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 him—not 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, handsome—like 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 other—when, 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 concerns—affordability, efficiency, simplicity, size, appearance—yet 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 Solo—a 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 cables—an awesome little system whose sound and appearance I remember fondly and well.

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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.

Description
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 control—the 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.

COMPANY INFO
Arcam
US distributor: American Audio & Video
4325 Executive Drive, Suite 300
Southaven, MS 38672
(866) 916-4667
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COMMENTS
low2midhifi's picture

I own the A18 predecessor model to the A19 reviewed in this article.  Thanks to Stereophile for reviewing a fine integrated amp that offers great value for the money. 

I stepped down in watts per channel from other comparably priced amplification to purchase the Arcam A18.  While the watts per channel reduction does cost a reduction in volume, the Arcam delivers in ways that more than compensate for the difference.

Stepping up to the Arcam A18 from more modest equipment, one will find a big step up in sound quality from a less expensive power amp, receiver, or integrated amp. 

Going to the Arcam from a stereo receiver, for example, one notices succinct pauses—true musical pauses—from a recording.  With lesser equipment one discovers a type of smearing of the musical notes, where the Arcam delivers the musical impulses with natural and punctuated phrasing of the music. 

The Arcam doesn't immediately seem loud (an attribute that many of us have been trained to equate with “good”) but listening to this unit requires a different approach to listening.  With the Arcam there is a subtle but room-filling expansive sound projection. It’s different than a more intensive, visceral, in-your-face sound that one may get from amplification with more wattage in a less expensive product.

The sound quality of this unit is great.  Arcam gives a budget-constrained hi-fi enthusiast a taste of the sound that is available with finer products, but is often economically unattainable for many enthusiasts. 

I would recommend that a purchaser of the A19 (or a A18 if a used one is to be had) take care with speaker pairing.   For listeners of music without many quiet passages (Rock, Country, some types of Jazz) a purchaser of an Arcam A19 or A18 can probably use speakers with sensitivity of 84db to 86db without issues.  For Classical music listeners, a person should pair this integrated amp with speakers having sensitivity of 87db or higher.  I have used this speaker with speakers of 87db and 88db sensitivity, and will have turn up the volume in some recordings, though the power source of the Arcam A18 accommodates use with its volume over ½ of the maximum range without strain or distortion.  Since this is more of a laid back sound than other comparable products, a person could pair this unit with a "brighter" pair of speakers with metallic drivers.

The machined faceplate of these Arcam integrated amp is of very high quality.  A person who has owned stereo or home theater receivers will have achieved a noticeable improvement in build quality, vibration control, and durability with the Arcam.  The green display is impressive and alluring to behold while listening to music.  The volume control moves with silky precision.  Turn on the Arcam, put your ear to the unit, and you won’t hear a thing.  The build quality is impressive throughout the unit.  It's a thin, low profile unit, though the user should put this unit where it has an unobstructed space above to allow for proper ventilation (the manual and my dealer recommended this).

I have no regrets of my purchase and ownership of my Arcam A18.  I plan on keeping it for years, and upgrading around this fine integrated amp.  A superior product can be had, but you’ll pay almost twice the amount, at the least. I don’t think—having reviewed many products in this range—that you can get a better product with comparable specifications for the same amount from a major manufacturer.

brightonrock's picture

I upgraded last month from the A18 to the Arcam A19 amp and have noticed much more detail coming through in my music. Even though the paper specs don't indicate much power differnece, the A19 seems much more gutsy than the A18, especially in the bass.

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