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Arcam FMJ AV9 7.1 Surround Sound Processor: A Comparison with the AV8

October, 2006

Rick Schmidt

Specifications:

 

● Codecs: DD, DD-EX, DPL-IIx, DTS DTS-ES, DTS
    Neo:6

● THD+N: 0.0012%

● Input Impedance: 10 kOhms

● Will Accept up to 96 kHz Digital Input Sampling

● Second Zone Operation

● Dimensions: 5.2" H x 17.2" W x 17.1" D

● Weight: 26 Pounds

● MSRP $5,750 USA

 

Arcam

www.arcam.co.uk

 

Introduction

For home theater audio the sweet spot is undoubtedly the receiver. The receiver integrates the surround sound processor (SSP) functions with amplification, hopefully using lessons learned by the manufacturer in the development of their separates.

As an owner of Arcam's previous flagship SSP, the AV8, I was made aware of this phenomenon when Arcam released the DIVA AVR300 receiver. The reviews for this integrated seemed as good as for the AV8, and the reviews for the AV8 were gushing to say the least. Not to mention that the AVR300 cost less than half of what the AV8 did, and the amplifier is included.

I haven't actually heard an AVR300, but it appears to be a tremendous value, so if you are cost-conscious, and want a high performance receiver, you might want to go and listen to an AVR300, and while you are at it, the newly released AVR350 as well.

For me, I will stay with separates. I'm going to keep driving my Outlaw 770 multi-channel power amplifier with an SSP. The question for me was whether I should upgrade to the AV9. This was not a question I thought I would ever have to face. I assumed that the AV8 was the end of the line, as good as they could make it and the new focus was on the sweet spot receivers. I assumed wrong. The AV9 is a distinct improvement on the AV8 and that's really saying something.

From the front panel, the only difference is the change from 8 to 9 and an HDMI logo. From the back panel, we see the HDMI connections, and the owner's manual tells us that Dolby Pro Logic IIx decoding has been added (the AV8 has only Pro Logic II, no 'x') as well as HDMI video switching. But I want to talk first about the sound.

I personally see two camps in home theater sound: detailed and smooth. While "smooth" is not bad as a goal, if you get there by simply removing legitimate detail or rolling off the top end, you have simply pulled a trick on the unsuspecting consumer in the hopes that he'll walk out of the store with your product rather than the nearly identical product from your competitor. Too often, smooth is actually muddy, just trowelled over.

"Detailed", on the other hand, can also be a parlor trick. Detailed sound can be achieved with accentuated high frequencies, especially through digital processing. This may grab the ear of that unsuspecting consumer by cutting through all the racket in a big box retail store, but when he is at home, trying to watch a movie or actually listen to music, that kind of 'detail' will drive that consumer batty. They won't enjoy movies or music, and they probably won't know why.

What Arcam does is give you the detail without the fatigue. In the case of the AV8, the sound from digital sources still had a digital sound. The AV8 makes this an entirely pleasing sound nonetheless, coming though as chunky and crisp but not fatiguing. The AV9 on the other hand disappears to a much greater degree. The sound is crisp, with all the detail but its harder to characterize as either detailed or smooth. It's both. I'd call it a lower noise floor. You can hear into the soundtrack, the voices, in the manner similar to analog playback. I don't want to say it sounds like an LP played back on similar priced gear because it doesn't go that far, but its definitely headed in that direction.

This is the point in the review where I should tell you that when I listened to soundtrack or movie X I heard detail Y (that I never heard before), or the saxophones were especially smooth/extended/distinct. If you switch from some other processor to the Arcam you may indeed have an experience like that, but the differences between the 8 and the 9 were differences in quality rather than additional sounds. Through both the 8 and the 9 I've recently enjoyed "Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut" (oh the 80's hits!), "Rush: R30" (oh the 80 yr old rockers! Kidding! I'm kidding! But they are old, seriously), and "The Soft Bulletin" by The Flaming Lips (DVD side of Dual Disc). The latter was sent through the AV9's 5.1 inputs, so the processing was done in the DVD player.

Whether I was using the AV8 or 9 there were plenty of times where I said, "Man that sounds good." With the 8 it's 'chunky and good', but with the 9 it's just 'good'. Luckily I'm a fan of chunky sounding gear, but it is a coloration after all. It's best if the preamp doesn't add or subtract anything, and until I hear a preamp that does less, to my ears, the AV9 is adding or subtracting nothing. What's on the disc is what's coming through. Or so it seems to me.

So, what about the video half of the AV9? Video switching may or may not be important to you, depending on the devices involved and how you feel about multiple remotes.

