REVIEW: Arcam A49 – a transatlantic triumph

arcam-a49-front 

Designed in the UK, made in the USA, Arcam’s A49 amplifier is a thrilling-sounding exercise in effortless power

OK, I admit it: I haven’t been the greatest fan of some recent Arcam amplifiers. Rather as I find some Cyrus designs overbright and forward-sounding, so the amps from the near neighbour in Cambridgeshire have been – to these ears anyway – the polar opposite. In other words, very smooth and rich, but they’ve never quite got me interested in what they were playing.

The A49, the company’s £3750 flagship, is different. Very different, in fact – to the extent that, though I’m working on it for a review in a forthcoming issue of Gramophone, I’ve also been playing some music through it beyond the classical catalogue, and having so much fun I thought I’d share.

Like the entire current Arcam range, the A49 is designed and engineered in England – still in Waterbeach, in an office complex just across the road from the site of the old factory – but made elsewhere. And to thwart those already warming up their ‘made in China/cheap labour/low quality/there goes another great British name’ prejudices, it’s built in the USA: in Rochester, New York, up on the shores of Lake Ontario, and almost as close to the HQ of Arcam parent company JAM Industries just outside Montreal as it is to the city that gives the state its name.

So that’s where the A49 is built, along with models including the C49 preamplifier and P49 stereo power amp: where it was designed is on the work-bench of Arcam co-founder John Dawson, who started the company back in 1976 as Amplification & Recording Cambridge – or A&R (Cambridge) – with its first product, the A60 amplifier.

The company may have changed a lot since then, having developed products such as an early high-end DAB radio tuner, an add-on box for the then-new NICAM TV sound system and even a cassette deck, but John is still to be found at his bench in the large, open-plan work area at the Waterbeach offices.

arcam-a49-signature

Just to emphasise the point, the A49’s main circuitboard, tucked away where most users will never see it, carries his signature.

Unbox the amplifier, all 19.7kg of it, and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d got one of the company’s AV receivers by mistake: as well as being heavy, this is a big amp, standing some 17cm tall, and having what is sometimes described as reassuring solidity. A simple green-on-black display tells you all you need to know about what the amp is doing, there’s a large central volume control, and beyond that you’re left with a small armada of tiny black buttons to access inputs and other settings.

Input provision is all analogue, of course, but flexible: there are six line inputs plus a moving magnet phono stage (which can be reassigned as a further line-in if you don’t have a turntable), while the single pair of balanced XLR inputs can be assigned to any of the input selector buttons.

arcam a49 rear

Output is provided on two sets of substantial speaker terminals (with Speaker 1/2 switching even available from the remote control) as well as RCA phono and XLR preouts to enable the amp to be connected to a power amp such as the P49, for example to biamp suitable speakers.

It may look like an AV receiver, but this is an amp with simplicity at its heart, which means no digital inputs, Bluetooth or the like – though you can add those using one of the company’s rSeries units, for which the A49 has a DC power output. You can, however, designate any of the inputs for use with the left/right pre-out of an AV processor or receiver, and the fixed level in this ‘processor mode’ is adjustable to simplify balancing up all the channels in a surround system.

arcam-a49-transformers

Part of the reason for that is found in the huge output possible from this amplifier: it delivers 200W into 8ohms, and will go on to 400W as impedance falls. And yet this is achieved while retaining all the quality associated with less powerful amps, thank to the A49’s use of Class G technology: basically, it uses a two-stage power delivery, with the first 50W being in Class A, and then a secondary supply kicking in when serious juice is required. It’s all about retaining the purity of a non-switching design for the delicate stuff, while keeping in hand more than sufficient power to drive even the most recalcitrant speakers.

More than just going loud
That’s not just about the ability to go loud, though the A49 will emphatically do that – you don’t want to go connecting your CD player, for example, to whichever input you’ve selected for processor mode! Instead, it gives the amplifier remarkable dynamic ability to go with its big, assured sound, meaning that music is always presented in dramatic style, but with a consummate sense of ease. Big and fairly brutal it may look in its matt black finish, but the Arcam never gives any hint that it’s having to work hard to deliver the music.

