Arcam A85 Amplifier

The past couple of years have been difficult ones for manufacturers. With declining sales in some sectors of the two-channel separates market many have felt the need to expand their product range to encompass A/V products. The audiophile likes of Musical Fidelity, Roksan and now the “UK's leading manufacturer of hi-fi electronics”, Arcam are turning their attention to DVD players, processors and multichannel amplifiers. However not forgetting their audio stereo roots, the launch of Arcam’s DiVA series (Digitally integrated Video & Audio) sees the company producing not only an audiophile DVD player and AV receiver but also a seven-strong two channel product range.

This new range of products features a radically new look from the company always associated with a high quality sound from somewhat staid looking components. Arcam called on the services of out-of-house industrial designers to work on the new range. Consequently, the new DiVA series (available in either black or silver) has a sleek and stylish look more akin to their flagship FMJ range than the grey box Alpha products. Dare you brand them ‘boring’ now?

Arcam have always regarded amplifiers as the heart of any hi-fi since they started making them back in the mid-seventies and that tradition continues. The DiVA series contains a total of five two channel amplifiers, two power amps and three integrateds, of which the A85 is the top dog. An awesome amount of electronic design work has gone into the range, most of it masterminded by the company's new head of R&D, a certain Johnny Reckless. If ever a name was destined for rock stardom, it’s his. Instead he turned his talents to audio design and now heads up a sixteen-strong team at Arcam's HQ in Cambridge.

The flagship A85 integrated is the only one of the three to feature a comprehensive display window, necessary for all the hi-tech facilities its veritably stuffed full of. There’s undoubtedly a lot of very clever stuff going on here, thanks to the use of a microprocessor based control system which gives awesome flexibility to the A85.There are a total of seven inputs, each one of which has adjustable sensitivity and can be assigned its own bypassable tone control setting. This feature can make the switching between a CD player to Radio 3, for example, less an agonizing trauma and more a sensuously seamless integration. A slight exaggeration perhaps but you hopefully understand what I’m getting at.

Further luxurious delights are found when altering the volume control. With the current obsession for everything ‘oversize’ - hotel beds, restaurant plates and cutlery, etc. - the beautifully clean dot matrix window displays the volume level (in minus dBs) in an impressively large numerical display. Although not too large to make the whole effect ‘Fisher Price’ style, if it's not to your liking it can be changed to a more ‘sensible’ bar graph display. Those like me, who like to live dangerously though, will love the chunky numbers - especially when you hit ‘mute’ on the sleek remote and the display counts down (or rather, up?) to -73dB in a flash. Sublime!

The A85 has a totally new circuit design for both the pre and power sections. The whole amp is direct coupled from the input to output with no capacitors in the signal path. The heart of the power supply is a weighty toroidal transformer which gives a quoted output of 85W per channel into 8Q and 130W into 4Q. Being a newly conceived series for the future, Arcam have made sure that future formats will be properly served and SACD and DVD-Audio can be fully appreciated through the A85.There are two remote switchable pairs of speaker outputs and a Headphone output. An optional MM/MC phono stage is available and pre-amp outputs are provided which can be supplied in a three channel version for multichannel use.


You may well have realised by now the A85 immediately impresses with its facilities and looks but at the end of the day, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and it was time to get the A85 cooking.

Diving straight in at the deep end without arm bands, I treated the A85 to a bit of an onslaught courtesy of Rage Against The Machine’s latest eirbashing, ‘Renegades’. The album is well mastered with awesome use of compression and level. Pearl Harbour had nothing on it and I’m glad to say the Arcam had the neighbours politely popping round for a quick, friendly chat. The pounding kick drum of the scorching rap-metal track 'Pistol Grip Pump’ was delivered with a powerful dead thump, and the bass guitar was as tight as the proverbial duck’s rear quarters - and deep to boot. This amp certainly has life. Vocals (or rather shouts) were clean and force-full and the blazing guitars showed a detailed and open midrange. All this power and drive had perfect control however, I never once thought the express would derail.

Calming both myself and my neighbours down I next fed Miles Davis’s seminal ‘Kind Of Blue’ into the Meridian 506.24 CD player. What followed was an aptly cool and refined performance. Again bass was tight and well controlled below Davis’s barren blowing in ‘So What'. The trumpet kept smooth and lyrical, rather than raspy but when Coltrane’s silky tenor entered via the left channel, I felt the sound was just a tad colourless. Presence and phrasing were perfect but a little warmth which sometimes benefits this sound was missing. Apart from this there was nothing to fault and the A85 did its job well.

Classical orchestral music in the shape of Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony with the Oslo Philharmonic under Jansons on Chandos records showed up the superb sound staging of the A85. Here was depth and breadth in abundance as the timpani thumped well back in the mix and the double basses growled from stage left. Rhythms were powerful and exact, driving the music on excitingly, whilst the lyrical nature of instruments such as the opening clarinets of the first movement was brought to the fore. Again a little more instrumental colour could have been present but frequency balance was good and the sound nice and open.


This is a fine integrated for the money that merits a serious demonstration if you’re in the market for a sub-£l,000 integrated. It has excellent control and poise with power enough to easily drive all but the very toughest.

It suits all types of music well but will deliver rock, dance and jazz a tad better than classical due to a slight greyness to the sound that could restrict the true timbre of some instruments. It’s a trait of solid state amps though. I'm comparing the Arcam to more expensive power and valve amps, and in many other respects, such as sound staging, it's excellent.

For an integrated under £1000, little can touch it musically apart from Musical Fidelity (slightly more transparent) or Audio Analogue (slightly more lyrical).With a wide range of facilities and good upgrade potential, this is an ideal all rounder.

Arcam A85 Amplifier photo