We live in a world of convenient devices. A world where products that have multi-functional applications quickly rise to the top of the pile. The ‘i-Generation’ wants simple, one-box solutions and products that can deliver on numerous fronts. Products that will work right off the bat and most importantly, don’t cost a fortune. The Idea of having separate high quality components that make up a sound system is no longer the universal norm. Of course, this is in the face of everything ‘audiophile’, or so we are led to believe, but, things have changed.
Integrated amplifiers have become a window into the land of the audiophile and in some cases, they are all you might ever need. I was very excited, or to use an old English expression; I was chuffed, when asked to review Arcams latest integrated amplifier – the FMJ A19. Arcam is one of the companies responsible for my development as an audiophile and they are no slouches when it comes to innovation in sound reproduction. The company was founded by two Cambridge university students in 1976 and they originally specialised in mixing desks for recording studios and eventually moved towards the manufacturing of Hi-Fi components. It was Arcam that designed the first off board digital to analog converter in 1985, eventually leading to the Arcam RDAC. The RDAC gave me my first taste of how precise and dynamic a computer based audio system could be. I still use the Arcam today, in fact I’m using it right now.
Build Quality and Function
As I have come to expect with Arcam, careful attention is given in the designing of all of their products and the FMJ A19 is no exception. FMJ stands for full metal jacket and when you unpack this amplifier it’s easy to see why. The thing is built like a tank. Two types of metal are used in its construction both steel and aluminium – the front panel being aluminium and the case covering the chassis is wrapped in steel which hides a hefty 50 watt class AB toroidal transformer. The A19 boasts seven single ended inputs making it possible to connect a multitude of sources, anything from; DACs, CD payers, Tuners, and Tape Decks (or any analog source). Arcam have also included a built-in phono stage with what they call an “ultra-low noise moving magnet” (MM), taking into account the recent resurgence in vinyl. The phono stage is activated by pressing the ‘Phono’ and ‘Balance’ buttons simultaneously on the front panel and then using the volume knob to select the line level.
On the front panel of the A19 sits a digital display screen that lights up green text and you can switch between sources manually by using the small circular buttons assembled horizontally along the display board. There is a switch included on the back of the amplifier for setting the correct voltage depending on your countries electrical specifications. A large circular grey volume wheel is placed just left of centre that fits the amps minimal aesthetic and over to the right you can find a headphone and auxiliary out – which brings me to my only gripe about the design; Arcam has only provided a 3.5mm headphone out. This kind of output is fine with entry level headphones (and to be honest is a standard feature of most integrated amplifiers), but I would prefer a fully loaded 6.5mm output because there are a lot of headphones in the $100 – $500 dollar price category that would need adapters, headphones like the Sennheiser HD650 and HD595 or the Beyerdynamic DT990 and 880. Headphone adapters add unwanted stress to the connectors – the extra weight can bend the headphone jack over time and I think the easiest way to avoid this is to have a 6.5ml input.
Sound with Headphones
The FMJ A19’s sound with headphones was quite impressive considering its main function is for speakers. It had more than enough power to drive any of the headphones that I tried, it even drove the Sennheiser HD800 to ridiculously loud levels at only 50 clicks on the volume wheel. I was very surprised at how easily it could power any headphone regardless of the Ohm load. The headphones I used with the A19 were the Sennheiser HD280 pro (64 ohms) HD595 (50 ohms), HD650 (300 ohms) and HD800 (300 ohms) – I also used a pair of Beyerdynamic DT880 (250 ohms) and Shure SHR 440’s (44 ohms).
The A19 and HD800 pairing was unexpectedly involving, the amplifier added a nice weight to the headphone without coming off as harsh or strident which is an achievement for any solid state amplifier with the HD800. The soundstage with this pairing felt slightly squashed and lacked the kind of dynamics achievable with other dedicated headphone amplifiers like my Woo Audio WA2. Another thing that the A19 struggled with when powering the HD800 was timbre. Timbre is the ability to differentiate 2 or more notes played at the same time even if those notes have identical pitch and volume. This is something that tube amplifiers like my WA2 are really good at reproducing but solid state amplifiers can have problems here and the A19 is certainly no exception.
The A19 was much better suited with headphones like the Sennheiser HD595 and Shure SHR440. I really enjoyed the synergy this amplifier had with the HD595s. It drove them easily while adding detail and musicality, surpassing my Fiio E11 and E07K in nearly every aspect. The album “falling bough wisdom teeth” by the band Kiev was especially enjoyable through the Arcam. The track on that album titled “Falling Bough” really paired well with the FMJ and HD595’s. The sounds of electric bass and guitar shine through on this track and you can clearly hear where the guitar player has added reverb and chorus to beef out the mid-range adding a beautiful hall like effect. These choral like guitar effects are used by a lot of contemporary alternative rock groups like Alt-J and Yeasayer and evoke a touch of nostalgia.