Deliver music is certainly what it does, and in serious style: leafing through the music collection I stumbled across Squeeze’s Cool for Cats, which I don’t think I’ve ever heard slammed out of the speakers with such impact, complete with growling bass, sharp focus on Jools Holland’s piano, every word crystal clear and real drive.

That one track showed almost all I needed to know about the sound of this big Arcam: it can really rock, has excellent intelligibility, and packs the soundstage with detail while still underpinning everything with that big, fast, magnificent bass.

It almost doesn’t matter what you play, from vintage jazz to the modern close-up-recorded kind, and from the likes of Paul Simon all the way through to really thrashy rock: the Arcam just makes the most of it, allowing you to hear elements in a mix you’d missed before, and constantly tempting you to crank up the volume just a bit more a) because you’re having so much fun and b) simply because it can.

What’s more, it does the smooth and gentle thing very, very well indeed, being able to play small-group jazz or singer/songwriters with remarkable delicacy and finesse, and bringing out all the ambience of simply-recorded live or studio set. However, in an instant it can go from a whisper to a roar – or perhaps a deep-chested wide-open-mouthed bellow – when the music demands.

arcam-a49-fronthigh

So that’s an amplifier warm and sweet enough to suit even the plinkiest (and indeed plonkiest) jazz recording, yet at the same time able to deliver the wall-shaking ear-splitting levels some seem to enjoy, complete with thunderous bass, and all the while remaining entirely clean-sounding and hinting that it still has plenty more to give.

Meet the new Arcam; emphatically not the same as the old Arcam.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got the whole of an extensive collection of classical music to start re-exploring…


Arcam A49

Integrated amplifier | £3750
Power output 200Wpc into 8ohms, 400W max into 4ohms
Inputs MM phono, six line ins, one assignable balanced input
Outputs Two pairs of speakers, tape out, preouts on phonos and XLRs, headphones (3.5mm socket), plus power output for rSeries components and 12V trigger outs
AV bypass Yes
Tone controls No
Remote control Yes
Dimensions (WxHxD) 43.2×17.1×42.5cm
Weight 19.7kg

Written by Andrew Everard

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32 comments

  1. Out of interest, if you were given the choice between this A49 or the Cambridge 851E/W Pre/Power, which would you take? In your 851 review, you stated “able to hold their own with some of the very best amplification available at any price”… so which of these, in your opinion, is better?

    1. Obviously haven’t done the direct comparison, but I think it’d be a pretty close-run thing, and the Arcam might just edge it. However, your view may be different: both I think should be on the auditioning list.

      Now I can’t wait to hear what the combination of the C49 and a brace of monoblocked P49 power amps can do! 😉

      1. Me neither! The 851 is a beautiful-sounding setup, I owned one for quite a while when it came out. The C49 / P49 will definitely be interesting to hear.

  2. Gerald Bearman · · Reply

    Unlike the Sony TA-1ES amp which I find sounds very artificial, this time I am now able to agree with you the Arcam A49 integrated amp is very good. although like the Sony its use is restricted in that it can not be incorporated into a HT or surround sound system as the pre can not be separated from the power amp section. However I understand separate pre & power amps are available. I find Class G sounds much better than class D to which I am allergic.

  3. The A49 has a processor pass through mode for incorporation into a surround system

  4. This is contrary to what Arcam told me when I enquired, seems they do not understand their own product.

    1. How strange! At the moment I’m listening to my Onkyo receiver feeding its front L/R channels through the A49, using the ‘processor mode’ function and a level I was able to adjust from the amp’s set-up menu, as described in the review.

      Have a look at page E-10 of the manual, where this is explained.

  5. I think the issue has arisen because I only asked if the pre could be separated from the power section , they said no. Does the way you are using it ,seems very complicated and probably not as good as the pre-out of the Onkyo going directly into the power amp feeding your front L/R speakers

  6. Not at all complicated, and no more so than on almost any other integrated amp. Takes just two button pushes to set up, and then it’s just there every time you choose the AV input, and no reason to think it’s any less good than a direct connection to the power amp.

