Arcam AVR350 7.1 Receiver, Review

June 26, 2006

Arcam AVR350Last week (after getting the Dwin shipped off) I had the pleasure of reviewing Arcam’s latest 7.1 surround receiver, the AVR350. To the un-initiated Arcam’s products might appear a bit different, perhaps even nondescript versus the likes of Denon, Pioneer and Harmon Kardon. With further examination however you just may discover what scores of other British hi-fi enthusiasts found years ago, the proof is in the sound.

Arcam like many of their compatriots believe that any bell, whistle or heaven forbid useless DSP mode incorporated into a surround receiver, should add to the overall sound performance, not detract from it. In other words don’t expect a lot of fluff with Arcam products, expect great sound. The real trick however is to find that perfect balance of sound and functionality, which is exactly the yardstick I wanted to measure the AVR350 by.

Arcam AVR350 specifications:

• 2-way HDMI switching (video only)
• 7 x 100 watts per channel continuous power output (all channels driven)
• Dolby Digital EX, DTS ES, DTS 24/96 & Dolby Pro logic IIx decoding
• HDTV compatible component / RGB switching
• Composite and S-video up conversion to component or RGB
• Second zone output with audio and video

AVR350 Set-up:

You know setting up new A/V gear can be an amusing (and even frustrating) process, live with a specific piece of gear long enough and its easy to assume all gear operates in the same manner, we’re all creatures of habit in the end.

The Arcam AVR350 was one of the easiest AVR’s I’ve set-up in recent memory. If you haven’t set-up a AVR lately, you might find it odd to learn that some manufacturers don’t ship their receivers with the corresponding audio and video inputs paired by default.

I’m happy to report the AVR350 defaults DVD Video with DVD Audio and so forth. Outside of selecting my speaker sizes and level balance, I really didn’t have to change much at all via the on-screen menu before I was up and running.

Quick note about balancing speaker levels with the Arcam AVR350, the 350 does not include mic-based auto set-up, if I had to surmise why I’d say that Arcam chose to allocate any budget that would have went into any auto set-up functions back into the audio portion of the receiver itself, in my opinion they made the right call.

I used a SPL meter and the Arcam’s internal pink noise generator to balance my speakers, it was quick easy and accurate, really makes me wonder if the auto-calibration functions in many AVR’s are really that necessary after all. A SPL meter for someone willing to drop over $1500 on an AVR, would seem to be an inconsequential purchase and well worth the investment

Look, Feel and Design:

Arcam AVR350 Front and RearI’m really interested in industrial design, it’s fascinating to me to see the differences in how manufacturers approach logical design. It was quickly obvious to me that Arcam subscribes to my particular flavor of design, function over fluff and build quality over useless features.

The AVR350’s case is solid, not that tinny pressed steel feel, more akin to a solid sheet of steel, I also liked the heavy aluminum volume control, while details like this really don’t account for how something sounds, it does add to the over all feel of the product.

Initial Impressions:

I knew this was going to be an interesting review because immediately after finishing my speaker connections the first source cable I grabbed was the output of my Airport Express, I plugged it into the AUX optical input of the AVR350, spun it around and hit the power button, what I got surprised me.

No no it worked, that wasn’t the surprising part, what I was taken aback by was the immediate improvement in sound quality versus my Marantz SR-7500. I hadn’t really expected that a 128kbps stream from iTunes radio would ever really sound better between any two pieces of equipment, given the already low bit rate.

The sound was immediately more open, spacious and detailed. I have no other explanation for this other than the quality of the digital to analog converters in the Arcam.

Results with Comcast Digital Cable:

As it turned out the first bit of surround I heard through the Arcam was from an AMC airing of ‘The Man With the Golden Gun’ as mediocre as the video was I still enjoyed the movie, the dialogue was easier to follow than I remembered with typical cable programs, but obviously I needed to move onto some reference material to get a real idea of what the Arcam was capable of.

Later I caught ‘London Live’ on INHD, which happened to feature one of my favorite new bands, ‘The Editors’. The Dolby Digital audio wasn’t exactly stellar but the Arcam made the best it could of the situation.

Tom Smith’s voice exuded much of the same resonance it does on the CD, which was somewhat impressive considering the relative quality of the audio feed. I couldn’t wait to hear what a real source would sound like.

DVD Results:

Moving on to Pearl Harbor (Attack Scene DTS 5.1) I noticed better rear-channel panning from the Japanese Zero’s flying over head. The bomb that fell into the ships galley had a very distinct metallic thud when it landed, as opposed to the dull boom in previous viewings.

Bass was slightly more pronounced and had a bit more presence, or rather thuds, booms, and crashes all had a distinct sound rather than just sounding like bass noise. My rear channels were alive with information where as before they had been slightly less active.

One of the biggest improvements I experienced with the Arcam was better resolution at low volume. This in my book is one of the most important “features” of any piece of surround gear. Being able to hear more at lower volumes is just a real-world luxury.

I don’t know about you, but from time to time I can’t play my system as loud as I’d like to. Being able to listen at lower levels without the feeling I was missing something, almost felt like I was cheating in some weird sense.

