- Created on Friday, 01 November 2013 00:00
- Written by Hans Wetzel
Arcam’s FMJ A19 integrated amplifier doesn’t grab the eye as does, say, a Marantz or a Peachtree Audio product. Its sedate appearance has all the outward appeal of a Jane Austen novel, and its $999 USD asking price doesn’t suggest that it’s anything special. But this slender, unobtrusive box houses a fair bit of quality connectivity, and was largely designed by Arcam’s founder and president, John Dawson. The University of Cambridge graduate started the company in the mid-1970s, while attending a PhD program at his illustrious alma mater, and today, more than 35 years on, is producing some of his finest work. The FMJ A19 is a particular source of pride for Dawson -- without batting an eye, he told me that the amp performs far beyond its price point, and would likely compare favorably to significantly more expensive gear -- a tall claim from someone whom I know to be otherwise soft-spoken. Fortunately, I had a surfeit of high-quality equipment on hand to test just such an assertion.
A modern, retro integrated amplifier
When a company like Arcam sells an entry-level, $999 integrated amplifier that it says produces only 50Wpc, the reality is that it will have enough power to push most loudspeakers into uncomfortably loud territory. Power ratings, it turns out, aren’t everything. If you’ve seen amplifiers with power meters on the front -- think McIntosh Labs -- you’ve probably noticed that the meters rarely swung past 1 or 2W. In fact, even during raucous swings of classical music at high listening levels, it’s unlikely that an amp will be asked to supply much more than 10W. Obviously, a speaker’s efficiency and impedance will dictate how hard an amplifier has to work; my point is that the 50W the Arcam outputs into 8 ohms (or 90W into 4 ohms) will likely be more than sufficient for the great majority of listeners.
The FMJ A19 measures 17”W x 3.4”H x 10.8”D and weighs 18.5 pounds. Apropos its Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) moniker, the case is of dark gray steel with a thick aluminum faceplate, and the green display is easily read.
The A19 doesn’t fit neatly into the marketplace of inexpensive integrated amps. Many manufacturers now include digital inputs in their integrateds, and accordingly also offer a built-in digital-to-analog converter, à la Peachtree Audio’s decco65 ($999). NuForce has gone full digital with their DDA-100 ($549), which has no analog inputs whatsoever. Perhaps the FMJ A19’s closest competitor is NAD’s C 326BEE ($549), which looks nearly identical and is similarly equipped. Looks, however, can be deceiving.
In addition to a phono input, the A19’s rear panel boasts no fewer than six single-ended analog inputs, plus tape and preamplifier outputs. The single pair of plastic binding posts accepts spades or banana plugs, and are fairly sturdy. They’re very close together, however, and the posts for the right speaker are right next to the inputs, which limited the number of ways I could orient my spade-terminated speaker cables.
Don’t let its somewhat dour appearance fool you -- the A19 means serious business. Inside, it makes use of a pair of Texas Instruments LM3886T class-AB chip-based amplifiers. Its maximum claimed distortion at its rated power is 0.5% across the audioband of 20Hz-20kHz, or roughly half what you might expect from many other manufacturers who offer integrated amps at or near this price. In fact, the A19’s amplifier section bears a strong resemblance to those of its bigger, more powerful FMJ brothers, the A28 and A38 integrateds.
But as accomplished as the A19 is for $999, Arcam seems to have taken even greater pride in its flexibility. Given the upswing in the popularity of vinyl over the past decade, Arcam has included a high-quality, moving-magnet phono stage. This uses a correctly implemented RIAA curve using WIMA capacitors in the filter stages. A typical 5mV sensitivity and an input impedance of 47k ohms/100pF make it an easy match for a wide range of cartridges. And the phono stage can be switched off, via the front panel, to allow a line-level source to be connected via the phono inputs on the rear panel.
An equal amount of attention was lavished on the built-in headphone amplifier, whose input jack is mounted at the right of the A19’s front panel. Arcam claims that it’s a far cry from the afterthought circuits found in many competing products. The discrete circuit, comprising a pair of high-quality op-amps, has an output impedance of less than 1 ohm and a recommended load range of 16 ohms to 4k ohms; even low-efficiency headphones are compatible.
