Arcam • FMJ A19 Integrated Amplifier and irDAC Digital-to-Analog Converter

by Roy Gregory | April 1, 2015

www.theaudiobeat.com

One of the things that has always fascinated me about the hi-fi business (as opposed to hi-fi itself) is its cyclical nature. When it comes to reproducing music in the home, every dog really will have its day, what goes around comes around, and there’s nothing new under the hi-fi sun. It’s true of technology (not so long ago you couldn’t buy a speaker unless it was biwireable and used a metal-dome tweeter; now both approaches are in serious decline), and it’s also true of brands, with even the most successful manufacturers occasionally losing their way, falling out of favor or by the wayside.

Competition is never fiercer than at the bottom end of the market, and when it comes to entry-level amplification, Arcam have been in and out of fashion so often they must feel like the hemline on next season’s skirt, never quite sure whether they’re going to be too long, too short or just about right. Currently they’re firmly on track, their A19 integrated amp offering the versatility, reliability and, above all, the performance to make it the "go to" choice in the hotly contested sub-$1000 market segment.

The "FMJ" in the amp’s moniker refers to the use of "full-metal-jacket" casework, a constructional detail that neatly parallels exactly the sort of musical substance and solidity that this baby Arcam seems to produce so easily. Glance at the A19 and it looks exactly like what it is -- a standard-width, slim-line integrated amp built into a shallow-depth chassis. Your first surprise will come when you pick it up: It’s a lot heavier than you expect it to be. Okay, so it’s not "nailed to the table" heavy, but it’s definitely reassuringly weighty, given its modest price. The next thing you’ll notice, once you look a little closer, is the subtle profile of the front panel and control knob, the carefully disposed array of buttons that allow you to access the multiple input and control options, logical without looking cluttered, helped by the classy two-tone gray contrast of the finish.

Now "classy" might seem like another surprising word to use in the context of budget electronics, but the subtle order of the Arcam’s styling, in such stark contrast to some of the more, er, ostentatious offerings out there, will grow on you rather than looking old before its time. Which is a good thing because the company’s first-ever product, the A&R Cambridge A60 amplifier, still crops up as a great secondhand buy, almost forty years young. This is a product that’s built for the long haul -- and it’s styled to match.

But there’s a lot more to this amp than just a metal front panel. It shares not just a footprint and slim dimensions with the original A60, but a designer too. After four decades, John Dawson is still heading up Arcam’s design team, and that continuity in the product DNA definitely shows. As usual, he and Arcam have put a lot of effort into the power supply, but in this case it extends beyond just the amplifier itself, allowing the A19 to drive a range of external r-Series components via a 6.0V DC output. These small, standalone units offer external DAC, streaming and wireless-connectivity options. They’ve also provided it with plenty of input flexibility, with seven line inputs available, one via a 3.5mm minijack on the front panel. There’s a full tape loop and a set of pre-out sockets, as well as a properly engineered MM phono stage and a headphone amp that’s more than just an afterthought or tick-box exercise. The brand’s audiophile awareness shows through in the provision of a three-stage dimmable display and an elective balance control (you switch it into circuit if you feel you need it).

What you have here is a thoughtful and thoroughly modern update of the traditional, hair-shirt integrated on which most of us cut our audio teeth, offering all the musical benefits of performance-conscious, minimalist design, but with a weather eye on the changing audio landscape and enough versatility through the provision of add-on modules to meet any current requirements. Sure, that universal connectivity isn’t built in, but then you don’t have to pay for it unless you need it -- and you only pay for what you use. It’s a refreshingly sensible and cost-effective solution that doesn’t sacrifice performance on the altar of arithmetic necessity. Throw in the surprisingly healthy 50Wpc rated output, an engine with enough torque to actually get a hold of (and keep a hold of) some quite surprising speakers, and it’s difficult to know what else you might realistically ask of a product at this price point.

