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Positive Feedback ISSUE 6
april/may 2003



AVR200 surround sound processor/receiver

as reviewed by Larry Cox


avr100.jpeg (24314 bytes)






Majeel Labs Pristine S-10 amplifier and E.A.R 864 preamplifier.

Audio Note CD3 CD player.

Ensemble Dynaflux and Calrad balanced interconnects. Speaker cables made from Belden 1219A wire & IXOS 6003a.

API Power Pack. BDR cones.


A few titans of the audio industry can be counted on to test the limits of performance in audio. These companies attempt to expand the state of the art, but state-of-the-art design brings premium-and-then-some pricing. Each makes at least one amplifier that costs as much as a nice midrange car. Heck, Audio Research's 600-watt amplifier cost almost as much as my parents' house did in 1960. The difference is that my parents' house is now worth dozens and dozens of times as much as its purchase price. Audio is not an investment, no matter what the marketing says, unless we expand "investment" to include investing in fun. You'll need Alice's looking glass for that perspective.

Arcam, on the other hand, is a banner child for high value, low price, and excellent sound. The company has recently expanded its range to include multi-kilobuck products, but nothing even close to six digits, and by many accounts the more expensive Arcam products still represent high value. The Arcam products I've heard have always sounded good, even if they're not the last word in detail and soundstaging and are a bit on the polite side. The subject of this review is Arcam's least expensive option in the home theater/surround music realm, the AVR200. To put things in context, a couple of months ago I listened to a near-state-of-the-art surround system with powered speakers from ATC that retailed for about $11,000 and a preamp/processor from TAG McLaren for about $5500. The sound was awesome, completely immersive, even overwhelming, and fairly easy to use. I'd happily own that system and never look back. I know that there are better, bigger, and more expensive systems, but I was totally satisfied by what the ATC and TAG McLaren had to offer. Still, that system costs as much as a new lower-end Honda, Toyota, etc., and I need a new car before I need a surround system.

Arcam's AVR200 is a $1200 audio "Swiss Army Knife" that sounds good and represents excellent value. It could end up in my house. You get a multi-channel amplifier, multi-channel preamp, digital processor, AM/FM tuner, and EASY, EASY FUNCTIONALITY. I want to emphasize EASY, EASY FUNCTIONALITY. Even the remote is easy to use. In fact, the remote is a kick. When you press any button, they all light up in a beautiful indigo blue, so you can easily see what button you need without turning on the lights. Really, really cool. The receiver feels very solid, and works as you'd expect it to work. It has sufficient power to fill a relatively large room (mine is about 5200 cubic feet), and is musical. It won't replace a $30,000 tube amplifier, but it will sound musical.

Take that $30,000 tube amp. What can you do with it? If you have a volume pot on your CD player, you don't need a preamp, but most CD players don't have one, so after spending thirty big ones, you'll still need another amplification stage. The Arcam is the whole enchilada, and though its performance is at a less lofty level, it costs far fewer pesos and requires less space. You can't, as far as I could tell, use the amplifier of the Arcam with an external preamp. I was hoping to insert my tubed E.A.R. 864 into the system and see what happened, but was left wondering. Arcam's integrated amplifiers allow you to use them as either an amp, a preamp, or in combination, but not so with the AVR200. Maybe the inability to tweak every parameter is a good thing. You could rest, say hello to your family, visit a friend, get some sunshine, and maybe reduce your audio angst. Worse things have happened.

Let me give you the broad outline of the AVR200's performance in my system. It gave a sweet, musical presentation that conveyed the big picture, although without the finest of details. It left out cymbal decays that go on forever, but you don't get that at a live concert, do you? It had an accurate tonal balance, with a very good sense of harmonics and tone. It also had a good sense of pace, though you may not find your foot tapping out of control. It had a somewhat liquid presentation—not in the league of a tube amp, but liquid nonetheless—with good pitch definition. You won't get palpable, three-dimensional imaging, but you will get an uncompressed soundstage that allows you to conjure up a sense of a band playing in front of you.

What you don't get is a product that sounds steely, wiry, hard, or thin, treble that irritates your dog, or bass that flaps your pant legs. You won't always know whether guitar strings are nylon or gut. You won't be impressed by a Krell-like grip on an overstated (unnatural, though fun) bottom end. If you don't want everything under the audiophile sun without having to pay for it, you're likely to be quite happy. This is a product to enjoy, not one that dictates entire room layouts, changes room temperature, or determines how and where people can live in their own houses.

