The A49 embodies the big amp sound that cruises through large orchestral music with a swagger and authority that only come with deep power reserves—the kind of reserves that physicalize the heavies of wind and brass and fill a room with the trailing resonances of acoustic bass and kettledrum. The A49 wasn’t finicky about the speakers it was driving, either. I had on hand my own ATCs plus the new DALI Rubicon 6 (review to come) and the Kharma Elegance S7-S, one of the most transparent speakers I’ve heard, and one accustomed to sterling amplification (see Rowland and S-7S reviews in this issue). In each case, the A49 produced a smooth, detailed sound with a hint of lower octave warmth and air. Although a little drier in the treble than is my personal preference, it nonetheless preserved much of the air and vocal delicacy of Alison Krauss’ gentle, soothing performance of “Slumber My Darling.”
The A49 can generate a big rocking sound, too, with a heavy dynamic energy that conveys the weight and ambient immersiveness of Dire Straits’ “Telegraph Road,” and the hammering rhythms and ebullience of a live track like Jackson Browne’s “Running On Empty”—a cut wherein, even after all these years, I still look forward to Russ Kunkel’s double-barreled shotgun drum fills as the song hard-brakes to a finish. During Marc Cohn’s rollicking cover of Willie Dixon’s “29 Ways,” with Jerry Marotta’s percussion work leading the charge, the A49 kept toe-tapping rhythmic pace with the best of them.
During The Wasps Overture the A49 reproduces a credible soundstage, not overly expansive laterally, but nicely layered with good preservation of image placement, low-level nuance, and decay all the way from the first violin section downstage to the most delicate triangle upstage. The A49’s reproduction of inner detail was equally good; its ability to hone in on and finely focus low-level vocal cues was duly noted during Jackson Browne’s “Colors Of The Sun.” The clarity with which I could discern Don Henley’s slightly raspy delivery in his back-up harmonies was a tribute to the unit’s sensitivity and lack of background noise.
The A49 revels in reproducing depth and dimensionality. A favorite example is the “roots” chamber trio of Yo Yo Ma, Mark O’Connor, and Edgar Meyer from Appalachian Journey. The amp produced a sense of dimension and image focus that was remarkable for a track that has often sounded smeared and even a bit scrambled through lesser amplification. But the A49 was A-OK, reproducing the sense of depth and individuation so precisely you could take a tape measure to the holographic impression it created.
The A49 slips only slightly in direct comparison to integrated high-fliers like the MBL C51 or the Rowland Continuum S2, both of whom weigh in at roughly double its price. Parenthetically, when I think of the impression that top-rung integrated amplifiers create, I’m reminded of the Tom Petty hit “I Won’t Back Down.” These amps are relentless in their pursuit of tone-color density and dynamics. In this royal company, I felt the A49 was not quite as potent in the lower octaves and could’ve used a shred more control and transparency during the opening to Holly Cole’s “I Can See Clearly.” Also, as I listened to Carole King’s “Home Again,” there was the smallest hint of softer focus. Also, the treble range of solo piano, while very good, had a slightly whitish character that softly veiled the instrument’s upper-octave harmonics.
Not to be forgotten is the sonic noteworthiness of the headphone amp, which uses its own independent amplifier. Arcam hasn’t short-sheeted this ever-more-popular segment a whit. The headphone amp has a very low output impedance (less than 1 ohm) and enough voltage (>4V RMS) to drive even notoriously fussy over-the-ear numbers to a decent level. I spent some time listening through my AKG K501 and Cardas EM5813 and discerned keenly detailed images, an unhyped warmish midrange, and naturalistic transients. The A49 drove these cranky ’phones quite effortlessly—not an easy assignment with the 120-ohm, 94dB-sensitive AKGs.
The Arcam A49 is one rock-solid, fully featured performer, able to do the heavy lifting and satisfyingly drive almost any loudspeaker (including the portable variety), and to perform with a level of musicality that’s certain to please. A classy product from a company that knows that class in and of itself is not strictly reserved for the elite. Highly recommended.
SPECS & PRICING
Power: 200Wpc into 8 ohms
Inputs: Six RCA analog, phono, one balanced
Outputs: One RCA and one balanced pre-out, one record output
Dimensions: 17" x 16.75" x 6.75"
Weight: 43 lbs.