It’s pop quiz time again, dear readers. Can you, off the top of your head, name 10 AV receiver manufacturers? I have no doubt that the Denons and Yamahas and Sonys and Pioneers and Marantzes of the world rolled right off your tongue. You probably didn’t have to reach far at all for Onkyo and Integra, and even high-end offerings like Cambridge and Anthem are almost certainly on your radar. But Arcam? Unless you own or have owned any of the company’s gear, or you happen to live in Europe, I’d be willing to wager that this UK-based manufacturer of high-end audio electronics isn’t at the forefront of your consciousness when shopping for new gear. And that’s a shame, really--because if the AVR750 is any indication, the company’s offerings should be on the short list of must-hear gear the next time you’re itching for an audio upgrade.
What makes the AVR750 so special? For one thing, it completely opts out of the features race by eschewing bundled apps like Spotify, Pandora, SiriusXM, etc. The receiver lacks integrated WiFi, Bluetooth capabilities, and of course Apple AirPlay, although it does have a wired network connection and there is a nifty companion app for iOS devices that allows you to stream music over your home network (from computers, NAS devices, and even mobile devices).
Instead of spending its money on licensing brand-name streaming features (or brand-name room calibration, or fancy industrial design, for that matter), Arcam instead invests in pure performance capabilities, and it shows. The receiver’s amplifier topology is just one example of this: it operates in less-efficient but sonically purer Class A mode at lower listening levels, then switches to a more advanced Class G topology with multiple power supplies when more oomph is required. That’s a pretty huge deal, and it contributes largely to the AVR750’s appeal, as well as its pretty staggering price tag of $6,000.
It’s also one of the things that makes the AVR750’s 100-watt-per-channel power rating difficult to compare with similarly specified AV receivers. Another is the fact that Arcam rates its power output honestly and conservatively, which few manufacturers in our industry do. The 100-wpc rating is measured with seven channels driven into an eight-ohm load at 0.2 percent THD. If you play the sort of numbers games that most AV receiver manufacturers play with power ratings, the AVR750 weighs in at an impressive 210 watts per channel, measured with two channels driven at one kHz into a four-ohm load. If you need a refresher on what those terms mean and how the relationship between amps and speakers works, you can check out our primer on the subject here.
Despite the undeniable focus on high-fidelity audio performance, the AVR750 is a quite capable video hub, as well--with seven HDMI 1.4 inputs, all backed by excellent (if somewhat finicky) video processing that includes two types of noise reduction along with independent picture controls for each input, along with video upscaling up to 4K.
The AVR750 also boasts basic multiroom capabilities, but only in the form of a single Zone 2 composite video output and a pair of RCA audio outputs. Only analog sources can be sent to Zone 2, and curiously enough the SAT and VCR inputs lack analog audio inputs entirely (yeah, you read that right: the only input for your VCR, if you still have one, is an HDMI connection).
Little quirks like that pop up frequently when exploring the ins and outs and what-have-yous of the AVR750, but the receiver does make up for those quirks with a nice complement of audio/video connections and control ports. In addition to its aforementioned seven HDMI 1.4 ins and two outs (with audio return channel functionality), it sports three component video ins (although no component outs), six stereo analog RCA ins, four digital coax and two optical digital inputs, an Ethernet port for control and network connectivity, an RS-232 port, two IR control ports, and two 12-volt triggers, along with a 7.1-channel preamp output section and a USB port for music playback from compatible sources. Curiously, it lacks 7.1-channel analog inputs, which would have made a bit more sense than 7.1-channel pre outs--given that the receiver’s unique Class A/Class G amplification is the biggest part of its appeal and price tag. As such, I can’t imagine why you would want to bypass it.
It’s debatable, of course, as to whether or not that’s an issue. A more objective criticism, I feel, would be its lack of balanced XLR inputs, which is strange given that all of the source components in Arcam’s FMJ (Faithful Musical Joy) product line (of which the AVR750 is a part) do feature balanced XLR outs. Given that, the only inputs that I relied on during the course of my review were the Ethernet port and a handful of the HDMI ins. Sources mainly consisted of my Dish Joey whole-home DVR client, along with Arcam’s own UDP411 universal disc player (review to come). My original intention was to spend considerable time with my own Oppo Blu-ray player connected to the AVR750 before subbing in Arcam’s player, but the receiver had some issues with the Oppo at first, a topic I’ll discuss in more detail in the Downside section below.
