There are caveats in this highly competitive sonic zone, but Ashley Kramer finds himself swimming in liquid audio joy with Arcam’s new entry-level amp.
ARCAM HAS BEEN in the hi-fi (and AV) game for well over three decades. The original A&R Cambridge Ltd. moniker was first introduced to the world in 1976 along with the classic A60 integrated amp, which is fondly remembered by many a stereo enthusiast. The truncation to Arcam happened in the ‘80s and over the years, this quintessentially British company has released a steady stream of audio equipment, including the Solo range of all-in-one music systems and the more recent rSeries of portable music systems, docks, DACs and wireless receivers, some of which have been positively reviewed here on Witchdoctor.
Like many products from companies with a long and credible track record, the FMJ A19 integrated amplifier is an interesting proposition – in a way, it’s the distillation of everything the company has learned about amplification since the A60, but it’s also the entry level integrated in Arcam’s stable, which means that it’s been built to a very specific price point. That’s arguably a tougher task than creating the more expensive A28 and A38 models, which benefit from being able to access higher quality components from top to bottom.
Still, all that experience has to count for something. As the company puts it: “The A19 is built to the same very high standards as the company’s other FMJ series products. Arcam engineers have chosen every critical component using careful measurement and years of design experience. These audiophile grade components are designed into a circuit layout configuration that has been carefully optimised for the very best performance. The A19’s audio circuits are combined with an ultra-low noise power supply built around a muscular toroidal transformer. These state-of-the-art electronics are encased in a resonance-damped chassis…”
It seems that the A19 is a deeply considered product and indeed, the build quality tallies with this assessment.
Features & Construction
The FMJ part of the A19’s model number used to be reserved for the higher-end models in the range. It stands for Full Metal Jacket, a reference to the high-quality all-metal chassis found on these units. The A19 is a well-built stereo component – the top and side panels are sturdier and far better damped than is the norm at this price point. Allied to the machined metal faceplate, 8.5kg weight and attractive black finish, the overall impression is definitely one of quality.
A big volume knob dominates the faceplate flanked by a green LED display. A long row of push buttons for input selection are placed to the right along with the 3.5mm Aux input, a 3.5mm headphone jack and the power button. On the far left are more push buttons for mute, balance and display dimming (the display can be set to high, low or off). This layout sounds cluttered but as can be seen from the photos, the front panel of the A19 is actually relatively cleanly laid out. There are no tone controls; the A19 is purist in that respect.
Round back is a single set of plastic speaker binding posts – the A19 supports only one audio zone. There are six line level RCA inputs, plus that front mounted Aux input, which means that the A19 has all the inputs anyone could want or need. In addition, it has a Moving Magnet phono input and there are preamp and record outputs. Power output is a reasonable 50 watts into 8 ohms, which theoretically increases to 90 watts into a 4 ohm load, but that’s measured with a single channel driven at 1kHZ. It’s a singularly useless statistic to quote and Arcam should know better.
There’s also a 3.5mm 6 volt, 1 amp power output on the back panel, which is designed to provide power to a couple of Arcam’s rSeries products (a 2-way splitter cable is provided), allowing the A19 to become the base of a “digital hub”. So something like the rBlink Bluetooth receiver (reviewed here) could be used in conjunction with the A19, benefiting from the amp’s high-quality power supply, which should lead to better performance than a cheap wall-wart – more on this later.
A compact full-function remote control is supplied, which is designed to control the amp and only the amp, unlike many of the overcomplicated system remotes often supplied with stereo components.
All in all, the A19 has all the features expected from an integrated amp at this price, or should that be “once expected at this price”? Rotel has pretty much turned the category on its head with the $1049 RA-11 integrated (reviewed here) which has a feature set that’s unmatched at anything near the price, including a built-in Bluetooth receiver, digital Apple input and a very high-performing high-res DAC. The A19 costs one hundred and fifty dollars more than the Rotel, at least according to the retail prices, so it has to fight for market share on more than features alone.