  7. For audio surround sound I still think it best to go directly into the power amp. avoiding unecessary additional connections . At one time I was considering buying the Arcam but now I am very impressed with the Rotel 1552 MK 2 amplifier incredible value.high end sound yet low cost.

    1. But that Rotel is a power amp, not an integrated. Oh well…

  8. Yes quite ,I was not going to buy the A49 integrated but the P49 power amp.The pre section on my Sony STR-DA5400ES is excellent.

  9. Phil Wright · · Reply

    I heard it today at the Bristol show – sounded very good with the smaller KEF Reference speakers. And made the new £190 Q Acoustics speakers sound surprisingly good – punching well above their price bracket.

    1. Agreed: may have looked like overkill with the little QAcous, but surprisingly good. Need to have a listen with the KEFs tomorrow, though (inevitably) I didn’t think the amp sounded as impressive as does at home.

  10. Gerald Bearman · · Reply

    I now have the Arcam P49 stereo power amplifier sounds excellent fed from the pre-out of my Sony DA-5400ES AVR into Acoustic Insight Phantom Source Floorstander speakers.certainly the best amplifier that I have auditioned including the Devialet.

  11. Gerald Bearman · · Reply

    I forgot to mention that I find the loose power input socket on the Arcam P49 amp completely unacceptable ,it should be screwed in permanently, Arcam Support call the amp design bullet proof ?

    1. Charles · · Reply

      Yes, I do as well, I actually returned my first one because of this. I assumed it was damaged during shipping. Bizarre, all my other Arcam gear has always had very secure power input sockets.

      1. Gerald Bearman · ·

        What did Arcam do to the very unsatisfactory rubbish 2 pin input socket, if they had an iota of commonsense they would have used a properly secured 3 pin. Now find my nearly 20 year old class AB amp. is much better than the Arcam Class G which I want to get rid of as quickly as possible, prepared to reduce by £1000 from list price..

  12. Pheroze Bharucha · · Reply

    I have golden ear triton 1’s and am thinking of buying either the Arcam A49 or the Naim Supernait 2 integrated amplifier with an ir DAC from Arcam. Any comments

  13. What do you think of the HF detail of the Arcam A49? Does it deliver there as well or is it on the smooth side?

    1. Smooth, yes, but not at all oversmoothed: the treble and midrange are as sweet and clear as the bass is powerful.

  14. Gerald Bearman · · Reply

    It seems the Devialet D200 is the most highly regarded amplifier at the moment ,have you compared it to the Arcam A49 , which sounds closest to live sound without listening fatigue ?

    1. I’m not sure that the Devialet is ‘the most highly regarded amplifier at the moment’ – some sing its praises, while others find it somewhat mechanical-sounding and uninvolving.

  15. Gerald Bearman · · Reply

    It seems you much prefer the A49 to the C49 & P49 reviewed in June HFN & RR, so separates are no longer better

    1. I’m not sure how you come to that conclusion, as I don’t think I feel that way at all. Both the one-box and the two- or three-box versions are highly accomplished amplifiers.

      1. Gerald Bearman · ·

        If the P49 is such an accomplished amplifier, why does HFN & RR give it Sound Quality only 79% quite low , who gives the score you or Paul Miller ?

      2. The reviewer gives the score, and 79% is perfectly respectable, taking the price into consideration.

  16. Gerald Bearman · · Reply

    I have to disagree with your answer the score you gave is a very low 78% despite your enthusing of the amplifier. ? A very good sounding amplifier will achieve a rating of at least 85%..

    1. I think maybe you’re reading too much into the score and not enough into the words!

  17. Gerald Bearman · · Reply

    The fact is that I have changed my opinion re the Arcam amplifier and now agree with your score, not your words. I wonder if my amp is now saleable I am prepared for a big loss.

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