Arcam DiVA AVR250 AV Receiver

Americans tend to prefer quantity over quality. Given the opportunity, we build McMansions. We drive Hummers. We wash down our Whoppers with Big Gulps. And we always buy the biggest AV receiver we can, because you can't be too rich, too thin, or have too many watts. More is better.

Meanwhile, across the pond in the UK, a handful of dedicated specialist manufacturers with deep audiophile roots have carved out a market niche by insisting that less is more. They build solidly engineered products using high-quality parts. The emphasis is on audio performance as opposed to raw power output and feature bloat, and as a result, components from these companies tend to be relatively compact and often have a minimalist front panel with a reduced button count. And more often than not, they sound good, too.

This design approach is typified by the Arcam DiVA AVR250 AV receiver. Arcam has been building audio components since 1976. Audiophiles know the Cambridge-based company for its high-performance integrated amplifiers, but the company is also gaining recognition among the videophile cognoscenti with a series of high-end DVD players that have received rave reviews in this and other publications.

Good Things in Small Packages
Arcam's AV receivers carry the DiVA moniker, which translates to Digitally integrated Video Audio. Unless it's for trademark purposes, I have no idea why they chose to set the "i" in lower case, but there you have it. Current models include the AVR300 (100Wpc, $1999) and the AVR250 (75Wpc, $1599). Both are 7.1-channel receivers with component-video transcoding and switching, all the usual Dolby and DTS surround modes, and a host of custom-installation features. The AVR300 offers that extra 25Wpc, provides preamp outputs for all channels (the AVR250 provides only a subwoofer output) and has individual LED indicators over each input selection button. Other than that, the two models appear to be identical.

The AVR250 was designed in England and built in China. It's surprisingly compact at only 5 3/4 inches high by 16 inches deep, and should fit right into the niche you had built into your custom AV cabinet back in the days when receivers had a mere 5.1 channels. Just be sure to maintain a few inches above the unit to allow for air circulation.

Looking inside the cabinet with the top cover removed (don't try this at home!) reveals a well-built but prosaic-looking chassis. There are numerous jumpers and cable runs, including a fairly long one to the power rectifier, which is mounted on the back of the main heat sink instead of directly on the power supply board as is usually the case. The overall effect is downright dowdy compared to the eye-candy internals of the Sherwood Newcastle R-965.

Geek chic aside, I have no complaints about the actual parts used in the AVR250. According to a company press release, it uses "audiophile-quality components" including "1% metal-film resistors, polypropylene-film capacitors, OSCON electrolytic capacitors, and double-sided, though-plated Fiberglass circuit boards." The main DSP chip is a Crystal Semiconductor CS49400 with 24- and 32-bit processing. The DACs, ADCs, and volume controls are all 24-bit devices from Wolfson Microelectronics. Be still my beating heart!

The power supply features four 12,000μf filter capacitors and a huge toroidal transformer that's 4 1/2 inches in diameter and 4 inches high. There are two black-anodized aluminum heat sinks, each measuring 12 inches long, 4 inches high, and 1 1/4 inches deep. The heat sink fins point inward toward each other, creating a sort of central chimney. Two cooling fans are mounted below this chimney, and slots in the cabinet bottom and top help create a nice flow-through effect. I'm not a big fan of fans, but they are a necessary evil in a tightly packed 7.1-channel unit such as this. Fortunately, these are among the quietest fans I've (never) heard.

Each of the AVR250's seven identical amplifier channels is rated at 75 watts into 4 or 8Ω with all seven channels driven. Left out of the promotional materials but not the manual is the fact that this rating is with a 1 kHz input signal (at 0.2% THD), rather than the more demanding full audio range of 20-20,000Hz. Two-channel power output is given as 90Wpc in the manual and 100Wpc in the press release. The 90Wpc figure in the manual is fully spec'd at 20Hz-20kHz @ 0.2% THD into 4 or 8Ω, so that's the one I'd believe.

Arcam offers the AVR250 in your choice of black or silver finish. My review sample came in black. The front panel button count is kept to a minimum, which is accomplished without resorting to a flip-down panel to hide the secondary functions. On the other hand, maybe they should have included a hidden panel of some sort, as there is no AV input suite on the front panel, only a headphone jack.

What few buttons the front panel does have are small, round, and silver. The buttons are easy enough to see in a dimly lit home theater, but their silver-colored labels are not.

The blue, fluorescent dot-matrix display normally spells out the current input source and volume level. The surround mode is shown briefly when changing inputs, then the display reverts back to source and volume, leaving only a tiny indicator for the surround mode.

The AVR250's onscreen menu display is plain vanilla, consisting of white low-rez characters with no graphic toppings of any kind. But it's an interface familiar to just about everyone and it gets the job done.

The OSD appears only when 480i signals are passing through the system; it is blanked whenever 480p, 720p, or 1080i sources are on tap. This is a good thing as far as I'm concerned, because the Arcam's OSD affects the black level of the underlying video signal, causing an unwelcome increase in brightness. This doesn't really matter when using the large setup menus, but the same effect also occurs every time the onscreen volume slider pops up, making this "feature" even more obnoxious than normal. (Why manufacturers think it necessary to display the volume setting onscreen, I'll never understand.) Fortunately, the OSD can be turned off once you have the unit configured.