I won’t dwell too long on the control capabilities of the AVR750, since I know that’s not a primary concern for Home Theater Review’s typical readership, but it’s worth nothing that Arcam does provide control modules for both Control4 and Crestron, as well as downloads of its IR and RS-232 code sets, on its website. The receiver can be controlled via RS-232 or IP, but not both. You have to turn on such capabilities in the setup menus, and at that time you have to choose between the two protocols. You’ll have to use IP, of course, if you want to use Arcam’s ArcamRemote app for the iPad, which doesn’t work, unfortunately, for the iPhone. (The company’s iPhone app is for control of UPnP streaming of local networked music only.) The included remote control for the system is pretty basic and not terribly well laid out, even though I do have to give it kudos for providing direct access to toggling features like room EQ and Dolby Volume without having to dig through the setup UI.
In terms of hookup, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the excellent build quality of the AVR750 itself. It’s a dense, robust, beautiful beast of a machine, perhaps a good bit plainer in appearance than other gear in its price class, but with exceptional fit and finish and lovely all-metal binding posts that made me almost lament the fact that all of my speaker cables are terminated in banana plugs and merely locked in place without the need for any twisting and tightening.
At the other end of those cables sat the Aperion Audio Intimus 5B Harmony SD speaker system that I used for the duration of the review. The speakers were set up, balanced, and equalized using Arcam’s own proprietary Auto Speaker Setup software, which is a modified version of the Cirrus Logic Intelligent Room Calibration that applies the bulk of its processing power to the bass frequencies, where room correction does the most good. What surprised me most about the Auto Speaker Setup system, especially during the hookup stage, was the fact that it absolutely nailed all of the level, distance, and crossover settings. I honestly didn’t have to tweak a single parameter, which is exceedingly rare even with the best of such systems. That, combined with the fact that Auto Speaker Setup only measures the room from one position (your main listening position), made the installation process a snap.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
As is typically the case with a new AV receiver with video upscaling capabilities, I began my evaluation of the AVR750 with all of the usual benchmark tests, perhaps with a bit more critical eye than usual, if only for the fact that the VCR input being limited to HDMI left me rather skeptical of Arcam’s commitment to video. Thankfully, such quirks didn’t have a bit of bearing on the performance of the unit in that regard, as evidenced by the fact that the receiver positively aced all of the upscaling and processing tests on both the HQV and Spears & Munsil video benchmark Blu-ray discs. In fact, its performance on the Jaggies tests, when fed an interlaced video signal from the UDP411 universal disc player, was as good as I’ve ever seen.
With that out of the way, I popped in the recent Blu-ray release of Interstellar (Paramount), primarily to put the AVR750’s room correction capabilities to the test. The film’s soundtrack is borderline notorious for being overly bombastic, LFE-heavy, and dynamic, a point that turned off theatergoers in its initial release. This, to my mind, made it the perfect torture test for the receiver’s ability to deal with room-related bass issues, which are a bit of a problem in my secondary listening room.
In that respect, the AVR750 and its room correction system passed with flying colors, ably taming the bloated boom of chapter nine, in which the crew of the Endurance travels through a wormhole between our solar system and the massive black hole Gargantua. The ability to switch the room EQ on and off instantly made it that much easier to get a sense of exactly what Arcam’s room EQ does to the audio signal in real time. With it off, the rumble of distorted spacetime was a nondescript, disconnected rumble; with it on, the bass was no less massive, but it felt at once more pervasive and also more connected with the rest of the cacophony filling the room. The dividing lines between low bass, mid bass, and midrange roar were seamless. The knocking, thudding, growling howl of spacetime felt less like a product of my subwoofer and more an extension of the soundfield as a whole.
What really impressed me, though, is that the effects of the room correction system were exceedingly subtle. There is definitely a maximum frequency past which the system does not apply equalization, because it doesn’t rob an ounce of sparkle or a touch of overall energy and sense of space from the sound mix. Although I can’t quite place my finger on exactly what that frequency is, I would guess it’s somewhere in the midrange. I say that because, with the EQ turned on, voices are ever-so-slightly more forward in the mix, and dialogue clarity is noticeably improved.
