There must be something in the water in Cambridge, England.
Not only did Cambridge Audio emerge from the university city, but so too did another bastion of British hi-fi. Amplification Recording and Cambridge (as it was known originally) was founded back in 1976, the brainchild of John Dawson and Chris Evans, who met while studying at Cambridge University. Over the years, the name was shortened to A&R Cambridge before Arcam was adopted in the 1980s.
Arcam has cast its product net far and wide over the years, always willing to experiment and entertain new product categories as they have emerged. From iPod speaker docks to standalone DACs, DVD players to music streamers, Arcam hasn’t been afraid to push itself, and the sonic envelope, in terms of both design and performance.
And the results speak for themselves. We’ve seen some absolutely classic products emerge over the years, and in celebration of British Hi-Fi Week, we highlight a number of them below. We kick things off where it all started, with a classic stereo amplifier…
A&R Cambridge A60 (1979)
Arcam got off to a flier with its first-ever product, the A60. Launched in 1976, it was a well-equipped integrated amplifier, with a solid selection of line-level inputs and a quality moving-magnet phono stage. We were impressed by the A60's solid build and sound quality from the start. It cost £190 in the early Eighties and was very much the go-to middle-market amplifier of the time.
The A60's smooth presentation and expressive midrange made it a fun and entertaining listen. It was surefooted rhythmically and provided decent punch too. The power output of 40W per channel wasn't special, by any means, but it was still enough to work with a wide range of speakers.
A&R Cambridge P77 (1977)
If you were looking to upgrade your record player in the late 70s, Arcam’s budget P77 cartridge would probably have been somewhere on your shopping list. It was designed using Japanese parts and boasted excellent tracking ability, although you needed to get the right capacitive loading to get the best sound from the moving-magnet design. We were big fans of its wonderfully open and intimate soundstage at the time, as well as its dynamics, and its rhythmic ability.
The cartridge wasn’t completely immune from criticism, however. We questioned its “slightly fat bass quality and a brightness when not correctly loaded”, proof that there’s always room for improvement, even in some top-performing products.
A&R Arcam Two (1985)
Arcam might be better known for its electronics, but in 1985 it managed to serve up a cracking pair of stereo speakers in the shape of the Arcam Two. For petite budget standmounters, these really stood out from their rivals. This was partly down to the fantastic build quality on offer. The real-wood finish was superb, while each cabinet was heavily braced and damped to keep vibrations to a minimum. A&R even offered optional wooden pedestal stands for you to perch them on.
We highlighted their “marvellous” stereo imaging and the fact they weren’t lacking in top end detail. They also displayed a “midrange resolution which is of benefit with any kind of music”. At the same time, though, this was a pair of speakers that also benefited from careful system matching. We noted the Arcam’s weighty bass had the potential to sound a little thick and unwieldy if the speakers were partnered with unsuitable electronics.
Arcam Alpha 7 (1996)
Based on Arcam's landmark Alpha One CD player, the Alpha 7 left the competition in its wake when it launched back in 1996. The ‘7’ featured a modular design, which offered the possibility of an upgrade path. This meant that with a new DAC board and a badge change you could transform the Alpha 7 into an Alpha 8. Neat.
It had a smooth, mature and relaxing sound, which made for treble that was softer than that from other players. But the sound had a good weight to it, which helped tracks sound big and substantial where necessary. The Alpha 7 took the game to similarly priced Japanese efforts and held its own – and not many affordable British-made players achieved such a feat.
Arcam DiVA A85 (2001)
The A85 was different from its forebears. Where previous Arcam efforts veered towards warm and safe, the A85 had the ferocity of a sledgehammer smashing through glass. It worked well with all genres of music, with no trace of boom or bloom, and a clarity that extended throughout the frequency range.
We noted its "immaculately clean" midrange that had a resolution its rivals couldn't match. The A85 was a sonic leader in its class, a fully featured amp that blew away the competition.
Arcam FMJ AV8 / FMJ P7 (2002)
If we were to make a list of home cinema highlights from the noughties, then Arcam’s potent processor/power amp combo would be a shoo-in. Granted, at £5500 for the pair, it wasn’t cheap, but the AV8/P7 justified every penny thanks to its breathtaking sonic ability.
The P7 power amp boasted an impressive 170W of power into seven channels, and it deployed it all with a sofa-shaking amount of force. The beauty of this Arcam pairing, though, was also its musicality. It was capable of elevating any movie soundtrack to a level where the listener couldn’t help but be blown away.
For the time, there was also a fair chunk of technology on show too. The AV8 showcased THX Ultra2 certification, and included format support for THX Surround EX and DTS-ES, among others. Remember, this was before the days of HDMI sockets and Dolby Atmos.
- Our pick of the best AV receivers you can buy
Arcam Solo (2005)
For hi-fi fans who couldn’t accommodate a stack of separates, the Arcam Solo was the perfect solution – it provided the convenience of a one-box micro system with sensational sound quality. All you needed to do was add speakers. It was the benchmark product of its kind back in 2005, a premium hi-fi set-up that delivered brilliance across the board.
Playing a wide variety of genres, the Solo just refused to put a foot wrong and produced “consistently listenable results, packed with detail and expressive dynamics”.
The Arcam looked understated, but extremely elegant at the same time - the unit felt solid and was beautifully finished too. It combined CD player, DAB/FM tuner and amplifier to fantastic effect and you even had the option of connecting an iPod and controlling it through the Solo’s remote control. As an all-in-one proposition it was very tough to beat.
- Read our Arcam Solo review
Arcam rDAC (DAC) 2010
Thanks to the increasing amount of music being stored on computer hard drives, DACs (digital to analogue convertors) had exploded into the mainstream by the time the Arcam rDAC arrived on the scene in 2010. It was a talented device and Arcam got the design, the feature set and the sonic performance absolutely spot on. Emphasis was put on the performance from the asynchronous USB input for computer-based music and the company focused heavily on reducing jitter (digital timing errors).
But to be fair, the rDAC performed well across all inputs delivering a “spacious, controlled and big-boned sound”. Low frequencies were controlled yet authoritative, and detail levels and the DAC's ability to translate textures accurately was second to none at the money. A superb example of its kind.
- Read our Arcam rDAC review
Arcam rCube (2011)
With the rCube, Arcam proved it could be flexible enough to shift from traditional separates and embrace new sources of audio – in this case, the Apple iPod. This portable music player’s emergence spawned the arrival of numerous iPod speaker docks which brought added convenience and a new angle to home audio.
There was no lack of rivals on the market at the time, but, to its credit, Arcam rose to the challenge. The rCube not only delivered excellent cohesive sound quality, it also offered portability (via the rechargeable battery) video playback and a wireless option; it even had multi-room potential – you could buy two and stream from one to the other. Its design meant the speaker dock sounded better tucked in the corner of a room, but it also featured an all-important ‘bass’ boost function which gave it a helping hand in open space. A very clever speaker that stood out from the crowd.
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