When classical guitarist John Williams wanted to play Rodrigo’s Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra in Cambridge, back in the early nineteen seventies, he turned to local university student John Dawson [pictured above left]. Having made a number of amplifier modules with his friend, Dawson was a fanatical hobbyist – and duly joined the university Tape Recording Society. There he met fellow audiophile Chris Evans, and the rest – as they say – is history…
The two men went on to found the Amplification and Recording Company (Cambridge) Ltd. in February 1977, by which time they had sold fifty amplifiers to friends and family. Arcam – as it later became known – went on to sell a great many more. The integrated in question was of course the A60, born in September 1976. It epitomised the original A&R Cambridge ethos of making high quality, cleverly designed products for well healed audiophiles – if not quite the super-rich. It was conservatively styled, fine sounding and unerringly reliable. The latter was no small claim back in the nineteen seventies, when amplifiers regularly used to martyr themselves!
Whilst the A60 looks staid to contemporary eyes, it was an iconic product in its day that carved out a niche in the minds of British buyers for premium priced integrated amplifiers, one that’s still very much in evidence today. It married simple but effective Class AB circuit design with high quality build, and initially sold for a not inconsiderable £115 plus VAT. Although highly commended for its sonics, some more youthful elements of the British hi-fi press were less than kind about its appearance at the time; one magazine ungenerously described it as, “a modest piece of solid British ugliness!”
In 1984, the company began to reinvent itself, having dined out on the success of the A60 for a little too long. It took two decisions that would reshape its future – first was the launch of a new, budget amplifier which sounded similar to the A60, but cost almost half its price. Its moulded front panel seemed very radical by the standards of the day, and even won a Design Council Award. The £130 Alpha was the company’s first piece of mainstream electronics, and sold well. Second, around this time, it changed its brand name to the snappier ‘Arcam’. The Delta series followed soon after, when the A60 was finally put into retirement in 1986. Although only subtly better sonically than its predecessor, the new Delta 60 integrated looked far more modern – and saw two clearly delineated ranges appear for the first time.
By summer 1987, Arcam had completed its transformation away from the sensible-shoes A&R Cambridge years, by introducing a brand new CD player. At the time this was a big deal, and confirmed the ‘brave new world’ the company was building for itself. Although based on the first wave of Philips 16-bit, 4 times oversampling machines with CDM4 mechanisms, it was carefully reworked with new discrete analogue circuitry and master clock. Arcam committed to the format by being the first British company to hold a full CD manufacturing licence (costing a $25,000 at the time), showing its seriousness. It was a great sounding design, but was soon to be eclipsed by another Arcam product…
The Arcam Delta Black Box, launched in February 1989, was the first separate digital to analogue converter to market. Using the now legendary Philips TDA1541 chips, it sounded superb and showed the company’s seriousness as a digital audio design force. It was partnered with the excellent Delta 170 transport, complete with its Philips CDM1 mk2 diecast aluminium transport, extensive internal damping and Audioquest Sorbothane feet. Both products used all the hi-fi design ‘best practice’ – careful attention to vibration isolation, grounding paths and passive component quality – which is absolutely normal now, but certainly wasn’t then.
“We’ve always been interested in pushing technology, since the early days of digital,” explains Arcam MD Charlie Brennan [pictured above right]. “Back then it was often a case of just trying to make it sounds pleasant because a lot of the early CD players to my ears were a bit on the sharp side. Ever since those days of the Black Boxes, we’ve been doing work to improve to improve jitter and distortion and noise, so some of the ‘softer voicing’, if you want to call it that, is no longer necessary…”
Buoyed by sales of Arcam CD players, and able to commit serious R&D resources, Arcam next worked on a cassette deck, the Delta 100. John Dawson once said that, “with its excellent electronics and brand new Dolby S noise reduction system, we were able to make A-B comparisons with CD that weren’t easy to tell apart.” Sadly though it came out just a couple of years too late, after cassette’s high watermark in 1988. By this time, DCC and MiniDisc were on the scene, and analogue tape seemed old hat. It was a glorious failure, but confirmed the company’s new-found reputation for being bold.
It’s one thing being an innovator, but it’s still necessary to deliver the products in an agreeable package to the customer, argues Charlie. “When I joined Arcam in 1997, I realised that we probably needed to up our game in terms of cosmetics and finish, and build products to fend off the Japanese and the Swiss. That was the thinking behind our move to the metal cased ‘Full Metal Jacket’ range which we launched at the end of 1999. This is an engineering company and we put most of the magic inside, but people can’t see it with their eyes. The luxurious build quality of FMJ was designed to address that. It was a big step forward and that industrial design is still pretty much with us fifteen years later, it’s basically the same look which has a pretty timeless quality, I think. I’m a big fan of Dieter Rams (I have the famous calculator, among various other of his designs), and I’m interested in design that is not over styled, something that just looks good in both modern and traditional settings. Things that look flashy on the front cover aren’t what you’d want to live with day to day.”