Of special interest on the A19’s rear panel is its 6V power output in stereo miniplug style. Connected to a dedicated, secondary power supply that’s wholly independent of the Arcam’s primary supply, this diminutive integrated can power two of Arcam’s r-series products. For the purposes of this review, Arcam also sent me an rLink digital-to-analog converter ($249), which includes coaxial and optical digital inputs and single-ended outputs. The upside is that if you want to add digital inputs to the A19 when using Arcam’s own digital products, you need one fewer power cord. It occurred to me that, instead of offering this functionality, perhaps Arcam should have simply built the circuitry from the rLink I was sent into the A19 itself. Arcam rubbished this in short order: “An amplifier with a built-in DAC is obsolete the day it ships!” This way, A19 owners will be able to select the digital functionality they need when they need it, and the A19 will “still be making great sounds in a decade.”
Though it’s hardly a sexy feature, the A19’s volume control deserves attention. The volume knob is made of aluminum and has a nice feel. With the same Burr-Brown PGA2311 found in Arcam’s flagship AV888 AV processor, it boasts channel tracking accurate to +/-0.1dB. But it’s just a volume control -- why is that important? I’ve played with several reasonably priced integrated amplifiers and preamplifiers over the past year or two, and apparently, an accurate volume control is hard to come by. The control on Peachtree Audio’s NovaPre preamplifier-DAC ($999) had crazy-high gain -- music went from silent to loud with a single push of the remote control’s Volume button; a second push sent it from loud to nearly deafening. Nor did it track perfectly between channels. Rogue Audio’s Sphinx tubed/solid-state integrated amplifier ($1399 including optional remote control) had a more competent volume control, but when using the remote, I could never find quite the level I wanted. I would have thought this was basic stuff, but apparently not. In either event, the A19’s volume control worked perfectly.
The A19’s plastic remote control focuses on function rather than form; while this little plastic guy doesn’t look particularly nice, it’s fully featured, including control of the Arcam’s display and channel balance.
The danger of having heard equipment that approaches the state of the art is that one runs the risk of pigeonholing products according to their price and/or appearance. Seeing as Arcam had also sent along their little rLink DAC, I used the two components straight away, harnessing the FMJ A19’s independent, secondary 6V power supply. I plugged my MacBook Pro into the rLink’s optical input, hit Play, and it sounded . . . fine. In many respects, the sound was similar to that of my reference Hegel H300 integrated amplifier-DAC ($5500): linear, clean, unobtrusive. But it had noticeably less transparency, quietness, and resolving ability.
I needed to find the A19’s upper limits, and the rLink, while a good value, was in no danger of helping me do so. I borrowed back the Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 USB DAC ($1195) that I’d sold to my brother a few months ago -- thanks, bud -- and tried it in lieu of the rLink ($249). I also traded my reference KEF R900 loudspeakers ($4999.98/pair) for a set of Vivid Audio Oval V1.5s ($7500/pair). So . . . yeah: more than $8500 worth of gear connected to a $999 integrated. Likely to happen in real life? No. But don’t knock me for trying. To find a product’s performance ceiling, you have to see how it plays with really high-performance gear.
On went “I Love You Always Forever,” from Donna Lewis’s Now in a Minute (16-bit/44.1kHz AIFF, Atlantic). If you can withhold judgment on my atrocious taste in music, I can tell you that the combination was very good. It’s a crap recording, but the addition of the Benchmark opened up the A19’s latent potential with ease. Lewis’s meek, airy singing sounded noticeably more composed, detailed, and delineated with the Benchmark in play than the one-fifth-as-expensive rLink. This track alone was enough to make me recognize that the Arcam needs a high-quality source in order to dance.
Next up was “Losing Hope,” from Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Fairytales (16/44.1 ALAC, Universal Distribution). Tonally, it’s a pretty dense recording, and the A19 was pretty revealing of it all. A hearty kick drum opens the track, and it resonated enough to highlight the contours of the recording space. Not only did the diminutive A19 deliver a big, broad soundstage, it did so with alluring smoothness. Some electronics manufacturers tend to voice their designs with an arbitrary shot of warmth through the midrange. Ultimately, though, it’s a cheap trick that winds up being too kind to your music collection. At the other extreme, many inexpensive class-D designs seem to suck some midrange vibrancy out of recordings -- combined with class-D’s etched upper register, this makes for a really lively sound. The Arcam sailed comfortably between these sonic reefs, and without significant treble edge. Its smoothness wasn’t heavy-handed, but just enough that early digital recordings sounded bearable, while outright detail wasn’t “cleanly” scrubbed away.
