Arcam Avr600 (£3500)

Long anticipated, Arcam's first HD AV receiver combines seven channels of amplification with analogue, digital and web-enabled radio

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I always get a warm, Sunday afternoon feeling when a new product arrives from Arcam. While you can imagine the Far Eastern competition frenetically working 24/7 to be first to market with the latest multichannel widget, I see Arcam as a little more reserved, a little more British. The AVR600 may have been a long time coming with its HD-audio decoding, multi-room installer features and premium video processing but it simply exudes dedication and polish from the moment you open the box.
   It’s substantial for starters. Not just a heavyweight but truly beefy of build. The fascia is clean and solid enough to double as a vault door, there is none of the twisting, flexing or ringing of the case so common among the Japanese AV receivers, and the connection panel is by far the neatest laid out of any super-amp to date. Beneath its lush exterior the slick GUI with always-visible root-menu is a peach to use and the name-dropping component count features such delights as Pixelwork’s broadcast quality video processing. It’s Ethernet networked, it offers iPod dock connectivity via Arcam’s rDock, it’s multi-room, it ticks all the installer boxes including twin RS232s, and it’s not lacking in the power department across seven channels either. OK, nothing massively innovative but nothing lacking either.

Where the AV600 does break new ground is in its comprehensive access to the global cornucopia of broadcast radio material. This is the first receiver we have tested to feature AM, FM, DAB and a web-radio tuner – and that’s a whole lotta music. The web-tuner is essentially vTuner routed through a dedicated Arcam server with some 7000 stations on tap from Afghanistan adult contemporary to Zimbabwe world music. And if you think web-radio is all highly compressed MP3 then you should check out the numerous stations pushing 700kbps RealPlayer streams.
   Perhaps just to keep up with the Jones’s (or Watanabe’s) the AV600 sports auto set-up and a basic parametric EQ system. I suspect if you pressed the guys at Arcam over a small sweet sherry they might admit the EQ system is only there for lazy installers. That said, it did measure the speaker distances accurately to within 1cm and the level balance was close to spot-on with very fine 0.25dB adjustments. Alas, it did decide my subwoofer was in a field south of Calais but every parameter is easy enough to adjust manually.

Within a few button clicks of the familiar Arcam-style remote, the AVR600 is up, running and peddling its charms. It’s smooth, silky and refined with a bottom end as rich as a dark chocolate mousse. Within a scant few discs you’re searching for the Best of Charles Mingus on vinyl and pouring yourself a large bourbon over ice. This is not a receiver that is going to syringe your ears with dynamic top-end extension or have you sitting around discussing micro-detailing at length. This is a music player par excellence, easily transcending analytic hi-fi posturing to win you over with an altogether more organic presentation.
   Running through laughing Lenny’s (Cohen) Ten New Songs is a revelation in passionate prose and a mellifluous bass-line that is sweet and enveloping. Yes, I have heard multichannel amps that have more bite, better intonating Cohen’s gravely-edge vocal, but few are quite so immersive in their appeal. There is an essential rightness of timing, a way that the AVR600 nails the tempo and rhythm of each instrument as a cohesive ‘song’ rather than individual strands. It’s not a case of the AVR600 being simply warm or relaxed either, because it handles the CD’s bulbously-recorded bass with a supremely even hand.
   The effect had me skimming through CDs and even vinyl that I hadn’t pulled out for ages. Once I had remembered that the Gyrodek didn’t have a ’play’ button, I re-discovered my Alice Cooper collection and the excellent, if underrated, From The Inside. This psychologically twisted rock-opera sees Cooper at his melodious best with emotionally charged songs like ‘How You Going To See Me Now’ and ‘The Quiet Room’ playing to the Arcam’s strengths. The warm and eminently tuneful bass, the smooth top-end and the intense centre-stage focus really draws you into the song, highlighting Cooper’s pained lyrical content and two distinct ‘schizophrenic’ styles he uses across the LP.
   There isn’t the space in the soundstage or meticulous differentiation of detail that Pioneer’s ’LX81 offers, or the sheer excitement and dynamic thunder of Denon’s ’4308A but the Arcam is ahead of both in unadulterated musicality. And therein lies the whim of opinion. There are definitely times when I crave music delivered with crystalline instrumental separation, intense micro-detailing, bass with the punch of Tyson and a soundstage you can measure in leagues. The AVR600 fights shy of these ‘wow-factor’ hi-fi credentials and, with multichannel music in particular, it can leave you wanting a little more dynamic gusto and pizzazz.

But listening to Steve Stevens’ seriously up-tempo Flameco-A-Go-Go on multichannel DVD-A, the Spanish guitar flits around the room with a grace and fluidity that leaves many AV receivers sounding nervous and skittish. The sound is just so solid and planted. With movie soundtracks too the Arcam is sure-footed and effortless throughout, balancing a weighty ambience with a smooth balance that renders dialogue wonderfully natural.
   It’s just a little, well, reserved for me. Every now and then I like to wrack-up the volume, throw a TV out of bedroom window and dance naked around the garden to The Doors’ When The Music’s Over. I suspect the AVR600 would call the police. 

A statement of sophistication and polished presentation, Arcam’s AVR600 is well equipped, a joy to use and delivers music and movie soundtracks with an even and well-tempered hand. The access to radio material is second to none and, while not exactly a party animal, it is one the most musically cohesive HD AV receivers on the market today.


Originally published in the July 2009 issue