Interview: Arcam and the art of high fidelity audio

posted on Sunday, 21st July 2013 by Steve May

Hi-fi  home cinema  Arcam 

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Legendary British audio company Arcam is tuned into the custom install business. "The time is right for us re-engage with CI," managing director Charlie Brennan tells Inside CI.

We meet as the company begins shipping its latest home cinema receiver, the FMJ AVR750. The model, says Brennan, is not just the best sounding home cinema receiver the brand has ever made, but it's also its finest two-channel amplifier. This convergence is significant, he says. Over the years a schism has opened between multi-channel home cinema advocates and two-channel diehards, but Brennan says their interests need not be mutually exclusive. "Most people don't have separate rooms for AV and hi-fi," he says. While dismissive of a philosophical divide between camps, he admits that "producing AV is a tougher business than stereo. There's more certification, there's more technical risk..." Get it right, though, and the rewards can be high.

"What we've done is task our sales guys to talk to the best guys in CI," says sales manager Scott Campbell. "Up until now, AV in CI has been about control, which is great, but what we want to do is put the magic back into the actual experience of watching TV and listening to music…"

The AVR750 heads up a new range of receivers launching from the company this summer, which also includes the AVR450 and AVR380. "They take over from the AVR600, AVR400 and AVR360," he explains. "What we're looking to do from a product point of view is to bring high performance audio back to CI."

Solving reliability issues
Scott Campbell candidly admits that the brand has suffered with some reliability issues in the past when it comes to AV, and products haven't been developed with installers uppermost in mind. "We had some reliability issues with the AVR600 - and while its performance was stunning, it lacked some of the fundamentals of the CI market." These issues, he says, have now been addressed.

Not that Arcam harbours any plans to get into the control side of the business. "We're not intending to make touchpads or anything like that" he smiles, "but the company has changed. We have effectively shut down our manufacturing in the UK, and that gives us more flexibility getting our designs in place. We can also utilise technology which is typically beyond a company of our size, because we can lock into technology partners that can give us that; these new receivers are coming from a much bigger factory now …"

Partly as a consequence, Arcam says the AVR750 is a remarkable step up from the AVR600. "It has greater dynamics, more power, only in a smaller, more compact box. It also conforms to less than 0.5w standby, the AVR600 would never do that. Had we designed the AVR600 now, with the same size of transformer, it would have taken about 40 seconds to turn on. We've fundamentally reworked the power supply." 

Mastering new media
While the aspirational AVR750 has obvious appeal to the traditional AV integrator, the brand has pushed hard into new media with its critically acclaimed new r-series too. 

According to Campbell, the star of this burgeoning range is the rBlink Bluetooth DAC. "We were the first people to have a standalone DAC in the world, back in 1989 with the Black Box One," he says. "We moved back into DACs three years ago, mostly because there was a need for it with the growing popularity of computer music. Recently our engineers have gone DAC mad - we have small DACs, big DACs, a DAC for all seasons. If you've got a mobile phone, our rBlink is perfect. Bluetooth technology has moved on a lot. When we first heard it two or three years ago, it was pretty nasty. But we've partnered with the guys at CSR, and they've developed BlueCore 7 technology which gives us near CD quality…"

Demonstrations of the AVR750 receiver, using the rBlink to stream music from a smartphone, transpire to be a revelation - it's doubtful many listeners would identify a phone as the source in a blind listening test.

Of course it's not just technical expertise that Arcam injects into its products, there's a healthy dose of passion there too. Deep down, Charlie Brennan and his team are just music geeks. "I genuinely believe that the very best audio video systems can change lives for the better!" enthuses the MD. The trick is to make sure the system is dialled in right. "Setting up an AV system isn't just about plugging in an auto calibration mic," he chides, which is why the brand invests a lot of time teaching dealers how to fine tune components. "Of course, we supply all the tools, the Creston and Control 4 modules, but we primarily want to show dealers how to get the best from our kit. Our training is more about acoustics and tuning."

A new age of performance
Increasingly, Arcam is convinced that consumers are prepared to pay for a higher level of performance. Charlie Brennan suggests that the arrival of 4K Ultra HD TV could well renew enthusiasm of high quality home cinema. "The timing of 4K is fortuitous," he says. "If you look at the first generation of home cinema fans who bought a projector or a Pioneer Kuro plasma TV, then they're probably about ready to upgrade to a 4K display device." But he adds: "While the move toward 4K is important, it's equally important to realise that the latest generation of HDMI devices is much improved too, they're faster to switch, they're more reliable and they drive cables more reliably." The result he says is an altogether more rewarding (and more reliable) musical experience. 

For more on Arcam and its product line-up, visit our partner page here.
Also read:
Arcam FMJ AVR750 AV receiver tuned for movies and music
Audiophile Blue-tooth streaming from Arcam rBlink
Denon Marantz dealer con 2013: photo gallery
Onkyo audio expert home cinema revealed

 

Steve May

Steve is a veteran of the UK consumer electronics industry, having covered it for
various media outlets for more than 20 years.

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