Drilling a little deeper than a broadbrush summary by frequency, it was this amazing level of transparency that really surprised me. If my previous experience of Arcam amplification has been that this aspect of performance was good rather than outstanding, the C31 and P38 were definitely reversing that view, at their price point, really something quite special. Initially, the fine levels of transparency were most apparent some way back in the mix, with backing instruments and vocals, at times displaying quite staggering levels of timbral discrimination. Happily, there was never a sense of background musical themes being unduly emphasized; rather, they kept their proper place in the mix, just with a greater sense of realism and life than I would normally expect at this price level. In terms of primary vocals and instruments, the main beneficiary was a terrific sense of life-like presence, which provided very solid and atmospheric imaging. In terms of sound-staging, size and precision were realistic rather than being cavernous or millimetrically precise, but this was entirely in keeping with the units’ overall character – subtle rather than in-your-face but, particularly with intimate material, all the better for it.
Upping the tempo a little with AC/DC’s ‘Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be’ (Let There Be Rock) there was a definite spring in the Arcam pairings’ step. While I have heard this guitar driven masterpiece reproduced with a touch more weight and impact, there was a tremendous sense of musical energy. Once again, levels of detail were surprising with Malcolm and Angus Young’s loosely synchronised guitars displaying myriad variations in instrumental timbre and technique while Bon Scott’s characteristically, errm, enthusiastic vocal provided an impressively solid central image. At all comfortable listening levels (and some way beyond), musical themes remained satisfyingly independent of each other, meaning quite exhilarating volume was possible without the sound becoming oppressive.
Sticking with AC/DC material, Hayseed Dixie’s wonderfully manic “rockgrass” interpretation of ‘A Whole Lotta Rosie’ (Let There Be Rockgrass, Cooking Vinyl) repeated the themes of a vivid sense of musical energy combined with well-drawn and highly detailed vocal and instrumental images. Reproduction of the fastest fiddle passages confirmed that the Arcams’ deal with rapid tempo with both clarity and poise. However, they did not reach the absolute pinnacle of fluidity, with just the last iota of temporal detail being glossed over .
Overall, the units’ performance with Rock material was highly enjoyable, with a premium being placed on detail and verve, perhaps at the expense of ultimate weight and impact. Of course, the relatively small two-way Micro Utopias are never going to reproduce infrasonic frequencies, but the C31 and P38 are not components which are likely to beat you around the head with the frequency extremes. To my ears, their performance was extremely well balanced, but an audition with the partnering speakersto- be should, of course, be part of the buying process.
Inevitably, the Arcam combo did concede a little ground to higher priced kit in certain aspects of their performance. One such area would be grace under (extreme) pressure. While at no time could I provoke the P38 into any harsh clipping behavior, the amp lost just a little of its grace and refinement when confronted with the triple whammy of dynamically challenging and musically congested material, played at genuinely high levels. The effect was fairly subtle, but as the amp reached its limits, there was just a little less control of individual musical themes than that provided by the real solid-state powerhouses. That said, for listeners with typical European-sized listening rooms (particularly those of us who suffer the tyranny of party walls), the P38’s output and speaker control would be wholly adequate for the vast majority of the time. If four-figure output behemoths (with price tags to match) have the genuine capability to recreate musical events at life-like volumes, the Arcam is more about providing a modulated version, at sound-pressure levels more appropriate to domestic locations. By this criterion, it retained its composure well up to the onset of serious “party” volumes. At which levels, a mild case of musical congestion within the most challenging material is forgivable and, perhaps, almost inevitable with sensibly priced and sized amplifiers.
The C31/P38 pairing definitely leans towards the musical end of the spectrum, as opposed to the overtly hi-fi. While they are undoubtedly talented all-rounders, my feeling is that they are marginally better matched to the mellow amongst us rather than the manic. However, I should stress that this statement is more a reflection of their lightness of touch than an indication that they are lacking in either power or drive.