While Arcam have been an undeniably potent force in British hi-fi for many, many years, their integrated amplifiers have always had a higher profile than their pre-power combinations. However, notwithstanding the rise and rise of the “high-end integrated”, the Cambridge company clearly believe that there is still a market for the pre-power approach, their FMJ series offering the C31 pre along with both stereo and mono power amp options, in the shape of the P38 and the P1 respectively.
OK, the FMJ components may not be the most obviously styled on the market, but their classically simple design themes look as fresh today as they did when the series was first launched, and will probably continue to age a lot better than their more outre contemporaries. In terms of construction, they might not offer the sheer bling factor of some of the Far-Eastern competition, but finish is admirable, and the casework feels solid and well-damped for their price point (which certainly makes a nice change from half-inch thick facias fronting folded steel casework of gong-like resonance).
If styling is understated, the C31’s feature count is anything but. Connectivity includes no less than seven single-ended inputs (including two tape loops); one balanced and two singleended pre-outs (one buffered for long cable runs, one direct); headphone output plus an optional MM/MC phono stage (£110). Functionality includes balance, individual trimming of inputs plus three switchable levels of volume resolution. In fact, the only hint of hair shirt is the lack of a tone control, which will be many buyer’s preference anyway. While there is some duplication of function between the facia’s two ranks of buttons, the labeling and purpose of all controls is highly intuitive. So intuitive, in fact, that the C31 is that rarest of beasts, a feature-rich component which can be quickly and easily set up without even a cursory glance at a manual. All functionality can be managed via the on-unit controls or the comprehensive remote handset (which, happily, is almost as intuitive as the unit itself).
Visually, the P38 is minimalism personified, with only Arcam and FMJ logos plus power-on and speaker select buttons adorning the fascia. Connectionwise, there are single-ended inputs only (the C31’s balanced output being aimed at the suitably equipped P1 monoblocs). Single-ended pre-outs for bi-amping purposes plus two sets of Arcam’s bananafriendly binding posts complete the rear panel furniture, while claimed power output is a none-too-shabby 105 Watts per channel. First impression of the combination was of a “polite” and refined sound. If that sounds like damnation with faint praise, it would be doing the pair a serious injustice. Underneath their undeniably cultured presentation, the Arcams were providing a beautifully balanced performance, with no little excitement where appropriate. Mid/high frequency reproduction seemed to lack nothing in terms of transient impact or detail, yet was totally immune to any sense of brittleness or edge, even when dynamic and frequency peaks coincided. At times, the production of Eva Cassidy’s Time After Time (Hot Records) treads a fine line between clarity and brightness, but the C31 and P38 navigated the challenge with a refined grace which presented Eva’s vocal dynamics in a wonderfully fatigue-free manner. While logic suggested that such smooth presentation must be filtering out some degree of detail, my ears told me that the Arcams were actually digging out considerably more nuance and atmosphere than many more overtly up-front and apparently detailed components.
At the opposite end of the frequency spectrum, bass character was a little tougher to call. While it was undoubtedly both rhythmically tight and gratifyingly detailed, the over-riding feeling was of virtuous neutrality. What I can say with confidence is that there was sufficient grip to make my Focal Micro Utopias sound considerably larger than they have any right to. The rumbling sousaphone in Eric Bibb’s ‘Get It While It’s Hot’ (Just Like Love, Opus 3), had a tremendous sense of multi-layered resonance, and presented a weightily impressive presence in the room, which belied the speakers lone 165mm mid-bass drivers. Joining the two extremes, the midrange displayed just a hint of warmth but, as with the high-frequencies, there seemed to be no attendant loss in impact or detail. A case in point was Elvis Costello’s ‘Alison’ (My Aim Is True). While there was definitely a beguiling hint of richness to the overall presentation, every nuance of that multi-faceted buzz-saw of a vocal was faithfully reproduced. A slightly more mellow test was supplied by ‘The Way We Were’, where the utter precision of Barbra Streisand’s voice was vividly highlighted. The Arcam casting a vivid spotlight on the last lingering phrases of the song, where I could clearly hear the gentle ebb and flow of the last held note as it gently faded away. More impressive still was the fact that the residual breath remained audible long after the note finally died, impressively demonstrating the singer’s almost supernatural levels of vocal control.