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Arcam is a company that operates across a wide hi-fi space. It first made its name in solid midrange separates, demonstrating a notable bravery in designing and building its own CD players (and later DVD and Blu-ray players) when hardly anyone outside Japan was tackling the complexities involved. More recently it has been achieving great things with very small devices — DACs of many varieties, Bluetooth receivers, and its latest surprise which is an iPhone ‘case’ that provides high quality audio output and a boost to battery life.
But it has not neglected proper hi-fi, as demonstrated amply by the pairing here of the C49 preamplifier and C49 power amplifier, from Arcam’s ‘FMJ’ range. Although it might seem that ‘Full Metal Jacket’ would be an apt de-acronysation of ‘FMJ’, it actually stands for the slightly twee (but accurate) ‘Faithful Musical Joy’.
The C49 and P49 are both large devices: the usual component width, but each standing over 170mm tall, finished in a very dark grey. Their slightly curved front panels each have an air intake across the bottom front. The P49 power amp has slots on the top to allow the cooling air to pass through.
The C49 is not as minimal in design as many preamplifiers in this pricing space. It is electronically controlled, including its dual mono volume knob, rather than there being a potentiometer fixed to the back. A series of eight buttons for input selection are provided, along with three more for mute, balance and display. The display button switches off the panel display, though it switches back on again briefly if you adjust the volume. The balance key switches the function of the volume knob for a few seconds.
All these functions are replicated on an infrared remote control which will also control Arcam’s other devices — CD players and such. The remote adds a standby mode button, whereas the power button on the front of the C49 is hard wired.
The headphone socket is a 3.5mm minijack — perhaps surprising for those used to quarter-inch jacks on their home headphones, but in these mobile-orientated days even very respectable headphones often have a minijack plug and supply an adaptor up to 6.5mm.
The front panel on the P49 power amp is, of course, plainer. It also has a hard power switch, plus two buttons to select the two sets of speaker terminals, with a small LED above each showing which are operating. It has more controls on the back: a switch for overall amount of gain, XLR/RCA input selection and a mode control. The mode control selects between normal (stereo), bridged and dual mono operation — bridged mode joining the two amplifiers together to provide even more mono power, while in dual mono mode the left input is fed to both power amplifiers, useful if you want to bi-amplify your loudspeakers. You would then need two P49s, of course, one handling the left channel, the other the right; having only one P49 for review, we used only the normal stereo mode, of course.
The P49 is extremely well-built, and weighs 18kg. Through the cooling vents you can see the enormous toroidal transformer, and the P49 has gobs of power on tap, rated at 200W per channel into 8 ohms, both channels driven, at 0.2% THD. It supports loudspeakers down to 4 ohms impedance (at which impedance Arcam specifies it good for 400W, one channel driven). The THD rating of 0.2% may seem like a somewhat higher figure than we commonly see in modern quality power amplifiers — but fear not, as the rating for 80% power output is 0.001%.
The amplifier is Class-G. Once you stray away from venerable Class-A and Class-A/B in the high fidelity realm, the details of what a ‘Class’ does becomes rather manufacturer specific. In Arcam’s case, it uses a multiple power supply topology to kick in near-instantaneously to deliver more power on demand, providing decent efficiency. But that’s on top of the amp’s basic operation mode, which is pure Class-A up to a claimed 50W output, and for most listeners for the great majority of the time this amplifier is likely to stay in that mode.
As implied by the front panel buttons, there are two sets of speaker output terminals, satisfyingly large and, this being a UK-EU brand, plugged up to prevent the unwise from somehow doing damage. They are easily extracted with a pinch of the finger-nails.
Many quality old-world companies take advantage of modern globalisation. Local manufacturing can be expensive, so you design at home and build off-shore. Nothing wrong with that, so long as suitable quality control is implemented. So of course, I inspected the rear panels of the units to find out what Arcam had chosen to do. Indeed, both units were marked “Designed in the UK” as you’d expect. And both had underneath that “Made in…” guess where? The U.S.A.!
One potential disadvantage of a pre/power combo compared with an integrated amplifier (such as Arcam’s A49, which is similarly specified) is the exposed connections between the two. These two units provide a choice of connections between the two — you can use traditional RCA-terminated interconnects, or balanced XLR cables, which provide better rejection of electrical noise than regular cables may pick up. This seems particularly apt since the C49 also uses a balanced signal path internally. Also if circumstances are such as to require long interconnects (in dual mono mode, you might prefer to have them close to the speakers, for example, to keep the speaker cabling short), XLR will stop any unfortunate hum finding its way into the signal path.
