Arcam DiVA A85 integrated amplifier Page 2

Quiet as it's Kept
I could readily appreciate the appeal of the Arcam A85's programming features, though they were largely irrelevant to this two-channel devotee's enjoyment of the sound. Still, I messed around a bit with the basic control functions, accessed by pushing the remote's Select button. The A85's tone controls were subtle and transparent: Bass added a touch of impact to the sound without exciting any ultra-low-bass colorations or upper-bass murk, while Treble contributed extra presence; only in its most cranked position did I perceive an increase in brightness.

The more advanced programming functions involve combinations of the Select and Enter buttons and the Control knob. I found this less than intuitive for several reasons: my native thickness, the complexity of the Arcam remote's layout and tiny, multifunction buttons, and the difficulty I have in discerning close-up details without my glasses, whereas I had to remove them to check out the control panel some 7' away.

As someone who often uses fairly burly modern interconnects, I'd have put a bit more space between the RCA jacks; likewise with the speaker binding posts, which are close enough to each other to discourage users of certain modern speaker cables, or those who might want to hook up two pairs of speakers—though at $1499, neither is likely to be an issue for most consumers. Finally, as reviewers often need to switch among different speaker cables, the FBA-style binding posts proved enormously frustrating for my initial setup with JPS spade adapters on Synergistic Research Designer's Reference speaker cables; while the A85 accepts bare wire, spades, and Deltron connectors, it precludes the use of banana plugs (though Audiophile Systems indicated that their next shipment of A85s will correct this anomaly).

My ergonomic quibbles notwithstanding, I found the A85's performance to be exceptional for its price. Like many high-quality solid-state devices, the A85 took a good 50-100 hours of break-in before it could define the rough outline of its performance capabilities, and another 100 or so hours before suggesting what its peak potential might be. Right out of the box, like the Magnum Dynalab MD 208 receiver I reviewed sometime back (and which also was purely current-driven and capacitorless through the input and output stages), the A85 sounded wan and out of sorts: the bass was relatively weak and a tad amorphous, the top end somewhat reticent, and the upper mids prone to graininess when I opened up the throttle.

However, the transition from the upper bass to the lower midrange was always seductively sweet, open, and uncolored. And once the A85 was well along in the burn-in process, I found it exceptionally musical. Compared to the Musical Fidelity A3, the Arcam's bass was not as weighty but was more tight and focused, with excellent speed and articulation; highs were sweet and smooth, though not quite as detailed.

The A85 was cool, quiet, refined, and rather neutral in character, its overall sonic signature defined by a beguiling midrange clarity. In my initial comparisons of the A85 and the A3, I was struck by how pleasurable and completely different two solid-state amps could sound; while the A85 didn't convey the A3's low-end slam, tube-like midrange glow, or serene sparkle, its transparent midrange depth, flat frequency response, and pinpoint resolution of low-level details made all manner of music go down easy in a very realistic, revealing, nonfatiguing presentation.

This was particularly evident on the recent remastering of Miles Davis' classic slice of early fusion impressionism, "Shhhh/Peaceful," from the 3-CD box The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions (Columbia/Legacy C3K 65362). The Arcam was able to sort out the welter of individual keyboard images, delineating their places on the soundstage and fleshing out the tonal signature and touch of each of the three keyboardists, making the intricacies of their interplay all the more tangible and involving. And again, while I wouldn't characterize the A85 as having great slam, it did convey terrific bounce, body, and drive, and there was enough gain to drive the easy load (89dB into 8 ohms) of the two-way, Meadowlark Shearwater Hot Rods to fill my 12' W by 20' L by 10' H listening room.

Have a bigger room in mind? Considering a more demanding load? Looking for immense bass? Son, you need more amp. Looking for midrange richness and top-end bite? Again, you might want to hear some other rigs. However, while not fat, the A85's bass was focused and uncolored, and what the Arcam might have lacked in sheer weight it more than made up for in speed. There was nothing laggardly about its presentation: rhythm and pacing were exceptional.

Listening to the title track of Sonny Rollins' East Broadway Rundown (Impulse! IMPD-161), I was impressed by how firm a hold the A85 maintained on Jimmy Garrison's bass; even if it wasn't quite broiled in butter, it wasn't lost in the overtone ether of Elvin Jones' shimmering ride accents or overpowered by the magisterial weight and complexity of Rollins' tenor. Images were vividly rendered, though the overall presentation was a bit laid-back in comparison to my tubed Mesa Tigris' luscious, illuminated midrange and upper bass, or to the kind of spectral liquidity I've experienced with the YBA Integré and currently enjoy with Musical Fidelity's Nu-Vista hybrid pre/power separates.

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