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 Arcam AVR350 - Home Theater & Sound

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Home Theater & Sound

Arcam AVR 350

Arcam DiVA AVR350
Audio/Video Receiver

I like audio products that are designed with understated elegance -- that are not only easy on the eyes, but that operate intuitively, with a minimum number of buttons. Sadly, most mass-produced products eschew understated elegance in order to stand out on a sales floor with flashy lights and buttons that not only offer questionable value but that overpopulate their front panels and give the illusion of offering more for the customer’s dollar. It takes an educated eye to recognize the long-term satisfaction that can be enjoyed with designs of understated elegance, which often reveal an equally high quality under their skins.

Rolls-Royce, rich chocolate, James Bond, and electronics manufacturer Arcam are all based in the United Kingdom, a country that I consider an authority on understated elegance. So it’s not surprising to find that quality in the Cambridge-based firm’s Digitally integrated Video and Audio (DiVA) line. Each DiVA component is a balance of form and function, with an absence of superficial features. Where Arcam’s FMJ line is a price-no-object assault on high-end audio, in the DiVA series they try to offer high-value performance for an affordable price. The flagship DiVA home-theater receiver is the 7.1-channel AVR350 ($2499). According to Arcam, the AVR350 improves on the already impressive AVR300 with better electronic and mechanical noise suppression and two-way HDMI switching.

Easy on the eyes

A sturdy double-box container and high-density foam ensure that the DiVA AVR350’s beautiful face isn’t damaged during shipping. The sample I received was finished in an elegant silver, but an even classier black finish is available. The front panel’s sexy combination of small round buttons and gently curved metalwork offers just enough of an organic touch to separate the AVR350’s looks from those of a nondescript metal box. The AVR350’s well-assembled chassis boasts excellent fit’n’finish and substantial weight.

Like all of Arcam’s products, the 100Wpc AVR350 is designed in-house. This gives Arcam complete control over parts choices and circuit topology. A large toroidal transformer sits at the center of the AVR350’s stout power supply, while Arcam’s Mask of Silence technology uses various passive devices and a Stealth Mat, designed for the UK military, to greatly prevent electronic noise from corrupting the audio signals inside the tightly packed receiver. Senior Arcam engineer Andy Moore thinks the extra effort has made a difference, and takes great pride in the AVR350’s sound. Moore states, "We spent many hours late into the night voicing this product, and I’m still amused at just how sonically great a multichannel A/V amplifier can be. . . . It’s all about engineering out the compromises that generally come with this type of product."

The AVR350’s external parts and build quality also suggest a product designed to deliver many years of trouble-free service. The large five-way binding posts accept everything from bare speaker wire to banana plugs, and the well-spaced, gold-plated RCA connectors are logically arranged. The one detail that raised an eyebrow was a switch for setting speaker impedance. Switches of this nature, whether mechanical or software, have a notorious reputation. A common trick used in low-cost designs unable to safely drive low impedances is to add a resistor in the circuit between an amplifier’s output and the loudspeaker. The resistor increases resistance so that the amplifier "sees" a higher impedance and therefore prevents the output from overloading.

Arcam’s switch doesn’t do this. Rather, it selects between two different windings of the main transformer, which optimizes the power supply so that the output runs cool. According to Moore, "the toroid within the AVR350 has a multi-tapped secondary winding, both sets of windings are connected to the PSU board, and we have an extremely high-quality, high-current relay that is tasked with switching the secondary as necessary. The in-line resistance as seen by the power stages will be less than 0.001 of an ohm -- as you’ll probably agree, completely irrelevant. The switch on the rear panel is carrying a control signal and thus avoids routing sensitive power-supply or signal cables around the amplifier."

According to Moore, this approach preserves dynamics and tonality. And why subject the output to the heat produced with lower impedances if the speakers aren’t 4-ohm designs? My Axiom speaker system presented a pretty easy load to the Arcam, so I heard no difference between the positions of the impedance switch.

Easy on the head

When it comes to setting up the DiVA AVR350, Arcam has done their homework. Hookup was very easy, as was navigating the various setup menus. A comprehensive and logically organized user manual, intuitive user interface, and excellent onscreen display allowed me to adjust speaker delay, input-device setup, and speaker gain, all within a half hour. Two extremely flexible features of the AVR350 include its ability to reassign the rear left and right channels to 7.1 surround, a second zone, or biamping. The EQ of each channel is also adjustable. All of this is accessible via software switches in the AVR350’s menu system. I especially appreciated having buttons for mute and dimming the front-panel display.

On the video side, Arcam has included switching between two HDMI devices, as well as analog video transcoding from composite or S-video to component or RGB output. Like most of its competitors, the AVR350 can’t transcode analog formats to HDMI or HD formats.

Soft blue backlighting and a shell of soft-textured plastic give the AVR350’s CR80 remote control a high-quality look and feel. It also nicely fits the hand. Usability was another matter. The volume and channel buttons are nice and large, but I wasn’t impressed by the clutches of small buttons at the remote’s bottom and top. The bottom buttons are small and, depending on the AVR350’s mode, access multiple functions (e.g., setup and trim), but even my slender fingers had a hard time targeting individual buttons. Space between certain pairs of buttons was another issue. For instance, I invariably hit Guide when I wanted Volume Down, and Zoom/Test when I wanted to adjust Angle/Display. Programming the CR80 proved easy, although having to enter "9-7-5" before it would learn a device seemed a bit clunky.

