Arcam takes room correction to another level with Dirac Live
What is the Arcam AVR850?The Arcam AVR850 is the latest AV receiver from the company and replaces the outgoing AVR750. The new model retains much of what made the previous receiver so good but also adds plenty of new features that will ensure the AVR850 remains relevant for years to come. So we still get the usual Arcam minimalist design and build quality, along with seven channels of built-in Class G amplification. However on top of that, Arcam have developed a completely new platform and now embrace immersive audio with the AVR850 already supporting Dolby Atmos and adding DTS:X in the near future. That addresses one of the major limitations of the AVR750, which was looking a little dated in the age of multi-dimensional sound formats.
The addition of immersive audio support was largely to be expected from a new flagship AV receiver but what did cause quite a bit of excitement was the inclusion of Dirac Live room correction. Not only has Arcam largely eschewed room correction software in the past but Dirac has previously only graced high-end processors like the Datasat RS20i. Whilst the AVR850 isn't cheap, setting you back £4,200 as at the time of writing (March 2016), it's still much cheaper than any other device that has previously boasted Dirac Live. The thought of an Arcam AV receiver with Class G amplification, immersive audio and Dirac Live is certainly an interesting one but the question is can the AVR850 live up to the expectations? Let's find out...
DesignThe AVR850 uses Arcam's FMJ (Full Metal Jacket) design, where the emphasis is very much on the minimalist, so don't expect too many controls or inputs at the front. Thankfully one immediate difference compared to the AVR750 is the return of a large volume dial in the middle. Aside from that it's largely business as usual with a dark grey matte finish and a high level of build quality. The receiver itself measures 433 x 425 x 171mm (WxDxH) and weighs in at 16.7kg.
The AVR850 regains a volume dial but the emphasis is still on minimalism and functionality.
The front panel layout has buttons on either side of the volume dial and a display just above it. In terms of the buttons on the front, to the left of the volume dial you'll find the Menu, Input selection, OK and Info. Whilst to the right there is Mute, Mode, Direct, Display and Zone. You'll also find a 3.5mm Aux input and a 3.5mm headphone jack. There is also a power button and a power/standby indicator light in the top right hand corner. The power button is the type where if you push it in the receiver turns on but if you push it again the power turns off, so you'll need to use the remote control to put the Arcam in standby.
The AVR850 uses a green dot matrix display that, whilst a little simplistic compared to other AV receivers, is at least easy to read and understand. The display shows the most important information such as input, sound format and volume but reflects Arcam's minimalist approach to design. The company definitely believes in concentrating on the performance and keeping everything else simple. As an example, what appears to be a flap along the bottom is just a design feature, so that's it as far as front panel display, controls and connections are concerned, everything else is at the rear.
Connections & ControlAs soon as we looked at the rear of the AVR850, we immediately wanted to congratulate Arcam for having the courage to ditch all the unnecessary legacy features. Too often we see AV receivers with cluttered rear panels that are full of legacy connections that no one is ever going to use. There are still plenty of analogue and digital connections but as far as video goes the emphasis is on HDMI, with seven inputs and three outputs. Crucially all the HDMI inputs and outputs are HDMI 2.0a (important for passing High Dynamic Range metadata) and support HDCP 2.2, making them suitably future-proof, whilst one of the HDMI inputs also supports MHL (Mobile High Definition Link) and the main HDMI output supports ARC (Audio Return Channel).
Arcam have simplified the connections, concentrating on what's important and ensuring they're future-proof.
In terms of the other connections we get 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 AVR850 includes an FM/DAB radio and an Ethernet port for a wired connection (essential for setting up the Dirac Live room correction) but there's no built-in WiFi or Bluetooth. There are pre-amp outputs for all eleven channels, including two subwoofers, and speaker terminals for the seven built-in channels of amplification.
The provided remote control 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. It is also backlit which is important if you plan on using the remote control in a dark home cinema - which seems highly likely in the case of the AVR850. However there is one strange quirk that, until we worked out what was going on, made the remote very annoying. 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 AVR850 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 offer their Music Life app. This app is well designed, attractive to look at and intuitive to use; making it an effective way of setting up and controlling the AVR850. Our only complaint would be that it isn't available for Android devices.
Features & SpecsThese days AV receivers have more features than you can shake a stick at, most of which will probably never be used. So it's refreshing to see a manufacturer eschew all the bells and whistles to concentrate on what's really important - sound quality. Almost all the features on the AVR850 are related to audio performance in some way, rather than services that could just as easily be provided by another device. So clearly the big new features are support for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, along with the addition of Dirac Live room correction; all of which we'll cover in more detail later.
