When we asked manufacturers for pairs of CD player and amp, we took care not to be too restrictive in terms of price, giving only an overall ballpark target.
Arcam could have fielded several combinations that would have met our request, but took what turned out to be an unusual approach in sending an amp costing over twice as much as the CD player.
In many ways the Arcam FMJ CD17/FMJ A38 units are well matched – obviously visually, but also in terms of general internal and external construction.
They both feature sensible use of modern components and circuit techniques (both use surface-mount components very widely), with shrewd employment of high-grade passive parts among the integrated circuits.
The amp has a rather more modest-looking output stage than some other rival amps, but it uses some rather clever output transistors with enhanced thermal stability, which should help it cope with heavy loading and the toroidal transformer is adequate rather than over-specified.
Arcam has not deprived these units of features. The CD17 supports CD text, albeit with some limitations and the amp has such niceties as input level trims and a choice of volume steps (2dB, 1dB, 0.5dB) thanks to the electronic volume control.
Main switching is by relays, with electronic switches apparently routing the record selection, which can be independent of the listening selection. Build quality is good and the lightweight top cover of each unit is efficiently damped.
It's always nice to have our previous reviews borne out by new listening test evidence and in this case our listeners reiterated comments from the past about civilised, polished performance from these units.
The bass was well-liked, but it seemed to be the upper midrange and treble where these units were most clearly distinguished from their peers, with great detail and refinement going hand-in-hand with excellent integration.
There was slight disagreement about the tonality, which we tend to interpret as a question of presentation rather than actual frequency response (which is, of course, essentially flat, as expected). Some comments suggested that the sound can be a little thin at times, which implies an over-emphasis of the treble, while others praised tonality as neutral.
It seems that the particularly clear quality of the treble has differing effects on listeners, some finding that it draws attention to the upper frequencies in such as way as to boost them subjectively. This is just the kind of subtle difference, we feel, which justifies the existence of multiple products in the market.
Bass is strong and well extended, but perhaps not quite as full of impact as some other combinations produce. It just isn't the tightest unit we've tested, but there's still decent rhythm to be heard.
Stereo imaging is good in terms of precision and stability of instrumental placing, but there's rather less space and air around the performers than we've sometimes heard. Still, the precision makes it easy to pick out individual lines and while the sound is not hyper-analytical it's plenty clear enough to allow one to hear detail.
Incidentally, sighted listening after the main panel session suggested that the CD player and amp are indeed very closely matched in sonic attainment.