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A visit to the Arcam factory

[Arcam demo room]
[Italian version]

Factory: Arcam - UK
Reporter: Maarten van Casteren - TNT UK
Report: February, 2006

A couple of weeks ago Arcam was kind enough to let me visit their factory in Waterbeach, Cambridge. It is actually very close to where I live, so for me this was an ideal opportunity to have a look at one of Britain's leading audio brands.

When I arrived I was welcomed by Geoff Meads (brand manager) and Stefan Starkie (technical field support). We first went to a local pub for lunch and some audio talk. The atmosphere was very informal, as you'd expect in a pub, and the following 'interview' is a reconstruction of a very pleasant conversation during an excellent pub lunch.

You've recently introduced the Arcam Solo which seems more of a life-style product than previous Arcam components. Could you tell me a bit more about the thinking behind this?

Times have changed and for many people sound quality is no longer the most important feature in an audio product, looks and ease of use are often first. So, obviously there's a market for good looking and simple to operate products like the Solo. To be honest, we had been thinking about a product like this for quite a few years, but it is much more difficult to get right than you might think. To integrate a CD player, amp and tuner in a single box is a problem in itself, but to make the combination easy to use and attractive is even more difficult. On top of that it should of course be reliable and efficient to produce, and have the right price too.

Are you reaching a new type of customer with the Solo?

Yes, we are. There are the people who want a good looking, great sounding system, but also audiophiles looking for a second system. We also find that many people who bought separates 10 or 15 years ago are now looking to replace them with something new but not overbearing. And then there's the iPod interface, of course. We've just introduced the rLead, enabling an interface between an iPod and the Solo. This makes it a very interesting product for iPod owners. We like to see products like the Solo as educational: we estimate 99% of people have never heard a really good sound system or have grown up with MP3. The Solo will not only make their MP3 files sound better, but many people are surprised when they find out how much better CD's sound on it. Arcam's motto still is 'Better sound for more people' and the Solo fits very well with that.

It's also a 2-channel system.

Yes, Arcam are still major supporters of two channel audio. Actually, both Stefan and I have acquired record players in the last couple of years! It is no secret that we are still keen to develop 2 channel products. More than half of our business is now in home cinema products but music systems are not something we will ignore. We do make sure that all our multi-channel systems can also play 2-channel music very well. We still have a keen interest in music. We try to make good sounding and exciting products.

Exciting? That is not really something I associate with Arcam. Your reputation is more for sensible, good value products, isn't it?

Maybe. But we think we do have exciting products too.

Aren't you sometimes a bit jealous of brands like Musical Fidelity, or Naim, who seem to introduce products that do seem very exciting, like the kW series and the new CD555? The press is giving them a lot of attention.

That's simply not what we do at Arcam. For stereo products, at round 1500-2000 the law of diminishing returns kicks in pretty quickly. You can still improve a product further, but at a very high price: perhaps needing double that money or more for a really noticeable difference. We don't think that is what we should be doing. Of course, if you're willing to spend 5000 or 10.000 you might get a better CD player or amplifier than our best models. But in general the differences will be small.

Do you use these high-end products yourself, as a reference, or a design goal?

No, we don't. Our reference is our competition at the same, or a slightly higher price point plus our own products; either the more affordable version, or the outgoing one. We aim to make a range of products where investing more money will give you a good gain in quality. If we started making products that are much more expensive, but only perform a little better we would lose the customer's trust. Also, when making a new version of a product it is imperative that it sounds better. Our new CD36 CD player sounds considerably better than the CD33, and we are very proud of that.

How did you achieve that?

Amongst other things (including a whole new power supply and mother board), we found a new product, Stealth Mat, which absorbs and redirects RF and EMI.

Much like Stillpoints ERS then, which I recently reviewed for TNT Audio?

It seems so, yes. We found it to be very effective, although there is a risk of 'over-damping' when you use too much. We also used more vibration control in the CD36, which can be very effective. Another improvement is the use of 4 layer PCB's, which enables us to have shorter signal paths and to use one layer as a ground plane. Delicate audio signals can then be put on one side of that ground plane, with power supply and other noisy signals on the other side. When the design of the new player was finalised we spent considerable time voicing it. As we do all our products, including Solo. It's very important to get the sound right.

How do you do that, voicing a component?

There are always choices that can be made in a design, and we listen to all alternatives and choose the best sounding ones. After that we start replacing components, like capacitors for example, to find out which types work best. With the CD36 we also spent quite a bit of time optimising the vibration damping. We keep going until we have the sound we want. A number of people are involved in this process. We consider it to be very important to produce a consistent sound of he highest possible quality.

