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Published February 15, 2002


Arcam DiVA A65 Integrated Amplifier

Arcam has a reputation that extends far beyond its home in the United Kingdom. After all, the company has designed components and systems for audio enthusiasts around the world for over 20 years. The recently introduced DiVA series (Digitally integrated Video and Audio) taps into two of the most prominent trends in present-day audio gear: budget-mindedness and a nod towards home-theater compatibility. Arcam’s $599 A65 occupies the middle ground somewhere between the thousand-button constellation of mass-market A/V receivers and the near-stark minimalism of megabuck dedicated amplifiers.

Prima Donna on a budget?

With the DiVA line of amplifiers Arcam aims to preserve the audiophile qualities of well-engineered amplification with the convenience of multiple-input sources. At heart, the A65 is a 40Wpc (8 ohm) integrated amplifier that employs sophisticated technology to guarantee simplicity of operation.

The "Digitally integrated" part of DiVA refers to Arcam's use of microprocessor-controlled operating systems. The volume control, tone controls, and switching capabilities of the A65 are actually software-driven -- and are quite complex in their implementation. However, none of this makes the A65 difficult to use. Twirl the volume knob or punch the buttons, and the integrated amplifier will act just like any other -- it's only fancy on the inside.

The A65 has construction quality and performance that are generally found only in expensive specialty-audio products. It features extremely high-quality component parts, such as its heavy-duty circuit boards and a sophisticated power supply (the true heart of any amplifier). The Arcam has an integral phono stage onboard in case you still listen to LPs

The A65 is attractive. It is available with either a silver or black face, with silver aluminum casework. The front of the amplifier has the tone controls, along with the push buttons for source, tape monitor, balance, tone-control bypass, second speaker set, and power button, plus a .25" headphone jack. Small green LEDs indicate power status and source selection. However, it is difficult to read the position of the large rotary volume knob, especially from a distance or in a darkened room.

The A65’s rear panel boasts a full complement of RCA input jacks including DVD, VCR, tape loop, CD, aux, tuner, phono, and a preamplifier output, which allows you to feed the preamplifier's output into a separate dedicated amplifier, or to connect powered subwoofers. The ability to add an amplifier (for more power or to biamp loudspeakers) later on is key to Arcam’s upgrade path, should you need it. Two sets of speakers are supported via binding posts with large plastic lugs. Although the lugs are quite long, their semi-star shape can be somewhat tricky to torque for a truly firm lockdown. These are a decided upgrade from those you find on many similarly priced units.

The A65 supports remote control for most of its functions, including source control, and its included remote is designed to manage a tuner and CD source as well. The CD section of the remote, for instance, successfully operates both Arcam's CD72 and the Marantz CC65SE. That said, the Arcam remote is unusually long and, other than the volume pad, its buttons are all identically shaped, which makes it difficult to use, especially in dimly lit rooms.

Earwax need not apply

Tori Amos, it could be said, loves the sound of her own voice -- and thank goodness for that. If she could implant the microphone into her vocal cords, she probably would. And if she did, you wouldn’t miss much on account of the A65, which thrives on clean female vocals.

On both "Pretty Good Year" and "Bells for Her" from Under the Pink [Atlantic 82567-2], Amos ranges from whispers to deep inflections. On these simple, pure passages the A65 threw as solid a center image through my ProAc Response 2S speakers as any amplifier I’ve heard. This was quite impressive.

Amos’ "God" presents more of a challenge, as it is both a congested track and one with far wider dynamics. The A65 doesn’t balk at the challenge. It clearly prefers the lighter edge of the dynamic range, however, tilting "God" more towards heaven than, well, the darker place.

Much the same can be said about pairing the A65 with Fiona Apple’s Tidal [Sony 67439]. While Apple’s smokey and throaty vocals lumber, Amos' voice flits, jabs, and dives. The A65 keeps pace the entire time, once again demonstrating a tendency to put the performer on a pedestal front and center. To say the A65 is very good with female vocals and accurate soundstaging would be an understatement.

