Arcam Dolby Atmos and Dirac Home Cinema Excellence

Welcome to the Centre of Cinematic Excellence

by Steve Withers Mar 18, 2018 at 8:11 AM


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    Arcam Dolby Atmos and Dirac Home Cinema Excellence
    Arcam’s new state-of-the-art demo facility is called the Centre of Cinematic Excellence, which is a fairly confident claim by the company.
    Of course given Arcam’s experience in designing and building AV receivers, processors and amplifiers we would expect them to make good on those claims. So we headed over to their offices in Cambridge to find out just how excellent their new demo room is when it comes to home cinema.

    Arcam actually moved into their new offices on a science park in Cambridge back in 2014 but eighteen months ago an additional space within the building became available. This provided Arcam with the perfect opportunity to design a dedicated demo room from scratch without having to compromise. The entire project lasted six months and Arcam actually built two rooms within the available space – one for two-channel demos and the other a fully specified home cinema.
    The two-channel demo room was designed using the principles of golden ratios, which essentially means that the dimensions are ideal for eliminating any unwanted room aberrations. The walls and ceiling are double-layered with insulating material between the two layers of acoustic plasterboard. All the cabling is screened and future-proofed, whilst signal cables cross any lighting rings at right angles to eliminate interference.

    At the front of the room the floor is tiled, which means that any speakers can be both isolated and completely stable, thus ensuring optimal performance. The room is actually tiled at both ends, thus allowing Arcam to set up two systems and simply turn the seats around to go from one demo to another. The room has been acoustically treated with custom-made absorption panels at reflection points, GIK Acoustics bass traps in each corner and a nice thick carpet to absorb reflections from the floor.

    We took the opportunity to listen to a brief demo whilst in the two-channel demo room using a combination of the Arcam SA10 integrated amplifier (£699), their CDS50 CD player/network streamer (£699) and a pair of Revel M106BE speakers (£3,000). This system was being demoed at the Bristol Show last month, where it sounded impressive, but in a dedicated demo room where any obstructions to optimal performance have been removed the results were outstanding.
    We then moved on to the dedicated home cinema which was designed and constructed using the same principles as the two-channel demo room. That means golden ratios and double layered walls and ceilings with absorption panels at the first reflection points, directly opposite the screen and on the ceiling at a reflection point above the primary seating position.

    Arcam have deliberately left the rear of the room untreated to ensure it retains a degree of liveliness that is essential for good surround. At the front there is also a tiled floor to provide stability for the speakers and thick carpet throughout the rest of the room. It is also suitably light controlled with black and dark grey walls and seating for up to nine people.
    In terms of equipment, the room uses a native 4K Sony VPL-VW550ES projector and a 12-foot wide 16:9 Draper screen for images. There are Revel Salon 2 floor standing speakers for the front left and right channels and a Revel Voice 2 centre speaker on an isolating stand. The side and rear surround channels are delivered by Revel W873 in-wall speakers, whilst the overhead channels use Revel C873 in-ceiling speakers.

    Arcam have installed six overhead speakers because, although their current receivers and processors are limited to four overhead channels, there’s no harm in adding a bit of future proofing whilst you’re up in the ceiling wiring in speakers. It also allows Arcam to run a single set of overhead channels if they need to for a particular demo.

    Finally there are four subwoofers, two at the front and two at the rear, which Arcam have custom made using Celestion 18-inch drivers with added bracing and paving slabs for greater stability. We were surprised to discover that rather than using built-in amplification for each subwoofer, Arcam are driving them using a P429 four-channel Class G amplifier. It’s a testament to the effectiveness of the Class G amplification in the P429 that it was capable of doing this and we certainly found the bass to be tight, controlled and responsive during the demos.
    As a source Arcam are using their excellent UDP411 Blu-ray player and in terms of processing and amplification they started with the award-winning AVR850 AV receiver and another P429 four-channel amplifier. The AVR850 has seven channels of built-in Class G amplification which drive the seven speakers at ear level, whilst the P429 drives the four overhead channels. The AVR850 also has two subwoofer outputs, the first runs the two subs at the front and the second runs the two at the rear.

    Aside from the use of Class G amplification, the other aspect of the AVR850 that makes it so impressive is the inclusion of Dirac Live room equalisation. We went into the incredible sophistication of Dirac Live in some detail when reviewing the AVR850 but essentially it analyses and corrects the frequency response within the room to deliver the best possible performance in that given room. Which raised an interesting question.

