A full size integrated amplifier with phonostage, plus a CD player that is also a streamer for just shy of £1200 seems like a good deal. Stuart Smith investigates.
FMJ CDS 27
The CDS27 is a bit of a swiss army knife of a player and will get your tunes from SACDs, normal Red Book CDs as well as from your network, in our case NAS and Melco units connected to a straightforward and unmodified home network. Handily the CDS27 is UPnP compatible as well as CIFS…I’ll be using UPnP because that is what I know.
Power supplies for the drive, audio and DAC boards are all discreet and “sub-regulated”. Inside the player you have a DAC in the form of the TI/Burr Brown PCM1794 and this is coupled with a linear phase Bessel output filter and reclocking system. The DAC will handle files up to 24-bit 192kHz.
On the front of the unit you’ve got a pretty workaday look to the player and I actually quite like this as it harks back to the glory days of the mid 80’s when hifi looked like…well it looked like hifi really. There are no pretentions with the looks of the CDS27 and as soon as you see it you know what it is and what it is made to do. You’ve got four nicely functioning push buttons that control the CD player’s transport, an on off button, the CD drawer and a large LCD screen so you can see what is playing and where from. You can also mess with all the settings via the remote and screen too. All pretty normal and standard stuff, but all nicely done.
Round the back you have balanced audio outputs as well as the more standard RCAs and coaxial and optical outputs for digital signals allowing you to connect to an external DAC should you feel the need. Inputs provided are a remote in (didn’t try) and an RS232 (didn’t try), a network connection to connect by wire to your home network and a USB input which allows you to access files stored on a directly connected hard drive. The upper limits of media supported by the USB input are FLAC (24/192), WAV (24/192), AAC (24/96), AIFF (24/192), OGG (24/192), MP3 (320/48) and WMA (192/48) so you are well covered whatever your files…unless of course you are wanting to play DSD which, given what I feel is the target market for this unit is sensible. Also on the back cover is the aerial input to connect wirelessly to your network.. the aerial comes packed with the comprehensive and well written/illustrated owner’s manual.
The remote that comes as standard is a pretty normal looking affair with all the functions needed being available.
FMJ A19 Integrated Amplifier
The A19 is a perfect visual match for the CDS27 measuring the same 423 x 275 x 85 cm (WDH) and comes in matching black. Again, nothing to get the bling merchants hot under the collar, but nice and functionally pleasing to look at none-the-less. Claimed output power into 8 Ohms is 50W and into 4 Ohms 90 W with a quoted distortion at 80% power (8 Ohms 1kHz) of 0.003%.
Inside the A19 Arcam say there has been a focus on the power section of the amp and (I wondered what the two weird little cables in the pack were for) you can power up to two of Arcam’s r-Series products from the amp. Now I didn’t really get the point of this a first but it’s actually a pretty neat solution allowing you to add the rBlink, airDAC, irDAC or rPAC to your set up without having to fanny about with having extra wall sockets available to power them…good thinking I reckon.
Also good to see on the unit is a MM phonostage that will allow you to listen to vinyl. Sensible also they went for the MM option as I reckon the target market for this amp will be the kind of folk that will want a no nonsense kind of deck like Pro-Ject’s low and medium priced offerings that come installed with good MM cartridges. There’s also a headphone amp included, with the output socket being the mini-jack type…I’d have preferred a standard quarter inch jack here, but again this may be clever thinking given what I reckon will be the people who shell out for one of these…more of that in a mo’.
On the front of the amp you’ve got eight source selector buttons, a power on off, a large infinitely turning volume knob, a self explanatory mute button, a balance button allowing you to set the output from each speaker and a button to control the brightness of the display. You’ve then got left just the mini jack for the headphone amp and a mini jack input so you can connect your MP3 player or mobile phone.
Round the back you’ve got 8 line level inputs which should be enough to satisfy pretty much everyone out there, plus the phono in and ground, the 3.5mm socket for the accessory power I mentioned earlier, a voltage select switch so you can choose between 120V and 240V and a pair of speaker terminals that will accept spades, bananas or bare wires. You also get a record out (stereo RCAs) to attach to a tape player or whatever the modern equivalent is and a pre out so you can bi-amp should the fancy take you.
WHAT’S THE MARKET FOR THESE?
