The Arcam FMJ A19 is a new integrated stereo amplifier that joins the ranks of Arcam’s high-end FMJ series – and for a competitively priced £650, it’s an extremely talented performer.
The ‘FMJ’ in the name stands for Full Metal Jacket, and refers to Arcam’s steel-and-aluminium casework – which is as sturdy and substantial as you might expect.
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Features and connectivity
Inside, the circuitry has been upgraded to a new design that incorporates high-quality components, an ultra low-noise power supply, and a completely new headphone stage that the Cambridge-based company claims to be the equivalent of a £150 standalone headphone amp.
There’s a respectable 50W of power for each channel, and a sensible amount of connections on offer here.
Arcam has kept things simple with six line level inputs for connecting CD players, streamers, Blu-ray players, and similar source kit with analogue connections.
There’s also an input for a moving magnet phono stage, and a 3.5mm headphone output (more on those two later).
Each input has a respective source button on the front panel – it’s a simple and clean design. The dimmable display is easy to read and can be turned off, while the compact remote that comes with it is functional and easy to use.
If you want yet another analogue connection, you can bypass the phono stage and turn it into to a regular line-level input: press the phono and balance buttons simultaneously and switch between options using the volume dial.
There are no digital inputs, but there is an upgrade path offered in the guise of a second internal power supply that can drive products from Arcam’s own rSeries, such as the rDAC, rPAC, rLink and new Bluetooth-toting wireless receiver rBlink.
After letting it run in as per usual over a few nights, we connected the A19 to our reference kit, which includes a Naim NDS streamer and ATC SCM50 speakers. A £6250 streamer and £8,000-odd pair of speakers are probably overkill for a £650 amplifier, but we do find them to form the most revealing of systems.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Arcam amplifier is its scale – it’s very big indeed, filling up our largish listening room with clean, open sound.
We played a variety of music styles, from Norah Jones to The Kinks to Major Lazer, and the Arcam delivers a well-balanced and detailed performance on the whole.
The synthesised bass notes of On We March from The Social Network soundtrack hit with precision and depth, keeping in time with the melodic piano. There’s a good sense of weight and authority too, keeping the discordant overtones of the dark, ambient sound tightly controlled in a wide soundfield
Switch to Amanda Palmer’s Ampersand, and detail levels are admirable, while vocals sound natural. There is a modicum of restraint to voices, however, which can rob a song of its emotional insight – the connection to Palmer’s lyrics falls a little flat, and this quality leaves us feeling a little bit underwhelmed.
The overall presentation feels a bit too sedate, and there’s a sense of wanting to urge the Arcam on just a bit more to a more exciting and involving performance.
We found that the Arcam A19 needs some careful system partnering to truly shine. We swapped our neutral-sounding ATCs for the KEF LS50s speakers – and the change in pace was immediate.
The KEFs, our 2012 Product of the Year at £800, have a lively and open presentation that suits the Arcam amplifier a treat. There’s an instant lift to its sound, with a warmer and livelier presentation that shows off what this amp can really do.
As we spend more time with the A19, it’s clear that its strength lies in its competence. Each musical element is delivered with a remarkable amount of composure and stability that isn’t immediately apparent.
The Arcam doesn’t go for any flashy effects to try and impress – it simply delivers an informative and assured performance really commands your attention.
Comparisons with the Rega Brio-R (£480) and the Cyrus 6a (£700) are inevitable – both are Award-winners for their respective price categories.
The Rega’s talent with musical rhythms and enjoyable sound has kept it a Best Buy for two years in a row, and its warm tone is an instantly engaging listen. The Cyrus 6a, on the other hand, is admired for its speedy, precise and light-footed delivery.
But the Arcam’s scale is unmatched – the soundfield is noticeably larger and more open than both the Rega and Cyrus amps, with instruments having plenty of space to breathe. The A19 has layers upon layers of subtle detail on the Rega, and displays a touch more refinement compared with the fast and agile Cyrus.
Regarding the phono stage and the headphone output – both are capable performers that retain the characteristics of the A19’s overall sound.
There’s a touch more bite and attack when listening through headphones as you’re physically closer to the music, but it’s not sharp on the ears and the Arcam’s stability will withstand long-term listening.
Pair it with a Rega turntable, and the mellow glow of vinyl suits it well. The A19 has no trouble in relaying the funky beats and melodic vocals of E Z Roller’s Walk This Land.
Once again on the topic of system matching, we tried the A19 with both the new Naim CD5si (£995) and the triple-Award-winning Audiolab 8200CD (£800) – two stellar CD players with very different characteristics.
The Naim complements the Arcam’s big and spacious sound, driving songs along with plenty of energy and authority. However, the full-bodied Naim has a naturally warm tone, which makes the Arcam sound just a little too rich and thick – qualities that don’t need any more emphasis.
The Audiolab 8200CD, to our ears, is a much better fit. It’s sharper and leaner – just enough to give the Arcam a bit of a kick. Everything sounds snappier, livelier and more upbeat.
Play Kimya Dawson’s Loose Lips, and the A19 has no trouble keeping up with her nimble, conversational lyrics – and the message of the song is delivered with plenty of punch and attitude.
There’s still a tiny hint of restraint, a reluctance to completely let itself loose and go wild, but the Arcam’s stability and composure is one of its defining features.
The A19 is quietly confident of its ability to deliver a transparent and faithful sound – and its staggeringly open sound is wonderful to hear at this price.
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