If you sat on the sumptuous leather sofa of power at Arcam HQ, what would you do to top the success of the AVR600 receiver? It had all the major features required, consciously left out a lot of the trinkets and tinsel, and concentrated on sound quality. It is a true multipurpose hi-fi stereo and AV amplifier.
Clearly, the answer was to punt up and down the Cam all Summer with a jugful of Pimms, and set about further improving premium-quality, style-tastic high-end audio. The result is the FMJ AV888 processor pre-amp and the monster FMJ P777 multichannel power amplifier.
A two-box beast separating the delicacies of the DSP engine and low-voltage source signals in the processor from the Frankenstein level voltages in the power amp.
Features-wise, see our review of the AVR600 because they are all but identically 'lite'. What separates the manly pre-power from the boyish integrated is the attention to detail at every level. That and over 300 hours of listening tests to nail the final tuning.
The AV888 pre-amp is quite different from the likes of Denon's AVP-A1HD, and not just because the Denon outguns the Arcam on features at a ratio of about ten-to-one.
The AV888 uses quasi analogue input switching and a 'direct' mode that directly couples the input board to the output stages (via the volume control) with a short, flat link cable.
Its D/A converter configuration also breaks from the norm of eight discrete DACs and uses four high-end stereo devices from Wolfson, each with its own local sub-regulated supply for optimum sound quality.
The AV888's outputs can be configured as fully-balanced over XLR connections to reduce cableborne interference – this also offers installers the option of much longer cable runs. Speaking as a big fan of balanced interconnects at lengths of 5m or greater, that gets a thumbs up from me.
Other hi-fi-derived luxuries include a mechanically-dampened chassis, a data reclocking system to reduce jitter over HDMI and Arcam's Mask of Silence. No, it's not something for when the wife is nagging, but a host of technical features and shielding, implemented to ensure that no component, signal path or cable in the design has any detrimental affect on another.
Interestingly, the Mask of Silence extends to the radio tuner – or rather the lack of one. Not having a tuner avoids any stray RF wandering around the pristine internals of the AV888. It does, though, offer audio media streaming from a PC and access to the wonders of internet radio via the Ethernet port. This gives you access to thousands of stations globally, so it's not all bad.
The other kick-butt features include decoding for all common HD audio codecs, three-zone multiroom, and, er, erm... Well, there's Dolby Volume to reduce the audio levels on those pesky loud adverts.
Yes, the AV888 is pretty bare-bones in terms of features. Even the interface is presented as basic text menus, rather than the fancy GUIs found on even budget AVRs these days. Nor does it succumb to badge-fest trumps either – so no THX or Audyssey legends on the fascia – although you do get a very accurate auto set-up system courtesy of Analog Devices' Auto Room Tuning code.
Tweaked by Arcam, this offers 1cm speaker distance and 0.25dB adjustment increments and a single-state EQ system. As 1cm equates to a complete half-phase at 20kHz, I can see why such accuracy is so important.
The P777 power-amp is just as much a product of Arcam's hi-fi heritage – only in seven-channel guise. It's a brute, too. A pair of massive power supplies run through a soft start routine when powering up, to save taking out your house fuse, and promises over 1.6kW at full bore.
You get fully-balanced XLR and unbalanced phono configuration with loop-throughs, lots of high-end audiophile components and a 12V trigger. But there is no getting away from the fact that the P777 is a damn great powerhouse. And there ain't nothing wrong with that, baby.
Another area the Arcam pre-power differs from its peers is in the ease of use. I own a Denon AVP-A1HD and its operational complexities are up there with piloting a space shuttle, blindfolded. Not so this Arcam pair.
The setup is straightforward, although likely to be done by your Arcam dealer, and the day-to-day operations are largely one-button simple. This is one of the few high-end AV devices that could conceivably be used by the whole family.
Rich and weighty
Then again, your mother isn't going to like what it is capable of. The AV888 has a rich and weighty balance that just begs you to give it a handful of volume – and the P777 seriously delivers when you do.
Hellboy 2: The Golden Army on Blu-ray is ideal fodder, and the Arcam duo turns the soundtrack into a monster of solidity and presence. This pairing's speed, scale and dynamic impact is a positive adrenaline rush compared to Arcam's traditionally 'safe' balance.
Engage the EQ and it does the AV equivalent of knocking back five tequila slammers and a Red Bull chaser. It's ludicrously potent and a rip-roaring ride that does real justice to big-budget blockbusters.
Better still, unlike some of the larger Japanese integrated models, it isn't all about big-bang action movies, either. The Arcam duo manages subtlety with a smooth and even hand, managing to sound robustly high-end even at low volumes and with more pedestrian movies.
The sound is never harsh or brittle, never has you reaching for the volume to knock it back a couple of clicks, yet happily ekes out little details and subtle dialogue inflections. With any disc from The Matrix Trilogy on Blu-ray, Laurence Fishburne's incredibly expressive vocal tone is crafted with absolute precision. 'Do you think that is air you are breathing?' No, probably not, Morpheus – I was holding my breath with excitement.
In terms of home cinema fireworks the 777/888 combo does remain a little less frisky and a little less edgy than the range-topping Pioneer Susano (integrated) or the Denon A1HD pre-power. But this is a matter of preference (and speaker partnership) rather than qualitative finality.
While the latter two amps can show the Arcam a thing or two about searing top-end detail and sheer size of soundfield, the AV888/P777 is smoother, richer and easier to listen to across a wider range of movies. If they were cars, the Arcam would be a top-spec S-Class Mercedes to the Denon's Audi R8 and the Pioneer's Nissan GT-R.
And then we get to the Arcam's trump card – music. Or rather, real hi-fi sound with music. There are very few AV amps that cut it as genuine high-end hi-fi amplifiers as well. The AV888/P777 is firmly in this exclusive club and vying for a position on the board.
Leonard Cohen's Live in London CD is immaculately recorded and the Arcam creates every ounce of the passion and feeling of the event (and I know… I was there). Cohen's voice is reproduced with amazing depth and integrity, allowing his aging tones and subtle inflections to infuse every lyric.
This is the sort of 'warts and all' accuracy only normally available from serious stereo amplifiers. Engage more channels with music and it gets even better. I spun up Oh My God from the Kaiser Chief's live Elland Road concert Blu-ray and just revelled in the Arcam's scale and passionate rendition of this anthem.
It had me leaping up and down on the sofa singing along with the chorus. In all my years reviewing amplifiers, this is the first Arcam I would have ever said that about. Brilliant.
A bug's life
Criticisms? Yes, there are a couple, and not just the deliberate dearth of fancy features. Our review sample had a few bugs here and there that should have been ironed out; the subwoofer thumped when I powered off the processor, every speaker thumped if I turned off the processor without turning off the power amp first, and there was occasionally a long delay in the HDMI handshaking to the display device.
The AV888/P777 system also had more than its fair share of pops, clicks and ultra high-pitched sounds when I switched various features on and off. None of these happen once it is all setup and you are watching a movie, but bugs like this bug me – as you virtually never get them with the top-spec Japanese amps.
Arcam, however, says all these irritations have now been fixed via a firmware update.
That aside, I couldn't help but nod appreciatively at Arcam's AV888/P777 pairing and believe that the extensive time, effort and tuning lavished on this pair has all been worthwhile.
Despite its high-end status, this is an all-round everyday amplifier solution that is pretty much idiot-proof and sounds absolutely great with both movies and music.
The fairly frugal features-count isn't going to appeal to die-hard kit enthusiasts, but if you want top-flight AV performance without having to become an AV geek then Arcam's sumptuous pre-power combo has no equal.
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