REVIEW: ARCAM A49 – A TRANSATLANTIC TRIUMPH
Designed in the UK, made in the USA, Arcam’s A49 amplifier is a thrilling-sounding exercise in effortless power
OK, I admit it: I haven’t been the greatest fan of some recent Arcam amplifiers. Rather as I find some Cyrus designs overbright and forward-sounding, so the amps from the near neighbour in Cambridgeshire have been – to these ears anyway – the polar opposite. In other words, very smooth and rich, but they’ve never quite got me interested in what they were playing.
The A49, the company’s £3750 flagship, is different. Very different, in fact – to the extent that, though I’m working on it for a review in a forthcoming issue of Gramophone, I’ve also been playing some music through it beyond the classical catalogue, and having so much fun I thought I’d share.
Like the entire current Arcam range, the A49 is designed and engineered in England – still in Waterbeach, in an office complex just across the road from the site of the old factory – but made elsewhere. And to thwart those already warming up their ‘made in China/cheap labour/low quality/there goes another great British name’ prejudices, it’s built in the USA: in Rochester, New York, up on the shores of Lake Ontario, and almost as close to the HQ of Arcam parent company JAM Industries just outside Montreal as it is to the city that gives the state its name.
So that’s where the A49 is built, along with models including the C49 preamplifier and P49 stereo power amp: where it was designed is on the work-bench of Arcam co-founder John Dawson, who started the company back in 1976 as Amplification & Recording Cambridge – or A&R (Cambridge) – with its first product, the A60 amplifier.
The company may have changed a lot since then, having developed products such as an early high-end DAB radio tuner, an add-on box for the then-new NICAM TV sound system and even a cassette deck, but John is still to be found at his bench in the large, open-plan work area at the Waterbeach offices.
Just to emphasise the point, the A49’s main circuitboard, tucked away where most users will never see it, carries his signature.
Unbox the amplifier, all 19.7kg of it, and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d got one of the company’s AV receivers by mistake: as well as being heavy, this is a big amp, standing some 17cm tall, and having what is sometimes described as reassuring solidity. A simple green-on-black display tells you all you need to know about what the amp is doing, there’s a large central volume control, and beyond that you’re left with a small armada of tiny black buttons to access inputs and other settings.
Input provision is all analogue, of course, but flexible: there are six line inputs plus a moving magnet phono stage (which can be reassigned as a further line-in if you don’t have a turntable), while the single pair of balanced XLR inputs can be assigned to any of the input selector buttons.
Output is provided on two sets of substantial speaker terminals (with Speaker 1/2 switching even available from the remote control) as well as RCA phono and XLR preouts to enable the amp to be connected to a power amp such as the P49, for example to biamp suitable speakers.
It may look like an AV receiver, but this is an amp with simplicity at its heart, which means no digital inputs, Bluetooth or the like – though you can add those using one of the company’s rSeries units, for which the A49 has a DC power output. You can, however, designate any of the inputs for use with the left/right pre-out of an AV processor or receiver, and the fixed level in this ‘processor mode’ is adjustable to simplify balancing up all the channels in a surround system.
Part of the reason for that is found in the huge output possible from this amplifier: it delivers 200W into 8ohms, and will go on to 400W as impedance falls. And yet this is achieved while retaining all the quality associated with less powerful amps, thank to the A49’s use of Class G technology: basically, it uses a two-stage power delivery, with the first 50W being in Class A, and then a secondary supply kicking in when serious juice is required. It’s all about retaining the purity of a non-switching design for the delicate stuff, while keeping in hand more than sufficient power to drive even the most recalcitrant speakers.
More than just going loud
That’s not just about the ability to go loud, though the A49 will emphatically do that – you don’t want to go connecting your CD player, for example, to whichever input you’ve selected for processor mode! Instead, it gives the amplifier remarkable dynamic ability to go with its big, assured sound, meaning that music is always presented in dramatic style, but with a consummate sense of ease. Big and fairly brutal it may look in its matt black finish, but the Arcam never gives any hint that it’s having to work hard to deliver the music.
Deliver music is certainly what it does, and in serious style: leafing through the music collection I stumbled across Squeeze’s Cool for Cats, which I don’t think I’ve ever heard slammed out of the speakers with such impact, complete with growling bass, sharp focus on Jools Holland’s piano, every word crystal clear and real drive.
That one track showed almost all I needed to know about the sound of this big Arcam: it can really rock, has excellent intelligibility, and packs the soundstage with detail while still underpinning everything with that big, fast, magnificent bass.
It almost doesn’t matter what you play, from vintage jazz to the modern close-up-recorded kind, and from the likes of Paul Simon all the way through to really thrashy rock: the Arcam just makes the most of it, allowing you to hear elements in a mix you’d missed before, and constantly tempting you to crank up the volume just a bit more a) because you’re having so much fun and b) simply because it can.
What’s more, it does the smooth and gentle thing very, very well indeed, being able to play small-group jazz or singer/songwriters with remarkable delicacy and finesse, and bringing out all the ambience of simply-recorded live or studio set. However, in an instant it can go from a whisper to a roar – or perhaps a deep-chested wide-open-mouthed bellow – when the music demands.
So that’s an amplifier warm and sweet enough to suit even the plinkiest (and indeed plonkiest) jazz recording, yet at the same time able to deliver the wall-shaking ear-splitting levels some seem to enjoy, complete with thunderous bass, and all the while remaining entirely clean-sounding and hinting that it still has plenty more to give.
Meet the new Arcam; emphatically not the same as the old Arcam.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got the whole of an extensive collection of classical music to start re-exploring…
Integrated amplifier | £3750
Power output 200Wpc into 8ohms, 400W max into 4ohms
Inputs MM phono, six line ins, one assignable balanced input
Outputs Two pairs of speakers, tape out, preouts on phonos and XLRs, headphones (3.5mm socket), plus power output for rSeries components and 12V trigger outs
AV bypass Yes
Tone controls No
Remote control Yes
Dimensions (WxHxD) 43.2×17.1×42.5cm