In terms of connectivity, it's all here. The AVR500 features five HDMI inputs, along with two HDMI outputs. Some might say that's overkill, but I actually think five is the sweet spot for HDMI inputs. The AVR500 also features three component video inputs, two S-video and two composite. Full video upconversion is also offered, giving you the option of running only one HDMI cable to your video source, even if you're running legacy source components.
The AVR500 offers eight analog audio inputs, including a 7.1 multi-channel input, typically used for SACD and DVD-Audio playback. The digital audio inputs are also plentiful and include four optical, three coaxial and one 3.5mm optical input on the front of the unit. One of my major gripes with some of the new gear hitting the streets these days, especially on some of the higher end stuff, is the lack of connectivity. Case in point, I recently reviewed a high-end processor with only two HDMI inputs - not good. That's certainly not the case here as you'd be hard pressed to end up needing more. Other notable features include multi-zone capability, stereo direct mode, RS-232 control, Dolby Volume and a learning remote. Of course all of the new audio codecs, including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio are also supported.
In terms of size, AVR500 cannot be construed as diminutive, but it's manageable at just over 17 inches wide by seven inches high by a little over 16 inches deep, which means it will fit well in most gear racks. It weighs in at a stout 48.5 pounds and has a substantial, tank-like feel to it. One thing that never seems to matter to an audiophile is weight; if it takes added poundage to ensure solid performance, then it's all good.
Packaging was more than adequate, with high density foam keeping everything in place. Perusing the manual was a pleasure, as the AVR500 features one of the clearest and most detail oriented manuals I've read in awhile. It's great for the uninitiated, as well as those experienced users who want to take advantage of every feature. From what I understand, creating manuals isn't cheap, so it's nice to see Arcam go the extra mile in this regard. On the other hand, the remote is a disappointment. While it does feel sturdy and has a decent layout, the backlighting is almost non-existent as it's simply too dim to read most of the keys. The battery cover is also a bit wonky. Aesthetically speaking, the unit itself is gorgeous. My review sample came with a silver finish and Arcam also makes them available in black. It has a true high-end design, a clean faceplate with only one row of buttons tucked neatly underneath the display.
I connected the AVR500 to my Bowers & Wilkins 600 series speakers and Definitive Technology SuperCube II subwoofer using Wireworld's Oasis 6 speaker cables for the center, front right/left speakers and their Luna 16/4 for the surrounds. I was particularly impressed with the binding posts on the AVR500, which are well constructed and easily accommodated my rather heavy speaker wire. Using a combination of HDMI and analog audio interconnects, I connected the AVR500 to my home theater system which includes an Oppo DV-980H DVD-Audio/SACD player, a Sony PS3, a Music Hall MMF 2.2 turntable, an Apple TV and a DirecTV HD DVR. For those taking count, that still left me with one available HDMI input on the Arcam.
After firing up the Arcam and getting into the menu, I noticed that it was clean, well laid out and easy to navigate, which is a welcome relief as many manufacturers struggle with their GUI (Graphical User Interface). I plugged in the included calibration microphone and launched the auto setup. It was a straightforward process and accurately determined the size and distance of each of my speakers. Typically, after using auto setup on a receiver or processor, I end up tweaking the center channel and surround speaker levels, but I was happy with the Arcam's settings. There's also a Room EQ feature, which compensates for any sonic problems in your listening room. This can be toggled on and off for each input and as Arcam wisely states in their manual, you're better off tweaking the room than using this feature. For those who'd rather go the manual route with a sound level meter and a tape measure, the AVR500 manual provides thorough instructions on how to do it.
Before getting into the performance of the AVR500, I wanted to touch on a couple of other noteworthy features. First off, systems with multiple subwoofers are becoming more and more prevalent. On the AVR500, Arcam has included two subwoofer outputs, which is a welcome addition and still not available on a lot of high end gear. The other feature I wanted to mention, and will discuss in more detail later in the review, is stereo direct. This feature bypasses all processing to provide the highest possible sound quality from a two channel source. While this feature is prevalent even on low end receivers, the improvement in sound quality is rarely noticeable. On the Arcam, however, engaging stereo direct significantly improved the sound quality. At this price point, it makes sense that Arcam offers this feature as I suspect most people will use it, or at least try it. Lastly, the AVR500 offers Dolby Volume, which when engaged will deliver consistent volume during commercial breaks when watching television, or when switching from source to source. While you wouldn't necessarily want this engaged while spinning your favorite LP, it's nice to avoid the volume spikes on those Sham Wow commercials.
