|| Arcam AVR350 - Hi-Fi Choice
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With Arcam DiVA AVR300 scooping a Gold Medal in our 2005 Awards, the step-up model was always going to have a lot to live up to. Enter the AVR350, looking all but identical on the outside, but boasting a swathe of enhancements within.
Billed by Arcam as its best-ever multichannel receiver, the 350s basic specification looks identical to the AVR300, with a real-world 100 watts across seven channels or 120 watts per channel in stereo.
This power is supported by an enormous toroidal transformer to ensure high-current supply when the going gets tough. It bristles with a full complement of Dolby and DTS decoding for home cinema, too. Build quality remains battleship-grade throughout and you can still assign channels six and seven to bi-amp the main speakers.
However, that is where the similarity to the AVR300 ends. The new kid on the block is actually an additional model in the range, as opposed to an AVR300 replacement. It benefits from key performance developments of the flagship AV9 (at a cool £3,600) and half the parts list from the AVP700 preamp/processor.
This includes Burr-Brown OP2134 op-amps, claimed to improve mid-range clarity, and Stealth Mat technology, previously found in Arcam"s high-end FMJ components.
Stealth Mat is a woven sheet containing randomised metal strands used to encapsulate the digital circuitry. The material was apparently developed for stealth aircraft as a way of reducing radar reflections and is used in the AVR350 to reduce electromagnetic interference and thus decrease background noise. Presumably, you won"t get caught speeding in an AVR350 either.
The back panel now boasts a HD-compatible (100MHz) component video switching with up-conversion from S-Video, and a trio of HDMI ports - two-in, one-out. On the down side, these really are just pass-through HDMI ports as you cannot break out the audio signal nor up-convert any of the other video inputs to HDMI.
More frustrating still, the on-screen display and set-up menus are not output over HDMI at all, meaning you need an additional video connection to your display even if you only use an HDMI DVD player as a source. So much for the HDMI promise of "one digital cable" connectivity!
This cursory nod at HDMI will not best please those looking for a comprehensive cinema-only receiver, but a peek under the hood reveals exactly where the budget has been spent - audiophile-grade components.
Both the digital and analogue boards look like a celebrity gala dinner of high-end electronic devices, including Crystal Semiconductors" flagship DSPs, Wolfson 24-bit/192kHz DACs, metal film resistors, polypropylene and OSCON electrolytic capacitors, through-plated circuit boards and a rather sumptuous Wolfson precision electronic volume control. Clearly the AVR350 has premier sound quality at heart.
Which is just as well as it isn"t going to win any awards for its features and gadgetry count. While every other AV receiver at this price offers auto everything and enough computing power to launch a space shuttle, the AVR350 is stoically manual, logical and simple.
The on-screen menu is straightforward monochrome text, audio tweakery extends to bass and treble adjustment for all channels (bypassed by default, of course) and the remote control is a large, big-button affair with a smooth-textured finish and bright blue backlight.
You also get independent second zone audio and video (analogue only), an AM/FM tuner with RDS and 46 presets and an RS-232 port, should you hanker for a Crestron controller (or similar). And... no, that"s it.
We spent a long time with the older AVR300... mostly avoiding calls from Arcam when it wanted the sample back! It has a beguiling charm as an all-rounder: detailed, expressive and dynamic with both music and movies alike. But for those with a penchant for concert-realistic volumes, it"s a little wanting in sheer grunt.
Oh no, not so the AVR350. Despite the identical power specifications on paper, the new toroidal transformer elevates the Arcam"s presence and dynamic impact to a whole new level. Using the Stereo Direct mode, the aggressive acoustic guitar chords opening the title track to Placebo"s Meds CD launch into the room with breathtaking clarity and scale.
Stone cold, the sound is a little ponderous and heavy, but the magic returns as it fully warms up some 30-45 minutes later. Stereo Direct mode is susceptible too, indicating slow stabilisation on the analogue side, simply rectified by leaving the AVR350 switched on.
The sound is underpinned by positively subterranean bass, with all the tautness and grace of a high-end stereo power amplifier. Partnered with speakers capable of going deep, such as the Tannoy Dimension TD12s used for this test, this unassuming-looking receiver offers low frequency timing, scale and sheer depth that comprehensively eclipses any other AV receiver in its class.
This richness and depth defines the AVR350"s character, mixing the detail and inky background silence of its forebear with oodles more passion and power. With rich musical material, the effect is a huge, sumptuous soundstage and a mellifluous grace that engulfs the room.
It"s a wholly infectious presentation that gets you reaching for track after track, CD after CD, until it"s 2am and you"re duck-walking around the living-room playing air-sax to Cab Calloway"s Minnie the Moocher. Hey, these things happen.
The Arcam takes every track in its stride with superb emotional delivery and inspired resolution at both the top and bottom end of the scale. Being picky, its sound is slightly thicker than ideal in the lower midrange, lacking the separation that makes the rest of the audio-band so appealing.
It simply doesn"t manage the transparency or delicacy of the best stereo pre/power combos - but nor does it carry the stratospheric price tags asssociated with high-end stereo.
The scale and dynamic delivery rivals the larger Japanese multichannel monsters, with none of the aggressive edge that gets you backing off the volume. Dialogue is supremely natural, crafting not only accurate tone and timbre but neatly positioning the voice in its surroundings.
People speaking outside sound like they are outside, those indoors sound like they are indoors, and the Arcam is a master at revealing both film-set and musical echo and ambience - both intentional and otherwise.
Like the music experience, the AVR350 possesses all the right ingredients to get you exploring DVD after DVD, long into the night. It takes a wide genre of film material in its stride, pulling no punches with action flicks as easily as it crafts intense emotion with dramas and weepies.
Its resolution of fine detail and subtle background effects is better than even some very esoteric processing equipment and it is frankly difficult to fault sonically. Okay, it does not have much in the way of techno-features, but it"s fundamentally easy to live with and offers all the essential qualities required to bring large-scale entertainment to your living room.
The AVR350 is a star in every respect. It does two-channel music with a level of quality that would be impressive from a stereo-only amplifier at this sort of price and goes on to add in giant-killing multichannel abilities at the touch of a button.
The frugal gadget count notwithstanding, the AVR350 is not only Arcam"s best-sounding multichannel receiver to date, but the best-sounding multichannel receiver on the market, full stop. Richard Stevenson
Amplituner Arcam AVR350