One component of the A19 package that might cause a few up-turned noses is the remote handset. Compact, lightweight and short on what the marketing department might term "tactile quality," there’s no escaping the fact that it looks pretty basic. Simple square buttons and the simplest shape possible, it looks for all the world like the sort of mobile phone that people should be giving to five-year-olds. With remote controls pushed front and center in the (life)style wars, Arcam’s generic handset looks (and feels) quaintly dated. But here’s the rub -- it works! You can find the button you want and the system does what it’s told, each and every time, even from the most acute angles. Now compare that to the alternatives that grace more expensive and stylish remotes that are all too often -- variously -- too big, too heavy, two small, operationally obtuse, impenetrable (because the buttons are too small or the labeling illegible) or just plain ineffective. There are few things as useless as a remote control that either you can’t operate or it won’t cooperate. The A19’s handset won’t impress your friends, but it does do the job, which hopefully allows the system to impress them instead. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?

Which brings us right to the heart of the challenge facing the A19 -- or any other product at the budget end of the price bracket. Reviews of typical high-end components tend to concentrate on deviations from reality, the degree to which the product falls short of perfection. That perfection is both possible and the universal goal is a given, but such lofty aspirations are well outside the ambitions of any sub-$1000 amplifier. Producing a sound that is recognizable, engaging and satisfying is top of the list; a sound that encourages further investigation of both repertoire and the system playing it should be a close second. The burning question facing any reviewer looking at a budget contender is whether it achieves those goals. The burning question confronting that product’s designer is just how to achieve them -- and when the price point starts to bite, then something has to give. With high-end products it’s a case of balancing virtues, but at the opposite end of the price scale it’s more a case of deciding what you can neglect without fatal consequences when it comes to performance.

What makes the A19 such an interesting proposition is not just that it succeeds handsomely in performance terms, but that the way it succeeds is equally apparent. The real joy of this amplifier is the living, breathing music that flows from behind that understated exterior. Rather than reinventing the wheel, Arcam have gone straight back to their roots and improved on the original recipe, producing an amp that puts real-world load tolerance at the top of its list of priorities. The result of all that effort they’ve put into the power supply is an amplifier that concentrates on getting the basics right -- for which read, a clear sense of musical shape and pattern. The A19 is living proof of just how far a firm rhythmic footing and decent dynamic expression can carry you. By getting the structure right, the sense and purpose in a performance follow -- and that’s what makes systems listenable.

In many respects, listening to the little Arcam takes me straight back to my hi-fi roots, a time when men wore lipstick and the PRATs were on the march (that’s "pace, rhythm and timing" for all you who missed out on the Kool-Aid). Playing Eliza Gilkyson’s melancholy "Hard Times in Babylon" (from the CD of the same name [Red House Records RHR CD 146]), I couldn't miss the easy, uncomplicated presentation, the careful way the acoustic guitar, the backing and the vocal phrases slotted so effortlessly and naturally together, the way the energy level in those vocals rose to the chorus and then decayed through it, setting the sadness of the song -- and the contrasting hope of the middle eight. It’s this ability to map not just the shape of a phrase but the way it interlocks with the others around it that defines the musical structure -- and it’s this that the A19 manages so deftly. It manages to keep instruments and layers distinct, to reveal accents, vocal or instrumental, so the "why?" of the music is never in doubt.

If you want a measure of just how confident and articulate this Arcam amp really is, just reach for Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP [Aftermath Ent 490 761-2] and the track "The Real Slim Shady." The sparsely insistent backbeat delivers the structural foundation for the quick-fire lyrics; but marvel at the ease with which you can understand what’s being said as well as the precision with which Eminem tailors his syntax to that rigid framework. It’s the perfect example of just how well this little amp expresses musical structure and how, having done so, it then sets about filling in the gaps. Its ability to deliver Eminem’s outrageous streams of consciousness is no fluke.

If this amp bases its performance on structural integrity, the jewel in its crown is vocal delivery -- from fast to slow and Steve Earle’s rough and ready live delivery on "Johnny Come Lately" (disc 2 from Copperhead Road, Deluxe Edition [Universal 0602517658961]). Despite the slurred diction and the lyrical latitude, the labored breathing and the flat notes, there’s an emotional integrity to the performance that makes it compelling. Compare it to the joyous reel of the original album track, with its riotous backing as only The Pogues can do it, and it’s a stark difference. The studio version is more polished, considerably faster and delivers its late payoff in an almost off-the-cuff fashion. But it’s the live version that lingers longer in the emotional memory -- if only because you can feel the work that’s gone into it. It’s a perfect demonstration of how the A19 doesn’t just reveal the contrast between these tracks; it allows you to revel in each one’s musical strength and character. It’s about structure and sense, purpose and feeling -- and you can’t say fairer than that.

