January 15, 2009
Arcam FMJ A38 Integrated Amplifier
Arcam has long been known for offering high-quality
electronics at sensible prices. (I once owned their budget-priced Alpha 5 integrated
amplifier.) A few years back, they introduced their Full Metal Jacket line of reference
electronics. The FMJs may cost more than Arcams regular models, but theyre
designed to provide high-end performance at prices that dont dilute Arcams
reputation for providing high value.
The FMJ line has recently been revamped, and the many new
models include some relatively inexpensive ones. For this review, however, I was sent
Arcams top-of-the-line integrated amplifier, the FMJ A38. Its not inexpensive,
but in the audiophile world, $2299 USD is a reasonable price. The A38 replaces the
long-serving FMJ A32, which Doug Schneider reviewed over six years ago. Back then, he
thought the A32 nearly flawless, a "perfect blend of ergonomics, style and
performance." I have reviewed several Arcam DiVA multichannel receivers, as well as
DiVA and FMJ multichannel DVD-Audio players, and have always been thoroughly impressed. So
I eagerly anticipated the arrival of the FMJ A38, my first exclusively two-channel review
product from Arcam.
Like other Arcam DiVA and FMJ models, the A38 is a modern,
sophisticated-looking component with a typically understated appearance, one almost
identical to that of its predecessor, the FMJ A32. Its steel-gray finish is accented with
discreet touches of silver and black, and a large volume-control knob and green LED
display dominate the front panel. Many small stainless-steel buttons select inputs and
control the A38s other functions, and theres a headphone jack. The FMJ A38
measures a svelte 17"W x 4 1/3"H x 14 1/2"D and weighs just over 20 pounds.
The A38s rear panel has seven inputs, and two tape
loops on single-ended RCA jacks. The two sets of speaker outputs have connections
compatible with spades, bare wire, banana plugs, and pins. The input voltage can be set to
110 or 220V, and a removable IEC power cord is included. Theres also a 12V trigger
out, as well as a remote input so that a sensor can be used to receive remote-control
signals if the main sensor is obstructed. The two sets of speaker outputs can be used for
two pairs of speakers that can be turned on and off independently, or to biwire a single
set of speakers. Preamplifier outputs are included. A switch allows the A38 to be used as
a preamp only. An optional moving-magnet/moving-coil phono section is available.
Inside, the A38 uses Burr-Browns PGA2320, a new,
high-quality, digitally controlled analog volume control with three settings of volume
resolution: Fine, Standard, and Reference. These are not fully detailed in the
owners manual, but John Dawson, founder and president of Arcam, explained that in
Fine mode, the volume is adjustable in 1dB increments over a range of 0dB to +72dB;
Standard also has 1dB increments over the same range, but coarser steps of 2 and 3dB
further down the scale; and Reference has 0.5dB increments over a range of -72dB to 0dB.
Although full knowledge of how the volume control works isnt critical to the
operation of the A38, I would never have figured this out for myself. The input levels for
each source can be adjusted from -12dB to +12dB. According to Dawson, none of these
settings should affect the sound quality of the volume control. There is also a processor
mode that allows the user to set the gain independently of the volume control, so that it
can be matched with other channels of amplification in a multichannel system.
The construction uses Sound Dead Steel (SDS) to provide a
resonance-damped chassis, as well as something called Stealth Mat technology, which
consists of a unique metal fiber matting used to reduce EMF. The A38 also includes new
Sanken output devices and improved thermal coupling designed to offer extremely stable
device temperatures for excellent linearity. The same hermetically sealed "reed"
relays used in the FMJ C31 preamp for extremely low contact resistance and a virtually
infinite life span are also found in the A38.
The provided CR90 remote control is relatively slim, and
controls all functions of the FMJ A38 and of other Arcam components. The buttons for the
various functions are all nearly identical in appearance, and I found them a bit difficult
to identify. Buttons for key functions such as volume and track advance were logically
laid out, though even here, their similarity meant that I sometimes found myself pressing
the wrong ones.
