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.