Aside from Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, the AVR850 also supports all the 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. As mentioned earlier there is also support for ARC, 3D, 4K and HDR over HDMI, along with video processing up to a 4K/60p resolution; and for system control there's Ethernet and RS232, along with 12V triggers and standard IR. If you're looking for music sources there's a built-in FM/DAB tuner, Internet radio, network capabilities for uPnP audio servers and a USB port for connecting memory devices and iDevices. Aside from an Ethernet port for a wired connection, there is no built-in WiFi, AirPlay or Bluetooth, all of which Arcam feel would be detrimental to the receiver's audio performance.
Arcam have developed a new platform for the AVR850, with a completely new DSP stage that is significantly quieter than the one deployed within the AVR750. This has been achieved with new techiques with regards to board layout and grounding, whilst the DSP also features jitter nulling techniques that reduce the measurable Jitter levels. The Class G topology is used once again but re-optimized by Arcam based on knowledge developed whilst building Class G into their two channel range. The analogue path is also significantly enhanced by deploying a distortion nulling technique that was developed for Arcam's top-of-the-range A49 integrated amplifier and C49 pre-amplifier.
All the channels use 24/192 Cirrus CS-42528 DACs and the AVR850 also uses an Analogue Devices ADV8003 video processor. Other interesting specs include a main 1.2kV toroidal power supply transformer and Class G amplification with separate high and low independent DC voltage supplies with voltage rails that go from a low of +/- 30v to a high of +/- 60v. Class G is essentially a hybrid of Class A and Class A/B amplification, offering a greater transparency with more efficiency and less wasted heat energy by implementing multiple power supplies rather than just a single supply. If a dynamic signal is received that goes beyond the capability of this first power supply, the secondary supply is gradually brought in up to full rated power output as required.
This results in a more efficient design as additional power is only used when required and modern high speed silicon allows Arcam to make this switch faster than would ever be required, even way beyond the audio bandwidth, so there is no lag. The seven channels built into the AVR850 are capable of delivering 100W into 8 Ohms when all seven of them are being driven. The fact that the AVR850 only has seven channels built-in might be considered a limitation, especially if you want to run a full immersive audio system right out-of-the-box, but Arcam didn't feel they could realistically get more channels of Class G amplification into the chassis. However it's relatively easy to buy some additional amplification and it doesn't need to be too expensive if you're just using it to run the overhead speakers. Although if you want to use Class G amplification on all channels, Arcam will be releasing the four-channel FMJ P429 power amplifier soon.
The AVR850 might not be as feature-packed as some AV receivers but Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and Dirac Live are all important additions.
Dirac LiveWhen the AVR850 was announced, the most excitement was probably reserved for the news that it would include the Dirac Live room correction suite. We've experienced Dirac Live before, so we had a good idea of what the software is capable of and once again it didn't disappoint. Dirac Live is different from traditional minimum-phase room correction systems that only correct frequency response but not impulse response. Dirac Live corrects both, thus offering improvements in the room acoustics, the stereo imaging, clarity and the transient reproduction of audio.
The Dirac Live room correction suite is run off either a PC or a Mac and offers step-by-step instructions on how to measure and analyze the degradations in sound quality caused by your loudspeakers and listening room. The room correction suite requires a microphone for the measurements and works with standard and USB sound cards. Dirac has three modes of operation which are all implemented together, these are 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.
We know from experience that our home cinema unfortunately has sizeable nulls at 60Hz and 80Hz, which subwoofer placement and some room treatment has been unable to eliminate. It's an issue that certainly sorts the men from the boys when it comes to automated room correction software. Some systems like Audyssey to a degree and Anthem Room Correction to a greater extent have been able to smooth out the response but only Dirac can completely address the issue, as the graphs above show.
The graph on the left is the initial frequency response of the front left and right speakers in our home cinema and along with the nulls you can also see a slight dip between 1.5 and 3kHz, which is typical of the B&W floor standing speakers we are using. The second graph shows the result after communication with Dirac in Sweden, the software connects with Dirac's own mainframe computer which crunches the data, delivering a near perfect response curve.
