Arcam DiVA AVR250 AV Receiver Page 2

Bi-Amping: Double Your Pleasure
Until the AVR250, I've always thought that 7.1-channel receivers were not only a total waste of time and money, but a step in the wrong direction. Few domestic living spaces can easily accommodate five speakers, much less seven, and even when the room allows such excess, purchasing the additional amp channels and speakers forces most people to spread their audio budget even thinner. Unless you have a dedicated room and/or an unlimited budget (in which case, why are you even considering a receiver?), any marginal improvement you might experience due to the extra surround channels will be more than outweighed by an overall reduction in the system's audio performance. We're right back to quantity over quality.

On the Arcam, however, a menu option allows the two extra amp channels to serve your main L/R speakers in bi-amp mode. In my system, the result was a dramatic improvement in overall sound quality with both stereo and multichannel sources. (Speakers with bi-amp capability have separate pairs of input terminals for the high and low frequencies, which are normally jumpered together. In a bi-amp situation, the jumper is removed and each speaker is fed a full-range signal from two separate amp channels via two separate speaker wires, one connected to the speaker's HF terminals and the other to its LF terminals. Most high-quality full range speakers are bi-amp compatible.)

Superlative Performance
When reproducing a well-engineered 2-channel recording of acoustic instruments or voices—still the acid test for a receiver, in my view—the Arcam produced a realistic sense of air around the instruments. I felt that I was listening in on musicians performing within an actual acoustic space, rather than just hearing a flat representation coming out of a speaker. To me, this is what high-end audio is all about.

A press release claims that the AVR250 delivers "absolute clarity and stability of the soundfield, regardless of volume." I'd normally write off such talk as mere marketing blather, but this time the hyperbole is justified.

Multichannel mayhem such as the landing scene in Saving Private Ryan was also handled without breaking a sweat—I never got the feeling that the amps were running out of headroom. And remember, my system consists of full-range L/R speakers with no subwoofer, so the Arcam was doing all the heavy sonic lifting.

In fact, the bass response in my system with the main L/R speakers bi-amped was nothing short of amazing. The low end was as tight, punchy, and musical as anything I've ever heard from a receiver, regardless of price or power rating. Clearly, it's not how many watts you have, it's how you use them that counts, and the AVR250 uses its watts very, very well indeed.

The only quibble I had with the AVR250's audio performance was its tendency to produce an audible pop in my system whenever a digital audio bitstream was interrupted. This happened every time I switched sources or skipped chapters on a DVD. (This appears to be a system-specific problem. I tried the Arcam in my system with two DVD players—a Panasonic DVD-RP56 with an optical digital audio connection to the receiver and a Pioneer DV-59AVi with a coaxial digital link—plus a Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8000 HD cable box/HD hard-disk recorder with coaxial link, and I could not induce any pops or clicks.—TJN)

When I installed the Arcam in my system, I happily took advantage of the receiver's video transcoding capabilities and ran the component output of my Sony DVD player and Motorola Moxi DVR through the unit and on to the Toshiba 52HM94 DLP TV that I was reviewing at the time (after the Vizio RP56 referenced earlier). I lived with this hookup for many weeks, and never noticed a problem with the picture (at least, not one that I could attribute to the AVR250).

On the day before editor Tom Norton was scheduled to swing by to help me calibrate the Toshiba TV, I decided to hook up my Pioneer Elite DVD jukebox to the Arcam so we could more easily run A/B comparisons using the Sony's 480p output and the Pioneer's 480i output. (I use the Pioneer only as a CD changer these days, and rarely bother to hook up its video output.)

TJN came over the next night, and much to my chagrin, test patterns revealed a serious case of ringing distortion, in which ghost images appear just to the right of the actual image. Seeking the cause, I disconnected the Sony DVD player from the Arcam and connected it directly to the TV. Lo and behold, the ghosts disappeared. Things were not looking good for the Arcam review.

Still, I wondered. I had lived with the Arcam in my system for a long time without ever noticing a ringing problem, and this one was pretty obvious. So before sitting down to write this review, I decided to see if I could replicate the problem. Diving into the dark and cramped recess behind my AV rack, I hooked up both DVD players to the Arcam's switcher and fired up Video Essentials. Guess what? No ghosts. I tried every combination of cables I could think of, with the same excellent result. The ghosts seemed to have been exorcised for good.

Perhaps a cable was loose or intermittent on the night when TJN came over? There's no way to know for sure at this point. But all's well that ends well, and I can now can say with some confidence that the Arcam's video switcher passes a clean signal without interference from the undead.

Thrilling Conclusion
When a product sounds as good as the Arcam AVR250, it becomes a lot easier to overlook its few relatively minor user-interface quirks. My home theater has played host to plenty of AV receivers with triple-digit power ratings and even higher price tags that can't hold a candle to the AVR250 in terms of sheer musicality, bass reproduction, or the ability to drive the most demanding high-resolution speakers at realistic volume levels with no sign of distortion or breakup. This was especially true with the Arcam in Stereo Bypass mode and with the front channels bi-amped.

The AVR250 faces stiff competition on multiple fronts, but a quick Google search shows that many potential buyers are comparing it to the Denon AVR-3805, which lists for $400 less than the Arcam. I have not lived with the AVR-3805 in my home theater, so I can't say how it sounds. On paper, the Denon has more AV inputs, a better front-panel display, a much better remote, and considerably more power (120 watts per channel into 8Ω, 20Hz-20kHz @ <0.05%THD). It does not, however, have the Arcam's bi-amp capability.

I've been reviewing home theater gear since 1989, and this is the first time I've ever been tempted to describe the sound of an AV receiver as "thrilling." But that's the adjective that springs to mind when I consider the Arcam AVR250. If you can wrap your head around the idea that less is more, I think you'll be thrilled, too.

Highs and Lows

• Superlative audio performance with 2-channel and multichannel sources
• Bi-amp option finally provides a valid reason to upgrade to 7.1 channels
• Compact cabinet promotes domestic tranquility
• Versatile input/output matrix with component-video switching/transcoding

• Fixed source-input labels make configuration and operation more difficult
• Slow, unresponsive volume control, muting, and power on/off functions
• Undistinguished OEM remote and overly minimal front-panel display
• Produces an audible pop when switching inputs and skipping DVD chapters