As a general rule serious audiophiles are pretty 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 a great many things, but that wound up doing none of them well. In principle, we are in favor of audio components that combine functions and are easy to use, but only provided that they put sound quality first—which turns out to be a taller order to fill than you might think. Is it realistic to hope that any manufacturer can successfully combine convenience, multiple functions, and puristpleasing sound in one neat, affordable package? Frankly, I had my doubts right up until I plugged in Arcam's sleek little Solo stereo receiver/CD-player, which really surprised me; it looks great, is incredibly easy to use, and delivers genuinely sophisticated highend sound—all for a very manageable $1599. What is more, the Solo includes a raft of custom installationoriented features, a built-in clock with sophisticated alarm functions (could the Solo be the "clock radio" of the gods?), plus a front-panel jack where you can hook up an iPod. But flexible and appealing though these features may be, the big news is that the Solo deserves to be taken seriously as a vehicle for making music in your home.
Though the Solo is effectively three units in one—integrated amplifier, tuner, and CD player—I'm going to focus on its overall sound, and if I had to describe that sound in just one word, the word I'd choose would be "suave." I realize the term "suave" may not be part of our shared audiophile lexicon, but I think it fits this component like a glove for reasons I'll explain below.
First, throughout the broad body of the midrange, the Solo sounds smooth, cohesive, and self-confident, with reassuring freedom from sonic discontinuities. The goodness of the Solo's midrange hinges partly on purity of timbre, partly on the subtle warmth of its tonal balance, and partly on rock-solid imaging. Philip Hii's classical guitar recording of the Chopin Nocturnes [GSP] gave the Solo an opportunity to demonstrate all three qualities at once, as it revealed the round, almost liquid tone of Hii's guitar, underscored the quicksilver speed and dexterity of his playing (these Chopin pieces demand serious virtuosity), and placed the performer precisely at center stage and a little behind the plane of my speakers. This is probably one of the most lusciously three-dimensional CDs I own, and when equipment is up to the task the result can be the spooky illusion that Philip Hii is playing directly across the room from my listening couch; the Solo did the job. Part of the fun of this recording involves its myriad small details, such as occasional string noises or the almost imperceptible creak of Hii's stool as he leans over his guitar, and I appreciated the fact that the Solo caught those details without "overcooking" them. Instead, the Solo just let notes unfold and flow in a natural, unforced way.
Second, the Solo is articulate, offering resolution and definition that are easily on a par with those of other good mid-priced high-end CD player/integrated amplifier combinations. Interestingly, the Arcam's articulacy is not so much the razzle-dazzle kind that makes you think, "Ooooh, listen to all those dramatic details." Instead, the Solo offers a more profound though initially less spectacular form of articulacy—one that invites you to reach deep i n s i d e the music, especially on vocal tracks, to tease out subtle shades of meaning and emotion. I experienced the Solo's power in this area as I listened to 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, and by extension, from life itself. Lieberman's voice is full of deep yet restrained sorrow and regret as she sings, "Here's all that's left at the end of you/A space in my heart that a plane could fly through/And an emptiness so vast and so wide/Three rivers of sorrow could flow inside." Not all hi-fi equipment can unlock the power of this song, but the Solo does, and its ability to foster a deep emotional connection between the listener and the music convinces me it's a very special product.
Third, the 50Wpc Solo sounds more robust, and offers more perceived "grunt," than its power specifications would suggest. While the Solo does not offer the irresistible clout of amps offering 200+ watts per channel, it more than holds it own within its own power class. As I listened to the Solo, I thought back to the sound of the Exposure 2010 integrated amplifier I reviewed in The Absolute Sound more than a year ago (Issue 149), and realized the two made an interesting study in contrasts. Where the Exposure offered livelier and more explosive dynamics, the Solo initially sounded more subdued, but it ultimately sounded better balanced to me, offering greater bass weight and warmth, and showing none of the Exposure's tendency toward occasional upper midrange/treble edginess. The Solo's combination of gentle 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.