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Old 10-08-09, 02:53 PM   #1
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Arcam FMJ AV888 Processor Review


Arcam FMJ AV888 Processor Review

Introduction

Just to give you some background into my previous experiences/history with AV products and in particular AV amps and Preamps / Processors that I have heard and owned over the years, I have had many ranging from low end budget Integrated amps to high end Pre/Pros, these Include Yamaha, Pioneer, Denon, Onkyo, Harman Kardon, Meridian & Lexicon to name a few but never once have I owned an Arcam product so this was a first for me, although I have heard and demoed some of their equipment in the past.

What led me on to purchasing the AV888 was the Arcam AVR600 that was on loan to me, and this unit closely shares a lot of the design and functionality of the AV888 but with power amps in a 7.1 configuration, it soon became apparent to me the quality of these new offerings from Arcam as the sound was in a word stunning and probably the best Integrated I have heard to date.

First Impressions


The build quality of the new FMJ range is superb with a high end feel and look about them and certainly sets them apart from lesser products and the usual off the line units that some of the bigger manufacturers make, attention to detail is second to none and the first thing you notice is the lack of a volume control knob, this seems strange at first but when you think about it, this is a state of the art digital product and in some respect why do we need it when everything can be controlled via buttons, in this digital age.

The AV888 comes in 2 colours, silver and black, I went for the black unit as it matches existing equipment I currently own, and to be honest black is the best looking, it comes packaged extremely well, and is carefully laid out and easy to get to, in the box you will find a pack containing the manual and nice letter thanking you for purchasing an Arcam FMJ product, also included is the very sleek and intuitive remote control CR102, this can used to control other kit that you own as it has learning ability, it also has a heavy and solid feel to it and is back lit, you will also find an Arcam specific microphone in the box which is used for setting up the AV888 as it has an Auto setup feature like most AV products nowadays do.




Connectivity

The Arcam has an impressive set of connections on the rear of unit, with all that would be required and more out of today's Digital and Analogue sources, in particular it has 5 HDMI inputs and 2 outputs, this is plenty and in my opinion 2 HDMI outputs is a must as most people have HDTV's and Projectors for Home Cinema use, previous generations used to only come with 1 output which was slightly frustrating and would of required a HDMI switching device to control 2 displays, luckily this is not needed now, the AV888 has balanced and unbalanced outputs to either active speakers or power amps, dependant on your requirements.


Ease of Use and Setup

When powering and setting up the Arcam it is very straight forward with a nicely laid out menu system, the inputs have auto sensing to determine the connections you have used and therefore you do not need to force the unit to display HDMI out at first which you do with some manufacturers products, to make things even easier you can then use the Auto setup feature and Microphone which calculates Speakers SPL / Speaker Types / Speaker Distances and also what cross over should be used, at first I had some problems with the results that the auto setup feature concluded, but after tidying up and making sure the room was a quiet as could be, the results got closer to what they should be, with distances spot on and also the SPL too, the cross over that it selected was way out (40hz) but like most other auto setups I have used in the past you can manually change them to the correct ones, and for my system the M&K's need to be crossed over at 80hz.

Included in the Auto setup is also Arcams EQ system, this is derived from the Sharc Digital Processors and in short it is called ART (Auto Room Tuner), I have had quite a few EQ devices in my setups in the past and at first I was not very impressed with the results but luckily it is a feature that you can turn on and off on all the inputs, and as default it is set to off.

But after several runs of the EQ I have now got the settings just perfect for my room and am very happy with the results that I have achieved, and for all music, whether it is 2 channel or Multichannel I prefer to have the EQ off, but for movies it seems to add to the experience so therefore have the EQ engaged for movies, and to me this is the best way to use the EQ system.


Video

The Arcam AV888 has a multitude of connections at the rear of the unit and Video is accepted by all the legacy connections as well as 5 HDMI 1.3 inputs and 2 outputs, although in this day and age personally I think composite should be abolished but I suppose they may come in use for some, but not many.

