Arcam AVR300 Surround Receiver
Our fathers had a saying, which voiced a fond but unfulfilled wish: "What the world needs is a good ten cent cigar." Today, in the world of high quality home theater and surround sound, most of us have long had a similar fond wish, which has similarly remained unfulfilled. What the world has needed is a good $2000 surround processor, one that really sounds good. Well, at long last, here it is.
Until now, if you wanted decent sound from a surround processor, you had to buy into the $5000 high end processor price bracket (and even that price does not guarantee good sound, as some of our past reviews attest). Until now, if your budget was constrained to the moderate $2000 price bracket, you were guaranteed to get markedly compromised sonics. Surround processors are so complex internally, that many parts dollars must be spent just for achieving all the basic functions, leaving no extra money left over (in the manufacturing budget for a $2000 surround processor) to spend on the better quality parts and circuitry needed to achieve good sound. Obviously, it would take very special engineering talent to deliver truly good sound in a $2000 processor. So, until now, a truly good sounding $2000 surround processor seemed as mythical and beyond reach as that fabled good ten cent cigar.
Until now. The new Arcam AVR300 proves that Arcam has that very special engineering talent, needed to finally create a $2000 surround processor of high sonic quality. The AVR300 is literally a breakthrough product. It has broken through the logjam of countless moderately priced processors that are sonically compromised. This one achievement would be enough cause for headlines and hosannas. But there's more to the story.
The AVR300 is the best sounding $2000 surround processor we have ever tested. But the AVR300 is more. Much more. In fact, we have a new nickname for the AVR300.
The Arcam AVR300 is The Answer. No matter what your desires and needs in surround audio electronics, the Arcam AVR300 is simply The Answer.
Are you on a budget, so you want the best sounding surround processor at a moderate price? The Arcam AVR300 is The Answer. Is your budget unlimited, so you want the best sounding surround processor at any price? The Arcam AVR300 is still The Answer. The $1999 AVR300 is the best sounding surround processor we have ever tested, at any price, even sonically surpassing those other high end processors selling for $5000 to $12,000.
Do you want a surround processor with the latest sonically important surround features, such as Dolby PLIIX, which for the first time gives you stereo instead of mono from your back surround loudspeakers? The Arcam AVR300 is The Answer. For playing high resolution audio discs with maximum fidelity, do you want a purist analog multichannel line section that is sonically competitive with the finest, most expensive separate units? The Arcam AVR300 is The Answer.
Would you like an excellent sounding 7 channel, 100 watt-per-channel power amplifier, at a moderate price? The Arcam AVR300 is The Answer. Would you like the extra cost of this power amplifier, on top of the $1999 for the surround processor, to be really moderate, say zero bucks? The AVR300 is The Answer. As long as Arcam is giving away the store to you, would you also like a tuner thrown in for free? The AVR300 is The Answer.
Do you want the convenience of an all-in-one surround receiver, to build your surround system around? The AVR300 is The Answer. Would you like it to also sound better than your neighbor's complex system composed of expensive high end separates that cost him 20 times more than you paid? The AVR300 is The Answer.
Are you a practical audiophile/videophile who wants your audio electronics unit to be a sturdy, adaptable workhorse that will sound great plugged into any system, of any price or complexity, and used for any task? The Arcam AVR300 is The Answer. Or are you a purist perfectionist who wants your electronics to be responsive to tweaking, and be capable of giving you the ultimate in state of the art sonics, so you can hear the sonic rewards of special purist setup tactics? Amazingly, the Arcam AVR300 is still The Answer.
The Arcam AVR300 is a true jack of all trades - and is master of all. It is a time tested adage that no-compromise, expensive high end components can sonically outperform moderately priced components, whose performance must be compromised for the sake of parts cost and price. And it is a time tested adage that separate audio components can sonically outperform integrated receivers, whose performance must be compromised for the sake of convenient packaging within one chassis (and for the sake of cost as well). The Arcam AVR300 shatters these adages.
We work primarily with the very best sounding, no-compromise, expensive separate audio components. Our past sonic experiences with moderately priced separates, and certainly with the next step down, integrated receivers, has taught us to be wary of expecting much in the way of true sonic fidelity from these units. So we were naturally pre-disposed against expecting very much from the AVR300. Good sonic value for the money, to be sure, since Arcam is deservedly already famous for this. But the AVR300 is, after all, merely a receiver -- so how truly good sounding could it possibly be? Thus, we were expecting to find sonic compromises in the AVR300, compared to our absolute, perfectionist sonic standards for sonic fidelity. We insist on employing these absolute, perfectionist standards of sonic fidelity in judging all equipment, since that is the only scientifically correct protocol for evaluating the true sound of any product (the lower cost of a moderately priced product might make it good sonic value for the money, but it does not improve the product's actual sonic performance). Thus, we evaluated the AVR300 by inserting it (in various modes) into our perfectionist, high end, high resolution lab system, in order to gauge its absolute sonic quality.
