ARCAM FMJ A32: The Silver Star

Some time ago I decided to replace my faithful amplifier, the Metaxas Audio Systems Marquis/Solitaire pre/power combination. Not that I dislike it, it is still one of the best I’ve heard in the 10.000 EUR class. I even don’t miss remote control, but I miss headphone socket for the late night listening sessions. The sound is beautiful and for sensible sum of money it is hard to find replacement, as long as we are talking of living in Serbia.

But the reason is altogether different: it is hard for the rest of my music loving family to make friends with MAS. They adore it’s sound but usually listen to something else, much less complicated to operate. Although it may look easy, MAS is pretty hard to use because of several source components switches, power conditioner delayed start etc.

Besides many possibilities on the second hand market, I decided to give a try to an Arcam FMJ A32. This is a big cousin of my FMJ CD23T disc player. FMJ A32 powerhouse was top of the line, somewhere in the start of 21st century and it was made until FMJ A38 replaced it in 2008. The list price of FMJ A32 was around 2.100 USD which should correspond to around 2.000 EUR, plus/minus.

As FMJ CD23T, this Arcam product also carries FMJ (Full Metal Jacket) mark and tells that it’s chassis has been made of Swedish sandwich material called Sontech, excellent for fighting against vibrations. Interestingly, it is not so heavy, just 10.8 kg but has five high quality rubber feet to rest on. Power consumption is hefty 800 VA and specified power is 100 watts at eight ohms.

As with all FMJ devices, front panel is also made from extruded 8 mm aluminium, which is much better than cheap plastic fascia on Arcam 9 integrated, for instance. Back panel is nothing special: gold plated PCB mounted RCA connectors and solid but not bulletproof speaker terminals. Power is supplied through IEC socket and there are also pre/power terminals, trigger out and remote in connectors.

And what about other options? Is this just another plug and play and then pray that there is just one more input you need? Well, no, actually I like this on FMJ A32: two pair of speakers (although I don’t need it) and two inputs/outputs for analog recorders (I like this very much!). There are four more line inputs, six in total. Just to mention, pre/power connectors are usually shorted by a little switch, to they don’t have to be connected by small rod all the time to get integrated work and this also means slightly shorter signal paths. But the star of the show is  MM/MC phono board as a standard option. It is removable and by getting it out and adjusting some things in the menu you can get additional line level input – the 7th one. And there is another thing: unlike many Japanese amplifiers from that era (and few years back) that used cheap op-amps as the main voltage amplifier in their phono sections (and gave the same mediocre results) FMJ A32 phono board is made of discrete elements, with one op-amp running in the servo circuit, not in the signal path. It is also working in A class, having DC construction. Metal film resistors are also used thoroughly.

Preamplifier part is made using mostly Burr Brown OPA2134 and old TL072 operational amplifiers in different preamplifier stages and tone control circuit. Input selectors are made using CMOS multiplexing switches – DG408DY. Volume is controlled electronically, through VSDVC electronic volume control.  The volume button on the front panel is sturdy piece of casted aluminium, it will probably last for centuries. I am sorry I didn’t put pictures of inside of my own FMJ A32, because I took them and then lost them :-(…

Power section depends on large toroidal transformer, with smoothing capacitors in the DC section, each of them having 10.000 microfarads and been made by well known British manufacturer. The capacity of these capacitors is nothing special indeed, but British companies did the same in the past (Meridian, for instance), putting large, well designed transformer and relatively small smoothing capacitors. Power amplifier part of Arcam FMJ A32 is a current-feedback symmetrical design, working in class A/B. It has DC coupled signal and feedback paths and active voltage servo to control DC offset. Output transistors are Sanken SAP15N and SAP15P, designed for audio power amplifier use. They also include inbuilt emitter resistor and temperature sensing diodes to real-time track VBE (Voltage Base to Emitter) versus temperature, so quiescent current can be easy controlled.

Unlike most British integrated amplifiers (including Arcam’s own products) FMJ A32 has many  user-oriented options. Some of then are purely cosmetically, like the start-up display that you can set to “Hello Donald Duck” or what ever you like, just as long as it doesn’t have too many  characters. Other are more useful: user can set how the volume control behaves, working linear or logarithmical, fine or coarse. Record output may be put to fixed mode – you record only from CD, for instance, or you can adjust that the record output reflect the currently used source. All of this is displayed on the large, custom made green dot-matrix display which can be dimmed or defeated. Inputs can also be trimmed so tuner has the same volume as CD and this is the option I like.