Rogue Audio’s Sphinx hybrid integrated amplifier reproduced the Jack Johnson track with a little more zest in the highs, and a pronounced but, ultimately, seriously engaging midrange. It didn’t produce any more detail than the A19, and obviously wasn’t as neutral. But in short listening sessions, it was the more vibrant sounding of these two reasonably priced integrateds. Over the long haul, the Arcam’s more relaxed sound is what I’d want to hear when I sink into my favorite chair to relax with some tunes. The Rogue, though equally compelling in different ways, demanded more of my attention.
In terms of control, the A19 commanded my relatively easy-to-drive KEFs without complaint, and mustered both the watts and the amperes necessary to overcome, equally well, the more challenging load of the two-way Vivid Oval V1.5s. Provided you’re not asking the Arcam to play exceptionally loud in a big room, it should be enough.
The Arcam didn’t exactly hamstring the Benchmark-Vivid combo. It tackled the Allegro of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.3, K.216, with soloist Marianne Thorsen accompanied by Oyvind Gimse and the Trondheim Soloists, surprisingly well (2L-TWBAS 2012 Sampler;24/88.2 FLAC, SoundStageRecordings.com). Resolution was abundant, though the finest details were obscured, the reach of the soundstage abbreviated, and transparency not quite what I’m used to from my reference Hegel H300 -- which costs 5.5 times the Arcam’s price. Which is to say that the heights reached by the little FMJ A19 were almost an affront to such epicurean amps. While it didn’t equal the Hegel’s overall performance, the A19 offered a pretty high percentage of it. That’s remarkable.
I’m not a vinyl guy, so I was unable to verify that the phono section even worked, let alone its quality -- but I did briefly test the headphone amp. A 3.5mm jack is located on the front panel, next to a second 3.5mm jack for the alternate analog input. With the Benchmark also having a built-in headphone amp, I did a brief A/B comparison of a signal run through only the Benchmark vs. being run through the Benchmark, into the Arcam integrated, and out of the Arcam’s headphone jack. The differences were quickly apparent. The Benchmark casts a wide-open sound that’s a little edgy on top. The Arcam was smoother but noticeably more veiled. The discrete headphone amp in the Benchmark is superior, as it should be at the price, but the Arcam’s is no slouch, and its inclusion will be an attractive feature for many buyers.
For its staid, unassuming appearance and modest price, Arcam’s FMJ A19 is a mature, highly accomplished integrated amplifier. Everything it does it does well, and I know of no other company that makes a product that can compete in overall sound quality and functionality for $999. Class-D alternatives from NuForce and Peachtree are interesting propositions and potentially more attractive to look at, and the Rogue Audio Sphinx brought an enchanting midrange to the table. But in each of those comparisons, the Arcam FMJ A19 sounded more neutral and cultured. Partner it with a high-quality source and speakers and you’ll be duly rewarded. If I had $1000 to spend on an integrated amplifier, this is what I would buy.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers -- KEF R900, Sonus Faber Olympica I, Vivid Audio Oval V1.5
- Headphones -- KEF M200, Shure SE530
- Integrated amplifiers -- Hegel Music Systems H300, Rogue Audio Sphinx
- Sources -- Apple MacBook Pro running Songbird and iTunes, Arcam rLink, Hegel Music Systems H300
- Speaker cables -- Dynamique Audio Caparo, Nordost Frey 2
- Interconnects -- Dynamique Audio Shadow, Nordost Frey 2
- USB cables -- DH Labs Silversonic, Nordost Blue Heaven LS
- Power cables -- Nordost Frey 2
Arcam FMJ A19 Integrated Amplifier
Price: $999 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
The West Wing, Stirling House
Pembroke Avenue, Waterbeach
Cambridge, England CB25 9QE
Phone: (44) 1223-203-200
North American distributor:
American Audio & Video
4325 Executive Drive, Suite 300
Southaven, MS 38672
Phone: (866) 916-4667
Fax: (877) 457-2588