ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

December 1, 2004

Arcam FMJ P1 Mono Amplifiers

A pair of the low-slung little powerhouses that Arcam calls its FMJ P1 monoblock amplifier have sat contentedly behind my speakers for a couple of months now, producing a similarly contented listener in the sweet spot. My happy experience wasn’t totally unexpected -- Arcam has earned a good reputation on both sides of the pond for its quality products -- but it surprised me in some important ways that reminded me once again to follow this advice: All prejudices abandon, ye who enter here.

One surprise came because I’m a "tubie," and here I was enjoying the solid-state P1s. The other, even more gratifying, derived from what these days passes as a modest price tag in the high-end market: $3600 USD for a pair of high-quality, 175W monoblocks. Here was yet another lesson that different routes can lead to satisfying sound, and that good amplifiers are obtainable without having to take out a second mortgage.

About the P1

Arcam, based in Cambridge, England, produced its first amplifier back in 1976, which makes the firm something of a graybeard among high-end manufacturers. Arcam has won its share of audio awards, and is among the homegrown companies that regularly earn great reviews in the British audio press and elsewhere.

The "FMJ" prefix in the amplifier’s name indicates that it’s part of Arcam’s premier line of audio-visual products. FMJ stands for Full Metal Jacket, which refers not to Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film about the Vietnam War, but to Arcam’s name for the cosmetic restyling of the line. While Arcam innocently says "the name just stuck," no doubt the adhesive was applied with the help of some savvy marketing types out to differentiate the line from the rest of the metal-box audio universe. (Arcam’s printed materials make much of the FMJ line’s styling.)

The FMJs are sleekly attractive products with simple, efficiently laid-out controls. Like its siblings, the P1 comes in black or silver finish. Mine was black, and didn’t look much different from most other black-fronted amplifiers. The power On/Off button on the front panel is discreetly placed at the lower right with an LED above it to indicate its status -- it glows amber for a few seconds when switched on, and then green to indicate that it’s ready to make music.

Monoblocks’ desirable attributes -- better channel separation, avoidance of crosstalk -- often make them preferable to single-box two-channel amplifiers. Arcam claims that the P1’s "novel" power supply results in better sound and more stable imaging. The company also boasts of heavy-gauge copper PCB tracks, dual bridge rectifiers, critically damped components, and other improvements in "the best power amplifier Arcam has ever produced." Not having heard the P1’s predecessors, I can’t assess the accuracy of that claim.

The P1’s rear panel has the usual connections for balanced and unbalanced inputs, plus extras to combine the P1 with other amplifiers, remote switching, powering remote speakers, and matching amplifier gain levels in multi-amp Arcam systems. Their C30 preamplifier is Arcam’s chosen partner for the P1, and its remote control is configured to control both units. Because I was not sent the C30 and have no use for the P1’s added rear-panel options, I did all my listening in plain-vanilla mode: two-speaker stereo, the P1s driven by my Wyetech Opal preamplifier.

I had one quibble: The P1’s speaker outputs are equipped with plastic Euronanny connectors, whose grip on the thick-spade terminations of my Siltech Classic LS-188 speaker cables kept slipping. After rooting around, I came up with an ideal answer: a pair of single-terminated, biwired Harmonic Technologies Pro-9 speaker cables. They were ideal for this review for other reasons as well -- they’re more suitable for amps in the P1’s price range than the vastly more expensive Siltech Classics, and their slightly warm presentation seemed a good fit for a solid-state amplifier, a hunch that was borne out in the listening.

Listening also confirmed the P1’s muscle; it’s rated at 175W into 8 ohms and 250W into 4 ohms. I’ve happily -- nay, blissfully lived for many years with a relatively low-powered tube amplifier (60W), and have heard luscious-sounding single-ended triode amps rated at up to 8W with little discernible loss in quality -- in fact, quite the opposite. It’s a truism vindicated by experience that most music resides in the first watt. On the other hand, more power often translates to cleaner, faster transients and greater coherence in the massively orchestrated symphonic and operatic climaxes that push stereo systems to their limits. My Von Schweikert VR-4 Gen III HSE speakers are relatively efficient at 91dB, but there have been times when I felt they could have used heftier amplification. Admittedly, such moments usually occur when I’m playing music at volume settings appropriate only for lunatics and teenagers.

Listening to the FMJ P1

I used the P1 in conjunction with a front end consisting of the Metronome T-20 Signature CD transport and C-20 Signature DAC, and the Forsell Air Reference turntable, the latter run through the Plinius M14 phono preamp. The Wyetech Opal preamplifier, Von Schweikert speakers, and the Harmonic Technologies speaker cable, all mentioned above, were used throughout. (The Wyetech is one of those tube units that whip solid-state preamps on their own ground of accuracy, transients, bass oomph, and more.) Interconnects were the Siltech Classic SQ-110s and the Siltech Classic PH-8 phono cable. Power cords were early versions from Siltech and Harmonic Technologies. Accessories included Harmonix footers, Harmonix and Shun Mook record clamps, and the enormously effective Vibrapod isolators and their new Vibracones, even more useful when used in combination with each other.

After extended listening for break-in and pleasure, I zeroed in on trying to find out what the Arcam FMJ P1 could do. That usually means going to tried and true old favorites containing passages I’ve found especially revealing, such as a telling passage in Maxim Vengerov’s performance of Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto [CD, EMI 57510]. About 2:30 into the second movement, there’s a marvelous section where the violin launches into a Spanish-tinged melody with light orchestral accompaniment that features a flute deep in the orchestra’s bowels. As the music progresses, the flute graduates from distant accompanist to junior partner to full-fledged soloist in a duet with the violin; it’s sometimes difficult to tell when the blended duet becomes a flute solo and when the violin takes over. And it’s all the way up in the highest register, which makes it even harder to tell them apart.

