July 15, 2009

Arcam FMJ A18 Integrated Amplifier

Arcam, one of the most respected names in British hi-fi, has lately been making big changes to their product lineup. The DiVA series has been retired, replaced by the widely successful FMJ components. The good news for audiophiles is that the FMJ series promises not only a higher level of build quality, but truer high-end sound as well, even at the budget end of the spectrum. So we begin our exploration of Arcam’s new offerings with the entry-level FMJ A18 integrated amplifier ($1099 USD).

After its sleek, slim design, the second thing I noticed as I lifted the A18 out of its box was its weight. Sixteen pounds might not sound like much, but considering its modest size (17"W x 3.3"H x 13.1"D), it begins to hint at the quality that lies within. My eyes were drawn to the unique location and design of the hefty heatsinks, visible through perfectly lined-up vents from the top cowl through to the base plate. This characteristic, shared with the company’s A28 and A38 integrated amplifiers, offers excellent dissipation of heat while giving a glimpse of what’s inside.

When I removed the top plate, it was clear that attention to detail and quality had been high priorities in the design and assembly of the FMJ A18. From the oversized heatsinks to the massive toroidal transformer, the A18 is built to last and designed to impress. The intelligently designed power supply employs star earthing, a technique said to minimize grounding noise. Dual-layer PCBs are used throughout, with extremely short signal paths for maximum performance. All internal components are mounted on a chassis of damped Sound Dead Steel, which reportedly eliminates mechanical influences on the electronics.

The A18’s exterior is as tastefully arranged as its interior. Up front, the obvious focal point is the oversized volume knob; to its right is a large, nine-digit vacuum-florescent display (VFD) display that can be dimmed or turned off, the latter feature particularly handy if the A18 is used as part of a home-theater system. At the far left are buttons for Bass, Treble, Balance, Mute, Display, and Processor Mode, which is what Arcam calls its home-theater bypass. Below the display are buttons for all the usual source options: Phono, Aux, CD, Tuner, Sat, DVD, PVR, and AV (for use with Processor Mode). At the far right are a handy 3.5mm line-level input for portable music players, a headphone output, and the Power button, which is the only way to power the A18 on or off (the remote control includes no standby mode). All of this is wrapped in an exceedingly tasteful matte-finish aluminum faceplate 5mm thick and available in silver or black.

Around back is a well-laid-out panel housing seven line-level inputs with gold-plated RCA jacks. Among these is a moving-magnet phono input complete with its own grounding post. There are also sets of input/output RCAs for PVR and AV, as well as a preamp output for use with an additional power amp(s), such as Arcam’s own FMJ P38. Finally, there’s a switch for selecting the voltage input (120V/240V), a high-quality pair of speaker binding posts that accept every kind of cable terminator I can think of, and a grounded power inlet for the removable AC cable. Ruling all user controls is a high-quality logic controller that not only makes using and tweaking the FMJ A18 a snap, but does so in a silent and confident manner.

System integration

My only source component for this review was a Denon DVD-5910CI DVD/SACD player. All analog connections to and from the Arcam FMJ A18 were made via River Cable Audiflex Gold analog cables. To use the Arcam’s Processor Mode, I connected the 50Wpc FMJ A18 to a Rotel RSX-1058 A/V receiver, which outputs 75Wpc into 8 ohms. The Denon and Rotel were fed power by a Rotel RLC-1040 power conditioner. River Cable Flexygy 8 biwire speaker cables connected my B&W 603 S3 main speakers; a pair of B&W 601 S3 surrounds, a B&W LCR60 center, and a B&W ASW 650 subwoofer rounded out the system, all connected with River Cable Flexygy 6 speaker cables.


From the moment I integrated the little FMJ A18 into my system, it proved that there was nothing little about its sound. I began my listening by taking advantage of Processor Mode, Arcam’s version of a home-theater bypass. Other than connecting the A18 to the Rotel receiver, the only other adjustment needed was to match the receiver’s volume level to the Arcam’s. I set the receiver to a volume level I’d normally use for movies, then, using an SPL meter, adjusted the A18’s volume to match it. (If you don’t have an SPL meter, you can use your ears.) Once set, this volume level is not only remembered by the Arcam when in Processor Mode, it is also fully controlled via the receiver, which now treats the Arcam as a slave unit. After completing these steps, I inserted Iron Man in my DVD player and was on my way.

I like my movies loud, and was curious to hear how well the 50Wpc Arcam would hold its own against the 50%-more-powerful Rotel RSX-1058. So up went the volume on the Rotel and on went the hunt for huge dynamic explosions and high-impact action sequences. To my surprise, several action sequences later, the only difference I’d perceived was a slight lack of bottom-end impact, perhaps due to that missing 25Wpc. Otherwise, the Arcam had integrated itself seamlessly into my system; never once did I need to adjust its volume. Voices were very clearly reproduced when output through the mains, as were sound effects that moved from one side of the soundstage to the other. The opposite also held true when I listened to quiet, subtler soundtrack passages that sometimes disappear with amplifiers of less power.