I’ll return to the issue of room correction in a moment, but now I want to talk about another initial observation about the receiver in and of itself, while Interstellar is still on our radar. One scene, in particular, is incredibly dynamic, going from whisper quiet to full-on paint-peeling sonic fury in a relatively short amount of time. Quite frankly, the AVR750’s capacity to hit those dynamic peaks without a hint of effort surprised me. At a seating distance of roughly eight feet, listening through speakers with a rated sensitivity of 87 dB, I was listening at a level that resulted in dynamic bursts around 104 dB. If my back-of-the-napkin calculations are correct, at that level I was pushing the AVR750 dangerously close to the razor’s edge of its performance capabilities, yet it still sounded completely unconstrained and crystal clear. The chassis felt a bit toasty, to be sure, but sonic performance was flawless.
From there, I turned my attention to a Blu-ray that I’m sure some of you are tired of hearing me talk about: the second disc of The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Extended Edition (New Line). The reason I return to this disc again and again is because I know exactly what it sounds like through the best of gear and through the worst of gear. Chapter 34, in particular, tells me pretty much everything I need to know about a receiver’s tonal balance and its capacity for detail, clarity, and dialogue intelligibility…and also how much damage is done to the audio signal by its room correction system.
Switching the room EQ on and off while letting this scene play, the impressions I formed while watching Interstellar were solidified. Turning room EQ on cleaned up the bass and also broadened and deepened the overall soundfield, but it didn’t muck up the sense of space captured by the mix, as so many room correction systems do. In other words, the walls of Moria seemed more solid with the AVR750’s room EQ turned on, and the lowest thundering notes of the score seemed better integrated with the rest of the mix. But, unlike far too many room correction systems, it didn’t rob the air of its dankness, nor did it have the slightest impact on the subtle details, like the sparkling tinkle of dripping water that permeates the mix.
If there’s one slightly negative thing to be said about the sound of the AVR750 with its room EQ engaged, it’s that certain voices, like Sir Ian McKellen’s, did sound the slightest bit more nasally…but only slightly so, and only noticeably so when I rapidly toggled the room EQ on and off. Given that this slight boost in the midrange results in enhanced dialogue clarity, as I said above, it’s hard to judge it as anything other than a neutral change at worst, as subtle as it is.
The bottom line when it comes to the Arcam AVR750’s room EQ is this: would I put it on par with something like Anthem Room Correction? No, I wouldn’t. It’s nowhere near as sophisticated, and it gives the user less control over things like subwoofer crossover slopes and dialing in an exact maximum EQ frequency. But I’ll take Arcam’s approach any day of the week over alternatives like Audyssey, simply because it does less harm to the audio signal.
Setting aside considerations of the room EQ and judging the performance of the receiver in and of itself, I again found myself impressed by the AVR750’s ability to deftly handle massive dynamic peaks. More than that, what I loved was its ability to resolve subtle dynamics. Its delivery of Howard Shore’s score left me itching to ditch the movies and explore some music for a bit. So I popped in my copy of Chicago (aka Chicago II) on DVD-Audio (Rhino), which did necessitate swapping out the Arcam UDP411 for my trusty Oppo, since the Arcam doesn’t do DVD-Audio. (I assure you, all of the swapping back and forth will be explained in a bit, but bear with me on that point.)
The reason I reached for the Chicago disc and the track “Make Me Smile,” specifically, is that it’s something of a “grass is always greener” cut for me. When I play it through an amp that satisfyingly conveys the punch and kick of the mix, I find myself longing for the performance of amps that render its delicate nuances more faithfully and with more detail. And conversely, an amp that can render the track with sufficient fidelity so that the piano and guitar riffs sound satisfyingly distinct and individual more often than not fails to wow me when the triumphant chorus kicks in. What I’m saying is, I’m hard to please when it comes to this song, and I generally just have to take my pick between authority and detail.
With the Arcam AVR750, I got the best of both worlds. The quieter, more nuanced elements of Chicago II (and indeed pretty much everything else I threw at it) were rendered with absolute purity; a gorgeous, precise soundstage; and virtually no coloration, even with the room EQ engaged. And yet, when called upon to rock, this receiver ripped my face right off my skull.