The sound from the Arcam was good enough that it peaked my interest to hear some music. I popped in ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ (New Line Platinum Series) and skipped forward to Chapter 14, ‘Wig in a Box’, the piano was much more musical and compelling than in previous viewings.

Skipping forward to Chapter 17’s ‘Wicked Little Town’, again the Arcam got the piano right, which is no small task. Pianos are notoriously hard to reproduce with the bit-rates afforded by surround tracks.

But there was something else going on that I was surprised by. I had the distinct impression there was more resolution being fed to the center channel than it could fully resolve, this was the first time I really doubted what my center channel was capable of.

From there I went to Chapter 24, ‘Midnight Radio’. This time I was struck by the guitars and kick drum. Yeah I was getting punchy, dynamic bass extension and I liked it.

I wanted to check out one last SD-DVD before I moved on to HD-DVD’s. I couldn’t think of a better sound track for giving the Arcam a work-out than the DTS track on Master and Commander.

I skipped forward to Chapter 31, once the battle started I again noticed much more rear channel information was going on than in previous viewings. I had the distinct impression of a sound stage, where before I had sound effects by comparison.

HD-DVD: Chronicles of Riddick, Jarhead and Cinderella Man

With the HD-DVD of Jarhead the Arcam made gunfire sound realistic and the voice over was very easy to follow along with. Again I was struck by how well I could understand the dialogue at low volume. Bomb blasts were rendered with their own distinct tones, and never sounded as if they were muffled or distorted.

The Strings at the beginning of Cinderella Man were very convincing and realistic. During Jimmy’s Come Back the score played up the mood perfectly, the excitement of the crowd was spot-on and really lent itself to the scene.

From the first deep boom of Riddick’s DTS sound track to the last “You Keep What you Kill” from Riddick sitting on the throne, this disc continued to wow me with its precision and impact. Again I noticed the Arcam’s rear-channel presentation, it was never distracting and panned very well from side to side and front to rear.

Summary:

Ok recommendation time, first off given the Arcam AVR350’s excellent two channel and multi-channel audio performance I’d say that the Arcam would be a no-brainer, if your music system is in need of an upgrade just as much as your surround system.

For those with systems that already have solid 2-channel and multi-channel audio playback, I still feel that the Arcam AVR350 is a serious performer but my recommendation would have to include a one caveat.

The Arcam AVR350 does not support audio over HDMI, the AVR350’s HDMI inputs offers video switching only. Other receivers in this price range (The AVR350 retails for $2499) are capable of extracting audio from HDMI 1.1 but even so, I’m not sure this would outweigh the Arcam’s overall rock-solid surround performance.

Until we start seeing receivers with HDMI 1.3, (full bandwidth support for lossless next generation surround formats) I’m of the opinion that the end-user will have to decide how important the lack or inclusion, of HDMI audio is in their final purchase. As of this writing, HDMI 1.3 support on surround receivers isn’t expected until late 2006 or early 2007.



Posted by Bryan Greenway | | Filed Under Reviews, Surround Receiver Reviews


Comments

  • stereogun

    Hi pacoug – The blu-ray players can send the audio over optical outs (coaxial or optical) but it has some limitations. See extract below from Oppo BDP-83 manual:

    • Due to bandwidth limitations, high resolution audio formats such as Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD High Resolution and DTS-HD Master Audio cannot be sent through the coaxial or optical digital audio output. A reduced resolution version of the same audio track will be output instead. To listen to high resolution audio formats in their best quality, please use the HDMI connection if you have a receiver that handles HDMI audio or use the multi-channel analog outputs if you do not.
    • Due to copyright restrictions, SACD audio cannot be sent through the coaxial or optical digital audio output. To listen to SACD, please use the HDMI or analog audio connections.
    • Due to copyright restrictions and bandwidth limitations, full resolution audio from DVDAudio discs cannot be sent through the coaxial or optical digital audio output. To listen to DVD-Audio in full resolution, please use the HDMI or analog audio connections.

  • pacoug

    I have this receiver and a Sony blu-ray player.

    The blu-ray is fully capable of decoding lossless compression and sending the resulting digital signal via coaxial digital connect to the receiver. The new Arcam AVR, which costs $5000, is fully HDMI 1.3 equipped, which means it can decode those lossless compression signals in the receiver.

    So I would be spending money for very nice, very current lossless-compression decoding…WHICH I ALREADY SPENT MY MONEY ON when I bought my blu-ray player, which thoughtfully included those compression-decoding facilities onboard. The resulting bitstream, whether decoded in the player or your 1.3 receiver, is identical.

    The only difference is that you need an extra cable for audio.

    I know the new AVR sounds way better than the 350–but I'm not willing to spend the money on it. I love how this 350 sounds. I've owned the Marantz pre-pro and amp separates, which sound delightful, but this receiver sounds better.

    It works very well for me, and with my Ah! Tjoeb CD player, music sounds great. The tubed front end of the CD player gives CD sound a mellow, fluid quality that an airy, open receiver like the Arcam works so well with. The two components accentuate each other's strengths while mitigating each other's weaknesses. A match made in heaven.