I then moved on to music. One of my favorite tracks on Katie Melua’s Piece by Piece (CD, Dramatico 86762) is her cover of an old Cure song, "Just like Heaven," in which she slows the pace and presents the song with a bit of a mellow jazz flavor. It opens with an acoustic guitar that had a nice feeling of air around it through the Arcam. The A18 did an excellent job of presenting the subtle details of the reverb coming from behind the guitar.

In this recording, Melua’s voice is dead center, but the singer sounds as if she’s standing on a stage about 2’ higher than and 5’ behind her band. This effect was less pronounced with the FMJ A18 as compared to the Rotel RSX-1058. The Arcam’s imaging was clear and precise, the instruments right where they’re supposed to be. Its bass was quite pleasing, filling the room with deep, rich notes that I’m used to hearing only from my Rotel RMB-1095. However, all that bass needs to be controlled, and for the most part the FMJ A18 did an excellent job. Only when pushed hard did the Arcam start to break a sweat and sound a little too rich in the midbass, losing some of the excellent control it exerted at regular listening levels.

Next up was Loreena McKennitt’s "Night Ride Across the Caucasus," from her The Book of Secrets (CD, Quinlan Road/Warner Bros. 46719-2). I wanted to hear how well the Arcam revealed the multiple layers and instruments of this complex recording. Fifteen instruments are listed for this track, and often all of them are being played simultaneously, displaying their individual characters of attack and decay. I could hear every one of them in individual detail, and could tell when notes began and ended without having to second-guess what I was hearing. Again, the soloist’s voice was dead center, as were the mandola and bass. And this time there was much better bass control, rather than the slight midbass bloom I’d heard with the Katie Melua track. Stringed instruments, particular the rebec, were well portrayed at the far left and right of the soundstage.

It was difficult to compare the Rotel and Arcam with a track in which there’s so much going on. In the end, however, I decided that the Rotel RSX-1058 had the more analytical approach, clearly revealing the various layers of this recording so that I could hear even the lowest levels of detail, and delivering smooth, solid bass. When the Arcam peeled back the layers, it did so with a bit more warmth and a little less alacrity. This wasn’t a bad thing at all -- switching from the Rotel to the Arcam’s slightly less forward sound was more like going from a solid-state to a tube amp than going from an aggressive to a laid-back sound. The Arcam FMJ A18 may work better for those who have slightly brighter-sounding speakers.

Before moving on to SACDs, I listened to "Hotel California," from the Eagles’ 1994 live album, Hell Freezes Over (CD, Geffen 24725). The Arcam presented a wide, full soundstage with great depth and resolution -- as did the Rotel. The acoustic guitar solo at stage right that begins this track sounded slightly more forward than the second, strummed acoustic guitar that fills center stage, delivering a very open and convincing three-dimensional effect. Finally, a firmly planted third acoustic guitar, presented solely at stage right, also sounded slightly forward, but on a par with its stage-left counterpart. Both the left and right guitars sounded as if they had just a hint more air around them through the Rotel. The track’s foundation is provided by the kick drum, and the Arcam did a superb job of delivering just the right amounts of slam and drama. Throughout this review I was repeatedly impressed with the strength and extension of the FMJ A18’s bass.

To end my listening sessions, I cued up "Turn Me On," from the SACD version of Nora Jones’s Come Away With Me (Blue Note 541747-2). The midbass warmth I’d sensed before from the Arcam now contributed to making the music sound more compelling and authentic. As the upper midband and treble began to come alive through the FMJ A18, subtle elements in Jones’s voice that I’d not heard before began to present themselves. The presence and decay of the guitar in "The Long Day Is Over" were incredibly fluid. Once again, the Rotel, too, offered excellent performance, emphasizing Jones’s voice with crystalline clarity, but I found its treble just a hint too bright, and the music seemed to lose some of its fluidity. The Arcam, on the other hand, presented degrees of focus and air that I could hear and feel. This increased resolution of detail was most noticeable when I paid close attention to the guitarists strumming away in the background.

Final thoughts

One thing that the Arcam FMJ A18 made abundantly clear in these listening sessions is that it’s an overachiever. Built on a rock-solid platform, it’s brilliantly engineered, and performed admirably against an A/V receiver offering half again as much power. If you’re in the market for a high-quality integrated amplifier that delivers terrific sound and will continue to impress you long after purchase, the Arcam FMJ A18 deserves an audition. I highly recommend it.

. . . Aron Garrecht

Price of equipment reviewed