Arcam FMJ A18 Integrated Amplifier Review

October 1, 2011

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At the risk of stating the obvious, unless you are interested in a headphone-only system, an integrated amplifier is the centerpiece of any entry-level high-end system. Why not a preamplifier/power amplifier combination you may ask? Why buy two chassis, two power supplies and a set of cables, when that money could be better spent on higher quality components and circuitry inside a single chassis, or on some other aspect of your system? For example, let’s take the integrated amplifier under review – the 50 watt/channel Arcam FMJ A18 which retails for $999. Arcam doesn’t even offer comparable separates. It wouldn’t make economic sense. At the other end of the spectrum, purchasing the Bryston B-100 SST integrated amplifier ($4695) over the comparable BP-16 preamplifier ($3550) and 2B-SST2 power amplifier ($3295) combination nets you a savings of $2150, not including the cost of the audiophile interconnects.

What about upgradeability? The most obvious upgrade would be to a higher power amplifier. Fortunately, most integrated amplifiers, including the FMJ A18, have preamplifier outputs, so you could continue to use your integrated amplifier as a preamplifier with your new power amplifier. Provided your new power amplifier is from the same manufacturer or has level adjustments, you could even bi-amp your system – speakers permitting – using the integrated amplifier for the tweeters and the new power amplifier for the woofers. Arcam recommends the 105 watt/channel FMJ P38 ($1599) for just this configuration,

When you are ready to take the next step, the integrated amplifier becomes the perfect candidate for a bedroom or office system, or you can hand it down to one of your children or a friend. That’s the route I took. When the receiver I purchased in 1973 as part of my first system finally gave up the ghost in 1985, I replaced it with an integrated amplifier. When I upgraded my system to a Meridian processor and multi-channel amplifier in 1995, the integrated amp went into my son’s room. He was quite happy to have it. He hasn’t lived at home for years now, but the integrated amplifier is still seeing duty in my wife’s home office. Of course, if you buy a higher-end integrated amplifier, like the Bryston mentioned above, you may never move to separates. I see that as a growing trend as many audiophiles focus on simplifying their systems.

The dark grey Arcam FMJ A18 is an attractive candidate for a first system. Its width is the industry standard 17”, with a depth of 10.75” and a height of a bit over 3.25”. Somewhat surprisingly, it weighs nearly 16 pounds. There are ventilation channels across the top which reveal a substantial toroid transformer on the right side, no doubt responsible for the bulk of the weight of the unit. As previously stated, it offers 50/watts per channel, which is probably about the minimum you would want to consider. That’s enough power to drive reasonably efficient loudspeakers to loud levels in a small to medium size room. You will likely be pairing an integrated amplifier in this price range with a pair of stand mounted monitors that do not have the low-frequency extension which places heavy demands on an amplifier section, and thus require higher power ratings. Besides, in the back of your mind you’re probably already thinking ahead to a powered subwoofer.

While the FMJ A18 has a lot of buttons on its front, they are small and grouped into two sections, resulting in an uncluttered appearance. The first group of six buttons is on the left of the panel. They are for bass, treble, balance, mute, display and processor mode. The large volume knob serves double-duty for setting volume, bass, treble and balance, something that is now customary in car audio. The mute button is self-explanatory. The display button selects normal, dim or off. The processor button is, in essence, a home theater bypass feature, and allows you to use the FMJ A18 to power the front left and right speakers when the corresponding outputs of a surround sound processor are connected to the input marked AV. You set the level with the volume control when calibrating your surround sound processor, and that level is remembered each time the processor function is enabled. The front panel display indicates processor status.

The second group of eight buttons is for input selection. They are aligned horizontally under the display. Those interested in playing LPs are in luck. The FMJ A18 has a built-in phono preamplifier which is suitable for cartridges with outputs from 2.5mv to 15mv, adequate for moving magnet (MM) and high output moving coil (MC) cartridges typically paired with entry-level turntables. To the right are two 3.5mm stereo jacks, one of which is an auxiliary input for, say, an iPod, and the other is for stereo headphones. To the far right is the power button. All of the front panel buttons, with the glaring omission of the power button, are duplicated on the lightweight remote, which also serves as the remote for the matching FMJ CD17 CD player I will be reviewing in the future. There is also a DRCT button on the remote which bypasses the tone controls.

Around back are RCA jacks for the inputs and for the preamplifier, personal video recorder and audio video receiver outputs, as well as the speaker binding posts, the voltage selector switch, and the IEC power inlet. There is even a knurled knob for grounding the phono preamp to the turntable. All of it is neatly laid out, though the legends could be larger. The younger set won’t have a problem, but I had to put on my reading glasses to get things connected up properly, and I don’t even use my reading glasses for reading!