Setting up is as simple as plugging things together and putting batteries in the remote. The C49 has trigger outputs and the P49 has a trigger input and a trigger output. Connect the two with a 3.5mm mono-terminated cable (stereo works too) and the P49 will switch on and off automatically with the C49.
We tested with both bookshelf and floorstanding speakers, slightly difficult ones in the latter case (their impedance curve bottoms out around 2.3 ohms), but the P49 didn’t mind in the least. It happily drove them to ridiculously high levels while retaining very tight control of the bass (important, because they’re good down to 20Hz).
For example, an extraordinary church-like atmosphere was developed when playing “Mariæ Wiegenlied” from Cantate Domino (Proprius PRCD 7762), the haunting soprano of Marianne Mellnäs accompanied solely by a traditional pipe organ. The edge which can with some equipment slightly mar the vocal was not in the slightest evidenced, yet the angelic reverberations were given full voice.
Moving to something a touch more complicated, the orchestral stage to Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No.1 (Channel Classics CCS SA 16501) was full and utterly revealing. Every element was in its proper place, while the massed violins were held in their position, allowing the cello soloist to rise above them. The allegretto con moto was particularly delightful, with the subtle level control of the instrumentalists beautifully realised.
For a change in pace we went to Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled 1992 album, a busy but spacious mix perfect for assessing the control of an amplifier over a loudspeaker. And, oh my goodness, there was control aplenty here. The mastery of these electronics over both sets of loudspeakers was just about as good as it gets.
There’s something about live albums. No matter how tightly recorded, no matter how massaged and processed to seem studio-like, they retain the air and a certain lack of restraint that marks them apart. Go back in time to around 1980, when Fleetwood Mac ‘Live’ was committed to vinyl (2WB 3500), and you manage to skip the worst of that processing. From vinyl through the C49’s magnetic cartridge-level preamp all was thrillingly revealed, along with a commendably low noise floor. The delivery was powerful, especially with the drums piercing through the mix, punching out across the full stereo stage with excellent separation and a lovely coherence.
Of course, a high quality amplifier can be discomforting too, when the source is inadequate. The original stringed instruments on one ‘Special Collector’s Numbered Edition’ of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (Pro Arte 2PAX-2001) were revealed in all their steely ugliness. (Nothing seems able to rescue the sound of this!)
Remaining with vinyl, we took the opportunity to listen to old favourites that haven’t made their way (yet) into the digital collection: Mario Millo’s solo effort from 1983, ‘Human Games’. A solid example of well-crafted early 1980s Australian soft rock, it was delivered by the C49/P49 combo with perfect tonal balance, impressive stage depth and fine control. The freshness and clear humour of Jo Jo Zep’s ‘Cha’ was delivered in a lovely manner through the Arcam front end.
During all the listening, much of it at rather elevated levels, the P49 power amp ran with no more than a slightly warm top panel, much cooler than a 50W Class-A amp has any right to be, let alone one capable of going to 200W. That perhaps attests to the efficiency of the Class-G system employed by Arcam.
So, is all perfect? Well, getting the battery cover off the remote control was one gigantic pain. The trick: ignore the area with raised dots that looks like it’s designed for the placement of your thumb. Instead put your finger on the other end and just gently slide it down. Not much of a negative overall, is it!
The Arcam C49 and P49 amp combination attests to the fact that true audiophile sound is available in systems that are also solidly and innovatively engineered. If you like high-end but don’t like having to tweak to get the best, you should be auditioning this excellent pair.
Price: $6495 / $6995
+ Fabulous sound, Power and control a-plenty, Good phono stage for vinyl
- Remote control battery compartment
Arcam C49 pre-amplifier
Inputs: 1 x pair analogue stereo (balanced XLR), 6 x pair analogue stereo (RCA), 1 x pair phono (RCA)
Outputs: 1 x pair analogue stereo pre-out (balanced XLR), 1 x pair analogue stereo
pre-out (RCA), 1 x pair analogue stereo record out (RCA), 1 x 3.5mm headphone
Other: 2 x 12V triggers, 1 x 6V accessory power, 1 x 12V accessory power
Dimensions (whd): 433 x 171 x 410 mm
Arcam P49 power amplifier
Rated power: 2 x 200W watts (8 ohms, 20-20,000Hz, 0.2% THD, both channels driven)
Inputs: 1 x pair analogue stereo (balanced XLR), 1 x pair analogue stereo (RCA)
Outputs: 4 x speaker binding posts
(Stereo speakers 1 & 2)
Other: 1 x 12V trigger in, 1 x 12V trigger out
Dimensions (whd): 433 x 171 x 425mm
Warranty (both): Two years with up to five years upon warranty registration with Arcam
Contact: Advance Audio
Telephone: 02 9561 0799