Does this amount to a tube-like presentation on the part of the Arcam units? Not a bit of it. There wasn’t a hint of extra bloom or ripeness or bloat or mellowness. There’s no reason not to look for surplus bloom, if that’s your bag. But what struck me so powerfully about the Arcam preamplifier and CD player was how far solidstate has come. Only five years ago, you would have been right to expect a far more relentless “transistor” sound. While I don’t think that tubes and solid-state will ever converge, it’s pretty hard to argue that solid-state is in some fundamental way deficient, at least when you hear this kind of sound at this price.
For the fact is that no matter how smooth it sounded, the Arcam never sacrificed resolution or articulation. Snare drums will have you saluting at attention. Cymbal crashes will have a nice amount of sizzle and decay without frying your ears. Nor will the Arcams have any trepidation about plunging down into the nether regions on organ music. They’ll give you the intake of breath as a singer prepares to launch into an aria. And brass instruments will have a nice sonority to them, to the extent that you can often hear the note emerging from the bore.
So unified did the Arcam units sound that to distinguish between bass, midrange, and treble with this preamplifier and CD player is, in a sense, a waste of time. The units were so coherent and integrated that I didn’t find myself trying to pick nits, or even thinking about them. Rather, I found the overall sound engrossing and somewhat confounding. At their respective prices, neither unit has any right to sound as good as it does.
At this point, I can hear the naysayers asking, “Well and good, but just how good can this equipment really be, compared to high-dollar digital?” Pretty darn good, I’m afraid. No, the Arcam CD player didn’t compete with my EMM Labs gear when it came to depth, slam, and power. Nor, I’m sure, would it match up to a dCS stack. Big deal. It’s not supposed to. I’m not even sure that it makes much sense to invest a lot of money in digital, at this point, because of how quickly the technology is advancing and the incipient format war once Blu-ray becomes, if it really does, a force in the marketplace.
Besides, if you already have a megabuck system, the Arcam gear is not for you, though it does, I have to say, provide a kind of reality check. Is it really that far off from running with the big dogs? The gap is narrower than you might think—or prefer. The Arcam duo is not entrylevel at its price. What it does is give you a ton of performance for spending just a little beyond a true budget system. I guess if I had to choose between one of the two units, I’d opt for the CD player, which offers the most for the least.
But to be honest, I didn’t really find myself hankering for much more when listening to the Arcam units. They provided everything that more sophisticated digital units do, but with not quite as much flesh on the notes. There was a little oomph missing that a much more expensive player will belt out. Still, some of this may well simply be a design choice, in which Arcam has chosen to offer a suaver, more holistic sound rather than to emphasize any particular frequency range. Such euphonic colorations can initially grab your attention with their gee-whiz effect, but eventually become unrealistic and rather tiresome. It’s awfully hard not to admire how much Arcam has wrung out of the latest technology and how deftly it has deployed it by putting music in the foreground. To put this another way, with these units the technology is at the service of the music rather than the reverse.
Having myself started out in audio with a fairly modest system several years ago, I fully appreciate the need for equipment that doesn’t require a second or, the way prices of audio equipment seem to be going these days, even third mortgage. Kudos to Arcam for putting together a sensibly priced and excellentsounding CD player and preamplifier which demonstrate that the high end can be about more than exorbitant prices.