Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier Review – The fine art of English HiFi…
With the current Arcam HDA range, the English have set themselves particularly ambitious goals, especially with regard to amplifiers such as the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier. Designed as a classic hi-fi component, yet very compact and elegant in appearance, equipped with everything that must characterise a modern amplifier, and with Class G a technology as the basis for impeccable sound that can only be found at A & R Cambridge Ltd.
The English company A & R Cambridge Ltd. has been an established player in the world of hi-fi for decades, with the Arcam brand operating in both the hi-fi and home cinema segments. This makes it one of the few remaining renowned manufacturers in the premium segment with such a broad product range. The company’s success, which ultimately makes this possible, is probably due in large part to the fact that even in fast-moving times such as ours, the company continues to develop solutions that are up to date for years to come, solutions that remain unchanged over a very long period of time in the manufacturer’s product range.
To put it very clearly, this value stability is a very important point that distinguishes true premium or even high-end solutions, and which is unfortunately increasingly being forgotten. Which is all the more astonishing, since aspects such as sustainability would be one of the burning issues of our time…
Why are we discussing this in such detail? Well, because it fits perfectly with our current test candidate, the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier. This is part of the Arcam HDA Series, which stands for High Definition Audio, and which has been given the task of replacing the Arcam FMJ Series in the stereo field. So far, so good, there is the fact that the Arcam FMJ Series has been on the market for no less than 18 years. The fact that A & R Cambridge Ltd. spoke of the introduction of the Arcam HDA Range as a milestone in the company’s history may almost be seen as a British understatement.
It remains to be seen whether the new Arcam HDA Range will also be able to enjoy such a long life span, but the signs are very good, especially when it comes to the amplifiers in this product range. Because the basic concept has hardly changed at all, an amplifier should continue to function as such in the future and leave all other tasks to specialists who dock onto it. The developers can thus concentrate on what is really important, i.e. the best possible sound, and do not have to make any compromises by too much “accessories”, which ultimately costs development time, but above all money in production, and which, if you want to achieve a certain price point, is naturally missing elsewhere. It is exactly this “renunciation” that ensures the previously mentioned value stability over many years, because no matter how sophisticated an amplifier design may be, especially with discrete solutions such as the Arcam HDA Range amplifiers, nothing can actually become “obsolete”.
In addition to the Arcam CDS50 CD/ SACD Network Player, the Arcam SA10 Integrated Amplifier represents the entry into the Arcam HDA range in the stereo sector, which uses conventional Class A/B technology. The Arcam SA30 Integrated Amplifier is expected at the top end of the range these days, offering Class G. In between, the Arcam S20 Integrated Amplifier is already available, which represents the entry into the special Class G Amplifier Technology of A & R Cambridge Ltd.
The Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier is therefore particularly exciting because it already contains 100 percent of Arcam’s DNA, but is nevertheless offered at a very attractive price. Overall, however, this is by no means an entry-level solution; rather, the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier is already in the good upper mid-range of its class, to anticipate this assessment.
Preserve what is good and refine it further…
First of all, the new Arcam HDA Series does not represent a “technical revolution” compared to the previous Arcam FMJ Series, of course, but nobody would expect that. The developers’ task was rather to preserve what was good and to refine it further.
And this begins with the design of the new product line as a whole, including the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier. The really striking corners and edges of the previous stereo components are now a thing of the past. Instead, the new solutions present themselves a bit rounder, more modern, and it is also noticeable that the entire series has been made significantly more compact. With the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier in particular, this is immediately apparent, because you rarely see an amplifier in this “weight class” with such a low height.
The control elements have also been redesigned and are now presented in silver and, as always, have an impeccable feel to them. When the amplifier is switched on for the first time, it is also noticeable that the clearly readable, dimmable display now shines in white. This is yet another small element in the fresh, modern style of the series, as already described, but all in all it is still immediately identifiable as a solution from the Arcam brand.
Focus on the essential…
As already mentioned, it has always been the goal of the English to create solutions that last for years, and are therefore designed to leave critical areas out and “outsource” them, especially for premium class stereo amplifiers. For example, for years the strategy has been to do without digital interfaces in amplifiers. Of course, the higher price of development and production also played a role, as we have already mentioned. Whatever additional functions are added may have to be “bought” by cutting back on the sound.
