Price: $2499 USD
Dimensions: 17"W x 6"H x 17"D
Weight: 36 pounds
Warranty: Two years parts and labor
- Two-way HDMI switching
- Dolby Digital Surround EX, Dolby Pro Logic IIx, DTS-ES, DTS
- Composite and S-video upconversion to component or RGB
- Second zone output with audio and video
- HDTV-compatible video switching
- Two-way RS-232 and IR control
- Front-panel Mute and Display buttons
- Toroidal power supply
- Passive noise suppression
- Silver or black finishes available
I like audio products that are designed with
understated elegance -- that are not only easy on the eyes, but that operate intuitively,
with a minimum number of buttons. Sadly, most mass-produced products eschew understated
elegance in order to stand out on a sales floor with flashy lights and buttons that not
only offer questionable value but that overpopulate their front panels and give the
illusion of offering more for the customers dollar. It takes an educated eye to
recognize the long-term satisfaction that can be enjoyed with designs of understated
elegance, which often reveal an equally high quality under their skins.
Rolls-Royce, rich chocolate, James Bond, and electronics
manufacturer Arcam are all based in the United Kingdom, a country that I consider an
authority on understated elegance. So its not surprising to find that quality in the
Cambridge-based firms Digitally integrated Video and Audio (DiVA) line. Each DiVA
component is a balance of form and function, with an absence of superficial features.
Where Arcams FMJ line is a price-no-object assault on high-end audio, in the DiVA
series they try to offer high-value performance for an affordable price. The flagship DiVA
home-theater receiver is the 7.1-channel AVR350 ($2499). According to Arcam, the AVR350
improves on the already impressive AVR300 with better electronic and mechanical noise
suppression and two-way HDMI switching.
Easy on the eyes
A sturdy double-box container and high-density foam ensure
that the DiVA AVR350s beautiful face isnt damaged during shipping. The sample
I received was finished in an elegant silver, but an even classier black finish is
available. The front panels sexy combination of small round buttons and gently
curved metalwork offers just enough of an organic touch to separate the AVR350s
looks from those of a nondescript metal box. The AVR350s well-assembled chassis
boasts excellent fitnfinish and substantial weight.
Like all of Arcams products, the 100Wpc AVR350 is
designed in-house. This gives Arcam complete control over parts choices and circuit
topology. A large toroidal transformer sits at the center of the AVR350s stout power
supply, while Arcams Mask of Silence technology uses various passive devices and a
Stealth Mat, designed for the UK military, to greatly prevent electronic noise from
corrupting the audio signals inside the tightly packed receiver. Senior Arcam engineer
Andy Moore thinks the extra effort has made a difference, and takes great pride in the
AVR350s sound. Moore states, "We spent many hours late into the night voicing
this product, and Im still amused at just how sonically great a multichannel A/V
amplifier can be. . . . Its all about engineering out the compromises that generally
come with this type of product."
The AVR350s external
parts and build quality also suggest a product designed to deliver many years of
trouble-free service. The large five-way binding posts accept everything from bare speaker
wire to banana plugs, and the well-spaced, gold-plated RCA connectors are logically
arranged. The one detail that raised an eyebrow was a switch for setting speaker
impedance. Switches of this nature, whether mechanical or software, have a notorious
reputation. A common trick used in low-cost designs unable to safely drive low impedances
is to add a resistor in the circuit between an amplifiers output and the
loudspeaker. The resistor increases resistance so that the amplifier "sees" a
higher impedance and therefore prevents the output from overloading.
Arcams switch doesnt do this. Rather, it
selects between two different windings of the main transformer, which optimizes the power
supply so that the output runs cool. According to Moore, "the toroid within the
AVR350 has a multi-tapped secondary winding, both sets of windings are connected to the
PSU board, and we have an extremely high-quality, high-current relay that is tasked with
switching the secondary as necessary. The in-line resistance as seen by the power stages
will be less than 0.001 of an ohm -- as youll probably agree, completely irrelevant.
The switch on the rear panel is carrying a control signal and thus avoids routing
sensitive power-supply or signal cables around the amplifier."
According to Moore, this approach preserves dynamics and
tonality. And why subject the output to the heat produced with lower impedances if the
speakers arent 4-ohm designs? My Axiom speaker system presented a pretty easy load
to the Arcam, so I heard no difference between the positions of the impedance switch.
Easy on the head
When it comes to setting up the DiVA AVR350, Arcam has done
their homework. Hookup was very easy, as was navigating the various setup menus. A
comprehensive and logically organized user manual, intuitive user interface, and excellent
onscreen display allowed me to adjust speaker delay, input-device setup, and speaker gain,
all within a half hour. Two extremely flexible features of the AVR350 include its ability
to reassign the rear left and right channels to 7.1 surround, a second zone, or biamping.
The EQ of each channel is also adjustable. All of this is accessible via software switches
in the AVR350s menu system. I especially appreciated having buttons for mute and
dimming the front-panel display.
On the video side, Arcam has included switching between two
HDMI devices, as well as analog video transcoding from composite or S-video to component
or RGB output. Like most of its competitors, the AVR350 cant transcode analog
formats to HDMI or HD formats.
Soft blue backlighting and a shell of soft-textured plastic
give the AVR350s CR80 remote control a high-quality look and feel. It also nicely
fits the hand. Usability was another matter. The volume and channel buttons are nice and
large, but I wasnt impressed by the clutches of small buttons at the remotes
bottom and top. The bottom buttons are small and, depending on the AVR350s mode,
access multiple functions (e.g., setup and trim), but even my slender fingers had a
hard time targeting individual buttons. Space between certain pairs of buttons was another
issue. For instance, I invariably hit Guide when I wanted Volume Down, and Zoom/Test when
I wanted to adjust Angle/Display. Programming the CR80 proved easy, although having to
enter "9-7-5" before it would learn a device seemed a bit clunky.
