REVIEW: ARCAM AVR850 AV RECEIVER
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AVR850 AV Receiver
Compromise: the word that strikes fear into the very heart of any AV enthusiast. Compromise, can take many forms including not having the space for a dedicated theatre room, or perhaps not having any room in the budget for the next upgrade.
In its most fearful incarnation- and I sit typing this with trembling fingers- compromise means you either don’t have the space, or there are aesthetic reasons why you can’t accommodate all the speakers found in a typical home theatre setup.
The truth is, we all make compromises in our home theatre setups. More often than not, those compromises are budget driven, determining how much we spend on speakers, an AVR and display. AV manufacturers aren’t exempt either. In turn, to cater for a range of different budgets, they also need to make compromises. These compromises may come in the form of reduced amplifier power in lower to mid-range AVR’s to outsourcing production offshore. Of course, this needs to be accomplished while still producing a great sounding AVR or nobody’s going to buy it!
With the need to cater for a variety of budgets and throw in every bell and whistle imaginable to be competitive, it’s surprising how good current models actually sound. I have heard home theatre systems better than my own. But when movie night comes around, my own mid-range AVR coupled with a dedicated power amplifier sounds pretty good.
When I discovered I would be reviewing Arcam’s $8,995 7.2 channel AVR 850, it got me wondering how much better could an AVR sound when its manufacturer didn’t work to the same budget and therefore, didn’t need to make the same compromises as its competitors?
With the AVR850 coming in at nearly double the price of other flagship AVR’s, I was pretty sure I was about to find out what no compromise looks or more importantly, sounds like.
If you haven’t heard of Arcam, you can be forgiven. The brand’s products are sold through a selective but growing list of specialist dealers around Australia since current distributor Advance Audio took over last year.
Located in Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire UK, A&R Cambridge Ltd (ARCAM) was founded in 1976 by two Cambridge University Engineering students who shared a passion for music and electronics. During its forty-year history, Arcam has built amplifiers, tuners, CD players, AV processers and of course, AV Receivers. At the time of writing, Arcam has three AVRs in its ‘FMJ’ range; the AVR-390 (RRP $3,995), AVR- 550 (RRP $5,495) and its flagship AVR and the subject of this review, the AVR-850 (RRP $8,995).
The AVR850 has seven channels of Class G amplification rated at 100 watts (8 ohms) or 180 watts (4 ohms) continuous power output, per channel (7 channels driven, 1 kHz, 0.2% THD). To support a full 7.2.4 configuration; 2 front speakers, 1 centre speaker, 2 surround speakers, 2 surround back speakers, 4 overhead speakers and two subwoofers, external amplification needs to be added to power the overhead speakers.
The AVR850 will decode the Dolby Atmos and DTS: X soundtracks found in today’s Ultra-HD discs and some Blu-rays, in addition to DTS-HD Master Audio, DTS-ES 6.1 Discrete, DTS-ES 6.1 Matrix, DTS 5.1, and DTS Neural:X.
Inbuilt Spotify and DAB/DAB+ (digital radio) round out the AVR850’s modest feature set.
Neither has any compromise been made when it comes to the AVR850’s auto calibration and EQ abilities. Arcam has chosen to employ the services of Dirac Live calibration software expressly for this purpose. Since its inception in 2001 Dirac’s EQ software has gone on to be used by many companies around the world, including DTS in its mixing studios.
What’s in the box?
The AVR850 does have a distinctive look. Featuring a black aluminium chassis, its slightly rounded metal face-plate is finished in matt black. Although the LED display is the smallest I have come across in any AVR yet, I didn’t have any problems reading it. Directly below the LED display and in the centre of the AVR850 is a single bevelled volume dial, finished in gunmetal. Flanking the volume dial are two rows of buttons, providing access to inputs and the onscreen user menu.
As far as front- facing inputs, the AVR850 is a little spartan, providing only a headphone input and a 3.5mm mini jack (auxiliary) input. The AVR850 has a rather attractive and distinctive design that means it will not be mistaken for a budget AVR, even to a casual observer.
The back of the AVR850 has six 4K (UHD) HDMI2.0/HDCP 2.2 inputs and one HDMI/MHL input. There’s also three HDMI outputs, the first of which is ARC (Audio Return Channel) compatible. In addition, the AVR850 has six analogue inputs, two coaxial inputs, two optical inputs, Zone 2 inputs, one USB input and two subwoofer outputs.
Pre-outs are available for all channels, including height channels, should you need or wish to use external amplification. The AVR 850’s gold plated speaker binding posts are of exceptionally high quality. As the AVR850 isn’t WI-FI compatible, it will need to be connected to home networks with an Ethernet cable. This is a curious omission, particularly at this price point, which makes me suspect that the inclusion of WIFI is perhaps detrimental to sound quality. Rounding out the AVR850s inputs are four 12v triggers for Zone 1 and Zone 2 and an RS-232 interface for system integration.
