Arcam FMJ A19 and airDAC

Dynamic Duo

Equipment report
Categories:
Integrated amplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters
|
Products:
Arcam airDAC,
Arcam FMJ A19
Arcam FMJ A19 and airDAC

Though integrated amplifiers have been around a long time, they are often mixed bags. Some models try to do too many things at once, losing focus on what we listen for first—sound quality. Whether you are looking to purchase your first real hi-fi component or an affordable option for a second system, the Arcam FMJ A19 integrated amplifier delivers real high-end sound quality, without the high-end price.

Functionality and Sound
Though the A19’s design is understated—downright minimalist, actually—don’t let its lackluster exterior fool you. The A19 borrows heavily from its bigger and more expensive siblings, with features like a toroidal transformer for its 50W Class AB output stage and the same volume control as top-tier FMJ models. With seven single-ended inputs, the A19 makes plenty of room for those with lots of sources—enough for two turntables, two DACs, a tuner, and your dad’s old tape deck. Even if you don’t need all of them today, those extra inputs may come in handy down the road. Because of the resurgence in vinyl, Arcam has upgraded the A19’s built-in phonostage to better reflect current listening preferences. The remote is a basic design, with the ability to control every feature except for a few user preferences that are adjusted via several button-combinations on the front panel. Despite some quirks that I will discuss later, overall this integrated offers everything you need for a mere $999.

Now for the real meat—sound quality. Using components that I am very familiar with, I tried to determine exactly what the A19 does or does not bring to the listening room. After level-matching the A19, I was actually shocked to hear significant differences between the Arcam and several other integrateds of similar specifications. The A19 is incredibly quiet compared to many components. Even when I turned the volume all the way up there was no audible hiss coming from the speakers; so you don’t need to worry about distortion and noise with this amp. I hate to be the one who brings up THD, because as we all know this is by no means a measure of sound quality, but the A19 has a harmonic distortion rating of 0.003% at eighty-percent power— and that’s low.

Listening to Ludovico Einaudi’s “Experience” from In a Time Lapse (CD and vinyl), I heard a smooth high end that never sounded overly bright or grainy. The A19 was convincingly realistic on Einaudi’s piano, and when the violins—arguably the most difficult instrument to accurately reproduce—joined in with their unusually sonorous solemnity, I felt like I was listening to a genuine high-fidelity product (even though Arcam doesn’t like to be associated with a “hi-fi” sound). So far so good.

I played the track several more times, then shifted my attention to the soundstage, which was on-par with what you would expect in this price range: generally wide, sufficiently detailed, with overall tight imaging (though somewhat misplaced locations compared to ultra-high-end systems). Soundstage depth was less deep compared to those more expensive systems, but nevertheless was plenty deep to satisfy all but the most demanding. What makes In a Time Lapse great for soundstage testing is that it was recorded in an Italian monastery with sound quality in mind, so it’s very easy to tell when something is amiss. On “Experience,” a harp placed behind and to the left of the piano is gently plucked amid the increasingly energetic violins. The Arcam A19 had sufficient resolving capabilities to allow the distant harp to be heard, though don’t expect extreme soundstage depth with this—or any—integrated in this price range.

Maybe I’m being a little too tough on the A19’s lack of soundstage depth. After all, imaging was fairly tight and was for the most part reasonably well executed. No “I’m there!” moments occurred, but nothing was egregiously wrong— complex soundstages are a difficult thing to resolve on such a tight budget. Then another thing announced itself: the slightly tubby bass. Low-end damping ability was a little lacking with the 4-ohm Endeavor E3 floorstanders. Yet, when compared to similarly priced integrateds, low-end handling was equal to or slightly better, so no worries here.

I don’t want you to give you the wrong impression of the A19 by pointing out these things—they are meant to give you a realistic idea of what a $999 integrated amp can accomplish. With regard to sound quality, $999 buys you a musical, involving presentation with above-price-point performance in imaging. At 50W into 8 ohms and 90W into 4 ohms, the Arcam has plenty of power to rock out with most dynamic speakers, and its build-quality is solid. Really, it feels like a tank.

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