Unlike other room correction software, Dirac Live also addresses impulse response, which is what the graphs above show. The graph on the left is the initial impulse response in the room, whilst the graph on the right shows the improvements in impulse response made by Dirac Live. The corrected impulse response removes any pre-ringing and improves the reverberations, resulting in more detail and better imaging.
What we really like about Dirac Live isn't just that it is highly effective at eliminating degradations caused by your speakers or room but that it also provides graphical representations of the uncorrected response, the target response and final corrected response for all seven main speakers - front left and right, centre, sides and rears. At present Dirac Live doesn't apply correction to the four height channels, only delays and levels, but this will be added with a future firmware update.
Setup and operation is relatively straightforward but Arcam expect their dealers to perform the Dirac Live calibration.
Setup & OperationThere are two aspects to setting up the AVR850, the first is setting up the receiver itself and the second relates to Dirac Live specifically. The receiver itself is relatively straightforward, there aren't many features to worry about and the menu system, whilst fairly basic, is at least easy to follow. If you want to connect the AVR850 to your local network, and you're going to have to for the Dirac Live setup, there's no built-in WiFi so just use an Ethernet cable. Then you can access Internet radio and any music stored on your network servers or storage devices. You can also connect the provided aerial for the built-in FM/DAB tuners, as well as connect all your sources and name them or change any other settings.
The menu system offers 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 just measure the distances from the sweet spot for the delays and set the levels using an SPL meter. However if you're buying the AVR850 then you're almost certainly going to want to use Dirac Live and here Arcam generally expect their dealers to actually perform the setup. When you consider how much the AVR850 costs, it's only reasonable to expect an experienced dealer to ensure that you get the best possible performance from your new receiver.
If on the other hand you wanted to perform the Dirac Live setup yourself you could, all you need to do is download the Dirac software from the Arcam website and use the provided microphone and your own tripod. However the microphone included with the receiver isn't that great and given the sophistication of Dirac Live, Arcam would expect their dealers to use high quality calibrated microphones for the setup. Arcam actually provided us with an XTZ calibrated microphone and we ran Dirac Live off both a MacBook Air and a PC laptop, although the experience was identical with both. Arcam also provided us with two FMJ P49 two-channel power amplifiers, allowing us to run a full Class G 7.2.4 Dolby Atmos setup.
Despite the obvious sophistication of Dirac Live, it is a very user friendly piece of software. As you can see from the screen shots above the room correction process is well laid out, with an excellent graphical interface and plenty of instructions. Once you have followed the instructions and 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 to calculate all the adjustments. This is then sent back to your PC, where you save the file and then load it on to the AVR850. This might be obvious but you will clearly need an internet connection in order to perform the Dirac Live room correction.
Arcam AVR850 Video Review
Sound QualityFor the purposes of testing the AVR850 we performed an initial setup by measuring the delays and levels ourselves and then ran the full Dirac Live setup and loaded that into the receiver. That gave us the opportunity to compare the audio performance both with and without Dirac Live room correction being applied. Our home cinema uses a 7.2.4 Dolby Atmos configuration, with seven channels at ear level, two subwoofers at the front and four overhead speakers. We mainly tested the Arcam using movie content, with 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos soundtracks but we also listened to two-channel and multi-channel music to gauge the musicality of the AVR850. The DTS:X upgrade hasn't been released yet, so we obviously couldn't test that and the AVR850 doesn't support Auro-3D but there isn't exactly a wealth of content in that format anyway.
When you consider the engineering expertise and audiophile components that have gone into the AVR850, not to mention the Class G amplification, it shouldn't come as a surprise to discover that the receiver sounds great even without applying Dirac Live. Just like the previous AVR750, the new receiver is capable of delivering a barnstorming performance with 5.1- and 7.1-channel soundtracks, delivering a dynamic experience that surrounds the listener. The soundstage was wide and open, whilst the steering of effects was excellent. The detail and clarity was just as impressive and thanks to the Class G amplification the receiver was responsive and well timed, offering plenty of head room. All these factors applied equally as well to Dolby Atmos soundtracks and the receiver did a wonderful job of retaining a sense of tonal cohesion to the sonic hemisphere that this immersive audio format creates.
If that was all the AVR850 was capable of we would have been impressed but as soon as we applied the Dirac Live room correction then entire performance just stepped up a gear. It's an over-used cliché but when applying Dirac Live the room and the speakers simply disappeared, creating a wonderfully realistic audio experience. Any sonic characteristics that could have been caused by the room itself evaporated and all that was left was the original sound design. The speakers used in our home cinema are already tonally matched, so Dirac didn't have as much to do in that area but it still produced a beautifully cohesive sound field. However where the software really impressed was in terms of the subwoofers, which were just perfectly integrated with the other speakers, creating a balanced low frequency response that retained plenty of impact.
