A modern AV receiver is a marvelous piece of machinery that’s responsible for some of the key performance aspects in a home theatre, in both the audio and video domains. Today’s AV receivers are available in a wild range of prices, from entry-level models starting at just a few hundred dollars to flagship models that retail for several thousand dollars. The introduction of the Blu-ray format and various versions of HDMI prompted manufacturers to release a plethora of new AV receiver models over the last few years, each new model trumping the feature list of the previous generation. Manufacturers have been racing to be the first to introduce the latest and greatest features in their newest AV receivers. As a result, somewhere along the line, audio – arguably the most important job of an AV receiver – may have gotten the short end of the stick.

Luckily Arcam didn’t get caught up in the “feature race”. In fact, the company has been rather slow to introduce new technologies and features into their line-up of receivers. That’s because Arcam clearly prefers quality over quantity. Earlier this winter, we asked Canadian distributor Erikson Consumer to send us the Arcam FMJ AVR600 AV receiver for evaluation. The AVR600 is priced at $5999 and sits at the top of the company’s two receiver line-up. Although it’s a middle range model for Arcam, this receiver is clearly in the top echelon of the receiver market.

The AVR600 delivers 120 watts of continuous power to each of it seven channels into 4 or 8 ohm loads, with all seven channels driven at 1 kHz. Unlike most modern receivers that use digital or class D amps, this receiver utilizes a class G topology amp and a huge toroidal power transformer. This unique design shifts the signal among output transistors that operate at different voltages – something called rail switching. This helps to save energy since not all of the output devices need to be active at the same time. The benefit of this topology is the ability to get more voltage swing into 8 ohms without getting too hot. The AVR600′s designers opted for absolute quality over the highest possible quantity of output.

Aside from the unique amp design, the AVR600 offers all essential technologies that you’d expect to find in a modern receiver. Its audio decoders can handle all the latest audio formats found on Blu-ray discs including Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD High Resolution Audio and DTS-HD Master Audio. The Dolby Volume feature helps to produce sound that’s true to the original recording, at any volume level, and maintains the same volume level across all content. The AVR600 includes Arcam’s proprietary auto setup and room correction to ease the initial setup and reduce problems with room acoustics. Running the auto setup calculates a room EQ, which can then be applied to each source independently. The Pixelworks video processor allows various picture aspects to be adjusted for each of its video inputs. Adjustments can be made to brightness, contrast, colour, picture mode, edge enhancement, and noise reduction for mosquito, block and other noise. In addition to being used in the main room, the AVR600 can be setup to control audio and video in a second zone, and audio-only in a third zone. Two HDMI outputs, which can be used with a TV and a projector for example, top up the feature list.

The AVR600′s video inputs include 5 HDMI, 5 component video, 5 S-video and 5 composite video. On the audio side, multi-channel 7.1 analogue inputs are provided for DVD-A or SACD sources, and a phono input is provided for turntable owners.

The remote is pretty basic compared to other receiver remotes, although it is fully backlit. Its buttons are mostly the same shape and rather small which makes it tricky to remember what’s where. Finding the volume buttons in the dark was always difficult since they don’t stand out from the rest.

I began my listening tests with the Dire Straits: Brothers in Arms SACD, an absolute must-have album for multi-channel music fans. The phenomenal surround mix on this disc brings the music alive in three dimensions by effectively utilizing the rear channels. The AVR600 rendered a delightful midrange and fine, detailed highs. The overall sound presentation, especially in the midrange, had a glowing warmth to it – as if I was listening to my much-beloved Fatman iTube 452 integrated tube amp. I think I may have fallen in love with the sound of the AVR600 at first sight.

The Billy Idol: In Super Overdrive Live Blu-ray made for a more interesting presentation thanks to the combination of high resolution audio and video. Recorded live at the Congress Theater in Chicago, this album collects most of the greatest hits and proves that Idol hasn’t lost any of his talent or ego over the years. The upbeat presentation of the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack delivered a detailed, dynamic presentation that was filled with emotion. The AVR600 produced a well balanced soundfield and didn’t have any problems with the dynamics, even when I cranked the volume very high. The audio presentation was clean and powerful. Between the songs, the excitement of the crowd made me feel as if I was at a live show.

Loving every second of the sound I was hearing so far from the AVR600, I popped in the Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon SACD. My favourite track “Time” played with some of the deepest, smoothest bass that I’ve heard when listening to this song.

Two-channel CD performance was nothing short of breathtaking, and much closer to the performance of separates rather than a typical higher-end receiver. My entire collection of the remastered Beatles CDs sounded sweeter, more detailed and more emotional compared to what I’m used to hearing from other receivers. Overall, the audio performance of the AVR600 was miles apart from the $2000 to $3000 AV receivers that we test regularly at CANADA HiFi.

Out of the box, the AVR600 will automatically detect how your video and audio sources are connected, without having to go into the receiver’s menu to configure the video and audio inputs for every source. This is a nice feature in theory but not so nice in practice. The auto detection does work, but it’s frustratingly slow. Hence I ended up configuring all the inputs in the receiver’s menu, which is very simple to do anyway.

So how did this exemplary audio performance translate to watching Hollywood flicks? I’m glad you asked! The Taking of Pelham 123 on Blu-ray has a dynamic DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that jumps from quiet dialogue-only passages to speeding cars and crashes. The AVR600 handled these dynamics gracefully without showing any signs of strain or obscuring the details. The chaotic atmosphere inside the transit control room wasn’t just an audio mishmash but rather a careful composition of layers of voices and sounds. Subway trains and cars roared through the channels with powerful, lifelike realism. At times, I felt like I was standing right on the subway platform.

The Incredible Hulk (2008) on Blu-ray is an over-the-top action/adventure that proved to be an even better test of dynamics and power. Explosions, during the college campus shootout scene, shook my body literally to the bone. Effects, such as helicopter flybys, transitioned seamlessly between the channels creating an enveloping auditory experience. Later in the film as Bruce Banner rests near a waterfall in the jungle, the AVR600 created a realistic sounding waterfall in my room, with clean nature sounds in the background.

During movie watching I encountered some interfacing hiccups between my Blu-ray player and the AVR600. When switching sources or selecting particular chapters from a disc, the video would appear first and the sound would take a couple of extra seconds. At times, the sound caught up with a loud pop through the speakers.

All HDMI video sources looked excellent and the AVR600 did a very good job of up-converting standard DVDs. On the component video side of the fence, the grass was not as green. When I first plugged in my first generation Xbox 360 into one of the component video inputs, there was clearly something wrong with the picture. The whites had a yellow-grayish tint, the blacks appeared gray and there was a significant loss of resolution. I contacted the Canadian distributor who instructed me to update the firmware of the AVR600 to version 2.2. This update corrected the issue substantially, although it didn’t fix it altogether – the blacks were still crushed and some resolution was still lost. I would imagine that Arcam will release another update to rectify this issue in the near future. Also, since all the latest audio video components now use the HDMI connection, including the latest generation of the Xbox 360, this is really a non-issue.

There is no question that the Arcam AVR600 offers the highest audio performance of any AV receiver that I’ve had the pleasure of testing. Its class G amplifiers elegantly deliver a warm sound that is incredibly dynamic. It all amounts to a sound that combines the strengths of tube and solid state amplifier designs. To this end, I give the AVR600 my highest recommendation. If you plan to connect all of your video sources using the HDMI jacks, this receiver will reward you with the finest 1080p picture possible today. Overall, the AVR600 is one mean home theatre machine!

Distributed in Canada by Erikson Consumer 1-800-567-3275

Arcam FMJ AVR600 AV Receiver
Price: $5,999 CAD

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