The A19 is ahead of the Rotel in terms of looks and build quality, but the Rotel is by no means the only competitor as this is a category stuffed with excellent models – for example there’s Cambridge Audio’s Azur 651A (reviewed here) at the same price to contend with, along with Myryad’s somewhat costlier $1399 Z142 (reviewed here).
The A19 was initially hooked up to a set of Q-Acoustics’ little 2020i stand mounts ($499) on the matching stands with a Yamaha CD-N500 network CD player as the source. Cable was a mix of basic Monster interconnects and a single wired run of old Chord to the speakers.
The review A19 is a demo unit, so it’s had plenty of work but it was left to run for a weekend before any critical listening started. From the start of the review proper, the sound quality was impressive. The A19 is an altogether warmer sounding unit than the Rotel – sounding both smoother and subtler. That’s not to say that the Rotel is inferior in sonic terms, or that the A19 is too sweet, just that the two units have quite different characters.
Running through the well recorded, acoustic double CD Dave Matthews And Tim Reynolds Live at Radio City showed that the A19 was able to compete with the amplifiers mentioned above; in fact it’s entirely capable of holding its own. The long guitar solo on ‘Lie In Our Graves’ showed that this amp has good speed, a lovely depth to the ‘air’ of the acoustic space and heaps of separation between the instruments. There’s plenty of detail making it from the CD player to the speakers and the A19 has no trouble breaking down each note into its component parts; so the initial attack of the notes are clear and well rendered as is the way they break off into decay and then the ongoing, diminishing resonance.
Like the Rotel and other similarly powered amps, the A19 sounds gruntier than its modest power output would suggest. The smoothness of the A19’s delivery means that it can be pushed hard without sounding forced or strained. Bass notes start and stop with authority, which aids the overall sense of musicality. Playing tracks from OAR’s Rain Or Shine four CD set showed that the A19 deals with loud rock with aplomb – the amp easily pushed the 2020i’s to scarcely believable levels with a tight bottom end, good dynamics and a huge sense of scale. In short, the A19 sounds big and confident, never descending into becoming uncouth unless the volume knob is treated with real disdain.
Fundamentally, the A19 is big-hearted but it’s not all that outgoing or hyper-energetic; it never really lets its skirts all the way down. This inherent politeness means that it isn’t able to take on the mantle of a dramatic, high-energy amplifier in the Naim idiom, but nor is it sedate and boring; if anything, this amp elegantly treads the fine line between drama and smoothness.
The ever-present tonal warmth isn’t really a negative either because it’s not at all overdone – in some ways the A19 has the tiniest touch of a rich, valve-like character, and many potential punters will prefer this to the matter-of-fact (and dare I say it, quite solid-state sound) of the Rotel and to a lesser extent, the Azur 651A. If anything, the A19’s character allows it to be matched to a wider range of speakers and sources than some of the competition – for example, it’d be as happy driving a set of B&Ws’ somewhat forward recent speakers as it is in front of the suave Q-Acoustics 2020i’s. This warmth means that the amp is also content with a wide range of music, not letting coarse recordings become too unbearable.
For headphone buffs, the A19’s headphone stage is a close match for the character and sound quality of what’s available at the speaker connections. Running Sennheiser’s rather terrific Momentum ‘phones, the A19 provided a warm and highly detailed output that suited all kinds of music from the hardest rock to the subtlest female vocalists. The headphone stage is apparently based on a “completely new circuit” specifically designed for high-quality headphones and it unquestionably sounds that way.
In The Big Leagues
Like most entry-level (ish) products that get reviewed in the Kramer household, the A19 was listened to using price appropriate partnering gear, but it was also matched up to equipment well out of its price range. In this case, it was connected to an elderly but capable Marantz SA8260 SACD player and a set of Theophany Loudspeakers’ new Psuche Kardia floorstanders ($6500) using Slinkylinks and Nordost cables. Like the Rotel, the Arcam had no issues with this challenge and proved entirely able to pass the Marantz’s highly detailed and fast output to the accomplished Psuche Kardia’s, making for an entertaining listening experience. Sounding less revealing and intense than the Rotel in this role, the A19 nonetheless came across as the more advanced product; its sound is subtler, more flowing and relaxed, and it puts on a wider soundstage to boot.
