Along with its new top-of-the-range integrated amp, the A38, Arcam has introduced a new stereo power amplifier to replace the P35 of yore.
It's not a vast change and, indeed, from the outside you'd have trouble distinguishing a P38 from a P35, but there are a few nips and tucks under the hood. By and large, it's an A38 without the preamp stage, offering the same output power and the same two switched outputs.
The C31 is related to the preamp stage of the A38 (historically, the latter was influenced by the former), but isn't quite the same at its inputs and adds some quite sophisticated output circuitry. A balanced output is included, despite the fact that the P38 doesn't have a balanced input (the P1 monoblock does, however).
It's all quite modern stuff, densely packed surface-mount circuit boards and so on, powered by a generous toroidal mains transformer. Op-amps are used extensively and are all good-quality types, while input selection is done with high-quality sealed reed relays, arguably pretty much the ultimate audio switch.
Volume control is electronic and this allows Arcam to incorporate input trim, which adjusts the gain of each input to suit sources which may vary in output level. Balance, simply addresses each channel of the volume control independently.
This is all set up through a menu structure which is very simple to navigate via front panel or remote control and also allows the user to select the size of step in which the volume changes. There are plenty of inputs and two 'tape' outputs, though a phono stage is an optional extra.
Arcam has been quite cunning in facilitating upgrades through its range. You can add a P38 to an A38 for bi-amping, then switch to a C31 and go berserk with tri-amping.... which is all to the good if you're a hardened tweaker.
Despite that, the basic C31/P38 combination is the epitome of low-fuss simplicity in everyday use.
As has happened in the past, the sound was felt a touch too controlled for some tastes, though no one suggested that anything was actually missing from the sound, unless it's just a touch of bass extension and warmth.
Actually the bass was a little perplexing, as two of our listeners made apparently contradictory comments. At one point finding it well extended and, at another, on the dry side. It's hard to see how it can be both at once, so the way it deals with different recordings must be the culprit.
The Michael Jackson and solo piano tracks were the most successful, the more subtle bass extension of the opera excerpt seeming more troublesome.
Listening sighted, we felt the latter may be the case, but either way we're talking subtleties.
Amps lacking panache
Midrange and treble are certainly clear enough, though again opinions varied between 'detailed, precise and civilised' (we're paraphrasing a little here) and 'emotionally dry'. It's interesting to realise how similar these findings are to ours with the A38.
These amps are not inclined to gloss or embellish and while they don't have the panache or exciting grip of the best at two-and-a-half times their price, they make a good case for themselves.