The AVR850 ships with a puck style microphone. While it differs from the other puck style microphones I have seen shipped with other AVR’s, I was expecting to see something more substantial at this price- point. Nonetheless, the proverbial ‘proof is the in the pudding’ always applies.
The remote that comes with the AVR850 features a dark gun-metal finish. It’s quite attractive-as far as remotes go, and balances quite easily in the hand. The button layout was easy enough to use and although the buttons aren’t as big as I’m used to, they’re easy to work with, so no complaints here.
Gone was the quick start guide, common with most AVR’s- usually accompanied with a link on where to download the complete user manual. Rather, it was replaced by a large, easy to read user manual with clear diagrams explaining how to setup the AVR 850.
With everything clearly labelled, connecting source components and speakers to the AVR850 was relatively straightforward. The AVR850 picked up my Blu-ray player and game console without having to make any adjustments in the user menu.
The onscreen menu of the AVR850 is not the most attractive user interface I have seen, but it’s highly functional and laid out in such a way that it’s easy to work through. It is worth noting that while the AVR850 allows individual channel adjustment of two subs, it will only accept one value for measured distance. Because of this, it’s important to place your subs equidistant from the main listening position. If this isn’t possible, use the average distance of both subs from the main listening position.
Dirac’s calibration software needs to be downloaded from Arcam’s website and installed on either a Mac or PC. While this may not be as ‘user-friendly’ as other solutions, A PC/Mac interface provides both a lot more feedback and flexibility.
Dirac Live measured nine different listening positions, fanning out from the main listening position, with the calibration taking half an hour to complete. With the added flexibility and customisation of Dirac, naturally it’s going to be more complicated. However, I imagine most people purchasing the AVR850 will either be enthusiasts and well up to the task, or be employing a professional installer.
While it can be argued that Quantum of Solace is not the strongest entry in the new Bond franchise, its Blu-ray features a reference quality DTS-HD soundtrack. The road chase scene, taking place alongside Lake Garda in Northern Italy being a great workout for any home theatre system.
From the get go, it was clear that the AVR850 is a detailed AVR, revealing a layer of detail in the soundtrack that I had never heard. With the car chase in full swing, the AVR850’s class G amps delivered loads of power and sheer impact, never raising a sweat, despite the high listening volume. My only reservation was that perhaps the AVR850 sounded a little ‘too polite’.
Moving onto the recently released Arrival the AVR850 once again served up a detailed performance. The DTS-HD sound- track filling my listening room with a palpable sense of space and dimensionality. Arrival’s score was beautifully rendered, with the most musical presentation I have heard from an AVR.
After further listening I revised my earlier reservation of a ‘politeness’ to the overall sound. Rather, the AVR850 removed a level of harshness that I had become accustomed to in my own AVR. This was no more apparent than when it came to music, particularly the trumpets in the Universal opening found on Cowboys & Aliens.
With the alien space ships simultaneously destroying every building in site and abducting the townsfolk of Absolution, the AVR850 put in a gutsy performance. As before, it conjured an excellent sense of space and dimensionality, with precise channel steering that provided convincing front to back panning as the alien ships flew overhead.
Moving on to more familiar fare, the AVR850 revealed yet more detail from The Wolverine DTS-HD soundtrack. When Logan bumps into the Yakuza on the bullet train, the ensuing fight is frenetic to say the least. The sound of ringing metal as Logan is punched in the head was truly wince evoking. Dialogue was rendered both clearly and accurately, whether it was during one of the movie’s many fight scenes, or during the quieter moments of the film.
While the 7.2 channels AVR850 may lack some of the features of its competitors, it was designed to do one thing: deliver an uncompromising home theatre experience. In this regard, it is without a doubt a resounding success.
Arcam’s AVR850 achieved some serious volume levels in my home theatre. In fact, I turned it down long before it even raised a sweat. Matching the same level of power that can be achieved by a dedicated power amplifier is no easy task for any AVR. What I found however, was that the AVR850’s class G amps exceeded the performance of my external power amplifier, providing a gutsy performance.
Don’t be fooled into thinking the AVR850 is just a brute though. In addition to having plenty of power on tap, it had a very detailed, natural sound which was very easy to listen to. With its huge soundstage and convincing sense of dimensionality the AVR850 made my speakers seemingly disappear.
At $8,995 RRP, the AVR850 is not the most ‘budget friendly’ AVR available. However, if you can make the investment, the AVR850 is worthy of serious consideration.
For full specifications, view the digital edition of the review.
For more information visit the Arcam brand page.
Tony is a certified ISF Calibrator by day, and an accomplished Audio-Visual reviewer specialising in theatre and visual products by night. Tony has calibrated and worked with some of the best home cinema designers throughout Australia.
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