So we know what makes the A19 tick, but where does it fall flat? Creating any budget product is an exercise in compromise, deciding what matters and doing your best to hide what doesn’t. Some products take that mantra a little too literally, the resultant musical and cosmetic veil being worse than the ills it was designed to conceal. The Arcam avoids that trap by pinning its heart firmly to its sleeve. Just as its strengths are easy to hear, so too are its shortcomings. The question to consider is not so much their nature, but whether or not it intrudes on your musical enjoyment. I’d argue that it doesn’t -- or, not to put too fine a point on it, I wouldn’t be wasting my time writing this review!

There are two areas in the A19’s delivery that might cause concern. One is its overall tonal range (which you can’t do anything about) and the other is its available headroom, which you can. Let’s start with the former. There’s no escaping the fact that the A19’s structural clarity comes at the expense of some body and weight. The pared-away sound isn’t exactly skeletal, but compare the budget Arcam to more expensive and capable competitors and you’ll notice the lack of body and color to instruments, substance and solidity to low frequencies. Note, however, that we’re talking about the flesh on the bones here, not the bones themselves. The A19 definitely doesn’t lack for bass depth, pace and impact, its concentration on the leading edge of notes meaning that musical moments arrive when and where they should, quick and on time, which keeps the musical momentum on the move. Where you do notice the lack of harmonic body and development more is when it comes to the midband, where guitars are more strings than body, voices more mouth than chest.

Listen to Ruth Moody singing and playing "Trouble and Woe" (from These Wilder Things CD [True North TND577]). Her banjo has an exaggerated twang and the elongated decay that characterizes her vocals is clipped, her diction slightly halting as a result. Likewise, the fiddle is all bite and edge rather than drawn bow. Does that undermine your enjoyment? I seriously doubt it. There’s a rollicking sense of pace and purpose to the song, and if the gorgeous purity of Moody’s singing loses a little of its effortless grace you’ll not notice unless you are used to hearing this album on (considerably) more expensive amps than this, which is the point. This amp is an entry-level design, gateway to real hi-fi performance. You own it and use it (and love it) because those more expensive amps are out of reach and what you can’t afford can’t hurt you. Instead, revel in its musical and rhythmic integrity, the access it gives you, rather than the subtle shading it doesn’t.

The issue of headroom is as much a question of self-restraint as anything else. The problem rests in the sheer capability of the A19, its apparently unburstable reserves of energy and musical enthusiasm. If you are not careful, the amp itself will lead you astray, encouraging you to overreach its capabilities, because as competent as the baby Arcam is, it’s still a budget product, and while it will do a surprisingly good job with some unexpected speakers, push it too hard and it will keep going -- right up to the point where it (musically) folds at the knees. First it will get hard at the top and then glassy. Ignore the warning and the bass will go lumpy and fall out of shape. But that’s when you push -- hard -- in inappropriate systems.

I wheeled out the pricey and demanding Wilson Benesch Square Fives to test the envelope, and whilst I was surprised by the A19’s ability, complex material and higher levels soon detached the bass and smeared the top end, underlining the risk of letting the amp’s musical enthusiasm become infectious. Instead, be honest about the scale of the music you play and how loud you play it and select speakers accordingly. Sensitivity is more critical than the load characteristic, but I don’t think you will be limited for choice. For me, the KEF LS50 makes a remarkable partner, but listeners looking for greater scale and weight can safely look as far as the R series instead. Likewise, Paradigm and Focal (amongst others) offer plenty of models that promise a good match while allowing you to trim the strengths of the pairing to match your musical expectations. The golden rule here is simple: Just because you can it doesn’t mean you should. The A19 will certainly rise to a challenge, but offer it a sympathetic match instead and it won’t just respond, it will actively reward you in musical terms.

Of course, headroom is intimately related to dynamic range. Siting and support as well as AC and signal cables will all play their part. No, I’m not suggesting that you drop five times the price of the amp on ancillaries, but a little care and attention to coherent cabling and mechanical coupling will pay remarkable dividends. Simple wooden couplers to bypass the unit’s soft feet are a step in the right direction; a trio of Stillpoints Ultra Minis is a revelation. Use either in tandem with a laminated wood or bamboo shelf and you won’t credit the benefit.

