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Product Review
 

Arcam Solo "All-in-One" CD Player, Preamplifier, and Power Amplifier System

August, 2006

Lee Hower

 

Specifications:

● Design: CD Player, FM Tuner, Preamplifier,
    Power Amplifier (50 Watts/Channel/8 Ohms -
    Stereo)
● THD: 0.01%
● Input Impedance: 47 kOhms
● Output Impedance: 500 Ohms
● Preamplifier Output Voltage: 2.5 Volts RMS
● Dimensions: 3.2" H x 17" W x 14" D
● Weight: 17 Pounds
● MSRP: $1,599 USA

Arcam

www.arcam.co.uk

Introduction - Elegant Simplicity

Having spent a couple of months with the Arcam Solo - which has pretty much everything except the speakers -  "elegant simplicity" is the best way that I'm able to sum up this unique piece of equipment.

Arcam's marketing brochure uses the tagline of "Integrated High Fidelity" to describe the Solo. I suppose you could call it a CD receiver or an integrated amplifier with built-in sources, but by whatever name you call it, the Solo doesn't fit easily into traditional product categories.

"What it is" includes a CD player, tuner, a two-channel 50W integrated amplifier, and analog inputs to incorporate other audio sources. "What it's not" covers anything pertaining to multi-channel sound, SACD or DVD-Audio playback, digital audio inputs, or video capabilities.

Design and Features

Looking at the Solo on a component rack or using it for a few minutes rapidly gives you the impression that this is a product that has been designed as much as engineered. The metal casing has a pleasing matte silver finish with neatly rounded corners. The front panel is dominated by a blue LCD display with an adjustable brightness setting. Two 1/8" mini-stereo jacks are also located on the front panel, one for headphone output, and one as an auxiliary input for a portable music player (iPod anyone?) or similar device. The Solo lacks an old fashioned knob for volume, which happens to be my preference, but navigating the volume via buttons, along with the other front panel buttons is simple enough.

On the rear panel are the input section, a detachable IEC power cord, L/R speaker binding posts, and a large finned heat sink. The heat sink and the significant heft of the unit (over 17 pounds) belie a fairly robust amplifier stage and power source within. Even when playing for extended periods at high volume though, the Solo never became warm to the touch.

The inputs consist of leads for FM and AM antenna, an RS-232 port, and four RCA stereo inputs. Outputs include a single optical Toslink digital out (for recording, or to use the Solo simply as a CD transport which seems a waste of the unit's other capabilities), an RCA stereo tape output, a variable RCA pre-out for a subwoofer or external amp, and a Zone 2 RCA stereo out. Also included is a 12V trigger, as well as remote out connections to control the 2nd zone.

I also had the use of Arcam's optional rLead interface, which enables connection to an Apple iPod for audio output, user control, and power. The rLead utilizes the iPod's dock connector rather than the mini-stereo out jack, though it runs to RCA audio inputs on the Solo unit. The rLead also connects to the Solo's RS-232 port to enable control of the iPod through the front panel or remote control (more on this later), as well as providing a USB connection to an iPod AC adapter. Once enabled and connected, rLead enables control of the iPod through the Solo's remote including selecting tracks via the usual iPod interface structure (Album, Artist, etc.).

Set-up and Control

For this review, I connected the Solo to a pair of Athena two-way bookshelf speakers and a Velodyne SPL-10 powered subwoofer. Arcam sells two-way bookshelf speakers called Alto, designed as a companion to the Solo. I would not hesitate to pair the Solo with more expensive or full-range speakers. Based on my listening impressions, the amplifier section has more than ample power, low distortion, and is rated for driving 4 ohm speakers. If you're using a subwoofer and small speakers, as I did, the Solo has a bass correction feature which essentially applies a high-pass crossover to progressively attenuate the low-frequency material sent to the speakers. There is no low-pass circuit, so when using a subwoofer, it must have its own crossover capabilities.

The remote control is a slim unit, silver in color, to match the Solo. The buttons are all well-labeled, and the remote is generally intuitive to use. My complaints include the comparatively small size of the round buttons (though they are well spaced apart) and the lack of any backlighting when using in less than bright settings. Also, the buttons to advance or rewind tracks are placed above each other, rather than the typical left-right arrangement, which takes a little getting used to.