As the main chipset for video Arcam has used Pixelworks which incorporates broadcast quality scaling and frame rate conversion, Up-conversion of all video inputs to HDMI output as well.

Video enhancements (per input) are Edge enhancement, Mosquito noise reduction, Random noise reduction, Block noise reduction which is all selectable in the menu's options, all resolutions are catered for and the user can select from SD Interlaced/SD Progressive to 720p/1080i/1080p and a Preferred option also, tbh the selection is not the standard that I have seen in most other solutions and seems slightly confusing, 1080p24 is allowed through, but 1080p must be selected in the menu for this to work correctly, it would of been better if it had a "through" option available in the drop down menu, maybe this can be added with future firmware updates, this leads me to believe that the incoming signal is not a straight through output and is being processed via the Pixelworks chipset which is not Ideal if you are using the Video Processor in your BD player or a standalone VP for scaling and frame rate conversions and want video/film untouched.

The 3 main user options for tweaking the Black (brightness), White (contrast) and Colour options are available for calibration although the colour setting is basic and does not allow full access to the main Red, Green, Blue or temperature settings for proper setup, meaning it is limited compared to other solutions that I have used in the past, again this might be enhanced with future firmware updates?.

In all I have found the Video side of the AV888 slightly disappointing but with SD material it does give a clearer image which is more vibrant in appearance and seems cleaner than when the signal is going direct to the TV, so is of benefit for normal SD material/Satellite or cable TV viewing.

***I thought I would add some more detail to my initial review/reaction of the video side of the AV888, I have been watching some concerts on BD and outputting the source at 1080i and letting the Arcam do the de interlacing/scaling to 1080p, I have found some real benefit with this type of material as the PQ is certainly improved rather than using the Oppo BDP-83 to de interlace and scale the image, the image is cleaner and sharper than before and it seems to add more depth to the PQ on my screen, this is most certainly a plus point and feel I should include this after my initial comments of being slightly disappointed, which tbh after having more time with the AV888 the video processing is really rather good when viewing SD and 1080i HD material, in fact the more I play with the settings the more I am happier with the results and have set the different inputs accordingly, it would be nice if it did have memory settings for each individual input as then it would give even more flexibility, again maybe in time and future software/firmware updates Arcam could possibly include this feature, I think I will be switching DVD output to 480i/576i and see how the up scaling of DVD's are handled also***

Audio Performance

Music

On to the main agenda and that is the Audio Performance of the AV888, this processor is absolute state of the art and has all latest HD codecs from Dolby and DTS, but this processor does seem quite sparse compared to other makes and omits this time round THX certification and the post processing that goes with it, this does seem strange as previous models AV8 and AV9 both had THX Ultra 2 spec, but the way I see it is that Arcam have produced a processor for the purist audiophile, who requires ultimate fidelity rather than all the bells and whistles that some others offer.

Thankfully this unit makes up for any lack of features with a sound quality that is truly exquisite and the best I have ever heard and had the pleasure of hearing, it really is a leap forward in sound quality over previous generations in my opinion, and certainly sets the benchmark for others to try and follow.

First off is 2 channel material, I have and do enjoy a wide range of music from classical, jazz, rock, pop and more up to date artists and have an expansive CD collection which have been routing through since I first got the Arcam, the preamp stage is of very high quality and while I am not using the source direct feature it is sublime, my M&K speakers are satellites and therefore require the subwoofer to fill in the gaps so I am using the Analogue Stereo preset on the AV888, this from what I can gather will then use the DSP to cross over at 80hz and it is a seamless transition from sats to sub and the S150's sound like a full range speaker giving a rich and dynamic presentation with fast and articulate bass and excellent imaging, it really is toe tapping stuff which drags you right in and has made me grin on many occasions and certainly confirming to me anyway that I have made the right choice in purchasing this lovely kit, Paul Simons, Concert in the Park is an excellent recording which really puts you into the concert with vocals crystal clear and drums snapping so quickly, the clarity that this processor portrays music in really is a step up from previous equipment I have used and even rivals some dedicated 2 channel setups I have owned and heard in the past.