This strict strategy has now been abandoned, so the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier has at least digital interfaces and thus has an integrated D/A converter. The reason for this is quite simple, the market demands it, quite clearly, in addition even high quality components are available at reasonable prices, so that one can work at the usual high level of quality.
For example, the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier has one optical and two coaxial S/PDIF interfaces, whereby the signal processing for data with up to 24 bits and 96 kHz for the optical S/PDIF interface, and 24 bits and 192 kHz for the coaxial S/PDIF interface is handled by a 32-bit ESS Sabre ESS9038K2M DAC. Of course, the developers do not compromise themselves and do everything right, thus providing the user with the possibility to select the digital filters of the converter according to individual requirements. Seven options are available here.
On the analogue side, the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier offers no surprise that in addition to three line ins designed as RCA socket pairs on the rear panel, a phono preamplifier for drives equipped with MM cartridges (47 kOhm, 100 pF) is also available, as we are already familiar with from the previous models. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out once again that the phono preamplifier delivers really fine results, i.e. it is much more than just an extra that looks good on the data sheet. A further analog input is located at the front, this is a 3.5 mm stereo mini jack socket. Right next to it, there is another such jack for connecting headphones. Needless to say, good results are guaranteed, even with more sophisticated headphone models.
Let’s take a look at the rear panel, because we haven’t mentioned the preamplifier output yet, nor the solid speaker terminals, the USB port, but it’s only for service purposes. More exciting is the RS232 interface for integration into custom installation solutions, as well as an RJ45 Ethernet port. But let us give you a few more details about this later.
Let’s first look at the front, where the already mentioned dimmable display is available, directly underneath it a multitude of buttons for input selection, on the left side a volume control, and on the right side the obligatory main switch including status LED.
What is it about Class G…
As mentioned above, the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier is the entry point to Class G Amplifier Technology from A & R Cambridge Ltd, and is fully in line with the Arcam brand DNA. But what is it all about?
Well, Class A, Class A/B, this is well known, Class G is ultimately a very, very clever extension of a Class A/B circuit topology. Class A is said to have a very fine, warm sound, and in fact, many listening tests confirm this again and again. But Class A is one thing above all, and by no means a resource-saving one, because the amplifier is always operated at full power by the power supply, regardless of whether a signal is present or not. But Class A is not designed to deliver high power, that’s where Class A/B comes in. This relies on two active components that alternate in a push-pull circuit, each for part of a wavelength. This is, of course, much more efficient, but should lead to much higher distortion. The Class G used by Arcam is called a Hybrid Amplifier by the manufacturer, where Class A serves as the basis, but the amplifier is granted an additional power line from the power supply unit to provide the necessary reserves at higher levels by means of especially fast reacting switches. In concrete terms, this means that the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier delivers an output of twice 90 watts, and this on loudspeaker systems with an impedance of 8 ohms. If the speakers have an impedance of only 4 ohms, the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier can even provide two times 150 Watts. Incidentally, the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier delivers up to 20 Watts in pure Class A. Class G makes this possible even with its compact design, and without enormous waste heat.
Everything fully under control…
Of course, all the parameters of the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier are primarily controlled directly on the unit, although it must be emphasised that we particularly appreciate the fact that each input can be selected using a separate button. This is much more intuitive than using a rotary encoder. But more in-depth changes are also easily possible, such as balance adjustment, the selection of the digital filter for the DAC, or the definition of an input for the so-called Processor Mode, where this special channel is assigned a fixed level, as well as network settings.
Network and Custom Installation
Network integration is a further concession made by the developers when designing the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier, because nowadays, as is well known, nothing works without an app. The Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier can now also be controlled via App, namely the Arcam MusicLife App for Apple iOS and Google Android. And then there is the classic infrared remote control, which is designed as a system remote control and thus also controls other devices.
The integration into custom installation solutions has always been a key factor for Arcam, and the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier also allows complete IP control. For leading systems such as Control4, the company even provides corresponding modules for direct download.
