Arcam AVP700 Controller and P1000 Multichannel Amp
Moore's law refers to the length of time it takes for technology to get twice as good for half the money. OK, I'm guilty of some hyperbole here- the AVP700 isn't intended to be twice as good as the FMJ AV8, which was the result of a ground-up R&D effort that cost Arcam a full million bucks. Combined with the P1000 multichannel amp, the AVP700 and its companion are actually intended to be an improved "separates" version of Arcam's highly regarded DiVA AVR300 A/V receiver.
But where the hyperbole comes back in is when you see the price tag. The AVP700 ($2199) and the P1000 ($2299, 135-watt by seven-channels) together cost less than the AV8, and the AVP700 includes some highly desirable features, such as HDMI video switching and balanced audio outputs, that even the flagship doesn't offer. In short, the AVP7000/P1000 is a killer package of features at a startlingly attractive price and I didn't have to be asked twice when the idea of reviewing this combo came up.
Although intended to be a scaled-up AVR300 rather than a scaled down FMJ AV8, Arcam learned a lot about surround controller design during the AV8's design cycle, and the AVP700's marketing literature alludes to "drawing heavily" on the flagship's design for this new controller. Where the much more costly AV8 used eight discrete, high-end Wolfson DACs, the AVP700 uses a single chip that is a combination A-D and D-A for all eight channels, with integrated volume control on that same chip. Although balanced outputs are provided the circuit isn't a true differential design—the single-ended signal is converted to differential by Burr Brown transformer-less line drivers. Nevertheless, my equipment rack is on my sidewall, and I therefore require long cables runs from the surround processor to the power amps. I use only balanced interconnects, and that goes for this review too.
AVP700-Overview of Features
The AVP700's feature set reads like a flagship product costing multiples its price. Included are all the latest and greatest DTS and Dolby surround modes, including DTS 24/96 and Dolby Pro Logic IIx. Three coaxial and Toslink optical digital inputs are there, and while they are labeled they can be assigned to any source input through the AVP700's menu system for excellent flexibility. There's also a 7.1-channel analog input that can be used with a "Direct" mode that bypasses the digital processing circuitry for purity (Direct mode is also available for the stereo analog inputs). If that weren't enough, not only is an AM/FM tuner on board, it includes RDS (Radio Data Systems) so you know what the hell it is you're listening to.
As impressive as the AVP700's audio functionality is, the video is at least as richly adorned. There are two HDMI inputs and one output, three HD-compatible component inputs and composite and s-video signals are "upconverted" to component to simplify switching. The bottom line is there are enough ins and outs for any conceivable system, even the one put together by that guy (and you all know him) who still has a VHS deck or two, a Laserdisc player, a Betamax VCR, and one or two other boxes so he can play those two movies that aren't on DVD yet, or some really important stuff that was taped off cable in 1985. (I resemble that remark, except that there's no Betamax, the tapes date back as far as 1978, and I haven't played any of them in 15 years!—TJN)
For the CEDIA integrators out there a second zone with audio and video can be served from the AVP700. A two-way RS-232 interface is also provided so that all the control info can be loaded into an AMX- or Crestron-type remote control rig.
Although this is certainly a vast array of connectivity and features, a couple of things are missing in action. While the latest of the current Dolby and DTS accoutrements can be decoded, HD DVD and Blu-ray (one or both of which will ostensibly see the light of day with consumers next year) will potentially bring with them new, higher bandwidth codecs from both Dolby and DTS. Although both formats will carry backward compatible streams that will work with the AVP700, Arcam has informed me that the AVP700 is not outfitted for the new formats and will not be field upgradeable. Although the software code in the unit can be upgraded, the AVP700 would require a newer HDMI interface to work with the new codecs, which implies that the new audio codec streams will be carried only through HDMI, and the coaxial or Toslink optical digital connections will carry only the backward compatible DTS and Dolby streams. Although the possibility exists that the next gen players might have multichannel analog outputs that could be used with the AVP700's multichannel analog in, the bottom line is that new formats are coming and like a lot of gear out there, the AVP700 won't be a candidate for retrofitting.
Speaking of the fact that the AVP700's HDMI switching does not decode audio, that's another shortcoming of the current technology. The AVP700 can't decode HDMI audio, which means that its HDMI switching is video only—the audio signal is not stripped out of the HDMI connection and decoded directly. You have to connect a coaxial or Toslink digital audio cable from your source components to the AVP700. The AVP700 allows you to assign the inputs so they work seamlessly together, but the fact is that although HDMI carries audio and video it has not yet delivered completely on its promise of single cable A/V nirvana. (To be fair, this limitation applies to many current products with HDMI switching—Ed.)
Another thing "missing," but not missed by me, is a Re-EQ circuit. The AVP700 does provide bass and treble controls to tailor the response of each channel individually (but not simultaneously) by +/-6dB, but there is not a traditional Re-EQ that can be engaged with a single button push. While in years past movie soundtracks were prone to aggressively bright sound as a result of being EQ'd for a large venue (movie theaters), today home video release is considered throughout a movie's production cycle, and many (if not most) movies released on DVD have been Re-EQ'd and sweetened for home theater and sound far better in general than they used to.
AVP700- Setup and Advanced Features
There are two sets of menus to access—Basic and Advanced. They are laid out in a fairly straightforward fashion, but just confusing enough to make setting up from the front panel difficult. I know this is why OSDs exist, but as is often the case, the AVP700's OSD doesn't function through the HDMI output, which I used throughout the review period. The AVP700's OSD is functional with component signals, but it does not "overlay" on the video image as is typical. It is output as a 480i full screen signal with solid background, so if the signal you're watching is another resolution (480p, 720p, or 1080i) there might be some delay going to and from the OSD as your display switches the signal.
The Basic menu allows adjustments of such staples as speaker configurations and sizes, delay settings and channel levels. Some video settings are adjusted here too, and just note that in UK-speak, YUV and component video are synonymous. Speaker configurations and sizes are Large, Small, or None, and for speakers designated as Small, i.e., not full-range, the frequency at which low frequency signals crossover to the subwoofer is determined in the Subwoofer Settings area of the Basic menu.