Arcam has always been a purveyor of fine integrated amps as far back as the late seventies, this much we know. Yet the company does have a tradition of doing capable power amplifiers too, stretching right back to the SA200 power amplifier at the beginning of the nineteen eighties. Since then, they have been relatively few and far between – Arcam’s last pre-power combo was the FMJ C31 preamp and P1 monoblocks, a decade ago. Now though, it has a capable and relatively affordable offering in the shape of the P49. It’s unlikely to win any prizes for the world’s most beautiful design, but it’s a functional and purposeful product that packs a serious amount of power.
This £3,245 box is the finest expression of the company’s journey into Class G operation, the idea being that this machine works in full Class A operation up to a certain power level, after which it moves into Class AB. Running at lower power – and at normal listening levels – the amplifier is devoid of switching distortion, but when more power is called for the P49 is able to deliver it. This is done at high listening levels and also at only very briefly on transients, so it doesn’t degrade the sound in any appreciable way. Indeed, the P49 is the culmination of six years of research into this system. It puts out a claimed 200W RMS per channel into 8 ohms, which is more than enough for most audiophiles.
Arcam’s Andy Moore explains, “it’s effectively the fourth generation of Arcam Class G. The whole idea started with a ‘make the amplifier disappear’ research project that began ten years ago, and was led by John Dawson. For the vast majority of time the P49 will be running as a 50W Class A amplifier, only stepping outside of this under extreme dynamic conditions to move into Class AB mode and deliver considerably more power. Remember the magic of audio reproduction is in the hundredths of watts, and this is where the lack of crossover distortion comes into play, and makes the P49 sound the way it does. If its 200W RMS per channel isn’t enough for you then it can be bridged. The ultimate expression of the 49 series is rolled out in the form of a C49 and two P49s each in bridged. Working this way, the system is capable of peak outputs in excess of 1kW!”
Being the company’s flagship power amp, you would expect it to be full of features, but not quite so. Indeed it’s a relatively minimalist design (measuring 433x171x425mm, weighing 18kg) with nothing more than an on-off switch and the ability to switch between two pairs of loudspeakers on its fascia. Also, there’s a sculpted air vent inset into this, rather like the air intake of a custom car or motorcycle. I repeatedly tried to get the amplifier hot but can confirm that you’re more likely to suffer from early onset deafness, than the P49 saying ‘goodnight Vienna’ due to overheating! Indeed, both pre and power amplifiers performed unerringly reliably through the test period.
The essence of a fine amplifier is one that doesn’t get in the way of the music. While some people might enjoy amps that embellish the original recording, or strip it of its edge and bite in the name of an easier listening experience, the only truly satisfactory answer is a transparent design that works in a consistent and predictable way across a wide range of music types. The P49 is just such a thing. I used it to drive a range of loudspeakers, from Quad electrostatics to Yamaha NS-1000Ms, and my usual reference ATC SCM40s. With all of these loudspeakers, and others too, it remained a highly capable device.
The standout aspect of its sound is its open and even nature – this Arcam doesn’t have a particularly obvious character, which means much of the music on the original recording finds its way through to the loudspeakers. And unlike some Class A designs, especially high end Sugdens like the IA4, it’s not piercingly transparent – some amps sound like there’s a massive spotlight glaring onto the recording, revealing every detail. There’s a subtle sense of this to the Arcam’s sound, but no more – it’s obviously less forensic that some rivals. Instead, it just gets on with the job of playing music in an honest and matter-of-fact way, with little embellishment of any kind. Whatever programme material you choose, it remains accurate, detailed and engaging. When you push the volume down it stays this way, and when it goes far in the opposite direction the Arcam combo doesn’t sound too forceful – just strong, steady and fun with no sense of strain.
Tonally it’s very neutral – perhaps a fraction on the lighter, brighter side, but still close and certainly its tuneful and powerful bass helps here. Even the sealed box ATCs had my listening room doors rattling on their frames, shifting enough air around to make you think a helicopter had landed next door. Even at high levels, the P49 showed complete indifference to the amount of power it was being asked to pump, giving the loudspeakers (and my ears) a serious workout. Dynamically it proved excellent, able to serve up lots of watts at a millisecond’s notice.
Further up into the midband it remains clean, delivering an addictive combination of subtlety, poise and power – one that’s hard to beat at its price. The Arcam expertly captures all the music’s special little inflections yet doesn’t sound spectacular in a hi-fi sense, preferring to stay subtly beguiling. My only reservation is its subtle lack of tonal colour – it doesn’t provide much sense of there being a deep, rich hue to recordings which are on the warm side. You wouldn’t mistake it for an EL34-powered valve amplifier then, but this works in both a bad and a good way!
Easily able to hold its own with dramatically more expensive products, here is a power amplifier of rare ability at the price. It’s hard to think of anything near that’s so neutral yet so powerful, and could certainly be used in systems costing substantially more than one might expect. Indeed I found that the P49 works very well with high quality passive preamplifiers and valve designs, too. Whilst the Arcam badge doesn’t have the audiophile cachet of more high end designs, it is very hard to argue with the performance on offer.