The category of surround sound processors has simply exploded over the past few years, and the $3,000-$5,000 range has become the sweet spot for excellent performance and features. Not only is this category fast moving because of technological changes, but with the advent of multi-channel high resolution sound, audio processors now have to have a very good to excellent analog audio stage to stay on top of the heap.
This is where companies that traditionally concentrated on two-channel audio gear come into play, as their audio expertise can be combined with a good digital front end to make exceptional processors.
Arcam has traditionally been an audio company, one of the breed that provides excellent performance for the dollar. That is not to say that the Arcam AV8 is inexpensive, as it retails for $4,995, but my expectations of it were that for the money it would sound good not only as a digital surround sound processor, but also as an analog multi-channel preamp.
The AV8 is classic Arcam, with very elegant, simple, straightforward styling. The AV8 is part of Arcam's upper-end Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) line (Obviously, someone is a movie fan...). The LED is very, very easy to read and of moderate size. The buttons are cleanly placed and easy to decipher. The power switch is a wonderfully old-fashioned press button that stays clicked in when on. The black is a wonderful charcoal finish, with a silver finish available. Buttons are clearly labeled, have obvious purpose, and the volume knob is as it should be -- large, central and an actual knob. The central display is large enough to be easy to read, with clear green LED letters, but is not large enough to be annoying.
The remote control is the exact same unit that comes with the Anthem AVM20, which is not a bad thing. Although not as nice or as comprehensive as the Home Theater Master MX700/MX500 remote that comes with some other units, it is easy to use and has a nice rubbery finish that makes it easy to hold.
The AV8 has eight analog audio source inputs, an optional module for phono input and seven digital audio inputs. Each analog audio input has a composite and S-Video input also, and these, along with three component/RGB inputs, are capable of handling video switching with virtually no degradation (component/RGB video bandwidth is 300MHz, more than enough for high definition material). Unfortunately, like most other processors out there, there is no up-conversion of S-Video/composite to component.
The AV8 also has an eight-channel analog audio input for a DVD-Audio or SACD player. Unfortunately, there is no balanced analog input for a high-end CD player.
The Arcam is designed as a true audiophile unit with a large power supply and a well designed analog stage. The unit's compactness is due to a switching mode power supply that allows smaller size, yet maintains performance.
The AV8 is THX Ultra2.2 certified, and has all the associated THX settings. This AV8 was used in my office theater which consisted of B&W 705, 701 and DS7 speakers and a ASW2500 subwoofer. The Simaudio Aurora amp was mated to the AV8 using AudioQuest Python RCA cables. The A/V source was the Marantz DV-8400, a Monster 5100 power unit supplied filtered power and the system was hooked up to a Philips 50-inch plasma. Other cables used were Gibraltar speaker cables and Tributaries component and S-Video cables.
Installation/Setup/Ease of Use
The On Screen Display (OSD) on this processor has a very special feature -- it is available through the component outputs even with a progressive signal. The OSD is superimposed on top of the signal using a special high quality signal generator that superimposes the OSD on the video signal pixel by pixel.
The setup menu was relatively straightforward, and speakers were calibrated using my Radio Shack sound meter. A word on the manual is necessary: it is easy to read and does not overly tax your technical knowledge. This is only the second processor manual that I have read that didn't immediately put me to sleep.
The Arcam has assignable digital inputs, as well as assignable names to different sources. It has all the necessary surround modes -- DD EX, DTS-ES, Neo:6, Pro Logic II, and a 7.l Matrix mode. The crossover frequency can be set from 40 to 150Hz for bass management.
The Arcam follows my personal design idiom for a processor -- get the basic analog sound right first, then mate it with a good digital front end. The AV8 sounds clean, open, and distinctly English (a very good thing). This means that it is not only transparent, but it has the ability to be smooth, clear and resolve very minute details. These are the details that make listening a joy and movie watching even more realistic. Since most digital front ends today are very good at handling Dolby Digital and DTS, the real difference between processor sound comes down to the analog stage. When this is implemented well, everything sounds good.
When playing analog sources, the Arcam functions very well -- almost as well as my reference Krell HTS 7.1, a processor nearly double the price. Although not quite as resolving in high end detail as the Krell (a good thing in some people's book), it still is open, detailed and dynamic. The midrange is smooth and neutral, while bass extension is excellent.
More of the same came from hooking up my Marantz DV-8400 for the 7.1 inputs for SACD and DVD-Audio playback. The analog stage once again provided clear, detailed, transparent sound, allowing the high resolution goodness of these formats to shine through.
Movies, as I mentioned before, sound very, very good indeed. The digital front end is excellent, as good as I have heard, but the analog stage is what really makes the sound come alive. It provides a clarity that allows you to almost reach out and touch the characters as the movie seems to be taking place right in your theater room. It is this integrated, open, detailed sound that makes for good movie processing.
I really didn't have any glitches with this processor, a testament to the thorough engineering at Arcam.
The AV8 has excellent sound, very good ergonomic design, clean good looks, and a decent remote. All of these attributes definitely make this processor a good choice. The only real downside is the lack of balanced outputs (and inputs) and this is what prevents me from giving this processor a slightly higher score which would net it a "Top Choice" award. In this market, I have grown accustomed to expecting these at this price point, and as long as you don't mind their absence, then the Arcam is definitely a serious contender for your dollar.
Arcam FMJ AV8 Surround Sound Processor
THX Ultra 2 Certified
24-bit/192kHz D/A Converts
Video Inputs: (5) sets of S-Video, composite,
and 2-channel audio; (3) sets of component,
S-Video, composite, and 2-channel audio
Digital Audio Inputs: (4) digital coaxial,
(2) TosLink optical
RS-232, 12V triggers
Dolby Pro Logic II, DD, DD EX, DTS 5.1, DTS-ES, 7.1 Matrix Music Mode, DTS Neo:6
Signal/Noise Ratio: >100 dB analog; >98 dB digital
Dimensions: 19" x 6 1/2" x 14"