Easy on the ears
Ive heard enough thin-sounding home-theater gear to
appreciate the DiVA AVR350s rich, involving sound. Dialogue in the superbly
entertaining The Matador exhibited an ease and fluidity I rarely hear from
home-theater equipment. Vocals were warm and clear without sounding too smooth or
recessed. Details such as the background noise of a bar in chapter 8, or the subtle
ambient cues prefacing a car explosion in chapter 3, resided on a sonic plane just behind
the main action without being upstaged by it. Like well-recorded music, voices have
harmonic textures that can add to the overall involvement of films. With the Arcam, I
found myself enjoying speech patterns and glottal, plosive, and labial sounds during the
three-way dialogue in the Wrights living room. The AVR350 handled such delicate
flourishes with transparency against a faint euphonic tone.
The Arcam delivered wide dynamic swings without sounding
compressed or restrained. The exploding Porsche and tree that crashes into the
Wrights kitchen during a moment of marital bliss in The Matador (chapter 4)
scared the bejesus out of my wife and me. The AVR350 was able to convey startling
transients, from the snap of gunshots to the sharp slam of a door to the crisp sound of
cornstalks bending in the wind (Signs, chapter 9). This commanding grip on
transients contributed to an engrossing surround-sound experience. Foley effects
didnt sound flat, but stood out from the 5.1 soundstage with three-dimensional
Amplifier clipping effectively smears details together
while causing bass to go flabby. But not only did the AVR350s soundstage remain
cohesive, its clarity, impact, and refinement held together beyond what my ears could
take. Increasing the volume did little to drain the Arcams seemingly bottomless
Two-channel recordings had the same combination of
transparency and beef. The Pet Shop Boys absolutely fabulous new album, Fundamental
[Rhino 79525], sounded fantastic. Two of the best cuts, the epic contradiction
"Minimal" and the bittersweet "Numb," have dense arrangements of
synthesizers and orchestral accompaniment that can easily collapse into wads of
indecipherable sound. The AVR350 let me keep track of every electronic melody and bass
line, which allowed me to enjoy the finer qualities of this classic duos
Orchestrations, as of Aaron Coplands Appalachian
Spring Suite on Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestras well-recorded Showcase
[CD, Reference RR-907CD], showed off the AVR350s considerable muscle and sonic
grace. Cymbals shimmered without grit or edginess, while crescendos touched the ceiling.
One trait of the AVR350 that I picked up on immediately was
its accomplished pace, rhythm, and timing. I ended up spending an entire evening listening
to Paul Simons well-recorded Youre the One [Warner Bros. 47844] and Surprise
[Warner Bros. 49982]. Crisp guitar, incisive percussion, and sonic trappings from none
other than Brian Eno seemed to highlight the AVR350s most defining attributes,
producing foot-tapping enjoyment at its best.
Understated elegance squared
When I recently simplified my home system, I chose NAD
components for their value and performance. NADs six-channel, 100W T763 receiver
($1399), one channel shy and about half the price of the AVR350, has proven itself an
extremely well-thought-out and musically enjoyable product. Although the NAD has its own
flavor of understated elegance, it isnt as sexy or as well-finished as the Arcam.
The T763s plastic face and military-gray chassis feel a bit cheap when compared to
the AVR350s more spit-polished finish and slightly more top-shelf parts.
But both products are well made and have the weight to back
it up. Both use large toroidal transformers sponsoring power supplies capable of driving
most speakers to very high levels. Like the Arcam, the NAD amplifier is specified to
deliver its rated power of 100W continuously into all channels simultaneously. The NAD
uses a microprocessor in place of a switch to monitor and optimize its power into a
variety of speaker loads.
Of course, as long as the resulting sound pleases the ear,
what happens under the metal covers of these receivers is inconsequential, and this is
where the Arcam and NAD diverged. The NADs sound is slightly leaner and less
euphonic than the Arcams. High frequencies, such as those from cymbals and guitars,
sounded a tad dry through the NAD, while the Arcam had a slight edge in absolute
resolution. The NADs bass matched the Arcams in punch and authority, but not
in low-frequency definition. When I pushed the volume, the NAD sounded a bit strained and
unfocused compared to the Arcams unflappable clarity.
The T763s HTR 2 remote control is very well designed.
The Arcams CR80 felt better in the hand but could use bigger buttons and a more
intuitive programming scheme. Both machines have excellent menus and well-laid-out
connections that make setup a breeze. And the Arcam trumped the NAD with a front-panel
Mute button and a dimmable display.
Understated elegance = long-term satisfaction
Less the CR80 remote, I so appreciated the Arcam DiVA
AVR350s design and sound quality that, each day, I found myself taking a moment or
two to just look at it and run my hand across its face and controls. That may sound weird,
but its no different from running a hand across a well-finished piece of furniture
or a marble fireplace mantle. As with other examples of well-executed craftsmanship,
its the Arcams understated elegance, coupled with its excellent performance,
that prompts such adoration and long-term satisfaction.
|Speakers - Axiom Audio M22
v2 (mains), VP150 v2 (center), M2 v2 (surrounds), EP500 v2 (subwoofer)
- NAD T763
|Sources - NAD T562 CD
player, Oppo Digital OPDV971H DVD player
- Analysis Plus
|Display Device - Mitsubishi
WD-52528 rear-projection LCD TV
Conditioner - APC S15BLK