Arcam FMJ AVR600 HD Surround Receiver

      Performance is everything. The new Arcam AVR600 surround receiver's performance is a stunning advance in the state of the art. The AVR600 is a reference benchmark for the future, that you can buy today. And therefore this review will concentrate on performance, since this is what makes the AVR600 so distinct from, and so far above, all competing AV receivers. So let's briefly discuss the AVR600's feature set functionality (connectivity, processing options, control flexibility) first, and get it out of the way.

I. Functional Features

      With its new top of the line model Arcam has brought its AV offering up to date, giving the AVR600 a healthy suite of capabilities that is competitive with the latest high end AV receivers from other brands, all of which are well equipped to handle the wide variety of situations possible in today's electronic home. There might be subtle pros and cons, among competing high end AV receivers, related to the slight differences in their functionality suites, but most of them including the Arcam AVR600 can well fit (or be adapted) into most any situation.
      The AVR600's control and communication connectivity includes RS232, ethernet, USB, IR for all 3 zones, and rLead/rDock. The AVR600's remote control is compact and not overloaded with keys, yet it is powerful. It can control all your other system devices, and can be programmed with macros to make your control chores even easier and faster.
      In addition to the built-in AM/FM tuner, there are input jacks for Sirius radio and DAB (use depends on country). Incidentally, the quality (both sonic and RF) of this on-board AM/FM tuner is, to put it kindly, merely serviceable. If you want FM performance that is sonically (and RF-wise) worthy of the AVR600's spectacular sonics (especially for what the AVR600's incredible surround space enhancement can do to enrich FM stereo enjoyment), you need to get a high quality dedicated outboard tuner.
      Like other competing high end AV receivers nowadays, the AVR600 works with and operates upon both video and audio signals input and/or output via HDMI 1.3 with deep color (unlike Arcam's earlier AVR350, which merely passively passed through HDMI signals without even intercepting them). The AVR600 gives you a lot of flexibility to choose input formats, in order to optimize them for your system. For example, for one input you can choose to bring video in via HDMI but bring the audio from that same source in via sonically superior SP/DIF, while on another input you can choose to bring in both video and audio via HDMI (as you would have to do when playing the lossless HD audio track from a Blu-ray disc).
      The AVR600 accepts and processes all contemporary popular signal formats, including the lossy HD and latest lossless HD formats from Dolby and DTS, and works with both bitstream and PCM signals.
      The AVR600 offers a good set of video processing capabilities (upscaling, converting analog to HDMI, etc.), at up to 1080p. Video processing is accomplished via the Pixelworks PW338 chip, used in many high end video projection systems, instead of by the Realta or Reon chips commonly employed by competing AV receivers. The AVR600's video processing includes the following video adjustments: brightness, contrast, color saturation, edge enhancement, general noise reduction, mosquito noise reduction, and block noise reduction. Of course, these adjustments might be duplicated in your particular video source and/or display. But the AVR600 offers (and remembers) different video processing settings for each individual input, which can be helpful and convenient for making all your video sources more equal in their visual properties, and 'improving' your video sources that are subpar. As to the video output side, the AVR600 can output HDMI to both zone 1 and zone 2, but it has only one HDMI video processor on board, so if you have set the AVR600's controls to output HDMI for zone 1, then any video processing being executed (on the input selected at the moment) will also appear on the HDMI output for zone 2 (this is a common restriction among today's AV receivers).
      The AVR600 offers automatic loudspeaker setup, which employs a microphone (included) that plugs into the front. It automatically detects which loudspeakers are present in your system, their type (small or large), sets up the AVR600's adjustments for optimum level from all loudspeakers, matched time delays, optimum crossover to your subwoofer or large loudspeakers, and basic EQ compensation of room modes. Then, for each of the inputs you can configure the AVR600 to implement (or not implement) this room EQ item.
      The AVR600 is one of the few AV receivers thus far to offer Dolby Volume, a sophisticated gain compression circuit that reduces dynamic range (e.g. for quiet evening listening) while maintaining superior sonic fidelity, compared to relatively crude compression circuits employed in the past.
      We found the throughput video quality and the video processing of the AVR600 to be excellent. Of course, many of your video sources and displays also have on-board video processing, and you don't want to duplicate some aspects of video processing at plural links in your chain, so you must choose, based on your own experiments, which link you assign a particular video processing task (e.g. upconverting) to. The quality of on-board video processing varies widely among products acting as these other links in the chain, and only you can know how good the video processing is in your particular links, so only you can find out for yourself whether they or the AVR600 do a better job of what you want done, and therefore choose which links to allocate your desired video processing to. Thus, any potential benefits of employing the AVR600 (instead of other links) for any video processing are specific to your own particular system and your own preferences.
      Certainly, if you have multiple video sources, and like the convenience offered by controlling all video processing in one central box, then the AVR600's video capabilities will suit you very well. On the other hand, if you are a video purist, then you believe in calibrating each component (each video source and each display) to a standard for optimum video performance. You might want to optimize the video processing within each of the links that can perhaps do it best for that link, and perhaps use a dedicated outboard video processor for tasks like scaling conversion and de-interlacing. This could obviate the need to use the AVR600's video processing, and indeed obviate the need to even bring any video into the AVR600 at all.
      Furthermore, video purists might always want to seek the shortest, most direct path from player to display, for optimum video fidelity, thus bypassing the receiver. Likewise, audio purists might also want to keep video signals, with their attendant noise contamination, out of an AV receiver's chassis as much as possible, for optimum audio fidelity.