A Digital Hub
Arcam’s rBlink Bluetooth receiver was hooked up to the A19 and sampled running from the supplied wall-wart power supply and via the 6 volt output on the back of the amplifier. There’s a small but worthwhile improvement when the better power supply is feeding the rBlink. Given that this is the best sounding Bluetooth receiver I’ve heard thus far, that improvement does make a difference.
This combination sounds so good that I’d venture to say that it’s quite possible to run the A19 with the rBlink as the sole source and still have a lot of fun. That would of course be an approach that doesn’t really do justice to the A19’s capabilities because a good CD player like the Yamaha or indeed, Arcam’s own CD17 will sound substantially better than the Bluetooth streamer, but these days, buying a device that only spins CDs is seen by many as akin to buying a boat with a hole in it.
The real problem with the A19/rBlink combination is that the $1199 plus $399 package deal seems a little flamboyant compared to the Rotel RA-11’s $1049, considering that the Rotel’s price includes a good Bluetooth receiver. Yes, the rBlink sounds better than the Rotel’s Bluetooth dongle when 320kbps files are involved, but the difference isn’t vast and in any event, the low quality of most Internet based streamed content means that you likely couldn’t pick between the two with a Pandora stream playing.
The Rotel RA-11 wins out against the A19 from a pure feature set perspective but sonically, they’re different beasts; although it’s not that one sounds notably better than the other. I’d suggest that most punters would prefer the silkier, more opulent sound of the A19 to the RA-11’s delivery, but that could easily swing the other way depending on taste and the source and speakers. Cambridge Audio’s Azur 651A is also ahead of the A19 in terms of features but sonically, again it would come down to a matter of preference.
All three units are excellent and would be great choices as the heart of a really good sounding traditional component-based stereo system. The fly in these machines’ ointment is Myryad’s Z142, which just happened to be on hand while I had the Rotel and the A19. The Z142’s chassis is as well built as the A19 but it can’t match the feature set of the Arcam, the A651 or the RA-11 but it simply sounds better – bigger, punchier, with extra dynamics and additional refinement, not to mention more resolution.
If you had to pick the price of the four units after listening to them back to back, it’s safe to say that most listeners would assume that the Myryad was pricier than the others by a tad more than the actual margin. That doesn’t automatically mean that it’s the default choice because the difference isn’t light and dark, and the feature set of that damn RA-11 is so compelling.
Surely sound quality is the defining criteria? Well, of course it should be but we don’t all drive the high-performance, two seat sports cars of our dreams because sometimes other factors come into play. The good news is that as always, consumers have a wide selection of gear to choose from and they’ll pick whatever revs their motor.
I have no hesitation whatsoever recommending Arcam’s A19. There’s no doubt that it’s an excellent integrated amplifier and a worthy contender in its category. From a sonic perspective, it’s a five–star performer in its own right, easily matching the equivalent opposition at the price and not falling more than a small amount behind the class leader. The A19’s superb headphone stage is another plus that’s going to appeal strongly to some users.
However, as mentioned repeatedly, Rotel’s RA-11 has changed the game to an extent by offering very similar levels of sound quality to its competition for slightly less cash, along with a feature set that’s bewildering in its completeness – the damn thing’s DAC sounds marginally superior to my Marantz SACD player (for crying out loud!) and its Apple input matches a good CD player. This sheer strength means that the Arcam’s five star performance has to be pulled down by half a star. I’d do the same to Cambridge’s Azur 651A if it were to be reviewed today, and the only thing that’s keeping the pricier Myryad Z142 at five stars is its sonic advantage. Arcam’s engineering prowess shines through here in a big way – this amp is one that’s definitely worth a listen, particularly if you like a more mellow sound that’s not too in your face. ASHLEY KRAMER