Here is my situation: I have an old TiVo and a DVD player. I want to use the component out from my DVD player, and the highest quality output from the TiVo is S-Video. The AV9 does not offer video transcoding (conversion of S-Video to Component Video or both of those to HDMI), so there is no conversion between the TiVo's S-Video and component video. S-Video in, S-Video out. This means that two connections to the monitor are required: a component video connection for the component video from the DVD player and an S-Video connection for the S-Video from the TiVo.

I can use the Arcam's video switching, but I am still left with a two-remote sequence, first switching the AV9. This puts me on the correct video and audio source, but now the monitor is looking at the wrong input. I have to grab the remote for my TV and switch it to the proper input. This isn't horrible, but for exactly the same number of buttons pressed, I could bypass the Arcam's video switching altogether.

But, any video amount of video switching, no matter how well executed, is worse than no switching at all, because there is always at least a bit of signal degradation. With the AV9, it was hard to see any degradation. With the AV8 I think I can see some video degradation but I'd really have to spend some more time going back and forth to be sure. All of this should tell you that if your monitor works differently than mine (perhaps sensing which input is active automatically), you should look forward to using the video switching capability of the AV9 without fear.

I wasn't able to use the HDMI connections of the AV9 because I don't yet have any HDMI sources. Given the recent reports of HDMI incompatibilities, maybe that's for the best. The AV9 owner's manual stresses that analogue (Arcam is an English company) sources are not converted to HDMI nor vice versa. This makes some sense since HDMI is a digital format, but it's something to think about as HDMI users may find themselves in the same situation as I did with my S-Video TiVo.

However, you can always use a good digital video processor to alleviate all of these issues.

I contacted Arcam about the lack of (analog) video transcoding, and Charlie Krone, customer support manager had a good answer. The video switching in the AV9 is very high quality and to add transcoding of the same quality would "add exceptional price to the product".

I can't argue too much with that except to point out my video switching dilemma. Of course, all new TiVo units have HDMI out, but it all may be resolved for the better with such products as DirecTV's new Tuner/DVR with 150 channels of HD programming. Tuning and DVRing are all in one box. I'll miss my outboard TiVo though. Great user interface and great remote.

The remote control for the AV9 is excellent. I've seen this one used by a variety of products from different manufacturers so I can only give Arcam credit for selecting it, not designing it. It's hefty and solid. You don't get the idea that its going to break, the buttons are laid out right, and they have a good feel.

On occasion, I was able to confuse the AV9 (and 8) by fiddling excessively (and I mean excessively) with the volume control. I don't know why I do this, but sometimes I switch up and down on the volume, and sometimes this made the Arcam switch to another video input source. Of course, switching back to the original input is easy, but it's annoying. In my current setup I am at a bit of angle to the face of the AV9, and that may have had something to do with it.

Oh, the remote is programmable of course, so that feature could be used to address my video switching dilemma at least to some degree.

Two other beefs: The back is crammed with connections and they are as close together as the law allows. This is the same with all such products these days. With the AV8 and 9, when I do use the video switching, my old Audioquest short run component video cable has connectors that are too fat, so I can't connect all three (Red, Blue, and Green).

I think all cable manufactures have adapted to this situation. I switched to an Ultraviolet 5 from Wireworld and all was fine.

Here is the more serious beef: The AV8 and 9 don't have enough optical digital inputs. There are two. There are five coaxial S/PDIF (RCA connector) digital inputs. The two optical connections would almost be enough for me given that they can be re-assigned. That is, the two optical inputs, currently assigned to the Satellite and VCR should be able to be reprogrammed to different inputs. I tried reprogramming the VCR input to correspond to the DVD button, but the menu page that allows for this reprogramming does not allow 'DVD' as an option. I have circumvented this problem either by using the coaxial digital connection from my DVD player if it has one or using a separate coaxial to optical converter if it doesn't. Better if the AV9 just had an optical connection for DVD audio or allowed reprogramming of the spare it does have. Of course, I could just plug my DVD player into the VCR input, and remember that VCR really means DVD, but, again, it's annoying.

Conclusions

The AV8 was widely heralded as one of the best SSPs available. I can't really testify to that because, although I've heard a fair number of receivers and SSPs, there aren't that many that attempt to be the best, and I haven't heard them. With the AV9, Arcam clearly intends to make the best available at an affordable price, and they may well have succeeded. If I were a bit more flush with cash, I would upgrade from my AV8, but I'll be sticking with my 8 for now. If you are in a more favorable pecuniary situation, and are looking for a new SSP, I highly recommend it.


- Rick Schmidt -

Associated Equipment

Digital sources: Cambridge Azur 540D
Preamps: Arcam AV8
Amps: Outlaw 770
Speakers: Aperion Intimus 5 Series

Copyright 2006 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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