II. The Sound

      And that segue brings us to the audio performance of the AVR600. An AV receiver might be able to process both audio and video, but its audio performance is primary, because an AV receiver is always in the audio signal path, whereas its inclusion in the video signal path is optional. You are always listening to an AV receiver (its audio power amplifier and audio processing front end), but you are not always watching through an AV receiver. That's especially true if you video-bypass the AV receiver entirely, going directly from video sources to video displays (perhaps via dedicated outboard video processors) for optimum fidelity (both optical and sonic). And it's also true for all those times you use your AV system for listening to music instead of watching films. The primary reason for bringing video through an AV receiver is for distribution and switching convenience, not for obtaining the ultimate quality in video. In sum, video performance in an AV receiver is overall secondary to audio performance.
      Just how good is the AVR600's audio performance? The most relevant place to start is to compare the AVR600 to other competing high end AV receivers, since that's the buying decision most of you are looking at. My colleague Doug Blackburn is known for his positive feedback, for always being able to look at the optimistic side of each product he reviews. Yet even positive Doug, in his recent review of a competing high end AV receiver (which at $5500 actually costs more than the AVR600), was forced by its performance to admit that its power amplifier section doesn't sound as good as his dedicated outboard separate power amplifier, and its front end doesn't sound as good as his dedicated outboard separate preamplifier and/or processor. We agree completely with Doug. Other high end AV receivers sound pretty good, but they still sound like, well, receivers. And that's all we consumers expect from receivers.
      Enter Arcam's own previous flagship AV receiver offering, the AVR350. In critical listening, we found that Arcam's AVR350 sonically equaled the performance of high end separates, and actually surpassed many highly regarded separates. So, with its AVR350, Arcam was already sonically ahead of what other high end receivers today achieve.
      Since the introduction of its AVR350, Arcam has devoted nearly 3 years and countless man-hours to their R&D for the AVR600. Of course their new flagship would have to handle all the new formats, such as HD from Blu-ray. And, as a premium flagship it would be nice if it offered somewhat more power output capability than their previous, now junior AV receivers. But Arcam also hoped that they might be able to improve upon basic sound quality in their new AVR600. That would be a tall, difficult order, given that the AVR350 was already so sonically superb, and so pre-eminent over the competition.
      Thus, we felt a wary dose of skepticism when Arcam, in announcing their new, forthcoming AVR600 flagship, claimed that its sonic performance was superior, the best ever from Arcam. Yeah, sure, and what else is new - all manufacturers claim the same thing at virtually every new product launch. Besides, the AVR350 was sonically so superb that we had difficulty imaging how anything, especially a receiver, could be noticeably better sonically. Our wary skepticism was worsened when we learned that the power amplifier in this new AVR600 would be using a class G output stage, instead of the usual class AB output stage (seen in all previous Arcam amplifiers), since conventional class G amplifiers have an extra distortion notch in their waveform, and the conventional class G amplifiers we had heard in the past did not sound that great, especially handling high frequencies. It's important to tell you all this now because, when you read on below, you need to keep in mind that we approached our listening evaluation sessions for this new AVR600 product with a cynical prejudice and a bias of limited expectations.
      Now, for you the practical purchasing question may well be merely, how does the AVR600 compare to other competing high end AV receivers? But we wanted to pose a bigger challenge: how does the sonic performance of the new AVR600 compare to the already pre-eminent AVR350? And, as we (and now also Doug Blackburn) have asked before, how does the AVR600's sonic performance compare to dedicated high end separates?
      To evaluate the Arcam AVR600, I employed my lab reference system, including the following components: Esoteric DV-60 as music and DVD source, mounted on a comprehensive Mapleshade support system; a Pioneer Blu-ray player (Arcam's own forthcoming Blu-ray player was not yet ready at this time); a surround array of 7 B&W 802D loudspeakers; Nordost Valhalla loudspeaker cable; Nordost Optix video cable; digital coax interconnect by Mapleshade; Von Gaylord Chinchilla analog interconnects; Von Gaylord Chinchilla power cords. The Arcam AVR600 was tested in its role as the central hub of this lab reference system.
      I conducted a critical assessment of the new AVR600's sonic performance in all basic operating modes: straight stereo music via analog direct (wherein only the AVR600's power amplifier is being evaluated); enhanced 7.1 surround for music sources (wherein the AVR600's front end processing is also engaged); lossy film soundtracks (5.1, either straight or enhanced to 7.1); and lossless HD film soundtracks. The AVR600's setup was optimized carefully for each of these modes, in order to probe and discover the best sound it could deliver in each of these basic modes.
      The results, of critically evaluating the AVR600's sonic performance, were the same across the board, for all these basic modes. So, what were the results?
      Allow me to get personal. In my job as a high end reviewer (and as a research scientist always pursuing perfection), I get to hear a lot of spectacular systems and industry demos at the cutting edge. Many of these systems cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. In many, just the electronics doing the same job as the AVR600 cost about $400,000 (seven dedicated monoblock power amplifiers, discrete separate outboard DACs, surround processors, EQ, etc.). As you see, I have been lucky enough to experience the very finest reproduced sounds this planet can offer, and I remember them very well.
      The new Arcam AVR600, at the hub of my lab's reference system, gives me the finest sound I have heard in my life, from any system. Ever. Anywhere. Regardless of price. Period.
      Of course, the other components in my lab's reference system deserve credit, for revealing so clearly the huge superiority of the AVR600's sonics (that's why they're reference components). But the AVR600 still deserves the lion's share of the credit, not just because it was the central hub of the system and performing so many tasks, but also because it was able, as the central player, to take the whole system to sonic heights I had never experienced before, from any system anywhere, regardless of price (and for both music recordings and film soundtracks).
      The sonic performance of the Arcam AVR600 is a stupendous engineering achievement. As you know, when working at the cutting edge of the state of the art, engineering design advances are usually small and hard-won, and often cost you dearly in higher price, as the law of diminishing returns sets in. Thus, for such a huge sonic advance beyond the state of the art to be achieved in any product, let alone a modestly priced product, let alone a receiver instead of perfectionist separates, is mind boggling. The AVR600 wears and fully deserves Arcam's FMJ moniker, the designation they reserve for their premium design efforts, their all-out assaults on the state of the art. In this case, Arcam has not merely achieved state-of-the-art performance, but has succeeded beyond the state of the art, and by a significant margin. The 3 years of design effort by the Arcam team were very well spent, and we are all the richer for it.
      The margin of the AVR600's superiority in sonic performance is so huge, so dramatic, that it belongs at the heart of every modest system that can possibly budget for it, since it will elevate the rest of your system to sonic heights beyond what you ever in your fondest dreams imagined it could achieve. And the AVR600 also belongs at the heart of virtually all high end perfectionist systems (whose budget could afford far more than the AVR600's modest $5000 price), since it will elevate your system's sonic performance even beyond what your present expensive electronic separates are doing.
      Furthermore, the AVR600 belongs not only at the heart of every AV system, but also at the heart of every audio-only music system, for the staggering advance in musical information and musical enjoyment it brings. That's true even if you are loyal to straight two channel stereo (one of the basic modes we tested and found so sonically superior in the AVR600). Then, with the AVR600 as your music vendor, obtainable at such a modest price, you should consider converting to 7 loudspeaker surround sound, for the huge sonic benefits you'll hear when playing your large reservoir of (and investment in) two channel sources (your only extra expense is buying more loudspeakers).

