It’s been a dream. To me, England was always the wiser, learned elder to its younger, more headstrong American cousin. I was raised on Ringo Starr’s rendition of Thomas the Tank Engine, discovered my sense of humor with the aid of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and honed it with Jeremy Clarkson’s Top Gear -- the world’s most popular factual television program. Offered the opportunity to visit the offices of Arcam in Cambridge, UK, words like epic and brilliant came to mind. Why, yes -- yes, I could fit in a journey across the pond, my very first out of North America. (You’ll find a more complete account of my visit to Arcam on our sister site SoundStage! Global in the coming weeks.)
Arcam’s roots are in Cambridge University’s Tape Recording Society, a student-run organization. Founder John Dawson was, in 1975, a graduate of and working on his PhD at the hallowed institution, which was founded in 1209. In his spare time, Dawson had begun making stereo amplifiers for friends and other enthusiasts. Volume grew, a PhD program was left, and a company formed: A&R Cambridge Ltd., which eventually became Arcam. More than 35 years later, Arcam is thriving, with products ranging in price from $250 to over $6000.
Arcam’s offices, on the outskirts of Cambridge -- a quaint, deeply pretty town steeped in history -- are unassuming. Almost 40 years on, Dawson sat huddled over a circuit board with a soldering iron, palpably eager to talk about Arcam’s history, as well as his substantial involvement in Arcam’s new A19 integrated amplifier ($999 USD; review to come in November), and their flagship digital-to-analog converter, the D33 ($3299), which I reviewed last year on our sister site SoundStage! Hi-Fi. Also in the office was Charlie Brennan, Arcam’s managing director. Brennan, Irish brogue aside, is a more metered sort, and talked at length with me about Arcam’s values. Despite having some gifted engineers on the roster, including founder and president John Dawson, there is no desire at Arcam to start making more expensive gear. In fact, they’re trying to make less expensive gear, so that more people can discover what hi-fi is all about.
Arcam’s inexpensive rSeries components are not only within financial reach of modestly funded audiophiles, they’re damned good. The rBlink Bluetooth DAC ($249) allows any smartphone or tablet to stream music -- in CD quality, mind you -- through its Burr-Brown PCM5102 digital-to-analog converter chip. More significant is its coaxial output, which allows the rBlink to pass along its digital signal, unmolested, to another DAC. In turn, then, any DAC can have wireless connectivity. Clever, that. More impressive is Arcam’s recently released irDAC, which has a TI PCM1796 DAC chip, a full suite of digital inputs, and harnesses much of the design methodology used in the significantly more expensive D33 DAC. The irDAC’s sound was exceptional for its price of $549, and a reminder of how far digital products have come in the past few years.
And did you know that Arcam’s flagship A/V receiver, the AVR750 ($6500), has a class-G amplifier? I did not. It’s clever, providing the first 22 of its 100Wpc output (all seven channels driven) in what is functionally class-A, but with the thermal efficiency of class-D. The sound was impressive, and not just for an AVR.
After leaving Arcam, I toured the city of Cambridge, and particularly Cambridge University. Stunning. The manicured grounds, the River Cam winding its way around the town, the architecture, the ornate décor and expansive design of King’s College Chapel (where I was asked to “kindly remove” my hat) . . . it’s like Hogwarts, but real, and made me feel uncomfortably inadequate about my education. As I took it all in, I often caught myself smiling. What a magnificent place.
A train returned me to London, where I navigated the London Underground with little competence, finally resorting to taking a London Black Cab to land me at my hotel without getting -- shocker here -- saturated with rain. Having sorted out my accommodations, I rushed out to catch a pint and a burger with Daniel Hassany, founder and proprietor of Dynamique Audio, whose cables I’ve reviewed here and on our sister site SoundStage! Ultra. We covered a lot of ground in the next several hours, much of it having little to do with audio. What struck me most about Hassany was his self-effacing demeanor. Dynamique has been around only a few years, but already they offer a full range of speaker, interconnect, and power cables. Despite obviously wanting to succeed, Hassany deeply respects some of his competitors, and retained his equanimity as I pushed him to opine about other, less impressive ones.
Hassany told me that, like Arcam, Dynamique Audio began when friends responded positively to his cable creations. Now, just a few years later, his company is making steady international headway. I bought my review samples of his silver-plated copper/silver hybrid speaker cables, the Caparos, and have no interest in owning anything else. He sources his own materials, designs his own stuff, and has all but his least-expensive lines made by hand. His flagship speaker cables contain more pure silver than any other cable I’m aware of, take two to three days to build because of the design’s complexity, yet cost significantly less than any of his competitors’ flagship products. How do they sound? Neutral. None of this contoured-frequency-response business that other industry heavies tend to utilize. Sparkling highs and thunderous lows . . . from a speaker cable? Well, yes, some -- that’s how they’ve been designed. Like tenderizer for our source material, we hear accentuations where none previously existed. Daniel Hassany eschews this, and treads a path of greater sonic integrity.
Both Arcam and Dynamique Audio are predicated on using a high level of engineering ability to design products that reproduce recordings with a high level of sound quality -- and not necessarily for a high price. In my meetings with John Dawson and Daniel Hassany, I got the distinct impression that each would rather find another line of work than compromise his principles. It’s a comfort to know that.
And a lot more comforting than my almost-eight-hour flight back to Philadelphia, home of the cheesesteak and losing sports franchises. Oh, bother. My audio pilgrimage, while brief, was illuminating, and further evidence that the correlation of price and performance can be pretty tenuous.
. . . Hans Wetzel