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 Arcam’s regular models, but they’re designed to provide high-end performance at prices that don’t dilute Arcam’s 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 Arcam’s top-of-the-line integrated amplifier, the FMJ A38. It’s 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 A38’s other functions, and there’s 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 A38’s 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. There’s 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-Brown’s 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 owner’s 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 isn’t 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 Arcam’s 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 A38’s 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 amplifier’s design is also balanced, which it usually isn’t. Arcam’s 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 single-ended interconnects.


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 amp’s 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 doesn’t editorialize on the sound but "gets out of the way of the music." This is exactly what the A38 did.

"Spanish Harlem," from Rebecca Pidgeon’s Retrospective (SACD/CD, Chesky 090368024268), sounded as good as or better than I have heard through any system in any of the countless times I’ve 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 instrument’s 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 Pidgeon’s 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 Pidgeon’s 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 Guaraldi’s 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 Guaraldi’s classic accompaniment, which later, as an adult, I grew to love on its own terms.

The Crystal Method’s 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 track’s driving bass beat without difficulty and presented the vocals clearly and intelligibly. This track’s 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 Madonna’s 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 A38’s 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. Madonna’s 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 Madonna’s 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 didn’t float as effortlessly in the soundstage among the rest of the voices and instruments. At lower volume levels, the A38’s more transparent and detailed sound was more involving. And because the Arcam’s sound was more balanced than that of my usual system, I was able to thoroughly enjoy music at lower volumes than I’m used to.

The only area where I thought the FMJ A38 couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 couldn’t match their pitch and definition. Although I didn’t have one at hand, Arcam’s 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 I’d 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. It’s 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, it’s 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

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

US distributor:
American Audio & Video
P.O. Box 3475
Buffalo, NY 14240-2954
Phone: (866) 916-4667

E-mail: info@americanaudiovideo.com
Website: www.americanaudiovideo.com

Canadian distributor:
Erikson Consumer
21000 TransCanada Highway
Baie D’Urfe, Quebec H9X 4B7
Phone: (514) 457-6674
Fax: (514) 457-0055

Website: www.eriksonconsumer.com


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