The soundstage on both Tidal and Under the Pink is often firmly centered on the vocals, with accompaniment to the left or right. One senses the width of the A65’s soundstage more keenly than its depth, just as it is clearly more forward than it is rear.

Arcam equips the A65 with a "direct" button that bypasses the tone controls. By using a shorter signal path, the direct mode is said to optimize clean output, which is why hi-fi enthusiasts traditionally opt for components without tone controls. The rock band Oasis’ Definitely Maybe [Epic 66431] poses an interesting challenge. The dirty recording quality of Definitely Maybe was rendered so cleanly by the A65 that the album’s crotch-grabbing effect was undiminished. Whether this is a testament to the band’s musicianship or Arcam’s gear is the listener’s choice. Whatever the case, you can expect a clean presentation from the A65 -- unless you're asking it to play pure raunch, in which case, that's exactly what it will deliver.

New Order’s clean synth sound from, say, their The Best of New Order [PolyGram 422 8285802] was well preserved on both this collection and the A65. Although quite dance-friendly, New Order’s essence of the ‘80s is not a subwoofer-hungry style and thus suits the A65 just fine.

Swing low

The deep end of the audio spectrum isn’t only for bass freaks and hip-hop music. Low bass lends weight and presence to compositions that otherwise might sound clean but aloft. Sometimes aloft is good. But Scott Walker did not have lightness of being on the mind when he dreamed up Tilt [Drag City DC134CD]. Walker’s grotesquely compelling refraction of what seems like demented show tunes is plump, and it has a low end that clearly serves to both shadow and haunt the listener. Here the A65 can’t help but seem a little lightheaded, shying away from the depths Walker insists that we go.

Fiona Apple also employs deep rhythmic propulsion in her hits from Tidal, and although these beats are also tamed by the A65, her vocals are so much at the center that you may be too distracted to notice.

The A65’s 40Wpc are in part responsible for its polite edge, especially when driving a more demanding load such as my ProAcs, which admittedly are a heavy load for such a modestly powered integrated amp. Higher-sensitivity speakers -- the sort normally paired with integrated amplifiers -- will undoubtedly let the A65 flex a little more muscle and will probably give the sound more weight. When the amplifier is stressed -- as it was with the Response 2S -- sibilance and edginess arise, though even then only very slightly. Paired with the appropriate speaker, and in an appropriately sized room for its power rating, the amplifier will definitely sing for its supper.

Making nice

Arcam’s A65 wants to make nice music, and indeed it can. "Nice" in this case means at moderate volumes in modestly sized rooms. But paired with the right loudspeakers and used within its limits, it produces accurate, natural, detailed sound that is true to its source. Despite Arcam’s use of the DiVA marketing term, the A65’s nods to video are basic: standard audio inputs labeled for DVD and VCR.

With its video dabbling, tone controls, and bypass switch for the latter, on its face the A65 does seem like an amplifier somewhat in search of an identity. At its heart, however, it clearly possesses strengths -- imaging, especially towards the front and middle of the soundstage, clean details, and lilting vocals. This degree of un-gimmicky, natural sound is unusual for any integrated amplifier, much less one priced so reasonably. Even a few years ago, you would have had to purchase expensive separates to enjoy this degree of tonal purity.

Consider the A65 for one of two reasonable applications. For the two-channel audiophile, the A65 offers flexibility and accuracy -- not to mention high-quality parts and performance that offer more than a taste of what the luxurious specialty brands offer.

As for the audiophile with modest video requirements, the Arcam A65 can bridge the gap, helping to keep his or her setup simple. Ambitious videophiles should remember that the A65 does not support switching video inputs or multichannel surround sound -- but ambitious videophiles would be better served by an A/V receiver.

For those of us who just want the best of both worlds -- the Arcam A65 offers us a chance to have it all.

Price of equipment reviewed

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