Arcam’s reputation was built on amplifiers, and particularly this breed of high-quality midrange integrated amplifier. They remain instantly recognisable, so that while this new range has had a pleasing spruce-up to update the aesthetics, someone transported from the 1990s and familiar with the company’s then-’alpha’ range of products would have no trouble spotting the evolutionary path that has led to the latest SA models.
But alongside this continuity there has been significant change. The new range comes one year after the company’s acquisition by Harman, itself only then recently acquired by Samsung. So under Harman, the UK-based Arcam brand sits alongside the likes of Mark Levinson, Revel and JBL Synthesis (that’s the higher end of JBL, not the portable speaker end of the brand). We should note there’s no need for anyone to mourn the international ownership of another classic UK brand, should they be so inclined, since Arcam was in any case previously owned by the Canadian JAM industries group. And talking recently with US-based Harman staff, they seem delighted with the Arcam acquisition and the complementarities that might be developed, seeing Arcam as not only providing Harman with a useful midrange electronics brand below the relative heights of Lexicon and Mark Levinson, but also bringing access to Arcam’s expertise and technologies, including the style of Class-G amplification developed by the company’s John Dawson.
Not that this SA10 amplifier uses those Arcam Class-G circuits. Those are reserved for the SA20, the next model up in this new ‘HDA’ series. The SA10 goes with traditional Class-AB amplification, which for Arcam can be considered truly tried-and-tested, back to those classics of the 1990s and beyond.
The new range includes also the matching CDS50 ‘SACD/CD and network player’. But Arcam does not, like some manufacturers, use the CD/network player as the repository of all digital inputs, leaving its amplifiers with only analogue connections. Perhaps aware that many people will want just the amplifier, there are digital inputs on both the SA10 and SA20 — optical and coaxial, though nowhere, not even on the CDS50, is there a USB-B input for your computer to play directly into Arcam’s DAC circuits. So computer music lovers will need to budget for an external DAC (or at least a converter to SPDIF), before plugging into an Arcam HDA system.
There’s another oddity to this range — the CDS50 offers balanced outputs on XLR sockets. But neither of the amplifiers has balanced XLR inputs!
Nor is there any networking on the amplifiers, other than for control — the Ethernet socket just allows remote control and monitoring, as does the good old RS232 socket. The USB-A slot on the rear offers a 5V 100mA charge for a smart device, but is otherwise intended only for applying firmware updates.
So that’s what’s missing, but otherwise the traditional stuff is all in place. There are four analogue RCA sets of inputs, three at line level and one a moving-magnet phono input. There are three digital inputs — two coaxial and one optical, All these are assigned labels that may (but probably won’t) match what you plug into them — the analogue line levels as CD, PVR and STB, the digital ones as SAT, BD and AV.
There are also pre-out sockets under the control of the volume knob; disappointingly there’s no way to have these deliver a full-level signal in the manner of a ‘record out’, but the preouts at least allow you to later upgrade to a higher-specification power amplifier, remaining under the control of the SA10.
Talking of control, the infra-red remote (above) is very smart, carrying its own bank of codes to control other devices, and able to learn any codes it doesn’t have pre-installed. You can set the CD and amplifier sections of this remote to control different devices — even two devices neither of which are Arcam, if you so desire. Quite a useful thing just on its own merits, this remote!
There are also a good few set-up options accessed by holding the mute button on the unit for three seconds. Most useful was the ability to stop the SA10 going into auto-standby after 30 minutes, which had been annoying us (‘we have to do it, it’s the law’, to paraphrase the manual), so we were pleased to find this adjustable up to four hours or defeated entirely. You can also adjust the balance in these menus, dim the display (full, dim or off), have the speakers stay on when plugging in headphones, and lastly apply ‘Processor mode’ to one input, which fixes its level — you might do this for the front channels of an AV receiver, say, or a DAC which has its own volume control.
We should declare a history with Arcam amplifiers — I still own two Arcam amps from the 1990s, one of which remains in continuous operation (and by continuous, we mean continuous - it's been playing 24/7 for the last four years at a Sydney community radio station, whether anyone is broadcasting or not). This attests at least to the longevity of past products.
