The FMJ moniker of the famed Arcam line of products stands for Faithful Musical Joy and their AV888 AV preamp strives to be the best of both worlds offering stellar analog audio and home theater performance. Arcam spent two and a half years developing the AV888 AV preamp from the ground up. Priced at $6,900 the AV888 isn't as expensive as some "mid-level" processors and a far cry from being a cost-no-object product, however as far as modern AV preamps go the AV888 should do everything today's current home theater needs whilst providing solid two-channel performance as well.
The AV888 has a host of video inputs which include five HDMI (1.3a), component, S-Video and composite, with each input also providing an accompanying video out, with the exception of HDMI which has two outputs. All video can be scaled and is transcoded to HDMI so legacy video sources won't require extra connections to your display or projector. Zone two can only use S-Video or composite video, You could use the second HDMI output for the zone two but the dual HDMI outputs are not independent of one another so the same source material would be viewed simultaneously.
The AV888 has nine analog audio inputs, all single ended including a dedicated MM phono input and a 3.5 milimeter auxiliary jack. A stereo direct mode bypasses and in fact disables all digital processing to maximize two-channel performance. A 7.1 channel analog input rounds out the analog inputs, with three line level tape outputs, arranged in stereo pairs, finish off the AV888's analog connectivity. The Arcam has both balanced and single ended 7.3 preamp outputs. Digital inputs consist of the five HDMI connectors as well as four optical and three coaxial inputs.
The AV888 has an RS232 port as well as a similar port for connecting the optional iPod dock, as well as an Ethernet and a USB port for connecting to mass storage devices. The AV888 can recognize and playback all common and many not so common audio files including AAC, MP3, FLAC, Vorbis/Ogg, WMA and DRM10. AM, FM and Sirrius antenna connections are present as well.
State of the art analog devices handle the AV888's analog audio signals whilst digital is covered by high end Wolfson 8471 24-bit/192kHz DACs. One thing almost exclusive to this piece is the use of Dolby Volume to compensate for level changes between material and enhance low level listening with tonal correction processing, a nice feature for TV viewing. The AV888 can also take full advantage of all the new codecs offered up by today's modern Blu-ray discs as well as those found on older, legacy formats.
Control options are plentiful on the AV888 and including three IR inputs for remote IR receivers to cover both accessory zones as well as the main room should the piece be out of view. An IR output forwards the commands from all three sources to other components.
My Arcam AV888 came double boxed for shipping and inside the second box it was well packed and wrapped in high density foam with the included remote, power chord, antennae, and calibration microphone. The unit is fairly large a little over 17 inches wide by 16 inches deep and a tad over seven inches tall yet it weighs just a scant 26 pounds. The rear connectors are lined up in columns of each type and are well spaced and easy to access except for the rear HDMI ports that run across the very bottom of the AV888 itself. The front of the Arcam is very clean with a large VFD display covers most of the AV888's top width with a row of very small buttons running left to right underneath it for volume, input selection, mute, menu etc. The VFD display is one of the largest I've seen on and AV preamp and can clearly be read from across the room. Unfortunately these hard controls and their labeling are so small that they are difficult to use even from right in front of the unit, but I suspect most of us never touch an AV preamp once it's setup so this isn't too big an issue.
The remote is pretty simple and quite frankly sort of cheesy. When I first tried to insert the batteries I feared I might have broken it as the door for them is on the bottom end and connects with a strange system consisting of a lock button and metal flanges that catch the other side. Once I had the remote together I finished installing the Arcam AV888 into my reference home theater, which consists of a host of sources from an Apple Airport Express, AppleTV, Scientific Atlanta 8300 HD DVR, Sony PS3 and BDP-S350 Blu-ray player, Wii, Oppo BD-83 NuForce edition and my EMM Labs TSD1/DAC2 CD/SACD player. I ran the balanced outputs to my Krell Evo 403 and Proceed HPA-2 amps and used my Escalante Fremonts as my main left and right speakers and a trio of Canton Vento speakers for my center and surrounds. The entire system was wired using Transparent Reference XL balanced interconnects and speaker wires.
I powered the system up and went about running the AV888's auto setup/room correction system, which works from a single listening position with the included calibration microphone. The system worked quite well setting my speaker distances and levels to fractions of a meter and dB. The room correction is easily toggled on or off from the remote and can be set to be used or not in the main menu for each input.
One thing I quickly noticed was the lack of flexibility in assigning the multitude of connections. No matter how you slice it you can only have five video sources, and you can't freely assign them to various inputs. The video, audio and digital inputs of any name are all you can use for that input, so if you are connecting pieces that need optical or coaxial digital connections you will need to plan ahead and use an input that has the required type of digital input. There is a way to add another sources video to an audio only source, but there is not way I could use the five HDMI inputs and still use my Wii via component unless I went into the menu and changed the settings. I thought I had a work around as the original instructions had an 'Auto' select mode for video, so I figured I could connect the Wii to the same named input as my PS3 and just have a Game input but the newest version of the software removed this feature and I was stuck with only five video inputs.
The menu system was very straightforward and easy to use, the main headings are on the left side of the screen and once selected the options fill the remainder of the screen. I liked the large front display and used much of the real estate it offered to name my inputs in great detail. I was equally happy to see the codecs being used fully written out, such as 'DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1.' The display was very easy to read and can of course be dimmed if you desire. I was impressed at just how sensitive the Arcam setup microphone was, setting speaker distance to a hundredth of a meter and level to a twentieth of a dB.