On to Multichannel Music, I have SACD, DVD-Audio discs and a wide variety of Blu Ray discs which contain both the new HD formats DTS HD and Dolby True HD, and some also including SACD recordings, these discs are from 2L label and have Classical themes but are reference demo material and worth demonstrating the ability of this processor, the detail on offer with the higher resolution formats really is impressive and again the Arcam loses nothing but gains on creating a bigger and more submersive soundstage than before drawing you in to the music.

Some more SACD discs I have enjoyed listening to are Pink Floyds Dark Side of the Moon, Roger Waters The Wall and Steely Dan's Gaucho, these again impress with so much detail than on previous systems, the one thing you notice over normal CD's is that these mixes seem to play a lot louder and there is no distortion but only how brave you are with the volume control, just crystal clear and sometimes quite scary how natural the music sounds.

DVD-Audio is also another high resolution format that I have always enjoyed and previously enjoyed on a Meridian system that I owned, the Arcam is easily on par with the G series for Sound quality and if I may be so bold to say better, the pre amp stage really does give a more natural and involving sound, with the Meridian being more laid back in presentation from what I remember.

Movies

This is what a majority of people will be wanting this processor for and that is it's Movies audio performance, with the new HD formats dynamics are increased and this is where a good processor will shine through and thankfully the Arcam reproduces soundtracks with lightning speed and attack and bass which is best described as intense in presentation, slam, punch and attack in droves, but also bringing out the most subtle of details with in soundtracks.

Some of my favourite material has been used and surpasses anything that I have heard before, The Dark Knight is a great film both visually and the audio mix is one of the best in a film to date, action galore and yet again the Arcam manages to immerse you into the film, gun shots are instant and manage to scare you with the force in how they are presented, and in a way that's what the director intended to happen.

Kung Fu Panda is another film which cries out for a good processor, amp and speaker system to portray the brilliantly composed mix of music and effects which make this film into an audio and visual feast, lightning quick effects surround you with slam and punches from the lower bass regions and I have watched it so many times and never tire from this animated film, the Arcam makes it all the more enjoyable.

I thought I would leave this to last but IMO it is a very important feature which Arcam have included and it is the only other form of post processing that they decided to include in the final product and have to say at first I thought what does it do, Dolby Volume is a form of post processing to help eliminate the large volume jumps often found in broadcast TV sound, user selectable Dolby Volume processing is included, a world’s first for an AV processor. In addition Dolby Volume includes programme dependant tonal correction to deliver a richer, more realistic sound experience at low listening levels, now this really does work and compared to the late night modes usually found in other processors this one manages to maintain the dynamics that you tend to lose when engaging other forms of dynamic compression to suppress the volume levels, I actually love what this can do and honestly could not be without it now, and I understand why Arcam have included this in there premium products.

Conclusion and final thoughts


I guess you can gather from reading this that I actually really really like this processor, I do, but what it has also done is reignite my passion for Home Cinema and also the enjoyment from my music collection that I own that has not been spun for quite some time. it is IMO that Arcam have made a benchmark product which will stand out as one of best processors available for both Movies and Music, an awsome piece of kit !!

The only slightly negative side of the AV888 is its Video options/performance but thankfully this is not what I really wanted the AV888 for, the sound quality and audio performance is what matters to me but it is nice to have the switching for HDMI inputs available and also the up-conversion for legacy inputs via the Arcam, and could possibly be tweaked for more user input in future updates.

***I have added some further comments to the video section and highlighted for reference ***

Anyone who is looking for a state of the art processor you really do need to hear this in action as I am sure you will love what this reference AV processor can do, to me this is the first AV processor that I have experienced that does do good HiFi and Movies to reference standard.

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