Arcam FMJ A22 integrated amplifier Page 2

"Blue Pepper (Far East of the Blues)," on Duke Ellington's The Far East Suite (CD, Bluebird/RCA 66551-2), is a strange and powerful cut that serves to showcase one of the FMJ's best traits: pinpoint lateral image placement, and over a very wide soundstage at that. The brass section is stage left, the woodwinds stage right, and, in the center, only Rufus Jones's drums, John Lamb's bass, and The Duke himself. When I say "left" and "right," I mean extreme left/right—outside the outside edges of the speakers. Even so, with this extreme perspective, it was dead simple to "see" the soloists, even when the rest of the section was blowing its collective top.

"Blue Pepper" also showed what I thought was the FMJ's lone weakness—it was a little bass-shy. Listening at polite levels (ie, a friend and I could talk over the music without having to raise our voices), I had to strain to pick John Lamb's bass out of the mix, which didn't seem right. Was this just the Fletcher-Munson effect (footnote 4), or was the FMJ A22 showing signs of weakness? I tried the same cut with the JoLida SJ 502A integrated and the Celeste 4070se (both driven with the FMJ's preamp section), level-matched at the speaker terminals, and indeed, the bass was noticeably more noticeable. I tried the FMJ at moderate and loud levels; there, the bass was fuller, but still a tad polite. Odd, I thought, for a 100Wpc solid-state amp.

Days passed. As I listened to more material, I'd notice this bass lightness. And then...I'd notice that I wasn't noticing it. I redid the comparison, again with "Blue Pepper," and added "Train Song," from Holly Cole's Temptation (CD, Metro Blue CDP 31683 2), which prominently features a plucked upright bass. Sure enough, there was bass aplenty! This was a break-in effect I'd never heard before, but there's a first time for everything. Furthermore, it must be said that this transformation took place after the FMJ had been in the system for almost a month. Memo to self: Don't scrimp on break-in time.

Trying a track with prodigious bass—Tricky's "Broken Homes," from Angels with Dirty Faces (CD, Island 314 524 520-2)—the synthesized bass line was powerful and tight. The JoLida seemed to have wider bass—by that I mean that it was looser, less well-defined, and in that sense bigger but not better. And again, at this volume, the ability to present all the details—guest singer PJ Harvey's close-miked musings, Tricky's own whispered accompaniment, the chorus, the sonic seasonings sprinkled about—without hardening or flattening the presentation was a thing of beauty.

There's more to life than bass, of course—there's midrange and treble. Here the FMJ was admirably neutral: nothing euphonic, but neither was it harsh or hard. Listening to Elvis Costello warble his way through "Hidden Charms," from Kojak Variety (CD, Warner Bros. 45903-2), I was struck by the naturalness of his ragged-but-right voice. And on the Bruno Walter/CBS Symphony recording of Brahms' Double Concerto (CD, CBS Masterworks MK 42024), the dialogue between the violin and cello soloists revealed a sweet, pure tone for each. Likewise, the string section didn't sound hard or edgy, but smooth and, well, natural. The Brahms concerto also showed that the FMJ could produce good, if not jaw-dropping, depth. The sense of the hall was reasonably wellpreserved—not the best I've heard, but better than most.

That said, I got a remarkable presentation of the whole spatial gestalt, front/back and lateral, from a somewhat unexpected place: the Grateful Dead's "Brokedown Palace," from American Beauty (LP, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 1-1017). I know this album well, and while I think of it as a good-sounding record, I hadn't thought of it as three-dee holographic. But that song, in this setup, featured Howard Wales' piano somewhat back'n'center, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir harmonizing midstage, and their guitars (or Jerry's, at least) to the far left, beyond the speaker and way out front! I practically had to turn my head to listen to it. Very strange, and very cool.

I spent a bit of time using the preamp section to drive the SimAudio Celeste 4070se, and can report that, as a preamplifier, the FMJ A22 seemed to offer no sonic signature of its own—just the way I like it. Perhaps Arcam should consider producing an FMJ preamp. I didn't try the amplifier section by itself, because using the power-in jacks requires an unspecified modification inside the unit. I figure most folks will use it as-is anyway; those who want only an amplifier can get the FMJ P25.

The phono board appeared somewhat late in the process, so I didn't get as much time with it as I'd have liked. I used its moving-coil setting, as moving-magnet didn't offer enough gain with the Lyra Lydian Beta. It's been years since I've used a solid-state phono section, and I've got to say that they do have one advantage over tubes: they're quiet. Only when I turned the FMJ A22 all the way up could I hear just a touch of circuit noise, similar in level and tone to what I'd hear from a very quiet line-level tube preamp.

As for the sound of the phono section, I'd say it was very good, offering performance on a par with that of the FMJ's line stage. But try as I might, I could detect no transistory nastiness or loss of analog warmth. The phono section, too, got me into several of those "play the whole LP" experiences: the imaging wonderland of American Beauty was one, and another was the Silos' eponymous The Silos (LP, RCA 2051-1-R). On "Picture of Helen," Walter Salas-Humara's and Bob Rupe's voices combined in a kind of a harmony that seemed to produce a third voice that gave me goosebumps—ah, the FMJ passed the goosebump test! Later, on "I'm Over You," the snare drum's snap was crisp but not brittle, and placed just so in the sonic picture.

Did I mention that the phono-stage add-on costs only $100? Even if you don't have a turntable, if you get an FMJ A22 or an Alpha 10, you ought to add the phono board anyway. Who knows, maybe you'll run across a turntable at a garage sale; if you do, you'll be ready.

Little surprise here: The fully metal-jacketed Arcam FMJ 22A is virtually DNA-identical to the Arcam Alpha 10 integrated, which won high praise from Wes Phillips and a Class B rating in "Recommended Components"—so it would be a miracle if the FMJ wasn't a solid performer. And it is. Of course, it's just as versatile and expandable as its plainer, older brother—you can add a two-channel FMJ P25 amp to biamp, or the DAVE board and a three-channel FMJ P25 to do surround sound, or opt for multi-room control with the MARC add-on. And don't forget that bargain phono board!

Not having an Alpha 10 to compare it with, I can't say if the FMJ A22 is a better performer, or worse, or the same. My guess is that they're pretty close; if the FMJ's updates give it an edge, it's probably a small one.

The question for you, the prospective FMJ A22/Alpha 10 buyer, is this: Do you want to shell out an extra $400 for better cosmetics and possibly improved sound, or should you save some dough, maybe give up a tad of sonic bliss, and stare at plastic?

It's a tough call—and a very individual one. I don't think you'd go wrong with either.

Footnote 4: Fletcher and Munson performed studies in the 1930s to measure human hearing sensitivity at various frequencies. They found that our hearing is very sensitive at low levels between 3 and 4kHz, but that it falls off on either side of that band. Thus, at low volume, low- and high-frequency are heard as lower in volume than frequencies in the 3-4kHz band at the same measured level.
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