Setup and operation
Having recently set up many complex surround-sound systems,
I found hooking up the FMJ A38 integrated amplifier refreshingly simple. I used
Arcams FMJ CD37 SACD/CD player as my main source, though Oppo DV-970HD and Cambridge
Audio DVD99 DVD players also spent time in the system. Speakers were either the Definitive
Technology Mythos STS SuperTowers or Paradigm Reference Signature S8s. All was hooked up
with Analysis Plus Micro Copper Oval-In interconnects, Analysis Plus Black Oval 9 speaker
cables, and ESP AVP-16 power cables.
The FMJ A38s operation was smooth and trouble free,
as I would have expected from such a well-thought-out, well-built product. The large LED
readout is easy to read from across the room, and, other than my lack of enthusiasm for
the remote control, I found the A38 a pleasure to use. Some audiophiles might be troubled
by the lack of balanced XLR inputs, but these are of limited use unless the rest of the
amplifiers design is also balanced, which it usually isnt. Arcams FMJ
CD37 SACD/CD player also lacks XLR outputs, but I never once thought I was missing
anything in terms of sound quality when the A38 and CD37 were connected with high-quality
Because Arcam had also provided an FMJ CD37, I spent much
of my time with the FMJ A38 listening to SACDs, and the hi-rez recordings made the
amps strengths clearly evident. The midrange was exceedingly clean and uncolored,
and the highs were extended without sounding bright or harsh. This is not to say that the
A38 sounded excessively warm or dull; actually, it was extremely neutral. This made good
recordings sound exceptional and not-so-good recordings sound, well, less than
exceptional. Reviewers often describe a good piece of equipment as one that doesnt
editorialize on the sound but "gets out of the way of the music." This is
exactly what the A38 did.
"Spanish Harlem," from Rebecca Pidgeons Retrospective
(SACD/CD, Chesky 090368024268), sounded as good as or better than I have heard
through any system in any of the countless times Ive listened to this classic
audiophile track. The standup bass had incredible definition as each note rose and fell,
from the initial pluck of string to the instruments full resonance. And not only did
the shaker sound slightly different each time, it seemed to move back and forth slightly
in the soundstage. I was amazed at how lifelike Pidgeons voice sounded on "Auld
Lang Syne/Bring It On Home to Me." She speaks softly at the beginning of the song,
but with great inflection, and the A38 beautifully reproduced her lilting intonations.
Partway through the song, the blare of a saxophone sounded jarring, but in a natural and
realistic manner. The intertwining of Pidgeons overdubbed voices singing these two
songs was enthralling. As the track closed, the poignancy of the bittersweet words were
underscored by her gently waning voice, which seemed to disappear into utter darkness
through the A38.
Older recordings, such as jazz pianist Vince
Guaraldis soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas (SACD, Fantasy
025218730327), were not quite as pristine, but there was still much to admire with the
A38. Percussion instruments such as brushes and cymbals stood out, but not unnaturally so.
The piano was big and vibrant on "Christmas Is Coming," and again, each striking
of the cymbal sounded just a little bit different from the last. Listening to
"Skating," I was transported in heart and mind back to my childhood, and
wistfully reminisced about watching the Peanuts gang gliding carefree across a
frozen pond to Guaraldis classic accompaniment, which later, as an adult, I grew to
love on its own terms.
The Crystal Methods Keep Hope Alive (CD
single, Moonshine 785688015125) is not the cleanest-sounding recording ever made, but it
sounded coherent and compelling through the A38, which delivered this techno tracks
driving bass beat without difficulty and presented the vocals clearly and intelligibly.
This tracks bass is not ultradeep, but through the A38 it sounded fast and
controlled. The vocals, mostly spoken rather than sung, were slightly muted, but this is
inherent in the recording, and they were nonetheless clearly demarcated from the rest of
the mix. In fact, there was a nearly perfect balance of voices, pulsating low frequencies,
and wicked synthesizer riffs.
