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Arcam FMJ A28 integrated stereo amplifier - under sscrutiny
A trip down memory lane...
A decade ago. I bought my first serious music system after starting working life. I purchased a pair of £1k Castle floorstanders and the dealer recommended adding Arcam's CD72 cd player and DiVA A85 amp. The A85 was a very well-received Arcam product at that time by audio mags and it indeed sounded very nice with my chosen speakers. In the end though, I chose other components elsewhere (can't let the one same dealer make so much off me): Musical Fidelity's Darth-Vader-glossy E624 cdp and Audio Analogue's Puccini SE amp. I preferred the Puccini SE as it reproduced opera voices better than the A85. It had slight euphonic colourations compared to the more neutral A85, but those were the traits that made it more appealing. The Puccini was more rounded and rosy.
After this encounter with Arcam, I embarked on a decade-long dalliance with MF gear and largley ignored Arcam's following products.
cue Oct 2008... I was a happy owner of the MF X-T100 and Creek EVO amps, although looking for a new amp to take over the latter's duties. I bought the Hifi-Choice Oct issue as it had a supertest featuring the EVO (Best Buy, yippee) and the pricier Cambridge Audio I was looking closely at - the 840A V2 (Best Buy too). Also featured in the test was Arcam's newish FMJ A28. It didn't get a recommendation from Mr Black and I didn't pay it much attention either as it was the 840A V2 I was eyeing...
cue Dec 2010... The 840A V2 had long since fallen by the wayside as I found it a bit bright at the demo, with hints of congestion in the midrange when the music got busy. Instead, after a surprise stop at the Arcam shop, I chose the FMJ A28 for my New Year's Day present. (The Naim NAIT XS was to be the purchase but it was sold out and would take months for new stocks to reach Tipoca). I almost bought the FMJ A38 instead but the sound was very similar between both Arcam siblings so I decided to save some cash by making the A28 my first-ever Arcam amp.
cue Apr 2012... Fifteen months later, the A28 still has pride of place at solidsoffice serving up immaculately clean sound through the Spendor S3/5R. This amplifier has staying power, I like it! Although I reckon I should have gone all out then and bought the A38 the first time. But then, I wouldn't have got the even more superb Rega Elicit last September, so maybe it's a good thing I bought this A28 instead. Audio destiny works in mysterious ways lol.
Build and Design
Mr John Dawson is very likely a man with conservative, countrified tastes. The A28 is cast in the classic styling of the FMJ series. Depending on one's own tastes, it either looks neat and discreet. Or rather, in the silver finish with that black display window juxtaposed on the fascia, an antique video-cassette recorder - argghhh. An amp for vicars and Conservative backbenchers. A18-owner Nsherin had more hindsight and opted for his FMJ in the all-black finish. The matte silver photographs badly and looks grey in daylight fluorescent light. Bathed in warm fluorescent light, it's much more adorable.
The build quality is exemplary though. Unlike my Creek EVO which had a few sharp edges along certain sides. Or Cambridge Audio kit. I could run my fingers over any area of the A28 and not risk getting a cut. The A28's entire surface - side to side, knob to arse - is a smooth matte finish. That is good QC.
The FMJ series incorporates Arcam's proprietary Stealth Mat and MASK of Silence technologies. They are supposed to eradicate any deleterious effects of thermal excess on sound quality. I reckon they do their job. The A28 needs little warm-up time when powered on to produce its sonic consistency, nor does its chassis ever get worryingly hot when driving heavy low-impedance speaker loads.
Its 'video-cassette window' is an interface for the A28 owners to activate other features like AV bypass and record out selection. I don't use any of these except the Input Trim which increases the sensitivity of the line inputs from 0-8. To my ears it doesn't seem to have a polluting 'tone-control' effect on sound quality, offering useful gain only. The minimalist purist in me would rather prefer that this feature was not provided at all though. Better if Arcam had set this Input Trim at '8' or max all times and not offer the option for A28 owners to change the setting.
