may have well as been manufactured by Sound Design or Lennox. They are an abomination to true sound reproduction.
For most people, a separate video room and another separate high end audio room is a pipe dream. If you can afford to do separates, we are talking mega-thousands of dollars plus lots of square footage. If you can't, but you want to experience the best of both worlds, keep reading.
Some of us are lucky enough to capture a few hundred square feet in our basement or a small unused bedroom for our dedicated listening systems. Actually there wasn't any luck involved in my case, it was shear bribery, Sapphires as I remember :-)
For these reasons, I decided to give the AVR100 a little closer look. There are literally tons of HT receivers on the market to choose from, but very few of them can reproduce two channel audio with any accuracy.
Enter Arcam. They are an established manufacturer of fine sounding, well respected, mid to high priced audio gear. They offer a range of great sounding Fi gear, from the affordable, to the not so affordable. I personally own a Alpha 8se HDCD player. It's a great CD player in the $1000 price range.
Arcam's lines consist(ed) of the Alpha, their entry level amps, integrated amps, and CD players to the FMJ (full metal jacket). The FMJ is the flagship of the Arcam line and is well worth it's not so modest pricing.
Recently Arcam revamped some of their designs and introduced the Diva line. The Diva sports a new faceplate available in both silver (brushed aluminum) and black (I prefer the black). With this revamp, Arcam introduced their latest entry into the home theater market, the AVR100.
This unit has most of the HT goodies that you would expect but that's not what we are looking at in this review. If you are interested, visit the Arcam website for the particulars. Lets take a little closer look at the AVR100.
Removing the cover reveals a tightly packed little unit. It sports a custom wound 550 va toriodal power plant with 10,000uF Nichicon LK series power supply caps. The rest of the caps are typically Licon dielectrics. The amplifier is of MOSFET design with two printed circuit boards. The board on the left houses the left, right and center channels with the board on the right containing the two rear channels. The DAC is located near the front of the case and essentially the same DAC as used in the older Alpha 7se CD player. Moving to the right rear of the case we find the inputs and pre-outputs housed on separate boards with the typical gold plated RCA jacks. Feeling the insulators on the RCA's they are probably PVC rather than teflon.
The AVR100 comes with it's own thermostatically controlled cooling fan. The power supply is switchable from 110v to 230v. A switch is provided which will disconnect the grounding circuit of the power cord if you are picking up a buzz.
Speaker impedance matching via a selector switch labeled 4-6 ohm and 8 ohms. Nice feature. Most modern gear designers forget about this and assume a relatively static load is seen by the amp. That can be a poor assumption sometimes.
The front panel display is a green LED with push buttons and the unit comes with a remote to switch between your sources. There are a fair number of inputs. There are two digital, one coax, plus six analog inputs (if you count the VCR as an input). No phono section is available although it does have a tape loop.
One of the nice things about the AVR100 is the fact that the analog inputs are processed as true analog rather than running through a AD converter, then reversed and reprocessed through an additional DA converter. Arcam is the only manufacturer doing this that I am aware of. Even the "high end" Marantz and Denon 5.1 receivers at $3500 don't treat an analog source as analog. It's a nice feature, especially if you're using a really good DAC for your CD player or want to connect a tape teck.
For you headphone freaks out there, there is a headphone jack. It's the standard ¼" plug.
Unlike the other Arcam units, the ARV 100 comes with tone controls. I don't much care for them so I'll opt to use the bypass switch located between them.
Keeping in mind the AVR 100 is a receiver, it obviously comes with an AM FM tuner. There are 30 preset stations available, RDS Station Identification, and a claimed Signal/Noise Ratio in stereo >66dB and a Capture Ratio <3dB.
Moving to the back of the unit you will see that the arcam comes with a full set of pre outs. This means you can either upgrade with separate amps or you can bi-amp (in two channel mode) using this as the pre and primary amp. Nice feature.
The speaker connectors are the BFA (British Federation of Audio) type with adapters for everything except bananas.
I'm not going to bore you to death will a bunch of meaningless specs but I did want to mention just a few that you will be interest in. First, Arcam claims on two channel reproduction 90 watts per channel into 8 ohms. Unless you have some really inefficient speakers, this is plenty to rock the house. The listed channel crosstalk is >60dB at 1 kHz. I find it interesting that Arcam didn't publish a signal to noise ratio. Hmmm.
First, I have to make a big caveat here. If you use this receiver as a two channel stereo in the confines of your home theater, you are going to have some serious problems with soundstaging, imaging and resonance buildups or suckouts. Why? Because of the other four speakers that are in your room. When those speakers aren't active producing music they turn into Helmholtz resonators altering the sound from the two main speakers. The degree of alteration will vary depending on the room dimensions, distance between speakers, size of the other speakers and a host of other items.
Another item to contend with is the television and typical entertainment center placed between your main speakers. These will tend to collapse the depth of your soundstage.
Well, after a serious WASPing session (which confirmed to my wife that I have completely lost my mind) I found a reasonable compromise that gave me an OK soundstage. See, I have one of those huge entertainment centers between my speakers. I houses everything including my 36" TV, DVD's, VCR tapes (which are going by way of the Dodo), sculptures, glassware, to all of my second sound system. I thought about placing a large heavy quilt over the top of the entertainment center, but how many people are really going to go to this trouble when they play music, so I didn't bother.