So, what CD player do you use at home then?

(Stefan) I use an Arcam CD33, modified.

Modified? One of my questions was going to be if you think tweakers are right in thinking that all units can be improved, but this already answers that question. Isn't that inconsistent with what you just told me about all your efforts during the voicing process?

No, it isn't. For one thing, you have to stop developing at a certain point. It is certainly imaginable that further improvements are possible. Some components are simply too expensive to be used. I upgraded my CD33 with parts which are very expensive. The ones that we used in the CD33 are extremely good but when money and time are no object some improvements are possible. I had this modification done by one of the engineers involved in the development of the player. He obviously knew what he was doing. So yes, the tweakers are right in a way but it takes a great deal of knowledge and experience to make improvements rather than just changes!

Isn't there a limit to the sound quality that we can get from an ordinary CD?

(Geoff again) If there is we haven't found it yet! Every new CD player that we produce sounds better. It has been like that for the last 20 years, and will probably continue. Arcam was one of the first manufacturers to buy a licence to produce CD players in the 80's, so we have a lot of experience; we know what we are doing. The CD33 was a big improvement on the already very good CD23, and the CD36 is another big step forward.

So, what do you aim for when voicing?

It would be easy to create an exciting sound that would impress people in the shop within 5 minutes. But we don't want to do that as a sound like that will be very tiring after a couple of hours. We would like people to be happy with our equipment in the long run, not just a few minutes. Long term enjoyment is what we are looking for. If you have been in the market for as long as we have, since 1976, you realise that it is important to build up a good reputation, not to just impress in a 5-minute demo.

What are your plans for the future?

We have many but they are largely secret of course! The Solo product has found obvious favour with audiophiles and quality conscious consumers alike and it's likely we'll develop more products in that vein. However, as an engineering company we relish the thought of pushing performance at the higher levels too. One thing is for certain, the challenges presented by up and coming technologies mean that we have to be ever smarter and be as focused as possible on what the customer actually wants.

A tour of the factory

[Arcam milk float]

After this conversation Stefan showed me around the Arcam Factory. The building Arcam occupies isn't very impressive looking, I have to admit, but Geoff told me that there are plans to improve that situation very soon. Sadly, I wasn't allowed to see the research and development area, for obvious reasons. So we went to the production area first.

Taking a look at the way Arcam products are put together turned out to be quite fascinating for me. It is one thing to see those simple but stylish boxes in the shop, but it is clearly a complicated process to create them in an efficient and reliable manner.

The units are put together on a production line, but each production run is prepared in a different area. All the necessary parts for a particular run are put on trolleys, each one meant for a certain location on the line. As everything needed for a run can now be wheeled to the line in a matter of minutes, this enables switching from one production run to another very quickly. All printed circuit boards used by Arcam are put together, wave-soldered and tested by another company in Wales. Almost no soldering is required at the actual Arcam facilities.

[Arcam production]

The production preparation area is quite full and busy, with a couple of ladies even putting together power supplies before placing them on the trolleys. The production line itself is far more empty and organised. At both locations the atmosphere is remarkably relaxed: nobody seems to be in a hurry, everyone smiles at us and is happy to have a quick chat. Especially at the actual production line, the feeling is much more one of careful attention than of hurry.

Stefan explains to me that each unit goes through all stations on the line as it is being put together. At each station checks are carried out to make sure the work has been done correctly. At the end there is a final test station with a number of highly accurate measurement computers, where each unit goes through a whole set of tests to check if everything works as it should. CD's and DVD's are being placed in players and units get instructions via an infrared transmitter. If a unit fails it is sent to the service area, conveniently next to the production line. They will correct the problem and the unit is then placed at the beginning of the line again to go though all checks and tests for a second time. Only when a unit passes all of these will it be packed and sent to the warehouse.

[Arcam repair service]

The service area itself is an interesting place. Many trolleys with units to be repaired are standing around. This makes me comment on the number of Arcam units that break down, which is dryly responded to by Stefan, who points out that Arcam has sold over 850,000 units in its history, and all can still be serviced. All of a sudden the number of units in this area doesn't seem to be large anymore. I also notice that most are actually not very recent. One unit is just being packed, with a care as if it was a new unit. It is even cleaned and polished and goes into the box looking absolutely new. "That one is over twenty years old" Stefan tells me.

We also visit the warehouse where all finished and packed units are stored and where shipments to all over the world are prepared. It is much bigger than I thought and filled to capacity with Arcam boxes. It is actually a 5-minute walk from the factory. And to get the boxed units there Arcam uses a milk float! There are actually two of them, and this solution was chosen because these are electric so can be driven indoors and start and stop frequently without problems.