Most genres of music sounded great through the A19 with lower tier headphones. This amplifier should easily meet the needs of people listening with headphones priced from 50 – 400 dollars. The Shure SHR 440 was another great pairing. The A19 removed a layer grain from this headphone that was audible with my Fiio E11 giving it a nice engaging sound and adding punch where it was needed.
Sound with Speakers
While I had the FMJ A19 in the house I knew that I would want to listen with speakers, after all, its main function is for powering speakers. So, I made a few calls and arranged to meet at a friend’s house and we spent the weekend listening. The speakers we used were his Keff R500 floor standers, I kept the same source – Arcam Rdac. We also had his Rotel RA12 integrated amplifier which is in a similar price bracket to that of the Arcam FMJ A19.
Straight away, the differences were obvious. The A19’s extra 10 watts of power created a welcome amount of added headroom. Both amplifiers digital volume will cycle to 100 on the display screen but the Arcam can reach ear splitting levels at 50% whereas the Rotel needs to be pushed to 75%.
The Arcams sound is noticeably more rounded throughout the mid-range and the bass has more force whilst the Rotel seems more reserved at the bottom of the spectrum. On the other hand the Rotel wins in mid-range detail retrieval for example; small intricacies in the presentation of acoustic guitars sounds are reconstructed more vividly, this is especially apparent on the Steven Wilson album – The Raven That Refused To Sing. Now, I say detail retrieval and by that I don’t mean that the Rotel will let you hear things that the Arcam won’t but it does highlight sounds in the mid-range which pull the attention of the ear in a way that the Arcam doesn’t – this can be a bad thing or a good thing depending on which kind of mid-range you prefer.
Background vocals are another area where the Arcam shows superiority over the Rotel. The Arcam has a sweetness and presence here that the Rotel just can’t muster. On the Paul Simon track “Homeless” from the Graceland album, the acapella male vocals from the ladysmith black mambazo singing group have an authority and realism that the Arcam can reproduce much more convincingly and with a lot more authenticity than the Rotel.
The Arcams treble for me is on a whole other level to the Rotel, the higher registers have a lovely airiness that happen to be particularly pleasing on tracks like Melody Gardot’s “Lisboa”. The cymbals on this track through the Arcam extend in a way that the Rotel cannot duplicate, the Arcam has an ability to capture the natural sparkle and sustain of splashes, ride bells and high hats. This track is also a great tester for vocals. Melody tends to sing very close to the microphone a lot of the time and the Arcam captures the immediacy and tone of her voice in a very real way without the added warmth that the Rotel tends to bring.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Arcam FMJ A19. The first headphone I plugged in to this amp was the HD800 (expecting it to struggle to reach any level of quality in sound) and although I admit that it doesn’t bring the HD800 near its ceiling, it does create a more than suitable listening experience, which is an achievement in itself considering how finicky this headphone can be.
If you plan on using this amplifier primarily with speakers and want to have a headphone section with the ability to power low to mid-tier headphones like the Shure SHR440, Senheisser HD595 or even the HD650, then make no mistake this amplifier will provide more than enough power and can bring out the best that these cans have to offer.
The A19 impressed me and my friend to the point where he even considered selling his Rotel and buying the Arcam. This is an incredible achievement in my opinion because past experiences have lead me to believe that people are more inclined to defend the equipment they own rather than openly admit that other gear is better. For anyone seriously considering a bang for buck integrated amplifier with the added speciality of powering a large range of headphones I can’t think of any other amp on the market for this price that I would rather spend my money on.
PRICE: $999 USD
Continuous power output (20Hz—20kHz at 0.5% THD), per channel
Both channels, 8Ω, 20Hz—20kHz: 50W
Single channel, 4Ω, at 1kHz: 90W
Harmonic distortion, 80% power, 8Ω at 1kHz: 0.003%
Phono (MM) cartridge
Input sensitivity at 1kHz: 5mV
Input impedance: 47kΩ + 100pF
Frequency response (ref. RIAA curve): 20Hz—20kHz ± 1dB
Signal/noise ratio (Awtd) 50W, ref. 5mV input: 80dB
Overload margin, 50mV at 1kHz: 20dB
Line and AV inputs
Nominal sensitivity: 1V
Input impedance: 10kΩ
Maximum input: 4.6Vrms
Frequency response: 20Hz—20kHz ± 0.2dB
Signal/noise ratio (Awtd) 50W, ref. 1V input: 105dB