Arcam FMJ A22 integrated amplifier

Have you ever gone into a high-end audio emporium dressed not to the nines, but more like the threes or fours, and been ignored by the shop's staff because they've sized you up as being too low-budget? Even though you were carrying a high-powered, fully equipped, state-of-the-art wallet in that fanny pack, they assumed the opposite and shunned you.

You're not alone. It happens to audio equipment, too. For example, there's the Arcam Alpha product line—fine performers all, but not universally embraced because they don't quite look like true high-end components. That molded-plastic front panel, though visually striking, is problematic because it isn't a thick chunk of extruded aluminum—one of the hallmarks of a truly refined product, don'tcha know.

The folks at Arcam were tired of getting this kind of feedback from their dealers, distributors, and potential and/or lost customers, so they launched the FMJ (which stands for Full Metal Jacket) line, which features upgraded cosmetics. That's right, no more plastic—it's a slab of metal up front. There are currently three products designated "FMJ": the FMJ CD23 CD player, based on the Alpha 9; the FMJ P25 amplifier, based on the Alpha 10P; and the product reviewed here, the FMJ A22 integrated amplifier, based on the Alpha 10 (footnote 1).

Clothes make the man
So that's it? For $400 more than what you'd pay for an Alpha 10, you get a new faceplate?

Not quite. There's a bit more to it, but let's start with the facelift.

The new panel is indeed aluminum, and it's not just for looks—as you'd imagine, it's much stiffer than the plastic one, thereby improving the unit's overall structural integrity—and more rigidity equals better rejection of vibration. The aluminum cover is also twice as thick as the Alpha 10's, and is painted inside and out—both of which help in the ongoing battle against bad vibes.

What else has been updated? The preamp section, specifically the volume control—it's a digital unit, and, according to Arcam, has been much improved. Some power-supply components have been upgraded, but Arcam won't say exactly what. A cagey bunch.

That's the complete list.

Because the FMJ is virtually the spitting image of the Alpha 10 internally, it stands to reason that you can install the Alpha 10's optional phono stage, DAVE, or MARC boards (footnote 2). For this outing, I added only the phono stage, which was delightfully simple to install: Pop the cover, remove the blanking plate covering the holes in the back panel for the jacks, line up the board over the edge connector, and push down. Select moving-magnet or moving-coil via a toggle switch, screw in the screws, and you're ready to rock. It's just like adding RAM to your computer, except easier. Installing DAVE or MARC would appear to be a little more involved, but similarly simple.

Are the cosmetics improved? Well, they certainly look costlier. The design is simple, clean, and elegant. The FMJ says "classic," whereas the Alpha chirps "trendy." I think both look good, but what do I know? I wear jeans to the symphony. The much-discussed front panel is silver, with a lightly textured, satiny finish. A large dial left of center controls volume or balance, depending on which function you've selected. (It controls a bunch of other stuff, too, when you pop in a MARC or DAVE board.)

To the left of the big dial are four control buttons—Mode, Confirm, Record, and Control—the first two of which do nothing unless MARC or DAVE are in the house. The Record button allows you to record one source while listening to another and to do dubbing, while Control toggles the big knob between its volume and balance duties.

To the right of the big dial and high on the face is a display panel. This panel lists the selected source, recording info, and volume/balance settings. The settings are easy to read from across the room, and the segmented volume/balance bar makes returning to a specific volume setting a breeze. (Reviewers like that.) The remote control allows you to turn the display brightness down or completely off.

A row of source-selector buttons lies below the display, which includes two tape or external-processor loops. To the right of these buttons are SP1 and SP2 speaker-selector buttons, a headphone jack, and the power switch. A power LED in the upper right, logo and remote receiver in the upper left, and an Arcam badge in the lower left complete the picture.