    My surround speakers, 5 matching KEF RDM Twos, are still going strong, now on their fourth amp setup. As long as they sound this beautiful, I see no need to upgrade.

    I could use moderately better speaker wiring, but only when I find a good deal on some low-priced Kimber or Audioquest wire or equivalent. I'll not spend thousands for speaker wires.

    I'm amazed that a comparatively low-cost system like this sounds as good as it does. My brother spent thousands of dollars building his home theater. It looks nicer than mine, but mine blows his away in terms of sound quality.

    Arcam forever.

  • pacoug

    I have this receiver and a Sony blu-ray player.

    The blu-ray is fully capable of decoding lossless compression and sending the resulting digital signal via coaxial digital connect to the receiver. The new Arcam AVR, which costs $5000, is fully HDMI 1.3 equipped, which means it can decode those lossless compression signals in the receiver.

    So I would be spending money for very nice, very current lossless-compression decoding…WHICH I ALREADY SPENT MY MONEY ON when I bought my blu-ray player, which thoughtfully included those compression-decoding facilities onboard. The resulting bitstream, whether decoded in the player or your 1.3 receiver, is identical.

    The only difference is that you need an extra cable for audio.

    I know the new AVR sounds way better than the 350–but I'm not willing to spend the money on it. I love how this 350 sounds. I've owned the Marantz pre-pro and amp separates, which sound delightful, but this receiver sounds better.

    It works very well for me, and with my Ah! Tjoeb CD player, music sounds great. The tubed front end of the CD player gives CD sound a mellow, fluid quality that an airy, open receiver like the Arcam works so well with. The two components accentuate each other's strengths while mitigating each other's weaknesses. A match made in heaven.

    My surround speakers, 5 matching KEF RDM Twos, are still going strong, now on their fourth amp setup. As long as they sound this beautiful, I see no need to upgrade.

    I could use moderately better speaker wiring, but only when I find a good deal on some low-priced Kimber or Audioquest wire or equivalent. I'll not spend thousands for speaker wires.

    I'm amazed that a comparatively low-cost system like this sounds as good as it does. My brother spent thousands of dollars building his home theater. It looks nicer than mine, but mine blows his away in terms of sound quality.

    Arcam forever.

  • Steve

    I have owned this receiver for a number of years and it still amazes me everytime I listen to movies or music. The soundstage is three-dimensional and, depending on the quality of the selection, you can sense how far each musician is from the side and back walls of the venue.

  • Steve

    I have owned this receiver for a number of years and it still amazes me everytime I listen to movies or music. The soundstage is three-dimensional and, depending on the quality of the selection, you can sense how far each musician is from the side and back walls of the venue.

  • Pierre

    I have a avr350, if it had time to cool of and i turn it on, let say on the cd player it send a discharge in the speakers(sound like a capacitor discharging) but it’s ok after, it does it only when it’s cool and i start it.
    ty
    Pierre

  • Pierre

    I have a avr350, if it had time to cool of and i turn it on, let say on the cd player it send a discharge in the speakers(sound like a capacitor discharging) but it’s ok after, it does it only when it’s cool and i start it.
    ty
    Pierre

  • michael Frank

    question-i primarily use my a/v receiver to watch and listen to (emphasis on listen to) Rock concerts on HD or Blu Ray discs…is this unit the ideal one for this use?…if not, what is?…

  • michael Frank

    question-i primarily use my a/v receiver to watch and listen to (emphasis on listen to) Rock concerts on HD or Blu Ray discs…is this unit the ideal one for this use?…if not, what is?…

  • Peter

    Carson, the receiver is designed in the UK but built in China.

  • Peter

    Carson, the receiver is designed in the UK but built in China.

  • B.Greenway

    Hi Mungil, not sure, forgot to look, however if I had to guess I’d say no.

  • B.Greenway

    Hi Mungil, not sure, forgot to look, however if I had to guess I’d say no.

  • Mungil

    Is the avr 350 made in England?

  • Mungil

    Is the avr 350 made in England?

  • Carson

    I need to have surround sound in one room and stereo sound in another room from the same receiver. How would the Arcam AVR350 handle this situation?
    Thanks
    Carson

  • Carson

    I need to have surround sound in one room and stereo sound in another room from the same receiver. How would the Arcam AVR350 handle this situation?
    Thanks
    Carson

  • Ben Hobbs

    Personally I’d keep HDMI out of the audio signal path for now anyway, What with them keep changing the specs, backward compatability problems etc…

    Hardware seems to be getting more and more like software nowadays, what with patches and updates.

    I don’t like the thought of carrying audio and video down the same cable for some reason, after all doesnt light travel faster than sound 🙂

  • Ben Hobbs

    Personally I’d keep HDMI out of the audio signal path for now anyway, What with them keep changing the specs, backward compatability problems etc…

    Hardware seems to be getting more and more like software nowadays, what with patches and updates.

    I don’t like the thought of carrying audio and video down the same cable for some reason, after all doesnt light travel faster than sound 🙂

  • Keith

    It’s nice to see the newer receivers plugging in those HDMI slots!

    Keith

  • Keith

    It’s nice to see the newer receivers plugging in those HDMI slots!

    Keith