Talking of ancillaries, Arcam also supplied their compact $699 irDAC along with the A19, just to underline the amplifier’s thoroughly modern outlook. Based on a Burr-Brown PCM1796 DAC chip and powered from a 12.0V wall-wart supply, the unit’s simple yet stylish exterior conceals a surprisingly sophisticated circuit, with no fewer than eight independently regulated internal power supplies and remarkably low jitter. It offers two S/PDIF inputs on RCA, two optical inputs, an asynchronous USB and a direct iPod connection (also via USB) that takes digital directly from the portable source, all switchable on the unit itself or from a remote control that’s similar to the A19’s, but will also drive the transport and track-select functions on a range of PC/Mac devices and more recent iDevices.

This is no compact streamer or add-on DAC for your portable source. This is a genuine, full-function DAC, capable of dealing with multiple sources and different digital formats. The fact that it’s also small and (relatively) inexpensive is just a bonus. Insert it between a basic CD player (I used an Audiolab 8200) and the A19 and you’ll quickly appreciate just how capable this unassuming little Arcam DAC is. With "He’s Late" from Phoebe Killdeer’s album Weather’s Coming [The Perfect Kiss TPK014CD], while the Audiolab/A19 is long on clarity and intelligibility, adding the irDAC to the equation brought a massive improvement in terms of color and musical atmosphere. Killdeer’s vocals were more natural and intimate, the stark instrumentation clearer and crisper, with more body, shape, separation and focus, while the backdrop of falling rain and other incidental sounds was significantly more convincing, more detailed, but most important of all, more effective.

The combination of the irDAC with the A19 raised the listening experience on every level. The vocals communicated more directly, the tonality of instruments and voice was much more natural and the production as a whole was much more coherent. Most tellingly of all was a newly definite quality to the subtle rhythms and patterns that tie those scattered instruments slowly combining to create the backing. It’s not just that each sound, each note has more texture, more character and identity, it’s placed with greater clarity and precision. End result: a song that really works, the carefully measured vocals backed up and underpinned by the deft, sparing production. As good a job as the A19 can do on its own, adding the irDAC lifts things to a higher level, making it far easier to enjoy the music, making the system and its limitations both less obvious and less intrusive.

Arguably just as impressive (and possibly more important -- at least in the great scheme of things) was the performance of the iPod input. This USB socket, hooked up to iPhone or iPad with the basic AudioQuest Cinnamon cable, delivered shockingly superior results compared to an expensive 3.5mm to RCA alternative. It’s not just that you bypass the iDevice’s DAC and analog output stage, you get the benefit of the irDAC’s performance and its glove-like fit with the A19. Whether the irDAC is part of a starter system, giving access to the owner’s portable music collection, or part of a bigger rig, allowing kids and their friends a chance to hear their own music on a proper system, the ability to strip native digital files out of a portable device transforms the experience and opportunity. No more listening through the dynamic fog and letterbox perspective of MP3. If you upload or download uncompressed files, this setup really lets you hear the benefit. The increase in sonic quality is hard to miss, with more detail, color, texture, weight, body and bandwidth. But it’s the increase in musical quality that’s really impressive. Tie all those sonic attributes to a superior sense of rhythm, time and structure and you’ve got a major step up in performance.

There are various people offering a whole range of different bridging solutions between the younger generation of downloadable-music consumers and the world of separates and genuine hi-fi performance. This is both one of the simplest and one of the best examples I’ve come across. It makes uncompressed files stored on a phone or iPad a genuinely viable and accessible source of quality music -- with zero fuss. I’m impressed!

Getting back to the irDAC’s physical form, one interesting aspect of its construction is the heavy, flat rubber base on which it sits. While this undoubtedly helps damp the casework (a good thing), it also forms a barrier between internal energy and the outside world (not so good). Assuming that you are going to give the irDAC its own supporting shelf -- and you should -- using hard steel cones or something similar to link the four screws sunk in the underside of the unit to the supporting surface will add a worthwhile level of extra focus, detail and transparency. The rules say that using the same supports under DAC and amp will deliver a dividend in musical coherence and performance, but sadly Ultra Minis or wood blocks won’t work with the irDAC, as you’ll need a pointy interface to reach those screw heads.

