In recent years the sleepy CD-receiver market has not just regained its footing, it’s even, well, become kind of sexy. Like audio Swiss Army knives, the latest CD-receivers have added cool new tools to support the public’s mass migration to MP3 downloads and personal music players—namely, USB ports and iPod docking stations. No integrated amplifier offers the choice of listening to a clock radio, popping in a CD, or jacking a micro-drive’s worth of music, hitting “Shuffle,” and instantly getting the party started. The Arcam Solo Mini and the April Music Aura Note are two components that do. Yet each exemplifies radically different approaches to attracting buyers’ eyes and ears.
First is the targeted look. The Arcam is all slick, new-millennium smooth, with brushed-aluminum skin, slot-loading CD mechanics, and a front panel that looks as if it were plucked from a BMW’s dashboard. Flush-mounted controls sweep along the top edge of the unit; a complete and concise remote control is ready to beam your every command. Only a pair of input/output mini-jacks and a USB port beneath the large illuminated display mar the otherwise pristine front panel. Offering a cool-running 25Wpc and a high-resolution Wolfson multi-bit DAC from Arcam’s premium DiVA CD73, the Solo Mini is well suited to drive any fine compact loudspeaker of reasonable sensitivity. And at $995 it’s pure Buck Rogers for not a lot of bucks.
The April Music, on the other hand, looks as if it stepped out of a time machine from London’s Carnaby Street circa 1965. There’s a lot of tech here, but the Aura Note is designed for the nostalgic sensualist with a feeling for audio history and at least a little James Bond in his soul. In a nod to the analog turntable it opts for a top-loading CD mechanism with stabilizer clamp and sliding glass dust cover. Robustly built, it’s dressed in deep chrome with black chassis accents and heavy chrome pushbuttons—none of which can be read, thanks to accumulating fingerprints and their mirror-like surface. There’s also a bright red doomsday display right out of Goldfinger. All this grooviness is the work of veteran product designer Kenneth Grange, whose industrial designs have, over half a century, spanned everything from appliances to taxi cabs, and recently B&W’s Signature Diamond Loudspeaker. The Aura Note outputs 50Wpc from its MOSFET output stage. Cirrus Logic provides the digital volume control and DACs. A shame Mr. Grange couldn’t have worked his industrial magic on the junky, soft-button remote control—a little design savvy here would have gone a long way.
Unique to the Aura Note are dual USB inputs (the Arcam has only one), one along the right side next to the standard headphone jack, and a mini-USB input on the back panel for PC connection. These not only permit playback of MP3/WMA files, but the side-panel USB permits copying files (at 128kbps) to a USB micro-drive directly from the CD drive. Playback from my MacBook via the back-panel mini-USB was simple. I simply selected “System Preferences” on the Mac, selected “Sound” and “Output,” and found the Aura Note USB. I could play all my iTunes files with the click of a mouse. And I liked the fact that when I switched between source inputs, the Aura Note only indicated the PC or USB input on the doomsday display when they were active.
For the dedicated iPod-faithful, however, Arcam goes the Aura Note one better with its $285 rDock option. It offers integrated menu remote control of the docked iPod via the front-panel display of the Solo Mini. It effectively navigates and sorts the album, artist, song, and genre criteria normally displayed on any video iPod. The rDock is designed for either the 32-pin iPod classic or the Nano. Its back panel has connections for S-video or composite video, plus a communications output to the RS232 aboard the Mini. It arrives complete with all necessary cabling.
Both of these components do a more than credible job sonically. But there’s a caveat—at these modest power ratings the partnership between amp and speaker is critical; only sensibly designed transducers need apply here. Look for speakers with good sensitivity and higher nominal impedances in the 6-to-8 ohm bracket. (A good guide to such speakers is TAS’ Budget Systems feature in Issue 184 and the Editors’ Choice section in Issue 185.) A couple of places to start, at under-$300/pair, are the PSB Alpha B1 and the Paradigm Atom. Feeling flush? In the $400 range are the Usher S-520 and the Focal 705V. For example, the lighter, cooler balance of the Arcam Solo Mini is a good match with the PSB’s rich, warmer bass. They should balance out each other’s characteristics superbly.
The Arcam Solo Mini offers sound that is easy and highly listenable without over-reaching at the frequency extremes. It’s soft and a bit dry in the treble. But vocals are articulate and strings have some warmth and body. Bass response is not heavy or slow; there’s genuine refinement, although the deepest bass complexities will not be fully resolved. Certainly with 25 watts on tap the Arcam is not going to be an arm-twister. During Orff’s Carmina Burana [Telarc], it loses a bit of ground in immediacy and drags its heels somewhat on transients. On VU-meter-snapping crescendos (and there are quite a few throughout this piece), tympani become a bit more subdued and the chorale a bit cloudy.
At double the output (and price) the Aura Note has more oomph in the bottom end and is more persuasive on big pieces, reproducing a broader soundstage and more of the dynamic swings of the full orchestra during Carmina Burana. Similarly during Billy Joel’s “I’ve Loved These Days”—a song that gradually stacks bass, drums, strings, horns, and finally a small orchestra on top of a basic voice/piano track—the Aura Note maintains a stronger grip on image focus and soundstage width than the Arcam. Reproducing the power and weight of a blazing brass section is not an easy assignment, but the Aura Note showed its class during a unique brass arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition by the Burning River Brass [Dorian]. Image specificity was excellent, and the sonics were equally seasoned between brassy attack and richness of timbre.
Inspired by the lure of MP3 downloads, file sharing, and CD-ripping, the Arcam Solo Mini and the April Music Aura Note are testimonials to the power of adaptation in a changing format environment. Even as they share features, they reflect different sensibilities. But both are representative of a new segment beyond the cliché CD-receiver, and each brings strong audiophile credentials to the table. Match them up with speakers worthy of their potential, and you’ll have a small-room system that will be big on enjoyment for years to come.