If the thought of something 'British Designed' conjures up phrases like quintessential, unique and eclectic, then Arcam's AV9 will not disappoint. Conceived and built in the heart of Cambridgeshire, the company's latest high-end processor follows hot on the outputs of the well-received AV8, and approaches the home cinema game in a radically different way to rival Japanese mega-amps.
From the matt silver finish and love-it or hate-it green dot-matrix display, the physical design is Arcam through and through. The build quality is faultless, underpinning the brand's 5-year guarantee, and the case is constructed with Acousteel - a laminated sandwich of steel-sheet and rubber that damps vibrations that can affect delicate acoustic components.
The back panel has its charms too, with no less than five HDMI inputs. Sadly there is only a single HDMI output, apparently due to the cost, complexity and politics of maintaining the HDCP signal across multiple outputs. The HDMIs all have the bandwidth for full 1080p HD signal switching, as do the analogue component video connections.
Strangely there are no iLink inputs nor the ability to upconvert video signals. Then again, you do get no less than three subwoofer outputs allowing you to 'bass tune' a room with multiple subs (and of course create seismic scale explosions...). This is clearly an AV processor with a much bigger A than V.
Along with the stringent THX Ultra 2 certification, the AV9 offers high precision calibration down to 1/2dB per channel and delay distance measurement down to just 100mm. Of course, this means that the AV purist might want to implement some sort of neck brace to watch movies so they don't move their ears out of the precise 'hot-spot'!
Conversely, the technology that Arcam eschews - when almost every other manufacturer is clutching it to their ample AV bosom - is auto setup and Room EQ. No mic, no automatic system balancing routine and no electronic equalisation - parametric or otherwise. With the AV9 you get just pure sound... a philosophy that comes straight from Arcam's hi-fi heart.
Blowing the dust off the tape measure and sound-pressure meter, I initially configured the AV9 with the matching Arcam P7 multichannel power amp - perhaps the most likely pairing.
Setup is straightforward using the rather bland and functional on-screen display, accessible through the remote control or the front panel. The OSD is interlaced causing a switching pause if you are hooked up to a progressive display. This is fine during set-up but a pain if you are tweaking settings while playing a movie.
Powering up the combo, the first thing you notice is the exceptionally low noise floor. There is an inky silence pre-movie which sets the scene nicely and encourages a rather gung-ho initial volume setting... something you quickly notice as the AV9/P7 combo pins you to the sofa with a spleen-crushing SPL on the THX intro clip.
This pairing just ripples with power and passion and has more than enough warmth to add a cosseting smoothness that Arcam is richly famed for. It does action with rare presence and imagery, and the accurate control of up to three subs could well turn this combo into the system of choice for really, really big SPL home cinema.
Hooked up to a large speaker sets, Tannoy's biggest Dimension package in my case, the sheer impact and scale of the Arcam pairing is a visceral shock wave that goes effortlessly and gracefully loud without becoming remotely aggressive or shouty.
Switching the AV9's output to highly neutral Sony power amps, and then more lively Parasound models, reveals that much of the robust character of the original pairing is down to the P7. In fact, the AV9 is perhaps close to having no sonic character at all. It is sublimely neutral across its epic dynamic range and has a clarity that ekes out detail with a tenacity that precious few integrated AV amplifiers can manage.
Effects from the rears in particular seem to emerge from out of nowhere, with no precursor hiss or perception that there are speakers behind you. It is a supremely eerie effect with tense thrillers such as Panic Room, as every creak of a floorboard comes with breath-holding grip. Shock rear effects out of a silent soundtrack will make you spin round to check there isn't an axe-wielding psychopath hiding behind your cheeseplant every time. Superb.
For sheer dynamic range and clarity, Arcam's closest rival is perhaps Sony's flagship TA-DA9000ES AV-amplifier. Both have an impeccably clean and polished sound, but where the Arcam nudges ahead is that it manages to avoid Sony's starkness than can prove fatiguing.
When it comes to a heady day of back-to-back movies the Arcam will keep you on the edge of your seat from dawn to dusk. It is material, genre and format agnostic, simply doing a great neutral job and allowing the user to bias the overall sound with their choice of power amp.
The market is not exactly awash with processors at around this price, so direct comparison is quite tricky. As a combo the AV9/P7 is potent and accomplished but integrated models, such as Denon AVC-A1XV, offer better value in terms of both features and engaging (if not as neutral) home cinema sound.
But the AV9 is a processor with huge potential. Partner it with power amplification offering all the guts of the P7 but with added sparkle (say, Parasound's A21/A51 at £5,200) it is something very special indeed.
The lack of Room-EQ may deter some purchasers but the subjective benefits of such systems are a variable feast and that alone perhaps justifies its omission here. Arcam's philosophy of getting the basics right without recourse to digital jiggery-pokery will suit many and, in terms of being accurate, tonally neutral and well connected, the AV9 takes a lot of beating for music and movies. Thoroughly recommended. Richard Stevenson