I had the Nightingale Armonia and Sophia Electric's Baby amplifier in house while the Arcam was around. The tubed Armonia puts out 20 watts and retails for around $3600. The Baby SET amp puts out 12 watts, accepts one input, and retails for $799. Both provided a more palpable, exciting experience with music. Transients were faster, clearer, and had a better sense of decay. The Armonia warranted its higher price, but was softer than the Arcam. The Baby seemed the most transparent, but was severely limited in what speakers it could drive, and given the one input, required lots of compromise.

The $1200 Arcam lacks some of the processing options of the $5500 TAG McLaren unit, but I found that my system worked really well when Arcam made all the choices. Obscured language in the $16,000 surround system was intelligible through the Arcam, possibly because I thought my ears were good enough, and didn't use a sound pressure level meter to set volume for the center channel with the more expensive system. I may become a surround music/video aficionado at some point, but I'm not one yet, and the ease of setup and use with the Arcam was welcome. The AVR200 makes it possible for anyone to set up and enjoy their system without a high level of competence or understanding. With virtually no review of the manual, I had the system up and running, and did it without having to access a display screen, although the AVR200 does offer that option.

Additionally, if you don't have a great, or even a good CD player, the AVR200 has its own DACs, and offers five digital inputs (3 coaxial and two optical), which gives its owners a digital upgrade with no extra charge. Compared to the DAC in my Pioneer DV 525, the Arcam was more civil and musical, though with a slight loss in bass tightness. The top end was softened while retaining detail. Gone was a slight harpsichord-like top end; in its place was a more liquid presentation. Though bass was less tight than with the Pioneer on its own, that may have been the hardness of the Pioneer going away. In any event, the Arcam preserved the rhythm that the Pioneer provided, so gave an overall performance gain at no cost. While the Arcam's sweeter, more laid back presentation will be a good match for comparably-priced CD players, the digital portion of my $3000 Audio Note CD 3.1x was better than the Arcam's. Big surprise there, huh? The Audio Note player's bass was fuller and more textured, and its top end more palpable and airy, but the Arcam was not embarrassed. Ditto for soundstaging (no biggie to me), but the Arcam was again within spitting distance.

The AVR200 will drive five speakers with 70 watts per channel, and has Dolby Digital and DTS as well as Dolby Pro Logic II decoding. Press the surround-mode button and toggle through all of your choices with ease. The unit provides 90 watts per channel in stereo mode, which means that most stereo and surround speakers are fair game. Also, the receiver will accept 5.1 SACD and DVD-A output straight in, so you're set for new technology. The Arcam also has video switching for both composite and S-Video sources.

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In surround mode, the Arcam's performance was wonderful. While Lord of the Rings was not as overwhelming as it was with the ATC/TAG or Totem Acoustic Dream Catcher systems, it was more than workmanlike. There's a short scene in the movie in which Strider takes Frodo upstairs by force to talk to him and Sam Gamgee pops to threaten Strider. The dialogue was clear and easy to understand, and the sense of excitement and peril is well conveyed, although the Arcam missed the more expensive system's extraordinary portrayal of the drama. I cycled through all the movies I had on hand, and never once felt I was missing out on something. The ATC/TAG system had a slightly greater sense of life and motion, no doubt due to its ability to play louder. (Frankly, the ATC system dares you to play loud, and that may have caused me to play it louder than I normally would.)

The only nit I can pick is with the AVR200's FM reception, but I must add a caveat to my comments. I'm in a new house, in a new location, and don't have another tuner in the house to which I can compare. We are on the coastal side of a hill, opposite from the where the stations broadcast, so it may be that we just can't get good FM reception. In any event, I could only pick up a few stations on the Arcam. It's possible that the FM section of the Arcam is lacking, but given its performance in other areas, I'm inclined to think our location is the problem. If FM is important to you, try before you buy.

I feel confident recommending the AVR200 to entry-level audiophiles and higher-end audiophiles needing a reasonably priced surround system. Sure, you can buy bigger and better components, but they cost more and are fundamentally different products. The Arcam AVR200 is a one-stop product that performs as well as many separate ones at a higher price. As a two-channel component, the Arcam will be well matched with speakers at around its own price, providing an engaging, smooth presentation. In a world of ever-expanding prices and features, it is nice to see Arcam produce high-quality sound at an easily affordable price. Larry Cox




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