Arcam AVR390 7-Channel AV Receiver Review
High-end without the high price
What is the Arcam AVR390?The Arcam AVR390 is the entry-level AV receiver in the manufacturer's range and, like the rest of its models, boasts seven channels of built-in amplification, Dolby Atmos and DTS:X support, IMAX Enhanced, and Dirac Live room correction. Unlike the flagship AVR850, the AVR390 doesn't include the heavy-duty Class G amplification, with Arcam going for more affordable Class A/B instead.
In fact, if you run through the specs of both receivers, you realise that the amplification is the only difference between them. That makes things interesting, because the AVR850 costs a hefty £4,499 but the AVR390 is a more reasonable £1,999 as at the time of writing (November 2018). I'm not claiming that's small change but, if the specs are to be believed, the AVR390 would appear to be excellent value for money. Let's find out.
DesignIn terms of its design and build quality the Arcam AVR390 is identical to the AVR850, with the same minimalist appearance and matte, dark grey finish. There's a large and centrally mounted volume dial, flanked by a number of buttons (five on each side). On the left of the volume dial you'll find the Menu, Input selection, OK and Info buttons, while on the right there's Mute, Mode, Direct, Display and Zone. On the far right you'll also find a 3.5mm Aux input, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and the power button.The green dot matrix display is located directly above the central volume dial, and while it is a little simplistic compared to other AV receivers, it's easy to read and simple to understand. The display relays the most important information such as input, sound format and volume but also reflects Arcam's minimalist approach to industrial design. If necessary, it can be dimmed or turned off completely. The AVR390 measures 433 x 425 x 171mm (WxDxH) and weighs in at 15.5kg.
There's the same minimalist design and solid build quality found on the rest of the FMJ range
Connections & ControlThe majority of the connections on the Arcam AVR390 are at the rear, and the company has taken a sensible approach when it comes to the layout. Legacy connections like component or composite video have been dropped (these days it's all HDMI), and the remaining inputs have been rationalised to leave a clean and easy to understand rear panel.
There are seven HDMI inputs and three outputs, with six of the inputs and all the outputs using version 2.0a. As a result they support 4K/60p, 4:4:4, 3D, High Dynamic Range (HDR10, Hybrid Log-Gamma, and Dolby Vision), Wide Colour Gamut, and HDCP 2.2. The main HDMI output supports ARC (Audio Return Channel), and the first HDMI input supports MHL (Mobile High Definition Link) but is limited to HDMI 1.4.
In terms of the other connections, there are four coaxial digital inputs and two optical digital inputs, along with six stereo analogue inputs using RCA connectors. There's also a USB port, an RS232 connector for serial control, a 6V rSeries PSU, two 12V triggers and two IR inputs. The AVR390 includes an FM/DAB radio and an Ethernet port for a wired connection but there's no built-in Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
There are pre-amp outputs for all eleven channels of processing, plus two subwoofers, so you could theoretically use the AVR390 as a pre-amp processor in conjunction with extra amplification. Since there are only seven channels built-in, if you want to run a full 11.2-channel configuration you will have to add four channels of amplification.
I should point out that you can't allocate the internal amplification to different channels, which unfortunately means you can't use the built-in amps to drive the overheads and beef-up the front channels with an outboard power amplifier. There are also no analogue multichannel inputs, so you can't connect a source that uses multichannel analogue outputs.
The included remote is Arcam's standard controller, which is elegantly designed and intuitively laid out, with all the key buttons present. It's well made, nicely balanced and comfortable to hold, making it easy to use with one hand, and it has a useful backlight.
However there's the usual Arcam remote control quirk. If you press one of the input buttons, BD for example, then the remote thinks it is controlling a BD player rather than the receiver. To actually control the AVR390 again, you need to press the AMP button on the remote.
For those that would rather use their iOS device as a controller, Arcam also offers its Music Life app. This is well designed, attractive to look at and intuitive to use; making it an effective way of setting up and controlling the receiver. Unfortunately an Android version remains missing in action.
There's a sensible set of connections and the usual quirky remote control
Arcam AVR390 Features & SpecsThe Arcam AVR390 isn't as feature-packed as some of the competition but, if I'm being honest, I rarely use the majority of the bells and whistles found on a modern AV receiver. Arcam is more interested in delivering superior audio performance, instead of services that can easily be provided by another device.
