Arcam AVR350 Surround Sound Receiver

Most popular AV receivers come from companies based in Japan, Korea, and China. Most of these are huge companies with the resources to develop products quickly and promote them widely.

Only a few smaller companies have been able to operate successfully in the AV receiver environment. One of the best known is Arcam. Operating out of the U.K., Arcam has developed an enviable reputation for top-quality audio-video and audio-only electronics, including preamps, amps, preamp-processors, and AV receivers.

Some of Arcam's products are built entirely in its U.K. factory. Other pieces, such as the AVR350 7.1-channel surround sound receiver reviewed here ($2,749), are designed in the U.K. but manufactured in Asia.

A tour of the back-end real estate with most AV receivers can be intimidating. But Arcam has managed to keep the AVR350 relatively simple without sacrificing important features. There's a generous number of analog and digital audio inputs, analog and digital audio outputs for recording, analog preamp outputs on all channels for driving external amplifiers, if desired, and audio and video analog outputs for a second zone (composite video and two-channel stereo only).

There is also a set of 7.1-channel analog inputs for multichannel analog sources such as DVD-Audio and SACD players, or the multichannel analog outputs of a DVD, HD DVD, or Blu-ray player. (None of these sources at present is more than 5.1-channels, but the Arcam is ready when the program material is.) The multichannel input provides a full-range, direct route to the receiver's outputs. Apart from volume control, they provide no processing (such as individual channel delays) and no bass management.

There are seven sets of speaker terminals. These may be used in the conventional way, to drive the three front channels and side and rear surrounds. You can also, of course, use a conventional 5.1-channel (or 6.1-channel) setup, ignore one or both of the back surrounds, and leave those channels unused. But Arcam has also provided two other options for the two spare amplifier channels in a 5.1-channel system. They can be used to drive a pair of speakers in zone 2. More intriguingly, they can be set up to bi-amp the left and right front speakers.

The Arcam also has one of those 4 ohm/8 ohm switches designed to prevent the output stages from overheating with lower impedance loads. I was able to use the 8-ohm setting with no problems, but the results will vary depending on your speaker, the program material, and how loud you play your system. Keep in mind that these switches, which appear on many receivers but few separate power amplifiers (power amps generally have more extensive heat sinks), are designed to meet stringent regulatory heat limits to prevent any chance of injury from touching a hot chassis.

Many of the audio features in the AVR350 are similar to those in other AV receivers. In addition to all of the usual multichannel Dolby Digital and DTS modes (though none of the new hi-res modes like Dolby TrueHD or DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio Lossless—no one as yet offers those in a receiver or pre-pro) there are a variety of modes designed to produce multichannel sound from two-channel program material. These include Dolby and DTS offerings, plus several DSP modes. The only one I would consider using for music is an ambience extraction mode called, oddly enough, "Music."

You can also select Stereo Direct, which routes the input directly to the front left and right channels and drives them full range with no bass management or other processing. This mode actually shuts down all digital circuits in the receiver, which means that it can be used only with analog sources. If you want to drive the front channels full range without subwoofer for all two-channel source material, analog or digital, the subwoofer setup menu may be configured to switch to that configuration whenever the receiver receives a two-channel source. Alternately, this same feature may be set to operate in two-channel with either a satellite-subwoofer configuration or with the sub on and the front speakers driven full range. (I don't recommend the latter; it's an open door to overblown, uneven bass).

One nice touch, and a unique one in my experience, is the operation of the Mute control. When you engage it, it ramps down to the minimum. When you disengage it, instead of coming back on BLAM, it ramps up to the previously set level.

A Lip sync function provides audio delays from 0-220 millisecond in 5ms steps.

On the video side, the AVR350 offers switching (but no scaling) for all video inputs, including three component inputs and two HDMI connections. The receiver will also convert composite and S-video inputs to component, and cross convert composite and S-Video in either direction. It will not, however, convert composite, S-video, or component to HDMI (as some competing receivers do).