    Since Arcam have gone to such lengths to build the ideal room, what is there for Dirac to actually do? Well we know there’s more to a sound system than just the frequency response and Dirac also analyses and corrects the impulse responses caused by reverberations as well as any phase errors. In addition the system doesn’t use identical speakers and whilst they are all made by Revel there are tonal differences for which Dirac can also correct.
    Now that we’ve got all that out of the way, let’s get down to the important part – what did it sound like? Well we sat down in the sweet spot or, as it’s sometimes referred to in the custom install market, the customer’s chair and prepared for the demo. Andy Moore, Product Manager at Arcam, started by explaining that it’s important to use a reference point that we can all relate to because, whilst we know what a piano or an acoustic guitar sound like, we’ve never actually heard a robot transform into a car. For that reason the demos always start and end with a piece of music because if a system can effectively reproduce the sound of a grand piano then it can cover 95% of the frequency scale and just about anything else, from the sound of a human voice to a planet exploding, will fit within that range.

    The demo started with a piece of acoustic music from Sting’s The Soul Cages album and the system beautifully reproduced the sounds of the guitar with breathtaking realism. We could clearly hear every note across the entire frequency range and even the subtle bass guitar just beneath the acoustic guitar. After that we moved on to the Leaf trailer which was specially created by Dolby to demonstrate their Atmos object-based immersive audio format. In the trailer a leaf spins around the room and what it revealed was how well the AVR850 seamlessly steered those sounds from speaker to speaker without any gaps. We then got Andy to play the Amaze trailer which was also specially created by Dolby. This was designed to show off all the attributes of Atmos from steering effects through three-dimensional space to overhead effects and deep bass. Since we regularly use this trailer when testing systems we're very familiar with it and Arcam's system handled it superbly well.
    After that we moved on to another Dolby Atmos demo, this time a recording of a rainstorm, with raindrops falling all around you and thunder rumbling overhead. We listened to this demo twice, first with Dirac Live off and then with it on. The difference was remarkable because although the Atmos track sounded great with Dirac Live off, as soon as it was turned on the room simply disappeared and the sense of realism was astonishing. Much like Andy's comments about knowing what a piano sounds like, we've all been caught in a rainstorm and therefore we have a definite point of reference.

    We then watched a clip from the film Everest, where a storm hits the climbers, and not only were the wind effects steered around the room effectively but thunder cracked overhead and echoed from front to back. There was a clear sound of ice crystals as well as snow hitting the climbers and this detail was revealed thanks to Dirac Live's ability to correct the impulse response and thus prevent the tiniest details being masked by reverberations. Finally the demo ended with David Gilmour live at Pompeii and the system delivered every detail of his performance of High Hopes, from the slightly breathy vocals to his acoustic and slide guitar solos. Quite simply it was a superb demo of the incredible abilities of the AVR850, presented in the best possible circumstances.
    Andy then rewired the system so that we could listen to the AV860 AV processor in action. Arcam demo the AV860 in three different configurations, starting with a 7.1-channel setup that uses P349 and P429 power amplifiers. There's also a 7.1.4 configuration that uses a P349 and two P429 power amplifiers, as well as a 7.1.4 system based on seven P49 mono blocks and a P429 power amplifier. The processing in the AV860 is identical to the AVR850 but the advantage of the processor is that by separating the amplification from the processing, the noise within the system can be almost eliminated. In addition the added amplification provides greater headroom, allowing for even greater dynamic range within the system.

    We can certainly vouch for that increased dynamic range and listening to the Amaze trailer again was simply breathtaking. We have heard that same trailer in Dolby's private demo rooms at their London office in Soho and at their head office in San Francisco and we can honestly say that the Arcam system sounded just as good. We can't think of better praise than that. We then watched the opening bombing run from Unbroken, which is a remarkable piece of sound design that the AV860 delivered flawlessly. Zeroes roared around the room, bullets tore through the fuselages of planes, flack exploded within three dimensional space and the subs added depth to the heavy machine fire; it was an incredibly visceral experience.

    Another great demo scene is the wildfire explosion at the start of the Battle of Blackwater Bay in the second season of Game of Thrones. The subs were particularly impressive as the massive explosion tore through the room, reproducing the low frequencies with speed, control and precision. We also watched a demo of Star Wars: Battlefront based on actual game play footage and that again showed the AV860's ability to effortlessly steer effects around the room, as well as the entire system's ability to deliver deep bass. Finally we ended this second demo with more music, this time from Jeff Beck performing with his band at a Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame concert. The system once again revealed a wonderful musicality, allowing you to clearly pick out all the instruments as they coalesced into a single rocking performance.

    Arcam may have set themselves a high bar by calling their demo room the Centre of Cinematic Excellence but we're pleased to say they not only reached that goal but easily exceeded even our fairly high expectations.

    Arcam are holding an exclusive open day for AVForums members on Saturday the 24th of March, so it will be interesting to see what they think of the Centre of Cinematic Excellence.

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