Arcam gets ready for a Blu-ray future

"What is Arcam up to?" is a topic of much heated debate on our Forums. It's a sign of the interest in one of the stalwarts of British hi-fi and home cinema that one of the most read news stories on right now is our report that Arcam will show a prototype of its first Blu-ray player at the Bristol Sound and Vision Show next month.

Loyal fans have been crying out for a British Blu-ray player to rival those from the big-name Japanese companies. Having caught a glimpse of Arcam's prototype BD player shown at CES in Las Vegas earlier this month, we decided it was time to pay a visit to Arcam's HQ just outside Cambridge and find out what the company is working on.

Prototype Blu-ray player will debut at Bristol Show

It's been a few years since I last visited the factory, and much has changed since then. High-definition TV and surround sound have arrived on the scene, Blu-ray won the format war with HD-DVD and digitally downloaded music has made serious inroads into CD sales.

It's all a far cry from the day 32 years ago when Arcam was founded. Then hi-fi was a relatively simple business: all you needed was a stereo amp, turntable and a pair of speakers. The company was founded on the success of its first amplifier, the A60, which came out in 1976 and sold more than 30,000 units around the world.

The founders first began building sound reproduction equipment in 1972 while they were still science and engineering students at Cambridge University. The company's first products were originally branded A & R Cambridge Ltd, standing for 'Amplification and Recording'.

Geoff Meads, Arcam's brand manager

Fast forward to 2009 and the world is a very different place. Blu-ray, multichannel high-definition audio, wireless streaming, the web - all this and more are major challenges for small, high-tech companies like Arcam.

We met up with managing director Charlie Brennan and brand manager Geoff Meads. They and their development team have spent the last three years building the FMJ AVR600, Arcam's first multichannel receiver capable of handling all the new high-definition surround sound formats such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.

Arcam FMJ AVR600 £2750

Arcam is playing catch-up with its key rivals such as Onkyo, Sony, Denon, Marantz and Pioneer, all of whom already have a range of Blu-ray compatible amps and receivers on the market.

Developing a product such as the AVR600 is a major undertaking for a company of Arcam's size. It has 55 employees in the UK, where all R&D is undertaken, and manufactures around 50 per cent of its products in this country, including the Solo Movie, and the remaining 50 per cent (mainly the big AV amps/receivers and other Solo models) in the Far East.

Inside a Solo Movie 5.1 on the production line

A key part of its design philosophy is to create products that excel with music playback as well as movies. That has been one of the key challenges with the AVR600, which draws on Arcam's hi-fi pedigree to ensure that its performance with stereo and multichannel music is as good as it can be.

Of course, anyone buying an AVR600 is likely to use it primarily for home cinema duties, and this is where companies the size of Arcam have to compete against the big boys. And it's a costly business. Licensing the technology required from the likes of Dolby and DTS does not come cheap, and then there are the technical challenges of making it all work.

HDMI is a case in point. It's supposed to be a universal standard, but ensuring that any AV amp or receiver will work properly with whatever it's partnered with can defeat even the biggest names in the business. Remember the problems Sony had getting its STR-DG820 to extract surround sound from the Sky+/Sky HD box?

So Arcam has undertaken a huge amount of testing on the AVR600 to iron out any snags. The first 100 units are about to roll off the production line and, at £2750 each, make their way into customers' homes.

The video testing suite for picture calibration

During our visit we were given a preliminary demo of the FMJ AVR600 in Arcam's test room, and initial impressions were good. We listened to a variety of material, including a multichannel DVD of Norah Jones in DTS 5.1 and a recording of Jools Holland's Hootenanny from the BBC HD channel. You'll be able to hear it for yourself on the Monitor Audio stand at the Bristol Sound and Vision Show next month.

The AVR600 uses a substantial toroidal transformer and Class G amplification, enabling it to deliver 7x120W while still running relatively cool. It offers three-zone operation, Dolby Volume, extensive control flexibility for custom installation and as you can see from the picture has been designed with a minimalist fascia with no large volume control.

It also includes video upscaling and conversion, five HDMI inputs and two HDMI outputs, and can be turned into a high-quality stereo amp at the push of a button.

A ready-prepared amplifier circuit board

But what the AVR600 is crying out for is a Blu-ray player. Here, again, Arcam is having to play catchup. We saw the prototype model in development, which you'll be able to see at the Bristol Show too, but it's still a long way from completion. I'd be surprised to see it on sale before the end of this year.

And herein lies the rub. The time and money required to develop new products in such a fast-moving and technically complex market is considerable, especially for a relatively small company like Arcam. It simply doesn't have the huge R&D resources of the big boys, so its products tend to take longer to come to market.

But in the case of Blu-ray, that could be an advantage. Rival manufacturers who jumped in first with Profile 1.0 players are now having all sorts of problems with newer BD Live discs that won't play on their machines – firmware updates are all the rage. Arcam's player will be Profile 2.0 from day one, and they believe they'll be able to learn from others' mistakes.

Also in development, and to be unveiled at the Bristol Sound and Vision Show, is Arcam's new multichannel pre/power combo, the FMJ AV888 and P777 (below).

Arcam FMJ AV888/P777

This mighty behemoth will of course handle all the new high-definition audio formats, pumps out 150W across all seven channels and includes Dolby Volume gain control as part of the spec.

With all this talk of Blu-ray and HD surround sound, it would be easy to forget that Arcam still remains loyal to its hi-fi roots. Recent products include the A38 amplifier and FMJ CD17 CD player, both of which we've tested, and the CD37 CD player that we're currently testing for our March issue, on sale from February 11th.

Arcam Solo Mini

The new FMJ T32 DAB/FM tuner has also just arrived in the warehouse so will be shipping to dealers any day.

But its biggest success has been the Solo range of one-box systems: first came the stereo Solo system, then the Solo 5.1, followed by the Solo 2.1 and the Solo Mini. The company now makes up to 12 different versions of the Solo for markets around the world, which keeps the production department on its toes.

This is going to be a challenging year for Arcam as it brings two major new products to market, plus a new website that's due to go live in a couple of weeks. There's no doubt the company has the necessary enthusiasm and expertise, and a very loyal customer base.

We left the Arcam crew building and testing a new batch of Solo Movie machines, which were set for diverse destinations including a legendary guitarist's yacht. One Solo Movie for every room on said yacht, that is...

Solo Movies being assembled at Arcam's Cambridge HQ

Andy Clough

Andy is Global Brand Director of What Hi-Fi? and has been a technology journalist for 30 years. During that time he has covered everything from VHS and Betamax, MiniDisc and DCC to CDi, Laserdisc and 3D TV, and any number of other formats that have come and gone. He loves nothing better than a good old format war. Andy edited several hi-fi and home cinema magazines before relaunching in 2008 and helping turn it into the global success it is today. When not listening to music or watching TV, he spends far too much of his time reading about cars he can't afford to buy.