You see not all people who want to enjoy music in the home want to have myriad boxes and wires all over the show that mess up their harmonious family lifestyle, and I reckon this is who Arcam are squarely aiming this pair of products at. The headphone output on the amp is a mini-Jack of course, but look at the headphones most people who are not certified audio nut-jobs (I include myself in this latter social grouping) will be carrying about with them on a daily basis…the ones they will use to listen to their iPhone or whatever and these will invariably have a mini jack. The boxes look like hifi everyone will recognise and whilst they are standard width, they are pretty low profile and look nice stacked on top of each other and placed on a cabinet or AV unit…most people buying these will not want, or need to have dedicated racks and what not and will stack them.And whilst we’re talking about smartphones, the inclusion of the aux input on the amps front panel allows folk to easily and simply get tunes off their players and into their main living space, so that when the teens of the house come home and treat the place like a hotel, they can simply plug in and delight their parents with the best of what the 21st Century has to offer. And then there’s the MM only phono input I’ve already mentioned that allows folk to listen to vinyl on relatively budget decks that are readily available and without faffing about with separate phonostages. Then you’ve got all the connections on the amp, some of which I have no idea what the acronyms for mean, but will be self evident to most members of the human race that were born after 1970, don’t obsess about their hifi and want a box that integrates into their entertainment system and life. You have: AV so you can connect your telly or VCR, PVR (new one on me) intended for connecting your “Personal Video Recorder”, BD for your DVD or Blu-ray player, SAT for your satellite box, Tuner for radio, CD for attaching the CDS27 (or other CD player). Finally you’ve got that nifty pair of power supplies for the r-series stuff meaning you can add an r-Blink (or other r-Series kit) and stream tunes off your phone via blu-tooth.
On the CDS27 you have the normal array of stuff you’d find on a normal CD player, but then you’ve got the advantage of being able to stream your tunes wirelessly or via wire from your NAS.
It’s an increasingly connected world out there and this is a connected set of kit, and whilst the partnering offered up here may well be scoffed at by some of the audio snobs in hifi-land, I reckon that Arcam know what they are doing, have been smart in the features they have included and have pretty much nailed it as far as offering units that are simple, elegant and useable by more members of the household than just the audiophile patriarch/matriarch. I like this approach! It is inclusive and democratic.
I was initially a bit disappointed to find that Arcam’s UPnP app (Music Life) was iOS only and I think this is a mistake on their part given what I have said about who I think is the target market and the inclusive nature of the products on test. I would have loved to have seen this available as an Android app and whilst I am aware that a significant proportion of the population use iOS, there is an equally significant number who don’t. I do hope Arcam will address this in the very near future!
Wiring up the pairing is the usual affair for all the basic stuff and the pair power up with an attractive (I really like this) green hue to the displays. Remote is intuitive for basic functions and works well at distance, though the display isn’t great for looking at from a distance when streaming.
Connecting to the network was a doddle using the remote (the only option) and involved no more than clicking the remote to Network Setup, scanning for available networks (it found our home network immediately) and then pressing OK to connect. You then find the media you want to play from (NAS drive and Melco) and then load the library of tunes to the machine. All good, quick and very simple…we like simple! Next up was to update the firmware which again was a simple affair of scrolling through the on screen options with the remote and pressing OK. A couple of minutes and the CDS27 is all updated and ready to roll.
Now you can of course scroll through the albums and artists you have on your NAS using the remote and the screen on the CDS27 (not great), but it is more likely that the vast majority of people will choose to use a suitable app and I used BubbleUPnP to control the tunes I wanted streaming. Setting this up was fuss free too with the app seeing The Arcam “renderer” immediately. The CDS27 reacts with a slight delay when there’s a change in tune or album which was a bit annoying.
I’m a firm believer in placing items sent for review in appropriate contexts and whilst I could pop each of these units into the main rig, I don’t think that would be relevant or useful to the people who may well be considering these products. With that in mind, the pair have been sat on an Ikea unit in the sitting room next to the television and have been partnered with a pair of mid-priced loudspeakers in the form of the Leema Xens. No special racks, but the cabling is Chord’s Epic Reference for the speakers and some Merrill Audio RCAs for connecting the two together…I’m well aware a “normal” user will probably use less expensive cables, but these are what were to hand and of suitable lengths.
What’s not to like to be perfectly honest and at this price. This combo plays music and it plays it well. No, you do not get the resolution and finesse the main rig brings to the table, but let’s not forget that this pretty all inclusive pairing costs just £595 (at the moment) per box…so for 1190 quid, plus the cost of your chosen speakers and cabling, you are getting a pretty comprehensive set up. I’d purposefully not looked at the price these were available at until having heard them for a while and quite frankly I’m a little more than gobsmacked at these units’ capabilities on a bang for buck basis.
