Arcam AV8 Pre/Pro
If there's one thing I know about Arcam, it's that they like to do things their own way. Yes, this is a high-end company and, as such, is relatively small—which usually means that they wouldn't have the resources to do major product overhauls or built-from-scratch developments very often. This being Arcam, though, it didn't surprise me when I heard that they were spending gobs of time and money developing a new statement pre/pro for their top-shelf FMJ line. Back in February, I spent some time with their DV27 DVD player—another built-from-the-ground-up effort—and was sincerely impressed, so I was curious to see what these fellows across the pond could accomplish when they set their sights on the world of flagship pre/pros.
The result of these efforts is the AV8, a unit that's loaded with features and priced in that growing midrange of separates that stay well under five figures but aren't for the faint of wallet, either. The features list kicks off with THX Ultra 2 certification and processing (with both the Cinema and Music modes) and Dolby EX. Naturally, there's THX post-processing, as well. Dolby Digital 5.1 and Pro Logic II Movie and Music are here, as are DTS 5.1, ES Matrix and Discrete, and Neo:6 Cinema and Music. A few DSP modes are aboard, as well. Two 24-bit Crystal Semiconductor DSPs handle the processing. For analog signals, the direct mode not only circumvents all DSP, conversion, etc., but it also shuts down most of the digital circuitry to further reduce the potential for interference.
The rear panel is appropriately accommodating. There's an eight-channel analog input (yes, there are rumors of 7.1-channel DVD-Audio) and seven digital inputs (five coax, two optical), which is a bit light by current standards. Stereo analog signals get seven inputs, an optional phono preamp input, and two outputs, and there's a coax digital output, as well. The three subwoofer outputs make life easier for those with multi-sub setups. For video, there are three high-bandwidth component ins and an out, five S-video ins and two outs, and five composite ins with three outs. Zone 2 gets its own stereo analog out and a composite video feed. Control connections include IR jacks (local in and out, zone 2 in), a 12-volt trigger, and an RS-232 connection.
Despite the unit's complexity, setup is relatively easy. It may take more time to wade through the extensive menu system, but just be glad you have this much control. There's a basic settings template for those of you who want the quick and easy approach. You can adjust the crossovers from 40 to 150 hertz in 10-Hz steps, and there are a number of tweaks for individual channels and sources. There are five preset memory functions that you can use to save your work. The remote ups the ease-of-use factor. I know this unit well, as it's similar to the remotes that come with the Lexicon and Anthem pre/pros, and I'm glad to see it here. It's highly flexible and programmable, and, thankfully, it's backlit.
For this review, the AV8 saw time with a variety of running mates. At our studio, it linked up with both Lexicon's LX-7 and Arcam's P7 amp (which we unfortunately didn't have space to review here), as well as the Krell DVD Standard DVD player and MartinLogan Odyssey speakers. At home, the AV8 saw time in my current home theater system, which includes a pair of Aragon Palladium monoblocks, the Krell KAV-500 five-channel amp, the Energy Veritas speaker system, and the Philips SACD 1000 DVD/SACD player.
At the studio, the AV8/LX-7 combination quickly introduced itself with an unmistakable immediacy and a powerful sense of dynamic range with two-channel music. Knowing that the LX-7's sonic signature is relatively minor, I initially thought that the AV8's profile leaned more toward forwardness and dynamics. Once I switched over to the P7, though, the system's sound clearly shifted to a more-laid-back, warmer profile. Where Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" (second Burmester collection) was clean and big but occasionally biting with the LX-7, it was more subdued and warmer, although slightly less open, with the P7. These differences indicate that the AV8 is relatively neutral (always a good thing for a preamp), with only a slight tendency toward the dynamic side. A more-mellow amp like the P7 will easily shift this pre/pro into a less-aggressive and more-delicate profile. This isn't to say that the AV8/P7 combination will lull you to sleep, though. The big pipe organ of "Lindenkirche Berlin" was living proof that this pair will rattle your cage if you want it to, even in two channels. No matter which amp I used, the AV8 offered a spacious, well-defined soundstage with an obvious sense of resolution as its foundation. Virtually all of this detail and size remained as I dropped the volume, confirming my expectations of the AV8's first-rate volume control.
Speaking of space and resolution, the AV8 was both quiet and delicate in passing SACD and DVD-Audio signals. Naturally, I know the sound of my home system intimately, and the AV8 did little to alter its character. Again, there was clear evidence that the AV8 allowed the amps to do what they wanted to do. The Aragons have a similar sonic profile to the P7: warmer and more laid-back. The Krell KAV-500 is more forward and, at times, more rambunctious. With my usual setup—the front channels running off the Aragons and the center and rears running off the Krell—the sound of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue SACD was as silky and enveloping as it always is on this system. The AV8 explored the Energy system's spectacular mid-range with undeniable enthusiasm. Robert Jr. Lockwood's Delta Crossroads SACD exists almost entirely in the middle ranges, and the AV8 handled it beautifully. You could see Lockwood's fingers sliding across the board as he let loose his inherent ability to play rhythm and lead guitar simultaneously. As I switched the front channels over to the Krell, the upper frequencies gained a sense of increased range but were crisper and cooler. I'd hardly complain about running the full system off the Krell, but the Aragons usually bring an excellent sense of balance between clarity and warmth—and they did so with the AV8, as well. The AV8 and the Aragons were highly successful in bringing the middle ranges of the Energy speakers' bass forward and provided an accurate sense of tonal balance throughout the system.