Arcam’s new Faithful Musical Joy amplifier was born to thrill…
There’s a definite sense of deja-vu when unpacking the Arcam A29. From the box that it arrives in, to the amplifier itself, this latest model from Arcam is virtually the spitting image of its little brother, the A19. But make no mistake, this is a brand new machine – and shy of fantastic sound, the only thing that Arcam will be hoping the A29 mirrors from its sibling are the numerous awards that were bestowed upon it.
Two of those awards were handed out by What Hi-Fi? magazine for Best Stereo Amplifier at the price point, which Arcam pulled off two years in a row. So, it stands to reason that if you’ve worked your magic and wowed the critics with your entry-level product, you’re hardly likely to rip up the rule book and start again from scratch. Likewise, resting on your laurels is a big no-no, too. Hoping to dodge the pitfalls that this quandary presents, Arcam’s engineers set about trying to tweak excellence and make this next step up in the range a worthwhile proposition. Let’s see what they’ve come up with!
Under the hood
One of the first things people will look at when judging what an amplifier is capable of is its power rating. The A29 takes a substantial leap up over the A19, kicking out 80WPC into 8 ohms, and a whopping 175 into 4 ohms. Of course, purists will tell you that it’s not the power output that’s important, but how clean that power is. Here Arcam have used their own ‘Class-G‘ amplifier design. They happily claim that “during normal operation, distortion is measured at less than one part per million(!) so that this massive power is delivered with total control and finesse”. A heady claim indeed – but one that their engineers are able to back up.
Elsewhere, the specification holds up equally well. The amplifier has six line level inputs, as well as a dedicated moving magnet phono input. Given the immense popularity of all things vinyl, this is a sensible idea, and the time I spent listening to our demo-room turntable showed it to be a solid on-board option. A front-facing 3.5mm auxiliary input sits neatly next to a matching headphone socket, rounding out this suite of connections nicely. On to the listening!
The proof is in the listening
Those who fell for the A19’s charms will remember it fondly for its warm, rich sound. Rather than throw the music straight at the listener, the A19 allowed the music to flow into the room at its own pace. Partner it with a fairly wild set of speakers and you had a match made in heaven. Likewise, matched to something of a similar nature, the Arcam tended to be somewhat sleepy on its feet. The same is equally true of the A29, albeit with a slightly more forgiving sonic balance. After switching between a few pairs of speakers, we found that speakers with a slightly brighter sonic signature (such as Dali’s Rubicon 6, or the KEF Q500) were a better match than those with a focus further down the frequency range. When they weren’t quite matched properly, the sound was still imbued with more life and excitement than the older A19, but it’s still worth mentioning that this isn’t really an ‘all-rounder’.
Sticking with the KEF Q500, what we got was a fantastic sense of musicality, good layering of details, and a tonally rich sound. Streaming from Arcam’s own CDS27 network CD player, Bob Dylan’s Mississippi was first up. Rather than the finished article that appears on 2001 album Love & Theft, I went with my favourite take, found on disc 1 of The Bootleg Series Volume 8. This stripped back run through is frankly beautiful and the rehearsal-space recording is fittingly intimate. Bob’s weathered vocals are nursed by some wonderful playing from members of his band. The ‘in the room’ effect was quite pronounced. The warmth of the Arcam worked wonders with the KEFs, giving the aural equivalent of a cosy night in front of the fire. The soundstage and separation weren’t as wide and open as I’d heard on other systems, but this was a sacrifice made to offer greater cohesion, and it was certainly worth it.
Throwing the kitchen sink at it
After sitting down a week prior to the Arcam arriving into store to write an article on the music genre IDM, my love affair with all things fast paced and industrial was in full bloom. Manchester’s own, Autechre, in particular had racked up the listening hours. Given the driving intensity of their later work, it seemed an ideal way to really test the speed handling of the A29. Feeling particularly cruel, I started off with latest release Exai. This two disc set contains some of Autechre’s most punishing and heavy material to date, (it isn’t exactly music for the faint of heart). At times the structure and rhythm of the percussion-heavy tracks is almost impossible to discern. Opener Fleure, with its brain-bending pace, is made up of so many tiny parts that it takes a highly resolving and detailed performance to not turn everything to mush. The A29 coped admirably, doing its level best to keep things in check. I couldn’t wholeheartedly say that it was the best I’d heard around this price point when dealing with such demanding music, but it was still very good! Breaking things down, the A29 made the multiple strands gel together, keeping as much cohesiveness as possible, but wasn’t as adept at picking out the microscopic details that makes these songs what they are.
And in conclusion
As time went on and genres blended from one to the next, it became clearer and clearer where the A29‘s strengths lie. This is an amplifier who’s MO is purely ‘The Music’ – there were very few tricks, bells or whistles to what it was doing in a hi-fi sense, but the essence of the songs, the passion and involvement were there in spades. It doesn’t set out to be a clinical, clean and fast-paced amplifier. Anyone after that should look elsewhere. Fans of rock music, jazz, acoustic and plenty of other genres will find that a well matched A29 is one of the most musical amplifiers available at any price. Given that it’s what Arcam set out to do, the A29 is an undoubted success.
Author – Chris, Liverpool store