I won’t bore you with a laundry list of every track I auditioned, because frankly I think I burned through the bulk of my music collection during my time with the AVR750. Virtually every song was a revelation, but one track that stands out as memorably representative of the receiver’s capabilities is Beck’s “Tropicalia” from his 1998 album Mutations (Geffen Records). It’s a crowded, densely packed track, filled to the brim with all sorts of odd percussive elements and slathered over with horns and organ and acoustic guitar. What struck me about this receiver’s performance with the track, aside from the fact that its incredible detail made all of the disparate elements gel while still retaining every ounce of their individuality, is what a fantastic job it did with the soundstage. Starting at around the minute-and-a-half mark, when all of the plopping, clucking, snapping elements take center stage in the mix (and maybe a Theremin, too? I’m not sure), I seriously caught myself cycling through the receiver’s sound modes just to make sure that I hadn’t engaged one of its surround processing modes. Few and far between are the surround sound receivers that boast anything approaching this level of performance in stereo mode.
With all that being said, not everything about the AVR750 is perfect. I’ve mentioned a few times now that I needed to swap back and forth between my Oppo Blu-ray player and Arcam’s own UDP411 during the course of this review, and that wasn’t the fault of the Oppo. While the AVR750’s video processing performance is practically flawless, I did run into some HDMI handshaking issues on a regular basis when trying to use the Oppo player, before chatting with Arcam’s engineering department to resolve the issue. Far too often, when I popped in a Blu-ray or DVD, the AVR750 acted as if it were receiving no video signal at all until the movie started. And if I returned to the player’s home screen (to stream Netflix, for example), I often had to shut the receiver and TV down completely and fire everything back up from scratch before it would establish an HDMI handshake. Sometimes, even this wouldn’t work. (For the record, I did test the Oppo player again with my reference Anthem MRX 710 receiver just to make sure nothing had happened to the player itself. I also carted it into my home theater to test with my Anthem D2v surround processor. It didn’t have HDMI handshaking issues with either of those products.)
The AVR750 exhibited no such difficulties with the Arcam UDP411, and although it would often take its time in reacquiring an audio signal from my Dish Joey if I changed from an SD channel broadcasting in stereo to an HD channel broadcasting in Dolby Digital 5.1, it never actually failed to reacquire the signal altogether. But for a receiver that costs this much money, those sorts of issues were a bit frustrating before we found a fix. And it turns out that the fix was exceedingly simple. I merely had to change the AVR750’s video output settings to 1080p, rather than the default “Preferred” setting, which bases the output on EDID information from the TV. All in all, an exceedingly simple fix; and once we discovered it, I had no problems with either Oppo’s BDP-83 or BDP-93 when connected to the system.
A more subjective concern is the fact that Arcam doesn’t offer any sort of upgrade path to HDMI 2.0/HDCP 2.2 for the AVR750. Great sound never gets old, but the receiver’s design is approaching two years of age at this point, and there are other high-end audio manufacturers that, through modular design or hardware updates, do offer an upgrade path. Whether or not this is a concern for you depends, of course, on how important high-frame-rate UHD is to you now or in the foreseeable future.
Comparison and Competition
Depending on how you look at it, the Arcam AVR750 has either next-to-no competition, or it has tons of it. By the former, I mean that there just aren’t any other $6,000 AV receivers on the market with Class A and Class G amplifier topology, proprietary room EQ, and such a strong emphasis on two-channel music performance. Still, though, with its sticker price being what it is, the AVR750 does position itself as direct competition with a lot of surround sound processor/amp combos. Marantz’s AV8802 pre/pro and MM8077 seven-channel amplifier come to mind. The preamp is just as well-equipped as the AVR750 in terms of HDMI connectivity, boasts a good many more analog inputs (including stereo balanced XLR) and better multiroom capabilities, along with Dolby Atmos and Auro-3D processing, WiFi, Bluetooth, and a good number of streaming apps.
$6,000 will also nab you Yamaha’s flagship Aventage CX-A5000 11.2-channel AV preamplifier and MX-A5000 amplifier, a highly regarded combo in terms of audio performance, and one that will get you a veritable laundry list of features that the Arcam AVR750 lacks.
I’ve never heard anything that sounds quite like the Arcam AVR750 AV receiver. I honestly don’t know how much of that sound to attribute to its unusual amplifier technology or any of the other factors involved in its design and construction; but, purely in terms of audio performance, it moves me in a way that few AV receivers do. The question, of course, is whether you’re willing to give up the features that it lacks, as well as put up with some of its unusual quirks, in your search for pure audio bliss. Of course, I can’t answer that question for you. If you don’t mind operational oddities, and if you don’t have room for AV separates (or simply prefer a receiver over separates for whatever reason), I highly recommend auditioning the AVR750 the next time you’re shopping for new gear.
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