The SA10 feels familiar yet clearly updated. Digital inputs were there none back in those days, whereas here the first connection we made was our TV audio to the optical input (SAT), Oppo Blu-ray/CD player to a coaxial input (we chose BD), Thorens turntable to the phono input, and our computer into an analogue line in (CD) via a standalone DAC taking care of the conversion, given the Arcam’s lack of a USB input.
Our first impression was of how quiet this amplifier was in terms of circuit noise — fully up, nothing audible. This low noise floor then benefits all playback material but especially anything with quiet sections, so we began with Roger Waters’ new surprise release of him narrating Stravinsky’s ‘The Soldier’s Tale’ over Floydian birdsong and a well-recorded septet handling the oft-atonal arrangement. The Arcam rendered both music and narration large, with full dynamics and the sense of having a strong and safe pair of hands in control of your music. Whether combining a lush band while holding in check the potentially overly-forward vocal projection of Elvis Costello on Stripping Paper from the new ‘Look Now’ album, or tracking the massive shifts of focus within John Williams The Town’s Burning from Rosewood, the Arcam never sounded wanting. Difficult low-sensitivity speakers might serve to slow it up since its power is ultimately limited, but our mid-sensitivity standmounts matched it well, and it simply cracked on with our high-sensitivity horns-and-12-incher studio monitors.
Arcam gives you access to the various filter choices in the DAC module (a 32-bit Sabre ESS9016K2M) — just two options in this SA10, though rather more in the higher SA20 amp. The default is ‘Linear Phase Fast Roll Off’, described as having “higher and equal levels of pre and post ringing compared with linear phase slow roll off” but with “no phase shifts and with minimal high frequency aliasing compared with slow roll off”. Your alternative is ‘Linear Phase Slow Roll Off’ — lower pre and post ringing, no phase shifts but can introduce high frequency aliasing at a higher level than linear phase fast roll off. Very high frequencies will be slightly attenuated.”
You have to get down into the menus to switch between them, with no audible interruption when switching, and we confess to being unable to hear a change. But tweakers may enjoy the option.
A definite highlight was listening to vinyl via the Arcam’s phono stage, which delivered a taut and crisply-imaged soundstage with at times utterly convincing reality. One unexpected triumph was a record-fair-acquired (and cleaned) Summit Australia 2A pressing of ‘The Best of Roy Orbison’, where the ping-pong mixes of Candy Man and Dream Baby were clean and real enough to be played at reference level, the Big O and his backing singers emerging from opposing channels through our JBL Studio Monitors as if we were hearing playback at Monument Records back in the day. Thrilling. The delicacies of touch and vocal nuance on Mary Webb’s ‘Love Like Planets’ were also lifted from this wonderfully quiet pressing in the service of these truth-telling songs, and indeed so enjoyable was this phono stage that we spent many of our remaining days with the SA10 rolling out the black stuff rather than accessing the wider variety available via the usual Roon-to-USB playback path.
The price here is slightly but not brutally above parity with other markets (UK700, US$1000+taxes), so that at $1695 the SA10 is above the run of entry-level stereo amplifiers. But then so is the quality. We like one line in Arcam’s product listing which says “We spare no expense in using only the most high-quality components, even if it means the cost of our power supplies overtaking that of everything else” — you can hear the echo there of an argument between the bean counters saying ‘Can’t you buy a cheaper one??’ and the engineers replying ‘No we can’t — otherwise it wouldn’t be an Arcam, would it!’
Arcam SA10 integrated amplifier
+ Classic and talented hi-fi amplifier
+ Fine sound over quiet background
+ Great phono stage for vinyl
- No USB-B input for computer
- No balanced inputs to match CD player
Analog inputs: 3 x line level RCA, 1 x phono, 1 x mini-jack aux (3.5mm)
Digital inputs: 1 x optical, 2 x coaxial, USB-A (for updates only)
Outputs etc: 1 x preouts, Ethernet, RS-232, 1 x minijack headphone; 2 x speaker outputs
Quoted power output: 2 x 50W (into eight ohms, 20-20kHz, THD 0.5%); 2 x 85W (into 4 ohms at 1kHz, THD 0.5%)
Frequency response: 10Hz–100kHz (-3dB)
THD+N: <0.003% (1kHz, 80% power, 8 ohms)
Dimensions (whd): 433 x 87 x 310mm