But one other interested feature has also been added: tone controls that can be defeated manually or automatically each time user puts them in neutral position. This, of course, is not something new – but another thing is. I personally don’t like to use tone control at all – I guess I have most popular audiophile approach regarding this. But it is not because they are bad but because they are, in most cases, badly implemented. They often degrade the sound when put into the signal path (even in neutral position). The other thing is they are coarse: while playing with different equalizers and tone controls of preamplifiers/integrated many years back I found that some of them, especially the “digitally controlled tone controls” tend to change central bass/treble frequencies for one, even two decibels per step. There are also some pretty expensive amplifiers that do this. And, to my experience, sometimes only 0.5 dB is enough to boost the bass and/or treble to get the appropriate result. So, when You have option to change, say, treble for plus/minus 2 db and you feel that you need just a half of it, tone controls become useless. I also don’t like changing any tone control to more than three decibels: if you have to boost bass or treble by 6 or 8 dB, than something must be wrong with the system and the tone control will only make fake illusion that this sounds right, although it does not.

Engineers at Arcam properly addressed this problem. They put fine tone controls with only 0.4 dB step so it can be fine tuned. I found that in my source/integrated/speaker/room system there is no need to adjust bass/treble using FMJ A32 tone controls for more than one or two steps (0.4 to 0.8 dB). This is connected mostly to room acoustics, interconnects and the way some music has been produced and/or recorded. And I must admit it is working pretty well. I also did critical listening turning tone controls on and off and there is almost no influence to the sound. The other good thing is that you can set whether tone controls influence all sources at the same time, or each of them can be adjusted separately. Although this may look insignificant, it is very good indeed and I praise Arcam for this: it means that if you have, for instance, tuner that is too bright sounding (or cassette deck or MC phono cartridge etc.) you can tailor the bass/treble sound the way you like it.

This Arcam FMJ A32 reminded me of another, quarter century old amplifier: Revox B250. It was way ahead it’s time regarding user friendliness and it is very well made, also sounding pretty good.

Sound

So, how does the Arcam sound? Well, to my opinion it is like an entry level high end sound. Of course, it can’t compete with Electrocompaniet ECI5 Mk2 or some very good Simaudio devices (Moon i3 RS or monumental i7). On the other side, regarding today’s 2000 EUR class amplifiers it would still be a very good choice.

The first thing you notice is complete absence of any muddled sound, A32 is exceptionally clear from top to bottom, which is not always the case in this price category. Dynamic is also very good, Arcam FMJ A32 doesn’t sound lean. The other good thing are frequency extremes on both ends: this amplifier is not limited in bass or treble, which happens to some other in this class (Exposure 3010S2 for example). It is detailed, well transparent and pretty natural and it doesn’t favor any part of the music or audio spectrum towards others. It is, let’s put it simple, honest and cohesive. Tone decay and definition, timbre and timing are all very good – musician walking on the stage in front of orchestra is no problem for FMJ A32 to paint in the air.

The one thing I was afraid of was bass: British amplifiers, and not just a few of them, tend to favor middle and heights and usually play bass in just informative way. I admit, I can’t live with this, maybe vocal or acoustic music is OK, but the rest if lifeless, unlistenable. Arcam FMJ A32 gets this right: bass notes are deep, very deep, and very controlled. Midbass is present in a positive, natural way. I like it, hearing drum is what it should be: it has it start, explosion and end. It doesn’t explode in your face, it does it gently.

The last thing is character: somebody would think it is very slightly bright but actually it is neutral. This character could be fine tuned using interconnects and speaker cables. On the other side it sends emotions from the music with ease. This is not mellow valve sound, this is how good solid state sounds.

Conclusion

Are the any weaknesses? Yes, of course, I wouldn’t say this is a flaw, it is more like limitation. FMJ A32 is, in one way, fine British gentleman that does everything right. Put it to sing quietly, it will sing. Put it loud, no problem. You need to get emotions from the music – here they are. But Arcam FMJ A32 is not an American beast, like Audio Research DSi200 or Simaudio Moon i3RS or some other amplifiers. This one keeps controlling the music and speakers all the way to the end, and sometimes it would be good if it would go mad, but it never does. So, audiophiles who can’t live with such attribute should find this as a weakness. For all others, it is a bargain, high end amplifier on the budget.

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