Audiophiles are generally skeptical of multifunction high-end audio components that promise “convenience,” and who can blame them? Haven’t we all, at one point or another, had hopes raised and then dashed by products that promised to do many things, but wound up doing none of them well? I was a skeptic, too, until I plugged in Arcam’s sleek Solo stereo receiver/CD-player. This little unit looks great, is incredibly easy to use, and delivers sophisticated high-end sound—all for a manageable $1599. It also includes a raft of custom installation-oriented features, a built-in clock with sophisticated alarm functions, plus a front-panel jack where you can hook up an iPod. But the biggest news is that the Solo can be taken seriously as a vehicle for making music in your home.
The Solo is effectively three units in one—integrated amplifier, tuner, and CD player—but I will focus on its overall sound, and if I had to describe that sound in one word, I’d choose suave. For reasons I’ll explain below, I think that word fits this component like a glove.
First, through the broad body of the midrange, the Solo sounds smooth, cohesive, and self-confident, serving up purity of timbre, neutral tonal balance with a touch of gentle warmth, and rock-solid imaging. On Philip Hii’s classical guitar recording of the Chopin Nocturnes [GSP] the Solo demonstrated all three qualities, revealing the round, liquid tone of Hii’s guitar, underscoring the quicksilver speed of his playing, and placing the performer precisely at center stage. It was as if Philip Hii was playing directly across the room from my couch—a spooky illusion reinforced by myriad small details such as occasional string noises or the creak of Hii’s stool as he leaned over his guitar.
Second, the Solo is articulate, offering resolution and definition easily on a par with those of other good mid-priced high-end CD player/integrated amplifier combinations. Rather than razzle-dazzle details, the Solo offers a more profound though initially less spectacular form of clarity—one that invites you to reach deep inside the music, especially on vocal tracks, to tease out subtle shades of meaning and emotion. On evocative tracks such as Lori Lieberman’s haunting “Three Rivers” from Drive On [Lost Highway], where the singer explores the sense of loss we experience when we allow loved ones to slip too easily from our lives, the Solo can literally bring tears to one’s eyes.
Third, the 50Wpc Solo offers more apparent “grunt” than its power specifications would suggest. Though it does not offer the irresistible clout of amps offering 200-plus watts per channel, it more than holds it own within its power class. Though some competing products can sound more lively or dynamically explosive than the Solo does, its unbeatable combination of warmth, smoothness, clarity, and ample power give it—here’s that word again—a suave, urbane sound that you can enjoy for hours on end.
Finally the Solo’s FM tuner section deserves special mention. Tuners are too often tacked on as afterthoughts, but the Solo’s FM section sounds good enough that you’ll no longer have to guess which of your local stations uses superior sounding playback equipment. Instead, the Solo has the ability to turn local FM stations into viable, perhaps even primary, music sources. Very cool.
The Solo does have a few drawbacks, but they are minor. First, it does not offer the last word in transparency and focus, nor does it offer the sort of ultra-quiet noise floor that can help make dynamics and inner details “pop.” Second, the Solo’s overall soundstage depth is good but not great meaning that stage depth sometimes seems compressed. Third, the Solo’s bass, though decent, could use even more resolution, tautness, and extension.
Finally, I’d like to see Arcam offer the option of an onboard phono stage, plus dual sets of speaker binding posts (to facilitate bi-wiring). But these are minor nitpicks, because the Solo's sound is terrific overall.
Think of the Solo as an excellent $700+ CD player, $800+ integrated amplifier, and $400+ FM/AM tuner packaged in one stylish chassis and selling the bargain price of $1599 (remote control included). That price will seem an even bigger bargain once you realize the Solo needs no expensive interconnect cables whatsoever.
The bottom line is that the Solo makes an ideal component for newcomers who want to climb way up the high-end audio performance ladder in one simple move.
Just match the Solo with any of today’s better value-priced, near-full-range speakers and you’ll have a dynamite music system to savor for years to come. TPV