We were shocked by what we heard. The Arcam AVR300's absolute sonic performance was as good as very expensive, perfectionist separate components. We tried the AVR300 in every mode, and put it through every wringer we could, and threw everything but the kitchen sink at it. We compared to AVR300 to the impossible rigors of a straight wire bypass, and we directly compared its various component sections to the best sounding expensive separate components. The AVR300 kept coming up a sonic winner. Overall, the whole AVR300 receiver pretty much equaled the sonic performance of the finest state of the art separate components. And, when we analyzed individual sections of the AVR300 for sonic performance, they did just as well.
For example, when used just as a direct throughput analog line section (for playing multichannel high resolution audio discs), the AVR300 actually sounded slightly better overall than perfectionist multichannel analog line sections, and yielded only slightly to the best perfectionist passive volume level controls. Then, when we compared the AVR300's built in seven channel power amplifier to the best separate multichannel power amplifiers, the AVR300 again offered equal overall sonic performance (with various subtle sonic pros and cons compared to the best separate power amplifiers), and yielded surprisingly little only to the very best perfectionist stereo and monoblock power amplifiers.
The Arcam AVR300 will improve the sound of virtually every system into which you might install it. It will surely be a sonic upgrade for every modestly budgeted system, which would typically rely on a single integrated surround receiver rather than separates. And the AVR300 will be equally at home in improving the sound of fancy perfectionist high end systems. The AVR300 will do justice to the finest, most expensive associated components (disc player, cables, loudspeakers, etc.). Needless to say, the AVR is the new reference standard in surround processors, at any price, and is also the new reference standard in surround receivers.
The bottom line is simple. The Arcam AVR300 gives you state of the art sound in audio electronics, which can sonically hold its own with the very best sounding separates, and the AVR300 will probably surpass the sound of the particular expensive high end separates that your neighbor has chosen for his system.
In keeping with its sonic status as a reference standard surround processor suitable for perfectionist systems, the AVR300 can be flexibly configured and employed to perform the function of any component link in such a perfectionist system. There are RCA audio output jacks for all 8 channels (including back surrounds) from the surround processor portion of the AVR300, so it is easy to employ the AVR300 as just the best sounding surround processor (with alternative power amplifiers of your choice), or even as just a perfectionist analog multichannel line section (for playing high resolution audio discs). You could then use the AVR300's built-in 7 channel power amplifier to drive auxiliary loudspeaker systems in another room.
There's ample cause for celebration and high praise when an audio company introduces any new component that achieves state of the art sound. It's mind-boggling when an engineering team is able to achieve true state of the art sound in the least likely format, an integrated receiver. And it's downright flabbergasting when this company and team is able to achieve this in a product that they can offer to you at a modest $1999 price. Arcam has scored an incredible coup with the AVR300.
The AVR300 has been eagerly anticipated since it was first announced by Arcam. But its actual arrival was delayed by six months, while the conscientious Arcam engineers, resisting commercial marketing pressures, tweaked the AVR300 design to sound even better, and added to the circuitry (beyond the originally budgeted concept) in order to improve the AVR300 yet further. This six month delay was obviously well worth the wait, since the AVR300 as finally hatched is a sonically peerless triumph.
Arcam's entire staff, from director to marketing to engineering, deserve further special praise for a unique corporate approach, which benefits you the consumer and also keeps Arcam in the forefront of the headlines. The Arcam staff seems to have an especially high esprit de corps, wherein they keep egging and encouraging one another on to greater and greater heights of achievement, always trying new ideas and never resting on their laurels. Consequently, Arcam is often the first manufacturer to introduce the newest features for better audio and video fidelity into their products. To cite just the latest examples, Arcam's new DV29 is the first high end DVD player to employ the new HDMI digital interface for better signal transmission, and the AVR300 is probably the first receiver to employ the new Dolby PLIIX decoding for better surround sound.
Furthermore, Arcam is so conscientiously dedicated to always bringing you the latest engineering improvements, as soon as they are conceived, that they put these improvements into the very next applicable product, even if that product happens not to be the flagship model. As a result, junior models in the Arcam lineup sometimes temporarily outperform the senior models, until the engineering improvements can trickle up and be implemented into the next update of the senior model. Other manufacturers will tell you that this makes no commercial marketing sense, since in the view of their marketing departments, the senior model should always be the first to employ the newest innovations, after which these innovations can trickle down to the junior models - which means that these new innovations must wait to be introduced until the next feasible update scheduled for the senior model, and thereafter must wait even longer before they trickle down to the junior model. But Arcam seems technically driven rather than marketing driven, so they cannot wait idly by, for mere commercial marketing reasons, to bring you the newest engineering innovations. And in the long run that might be the smartest marketing tactic of all. It earns Arcam the reputation for being the first with the most, often at the moderate price points of junior models, which can reach and immediately benefit more consumers. And it earns Arcam the reputation for putting the interests of the caring consumer first.