From the practice
For our test, we had the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier at our disposal as part of an extremely fine chain, of which it formed the central interface. The source was the Arcam CDS50 CD/ SACD Network Player, which A & R Cambridge Ltd. also considers to be the optimum solution. Above all, its streaming functionality provided an ideal basis for extensive listening sessions. As speakers we relied on Monitor Audio Studio, an extremely fine, very compact bookshelf system. The connection was made with WireWorld cables, where the power strip and last but not least the power cables and network cables came from.
First a few words about the new appearance of the product series and thus also the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier. It is anything but an easy task for designers and developers to design a successor to a product series that has been on the market for so long and that is so important for the company as a whole, such as the Arcam FMJ Series. How do you create the design to keep loyal lovers of the brand in business, while at the same time bringing a breath of fresh air and perhaps expanding the customer base? What are the classic design elements, what are the essential features that you can’t touch and where do you really need to start? In short, the gentlemen have done their work with flying colours, and have completely achieved the goals they set themselves.
The Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier is timelessly elegant, almost dignified, and above all very, very slim. Measuring only 433 x 87 x 310 mm, it weighs only 10.7 kg. This is how hi-fi in the premium segment has to present itself these days in order to find its way into a modern living environment. Classic hi-fi components that one likes to present with pride and not try to hide.
Moreover, it is very gratifying that A & R Cambridge Ltd. could be “persuaded” to integrate a few things into the amplifier that were clearly rejected until now, most notably the D/A converter. Whether it really needs an app control for the amplifier… Probably yes, at least in the datasheet, whether the infrared remote control will be used in the end… in our humble estimation probably yes.
But now to the essentials, because the new generation has also changed something, namely the sound. Anyone who appreciated the direct predecessors will hardly believe that the development of the Arcam HDA Series has made it possible to raise the sound level a good deal further, but in fact the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier plays with even more finesse, resolution and light-footedness. At the same time it retains none of the remarkable sovereignty that was already inherent in the previous Class G amplifier models of the Arcam FMJ Series.
At the same time, the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier is anything but a performance monster, at least on paper, what are 90 watts compared to many other giants. But, is sheer power really the decisive factor? How much power does it need? We deliberately chose Monitor Audio Studio as our partner, because with them, the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier represents a hi-fi chain that seems ideal for the typical living room. Both are elegant, quite compact solutions that can be combined very well, not least in terms of design, and also because of the performance data this seems to fit. And indeed, the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier audibly harmonises from the very first note with its compatriot at the end of the loudspeaker cable. Together with it, it sounds full and rich in the room, no matter whether you are playing smooth jazz, grooving blues, rock or classical music in small or large ensembles.
The Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier provides the speaker with the detail and dynamics required for a flawless performance at an amazingly high level. At the same time, it never seems to be too much or even overtaxed, while interestingly enough, it also ensures that many a sonic disaster, which one still likes to listen to because of the musical preference, does not become a torture. The Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier is committed to honesty in performance, of course, but it will hold back discreetly if it would be too cruel. A certain nonchalance is thus given to it in the sense of enjoying music.
Getting to the Point
The Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier convinces all along the line. Not only does it have a modern, elegant and very compact design, based on Class G Amplifier Technology, it is also the perfect solution to bring Arcam’s DNA into your home in pure form at a particularly attractive price. Since the developers have now decided to integrate a state-of-the-art D/A converter, a fine phono preamplifier is also part of the basic equipment, and an app control is now also planned, all of this also clearly indicates that the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier will receive a clear recommendation from the editorial team.
The fact that Arcam incorporated decades of experience in developing the finest Class G amplifiers into the design of the Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier is an essential aspect in its favour, but there is also the fact that the English really understand how modern hi-fi solutions have to be conceived: fine sound, design and functionality form a perfect unity.
|Hersteller:||A & R Cambridge Ltd.|
|Vertrieb:||R.M.S. State of the Art Audiovisual Products|
|Deutschand:||GP Acoustics GmbH|
|The Good||– Impeccable detail illustration|
– appealing presentation of the sound stage
– very fine dynamics
– sufficient power reserves
– sleek design
– compact structure
– integrated D/A converter
– App control via network integration
|The Bad||– No disadvantage apparent|