(NB: The Input Trim on the A38 goes from 0-12. That one would have triggered my OCD!)
Nominal power is quoted at 75W. The HFC test suggests 102W, while a Polish mag measured 91W and 131W at 8/4 ohms. I found the A28 to have sufficient power for real world needs.
Using the FMJ A28 brought me back to the time I first heard an Arcam amp - the DiVA A85. Clean, neutral and tidy are the shared traits. I reckon the A28 does have a performance advantage over the A85 though. I had bought the Audio Analogue Puccini SE over the A85 as its handling of voices was better than the A85's cooler treatment. In contrast, like its bigger sibling the A38, the A28 reproduces voices in a manner that is even more involving than the Puccini. Singers are very well-focused, clear and palpable yet shorn of the Puccini's euphonic tube-y warmth. The effect is very enjoyable. In this sense, I reckon Arcam's current FMJ range must have improved upon the earlier DiVA amps. I had demo'ed the A38 before the A28 and it was this ability with vocals that astounded me.
Its bass is well-articulated and taut and when paired with Arcam's Solo rDAC which has similar traits, the music-making is highly rhythmic and yes... PRaTty. This could be a surprise to people who have been sold on the idea often peddled on audio forums that the Arcam house sound is boring. Perhaps that applies to the older products, but I have not had a dull moment listening to pop and dance music. I particularly love the way the A28 handles percussive hits on hi-hats and acoustic drums, all the detail is there shorn of splashiness or excess reverb. It is all very taut and clean and makes it very easy to appreciate a jazz drummer's artistry.
Besides vocals and jazz drumming, saxophones also sound glorious through the A28. This lovely midrange performance coupled with the articulate bass and good rhythmic timing makes the A28 a natural for instrumental or vocal jazz music. This is the genre I really like to play through the A28. It captures the interplay between jazz musicians very effectively.
Weightier and more incisive rivals at solidschateau...
To go off on a nit-picking tangent, the A28's bass is less weighty than my Quad 909 and doesn't offer the latter's eye-popping deep slam when powering out orchestral tuttis. It is nimbler than the 909's heavy tread and is the better amp to negotiate dance and pop music. The 909 could elicit more midrange weight and surprising bass extension from my smaller monitors the Spendor S3/5R and Leema Xero than the A28. With the more dynamic ELAC BS244 and ATC SCM11, the A28 offered better agility in the bass than the 909, which made them sound a tad ponderous with dance music.
This comparatively lighter touch at the bass aside, I can't find fault the A28's sound much. It is clean and neutral, two adjectives that crop up often when people describe the Arcam sound. The treble is detailed enough although I definitely feel Arcam has done some subtle tailoring that makes it less brash with poorly mastered or compressed pop recordings. It's not recessed like the woolly treble of the NAD C326 I had but compared to my Rega Elicit, it doesn't go for broke when replaying treble-rich dance music. Consequently, the Elicit can sound etched and brightish with such music, whereas the A28 offers a more palatable reproduction that grates less on the nerves yet doesn't give the impression that the treble is smoothed off. The tailoring is very subtle IMO.
Prefers higher sensitivities and lower impedances...
The A28 didn't shine in that HFC grouptest where I noticed the test speakers were ATCs. ATCs are infamous for their insensitivity. Having tried the A28 with my 80.1dB SCM11, I think this partnership is not ideal. Despite the SCM11's comfortable impedance load, the A28 sounded boring and less dramatic. Which was the gripe of that HFC test. With the 84dB Leema Xero and 82dB Spendor S3/5R, the synergy was better. The Spendor makes a truly lovely partner for the A28 where the cultured smoothness synonymous with both brands meld to create a sonic canvas that was extremely bewitching with vocal and jazz music.