We started off by listening to some of our favourite 5.1 and 7.1 soundtracks and we were hugely impressed with the results. The beginning of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a masterclass in sound design, beginning with a close-up of Caesar and his breathing. As the camera pulls back other sounds join the mix and you can hear a choir and the sound of rain falling but once the hunt starts the track jumps in dynamic range as the score and the screams of the apes kicks in. Other favourites include Pacific Rim, great for checking the bass performance as the Jaegers and Kaiju go at it, and The Martian with its highly immersive sandstorm near the beginning. Once we had finished with regular Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks we moved on to Dolby Atmos.
We have a large collection of Dolby Atmos Blu-rays but we started with one of Dolby's own demo Blu-rays because there are a number of useful trailers that we are very familiar with. The Amaze trailer combines various natural sound effects with thunderous bass and a rainstorm and, as the rain drops hit the leaves all around the effect was breathtakingly realistic. Once we had established a base level of performance we moved onto actual scenes from movies, with the scene in the water-cooled computer storage area in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation being a particular favourite. The sense of being immersed in water was completely convincing and as the robotic arms swung overhead we almost ducked.
One of our other favourite Dolby Atmos soundtracks is Sicario and here the firefight towards the end had a incredible sense of locational detail that placed you down inside the tunnels with the characters. The gunshots in particular had a physical percussive thump to them followed by a tightly controlled echo caused by the tunnels, resulting in a visceral experience. After that we let rip with the vehicular mayhem of Mad Max: Fury Road and a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that is quite simply turned up to eleven. The result was a hugely enjoyable experience but no matter how complex the sound mix became, the steering and detail remained well defined, whilst dialogue was always clear. The AVR850 certainly delivered the best sounding Dolby Atmos that we have experienced in our home cinema so far.
Whilst we suspect that the AVR850 will primarily be bought for handling movie soundtracks, it's important that an AV receiver can also deliver a decent performance with two-channel music. Whilst it is true that if listening to stereo music is your primary interest, you'll be better served by choosing a two-channel amplifier, there are plenty of AV receivers that are capable of handling both movies and music. However, every now and then an AV receiver comes along that is capable of producing a performance with stereo that would make you question the need for a two-channel amplifier even if listening to music was your primary interest. The Arcam AVR850 is just such an AV receiver with an attention to two-channel performance that will please even the most demanding audiophile.
The open front sound stage retained plenty of detail and clarity, whilst the addition of Dirac Live allowed you to just enjoy the music without ever being aware of the room itself. We found that the AVR850 remained responsive with plenty of pace and tightly controlled bass. We could happily go from David Bowie to Adele to The Libertines without any issues from the Arcam and simply enjoyed the listening experience. Although it doesn't form a large part of our listening catalogue these days, we also found that the AVR850 was highly effective with multi-channel music and Pink Floyd's Darkside of the Moon proved a particular highlight, with the surround mix enveloping us whilst all the various effects proved easy to pinpoint within three dimensional space. Overall the Arcam AVR850 AV receiver is sure to please whether you're listening to a mono recording from the 1920s or an immersive Dolby Atmos mix from the 21st century.
The combination of Class G amplification and Dirac Live results in one of the best-sounding receivers we've tested.
- Excellent sounding receiver
- Dolby Atmos and DTS:X support
- Dirac Live is highly effective
- HDMI inputs suitably future-proof
- Minimalist design and great build quality
- Only seven channels built-in
- Quirky remote control
- Headphone jack may limit options
- Remote app only supports iOS devices
- Quite expensive
Arcam AVR850 7-Channel AV Receiver Review
Should I buy one?
The answer to that question is largely going to depend on your budget but if you have sufficient money to buy the AVR850 and enough left over for additional amplification for the height speakers then it should definitely be at the top of your short list. There are some very good AV receivers available at the moment but few that can offer the audiophile engineering and cutting edge technology found on the AVR850. If it's flashy looks and a boat load of features that you're after then this receiver isn't for you but if superior audio performance with both movies and music is your priority then this is the receiver you should be considering.