I decided to play some of my usual reference music. The first CD I plugged in was Buena Vista Social Club. This CD needs no introduction. My first impression, YE GADS is this awful. Then I realized I was playing it on a Denon 5 disc changer, Ooops :-) Rather than drag my Arcam 8se up from my listening I decided to try using my el-cheapo Toshiba DVD player as a transport coupled with the AVR100's DAC. I plugged in the cheesey digital cable that came with my Toshiba DVD player and thought, let's give it a whirl.
Keep in mind here that what I've just done is going to be very similar to what the average person is going to do. The thought of using the Toshiba as a transport didn't really thrill me, especially knowing it is (essentially) one of the throw away versions that have flooded the market. I did buy one of the slightly more expensive versions, but it's like comparing the bottom of the line Sound Design stereos to the top of the line Sound Design stereos. The real question is, can this setup perform? Well, I pushed everything back into place and pushed play on the remote.
First impression, not bad, not bad at all. Thankfully, the Arcam engineers incorporated a really decent DAC into this unit. Although the physical architecture of the DAC is a bit different than the one housed in the Arcam 7se CD player, the components are the same.
Over the next few hours I listened intently to all kinds of different music. My first choice, BVSC came through with all it's spender and glory (taking into consideration the transport and speakers being used). I wanted to see if the Arcam covered any of the nastiness up so I picked some really rotten recordings to listen to also. Hey, there's always two ways to skin a cat :-)
At the very top of that rotten recording list resides Diana Krall's, All For You release. I don't mean to be negative here (oh jeez, here I go again), but the guy(s) who mic'ed and mastered this thing (and I do mean thing) should be strung up by the short hairs and forced to listen to Boy Bands continuously for weeks on end through Bose Waveguide radios. This thing is so overprocessed, even crappy systems scream for mercy.
I skip to tracks 9 and 11. Track 9 starts with what sounds like a comb filter applied to the piano that very audibly comes though in the mid and high frequencies. This is a whooshing sound that decays when she plays notes on the lower registers of the piano. Some like to think that this sound is the gentle sweep of brush on a cymbal, it's not, it's an effect from a filter of some sort added during the mix down process. Next, in this same song, you can hear the squeak of the pianos mechanical linkage connected to the foot pedals. That's what I consider over mic'ed. Not to mention, Diana sounds like she's, all but, swallowed her microphone (interesting visual, but we won't go there).
Sorry for the mini-rant, back to our regularly scheduled program.
Playing tracks 9 and 11, I heard almost all of the depth, detail and nastiness that I hear on my big system. So, on the detail scale, the AVR 100 performs admirably.
Now on to some really dynamic music. Let's push this thing and see what happens. I plug in Blue Man Group tracks 1 and 5. These are a true test of an amplifiers speed and accuracy. On both tracks, quick, sharp, notes played on guitars and at about 1:00 in the Blue Men switch into hyperdrive with a brutal bass drum ride that many amps have trouble handling. Here the Arcam faired pretty well. The instantaneous increase in musical energy was ever so slightly slow.
Next is the AVR 100's test of some real bass, Blue Man Group track 9, Club Nowhere and Mouth Music tracks 4 and 10. All of these selections have really deep, sustained bass notes that are well below 30 hertz. As much as I figured, the Arcam didn't fair overly well here at high SPL's. The bass got a bit sloppy and uncontrolled.
The power supply caps in the ARV 100 are only 10,000 mF each. With any sustained bass played at high volumes, you can easily drain these caps, which is exactly what I did playing these songs. Now maybe this isn't a fair test, but it's a test none the less. Probably, 99% of the music you listen to will sound great but when you really jam on heavy synth music, you will run out of gas, except at lower volumes of course.
So what about the rest of the music that is out there? Well, I played all kinds, from classical, jazz, to rock and roll. Each sounded awful good. I didn't notice any real problem areas of the amp. Since it is a MOSFET, you can expect a nice detailed but slightly laid back sound. Acram engineers built in plenty of punch without being overpowering. Generally speaking, it's a nice amp and very easy to live with.
Well, let me get right to the point. The remote control just plain sucks. The buttons are really small and extremely hard to read. At times, I literally have to use a magnifying glass to read them. Just so we get this straight, it's not the functions of the remote, it's that you can't see them.
The back panel is awful crowded too. Although I'm not really sure what else could have been done short of making the unit physically bigger. That's not an option either considering it's healthy size already.
If you look closely at the pics, you will notice modular construction. Most of the internal wiring is done via a modified version of ribbon cable. Though the wires are separated fairly well, the wires aren't twisted. The twisting of the wire provides common mode noise cancellation. If you pick up a lot of noise in your system now, don't expect it to get any better. I assume Arcam did this to ease in the assembly process thus saving money. I suspect the connectors used aren't standard either, so that probably rules out wire tweaks.
The BFA binding posts won't accept a standard banana. This can be troublesome if your speaker wires already have them. In my case, I had to unsolder the bananas and install standard spades.
Considering the AVR 100's reasonable price and it's ability to faithfully reproduce two channel music and play to the HT crowd, this is a really nice unit. It does have it's drawbacks, but it definitely plays music far better than it's competition.
When you compare the AVR 100 to it's bigger brothers, the Alpha series amps, it does fall short but not by an excessive amount. It's a reasonable margin in view of the market Arcam is trying to capture.
So if you are looking for a good sounding two channel amp that has ability to do 5.1 channel surround for a Home Theater rig, this is your baby. In fact I liked this one so much, I bought one. I guess that, in itself, is a tell all statement.
© Copyright 2001 Scott Faller - http://www.tnt-audio.com