However, when the program turned to large-scale symphonic music, the A28 struggled to nail the dynamic peaks with the Spendor during the big moments. My vintage Musical Fidelity X-A2, also rated at 75W, could rouse a huge wall of sound from the S3/5R during massive Mahler climaxes whereas the A28 hit a plateau of safeness. Amp volts figure more than current when driving high-impedance speakers. The X-A2's manual quotes some impressive peak-to-peak voltage figures. The A28 doesn't provide this spec but I suspect it's less well-endowed than the MF in this regard.
When it comes to current, the A28 has enough juice to take on my 85dB ELAC BS244's sub 4-ohm bass driver. Here, with the same orchestral material, the A28 hit the peaks without any strain or sense of running out of power. It was dynamic and powerful where it was pallid with the SCM11. I can only surmise that the A28 shines best with a wide range of music when driving higher sensitivity and lower impedance loads. So, if you are considering it, best to choose appropriate partners.
Despite this lack of gumption with big orchestral music, I have the A28 paired with Spendor S3/5R where the smooth, detailed sound never fails to please with pop, jazz and acoustic music. Such performance in these genres is worth the price of not quite succeeding with gunpowder orchestral. If neutrality and tonal sophistication are what you are looking for, and you have up to £1k to spend, the A28 should be top on your shortlist.
^ Arcam FMJ A28... a smooth operator worthy of Sade's music
- clean, smooth and neutral
- excellent reproduction of vocals
- taut and rhythmic bass
- challenged by large-scale symphonic music through insensitive speakers
- it only fully reveals its dynamic chops with more sensitive speakers
May 9th 2012
Despite the earlier rant about the Young DAC's appearance, I took heed of wammate's recommendation and visited it. Add to that the weekend's audition of the fabled Naim DAC and I have realized just where I draw the line about my digital conversion requirements.
Welcome another chic black digital box to solidschateau!
^ Audiolab's M-DAC. solidsDAC no.6. An astonishing level of performance for its modest price. And now that it's plugged into my own system I'm beginning to appreciate it even more.
Will post thoughts about Naim's DAC over the week.
I think it is. You may be looking at the reflection.
And since all 7feet of him turned up and his birthday is looming, I'll christened my M-DAC - 'Bob'. That ought to elicit a tear from his "cruel and heartless" self.
Lefty, if you're looking in, I afraid to say I'm straining to hear where the M-DAC's treble is smoothed off. It is so much crisper and detailed on top than the analog-y Rega DAC. It's not bright like MF's M1-DAC, but some pop music is coming off really razor-sharp through the ELAC's ribbon tweeters.
Gyro, Jelly750d, AT33EV/OC9,Rondo, carts. Icon audio p.s.1.2 phono, C.A. Stream Magic 6, TEAC cd, Musical fidelity m1 d.a.c.(netgear readynas duo/acer timeline X lappy. Alva Nanoface) M.F. A1fbp pre XTZ ap100power,XTZ99.36 speakers,x-can v8 & x10v3, AKG 272hd
I'll never forget the day I brought this M-DAC home. When I took the Rega DAC home last year, the entire journey to and fro was most pleasant: I had a lovely lunch beforehand, the donut store stocked the flavours I wanted (and freshly baked) for my listening treat, as did the Nespresso capsule boutique. And I could listen to the Rega rig in peace.
In contrast, the process of bringing the M-DAC home was a page from a horror book. I had a bad hair day (arrgghhh! cheap curlers), the trip to the Young DAC dealer and back wasn't pleasant, the curry naan lunch kept me burping garlicky fumes. And when I stepped out of the building with my M-DAC carton, there was this HUGE grey-black thundercloud filling the entire sky from whose cover I could not escape. That triggered my acute astraphobia big-time. Instead of anticipating the listening session with the M-DAC, I had a panic attack and kept thinking 'the lightning is going to get me this time'.
The M-DAC's first three hours of running-in seemed like I had bought a faulty unit. The USB input kept clicking intermittently and the sound was bloated and sluggish. Then the superior from work called to bark 'something is wrong with April's expense accounts, where did this sum of money go to'. Stress!
