Arcam A19 integrated amplifier and Arcam airDAC review

Integrated stereo hi-fi amplifiers like the Arcam A19 were once the centrepiece of people’s home music systems. These were the days when fancy record players were fronting the system, which later evolved – some say devolved – into CD players for the many music lovers.

The loudspeakers may have seemed dominant, both in terms of space in the room, and as the obvious outlet of all that music. But the amplifier was the real control centre, the hub for connecting various sources; and not to forget the source of all the electrical power that put the loud into loudspeaker.

Sad to say though integrated hi-fi amplifiers seem to be a dying breed these days, as most of today’s customers look to one-box music systems at best, and tuneless iPhone docks, soundbars and Bluetooth speakers at worst. Thankfully then, there are still specialists like Arcam that know how to make a decent amp for not too much money.

Regarding the price though, we suspect that even a budget hi-fi amplifier at £650 will be too rich for some people’s taste, now that we’ve come to expect the price of consumer electronics to tumble each year in real terms, rather than follow the upward direction of inflation. Blame this on the silicon chip, which returns faster PCs for less money each year, while blinding us to the reality of realistic prices in traditional consumer-electronics products.

A&R Cambridge Limited, founded in the mid-1970s and now just ‘Arcam’, is a British hi-fi separates brand that knows a thing or two about making good integrated amplifiers. Its current entry-level model is the A19, a 50 W per channel amplifier that in terms of core functionality differs little from the brand’s classic A60 of almost 40 years vintage.

The A19 can accept up to eight different analogue sources connected at once; nine if you count the additional 3.5 mm auxiliary input on the front fascia. One of those sources can be a turntable too, taking advantage of the amp’s built-in phono pre-amplifier for boosting and equalising the smaller output of a record player’s pick-up cartridge.

Each source is selected by a simple press button on the front panel, or with the handy IR remote control. Missing from the A19 is any form of digital input – and quite deliberately so. This keeps the amplifier a more resolutely analogue amplifier with less internal interference from digital audio circuits, which in turn optimises for better sound. And it also helps slow the amp’s obsolescence as new digital formats and new connection regimes are developed. Note how many iPod docks became landfill once the 30-pin docking connector disappeared from Apple mobile devices.

Instead of a built-in timeclock, to allow the use of digital audio sources Arcam makes the rSeries range of digital adaptors, such as the airDAC that we tried with the A19.

airDAC

The airDAC is a smaller unit dedicated to digital-to-analogue audio conversion. It can accept traditional sources such as the digital output from a CD, DVD or Blu-ray player, through either a co-axial or Toslink optical digital input.

In addition it can be connected to a computer network either via an ethernet port or wirelessly through Wi-Fi. The latter network audio options are also licensed for use with Apple AirPlay, for streaming audio up to lossless 16-bit quality.

One limitation of the airDAC that make impact its usefulness is its 24/96 high-resolution format ceiling. While 24-bit 96 kHz audio is clearly better than CD’s 16/44.1 and a worthy facility, it’s more than likely that anyone wanting to play such hi-res files will also possess music in the next upscale format too, namely 24/192. There’s also the question of fielding formats – while the airDAC could play FLAC and WAV files, we found it deaf to the sound of AIFF. Fans of the re-emergent DSD audio format will also need to look elsewhere to hear their high-resolution 1-bit music.

So the airDAC is perhaps more suitable for people just needing to stream CD-quality or lower audio from Apple devices, or with a collection of standard-definition music files stored on a server that can be played using the unit’s UPnP client software.

To control the UPnP player, Arcam makes available a useful iOS app called Songbook. This gives the necessary interface to browse network file shares, and simply play. Or to create playlists for the airDAC to play in sequence.

There’s no input switching available for the airDAC. Instead it selects by whichever source is playing. That’s the theory anyway, although we found that, for instance, with music playing into the airDAC’s co-ax input, an AirPlay device would not switch itself in when started as it should.

irDAC

If instead of network music you need to connect a PC or laptop directly to play music, Arcam has just the thing with the irDAC digital-to-analogue converter. This takes the same solid metal shell as the airDAC, keeps the regular S/PDIF digital inputs (two each of co-axial and optical in fact). But this model adds a USB input to play digital audio, this time up to 24-bit 192 kHz from a computer. As the product name suggests, it can also can be switched from across the room with an infrared remote control.