On Madonnas QSound-processed The Immaculate
Collection (CD, Sire 075992644020), the imaging was wonderfully holographic. From the
opening track, "Holiday," individual instruments and vocals had a purity and
lack of coloration that were astonishing. Not only was the sound remarkably transparent,
but the imaging was precise and three-dimensional. The placement of percussion was
especially notable, spread across the A38s wide soundstage. The eerie vocals and
finger snaps of "Vogue" seemed to image beyond the speakers outer edges,
and the bass in "Justify My Love" was deep and surprisingly tight. My favorite
song on this album has always been "Like a Prayer," and through the A38 it
sounded spectacular. Madonnas voice soared, but more impressive still were the
ethereal background vocals that float throughout the track.
The electronics in my usual system consist of the Anthem D2
surround-sound processor ($7500) used as both a DAC and preamp, and two Bel Canto e.One
REF1000 monoblock amps ($3990/pair). When I switched back to this system from the Arcam
and played Madonnas The Immaculate Collection, there was a slight loss
of detail that shrank the soundstage, resulting in a less open and airy sound. Instruments
like the shaker and high-hat were a tad muted in comparison, as were the background
vocals. Consequently, the choir didnt float as effortlessly in the soundstage among
the rest of the voices and instruments. At lower volume levels, the A38s more
transparent and detailed sound was more involving. And because the Arcams sound was
more balanced than that of my usual system, I was able to thoroughly enjoy music at lower
volumes than Im used to.
The only area where I thought the FMJ A38 couldnt
keep up with my reference system was in absolute volume and bass performance. The A38
could play plenty loud, but reached its limits at party-approved levels; the more powerful
Bel Canto e.One REF1000s could play more loudly without strain. But while the dynamics
were limited and the sound became compressed, the A38 didnt lose its composure, and
the sound was never objectionable. The low frequencies were also not as tight as through
the Bel Cantos. Although The Immaculate Collection sounded excellent through the
A38, the prodigious bass present on this CD sounded a bit more refined through the Bel
Cantos. The A38 was able to reproduce most of the monoblocks volume and reach, but
couldnt match their pitch and definition. Although I didnt have one at hand,
Arcams matching FMJ P38 power amplifier can be paired with the A38 in a biamped
system. I suspect that biamping with the P38 would provide more than enough power to drive
the Paradigm Reference Signature S8s and all but the most power-hungry speakers.
With the relatively expensive Paradigm S8s (discontinued,
but $5400-$6000/pair when available), I preferred the sound of the FMJ A38 in some ways,
and in others preferred the Bel Canto REF1000 monoblocks with the Anthem D2. With the
Definitive Technology Mythos STS SuperTowers and their powered woofer sections
($2998/pair), the A38 sounded superior in nearly every respect. The comparatively
efficient Mythos speakers seemed to reach their considerable limits before the A38 did. At
more normal listening levels, they would still play very loud, and the synergy between the
more commensurately priced Mythos STS and the Arcam was intoxicating. In my review of the
Mythos STS at our SoundStage! website, I concluded that it was one of the most
exciting products Id come across in a long time, both for its incredible performance
and its reasonable price. If I were looking for a sensibly priced integrated amplifier to
get the most from those speakers, or from other similar high-performance speakers, the FMJ
A38 would be my first choice.
The Arcam FMJ A38 provided some of the best stereo sound I
have experienced with my system -- it is an outstanding integrated amplifier. Its
solidly built, its operation during the review period was straightforward and without
fault, and, most important, it sounded simply fantastic. No matter what I listened to, the
A38 always impressed me, never making a misstep throughout the entire review process.
Taking into account all that the FMJ A38 offers, and its surprisingly affordable price of
$2299, its a bargain.
. . . Roger Kanno
Arcam FMJ A38 Integrated Amplifier
Price: $2299 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Pembroke Avenue, Waterbeach
Cambridge, England CB5 9PB
Phone: (44) (0)1223-203203
American Audio & Video
P.O. Box 3475
Buffalo, NY 14240-2954
Phone: (866) 916-4667
21000 TransCanada Highway
Baie DUrfe, Quebec H9X 4B7
Phone: (514) 457-6674
Fax: (514) 457-0055