Read more about the FMJ AV888 on Page 2.
I am a huge fan of Jane's Addiction so when I received their "Live Voodoo" Blu-ray (Eagle Vision Entertainment) I had to rock it out. While Perry Farrell's performance is pretty weak at the start, the powerful bass lines of "Mountain Song" rocked the room with a depth and smoothness usually reserved for costlier AV preamps. Perry gets his act together on "Been Caught Stealing" and the vocals had all the edge and sparkle his voice is known for while Dave Navarro's guitars were fast and edgy. "Ted, Just Admit It" had excellent power to the starting drums while the cowbells just seemed right, as the song built, the bass guitar and rhythm guitar jumped in with a powerful liveliness to them. The Kettle Drums on "Chip Away" were deep and tight.
When using my Apple AirPort Express to stream AIFF files to one of the optical digital inputs I found the bass to be a bit punchy and depending on the type of music I played, I found it to be welcoming. Pop tracks like The Black Eyed Peas "Labor Day (It's a Holiday) off Elephunk (A&M) worked well in this regard giving a punch and energy to the bass lines like no other AV preamp I've heard in a long while. No matter what I was listening to the midrange and highs were smooth yet detailed with a slight warmth to them that made the Arcam a pleasure to listen to.
I went back and re-played the above discs using my EMM Labs combo via analog inputs and used Arcam's direct mode and the sound was one of the finest I've ever heard from an AV preamp. Their was an almost tube-like warmth to the AV888's overall sound and the bass had even better control than from my Airport express and the slight softness I heard before was nearly gone. Even on more aggressive music, the depth of bass was powerful with just a slight bloom to it. I know most people will not be using this level of source component but its nice to know that the unit truly shines when powered by the best of the best.
I was bored and looking for something to watch and cued up G.I. Jane on Blu-ray (Hollywood Pictures Home Entertainment) and played the uncompressed PCM soundtrack on my Oppo NuForce player. While the film is a bit old, I was impressed by the string section in the film's opening sequence and how the AV888 balanced them beautifully with the film's dialog track. Subtle surround effects such as the rain and lightning during the bathtub scene where Demi finds out she's made the cut, were well placed and again balanced with the rest of the soundtrack. The first run of the 'twelve minute or less' course has everything you could want in a home theater demo from gunshots to crackling of flames and splashing of puddles and rain and the Arcam AV888 kept them all separate and balanced while the ring of the bell for those bowing out of the training tolled deeply throughout my room.
Competitors and Comparisons
Other AV preamps close to the cost of the Arcam FMJ AV888 include the Classe' SSP800 which is a little more expensive but offers a lot more flexibility in input assignments though it doesn't have auto setup or EQ. It does offer customizable notch filters to tame room issues though. Another AV preamp that comes to mind is the Anthem D2v, which offers a much more feature packed video processor allowing for use with anamorphic lenses and a lot more inputs with eight HDMI's and more flexibility of assignment. For those who want the most flexible and connectable AV preamp the Denon AVP-A1HDCi comes to mind but sonically it is no match for the Arcam AV888.
On the less expensive side are the likes of the Cary Cinema 11, which is limited to only two HDMI inputs making all but the smallest and simplest of home theaters require an extra outboard HDMI switcher. The Marantz AV8003 is far less expensive and quite flexible but is not quite up to the level the AV888 is.
The Arcam has a lot going for it, but flexibility isn't one of them. You have to use the inputs for a given name and stick to them, not to mention you are limited to five video inputs. The remote is pretty weak, and its backlighting is almost useless even in a totally dark room. Add to this it is the same remote as Arcam's own receivers so it has some buttons, like Tuner, that do nothing, and it functions like a receiver remote, when you hit DVD, it goes to controlling the DVD, so you'd need to hit Amp to get back to control the AV888. I suspect this isn't a huge downside as most people buying this level of gear are going to be using an aftermarket remote or control system anyway.
The Arcam FMJ AV888 is a superb AV preamp with only a few minor quirks. Despite its vast array of inputs you can only use five video sources, and you will likely need to do some planning as to which source to use for what component as you can't freely assign the digital or analog inputs to video inputs. That said, once you get it all wired up the piece sounds simply wonderful both with music and movies. It gives an open, spacious soundstage with a smoothness not often found in digital gear. This is an AV preamp geared towards the audiophile who wants an exceptional home theater but refuses to lose two-channel performance.
The auto setup works well with extreme accuracy, leveling to a twentieth of a dB and a hundredth of a meter, or one centimeter. To my knowledge no other AV preamp allows such fine control of speaker distances and levels. This certainly could account for the excellent balance I experienced with the Arcam AV888 in my system, giving me transitions that were perfect during films. The included room correction also did an exceptional job enhancing the surround field and balance of the system and the Dolby Volume was a nice touch for leveling TV shows and commercials.
The Arcam locked onto digital signals quickly, regardless of type and gave exceptional audio performance be it from home theater, TV or two channel listening. Despite the AV888's minor quirks and poor remote this is one of the finest AV preamps I have heard to date, and I've had most all of them by now. If you are looking for a top tier controller for your home theater you owe it to yourself to demo the Arcam FMJ AV888. Its rich sound with have you in awe, both for movies and stereo listening, making the AV888 one of the best buys among the current crop of AV preamps.