I’ve been unable to find any reviews of Arcam’s new entry-level receiver, so I’m posting my impressions after about a week of listening. But this is not a review. Since I have no high-end dealers at hand where I can audition competing products, my only basis for comparison is the string of largely indifferent receivers I’ve owned over the years. I’ve also not listened carefully to a wide variety of speakers -- just the four sets I’ve owned. But I’ll try to make my comments as specific as possible, so at least one listener’s report will be available.
Bald conclusion: the Arcam AVR 380 is one of the best receivers I’ve ever heard.
A couple of months ago I set out to replace a middle-aged Pioneer Elite receiver (VSX01THX) with something better matched to my speakers in the downstairs room. These are Totem Hawks: two-way, 5.5 inch woofers, 1 inch metal tweeters. They’re simple in design but made of good materials and carefully assembled -- almost but not quite audiophile quality. I use them in a 5.1 system with Totem Rainmaker center and surrounds, plus a Totem Storm sub. Over the past year I’ve spent more and more of my time in this room listening to music rather than watching movies. Hence my purchase of the Totem speakers and my desire to upgrade the receiver.
For programming sources I use an Oppo BDP 103 (for Bluray, CD, SACD), a modified Pioneer Elite DVD player (to play region 2 discs), and a Music Hall 2.2 turntable with an NAD phono preamp. I’ve also got machines for legacy formats (VHS, laserdisc). I use HDMI into my receiver where possible and HDMI between the receiver and my TV (currently a 55 inch Sony LCD rear projection device). The Oppo and the DVD player do all the video scaling I need; I want my receiver to pass their video signals without changing them. But I also want the receiver to translate video from the legacy machines to HDMI.
With this array of needs, I decided I wasn’t interested in most receivers on the market because they try to do too much -- surround channels I don’t need, inputs I’ll never use, exotic audio formats I don’t want, and a truly bewildering array of room correction routines. So I went looking for receivers more oriented towards music than video and ended with a short list: Anthem, Arcam, Cambridge Audio, NAD.
Luckily my local vendor sells all of them except Anthem. But he’s an installer, with no showroom to speak of, so I had to choose based on written reviews and very limited auditions.
Since the nearest Anthem dealer also sells Arcam, I had hoped to compare the Arcam 380 to the roughly comparable Anthem 510. But the only Arcam receiver that dealer has on site is the more expensive 450. Still, I could least hear an Arcam receiver live. So I set up a visit to audition the 450 and the Anthem 510: same speakers (an Adam bookshelf model), same room, volume levels matched, my choice of music. The two hours I spent with the receivers was instructive. Not surprisingly given their different price points, I preferred the Arcam 450; it’s soundstage is more forward than the Anthem’s. But I have to say that the Anthem 510 stood up very well to the more expensive Arcam. In fact, the only reason I didn’t buy the Anthem was logistical incoveniences involving its room correction software, which requires a recent version of Windows. I’m not going to clutter one of my Macintosh laptops with Windows just to run room correction software one time.
I returned from this trip almost ready to order a Cambridge Audio or NAD receiver without hearing either. But in studying the Arcam web site I noticed something interesting. The Arcam 450 and 380 differ in only two ways: the 450 has DAB radio (irrelevant outside Europe), and it weighs half a kilo more than the 380. Otherwise the two have identical dimensions and look exactly alike. The extra weight, of course, is in the 450’s toroidal power supply.
My local installer called his Arcam field rep for more information about the two models and confirmed what I suspected: the innards of the 380 and the 450 are identical except for their power supplies. Certainly the toroidal supply in the 450 is better. But is it $1200 better? Not to me. Your mileage may vary, of course.
So because I really liked the Arcam 450 better than the Anthem 510, and because the Anthem 510 room correction software would be annoyingly inconvenient for me to use, I ordered an Arcam 380 without having auditioned it.
Listening to the Arcam AVR 380
I’ve been using the 380 for just over a week and at this point am entirely pleased with it.
First, it creates a wider soundstage than the Pioneer did. My main speakers are about twelve feet apart, and I sit about twelve feet from them. The borders of the Pioneer’s soundstage were about a foot inside the speakers; the Arcam’s soundstage extends to slightly outside them.
The Arcam is more precise than the Pioneer. It places instruments and singers more exactly and distinguishes detail better. For example, early in his third symphony Saint-Saens has an organ play a sustained low note while the orchestra continues above it. The Arcam can distinguish between the organ’s low note and the notes of the string basses; the Pioneer combines the two into a more generalized bass mush. In the same way, one can clearly distinguish between violins and cellos, even when the orchestra is going full tilt, barreling through the urgent portions of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. Symphonic music is more spacious, more detailed, and more lively with the Arcam.
The same characteristics appear, of course, when listening to singers. I’ve been going through favorite discs -- Roy Orbison Dire Straits, Cowboy Junkies, Shelby Lynne, Diana Krall. With all of them the Arcam seems to suspend musical phrases in a surrounding open field of silence. The phrases have clean boundaries and vivid presence. Krall, for instance, is not a very showy singer. Her forte is inhabiting the song and presenting it as a discourse driven by emotion. She dramatizes songs rather than giving a vocal recital. While the Arcam doesn’t quite put her in my room, sitting twelve feet away singing to me, it makes her as present as she would be in a concert if I were sitting several rows back. The extra detail it offers reveals the depth at which she inhabits a song; even her breath intakes work as part of the drama she’s presenting.
The Arcam 380 also handles Blueray and DVD playback well. I’ve tried it with the Blueray of *Unstoppable,* Tony Scott’s film about a runaway train, and a DVD of *Star Wars* III. Scott’s film has a fairly aggressive soundtrack, with lots of subwoofer activity; and Lucas always offers rich, varied soundtracks. No problems and satisfying viewing experiences with both. As a Cambridge Audio advertising pitch goes, once you get music and voices right, movie sound effects are easy.
Enough of this. Though I could ramble on about a number of other discs, I can’t add any more real substance. The Arcam 380 presents a wide soundstage, with lots of detail and precise distinctions within the music. It works very happily with my Totem Hawk speakers and leaves me wanting nothing. To justify the extra cost of the 450, I’d probably need even better speakers. It’s a truism of the audio hobby that the last five percent of quality in reproduction costs about as much as the first ninety-five percent. The Totem Hawks and the Arcam 380 constitute about as much of that last five percent as I’m willing to buy.
Pioneer, Yamaha, Onkyo etc....?... the less said the better.
The only AVRs I will recommend to someone who wants top-level sound quality are Arcam, NAD, and Cambridge Audio.