Arcam FMJ A19 integrated amplifier Page 2
Installation and Setup
Unboxing and installing the FMJ A19 was a simple pleasure. It came carefully packed in a substantial cardboard box, all of its pieces intact and nothing rattling aroundalways a good sign. As Art Dudley said in his November 2013 review of the Luxman PD-171 turntable, "Never underestimate the importance of good packaging, and never underestimate the arguably unique talent for same that one sees, time and again, from established companies of considerable size."
The A19 is hefty, solid, and handsome, with an overall build quality that easily met, and in fact exceeded, my expectations for a product of its price. In terms of overall fit and finish, it reminded me most of Simaudio's well-built Moon i3.3 integrated amplifier ($4000 when last available), which I reviewed in February 2011. I placed the A19 on the bottom shelf of my IKEA BestÜ equipment rack; on its four rubber feet, it felt sturdy and still.
At first, I used Kimber Kable PBJ interconnects between the A19 and my NAD C 515BEE CD player, and Kimber's 8VS speaker cable between the amp and several different pairs of speakers: DeVore Fidelity Gibbon 3, KEF LS50, Pioneer SP-BS22-LR, PSB Alpha B1, and Wharfedale Diamond 10.1. But the Arcam sounded a bit indelicateharder and more aggressive than I'd likeespecially with recordings that had been mastered on the hot side, so I swapped the Kimbers for AudioQuest's Big Sur interconnects and Rocket 33 speaker cables. This softened the overall sound and traded some clarity for midrange warmtha fair compromise. I carried on with the AQs. Over time, I thought the Arcam opened up a bit and became smoother and, consequently, easier to listen to. Out of the box, it was a bit stiff.
Happily freed from having to use an outboard phono preamp, I plugged the interconnects of my Rega P3-24 turntable directly into the A19's phono input, and fed the A19's chunky (18AWG) IEC power cord into my Furutech e-TP60 power distributor. I didn't try any aftermarket AC cords.
Pressing the A19's front-panel power switch produces a satisfying clickthe sound of a well-made machine being called to action. A small power light momentarily glows red before settling into an attractive amber that perfectly matched our cat Avon's eyes. On the A19's clean, clear display, source input and volume level are illuminated in soft green characters that were always easy to read from my listening position, some 8' away. The display has two levels of brightness and can be turned off completely. If the A19's sound is affected by the brightness of its display, I wouldn't want to know. Actually, I thought the amp sounded brighter, and very slightly louder, as I switched its display from off to low to high, but I may have been kidding myself. I kept the display turned on, adjusted to its lower brightness level, at almost all times.
The A19's front panel is functional and uncluttered. A row of small pushbuttons are clearly labeled, from left to right: Phono, Aux, CD, Tuner, Sat, BD, PVR, AV. All but the phono input, specifically designed for the low-voltage output of a moving-magnet cartridge, have the same technical characteristics and can be interchanged as needed. If not yet interested in LP playback, the user can switch off the phono input and convert it to a standard line-level input by simultaneously pressing the front-panel Balance and Phono buttons. Although I was perfectly happy to regularly employ the A19's phono stage, I nevertheless tested its defeat mechanism. It worked. That settled, I promptly reactivated it and left it that way.
When headphones are plugged into the A19's front-panel headphone jack, the amplifier produces an audible click, and its display momentarily reads "HEADPHONE" before redisplaying the source component and volume level. Cool.
All of the A19's controls are repeated on the included remote. While this small plastic device was entirely sufficient and not at all unattractive, I'd like to see something more distinct and substantial with a $999 integrated amplifier. In terms of appearance, the remote that comes with NAD's new D 3020 integrated ($499) is a far more sophisticated and appropriate partner. Why can't all hi-fi products be so equipped?
Also included with the A19 is an attractive, glossy-covered handbookby far the nicest I've seen in a long while, and the kind of accessory I associate with the high-quality gear of past generations: something you might use only once, if ever, but that will nevertheless contribute to your pride of ownership. I actually wanted to read the handbook, and I didwhile enjoying a cup of coffee and listening to an LP.
The first thing I noticed and enjoyed about the Arcam A19 wasn't sound at all, but an absence of sound: As mentioned above, the A19 was very quiet. With the input set to Phono, the volume knob turned up high, and an ear positioned close to one of my Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 speakers, I heard silence: no hum, no buzz, no nothingexactly what I'd hoped for.
I was again reminded of Simaudio's Moon i3.3, which had most impressed me with its supersilent backgrounds and excellent dynamic range. So I decided to conduct a test: With a record playing and the volume set to a normal listening level, I made myself comfortable and slowly began reducing the amp's volume in an effort to see how low it could go before the music lost its ability to engage me. In my previous, smallish (10' by 13') listening room, my 40Wpc NAD C 316BEE was good at this game, sounding reasonably dynamic and colorful even at very low levels. In my current room, which measures about 18' by 20', the NAD does not perform as well: Music fades into the background rather quickly, and I find myself wanting to raise the volume in order to restore the music's life. No big deal. With the Arcam, however, I was surprised by how low I could go before feeling the need to turn back. In fact, even at extremely low levels, the music remained compellingclear, dynamic, and colorful, with natural-sounding sparkle to the highs and good punch to the lows.
