Arcam Alpha 10 integrated amplifier & Alpha 10P power amplifier

Consider the lowly spork, that modern marvel of versatility: half spoon, half fork. In theory, you should be able to eat just about anything short of a flank steak with it. But the sad fact is, whether you're eating soup or salad, you might as well try to shovel it in using a tongue depressor. The damn thing's so versatile, it almost doesn't work at all. There's a lot to be said for specialization.

On the other hand, it's not a whole lot of fun trying to eat consommé with a fork, no matter how specialized it is. In the final analysis, nothing beats having the right tool for the job.

Arcam has eschewed the "one tool for all uses" philosophy in designing their Alpha 10 integrated amp and Alpha 10P amplifier. They've instead adopted an approach similar to that often used in toolmaking, where specialized bits inserted into a common handle make the tool suitable for a wide range of tasks without compromising its integrity.

The Alpha 10's modular architecture allows it to accept specialized boards in order to change it—from a conventional stereo amplifier accepting line-level inputs—to an amp with a MM/MC phono section, a two-channel AV receiver with Dolby AC-3 processing (DTS too, probably), or the control center for a four-zone, multiroom music system. At the moment, only the phono section ($100) is available, but the other boards should be out by the end of the year.

The Alpha 10P is also modular. Stock, it's a 100Wpc stereo power amplifier designed to gain-match any Alpha integrated amp, but it has an empty space inside that can house an additional 100W amplification channel. You can use it, in two-channel mode, in conjunction with the integrated to biamp a stereo pair of loudspeakers, or you can add the third channel and combine it with an Alpha 10/processor-board combo as a five-channel AV receiver. Or you can put additional two-channel 10Ps in distant rooms as part of a multiroom system.

Got it? You decide how much of the system you need and buy only the parts that interest you. Versatile and specialized.

Is it progress if a cannibal uses knife and fork?—Stanislaw Lec
Arcam is nearing its 25th anniversary in the audio business and is one of the largest audio manufacturers in the UK—perhaps the only one that competes with the giant mainstream manufacturers with any degree of success. Two of the ten best-selling amplifiers in the UK are made by Arcam, as well as three of the ten best-selling CD players. That's particularly impressive if you consider that Arcam's products, while not expensive, cost more than most of the competition on those lists.

And don't assume that the British buying public is simply paying heed to some highly developed sense of loyalty to British marques—not that that would be a bad thing. Arcam's popularity there is based on the fact that the company offers products that have desirable qualities: flexibility, and a generally high level of sound quality. All Arcam integrateds have preamp output jacks, and Arcam manufactures matching two-channel power amps that are gain-matched across the range, so that consumers can biamplify their loudspeakers with a matching amp (or even a more powerful one) as their systems and budgets allow. To date, Arcam claims, about 30% of their customers have availed themselves of this simple upgrade.

The Alpha 10 carries this common-sense approach to upgradeability to the next level.

His fine wit makes such a wound the knife is lost in it.—Percy Bysshe Shelley
The Alpha 10 is a slick-looking integrated. It sports a molded faceplate that has a scalloped cutout for its large volume/balance rotary shaft controller (a "control" pushbutton toggles between the two functions), and a large streamlined alphanumeric readout capable of displaying two lines of up to 20 characters of text. Inputs are chosen by way of a series of pushbuttons or via the remote control. Two pairs of speakers can be switched in or out from front-panel pushbuttons. There's a headphone jack as well.

The rear panel features blanking-plate-covered cutouts for the optional phono board as well as the AV or multiroom boards. There are also standard "press-on" RCA inputs for five line-level sources (although, if the phono board is added, only four line-level sources are accommodated—Aux then becomes a line-level output carrying the equalized phono signal), two tape loops, and inputs for "power-in" (handy for daisy-chaining multiple 10Ps) and pre-out. There is a gain selector switch, which can lower the amp's gain setting to match those of certain other AV products. There are two sets of binding posts—not conventional five-ways, which they resemble, but posts designed by Arcam to conform to the new European requirements. (In other words, they don't accept standard bananas, but require a sleeve that fits around an interior post. Arcam can supply these, if you need them—I fitted some onto the silver wires feeding my B&W Silver Signatures and they sounded pretty good.) Two remote-control jacks and a standard IEC mains jack complete the rear-panel array.

Both Alpha 10s sport squishy vibration-damping feet and heavy-duty steel chassis, and are clad in stamped aluminum enclosures that are solidly braced internally. They sport humongous 800VA toroidal transformers, through-hole-plated PCBs, massive internal heatsinking, and specially spec'd components throughout—these babies are well built, beyond what you'd expect at their prices.

The Alpha 10P amplifier's faceplate is a plainer version of the Alpha 10 integrated, sporting only a power switch, a headphone jack (a nice touch, especially if you're using the system's multiroom capabilities), and the two speaker switches. The rear panel has blanking-plate-filled cutouts for power-in and pre-out for the third channel, as well as covered cutouts for an extra channel's worth of speaker posts. Also resident on the rear panel are power-in/pre-out jacks for both channels, two sets of speaker connecting posts, remote-control looping jacks, a gain-selector switch, an IEC mains jack, and a mono-link, which allows the user to convert the 10P into two mono amps driven from a single input.

A frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.—William S. Burroughs
The Alpha 10 is extremely user-friendly. The only thing about it that could prove even the slightest bit confusing is that you must remember to switch on a pair of speakers when you first turn the amp on, or you'll spend some time wondering why you aren't hearing anything (as I did, of course). But being able to switch both pairs of speaker outputs off does have its uses, especially in a system designed to control multiple rooms; after feeling initially sheepish, I gave it no more thought.

The display clearly indicates what source is playing, as well as what source is being recorded, and shows a simple line-graph indicating volume level. It can be dimmed or even switched off, and the amp does sound slightly better with the display dark—very slightly, I admit, but better. Each source selection position also has a marking LED that indicates the primary source.

The remote control also has rudimentary controls for Arcam's CD players. I found the remote crowded, with too many buttons all the same size. This meant that, if I had to do anything other than control volume, I had to read the tiny print under each button. Not a big deal, but somewhat vexing when I was searching quickly for the mute. If you buy the AV module, you'll get a larger, more powerful remote, but the one that comes stock with the two-channel version is certainly adequate.

The Alpha 10 was a great-sounding performer, too. With 100Wpc, it sounded punchy and clean, but never harsh or antiseptic. I enjoyed listening to music for hours on end—and that is what this is all about, after all.

"Topsy," from Dick Hyman's From the Age of Swing (Reference Recordings RR-59CD), illustrated the 10's music-friendly nature. First and foremost, the track swings—drummer Butch Miles, bassist Milt Hinton, and guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli set up such a rhythmic groove as to coax a corpse into a time-step. The Alpha 10 captured all that metric ebb and flow without smearing an ictus. Dick Hyman's piano drives the piece forward, and here the Alpha 10 got the momentum without surrendering any of that little bobble where Hyman gathers his thoughts before bringing the band back home—on some systems, it sounds as though he's lost his way, but the Alpha 10 kept things right on track.

The instruments sounded naturally full-bodied and fleshed out, and instrumentalists retained their individuality. The big Arcam didn't blur detail or nuance. It wasn't quite as extended at the upper end as most (far more costly) separates, but it didn't sound closed-down either.

If you want a more open sound, you've got to add an Alpha 10P and biamplify the speakers. Then you get more of everything: more bottom-end authority, of course, but more air and delicacy and tonal rightness as well. Funny how that works.

With the 10P, the sound seemed bigger, even at the same volume. Instruments were more distinct from one another, and there was more air surrounding them. And individual notes seemed to stop and start with more momentum. Huh? Well, they did. The beginnings of notes had more impact, and when they ended, they ended—they didn't just peter out. The 10P put some oomph into it.

But no more than seemed right. The sound wasn't hyped-up or frantic, it just sounded even more natural than with the single amp. More natural is a good thing.

Nor was this was true only on music with powerful instruments or big dynamic swings—it was true across the board. Take Anonymous 4's newest disc, A Lammas Ladymass (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907222), for instance—you can't really say that four female voices recorded in a large, reverberant space offer much dynamic range. Even so, the addition of the extra amplification made a huge difference. The individual voices were still blended into tight harmonies, but each had more body to it. And the massed voices seemed to float more effortlessly in the air, which itself sounded part of a bigger, more individual space. To coin a phrase, it just sounded better. Way better.

I also used the 10P as a conventional stereo amplifier, driving it with my McCormack Micro Integrated Drive. It's a fine power amp on its own, a good choice for anyone looking for a 100W amp for around $1000. It offers good bottom-end control and has a lovely, warm tonal character, but with decent high-end sparkle. It may be a little softish on top—slightly more so with the McCormack than as part of the 10 integrated—but this is not always a bad thing with affordable hi-fi. I liked it.

If you listen to headphones a lot, the Alpha 10 and 10P offer headphone jacks that are run off the amplifiers' circuitry, not powered by op-amps. The sound is clean and powerful and generally unfatiguing. Another nice touch.

Spoon!—The Tick
The Arcam Alpha 10 modular integrated amplifier and Alpha 10P power amplifier are flexible, reliable, and impressive. No one product can be all things in all situations, but Arcam has come up with a strategy for incorporating versatility into the products in a way that definitely does not compromise quality.

Taken on its own, the Alpha 10 is a superb integrated amp that sounds great and is easy to use. Its 100Wpc output should be able to drive practically any speaker it could be paired with, and it has one of the better-sounding headphone outputs I've heard. It is much more expensive than either the Creek 4330R or the Rega Brio, but it offers better than twice the output power. The Alpha 10 has a much more forceful presentation than the Rega, although the Creek doesn't cede much power or slam to it with most speakers, despite the power differences. For audiophiles on a tight budget, the Creek's still hard to beat.

But when you consider that the Alpha 10 also offers an affordable and astoundingly good-sounding upgrade path through the addition of the Alpha 10P power amplifier, it's easy to see where the Alpha 10 might be just the answer to an audiophile's prayers. Buy now, upgrade later, enjoy the while—what could be better?

How about an amp that could also serve as the foundation for a high-quality multiroom system or a Dolby Digital home theater system? With the Alpha 10 you get all that, and you don't even have to decide which way to go in advance. It'll be ready when you are. That's the modern marvel of versatility.

US distributor: Audiophile Systems, Ltd.
8709 Castle Park Drive
Indianapolis, IN 46256
(317) 849-7103