Back in the mid seventies, the UK hi-fi market was another country. At the affordable end of the market, names like Pioneer, Sony, JVC, Hitachi and Wharfedale ruled showroom shelves, whereas further up, KEF, Quad, Tannoy and Celestion prevailed. The likes of Linn and Naim had yet to enter the lexicon, even at the high end. Japanese manufacturers were thriving, its audio industry beginning its ‘harvest years’ of international supremacy. In the shadow of all this, small UK specialists (sound familiar?) such as Lecson, Nytech and A&R Cambridge were knocking on the outside looking in…
It was indeed a competitive market in which to launch a new product, but the brand new Amplification and Recording Company (Cambridge) Ltd., felt it had something special. The story had begun in John Dawson’s room at Trinity College Cambridge back in 1971. With his friend Brian Whitnall, John began making amplifier modules for friends. When classical guitarist John Williams visited the town to play Rodrigo’s Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra, he needed reliable live amplification which sounded great. John duly obliged. Brian subsequently moved away, but John subsequently bumped into one Chris Evans at a Tape Recording Society meeting. In 1975 the two friends decided to make a hi-fi amplifier together, and in September 1976 the £140 A&R A60 was born.
The company became limited in February 1977, when they’d sold about 50 amplifiers. Despite its rather sober ‘English’ styling (remember this was the age of massive Japanese brushed aluminium monsters), its sound was the match of the best British competition and was built as well as any of the Japanese rivals. Indeed, in a world where a number of UK designed niche products (names withheld to protect the guilty) were prone to spontaneously self-combust more easily than a Spinal Tap drummer, its unique sales point was that superlative construction quality, giving the copper-bottomed reliability for which Arcam would become synonymous.
Indeed, the secret of this amplifier’s success was down to three things – the aforementioned sonics and reliability allied to a particularly well judged feature set. While the Japanese were fighting to populate every last square millimetre of their products’ front panels with spun aluminium knobs offering one dubious function or another (‘mic mixing’, ‘presence’, etc.), the new breed of Brits were going precisely the opposite way (volume, source and err, that’s it). Between this, the A&R Cambridge A60 trod a thoroughly sensible path, with tone controls, balance, high filter and mono button.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the amplifier was a runaway success – a decade later it had sold 32,000 units. This is small beer to the Japanese, but for a specialist hi-fi product from a start-up, it was astonishing. One reason for this was that every couple of years, the A60 had been discretely upgraded with, variously, minor circuit modifications, a change from DIN to RCA phono connectors, a better phono stage and beefier components. The obvious thing to do was to consolidate its success, and so the matching £190 T21 tuner soon appeared, and then the £655 C200/SA200 pre-power combination. Offering extensive facilities, 100W RMS per channel and a neat wood sleeve it was a fine amplifier, but still struggled in what was now a Naim-dominated British high end market.
Indeed, it was interesting that A&R struggled with taking the brand upmarket. Perhaps it was the fact that the A60 had become so firmly entrenched as the ultimate mid-price integrated, which made the job so difficult, as high end buyers wanted exclusivity to match superb sonics. So A&R moved into other territories, introducing a range of phono cartridges offering exactly the same magic formula as the original A60 amp. The £14.95 C77, £39.90 P77 and £69.00 P78 were A&R designed, Japanese built cartridges using interchangeable styli, making for an easy and inexpensive upgrade path. Next A&R tackled loudspeakers, and the Arcam One was born. An expensive (£299) high quality stand-mounter, it featured an A&R designed, Elac-sourced 200mm Cobex mid/bass unit and an A&R modified 25mm Vifa tweeter. Although highly accomplished mid-price designs, again they failed to capture buyers’ imaginations like the A60 had. So it was back to amplifiers for A&R.
Such was the A60’s ‘halo effect’, that it gave the newly renamed ‘Arcam’ a fillip into the budget integrated market in the early eighties. Just as the A60 had had everything its own way in the sub-£250 mid-price sector, so NAD’s redoubtable 3020 was cleaning up in the budget arena. After its lukewarm success in high end amplification, Arcam decided that it too wanted a piece of high volume budget action, and the Alpha One was born. Retailing for £129, it shared much with A60 and didn’t sound at all dissimilar. The obvious cost-cutting was the cheap moulded plastic fascia, something that would never be acceptable today. Still, the Alpha was one of the best at its price, so much so that it overshadowed its older brother. In 1988, it was time for the A60 to bow out, to be replaced by the altogether more swish Delta 60. Still, something seemed to be lacking. No other amplifier ever quite caught A&R’s original integrated’s magic formula – with one remarkable exception, the Audiolab 8000a, which is (as they say) another story…
Although this amplifier was tweaked extensively over its twelve years, its essential character remained – smooth and powerful yet enjoyably musical. The A60’s name was supposed to refer to its rated power (2x30W RMS), although everyone who ever listened to it said it sounded louder. It was big hearted and confident, yet never coarse or abrasive in the way that its Japanese competition could be. Indeed, you could call it quintessentially English – competent, polite and refined. Bass was strong and tuneful, although it lacked the sledgehammer clout of price rivals like Pioneer’s SA-7800 integrated or the grippy articulation of Naim’s 42/110 pre-power. Midband was open and detailed, with just a slight ‘brightly lit’ quality that help it image confidently in front of the plane of the speakers. Treble was pleasantly rich, never descending into fatigue despite the upfront midband. It was rhythmically engaging, although not in the same class as Naim’s Nait, and its useful power reserves gave it fine dynamics by class standards. Overall, it was an amplifier fit to partner anything from the original Spendor BC1s to the later Linn Kans. A classy phono input completed a brilliant package.
Thanks to the dated styling perhaps, A&R A60s are extremely affordable these days, making them brilliant budget buys. The fine build quality and excellent manufacturer support makes them all the more convincing a purchase. Expect to pay as little as £25 for early examples with DIN sockets, up to £125 for final run-out models with black wood sleeves in mint condition and the original box and manual. Either will perform convincingly, the later versions adding a touch more detail, dynamics and bass grip.