Some may find the design of the AVR850 a little plain but we like it's understated minimalism. The front panel is clean, the layout attractive and the display is easy to read. The build quality is excellent, as is the finish, and only the lack of a larger headphone jack is worth mentioning. Around the back Arcam have sensibly eliminated many of the unnecessary legacy connections, concentrating on the ones that you might actually use. So you get seven HDMI inputs and three HDMI outputs and crucially they all support HDMI 2.0a and HDCP 2.2. The AVR850 comes with a useful remote control that is simple to use, once you understand its idiosyncrasies. As an alternative there is a handy remote app, although it's only available for iOS devices, but the slick graphics remind you that Arcam's menu system could use a make-over.
The features on the AVR850 are very much aimed at audio performance, although there is both Internet radio and built-in FM/DAB tuners. There's no built-in WiFi, Bluetooth or AirPlay but you can use an Ethernet cable for a wired connection, allowing you to stream music from any network servers or storage devices. Arcam have made a number of overall improvements to the audio performance of the AVR850, starting with a redesigned platform that includes a new DSP stage and DACs. The receiver also includes seven channels of Class G amplification and adds both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, along with Dirac Live room correction. The addition of Dirac Live is a real coup for Arcam and the results were simply stunning in terms of the software's ability to correct any audio degradation caused by the room or the speakers.
The receiver sounded great without Dirac but as soon as we applied the room correction the sound took on an entirely new characteristic, delivering an impressive level of realism to the overall sound field. When it came to movie soundtracks the AVR850 was a stellar performer, delivering a detailed, expansive and visceral listening experience. The receiver's performance with Dolby Atmos soundtracks was the best we have heard in our home cinema to date, really showing the full potential of multi-dimensional audio. The Arcam also sounded wonderful with music, making it the ideal choice for anyone who wants a receiver for both two-channel and multi-channel sources.
There really is very little to complain about when it comes to the Arcam AVR850, aside from the fact that it only has seven channels of built-in amplification. This means that unless you plan on running a 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos configuration, you're going to have to buy additional amplification. When you consider how good the combination of the receiver and Dirac Live is, you owe it to yourself to run a full 7.1.4 setup if you can. We wonder if Arcam should have offered a preamp/processor instead, allowing consumers to add their own amplification but then again, the AVR85 does provide people with a superb seven-channel receiver and the option to add immersive audio if they wish. Ultimately the Arcam AVR850 is a fantastic AV receiver and if it's in your price range you should arrange a demo immediately.
What are my alternatives?
We mentioned the possibility of Arcam releasing the AVR850 as a preamp/processor rather than as a receiver, thus allowing owners to add whatever amplification they like and we recently reviewed just such a system. The Yamaha CX-A5100 pre/pro and the MX-A5000 11-channel power amplifier have a combined cost of £5,000 and deliver Dolby Atmos and DTS:X in a full 7.1.4 speaker configuration. The pairing brings plenty of features, including Yamaha's MusicCast multiroom system, as well their great build quality, lovely styling and an abundance of power. The result is a stellar partnership where the processor handles the immersive audio with ease whilst the power amp delivers a sonic assault that has plenty of head room. If you want detail and clarity combined with dynamics and power then this 11-channel monster could be the combination for you and it's only £800 more than the AVR850.
There are some extremely impressive AV receivers currently available, many of which cost significantly less than the AVR850, thus making it quite a competitive market place. Amongst the cheaper flagship AV receivers, we would recommend Denon's excellent AVR-X7200WA which currently costs £2,499. It combines plenty of features, an attractive design and great performance together, forming a single highly effective package. It's a nine-channel receiver, so you'll need to add two more channels if you want to run the full 7.1.4 speaker configuration but it already supports Dolby Atmos, Auro-3D and, thanks to recent upgrade, DTS:X. The X7200 uses Audyssey XT32 MultEQ processing and delivers a powerful but refined performance with both movies and music. It also has a very well designed menu system, remote control and rear panel, making setup and operation extremely intuitive.
If you're looking for a receiver that is nearer the AVR850's price point, then there's the Anthem MRX1120 which costs around £3,999. This receiver boasts eleven built-in channels of amplification along with Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and Anthem Room Correction (ARC), which is about the only software that can get close to Dirac Live in terms of flexibility and sophistication. If the MRX1120 can do for immersive audio what previous generations of Anthem receivers have done for seven-channel surround and stereo then we could have a very interesting battle on our hands between Arcam and Anthem. Only time will tell which manufacturer comes out on top but in the meantime Arcam have certainly set the bar very high.
Value For Money8
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