HOME THEATER & SOUND -- www.hometheatersound.com



April
2001

Reviewed by
Roger Kanno
REVIEWERS' CHOICE 2001


Arcam
AVR100 Audio/Video
Receiver

Features SnapShot!

Description

Price: $1199 USD

Dimensions: 17"W x 6"H x 13.5"D
Weight: 26 pounds

Warranty: Five years parts and labor

Features

  • Dolby Digital, DTS 5.1, Dolby Pro Logic
  • RDS tuner

Features (continued)
  • Six-channel inputs and outputs
  • 550VA toroidal transformer
  • Removable IEC power cord
  • Analog path for two-channel sources
  • Two coaxial and one TosLink pre-assigned digital inputs
  • Three S-video inputs and four composite video inputs
  • Two audio/video tape loops (one S-Video/composite and one composite only)
  • One audio-only tape loop and one audio-only input

Arcam has long been known for its excellent-sounding, high-value integrated amplifiers. The company's first surround products, the Xeta series of surround integrated amplifiers, were excellent; however, they required additional channels of amplification that significantly increased a system’s price. Arcam’s first digital surround product, the Alpha 10 with DAVE upgrades, is also a wonderful-sounding unit, but when combined with the required power amplifier, the price is a surprisingly expensive $4899 USD.

Thus for many years it appeared as though Arcam had turned its back on their legions of thrifty fans who eagerly purchased their integrated amplifiers in the $400 to $1000 range but who could not afford or choose not to purchase the company's much more expensive surround components. The years passed and Arcam upgraded the cosmetics of their Alpha series, released the much heralded Alpha 9 CD player, and recently revamped their entire product range with a new line dubbed DiVA for Digitally integrated Video and Audio. Included in this line is Arcam’s first full-fledged digital surround receiver, the AVR100, which retails for a very Arcam-like $1199.

It looks like a duck

The AVR100 sports the clean lines and attractive finish that of all the new DiVA components share, and it is available in either black or silver. It is a very attractive receiver with an elegant look that is complemented by its understated green LED readout and relatively few buttons, all of which provides an uncluttered appearance.

The simplicity of the AVR100’s appearance is mirrored in its design. It features basic Dolby Digital, DTS, and Dolby Pro Logic surround processing along with one ambience mode and a dynamic-range limiter for late-night listening. There are composite and S-video switching, but no component video. The three digital audio inputs are pre-assigned to their respective video inputs, but both preamp inputs and outputs are provided for all six channels. The tuner section features the Radio Data System (RDS), which can provide text information when the appropriate signal is available. There is no phono section and no provision to add one, unlike with most other Arcam products.

Although the AVR100 functions like most other A/V receivers (albeit with fewer bells and whistles), it does have a few operational quirks. The most significant limitation of the AVR100 is its bass management, which consists of three factory-preset options. The three options are: all large speakers with a subwoofer, all small speakers with a subwoofer, or large left and right front speakers with small center and surrounds and no subwoofer. While these options might cover most typical speaker setups, it really would be preferable for a receiver to allow independent bass-management settings for each of the channels. The speaker terminals are British Federation of Audio (BFA) connectors. While the adapters furnished with the receiver provided a very tight connection, I would have preferred the option of using banana plugs, which are not supported by the AVR100. It will accept the use of bare wire, pins, or spades in addition to the BFA connectors. The remote control, although sleek and attractive, can be difficult to read due to small characters on the equally small and shiny buttons.

Setup was a snap due to the limited number of functions and options that are available. Once the factory-preset bass-management option is chosen, you need only set the delay settings and levels for the various channels. The AVR100 senses the type of incoming digital signal and automatically chooses the proper type of decoding with nary a sound. The video-switching quality through the S-video inputs and outputs was excellent. Casual subjective observations did not reveal a slight degradation of the video signal, which is common with many receivers.