That's not to say it lacks features, but Arcam has concentrated on the ones that really matter. As a result, the main features are support for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, along with the addition of Dirac Live room correction. There's also support for other surround formats such as Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Digital EX, Dolby Digital and Dolby Pro Logic IIx; as well as DTS-HD Master Audio, DTS-ES 6.1 Discrete, DTS-ES 6.1 Matrix and DTS 5.1.
There's support for ARC, 3D, 4K/60p, 4:4:4, Rec.2020, HDR10, HLG, Dolby Vision, and HDCP 2.2 over HDMI, along with video processing up to a 4K/60p resolution. In terms of system control there's Ethernet and RS232, along with 12V triggers and standard IR. There's also a built-in FM/DAB tuner (which is sure to please radio heads), Internet radio, network capabilities for uPnP audio servers and a USB port for connecting memory devices and iDevices.
Although it was too late for the review, Arcam has also added support for IMAX Enhanced thanks to the latest firmware update.
MORE: What is IMAX Enhanced?The headline-grabbing feature is the inclusion of Dirac Live room correction suite. Unlike traditional minimum-phase room correction systems, which only correct frequency responses but not impulse responses, Dirac corrects both. As a result it can deliver improvements in the room acoustics, the stereo imaging, clarity and the transient reproduction of audio.
Dirac Live is run off either a PC or a Mac and offers step-by-step instructions on how to measure and analyse the degradations in sound quality caused by your loudspeakers and listening room. The AVR390 comes with a calibrated microphone, although you can also use your own (which I did).
Dirac has three modes of operation which are all implemented together: frequency, phase and impulse. If you don’t want to get too technical, just take the measurements and let the software figure out the rest. However, if you’re an advanced user, you can edit the target frequency response in detail.
There's an excellent graphical interface (see below) that shows you the measurements for each speaker, as well as the target curves, and the curves after applying the correction. Depending on how you set your AVR390 up, Dirac can apply room correction to all eleven channels.
A new version of Dirac Live (2.0) is now available, and I have tried the beta version. I have to say the results were very impressive, with an updated user interface, and more measurements with greater emphasis on different heights to get a better idea of the specific acoustic properties of the room.
The feature set isn't as extensive as some AVRs, but the inclusion of Dirac Live is a big plus
Setup & OperationThere are two stages to setting up the Arcam AVR390: the first is configuring the receiver itself, and the second involves running the Dirac room correction. Setting up the receiver is relatively straightforward because there are limited options and although the menu system is basic, it's also easy to follow.
Since there's no built-in Wi-Fi, if you want to connect the receiver to your local network – and you're going to have to for the Dirac Live setup – you'll need to use an Ethernet cable. Once connected you can access Internet radio and any music stored on your network servers or storage devices.
Arcam provides an aerial for the built-in FM/DAB tuners, so you'll need to set that up if radio is your passion. You'll also need to connect all your sources and name them appropriately, before wiring up the speakers. If you're going to run a full 11-channel system, you'll obviously need to connect the height channel outputs to the power amp or amps. Finally you can connect up to two subwoofers directly to the AVR390.
The menu system is in dire need of a make-over, with a user interface that's starting to look decidedly old-fashioned. However its simplistic approach does make it fairly intuitive and easy to navigate, offering sub-menus for Input Config, General Setup, Speaker Types, Speaker Distances, Speaker Levels, Video Inputs, HDMI Settings, Mode, Zone Settings and Network.
If you want to perform a basic audio setup then you can select the speaker layout and crossovers, before measuring the distances from the sweet spot for the delays and setting the levels using an SPL meter.
However, since you have Dirac Live available, you'd be crazy not to use it. All you need to do is download the Dirac software from the Arcam website and use the provided microphone and ideally a tripod if you have one. In reality, the microphone included with the receiver isn't that great, so I'd recommend buying a high quality calibrated microphone – the results will justify the investment.