Arcam provides a superb illustrated user manual with the Solo. The diagrams of inputs, user menu trees, and the like make set-up a breeze, even for novices. A few Queen's English quirks provide a little fun for those of us in the US, like the fact that the "product must be earthed [grounded]" and instructions for assembling the radio aerial [antenna].

The FM/AM section has all the usual tuning and preset options, though in fact this is somewhat of an afterthought for us here in the US. In Europe and other regions, the Solo features a digital audio broadcasting (DAB) tuner section. Perhaps Arcam could have employed an HD radio or satellite radio tuner for the US market, though neither of these obviously have adoption as wide as FM and would have likely have raised additional development and cost considerations. In addition to the built-in CD player (which employs a Wolfson 24-bit DAC) and iPod, I also briefly connected the RCA outputs of a DVD player and an HDTV satellite box.

Though it possesses inputs labeled "TV" and "AV" and is a capable audio receiver (no video switching remember), the Solo an easy-to-use hi-fi sound system at heart and by and large I used the Arcam simply for listening to CDs.

Listening Impressions

Diana Krall Live in Paris (Universal Music) - CD:
I have several of Diana Krall's recordings in my collection, but this one remains a personal favorite. From the upright bass, to Diana Krall's voice, to the background shuffle between tracks, the Solo reproduced the CD with a high level of detail and good dynamic range.

John O'Conor Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas (Telarc) - CD:
This collection features all 32 of the piano sonatas that Beethoven composed, performed by Irish pianist John O'Conor. I listened to several of the discs that make up this compilation on the Solo and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The Solo is rated at 50W per channel, so I have no doubts that it has ample power to drive speakers with full-range piano material as it easily surpassed the capability of the modest Athena two-ways that I used in conjunction with this review.

B.B. King Live at the Rega" (MCA) - iPod:
I listened to this album, which I own in my CD collection, as well as a number of others through the rLead interface. The tracks were compressed audio files (AAC, 160 kBps transfer rate), though given that the original recording was made in 1964 at a live performance at Chicago's Regal Theater, the original source is obviously less than perfect. But the microphone pops, crowd noise, and resonance of the venue only add to B.B.'s vigorous and soulful blues performance. Having had the good fortune to attend a live B.B. King show a few years back, I have to say that, even in his 70s, he still gives one of the best performances that money can buy. Given my druthers and the Solo's fine ability as CD player, I would probably just listen to the disc rather than a compressed digital audio player. That said, the iPod interface was easy to use and provides reasonable sound quality (depending how much you compress your files), if you want to simply let the Solo run for hours cranking out playlists.

Coldplay Parachutes (Capitol Records) - CD:
This pop/alternative disc features a pleasing mix of male vocals, electric, and acoustic instruments in a mostly mellow set of tracks. The Solo did a good job keeping each of these sounds discrete in Track #4 "Sparks" which blends lead singer Chris Martin's voice with electric bass, acoustic guitar, and a constant cymbal line that weaves in and out of the song. I listened to this CD many times over at modestly high levels on the Solo and was never fatigued.

Conclusions

Though based in the UK, Arcam has for decades sold hi-fi components here in the US through a network of retail dealers and custom installers. The Solo carries on the tradition of blending performance, innovation, and design in fine fashion. The Solo retails for $1,599, and from a functionality, audio quality, or pricing standpoint, it's difficult to think of many directly comparable products. While bookshelf audio systems or home theater in a box (HTIB) products will play and amplify a variety of audio sources, few that I've heard can approach the Solo's sound fidelity.

At the other end of the hi-fi spectrum are two-channel separates, which are certainly capable of delivering superior audio performance and greater flexibility, but introduce other considerations of complexity and cost. One could assemble a fairly simple system with a CD player, two-channel integrated amp, and interconnects for a total price that's similar to the Solo, particularly with manufacturers that sell products direct to consumers through the Internet. That said, I'm not sure that the "sum of the parts" approach is quite the same as a single elegantly designed, easy-to-use device that just plain sounds good. So if you're looking for a simple, yet highly effective approach to two-channel audio, the Solo may be just for you.

I must admit that upon learning about the Solo and beginning my evaluation, I didn't quite know what to make of it. I was uncertain who the target customer was or what comparable products existed in the marketplace. In the end though, the Solo made me forget about such considerations and simply sit back and listen to the music. So to the "elegantly simplistic" with which I began this review, I would gladly append "that's a joy to listen to."
 

- Lee Hower -

Copyright 2006 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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