It's always good to start a review with two-channel music, so I cued up some vinyl with Morrissey's Greatest Hits (Decca). This is a well recorded LP and it was a real treat on the Arcam; both in terms of warmth and neutrality. "Everyday Is Like Sunday," from Morrissey's first solo album Viva Hate (Sire) sounded rich and warm, just as you want analog music to sound. Morrissey's voice was both haunting and soothing (if that's possible), and the Arcam turned out one of the most solid reproductions of that track I've yet heard. While listening to this album, I decided to do a bit of A/B testing with the stereo direct functionality. The music was decidedly more alive and forward in my listening room with stereo direct engaged, so it remained on for all further two-channel listening I did. While I preferred the overall sound with stereo direct engaged, I did notice that the soundstage seemed to shrink ever so slightly. This isn't a negative per se, it was simply a bit peculiar and worth noting.
Next up, I used my AppleTV to stream Steely Dan's Aja (MCA) via HDMI in Apple Lossless. On the title track, the saxophone (played by Wayne Shorter) was bright and alive, without sounding the least bit etched. Walter Becker's guitar riffs were spot on and the bass on each track was palpable without being overbearing or boomy.
Moving on to multi-channel music, I played the DVD-Audio version of The Beatles Love (Capitol) through the multi-channel input of the AVR500. "Eleanor Rigby" is my favorite Beatles tune and through the Arcam, the violins, cellos and violas sounded taut and alive, almost as though they had their own voice, beyond that of McCartney. I ended up listening to it three or four times through the Arcam and couldn't help but think that this was the way The Beatles were meant to be heard.
Ready to test the mettle of the AVR500 on movies, I grabbed the Blu-ray of Predators (20th Century Fox) and fired it up in DTS-HD Master Audio. Despite the goofy plot, there is action aplenty and a punishing soundtrack. In Chapter 11, when they finally unload on the Predators, the Arcam delivers across the frequency spectrum. From the visceral growl of the Predators themselves, to the low end thump of the Gatling gun, the Arcam delivered a room-filling and truly immersive home theater experience.
I wanted to try another film, preferably one with a stronger plot and better acting, so I cued up the most recent version of Robin Hood (Universal Studios) on Blu-ray in DTS-HD Master Audio. The opening sequence, which involves King Richard the Lionheart's army sacking a castle, is a sonic torture test for an AV receiver. I found that the despite all of the information hitting the surround channels, the sound was well balanced and coherent. The little bit of dialogue in the scene was intelligible and the low end thump of the battering ram breaking through the castle doors was mind blowing. As I have done on other AV receivers, I expected to tweak speaker level on either the center channel, bass or surrounds during this scene, but the auto setup of the Arcam did its job with aplomb and no tweaking was necessary.
Competition and Comparison
Arcam has a couple of noteworthy competitors in the high-end receiver realm, namely Anthem and NAD. The former offers their MRX500 AV receiver, which offers the same power and a similar feature set to that of the Arcam, while adding 3D capability all for $1,649 retail. At a similar price point to the AVR500, NAD offers their T 775 AV receiver for $3999. One of the more compelling features offered on the T 775 is something called upgrade modules, which allow you to upgrade the receiver's inputs by simply swapping out one of several modules on the rear panel; a very clever way to future-proof your investment.
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The lack of true backlighting and weird battery cover on the remote, which in my opinion are minor quibbles, are worth noting for those who might not have a universal remote. The only other problem I had with the Arcam involved audio handshake issues with HDMI. Despite having the latest firmware installed on the unit, on power up I would get video from the source component, but not always audio. Toggling between inputs solved the problem each time, but it was annoying nonetheless. Hopefully Arcam will be able to sort this out with future firmware updates.
For those who aren't comfortable with the expense and additional setup time required for separates, but do want high-end performance, the AVR500 is a more than capable performer. Does it match my $8,000 separates in terms of performance? Well, let's just say it comes pretty damn close, for a lot less money. Sonically, you're not going to find much, if anything, to complain about with the Arcam AVR500. Whether you're a person who spends most of their time spinning records or firing up surround heavy action films, you're going to be happy. It has more than ample power, it's brilliantly designed and engineered and probably most importantly, regardless of what you're listening to, it doesn't introduce any unwanted sonic artifacts.
If you want a truly transformative experience in your home theater, then find an Arcam dealer and check this bad boy out. When spending this kind of money, you want a product that puts a smile on your face every time you fire it up, and that's the experience I had with the Arcam, time and again. If you do pull the trigger, just remember that your AVR is only as good as the source components and cabling you use; neither of which need to be wallet-crushing, just be sure to do your homework.
All but the most discerning critics are really going to be
hard-pressed to find better and more balanced sonic performance than
what the AVR500 delivers. I recommend it without hesitation and can say
that it was an absolute pleasure to have in my listening room.