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For listening evaluation, I connected my music server via the S/PDIF output to a Benchmark DAC1 HDR, and, after setting the DAC1 HDR to fixed output, connected it to the CD input of the FMJ A18 using a .5m pair of Audience Conductor “e” interconnects. That may sound convoluted, but in this setup I was simply using the DAC1 HDR as a DAC. I connected the FMJ A18 to a pair of Definitive Technology BP-8060ST bipolar loudspeakers I have in for review using a corresponding pair of Audience Conductor “e” speaker cables. The interconnects and speaker cables cost more than the FMJ A18 itself, so the product under review was not being shortchanged in that regard.

I cued up Alison Krauss and Union Station’s Home on the Highways as a test of female vocals and a variety of acoustic instruments. There are probably not many bluegrass fans out there, but since I play in a bluegrass group, have recorded my group and others, and have heard Alison Krauss in concert both at the Ryman Auditorium and the new Grand Ole Opry House on several occasions, I have a good handle on what Alison Krauss’s voice and bluegrass instruments sound like live. The first cut, Crazy As Me, is a plaintive ballad. Alison’s voice is palpable, the metallic resonance of Jerry Douglas’s dobro mesmerizing, the harmonies well placed from 9 to 3 o’clock, and the underlying bass multi-note and distinct. A studio album, it lacks the ambiance of a live venue, but is otherwise well engineered. Once you put it on, you may as well forget about multi-tasking. It’s that engaging. Can’t abide bluegrass? Try Alison Krauss’s 2009 Grammy Award winning joint effort with Robert Plant, vocalist and lyricist of Led Zeppelin, titled Raising Sand. On Please Read the Letter, Robert’s vocals take center stage, with a healthy dose of delay, a slightly hot EQ, and an intentionally distorted guitar, all reproduced faithfully by the Arcam.

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Shifting genres, I stumbled across Ahmad Jamal Trio at the Pershing – But Not for Me, a mono LP recorded live in 1958 from the lounge of Chicago’s Pershing Hotel, at my local used record emporium. What a great way to find new music. While technically not among the upper echelon of live recordings, the spontaneity and interplay of the members of the trio, as well as the atmosphere of the venue and audience, are well-captured. The FMJ A18 laid bare its sonic deficiencies. An audio component that makes a sonically challenged recording sound good is unrevealing and colored. No such problems with this little integrated. I’ll be looking for more Ahmad Jamal on my next excursion.

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Finally, I played Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, a four part orchestral piece with extensive solo parts for the viola, featuring Pinkas Zukerman on viola with Charles Dutoit conducting the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Originally commissioned by Niccolò Paganini as a viola concerto, he ultimately rejected it because the viola was not featured sufficiently for his considerable ego. It is one of the centerpieces of the viola repertoire. The viola was rich and sonorous, the horns burnished, the massed strings free from glare, and the orchestra itself uncongested. I think it sounded delightful.

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I did not have another integrated amplifier on hand, so I compared the amplifier section of the FMJ A18 with my 200/watt per channel Meridian 557 using the FMJ A18’s preamplifier outputs. Both drove the Definitive Technology BP-8060ST loudspeakers, which have a sensitivity of 92db, to ear-splitting levels without distortion in my 12’ x 14’ room. The presentation, however, was somewhat different. I would characterize the FMJ A18 as being slightly more forward in relation to the more powerful and expensive Meridian 557, which has a reputation for being on the more laid-back side.

Conclusion

The Arcam FMJ A18 would be a fine choice for a first system. It is well-made, incredibly versatile, has a phono preamp, provides adequate power to drive all but the most power hungry speakers, will nicely dovetail with system upgrades, and can be easily integrated into a home theater system. Although perhaps a touch light in presentation, it is detailed and true to timbre. I have only one item on my wish list for the FMJ A18 – an internal DAC with a USB and/or S/PDIF input, a feature which is becoming more and more common on integrated amplifiers. Perhaps we will see it on the next iteration. In the meantime, you can add an inexpensive USB DAC like the HRT MusicStreamer ($149) to access the audio files on your computer. Depending on your speakers and room size, you also might want to consider the FMJ A18’s more powerful stable mates – the 75 watt/channel FMJ A28 ($1699) and the 105 watt/channel FMJ A38 ($2399). You can’t go wrong with any of them. Oh, in case you are wondering, “FMJ” is Arcam’s abbreviation for “Faithful Musical Joy.” I think that pretty well sums up the character of this entry-level integrated amplifier. Recommended.

- Frank Berryman

Contact Information

Arcam
Pembroke Avenue
Waterbeach
Cambridge CB25 9QR UK
http://www.arcam.co.uk
support@www.arcam.co.uk

Associated Equipment

Analog Source: VPI Scout; Dynavector 20X2; Musical Surroundings Phonomena II
Digital Source: Windows 7 music server with ESI Juli@ soundcard; Halide design Bridge; Arcam FMJ CD17
Preamplifier: Meridian G68ADV; Benchmark DAC1 HDR
Power Amplifier: Meridian 557
Loudspeakers: Meridian DSP5500, Definitive Technology BP-8060ST
Cables: Digital: Meridian; Analog and Speaker: Audience Conductor “e”; Power: Volex/Marinco
Headphones: Etymotic ER-4S
Accessories: GIK acoustic treatments, dedicated 20 amp circuit