Finally it is time for me to actually hear some of the Arcam products. We go to the dedicated listening room, one of several, but the only one I'm allowed in, as the rest are used for development. The room is acoustically treated throughout, with a sloping ceiling, a curved wall behind the speakers, and many absorbing and diffusing panels on the walls and in the corners.

[Arcam's Geoff]

The first demo is of the Solo with its diminutive Alto speakers. The sound is produced by an Apple iPod nano, connected to the Solo by the new rLead. This lead will not only enable the iPod to play music through the Solo, but the Arcam machine actually takes full control of the iPod. The display of the iPod now shows the Arcam logo and the display of the Solo shows the selected tracks and other settings on the iPod. Navigation on the iPod can be done completely using the Solo remote control. It is very impressive and makes the Solo into the best iPod accessory ever, I suppose. Geoff tells me that the Solo even sets the volume on the iPod to maximum, as its volume control is digital so affects the sound quality. Instead, the volume control on the Solo is being used. The quality it manages to produce from MP3 files is a bit of a surprise: not bad at all and proof that almost anything can sound good with care and attention.

We move on to a home-cinema demo. The three front speakers used for this are Audiovector M3 Avantgarde. I am very impressed with the picture and sound during the DVD demo but, since I am strictly a 2 channel guy myself, I ask if I can play some of the CD's I brought from home. To do this in the best way possible, a quick stereo set-up is improvised, with a separate rack with the CD36 player, the C31 pre-amp and a pair of P1 power amps. Stefan gives me some details about these units. The CD player is a clear improvement on the CD33, with its 4 layer pcb's, stealth mat technology and vibration damping. The pre-amp is also much better that its predecessor, the C30, thanks to the same 4 layer board technology, shorter signal paths and better signal switches which are now completely sealed. The power amps are rated at 175 watts in 8 ohm, but Stefan tells me that if you were to switch off the protection circuit, they would be able to deliver up to 1000 watts in 1 ohm. A promising set-up indeed! I tell Stefan that I use a pair of Dynaudio contour 1.8 mk2 speakers at home, so he arranges a pair of Dynaudio two-way studio monitors for me. They feature the famous Esotar tweeter, so I sit down with high expectations.

The sound that is produced by this set-up is extremely detailed. It overwhelms me initially. My own CD's sound almost unrecognisable. I keep hearing details I have never heard before, and some of my old jazz recordings (e.g. Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard) have many more problems on them than I ever imagined. That is not to say that the system sounds clinical or overly analytical. It makes music all right, just in a different way than I am used to. The little Dynaudio standmounts also don't produce a lot of bass, making for a slightly bright presentation. But the clarity of the treble is absolutely breathtaking. There is an abundance of detail without any harshness, sibilance or other digital problems. Spatial information is reproduced with ultimate precision. Everything has a rock solid location in three-dimensional space, and the sound is completely free from the speakers, which just seem to stand there with no clue that they are actually producing all of this.

As I miss the nice, full bass that was present in the DVD demo, I ask Stefan if he could switch back to the two Audiovector main speakers. 3 minutes later the speaker cables have been changed and we are listening to a completely different picture. Nice full bass this time, and a more 'comfortable' tonal balance, but those Audiovectors that had impressed me so much only half an hour ago now sound slightly dirty in the treble! Not that there's anything wrong with them, but the contrast with those fantastic Esotar tweeter is just too big. If I needed more proof of the superior quality of the treble produced by the Arcam units, then this is it. The Audiovectors do proof that these electronics can also produce fast and lively bass. An optimal speaker system for this set-up would combine the transparancy of the Dynaudio's with the warmer presentation of the Audiovectors. But each of these speakers cost more than half of the summed cost of the electronics, and more than twice what the most expensive component (the CD36, at about 1400) costs!

Sadly that is the end of the afternoon. I would have liked to spend a bit more time listening to this impressive set-up in this dedicated room. I leave with the feeling that I was just beginning to get used to the sound. Perhaps this isn't a very representative situation, as most of us won't have a room as optimal as this. But it effectively removed the influence of the acoustics from the equation, allowing me to hear more of the system's strengths. I am looking forward very much to trying out some of the Arcam products at home, and I hope I will be able to report on this soon.

Finally, a big thankyou to Arcam, and to Geoff and Stefan in particular. I don't think I ever learned more about audio in single afternoon, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The lasting impression is one of a company dedicated to its products, with a long history and an even longer future ahead of it.

© Copyright 2006 Maarten van Casteren - www.tnt-audio.com

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