For example, Arcam recently developed a new technology for reducing contaminating noise in digital circuitry, called Mask of Silence, wherein they judiciously employ ferrite to damp, filter, and shield digital noise, thereby improving both audio and video performance. Arcam put this new technology (plus a digital video output) into the junior DV79 disc player, which thereby outperformed the senior DV27A player, until the new senior DV29 player was introduced (also with the Mask of Silence technology), to become the rightful king of the hill. Likewise, the Mask of Silence technology is employed in the junior new AVR300 processor, and is a key ingredient in the AVR300 becoming the very best sounding surround processor regardless of price, whereas the older senior AV8 surround processor does not yet employ this Mask of Silence technology.
Detailed Analysis of Intrinsic Sonic Quality
If you are looking for a surround receiver, and want the world's best, you already know it's the Arcam AVR300, so you can skip this section. If, on the other hand, you have separates and can't believe that any mere receiver could sound better, then you probably need further convincing, so you'll want to read the following detailed analysis, since it backs up (and forms the foundation for) our evaluative summary above.
Following our usual procedure, we evaluated the AVR300 one section at a time, and in various operating modes, to get a complete picture of its performance. And, following our usual procedure, we evaluated the AVR300 against our strict absolute, perfectionist standards of sonic performance, using our high resolution lab system to accurately (and mercilessly) reveal all the AVR300's strengths and weaknesses. Associated links included the very revealing Nordost Valhalla loudspeaker cables, VonGaylord Chinchilla interconnects, and loudspeakers by Verity and VonGaylord. The audio sources included the McCormack UDP-1 universal disc player, which sets a stunning new standard for the sonic state of the art in playing all disc formats, and Arcam's new DV-29 DVD player, which offers excellent sound (in addition to setting a stunning new standard for the state of the art in video quality).
First, we evaluate all processors in their direct mode, which is their best sounding mode, since the only elements in the signal path are the volume control and the analog output buffer stage. This is the mode you would use for playing high resolution audio discs, since most of them are restricted to coming from your disc player in analog mode, and forbid your surround processor from encoding them into digital and doing any further signal manipulation or enhancement. Essentially, the surround processor is functioning as a multichannel analog line section in this mode. We can test this direct mode by simply inserting a surround processor into the line level signal path, and listening for any changes in the quality of the sound. We are effectively comparing the sound of the processor to a short piece of straight wire, so this straight wire bypass test is very cruel and exacting, and no physically real audio product can score 100% audible perfection on this test, at least when evaluated on a high resolution system. The very best high end audio line sections come close, but even they always sound different than the straight wire bypass. In the case of the AVR300, when we tested the intrinsic sonic quality, of this direct mode of the surround processor, we naturally did not yet include the built-in power amplifier in this first phase of testing analysis.
How well did the AVR300 do on this cruel test? The sonic results were amazing, and already the first indication that this AVR300 was a sonically extraordinary product. In fact, the AVR300's overall sonic performance here was nearly perfect, surpassing all other surround processors we have tested, regardless of price.
The AVR300 was superb, and virtually indistinguishable from the straight wire bypass, in crucial sonic aspects such as transparency, articulation, speed, and clean purity (lack of distortion). There was none of the veiling, defocusing, softening, or smearing that is so common with most audio circuits, and with most other surround processors. More information, and more musically important information, was coming through the AVR300 than any other surround processor we have tested, regardless of price. Musical instruments, for example, had their transient attacks and their subtle timbral after-resonances revealed and reproduced by the AVR300 virtually perfectly, sounding superbly clear and clean, virtually the same as the straight wire bypass. That's amazing performance for any audio product, regardless of price, and is notably better than any other surround processor has achieved, regardless of price.
The AVR300 was similarly excellent in preserving spatial information, which is also crucial for a surround processor (after all, the whole point of a surround system is to accurately and richly recreate spatial information all around you). The AVR300 was virtually perfect in preserving and reproducing the full rich width of the space between and beyond loudspeaker locations, and in precisely localizing sounds within this rich surround stage curtain. Obviously the superb transparency noted above was doing its job at superbly revealing the subtle recorded information cues that allow the human ear/brain to perceive sounds as magically coming from a rich, continuous stage, even at all the locations where there are no loudspeakers actually radiating sound.
The AVR300 did evince a very tiny loss of spatial information related to depth and ambience, making the portrayed image a little flatter (more 2D), but less so than we have heard from any other processor, again regardless of price. To keep this in context, note that the McCormack UDP-1 disc player, used as a source here, reproduces the subtlest spatial depth and ambience information far better than other disc players, so the very slight loss audible in the AVR300 with the McCormack as a source would surely not even be audible at all with other disc players (since they would not be feeding the AVR300 with such subtle depth and ambience information), so this is a complete non-issue with all other disc players, and only a teeny point to be noted for the record if you use the McCormack as your source for high resolution audio discs.
It was obvious that the AVR300 was already far surpassing the sonic performance of other surround processors, regardless of price. The AVR300 was sounding so good, even when compared to the impossible ideal of the cruel straight wire bypass, that we thought we'd better double check our findings, as a further reality check. Just how good was this new little product? The AVR300 was obviously trumping other surround processors, but how would the AVR300, used as a direct analog
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