Arcam FMJ A19 integrated amplifier
"J-10? What's an integrated amplifier?"
It was fall 2000. I'd just begun working at Stereophile, and I clearly remember sheepishly, innocently putting this question to former senior editor Jonathan Scull.
I think the question confused himnot because he didn't know the answer, but because the answer seemed so obvious, the question itself should have been unnecessary. How could anyone not know what an integrated amplifier is? I might as well have asked, "What's a song?"
I was 22 years old, and I believe my ignorance of integrateds was in no way unique. Ask most young people what an integrated amplifier is, and, if you're lucky, you'll receive blank stares. But age is beside the point. Ask most older people what an integrated amp is and you'll fare just as well. Only audiophiles are generally familiar with the term, and, for better or worse, audiophiles make up a small percentage of the overall population. We tend to keep to ourselves. Hi-fi isn't as hip as it once was, or as it should be.
J-10 explained that an integrated amplifier is one in which a preamplifier and a power amplifier are built on the same chassis and enclosed in the same case. Now I was confused. You mean we can save space, reduce cost, eliminate a pair of interconnects, and still make music? Then and there, the integrated amplifier took its place as my favorite audio component: smart, efficient, useful, handsomelike some writers I know. Why have separates at all?
Traditional, hardcore audiophiles might tell you that, all else being equal, a properly matched preamplifier and power amplifier will usually outperform an integrated; that, in essence, an integrated amplifier is a compromise that favors convenience over quality. But this viewpoint finds convenience and quality as being necessarily at odds, as if one couldn't possibly coexist with the otherwhen, in reality, we're just as likely to see the two walk hand in hand. After all, to many, a solution that favors quality over convenience is also a compromise. And so, an industry that craves the mainstream respect it once easily commanded now faces a frustrating irony: It devises a component category that effectively addresses the general public's concernsaffordability, efficiency, simplicity, size, appearanceyet audiophiles dismiss it, and the general public doesn't know it exists.
To be fair, this modest misfortune is mostly confined to North America, where we still like our amplifiers big, heavy, and radiant with blinding blue light. Other parts of the world are different. In the UK, for instance, where homes and hi-fis are generally smaller, mainstream success is nothing new to the integrated amp. The quintessentially British brand Arcam made its name on one.
Amplification & Recording Cambridge
Founded as Amplification & Recording Cambridge, Arcam quickly gained success with its first product, the A60 integrated amplifier, released in 1976. Though Arcam intended to manufacture just 50 units, the A60 remained in production for a decade, serving as the heart of many fine and inexpensive audio systems; eventually, over 36,000 units were sold worldwide. The A60's distinct combination of convenience, sleek appearance, and good sound made it a hi-fi classic.
Through the 1980s and '90s, Arcam found success again with its entry-level Alpha and higher-end Delta series. Stereophile kept a close watch. In 1989, Arcam released the Delta Black Box, the first commercial outboard D/A processor; John Atkinson reviewed it favorably in February of that year. In December 1998, Wes Phillips reviewed Arcam's Alpha 10 integrated, a tidy, forward-looking design whose modular construction allowed it to easily morph into an amp with a moving-magnet/moving-coil phono section, a two-channel A/V receiver with Dolby AC-3 processing, and/or the control center for a four-zone, multiroom music system. In January 1999, Kal Rubinson was mightily impressed by the relatively affordable Alpha 9 CD player ($1600), which used a dedicated-chip version of dCS's famed 24-bit sigma-delta Ring DAC. Audiophiles who criticized the Alpha series' molded-plastic front panels were relieved by Arcam's introduction, in 2000, of their Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) line, whose products feature CNC-machined aluminum front panels and a heftier overall look and feel.
But even while catering to the audiophile, Arcam kept in touch with the common man. In 2005, the company released its most popular product yet, the Soloa sleek, stylish, one-box component that combined a CD player, integrated amplifier, and tuner. With the addition of the then-radical rLead iPod cable and rDock docking station, the Solo even embraced Apple's ubiquitous iPod. With the additions of speakers and cables, almost anyone could own a true high-end audio system. Art Dudley proved prescient in his July 2005 review, calling the Solo a significant first step in high-end audio's move toward reliable, fairly priced, cleverly packaged products that even non-audiophiles would want to own. And it was Art's review that largely inspired the first true high-end playback system I ever enjoyed at home: DeVore Fidelity Gibbon 3 stand-mounted loudspeakers driven by an Arcam Solo, all tied together with Analysis Plus cablesan awesome little system whose sound and appearance I remember fondly and well.
Most recently, John Atkinson enjoyed time with Arcam's newest full-featured DAC, the FMJ D33, whose choice of three digital filters make it a fine match for just about any system. And, at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, in an environment dominated by audacious, cost-no-object designs, Arcam introduced the relatively humble FMJ A19 integrated amplifier. Along with Arcam's matching CD17 CD player and a pair of small stand-mounted loudspeakers, it made a refreshingly fine-sounding, attractive, and affordable system.
Rated to deliver 50Wpc into 8 ohms, the FMJ A19 ($999) is Arcam's most affordable integrated amplifier. With it, the company strove to honor its classic A60 while delivering higher levels of sound quality and convenience. But what does it mean to honor a classic? Arcam's chief engineer, Nick Clarke, was careful not to make too much of the relationship between the A60 and A19, calling the latter a "clean-sheet design." He explained: "Our job is always to make the best-sounding device for the price in any category, and, to that aim, the basic premise of the A19 is plain old-fashioned good engineering. Over the years, the quality and reliability of components has improved massively while dropping in price, so this has allowed us to include more features at a lower cost."
Like the Alpha 10 before it, the A19 uses modular components to adapt to the user's evolving listening habits and needs. While the A19 gets its 50Wpc from a hefty toroidal transformer, a second internal power supply can deliver a direct, isolated, and regulated 6V to two of Arcam's r-series products, such as the rLink S/PDIF DAC, rPAC USB DAC, or rBlink Bluetooth DAC (reviewed last month by Sam Tellig). On its own, the A19 provides six line-level inputs, tape and preamplifier outputs, and two front-panel mini-jacks: one for driving headphones, the other for connecting an iPod. And, like an increasing number of modern integrated amplifiers, the A19 includes a moving-magnet phono stage. Today's music lover has nearly unlimited access to new music and should not be restricted by format. Arcam acknowledges this. Thank you.
The A19 uses a Texas Instruments PGA2311 volume controlthe same one found in Arcam's top-of-the-line FMJ AV888 processor, and claimed to deliver an impressive 120dB signal/noise ratio and very low total harmonic distortion of 0.0004%. According to Clarke, these figures are more commonly found in "highly esoteric and very expensive dedicated preamplifiers." Clarke also noted the A19's high-quality printed-circuit board and the careful layout of its audio circuitry. The amplifier's hood is held in place by seven six-point Torx-head screws in two different sizes; without the proper screwdriver, I was unable to have a look inside. Arcam provides further technical information on its website; John Atkinson's measurements will confirm whether or not the A19 meets its specs. I found the amplifier to be very quiet indeed.