This was effectively the next step in the company’s transformation into what it is now, and saw the end of the swoopy plastic fascias on Arcams. The nineties Alpha series did beget one interesting product though, the Alpha 9 CD player which contained a version of the highly respected dCS Ring DAC on an Arcam-designed silicon chip. It cost huge amounts of money to develop, for a player that ended up costing £799 in 1998. A true piece of budget esoterica, the chip also found its way into the far more attractive FMJ CD23, which has become something of a collector’s piece. Given that Arcam had previously collaborated with Philips on CD players, and would then go on to use Wolfson and now ESS Sabre DAC chips, I put it to Charlie that Arcam is something of a magpie, flying around and using technology from all over the place…
“Sure, we’ve done stuff with dCS and now ESS and many others but we are not married to anyone and I think that gives us the chance to survive in a very fluid marketplace. We don’t get too cosy or ‘pally-pally’ with various characters within the industry, preferring instead to go our own way. When somebody else does something good, you can recognise it and we have an openness to smart thinking around the world. Actually, I think that gives us the edge over larger companies because they generally don’t have that freedom to seek out adventurous things. Indeed, we work with a great network of technology providers, and are prepared to get on a plane and meet people. That’s what we’ve been doing for years, often working in association with a chip company right from the start – and that’s pretty unusual, you know! The thrill for me is actually pushing performance which challenges any of the competition that comes our way.”
The final stage in the evolution of Arcam to the company it is now came with the decision to end manufacturing, and effectively become a ‘design house’. Charlie Brennan says this has made life much easier in one sense, because the company can focus with laser-like precision of the design and technology side of the equation, whilst getting trusted partner companies to make the products to Arcam’s exacting specification. “We make our high end C49/P49 amplifiers in upstate New York, with our sister company, and our mainstream products in China with partners that we’ve worked for for fifteen or so years. We have really good working relationships – it’s not the sort of thing you can build up over Skype! Instead we know them and their production engineering.”
“Our director of engineering is the very talented Nick Clark, previously of IAG, and he’s been with us for nearly a decade now, with thirty years in the industry. He heads up a team of six, including two software people and two hardware people. We also have John Dawson working with us, and instead of running the company like he used to he’s now free to focus on what he loves best, which is design – he’s a kind of mad boffin! In fact, he’s probably done his best engineering work to date – it’s something he’s chuffed with, and I’m pretty happy with it too! The result is a well balanced and talented team where everybody has a real part to play.”
Charlie says that being free from all the purchasing and supply chain issues, and all the other things that go with running a manufacturing company, is liberating. “You can have the time to research, you get time to prototype things, work with people around you. Of course, we work with our supplier base, so we are not just a design house – we still have manufacturing expertise, and know how to design things for consistency.”
Cynics might think this is all bluster, but actually it’s born out by the products that Arcam has released in the past couple of years, which have been major improvements on earlier ones, especially the amplifiers. “We have played with Class D for many years and seen the modules getting better and better,” says Charlie, “but they’re not there in my eyes. So that’s why we went down the Class G route, which is a very smart way of having an amplifier that is Class A for pretty much all the time, but when you need some real reserve and grunt, you’ve got it. I think some of the components necessary to get Class G to work consistently when it was invented weren’t around then, but we can make it sound superb now.”
So why hasn’t the world gone the Class G way, instead of heading in the general direction of D? “There aren’t that many people working on Class G because it’s not cheap. It costs quite a lot to implement, but we’ve put a lot of time and money into it and get the noise floor down on every subsequent new iteration. Indeed, I’m pretty dam sure that tweaking and improving will continue for a good few years to come. Each new version – with regulation improvements, better capacitors, volume control chips – makes you realise it’s got more to give.”
Charlie says that it’s hard trying to compete with big Japanese companies, but that, “actually in a weird way having a small team can give you a big advantage.” He points out that Arcam has often been a very early adopter of technology. “I mean we were the second company in the world to have an HDMI output on our DVD players, the first UK company to make a hi-fi DAB tuner – but even though we’re small, we’re well connected with the companies doing the technology.”
For him, small is beautiful because the company can think in a joined-up way. “Being relatively small we have a team of engineers who all work on the same thing, and in the same offices rather than large multinationals which probably have fifteen or so sites. Those guys might have a digital audio team in one building, and the analogue department guys and mechanical people somewhere else, so they can’t easily get together. So sometimes, small teams can outperform big ones – the SAS don’t send six hundred people in to the free hostages, do they? With a well resourced small team, you can do amazing things – and we do!”
A small team certainly makes for interesting, niche products and indeed Arcam has a long history of such things. The latest such example is the new SR250 two-channel receiver, which is a Class G stereo amplifier with DAB radio, DAC and various home cinema codecs built in – plus full HDMI switching. It forms a bridge between traditional, purist two-channel stereo and the desire to watch films with better sound quality than the average AV receiver. “I’m really interested in this. All the music sources are handled by one very high quality stereo amplifier, so people in love with music can also get a bit of fun with movies and TV dramas.”
“We have made a huge chunk of progress in the past five or so years, and I think when people hear what we’re doing now they’ll be impressed. For the future, we have to work harder with our dealers to demonstrate the difference, and more importantly, they need to install to a high standard. Indeed, I think the whole hi-fi industry needs to raise its game in this respect. I think in the coming year, when you raise your bar in one place, then you have to raise it elsewhere – that’s the challenge for us. Frankly, if you don’t sit down and listen to what you’re going to buy, then you’re an idiot. Would you not try a pair of shoes or a suit on first? So you probably should try an audio system too!”