Inputs and Outputs: What's in a Name?
The AVR250's input/output matrix is quite flexible and should be more than sufficient for most home theater situations. There are five AV inputs, all with S-video, composite video, and L/R analog audio jacks. These inputs are permanently designated DVD, SAT, AV, PVR, and VCR. The PVR and VCR inputs also have outputs for recording purposes. There are two additional audio-only inputs, one labeled CD and the other a record loop labeled Tape.

Three component-video inputs are provided; Arcam calls them "High Quality Video Inputs," presumably because they can also accommodate the SCART-compatible RGB sources used in Europe. Video bandwidth is spec'd at 100MHz, which should provide full HD compatibility. The component inputs are labeled (and assigned by default to) the AV, DVD, and SAT inputs, but they can be reassigned to any other input. Similarly, the unit's three coaxial and three optical digital-audio inputs have fixed name assignments and default input associations that can be reassigned at will.

I hate to quibble, but fixed input labels are so last Tuesday. The AVR250's flexible reassignment scheme would be much easier for the user to deal with if the various input labels could be renamed to match the actual source components in your system.

Like all high-end receivers these days, the AVR250 has a 7.1-channel input for use with a DVD-A or SACD player. According to the manual, "The AVR250 switches these analogue inputs directly to the analogue outputs via its own volume control circuit," which "has the side-effect that there is no bass management for DVD-A or SACD players." Arcam suggests that "the bass-management functionality of the player itself should be used." Many high-end receivers now manage to provide at least the option to maintain full bass management functionality when using the 7.1-channel input.

Last but certainly not least, the AVR250 includes video transcoding, in which composite or S-video signals are converted and output as component video. This great feature simplifies system operation by eliminating the need to switch inputs on the TV to accommodate different video formats; the TV can receive video signals from any component in your rack using a single component-video connection. Note that no other video processing or upconversion is applied to the signal (e.g., 480i in, 480i out).

A Remote By Any Other Name
I had to laugh when I laid eyes on the AVR250's remote for the first time. An almost identical twin of that same remote already sat on the table in my theater, having been supplied with the V, Inc. Vizio RP56 DLP TV that I happened to be reviewing at the time. Like many small manufacturers, Arcam has elected to adapt a third-party remote rather than engineer and build one of their own. This is understandable, as development costs for a remote can easily exceed those of the component it operates.

The CR80 (as Arcam calls it) is a good-sized, backlit, universal remote that can control up to seven components in addition to the AVR250 itself. My only real complaint is that the receiver's input labels appear to have been added to the remote's numeric keys as an afterthought. The result is a confusing, hard-to-read set of buttons that are called on to control one of the most important and commonly used receiver functions.

Setup and Configuration
The AVR250 is flexible when it comes to speaker setup. You can select one of three preset configurations that provide various common combinations of large and small speakers and subwoofer, or you can create a custom configuration to suit your situation. The subwoofer crossover frequency can be adjusted in 10 Hz steps from 40 to 130Hz, and the sub can have different output levels for 2-channel stereo and multichannel sources.

When adjusting the speaker output levels, you can have the receiver automatically circulate the test tone or manually step through the channels one by one. Levels are adjustable in 1dB steps; 0.5dB steps would be even better. A Speaker EQ function lets you adjust the bass and treble response ±6dB for all speakers or for each channel individually. The tone control corner frequencies are 100Hz and 8kHz. An Auto Stereo Bypass function can be engaged to bypass these EQ settings when an analog or digital 2-channel source is detected.

Other menu pages let you adjust the video and digital-input assignments and trim the input sensitivity of the analog inputs so that you aren't treated to a blast of noise when you switch from, say, the DVD to the VCR input. Finally, there is a page dedicated to the AVR250's comprehensive Zone 2 capabilities.

Any adjustment made in the menu system can be left as a temporary override or saved to become the new default configuration.

Volume, Muting, and Power Trips
The Arcam's volume control covers a 100dB range in 1dB steps. Trouble is, if you start from 0dB, the system is effectively muted all the way up to about 30dB, so the entire bottom third of the range is wasted. You don't begin to reach reasonable listening levels until 55dB or so, and 75 to 80dB is about right for most movie soundtracks. It simply takes too long to get from one end of the Arcam's volume range to the other.

Matters are made worse by the mute control, which fades the sound out by rapidly running the volume all the down to 0dB instead of instantly muting the system. And when you unmute, the volume ramps right back up again. This crescendo/decrescendo method is way too slow and cumbersome when muting commercials, chapter skips, and the like.

The power button has responsiveness issues, too. It takes a full 2 seconds after you press the power button for the Arcam to react. Then it lights its green power LED and goes into 10 seconds of silent standby. Two seconds may not sound like much, but it's long enough for you to wonder whether the unit has received the IR command.

You can only put the receiver into standby from the remote, not from the front panel. Pressing the front panel button actually switches off the AC power to the unit, which means you then can't wake it from the remote.

Here's what happens in my house: The receiver is left on until someone notices at bedtime. Rather than try to find the right remote amidst the jumbled pile on the table, it's natural to walk up to the unit and push the power button. The next day, whoever wants to watch TV first will plop down on the couch, dig up the remote, and push the power button. Of course, nothing happens because the receiver was switched off at the front panel the night before! A small annoyance, to be sure, but an avoidable one.