I’m playing Miles Davis’ All of You while I’m sat here typing and my right foot is tapping away to the music and I’m finding I’m typing in time to the rhythm! The top end is a bit much and a tad harsh-sounding in absolute terms (if I was to compare to the reference) on some of the piano parts and upper registers of trumpet, but the bass and mids are really quite involving and thoroughly enjoyable. I turn the volume up a little for Bye Bye Blackbird and there is good if not spectacular presence to the music that is really agreeable. The little Xens don’t go super low, but in a smaller room (I have them set up in the telly space that is abut 6 x 4 m with the wall opposite the speakers being open into a larger area) I think much more would be overkill, but the Arcam amp controls the lower frequencies pretty well and with only a slight bloom at this louder volume and with these speakers.
Switching over to the rather excellent Crown Electric by Kathryn Williams plays to the set ups strengths and there is a nice creamy quality to her voice. Mids are a little forward in the mix, but this is what I would expect for relatively budget amp, and whilst there isn’t the resolution, or absolute detail and finer refinements you get with some more expensive kit, you are presented with an enjoyable and appealing sound that sounds great. If I was being uber-critical here I’d suggest the sound is a little “flat” perhaps, but nothing that would stop me recommending this kit.
Popping on a bit of techno from the early 90s in the form of Mark NRG’s Military City presents crispy and snappy hats and snare and there’s good insight into the stereo mix without it being holographic. Ok, you lose the vigour and verve you get with a bigger system and realistically this music demands bigger speakers, but it is still enjoyable. I have the Triangle Titus EZ speakers here and popped them into the system for a short while but the bass proved to be too much for the room at volume, but showed that bass control isn’t perfect in the very lowest registers with the Arcam amp, but it’s tolerable.
Popping on an MP3 of my old reggae band shows the Arcam kit to be forgiving of poor recordings and files and, despite what many may think, this, to my mind, is a good thing given the market place I think this kit is targeted at. Lots of people buying these will have a whole host of MP3s that they have either ripped from their CD collection or have stolen off the internet (this is not me condoning this in any way, rather it is a reality of the free for all society we live in) and do not want kit that is so utterly resolving as to render it impossible to listen to.
As you would expect given that the digital signals are going through the same DAC, you get a similar presentation with CDs as you do with streaming and to be fair I’d struggle to tell the difference.
Now, our youngest has a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Esprit turntable at the moment that came fitted with the Ortofon 2M Red and, as I mentioned, I reckon this is the kind of level of turntable that folk buying the Arcam kit will partner it with if they have any vinyl…so that got pilfered from his room and set up through the Arcam amp. I like the idea of having a simple phonostage on a budget priced amp and again we’ve got the target market thing ticked off and added another reason for prospective buyers to consider this amp. Rather than offering perfect fidelity the phonostage offers up a presentation that is commensurate with what you would expect from this price point. This is not to suggest that listening to vinyl on this set up isn’t great fun; it is and it really took me back to the days that I fist got into vinyl in my early teens where I would listen to the music for the music’s sake.
For just shy of £1200 you get a capable streamer, CD player and well specced amplifier that it is really hard to fault given the price. Partnered with a good but relatively budget priced pair of speakers (Q Acoustics’ offerings would be excellent if budget was tight) and turntable as I have and you can have a system that will give you years of satisfaction. Yes you could go on EBay and buy better gear secondhand, but with the Arcam kit you are getting brand new kit, in their boxes and with a guarantee… and that will be important to the target market. Their price is commensurate with the kind of gear you would have called budget in the ‘80s and that would have been seen as the perfect system through which to enter the world of high-fidelity audio – this has not changed and the Arcam gear here fits this market nicely.
Whilst not the final word in absolute resolution and fidelity, the partnering gives you a great deal of enjoyment and pleasure, where you will find yourself listening to the music you own for the music’s sake rather than what your system is doing. Again the “upper echelons” of the audiophile world need to recognise that the vast majority of people just want systems that function properly and without quirks, are reliable and give them access to the music they love in an acceptable quality… and you get this in spades with these units.
If I was looking for a relatively budget system with loads of connectivity, streaming capabilities, was simple to use and offered great value for money, without being too pretentious and faffy, then the Arcam units would definitely be on my short list.
The Phonostage is an added bonus that is the cherry on top of the cake for me and as such I can do nothing but heartily recommend both the FMJCDS27 and the FMJA19 to Hifi Pig readers looking for this kind of level of kit.