Arcam started out in 1976 as A&R Cambridge, its classic A60 amplifier designed by founder and Cambridge University graduate John Dawson. It remains one of the stalwart brands of the British hi-fi industry, with a centre of product gravity firmly in 'mid-fi’ territory.
Arcam was one of the earliest pioneers of the standalone digital-to-analogue converter, or DAC, introducing its first example – the famous Black Box – way back in the late-1980s. Demand was limited back then, as CD was the only digital audio game in town, but we’ve subsequently seen dramatic growth in the available digital sources. Loudspeakers and amplifiers are still overwhelmingly analogue, so DACs have proliferated to accommodate the numerous digital sources.
DACs now come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes, prices and complexities. Digital inputs have appeared on CD players, on pre-amps with built-in DAC circuitry, and as both simple and complex standalone devices – the range of available options has become quite bewildering and confusing. Arcam alone has a number of models to suit different applications, from low cost single application types up to this very flexible multi-input standalone unit.
In the relatively upmarket FMJ hi-fi separates series, this new D33 'SuperDAC' has a substantial 2000 price tag that clearly puts at least a toe in the high-end water. It’s a full width unit, very well finished in all over black, with steel casework, and a rather plain looking alloy front panel enlivened by just a row of buttons and indicator lights. The FMJ bit might stand for 'Faithful Musical Joy’, but 'Full Metal Jacket’ is more likely, referring to a case that uses Sound Dead Steel’s technology, a company specializing in noise and vibration control.
Under the lid are two decent size toroidal transformers, one for analogue and the other for digital signals, plus a third board-mounted 'housekeeping’ transformer. Eschewing the dreaded universal switch-mode power supply (and the RFI problems it can bring), a rear panel switch offers alternative voltages for different countries. There are multiple regulators and four reference oscillator crystals, three of which are vibration damped. Each channel has a Burr Brown PCM1792 dual-differential hybrid oversampled DAC chip, capable of 24-bit/192kHz; on-chip volume control and digital filtering is available if required.
The USB input chip is asynchronous, and there are two different USB connections on the back, one for the electrically isolated USB 1.1, and the other for Hi-Speed USB 2.0. The latter requires driver software, to be found on the included CD, which was installed without much difficulty. An iPod USB input is fitted but this doesn’t currently work, the plan being for the dealer to activate it in the future. Two optical inputs (capable of up to 24-bit/96kHz), two co-axial inputs (capable of up to 24-bit/196kHz) and an AES/EBU input, along with both RCA and XLR outputs complete the rear panel offerings. A simple lightweight and compact remote handset adds to the convenience.
Listening to the bucolic 1st Movement of the Brahms Serenade (Opus 11, Haitink conducting on Philips), using a Bel Canto CD2 disc spinner and a Chord Indigo Plus S/PDIF digital cable, I am struck by a laid-back-to-the-point-of-horizontal feel on S/PDIF drive. The rhythmic impetus provided by the off-beat motor of the lower strings seems to be speaking late, so the essential rhythmic tension required to make the movement swing is lacking. In comparison, I have never heard my reference Weiss DAC202 sound so exciting - not a characteristic for which it has achieved celebrity! The Arcam soundstage is more limited than the Weiss version, and my overall impression with this piece is that the Arcam somehow shows a lack of commitment. The dynamism of the great sweeping Brahmsian phrases is watered down, as if on lithium, and the energy levels needed to get me involved in the performance are missing.
The D33 DAC has two operational USB inputs, and using the higher spec connection, I plumbed in my Toshiba laptop running Foobar, using an AudioQuest Carbon USB cable. Chesky’s highres sampler includes Rimsky-Korsakof’s Dance of the Tumblers, which tends to throw a bright light on the differences between DACs. Compared to the Metrum Octave, the Arcam seemed a lot less articulate in a number of areas. The top strings lacked incisiveness, and the soundstage was much smaller and seemingly less well separated and defined. The rhythmic subtleties (contradictions) that the composer has so skillfully created have been merged, and the sharp percussive edges which give the work its wit are rounded. A syncopated passage for cellos and basses towards the end of the track manifests poor timing, due to the lateness of attack. With the Arcam this passage simply doesn’t make sense to me. Tonally relatively smooth, with no hard or shrill edges, the sound is not unpleasant in any way, but it just lacks the detail and timing precision required to make the piece dance.
Linn Records’ release of Mozart’s late symphonies (the late Sir Charles Mackerras conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra) is a particularly fine example of a hi-res recording. Listening to the final movement of the Jupiter Symphony (No 41), I have the impression of a quite clean sound and the sort of thing that sounds superficially pleasant enough, but on closer inspection doesn’t have the levels of precision and detail that I would expect from a high-end high fidelity component. When Mozart explodes with creativity, as a sensationally valedictory gesture spinning earlier musical lines from the movement into a complex whole, both the musical and spatial separation of those lines lacks the clarity to make the work sparkle. The ending, with the timpani bringing the section to a close, fails to register properly through a lack of punch. The same passage played through the Weiss DAC yields a holographic picture of the orchestra, with each section contributing in an etched way to the complex counterpoint; the ability to create a genuinely three dimensional space is a vital part of this process.
Returning to the Bel Canto and S/PDIF input for a superb Philips recording of Beethoven’s 1st Symphony (Sir Colin Davis and the Staatskapelle Dresden), with the Arcam the opening chords containing orchestral pizzicati seem to lack the proper organic decay. When a DAC gets this recording right, you can really appreciate the space of the hall – but that wasn’t the case here. The D33 does deliver a clean and quite sweet instrumental tone, with no shrill edges. It seems to differentiate the texture of instruments quite well. The aftershock of instrumental notes is clean with no nasty ringing or ungainly sonic artifacts. However the soundstage is compacted compared to both the Weiss and the Metrum DACs, and the bass is irritatingly slow and late. It simply fails to drive the unfolding drama of the music.
It is interesting to see how the different elements in a digital audio chain contribute to the overall picture, and in particular how significant the USB and S/PDIF inputs are to the whole. Sadly this Arcam doesn’t have a digital output, so I can’t check whether this part of the input/output chain distinguishes itself. When I did a group test of USB to S/PDIF convertors recently, I was surprised to discover significant sound quality differences.
Appendix: Test Results