Add the irDac to the A19 and you have the core of a seriously versatile and bang-up-to-date audio system, capable of delivering great results from every source from LP to 24-bit/192kHz files, via loudspeakers or headphones. Of course, that capability rests on the quality of the amplifier that sits at the heart of the A19, underlining just how right Arcam have gotten this product (and the rSeries that sits beside it). Although much of the listening for this review involved CD sources, I also spent time with a VPI Traveler/Nagaoka MP15 record player hooked up to the phono input. It might lack some of the sheer immediacy and crisp clarity that the amp’s line stage delivers from a good CD or file-replay source, but it more than makes up for it with the overall warmth, body and coherence it brings to the party, easily good enough to show why LP still remains the source of choice for so many serious listeners.

One listen to Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces [Radar RAD 14] was enough to convince. The ironic lyrics of "Accidents Will Happen," the jaunty, upbeat "Senior Service," its up-tempo enthusiasm underscored with bitter frustration -- it’s all present and correct. Once again, you can do better, but it’s going to cost, and on this showing I’d be shelling out for the irDAC long before I thought about upgrading the onboard phono stage. Fuller and warmer than the digital options, LPs more than pay their way in musical terms, reveling in the Arcam’s rhythmic integrity and fluid phrasing. Don’t dismiss this MM stage as a throwaway. Helped by the A19’s easy grip on the loudspeakers it’s capable of surprisingly authoritative and communicative musical results -- even if I suspect that the majority of people who own and use this amp will never discover that fact.

As I observed earlier, the audio landscape is a rapidly evolving place, with new source standards and replay solutions emerging on a seemingly daily basis. System solutions like the HRT Stage offer seriously viable (if less versatile) alternatives to more traditional separates-based starter systems, solutions that a new generation of audio enthusiasts shorn of the need for physical media are free to engage. But if you want to follow the separates path, then for me this pairing is where real hi-fi starts. In many respects, the Arcam A19 and irDAC are the gateposts that mark the threshold of real musical performance. They’ll do everything you actually need them to do when it comes to replaying the various available and relevant music formats, in a neat, fuss-free, stylish and reliable package. Crisp, clean, organized and expressive, they make music engaging and intelligible, but above all worthwhile -- more than just sonic wallpaper, a fascinating and compelling world to explore and enjoy.

What goes around really does come around, and it’s somehow refreshing and reassuring to see (an admittedly updated) Arcam back where they belong, offering the core components on which the owners of starter systems can rely.

Prices: FMJ A19, $999; irDAC, $699.
Warranty: FMJ A19, five years parts and labor; irDAC, two years parts and labor.

Arcam
The West Wing
Stirling House
Waterbeach, Cambridge
CB25 9PB, United Kingdom
www.arcam.co.uk

American Audio Visual
9484 American Eagle Way
Orlando, FL 32837
(407) 888-8300
www.americanaudiovisual.com

Associated Equipment

Analog: VPI Traveler turntable, Nagaoka MP15 moving-magnet cartridge.

Digital: Simaudio Moon 260D Neo and Cambridge Audio 8200CDQ CD players, MacBook Pro running Pure Music, Naim UnitiServe and iPad Mini.

Integrated amplifier: Simaudio Moon 250i Neo.

Speakers: KEF LS50 (with Track Audio Stands) and Crystal Cable Minissimo. KEF Q700 and Wilson Benesch Square FIVE floorstanders.

Interconnects and Speakers cables: Complete sets of Crystal Cable Dreamline Plus, Nordost Frey 2 and Blue Heaven, from AC socket to speaker terminals including digital leads and distribution blocks.

Digital cable: AudioQuest Cinnamon USB cable.

Ancillaries: Hutter Racktime equipment stands or Ikea Aptitlig bamboo "shelves," with Stillpoints Mini Ultras, Nordost Sort Kones or Ayre wood block couplers. Generic steel cones (for the irDAC) and Furutech DeMag and DeStat devices to treat the software.

www.theaudiobeat.com