The video switching did an excellent job. Even when I passed a 1080p HDMI Blu-ray source through it and displayed it on my 78-inch wide screen, I could see no degradation in the image.

HDMI Audio
One of the advantages of HDMI is that in its most common, current forms (HDMI 1.1 and 1.2) it can carry both video and multichannel PCM audio. The HDMI connection is the most practical and convenient way to tap into the new high-resolution audio formats now available on HD DVD and Blu-ray. At present, many (but not all) of these players can convert the new hi-res soundtracks to multichannel linear PCM (and some of these soundtracks are uncompressed PCM to begin with). These multichannel tracks can then ride from the player to the receiver on the HDMI link along with the video.

There are other ways to access some (but not all) of these new soundtracks, chief among them the multichannel analog outputs of high-definition players. But this route is neither as convenient nor, in theory at least, as good-sounding as a direct HDMI multichannel PCM digital link from player to pre-pro or AV receiver.

But many AV receivers and pre-pros lack HDMI audio capability, even when they provide HDMI video switching. The AVR350 is one of them. Its HDMI circuits are video switching only; they cannot extract and play the PCM audio that can ride along on the HDMI audio-video connection.

We feel that audio-over-HDMI capability is important for any modern AV receiver or preamp-processor. And much of the Asian AV receiver competition is now ready for multichannel PCM on HDMI. Arcam has not ignored this, but rather argues against it. In their opinion, audio carried on HDMI provides poor performance.

But without HDMI for your multichannel audio, one multichannel analog input might not be enough. Suppose you have two or even three disc players with multichannel capability—a universal player for SACD and DVD-Audio, an HD DVD player, and a Blu-ray player. If you connect them all from their analog multichannel outputs, that means six leads from each of them that will need to be swapped in and out? If a manufacturer does not provide HDMI audio capability, for whatever reason, they might consider offering more than one set of analog multichannel inputs. And some sort of bass management for those analog inputs should probably also be included—even if it must be analog—considering the bass management shortcomings of many players.

The Arcam proved not only remarkably easy to set up but remarkably free of annoying operating quirks.

The Arcam's on-screen setup menus (not available over HDMI) are easy to navigate. You could almost perform a setup without the manual, though the manual is reasonably clear and extends just a little over 40 English language pages.

The setup process has all of the usual steps. None of them are automated, and they don't really need to be. High- and low-pass filters may be set at any frequency from 40Hz-130Hz in 10Hz increments, but cannot be set separately for the high- and low-pass sections or for different channels.

The audio and video inputs for composite and S-video are linked together, but the three component inputs, DVD, AV, and SAT (Arcam calls them High Quality Video) may be assigned to any source button. The same applies to the two HDMI inputs.

The AVR350 has no cinema equalization mode to roll off the treble for bright soundtracks. But in addition to overall bass and treble controls it offers separate bass and treble controls for each of its seven channels. But the global and individual controls are limited to a combined boost or cut of +/-6dB. (There is also a similar limit for the master volume control setting. Its maximum under any circumstances is 100, but this is limited by the maximum calibrated setting used for the individual channels. For example, if the center is set to +10dB, the maximum setting for the master volume will be limited to 90.)

The display window is easy to read from a reasonable distance, and its illumination is adjustable. While the front panel has most of the buttons you'll need for day-to-day operation, you'll want to use the remote control most of the time. It's one of those generic, multi-device designs. There's little to say about it. It's functional, backlit, does not have too many buttons too close together, and didn't give me a remote control anxiety attack. One oddity: one of the buttons is labeled "THX." But the AVR350 is not a THX-certified product and does not incorporate any THX processing.

A Glitch?
While glitches were hard to find in the AVR350, I did find one. I noticed during listening tests that a couple of the volume steps seemed very abrupt. Sure enough, those steps, which fell in the range I most often use for movie playback (but not music), were between 3.5dB and 4.0dB, rather than the specified 1dB. And several of the steps preceding each if these oversized ones produced no change in the output level at all. (The jumbo steps in my sample fell between 78 and 86 on the volume control.)