Sugg. Retail: $3000 ea. (CAN)
Distributor: Emerald Audio Resources,
R.R. #1, Palgrave, Ont. L0N 1P0
(905) 880-71700 FAX 880-7171
(Reprinted from the Spring 02 Audio Ideas Guide)
We’ve already looked at Arcam’s FMJ DVD player (Almanac 02), and here we have their best offering for 2-channel folks, the CD23 and the A32. Both are cleanly styled in silver and grey, with a long thin remote with a lot of small buttons that are grey on grey. In fact there are two, one for each component, that for the player also able to operate the DV27. These are, to repeat a description by Emerald marketing manager Jeff Soltysek, “teaching remotes”, in that they teach you to remember the important buttons and where they are. At least the amplifier one also provides the basic functions of the CD player, and will also operate the FMJ DAB tuner.
The CD23 player is the culmination of Arcam’s collaboration with Cambridge-area neighbour dCS, who make what are arguably the world’s best D/A and A/D conversion devices for the pro market, along with a few expensive consumer devices named after British composers (Elgar, Purcell, and so on). This FMJ player incorporates the dCS-developed Ring DAC design. Here’s what I found out about it on the Arcam web site: “dCS’s high performance studio solution is very expensive, but their technology was so elegant that we were determined to find a way to bring their system within reach of committed music lovers at a more affordable price. After many years of joint research and development, and a lot of blood, sweat and tears, the project to generate a custom chip set for the Ring DAC was complete in 1998.”
The CD23 includes HDCD decoding, and will play CD-R discs. The Ring DAC operates at 24-bit resolution, but does not recognize nor play 96 kHz discs, I discovered after trying a Chesky 2-channel DVD. I also found that it had no HDCD indicator on its LED display, which shouldn’t disturb me; but I wondered if other HDCD aficionados will miss the security of knowing their discs are being properly decoded. “Oh bother” said Pooh to nobody in particular, as he attempted to extract his head from the honey jar. Actually, there is a tiny red HDCD light discretely tucked beneath the stylized FMJ logo at left front panel.
Yes, there is something quite identifiably English, and just a little bit eccentric, about these audio components. And for the eccentrics among us who don’t live on that green isle, Arcam has decided that we should be able to customize the A32 amplifier’s display and audio settings. In the Customize mode you can set Volume adjustment to Standard, Fine, or Reference, the latter allowing adjustment in .5 dB increments. And just to make sure everybody knows this, you can have it displayed in Numeric rather than the default Graphic mode. However, instead of counting up, it counts down from O, which is the highest setting of the front panel rotary control; this control, by the way, is not motorized, so it doesn’t move when you adjust volume on the remote.
Also possible are input level trim to match average levels when switching, customising of tone control settings (bass/treble) for each input (why?), and setting of a scrolled personal message when the amplifier is turned on. Here’s what the manual says: “You can change the power on Welcome message from ARCAM AMP to display your name, postcode, etc.” How about, “Hello, I’m Eore the amplifier!”
The precise 1/2-dB-resolution level display might be handy for comparing such things as interconnects (the CD23 has double RCA analog outs to facilitate this), and the electronic input trim pots will help match levels between, say, CD and phono inputs, the latter likely to be somewhat lower on average than the CD’s 2 volts.
The amplifier’s power into 8 ohms is rated at 100 wpc, with 150 available into 4 ohm loads. There is a matching basic amplifier with identical power, the P35, that can be ordered in 2 or 3 channel versions for home theatre system use, allowing operation with an outboard processor.
Unlike many recent audio components, the A32 has a front panel headphone jack, as well as two sets of rear panel speaker outputs, which could allow it to be used in separate audio and HT systems in the same room. It also has Pre-out and Amp-in jacks to increase its flexibility with additional amplifiers; it is nicely set up for bi-amping with an additional P35 by virtue of this, and would, I’m sure, sound quite spectacular so configured.
But before doing any serious listening to the amplifier, I put the CD23 through our standard CD tracking tests, starting with the Verany calibrated dropouts. It played cleanly through track 33 (1.5mm) on the single dropouts, locking on 34, but actually playing 35 (2.4mm), before repeating on 36. In the narrow gauge dropouts it managed only track 40 (1mm), while playing through 47 in the double dropouts (2 x 1mm). The Canadian CD Check disc was played through its first 3 tracks, with 4 and 5 showing increasingly audible mistracking. Our multiple error disc was played to 1:54, and then the player skipped its way merrily to 2:05, where it locked up repeating a phrase. Finally, our disc with see-through sections caused very loud ticks on this player, these only minor by track 4, but very loud off the top.
To sum up, this is a player that does very well with small errors, even in large quantities, but seems quite sensitive to disc coating faults, that is, discs that you can see through. It does handle quite large single errors, managing those larger than 2mm in size.
Next, I spent a few hours listening to the CD23 (Skiddoo!) and A32 combination, starting with an HDCD encoded disc. It was immediately apparent that the A32 was a superb amplifier, and cleanly conveyed the excellence of the CD23’s CD playback. I was mesmerized by the recent Reference Recordings HDCD of music by Aaron Copland, featuring the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Eije Oue. The utter naturalness of this recording, by Keith O. Johnson could be heard through the Ruark CL30 speakers (review forthcoming) provided by Emerald Audio Resources to partner the FMJ components.
After putting on the disc to listen to Fanfare For The Common Man, I ended up listening to the complete Appalachian Spring Suite that followed…and listening loud, at true concert hall levels (the numeric display read -10 dB), hearing no strain, no clipping, no compression. What a system!
Somewhere into the second movement of Copland’s 3rd Symphony I realized how good the bass was from this system. These Ruarks do move some air, as well as having excellent dynamics, but more on that in their own reivew. And the A32 is the best Arcam amplifier I’ve heard, and certainly one of the very finest integrated amplifiers in our experience, up there with the Bryston B60 and the Rowland Concentra.
Both of these latter have excellent phono stages, I thought, but what about the one we’ve got here? Its moving coil sensitivity is rated at 270 microvolts, so it should be able to handle all but the lowest output MCs. To connect our Heybrook TT2/SAEC 407/23 I used a 2-metre length of Stager Silver Solid interconnects using RCA female-to-female adaptors to attach them to the Cardas Golden Cross phono cable, not an ideal setup, but required to get from the shelf mounted turntable to the test bench (as Ray Kimber so rightly points out, the least effective cables are those that are too short). And the Stager Silvers are not even shielded, so the risk of hum was high. However, it worked out well, noise well below audibility with the preamp set to MC sensitivity (this is done using a recessed pushbutton on the rear panel that can be accessed using a pen or small screwdriver). Cartridge was the Ortofon Kontrapunkt B which seemed to match well with the A32 phono stage.
There seemed to be a little extra midrange emphasis from LPs, though the bass was solid and the top end clean and articulate. I could hear some extra emphasis on female voices, such as Joni Mitchell’s in Blonde In The Bleachers, while Miles Davis’s trumpet in Kind Of Blue seemed a little forward. Perhaps this was partly the speakers, but it certainly wasn’t a problem with CD play. In general, though, it’s an excellent phono preamp, with high resolution, though not quite in the class of those in the aforementioned amplifiers.
Overall, these Arcam components comprise a very good high end reproduction system, especially for only $6000. To provide a perspective, the Concentra will set you back ten big ones, and you still have to add a CD player. And I like the configurability of the A32, which can make it easy and comfortable for all to use once input levels are matched and other parameters set. It’s got plenty of clean, musical power to convey the excellent CD reproduction of the CD23 (skiddoo).