I might be forgiven for thinking I had brought a memento made by the dev*l himself back home.
Good thing the bad voodoo has dissipated today. The M-DAC seems sufficiently run in and the quality of its sound might make anyone reckon Mr Westlake had made a pact with the D, to produce this level of performance at this price point. The doubly-priced Young DAC didn't do enough to convince me it was worth the extra over the M-DAC, imho.
The Naim DAC demo last weekend did, but its sonic signature is not to my taste.
This M-DAC is intended to replace the MF X components and partner my Quad 909-SCM11, reducing box-count and enabling me to bring the MFs to the flower shop to power the Leema Xeros. But its running-in trial with the Rega Elicit-ELACs is putting the Rega DAC in danger of being consigned to the lesser system.
Its Optimal Transient filters are the best-performing, similar to the Rega DAC's filters 4 & 5 in the elimination of pre-ringing. I planned to settle on Optimal Transient XD but read that Mr Westlake recommended the DD variant as offering more bass in certain systems. So I did some ab-ing between XD and DD and gosh, the DD gave my Elicit more material to display its bass prowess. It ploughed deeper than on XD. Plucked notes on jazz double basses were very tangible and well-shaped. Even more impressive is the performance in dance music. Synthesizer bass notes are deep, taut and very quick. Pulsating! My adrenaline is still coursing from that one hour of Madonna's MDNA album and selected Pet Shop Boys tracks. M-DAC > Elicit > ELAC is the PRaTtiest combo I've ever assembled.
After a year with the ELACs I thought I knew all about the JET III tweeters' performance. The M-DAC's crisp, clear treble brought a new measure of swiftness to the JETs. The speedy attack and clear enunciation on high-pitched instruments like solo violin or massed violins is electrifying. Yet shorn of any messy overhang. It's so fast and precise. Almost electro-static like. Vivaldi's Four Seasons sounds born anew.
Currently enjoying pop violinist David Garrett's fiddlings.
In these genres the M-DAC has the Rega DAC beat. But the following days will probably reveal areas where my gracious Essex beauty gets its own back.
^ mini Dana meets little Bob: Panda cuddle-ish analog-y sound vs towering, cruel, gleaming sonics.
So, how did you ever lose your common sense and replaced the Arcam for the coloured Naim components?
Your appearance on here is timely. Now that I have saved £1.4k by having the M-DAC instead of the Naim DAC, I'm considering making that big splurge and buy 'Nadal' - the standout winner from the previous weekend of demoing luxury standmounts.
Yep, the one who handily beat the B&W PM1, ProAC Response D2 and Spendor SP 3/1R2 is :
^ Dynaudio Focus 160!!! After five years to the same month when I bought my Focus 110, I'm in danger of becoming a Dynadude again.
But the 160 is no mildly reworked replacement for the 110 and 140. It is superbly improved. Those tweeters.The midband transparency. The bass power.
£1.9k in gloss piano black. This could be the last standmount I'll ever need.
Except there are other new desires on the block. On the second demo I simply had to invite trouble by asking hear the M-DAC with two new items - Quad Elite QSP and Wharfedale Jade 5. In a nutshell, this combo blew the Naim DAC, Nait XS and Neat Momentum 3i to the middle of next week. Quad's new current-dumper is better than the Elite monoblocks IMO and as for the Jade 5, it shocked me with its performance! Dare I say it's more accomplished than the B&W PM1?!! It's that 75mm midrange dome, it opens up vocal tracks better than the PM1's single meat and potato.
^ the build is immaculate
^ sexy tight black arse
£1.8k in gloss black finish. This could be the last floorstander I'll ever need.
Downside is: I can't believe I'm hankering after a Wharfedale product.