Despite the obvious sophistication of Dirac Live it's a user friendly piece of software, with all the interaction taking place over your network. As you can see from the included screen shots, the room correction process is well laid out with an excellent graphical interface and plenty of instructions. You can take up to nine different measurements, based on your receiver configuration and room set up.
Once you have taken all the measurements, the software shows you the frequency and impulse response of all the speakers. You then decide on your chosen target and the software connects with Dirac in Sweden, so a supercomputer can calculate all the adjustments. This is then sent back to your PC or Mac, where you save the file and then load it on to the AVR390.
I started testing with a basic two-channel layout, before moving on to a 2.2-channel setup, followed by 5.2-channels of surround sound, a 7.2-channel system, and finally a 5.1.2-channel configuration with two overhead speakerss. After that I added four more channels using an Arcam P429 power amplifier, and moved on to a full 7.2.4 setup for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.
For testing, I employed a range of content including movies and music in 5.1, as well as movies with 5.1, 7.1, Dolby Atmos and DTS:X soundtracks. As my primary sources, I used CDs, SACDs, DVD-Audio discs, Blu-rays and Ultra HD Blu-rays, along with high resolution audio files and various streaming services including Spotify and Tidal.
The setup is relatively straightforward, and Dirac Live provides highly effective room correction
Arcam AVR390 PerformanceThe Arcam AVR390 might not have the powerful and responsive Class G amps found on the more expensive AVR850, but I was pleased to discover that it still had plenty of kick. Arcam claim 60W when driving all seven channels simultaneously, and for once that appears to be a genuine number. Other manufactures often use numbers based on driving one or maybe two channels, or take a measurement just before the amp blows up, which is hardly indicative of real world performance.
The AVR390 delivered a solid and responsive soundstage, whether that was with two-channel, 5.1- or 7.1-channel content. Some might bemoan the fact that this receiver is limited to seven built-in channels, but personally I think it makes perfect sense. The fact that Arcam hasn't tried to cram 9, 11 or even 13 channels into the AVR390's chassis means it's not only capable of an impressive 7-channel performance, but it also helps to keep the price down.
As with the rest of Arcam's receivers, all of which have seven channels built-in, the AVR390 is designed to deliver an excellent performance right out of the box, while also providing the opportunity to expand your system over time by adding extra amplification. You can immediately enjoy two-channel, 5.1-, and 7.1-channel content, and you can even run a 5.1.2-channel system if you want to take advantage of Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. Later on, you can add more amps and have a 7.1.2 or 7.1.4 system.
Aside from from the capabilities of its built-in amplification, the other aspect of the AVR390's performance that differentiates it from much of the competition is the inclusion of Dirac Live. This room correction software is highly effective, balancing the frequency response of the entire system, integrating the subs, and tightening up the impulse responses. The result is the effect of the room simply disappearing, and the system sounding wonderfully balanced and tonally cohesive.
When listening to two-channel music, the AVR390 proved to be enjoyably musical for a receiver. It delivered an impressively wide soundstage, with excellent stereo imaging that placed instruments precisely across the the front of the room. Listening to Suede's new album The Blue Hour, I was impressed at the receiver's ability to deliver the band's epic soundscapes, ensuring there was plenty of bass during the deep choral arrangements. The more uptempo tracks were delivered with a real sense of fun, the rhythm section was engaging and Brett Anderson's vocals were rendered with a pleasing clarity.
I then switched to Dunkirk's 5.1-channel soundtrack, and was struck by the aggression with which the Arcam delivered the action scenes. There was sufficient dynamic range in the amplification to give the sounds a visceral element, and the receiver made full use of the available channels, opening up the overall soundstage in a way that felt totally organic. The scream of the Stuka dive bombers was terrifying, while the explosions took full advantage of my twin subs to add plenty of low frequency impact. There was also a subtlety to the processing, with the sounds of wind and surf in the scenes on the beach delivered with a palpable realism.
I took the opportunity to listen to a couple of my favourite test discs, with Gravity allowing the AVR390 to reveal just how effective Dirac can be at creating a cohesive sound field. The receiver seamlessly steered sounds from speaker to speaker as the highly directional mix moved effects to reflect the action on screen.