The AVR100 is rated at 70Wpc into 8 ohms in five-channel mode and 90Wpc in stereo mode. Although I did not open up the unit, a massive toroidal transformer that would not be out of place in a high-quality power amp was visible through the bottom of the chassis. The Arcam receiver looks and feels like a high-end piece of audio equipment, which will instill a pride in ownership that is uncommon with surround receivers.

But does it quack like a duck?

This being Arcam’s first true surround receiver, I was more than a little curious to see if it could live up to my expectations based on what I had heard from the company's integrated amps in the past. Although it would be unfair to expect a surround receiver such as the AVR100 to sound as good as a similarly positioned integrated amplifier because of the additional channels of amplification and processing required, the AVR100 astonished me with a level of performance that I did not think possible from a mid-priced surround receiver.

Listening to movies and music through the AVR100 with whatever speaker system and source that I employed was a sheer pleasure. The AVR100 was so good, in fact, that it quickly became my short-term reference for the four home-theater speaker systems that I had in house for review. There is a lot to be said for the convenience of having a one-box solution to your home-theater processing and amplification needs, especially if it sounds as good as the Arcam AVR100.

Movies

Although the AVR100 lacks 6.1 processing and has very few features to speak of, its performance on Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks is second to none. The sound was always smooth with good depth and lateral imaging that spread the sound all around the room. DVDs such as Terminator 2: Ultimate Edition had excellent low-level detail during the hallway scenes in Pescadero State Hospital and sound effects floated across the front soundstage with amazing subtlety. The well-recorded 5.1 music score of The Sweet Hereafter was incredibly spacious and had pounding bass, but it still retained the haunting tones of the Persian ney and the sweet sounds of the other exotic string and wind instruments.

Every DVD I played was handled by the AVR100 with the same refinement that made less-than-pristine soundtracks tolerable and well-recorded ones a joy to listen to. Whether it was the complicated sound design of Toy Story 2 with its complex Foley effects and well-recorded music such as "Jesse’s Song," or the driving hip-hop soundtrack of Romeo Must Die, the AVR100 always sounded powerful and was never strained. Even when pushed hard or used with less efficient speakers, the Arcam reached its limits gracefully without any obvious clipping or harshness to the sound.

Music

As good as the AVR100 sounded on multichannel movie soundtracks, it was its excellent performance on two-channel music that really caught my attention. While most surround receivers these days sound pretty decent on music with the elimination of much of the nastiness that receivers from just of few years ago exhibited, the AVR100 sounded fantastic when playing back stereo recordings. We often qualify the stereo performance of surround receivers as being good "for a home theater product," but with the AVR100, I never had to make such excuses.

Listening to music with this receiver always managed to bring a smile to my face. It sounded so good that I often forgot I was listening to a mid-priced surround receiver and at times thought that I might be listening to a high-quality integrated amplifier or even separates. It was that good. With my reference Infinity Composition Prelude loudspeakers, the music was freed from the speakers and offered excellent imaging, a deep soundstage, and an overall refined sound.

Songs such as U2’s "Beautiful Day" from All That I Can’t Leave Behind [Island 314524653-2] rocked. The muted sound of the recording of Bono’s voice was reproduced with all the intensity of the vocals and taut, driving bass intact. Although Eva Cassidy’s Live At Blues Alley [Blix Street G2-10046] does not exhibit much soundstage depth, the Arcam placed her voice solidly between the two speakers and with such emotion that it nearly brought tears to my eyes. Reference-quality pop albums such as Madonna’s Ray of Light [Maverick/Warner Bros. CDW 46847] imaged like crazy, with instruments and vocals bouncing around the entire soundstage.

Whether the AVR100 was using its internal DACs for two-channel music and multichannel movie soundtracks or the analog inputs which bypass the digital signal processing for even better sound with my upgraded MSB Link DAC, the sound of the AVR100 was exhilarating and always exhibited a smooth and effortless quality. Adding a multichannel power amplifier like the excellent Redgum RGH900 further improved the sound, as expected, but the internal amps of the Arcam sounded wonderful on their own, especially when driving speakers such as my reference Infinities.