Amazing Bass, Delicate Treble

      Let's discuss sonic specifics, and begin at the frequency extremes, since these are the most difficult for electronics (especially the power amplifier) to handle accurately.
      In the bass, the AVR600 gets more deep bass extension out of my full range loudspeakers than I have ever heard before, delivering transient bass impact even far below the nominal resonance frequency of the loudspeaker system's woofer. And the AVR600 handles this very deep bass with tremendous control, authority, power, and slam. My lab system's loudspeakers, the B&W 802D, have relatively small 7.8 inch woofers, housed in merely a moderate size (not large) cabinet, so their bass is inherently not as deeply extended nor as powerfully strong as many larger loudspeaker systems. Yet, with the 7 channels of the AVR600 driving the 7 B&W 802Ds, for the first time I heard bass from my system that obviated the need for any added dynamic subwoofer. The bass from the AVR600 is so high in quality and authority that, even driving conventional full range loudspeakers, it surpassed the quality and controlled authority of the best I have heard from any and all dynamic subwoofers.
      In part, that's because all dynamic subwoofers are employed as adjuncts being given only a narrow spectral passband, and that automatically (by the laws of physics) portends overshoot and ringing in the subwoofer's time domain transient response, and this sonically translates into boomy, overly heavy, loose, flabby, ill defined, poorly controlled bass, which actually has less solid slam. If you use an AVR600 to drive quality full range loudspeakers, you might well be sonically better off in ditching your subwoofers, in order to get and hear better bass quality, including tightly defined, well controlled, powerful slam (the only subwoofer we'd still recommend for an AVR600 system would be the highly specialized Thigpen rotary subwoofer).

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