I also used the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes soundtrack to see how the Arcam handled a complex 7.1-channel soundtrack. In the opening sequence, I could clearly hear the subtle breathing of Caesar over the sound of thunder and pouring rain, as a result the effect was both realistic and immersive. A choral arrangement in the background gradually rises in the mix as the apes move almost silently through the trees. Then as the hunt begins, the entire system bursts into life, surrounding the viewer with a cacophony of simian screams that retain a marvellous sense of spaciousness.
Finally, I moved on to immersive audio, and I was especially impressed by the AVR390's ability to deliver Dolby Atmos in a 7.2.4 configuration. The soundtrack to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has numerous big action sequences, with huge creatures and massive levels of destruction. The Arcam delivered all these with plenty of sub-sonic impact, a nice sense of dynamic range, and loads of overhead action. The sequence with the giant serpent simply filled the entire room with sound, while the scenes inside the suitcase were able to create a sense of genuine spaciousness. However, my favourite effect was the mail tubes in the MACUSA offices, with the whooshing sounds zipping all around the room and creating a genuine feeling of three dimensional space.
Staying with the Wizarding World, I also put on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 to see how the AVR390 handled DTS:X soundtracks. It was a performance that was as assured as it had been when listening to Dolby Atmos. When Voldemort and his followers begin attacking Hogwarts, the flares from their wands fly through the air before raining down on the magical spells protecting the school. The sounds of impact are heard above as those inside await the inevitable attack. When it comes the chaos of battle is reproduced with marvellous energy, and despite the complex nature of the sound design, dialogue always remans clear and focused. Whatever you choose to listen to, the Arcam AVR390 is sure to please with an accomplished overall performance.
This is a fantastic-sounding receiver that delivers impressive surround processing
- Great sounding receiver
- Dolby Atmos and DTS:X support
- Dirac Live is highly effective
- IMAX Enhanced
- Solid build quality
- Only seven channels built-in
- Quirky remote control
- Limited features
Arcam AVR390 7-Channel AV Receiver Review
Arcam AVR390 VerdictThe Arcam AVR390 is an excellent AV receiver, with a surround sound performance that is superior to any other model in its price range. There might only be seven channels built-in, but there's always the option to add more amps later, enabling you to grow your system when space and budget allow. Those seven channels also have plenty of grunt, thanks to realistic power measurements from Arcam. It's true that the feature set isn't as comprehensive as some, but the AVR390 does all the important stuff, and it does it well.
So well in fact that it raises the serious question of whether the AVR390 is a viable alternative to Arcam's more expensive AVR850? The design, build quality, features, DACs, and processing are identical, and both receivers benefit from Dirac Live. Yes, the Class G power of the AVR850 is better than the A/B amplification found on the AVR390, but you could pair the cheaper receiver with the £1,000 7-channel IOTA AVXP17 and have yourself a seriously good combo with over a grand to spare.
That last example is what some custom installers are actually doing, because they consider the AVR390 a cheaper alternative to Arcam's AV860 pre-amp and processor – which at £3,999 is twice the price. Of course the AVR390 doesn't have balanced XLR outputs, but if you only plan on using phono connectors then it makes for a cost-effective option. You can spend the £2,000 saving on some fairly juicy amplification, and create a genuinely impressive pre-pro/amp combo.
In fact when you add it all up, even at £1,999 the Arcam AVR390 is a bit of a bargain.
What are my alternatives?Despite my comments in the previous section, I use the Arcam AVR850 in my reference system and it remains the best-sounding AV receiver you can currently buy. The combination of power, performance, and features justify the price tag, and when combined with Dirac Live, the results are often breathtaking. In head-to-head comparisons with the AVR390/AVXP17 combo I still preferred the more expensive AVR850, so if you have the budget that would be my alternative.
However, if you're restricted to the £2,000 price bracket, then the Denon AVC-X6500H is definitely worth considering. This 11-channel AV amplifier might not have a built-in tuner, but it has Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, Auro-3D, HEOS multiroom, AirPlay 2, eARC, and Alexa voice control. It will even be IMAX Enhanced thanks to a firmware update in the new year. The Arcam AVR390 has the edge in pure performance, but the X6500 can deliver 7.1.4 right out of the box.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £1,995.00
Value For Money10
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