How it all works

Used together, the A19 and airDAC presented a detailed and confident sound. In the case of the airDAC, and when compared to pricier reference designs such as the Chord QuteEX, we found it drier and more contained with its stereo soundstage painting. Yet it played most professionally with an even tone that wasn’t caught out by poorer recordings, instead keeping any tizzy digital excesses in check.

Meanwhile, the A19 amplifier is quite simply a cracker of an amp. It inspires first with its practical design and superb build quality, a most solid all-metal chassis with delightful touches such as the straightforward button array on the front. There’s no wrestling with nested menus when you just need to mute the volume, tweak the balance or dim the display – all buttons are intuitively offered up front. The large volume knob is unmissable and provides fast access to the most essential control of any amplifier – no tiny knobs to cautiously pinch nor tedious + and – buttons to press and hold and hold.

On the rear panel, besides the long line of analogue inputs, is a set of pre-amp outputs to enable bi-amping with a second amplifier; or to just access the amp’s control and volume section before feeding to a different outboard power amp. Sturdy loudspeaker binding posts accept the popular 4 mm banana plugs, and you can also slip in bared wires or a second plug after loosening the screwed caps.

A couple of hidden features allow useful customisation. Arcam was required by legislation, it says, to ensure the amplifier switches itself into deep standby after a period of disuse. But this can be adjusted by a fascia key combination (aux + balance). The default is 8 hours, and this can be adjusted up or down in half-hour intervals from 0.5 to 48 hours, or off entirely. You can also switch the moving-magnet phono input into a line-level input (phono + balance), in case you’d prefer to use an outboard phono stage, for instance.

Rated at 50 W into 8 ohm speakers, or 90 W into 4 ohms, the Arcam A19 is a real high-fidelity Class AB amplifier that contrasts starkly with the Class D budget circuits fitted to commodity consumer electronics.

We tested the Arcam amplifier and DAC with network audio music, and also through the latter DAC’s S/PDIF digital input. For loudspeakers, we tried a wide range of standmount models from Eclipse TD, Harbeth, KEF, PMC and Celestion.

Using the airDAC and its UPnP player we found more than just the given limitation of 96 kHz maximum sample frequency. The airDAC’s streaming facility alone was rated rather poor in sound quality, confusing the music and making the uncompressed sound lossy compressed. Smoother and far more engaging sound was heard using a different streamer (Cyrus Streamline 2), and connecting this to the airDAC’s co-axial digital input.

Ultimately for us though, the airDAC proved the bottleneck to great sound, as we discovered through trial and error with different DACs playing straight into the A19. Given an upgraded music feed, we heard far more of the A19’s latent proficiency, its great timing and dynamics, and impressively fast transient response that could bring much welcome realism while playing all manner of music.

Through speakers with metal-dome tweeter there was more faint transistor grain audible, but nothing untoward for any amplifier under £1500. Faced with a £3000 reference Leema Acoustics amplifier, the Arcam amp was found a little simplistic in its instrumental rendering, and occasionally erring toward stridency and muddlement when the mix got busy – but in turn the A19 will prove positively mellifluous and lyrical when put against sub-£1000 rivals, not to mention a honeyed ear-opener compared to any Class D music-mangling amplifier.

If you haven’t taken the plunge already with regular hi-fi separates consider investing in a traditional Class AB hi-fi amplifier now before further legislation decrees that only lo-fi PWM amplifiers will pass statutory electronics efficiency laws.

OUR VERDICT

The Arcam airDAC is a somewhat ambitious digital audio adaptor to enable music to be played from a NAS, an iPhone or iPad as well as traditional hi-fi sources. It failed to delight us as an AirPlay or network player, although was more than competent as a regular stereo DAC used through its S/PDIF input. But it was the A19 integrated amplifier that really impressed, a lithe and communicative integrated amplifier able to work well with each speaker we tried. Just make sure you find a decent musical source to hear it at its best – it deserves it.

Find the best price