Comparison

As mentioned, the AVR100 sounded much better than most typical receivers, which is probably due at least in part to the added attention that Arcam has lavished on the design and build quality. Although the AVR100 may lack many of the features of other receivers in its price range, its exceptional sound quality more than makes up for this in my opinion.

I have spent a lot of time describing the two-channel performance of the AVR100 because this is where the sonic shortcomings of receivers are usually most noticeable when driving high-quality speakers -- speakers that are not particularly efficient, or those that have low impedances. Not so with the Arcam, which sounded wonderful with whatever speaker system I used it with whether it was used for home theater or two-channel music.

Compared to the Arcam integrated amps that I have heard in the past, the AVR100 sounded less warm and more detailed than what I remembered. This is not to say that the AVR100 sounded bright or etched, but it embodied a good balance between detail, accuracy, and warmth that high-quality solid-state amplifiers like my Krell integrated possess. Of course, the much more expensive Krell ($2500) bettered the Arcam in just about every way, but the comparison was much closer than might be expected. To put it in perspective, the Arcam sounded better with music material than my Sherwood Newcastle/Anthem home-theater setup ($2800), but was not as powerful or authoritative on movie soundtracks. However, the Arcam had a depth and ease to the sound of film soundtracks that was more involving even though it may not have had the slam of my reference home-theater rig or of some other less expensive, higher-powered receivers.

Conclusion

Audiophiles and Arcam fans rejoice! The AVR100 is the real deal. Granted, the bass management is lacking in flexibility, there is only basic Dolby Digital and DTS processing, and limited connectivity, but I would submit that the AVR100 is a surround receiver that will win over most people with its outstanding sonic performance. Many of us do not require or do not want to be bothered with more than five speakers, making 6.1 formats such Dolby Digital-EX and DTS-ES a moot point. As for the bass-management issue, I would strongly suggest that anyone who purchases the AVR100 seriously consider using a high-quality pair of nearly full-range speakers for the fronts and also for the center and surrounds if possible to take full advantage of this receiver’s excellent sound.

With the AVR100, Arcam has kept the design incredibly simple and has put the money where it counts -- in the sound. Excuse me if I sound like I work for the marketing department of Arcam, but this is one receiver that truly excited the audiophile in me. While the AVR100 may not be for everyone with its limited feature set, if sound quality is your main concern, then auditioning this receiver with a high-quality speaker system may just make you rethink what is possible with a "mere" receiver. 

Review System
Speakers - Infinity Compositions Prelude (mains), Boston Acoustics 555x (center), Definitive Technology BP-10 (surrounds), Mirage FRx home-theater speaker system, Paradigm PW-2200 subwoofer
Amplifiers - Krell KAV-300i, Anthem MCA5, Redgum RGH900
Processor - Sherwood Newcastle AVP-9080R
Sources - Teac VRDS-T1 Transport, Pioneer DV-626D DVD Player, MSB Link DAC III with 24/96 Upsampling, Half Nelson, and P1000 power supply upgrades
Cables - Nordost, Sonic Horizon, Straightwire, AudioQuest, Monster, ESP power cords
Monitor - Toshiba CX32H60 direct-view
 

Manufacturer contact information

Arcam
Pembroke Avenue
Cambridge CB5 9PB, England
Phone: (01223) 203203

E-mail: custserv@arcam.co.uk
Website: www.arcam.co.uk

North American Distributors:

Audiophile Systems, Ltd. (USA)
8709 Castle Park Drive
Indianapolis, IN 46256
Phone: 1-888-272-2658
Fax: (317) 841-4107

E-mail: aslinfo@aslgroup.com
Website: www.aslgroup.com

Emerald Audio Resources (Canada)
R.R. 1
Palgrave, ON
L0N 1P0
Phone: (905) 880-7070
Fax: (905) 880-7071

E-mail: emerald@pathcom.com
Website: www.emerald-audio.com

 


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