Well funny you should mention the Arcam. When we needed something altogether more purposeful for the 1.8s we tried a Krell, Meridian, Cyrus Pre/monos and...............the Arcam Pre/Monos with various source components. Mrs Strat progressively eliminated the first 3 but faltered over the Arcam. Given the neutrality there was of course nothing to criticise it for but it was the hi-fi equivalent of mineral water - perfect for Sade. And the rest they say............. Yes I'd like to hear those new Dynas but I can't believe that the M-Dac/Quad/Wharfedale, even given your predilection for style over substance (no smileys on the Blackberry), won out over the Naim/Neat. But more concerning from my point of view was when Mrs Strat came in the lounge the other evening and her favourite Rickie Lee track (Danny's All Star) was on and she asked how valve amps would sound. Well pretty anaemic with our speakers!
Lindsay, I'm sorry to inform you that the green plasma in your veins has percolated up to your poor old brain. You need to up your intake of fresh carrot juice to counteract your salisburian poisoning.
Personal preferences do play a role, but honestly, the M-DAC/Quad/Waffie demo produced sound that was more divine than the Naim-Neat. I reiterate that I find my 909's midrange reproduction more accomplished than the Nait XS's (that's why I bought it, duh!) Revisiting the XS last last weekend was nice, but the Quad QSP emanated such greatness it was a non contest. Sade's voice - phoar! An undulating column of smoky smoothness. (The Naims made her sound a bit leathery and skanky.)
The Jade 5 doesn't perform like a peanut-priced Waffie at all. Peter Comeau and his team must have burned up lots of midnight oil over the design. I'm reading up on its tech specs and available reviews. Can't believe the final call for solidsspeakers2012 comes down to a tussle between Dynaudio and Wafflesdale.
I'm pushing the purchase date to Aug 10 (). For now, I'm enjoying my new toy and the novelty will last until August. Running the M-DAC in pre-amp mode and it's changing the way I think what constitutes a future amplification upgrade for me.
Post more digital thoughts later.
ps: don't you just love the oceanish blue Madrid clay? Can't believe Nadal and Djokovic are bitching about it?!! I wouldn't mind painting my room walls in such a colour.
[QUOTE=SSM;1266535]the Quad QSP emanated such greatness it was a non contest. Sade's voice - phoar! An undulating column of smoky smoothness. (The Naims made her sound a bit leathery and skanky.)An amplifier suited to Mantovani playing barley sugar music.......................Where's Fed?
Every audiophool buys equipment to complement his tastes in music. My kit has to serve up the sounds of Sade, Celine, Maria Callas, Mahler and Wagner - most divinely. For my no.1 diva, Quad's current-dumpers beat the NAITs hands-down. If I were into Steely Dan and other forms of geriatric daddy-pop, then of course I'll need the services of coloured, steroid-fuelled Salisburians to inject life and dynamics into this muzak.
ps: saw a cardboard cutout of Fed at the health-food corner of my regular supermarket. I didn't venture close enough to see what he was endorsing as I was rushing to grab a pack of dark choc Tim Tams and go home to my new DAC. How the mighty has fallen. Having cardboard pics of himself in shorts planted on a supermarket shelf, while Nadal is cleaning up this clay season.
Ditto the Jade 5 whose aperiodic bass loading had commanding presence. My Castle floorstanders mentioned in the A28 review had a similar bass system where the bass fires downward on the plinth. It was the feature that put me off them after a few years, the effect was neither as authoritative as a ported design, nor as defined as a sealed box design. The Jade 5's fires into a sealed column with vented 'gills'. It works much better than the Castle design as it marries definition with immense weight and power. Diana Krall's double bass player had as much physical presence as her, it's almost sinister.
The Jade 5's bass tech could be a super platform for my Elicit to fully flex its prowess at bass reproduction.Come August, will I have a pair of Waffies named "Lindsay"?
^ Burgundy Burr is as delectable as Piano Gloss.
True those little Neat Ultimatum standmounts and the new Kudos Super 10s are definitely fullsome in their performance.