In "Seahorse," from Devendra Banhart's Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon (CD, XL Recordings XLCD268), the clean, fast sound of brushes sweeping and snapping against a snare drum's head partnered naturally with a taut kick drum to create a fun, engaging sound. Raising the volume resulted in improved performancethe music became louder, of course, but also more present and alive. As the layers of backing vocals in "Seahorse" slowly developed, the Arcam showed a good sense of scale, instruments and voices growing appropriately larger and louder just as the music overall grew larger and louder. Incidentally, I was never able to push the A19 to a point where it sounded stressedits 50Wpc were always more than enough for the speakers I had on hand. Still, the Arcam couldn't come close to the effortless sense of bloom achieved by the Croft Phono Integrated ($1895), which always sounded bigger, bolder, and more colorful than the half-the-price A19.
Jump factor through the Arcam was good, but never so good that I was completely fooled into thinking, even momentarily, that there were real live musicians in the room with me. The Arcam isn't that kind of componentnot quite fast or crisp enough in the highs, not open enough through the mids. I tend to dislike that sort of thing anyhow. Don't get me wrong: I crave eerie realism as much as the next guy, but unless the music is intended to be frightening, I don't want to be scared while listening to the hi-fi. The Arcam never jolted me from my seat. Nevertheless, it was easily capable of transporting me to a musical event. When a recording properly captured the size of a venue, the Arcam revealed it. Even at the very quietest volume, playing Puccini's La Bohème, with Robert Spano conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (CD, Telarc CD-80697), the Arcam successfully reproduced the recorded ambience: I was seated in the only row I could afford, about a million miles from the stage, yet still able to thoroughly enjoy the music. And it was with the Arcam driving Pioneer's wonderful little SP-BS22-LR stand-mounted speakers that I was swept away by "Love & Light," from Sandro Perri's Impossible Spaces (CD, Constellation CST 085-2): As the drums and acoustic guitar emerged in the space between my speakers, the imaging was so physical and precise, the tone and timing so true, that I could almost see as much as hear the performance.
Listening to the same song through Creek's Evolution 50A integrated amplifier ($1195) was a very different experience. The Creek produced an airier sound overall, with a slightly narrower but taller stage, more tightly focused images, and more crisply articulated transients. I loved the clear, present sound of voices and guitars through the Creek, but missed the Arcam's fuller bass and slightly warmer lower midrange. Through the Arcam, the sound of chimes was like sunlight shimmering on the surface of water; through the Creek, the effect was more vibrant and intensesharper and more brilliant than I'd like, seeming almost to tickle my inner ears.
In terms of momentum and flow, the Arcam was confident and quick but lacked some delicacy and grace, favoring attack over decay and never sounding as smooth or continuous as the Exposure 2010S. To compare a song to a sentence, the Arcam placed periods where the Exposure inserted commas. Through the Arcam, the beginnings and ends of notes were clean, definite, explicithere and then gone with a bang or a bump, but rarely a whoosh or purr. The effect could be stunning, as it often was with Daft Punk's expertly produced Random Access Memories (CD, Columbia 88883716862), or the airy, electronic sketches of Zomby's With Love (LP, 4AD CAD3305)but it also meant that the drier-sounding Arcam missed some of the tension and sheer beauty in the Finale of Bruckner's Symphony 4, with Karl Böhm conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (CD, Decca 289 466 374 2). For that, you'd have to spend more money.
At $999, the Arcam FMJ A19 is hard to beat. It's smart, versatile, and solidly built. It combines a sweet treble, clean midrange, and well-defined bass for a sound that's fun, involving, and never fatiguing. It lacks some romance, however. I never got the sense that my speakers were thrilled to be driven by the Arcam, the way I sometimes feel when listening to a good tube amp or high-power solid-state amp, but the A19 itself never seemed challenged by the partnering load. In fact, it allowed me to more easily distinguish and enjoy the inherent character of whatever speaker I used. Toward the end of the review period, I installed DeVore Fidelity's beautiful Gibbon 3 ($2000/pair when last available), the speakers that ignited my passion for high fidelityand was rewarded with a sound that was equal parts warm and detailed, with a remarkably human sense of timing and touch.
If you're looking for a solid-state amplifier that will provide a smoother, more liquid, more dramatic sound, you might consider models from Exposure, LFD, or Rega. Of course, those amps will come with their own compromises and limitations. Where the Arcam distinguishes itself from the rest is in terms of versatility: with its built-in phono stage, high-quality headphone amp, and hubs for digital inputs, the Arcam is prepared to handle all of your music, now and in the future.
Hi-fi isn't as hip as it once was or as hip as it should be, but we can't blame Arcam for that. The British company is one of several intelligent, forward-thinking brands poised to usher in a widespread return to true high-fidelity sound. Their new FMJ A19 integrated amplifier provides a thoughtful combination of convenience and quality that should appeal to both the casual music enthusiast and the hardcore audiophile. If you're looking to spend up to $1500 on a good integrated amplifier, Arcam's FMJ A19 should be at the top of your list.