Did the P1 pass this test? Well, sort of. It took a couple of tries before I thought I could tell when a melodic figure passed from one instrument to the other. That’s a bit better than some gear could do, but not in the same league as what I hear from the same system with my reference modified Jadis JA 80 monoblocks in place of the P1s. In my experience, the electronics -- CD player, amp, or preamp -- that have best illuminated that passage from the Britten concerto have always been tubed instruments. While the Arcam didn’t trash other amplifiers in that difficult section, it didn’t embarrass itself either.

This observation may seem excessively picky, but I’ve heard Vengerov perform this piece in the concert hall, and believe me, even with eyes closed, I could clearly hear each of the two closely matched instruments in that passage, and estimate the distance between them. What I want from a sound system is to come as close as possible to that live experience, though I know that it is and always will be impossible to fully duplicate.

The P1 did project a gratifyingly deep soundstage, if a somewhat artificial-sounding one (that flute at the beginning was waaay back). I also liked the P1’s ability to provide a wide, spacious stage image, as well as its realistic portrayal of Vengerov’s smooth, velvety sound, without ever becoming harsh or glaring, as some electronics are prone to do.

Another tough test was the Te Deum ending of Act I of Puccini’s Tosca [CD, EMI 57173], another disc I often use to assess resolution in stressful sonic situations. Here, the bad guy, Scarpia (sung by a baritone), snarls out his vile plans for our heroine as a church chorus sings in praise of a victory over Napoleon. The villainous baritone, orchestra, and chorus build to an overpowering climax, with thrilling, piercing brass adding an overlay of mid-treble transients. The Arcam was able to clarify those various strands of sound while pulling them together into a cohesive whole. All that was lacking was a touch more openness and effortless ease.

Later in the opera, in the scene that includes the soprano’s big aria, "Vissi d’arte," the voices lost a bit of focus in fortissimo passages. But the aria itself came over beautifully; the P1 caught the hint of edge in soprano Angela Gheorghiu’s voice as well as the warmth of her middle register, but best of all, it gave a sense of the emotional electricity she generates on stage and on disc.

That the Arcam was a happy camper in terrain many amplifiers find rough going was proved by the massed strings in the remastered "Red Book" layer of a new hybrid SACD edition of Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony’s disc of classics for string orchestra [Telarc SACD-60641]. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis has been likened to "stained-glass windows in sound," and the rich, modal opening sounded that way through the P1s. The orchestra had a gorgeous, velvety sheen without a hint of harshness in the upper strings, and the rich double-bass section growled, purred, and plucked with tonal depth.

I expected the Arcam to like piano music and I wasn’t wrong, whether it was a superb disc of Beethoven piano sonatas by Sviatoslav Richter [JVC XRCD 24017] or a jazz trio album, Geri Allen’s The Life of a Song [Telarc CD-83598]. Richter’s huge dynamic range, powerful bass chords, and crisp attacks gave the P1 opportunities to show off its accuracy in reproducing leading-edge transients. Those transients were also on show in drummer Jack DeJohnette’s playing on the Allen CD. His cymbals had the proper cutting ping when struck with the sticks, but the P1 also gave me subtleties -- I could practically pinpoint exactly where on the cymbal he struck, as well as the weight of each stroke. The P1 also did justice to Allen’s luxuriant keyboard harmonies, with the close-up sound that gives you the feeling you’re in a late-night jazz club.

While the Arcam acquitted itself very well on heavy, taxing materials, it really excelled in the more intimate surroundings of those piano discs and in the warm pairing of bassist Ron Carter and singer Rosa Passos on Entre Amigos [CD, Chesky JD247]. Listening to this lovely collection of Brazilian songs in fetching jazz arrangements, I felt as if the performers were in the room singing and playing only for me -- it was that snug. While every word of Passos’ singing was clear, her lush voice, surrounded by the embrace of the jazz group, made it entirely unnecessary to understand Brazilian Portuguese in order to get the point of each song.

The bottom line

In my listening comments, I held Arcam’s FMJ P1 monoblock to the unattainable standard of the absolute sound of live musicians in a good hall. Coming back to earth and the reality of our imperfect world, the Arcam was an outstanding performer, all the more so for the value it offers. It’s a rare piece of equipment that can offer so much -- power and intimacy, accuracy and warmth -- in a neat, user-friendly package at a reasonable price.

While there are things to criticize about aspects of the Arcam’s performance, its strengths far outweigh its deficiencies, which are largely in the forgivable category of being subtractive, not additive. With many discs, I wanted a little more -- more openness, more tonal density, more of the finer details that are hallmarks of the very best and, alas, most expensive amplifiers. But the Arcam added no unwanted colorations, and didn’t unduly impose its signature on what it played. Most important, the P1 conveyed the emotional heart of the music, overriding any quibbles about the finer points of its presentation.

As I packed up the Arcams for return to the distributor, I reflected that I had enjoyed the time I’d spent with them. That’s not something I can always say about components costing far more than the Arcam’s $3600/pair. I further thought that I could probably live very happily with them, and mused about how they had exploded some of the myths and prejudices I had carried with me into the review process, only to abandon them as I fell under the FMJ P1s’ charms. They should be on any short list of high-value amplifiers.

…Dan Davis

Arcam FMJ P1 Mono Amplifiers
Price: $3600 USD per pair.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

Pembroke Avenue
Cambridge, England CB5 9PB, UK
Phone: (44) (0)1223-203203

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

US Distributor:
Audiophile Systems
P.O. Box 50710
Indianapolis, IN 46250-0710
Phone: (317) 841-4100
Fax: (317) 841-4107

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

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