Before walking into the Arcam room at the January Consumer Electronics Show, I had been primed to expect that ‘something awesome’ awaited. This in itself raised a smile because I have never heard the words ‘Arcam’ and ‘awesome’ in the same sentence, but, hey, you never know. Moreover, I reserve that adjective for something that deserves it, unlike current application by the semi-articulate to everything from a pair of trainers to an episode of . But Arcam did, indeed, have something awesome on offer, precisely because it might wreak havoc in the budget sector.
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Its direct rivals, though, are not the usual suspects from the multi-national giants or in-house brands. Although Arcam has chosen to enter the semi-obscure CD-receiver market with the Solo, a sector virtually owned by Denon below £500, it has opted for a £1000 price point. As such, its only rival is Linn’s Classik. The latter has had this genre all to itself by virtue of being the only specialty-brand offering of this type. Naturally, the Classik is more ambitious than Denon’s delicious ‘micro-system’-sized D-M31 and therefore more costly and with greater appeal to snobby audiophiles, Linn wannabees and others too cool to cherish a bargain. Arcam has upped the ante even further, though, with a three-letter buzzword that will have salespersons rubbing their hands with glee: DAB.
Let’s make one thing clear from the outset, so we can get on with the review. As of March 2005, when this is being written, I so utterly despise digital radio that it makes my loathing of iPods seem mild. It is one of the most grating, unpleasant noises-masquerading-as-music that this industry has ever foisted on us, even worse than the earliest manifestations of CD. If you want to know how the Solo works as a DAB radio, I’m not the person to tell you. It’s like asking a vegetarian to comment on a doner kebab.
Thus, although I gave it a try, it is not part of my regime for this review, nor will I hold its awfulness against the Solo. Those who want DAB have already relinquished any notion of caring about sound quality, so its presence here serves only two functions: firstly, Arcam is committed to DAB (or should be committed for being committed to DAB) and secondly, there are people out there who think DAB is the Next Big Thing. So, yes, the inclusion of DAB will sell a whole lot of these for Arcam.
As for the AM and FM sections, I am not a radio user either, except for traffic reports, as I prefer to choose what I listen to whether at home or in the car. If these portions of the Solo are key parts of its appeal for you, please go straight to Andrew Harrison’s comments. For me, this unit stands or falls on two things: its CD player and its amplification. And one neat little secret weapon on the front panel.
My immediate impression of the Solo was that of my jaw dropping to the floor. It just looks so right – clean, expensive, sensible, functional AND kinda sexy. I had it pegged at £1500 at least. It’s so svelte that I found it hard to believe it came from the same firm that once issued the most boring-looking integrated amplifier in the history of audio. And they packed an impossible amount of kit into a slim container measuring only 430x80x350mm (WHD). The chassis is all-metal, too, with an aluminium lid, so there isn’t even the slightest hint of cheapness about it until you get to the rather tacky, ill-fitting press buttons. But don’t let that ruin the experience: you can always avoid them by sticking to the remote control, which is plastic but gorgeous.
A ‘plain vanilla’ description would be ‘CD player plus AM/FM/DAB receiver’, but that wouldn’t touch on the unit’s flexibility. Usually, inflexibility is the curse of all-in-one-units, but Arcam has made certain a Solo owner need never feel constrained. Amongst its capabilities and features are a clock radio with four alarms that can wake you to CD or Radio, built-in multi-room facility in the form of a second room output with a completely independent volume control, and – remarkably for such an affordable package – the sort of custom installation-friendly facilities that you just don’t expect in what is the 21st Century equivalent of a ‘music centre’.
It’s not just the second zone that makes the Solo suitable as the core of an affordable multi-room installation; it’s the host of inputs and outputs. Recall those dimensions again, and then picture it also offering a rear panel RS232 input for control of all functions and software updates, infrared input jacks for the main and second area control, an infrared output jack to control other sources, a 12V trigger to turn on external amplifiers, and discrete IR codes for toggled commands and more.
A major part of the recipe is a very clever remote and brilliant software, so all you see on the front are six buttons on either side of the CD tray, itself centrally located above one of the nicest displays – blue-lit dot-matrix visible from across the room – that I’ve even seen. (Are you listening, Classé?) Aside from an on/off button and two front-panel sockets, the faceplate gives away nothing of the unit’s flexibility. Which is as it should be. You can always search eBay for a Galactron if you’re hungry for knobs and buttons.
As for the primary elements, the CD player is based on Arcam’s DiVA CD73 with low jitter Colpitts crystal clock and 24-bit Wolfson DAC, and it worked perfectly with every ‘red book’ CD I fed it, including promotional CD-Rs and hybrid SACDs. No, I didn’t try a DualDisc, a format have as much respect for as I do DAB. But I suspect the Arcam will treat it like any other.
As a pre-amp, the Solo has nothing to be embarrassed about either, with a rear panel filled with socketry: line level inputs marked ‘Game’, ‘TV’ and ‘AV in’, plus tape input and output, a TOSlink digital optical output (so you can record DAB broadcasts – ain’t that great?), the necessary aerial inputs, the aforementioned custom installation connections and a pair of really useful speaker binding posts instead of the sort of press-press spring-loaded crap usually reserved for all-in-one units. There’s also a pre-amplifier output so you can upgrade to beefier power amps. But the zinger is on the front panel, next to the headphone socket.
However small, however obvious, however mundane this seems, the front panel 3.5mm socket marked ‘in’ tells you just how savvy Arcam has been with the Solo. While it to have the word ‘iPod’ or ‘PlayStation’ written above it, that’s not necessary: you know that’s why it’s there, and if people use Solos for their home-listening-via-iPod instead of the cruddy docking stations on offer, then that’s a score for sound quality.
Amongst the menus and remote-control-accessed functions are bass and treble controls, adjustable speaker bass equalisation ‘for easy placement of smaller speakers’, balance, clock functions, CD modes, e.g. repeat, radio presets and more. But it’s almost a no-brainer, one of the most instinctive set-ups I’ve tried in years. You won’t even need the owner’s manual until it’s time to go beyond mere listening.
As for the power amp section, the Solo carries a pair of amps rated at 50W RMS into 8ohms. It’s a amp, with twin toroidal transformers for its oversized power supply, independent toroids for the microprocessor and standby mode, and nine independently regulated power supplies. There’s also ‘a passive fanless cooling system’, which results in the only other ‘nasty’ beyond the cheap press buttons: the sharp-cornered heat sinks at the back. Arcam should take a look at T+A’s solution: the K6’s lid extends over the rear hardware.
Let’s start with the amp first. I reckon that, what with most retailers being lazy sods after a quick sale, most Solos will go out with speakers beneath its capability, e.g. ca-ca selling for £199 per pair. But the sound is too good for crude little two-ways. Instead, I used the PMC DB1+ at circa £650 per pair and the £499 Rogers LS3A. And it handled them with glee. In an act of cruel perversity, I also fed the Solo to Sonus Faber’s Guarneri, which ate it up alive, full volume barely flapping one’s trousers. But there’s no doubt that this is a real, as opposed to ‘wishful thinking’ 50-watter, and you shouldn’t insult it with budget speakers.
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