Easy on the ears

I’ve heard enough thin-sounding home-theater gear to appreciate the DiVA AVR350’s rich, involving sound. Dialogue in the superbly entertaining The Matador exhibited an ease and fluidity I rarely hear from home-theater equipment. Vocals were warm and clear without sounding too smooth or recessed. Details such as the background noise of a bar in chapter 8, or the subtle ambient cues prefacing a car explosion in chapter 3, resided on a sonic plane just behind the main action without being upstaged by it. Like well-recorded music, voices have harmonic textures that can add to the overall involvement of films. With the Arcam, I found myself enjoying speech patterns and glottal, plosive, and labial sounds during the three-way dialogue in the Wrights’ living room. The AVR350 handled such delicate flourishes with transparency against a faint euphonic tone.

The Arcam delivered wide dynamic swings without sounding compressed or restrained. The exploding Porsche and tree that crashes into the Wrights’ kitchen during a moment of marital bliss in The Matador (chapter 4) scared the bejesus out of my wife and me. The AVR350 was able to convey startling transients, from the snap of gunshots to the sharp slam of a door to the crisp sound of cornstalks bending in the wind (Signs, chapter 9). This commanding grip on transients contributed to an engrossing surround-sound experience. Foley effects didn’t sound flat, but stood out from the 5.1 soundstage with three-dimensional acuity.

Amplifier clipping effectively smears details together while causing bass to go flabby. But not only did the AVR350’s soundstage remain cohesive, its clarity, impact, and refinement held together beyond what my ears could take. Increasing the volume did little to drain the Arcam’s seemingly bottomless reserves.

Two-channel recordings had the same combination of transparency and beef. The Pet Shop Boys’ absolutely fabulous new album, Fundamental [Rhino 79525], sounded fantastic. Two of the best cuts, the epic contradiction "Minimal" and the bittersweet "Numb," have dense arrangements of synthesizers and orchestral accompaniment that can easily collapse into wads of indecipherable sound. The AVR350 let me keep track of every electronic melody and bass line, which allowed me to enjoy the finer qualities of this classic duo’s compositions.

Orchestrations, as of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite on Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra’s well-recorded Showcase [CD, Reference RR-907CD], showed off the AVR350’s considerable muscle and sonic grace. Cymbals shimmered without grit or edginess, while crescendos touched the ceiling.

One trait of the AVR350 that I picked up on immediately was its accomplished pace, rhythm, and timing. I ended up spending an entire evening listening to Paul Simon’s well-recorded You’re the One [Warner Bros. 47844] and Surprise [Warner Bros. 49982]. Crisp guitar, incisive percussion, and sonic trappings from none other than Brian Eno seemed to highlight the AVR350’s most defining attributes, producing foot-tapping enjoyment at its best.

Understated elegance squared

When I recently simplified my home system, I chose NAD components for their value and performance. NAD’s six-channel, 100W T763 receiver ($1399), one channel shy and about half the price of the AVR350, has proven itself an extremely well-thought-out and musically enjoyable product. Although the NAD has its own flavor of understated elegance, it isn’t as sexy or as well-finished as the Arcam. The T763’s plastic face and military-gray chassis feel a bit cheap when compared to the AVR350’s more spit-polished finish and slightly more top-shelf parts.

But both products are well made and have the weight to back it up. Both use large toroidal transformers sponsoring power supplies capable of driving most speakers to very high levels. Like the Arcam, the NAD amplifier is specified to deliver its rated power of 100W continuously into all channels simultaneously. The NAD uses a microprocessor in place of a switch to monitor and optimize its power into a variety of speaker loads.

Of course, as long as the resulting sound pleases the ear, what happens under the metal covers of these receivers is inconsequential, and this is where the Arcam and NAD diverged. The NAD’s sound is slightly leaner and less euphonic than the Arcam’s. High frequencies, such as those from cymbals and guitars, sounded a tad dry through the NAD, while the Arcam had a slight edge in absolute resolution. The NAD’s bass matched the Arcam’s in punch and authority, but not in low-frequency definition. When I pushed the volume, the NAD sounded a bit strained and unfocused compared to the Arcam’s unflappable clarity.

The T763’s HTR 2 remote control is very well designed. The Arcam’s CR80 felt better in the hand but could use bigger buttons and a more intuitive programming scheme. Both machines have excellent menus and well-laid-out connections that make setup a breeze. And the Arcam trumped the NAD with a front-panel Mute button and a dimmable display.

Understated elegance = long-term satisfaction

Less the CR80 remote, I so appreciated the Arcam DiVA AVR350’s design and sound quality that, each day, I found myself taking a moment or two to just look at it and run my hand across its face and controls. That may sound weird, but it’s no different from running a hand across a well-finished piece of furniture or a marble fireplace mantle. As with other examples of well-executed craftsmanship, it’s the Arcam’s understated elegance, coupled with its excellent performance, that prompts such adoration and long-term satisfaction.

Amplituner Arcam AVR350

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