On the backside are the expected rows of gold-plated RCA jacks, somewhat tightly spaced (burly RCA plugs may prove a tight fit) and including pre-out and power-in. The two sets of stereo pairs of speaker terminals may look typical (if a bit longer than most), but they're not—at least not here in the US. They're British Federation of Audio (BFA) standard terminals, which means that they don't accept banana plugs—if you want to go that route, you need matching BFA plugs. Furthermore, the metal posts themselves are fairly beefy: Goertz spades wouldn't fit on them, but the Cardas variety would. [Some spade connectors also have shanks large enough to touch the chassis top-plate. Be warned.—Ed.]

There's a gain selector switch, to allow gain matching when used with non-Arcam amplifiers in a multichannel setup. Finally, besides the IEC mains receptacle, there are connections for remote control. These allow you to chain Arcam products together, so that they power up and down by turning on only the main unit.

One unusual touch: the FMJ A22 sports not three, not four, but six squishy feet! At last—a product for which you don't have to add your own compliant supports.

As described above, adding one of the optional boards is rather like upgrading your computer, and looking into the FMJ A22 is somewhat like looking into a computer, minus all the dangly wires: very businesslike, neat, and tidy—and, to these eyes, beautiful. And, just as in a computer, there's a microprocessor inside that supervises amplifier state, switch state, and remote-control functions. For example, it monitors the heatsink temperature and RF content of the speaker outputs. If these data indicate that the amplifier is being overdriven, it will shut down signal to the speakers and report the fault on the display. Now there's a way to use digital in an audio system that everyone can agree with!

Finally, there's the remote. I haven't seen the Alpha remote, but it's got to be the same—it's got that swoopy look of the Alpha line. And it's plastic! An aluminum body would have made the transition from ugly duckling to dazzling swan complete, but I'm sure it would've bumped the price by another $400. (Machining a thick chunk of metal is costly.) Barring that, I'd have voted for removing all the buttons that control Arcam tuners and CD players—very handy if you've got those devices, but useless and confusing if you don't. There are an awful lot of buttons to hunt through when all you want to do is lower the volume (that control is located in the center, by the way). They could offer a trade-in so that those who buy more than one Arcam product can easily upgrade to the multifunction remote (footnote 3). Still, all that said, the remote worked just fine, once I found the one or two buttons I used all the time.

'Tis the season
The FMJ A22 went into the system just before Christmas, so besides the usual treatment from the Sheffield/XLO Test & Burn-in CD, the FMJ was broken-in with holiday tunes. The new century found me staying up way too late on several occasions, as disc led to disc with the FMJ in the lineup. When reviewing equipment, it's probably best to not use your favorite records. What's needed is to listen to a cut, note what's going on, perhaps compare performance with a reference piece of equipment, and move on.

Albums like The Fairfield Four's Standing in the Safety Zone (CD, Warner Bros. 26945-2) make this difficult, if not impossible. I listened to the second track ("My God Called Me This Morning"), then the next track, and so on, until the whole damn album was over before I knew it, leaving me only a few barely legible notes to show for it. Besides the obvious—that the FMJ's MESI (Musical Enjoyment Source Impedance) was low—it must be said that it had a way with rhythm and pace. If you're going to get heads bobbing with just five guys (not four—go figure) singing and clapping, as on "Children Go Where I Send Thee," you'd better get it right—and Lord knows, I just couldn't sit still! The finale of "My God Called Me This Morning" has their voices rising together in volume, pitch, and—amazingly, in this system—image height, as if toward the Almighty. A truly spine-tingling moment.

Footnote 1: The Arcam 9 CD player was reviewed by Kalman Rubinson in January 1999 (Vol.22 No.1, p.141), the Arcam 10 and 10P by Wes Phillips in December 1998 (Vol.21 No.12, p.103).

Footnote 2: DAVE = Digital Audio Video Entertainment: surround sound and video switching ($1599). MARC = Multi-Area Remote Control: control for multi-room systems ($999).

Footnote 3: There's something of a precedent for this: the DAVE board comes with a fuller-function remote.

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