Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier Review

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Is this the best amp for your grand?

by Ed Selley Aug 14, 2018 at 6:50 AM

  • Hi-Fi review

    25

    Recommended
    Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier Review
    SRP: £999.00

    What is the Arcam SA20?

    The Arcam SA20 is an integrated amplifier and the more expensive of two models that form the new HRA range of products. This is big news as Arcam doesn’t exactly barrel through model changes. The FMJ series casework has been with us in varying forms for nearly twenty years and the Alpha series units it replaced (and even the DiVA range it absorbed) enjoyed long lifespans too. This means there has to be good reasons for the company to want to make the change.

    Those reasons are reasonably obvious for anyone who has been watching the two channel market with any degree of focus. What we need and expect our integrated amps to be able to do has grown enormously over the last few years as they assume more and more of the role of source equipment. There is still a market for conventional amps but it’s becoming a rather smaller one as time goes on.

    The HDA (High Definition Audio) models are here to give Arcam the firepower to compete in this new market. Technically, the features of the SA20 and more affordable SA10 are very similar but as the SA20 allows us to test the most affordable iteration yet of Arcam’s own Class G amplifier topology and provides a worthwhile sparring partner for the Cyrus ONE HD that passed through for review at the same time, we’ve decided to look at that first. Without further ado, let’s see how it gets on.

    Specification and Design

    Arcam SA20 Specification and Design
    By the exciting standards of what some integrated amps have been up to over the last year or so, the Arcam is notionally fairly conventional. Your £1,000 buys you a full-width chassis that makes use of an 80 watt amplifier. This is not Class D as is increasingly often the case both at this price point and above but neither is it Class A/B. Instead, the SA20 makes use of the company’s own Class G topology- the most affordable Arcam amp yet to do so.

    Class G is an interesting attempt at nullifying the issues of Class A/B. The most significant of these is the presence of crossover distortion where the sine wave that the output produces crosses over from positive to negative. There have been various endeavours to reduce this issue over the last thirty years - and indeed more interest in the use of pure Class A in both output stages and as the partner to more modern pulse width type amplifiers.

    Arcam has effectively ‘doubled up’ large sections of the SA20’s amplifier innards. It has two power supplies and indeed various parts of the output stage are paired as well. Within a set of fixed parameters, the Arcam operates in Class A- much the same as a Class A/B amplifier. When you exceed this operating margin, a second power supply joins the fray and raises the power available to the speakers. This is subtly different to some notionally similar attempts at doing the same thing like Cambridge Audio’s outgoing Class XD system which used a single power supply but added a displacement circuit that raised the crossover out of the audible section of the signal path. Arcam’s argument is that their system is particularly effective - extra additional costs and complexity in the initial construction notwithstanding. It does raise the interesting notion than an SA20 partnered with very sensitive speakers or used exclusively at low levels, might never engage the extra section of output but that is one for the statisticians to ponder over.
    Arcam SA20 Specification and Design
    This amplification stage is made available to four line-level RCA inputs - enough to ensure that most conventional systems could be accommodated. These are accompanied by a moving magnet phono stage. This is something that Arcam has never stopped providing their integrated amps but it’s also a very useful thing to be fitting in 2018. Where the SA20 breaks new ground for an Arcam amp (with the partial exception of the SR250 which is technically an AV Receiver, even if only a stereo one) in that these inputs are partnered with a trio of digital inputs; two coaxial and one optical. These are decoded via an ESS Sabre 9038K2M DAC. Interestingly, the owner has the choice of selecting between seven different filter settings to fine tune the performance of the unit.

    These inputs and the attendant tweakery are a welcome fitment but if I was going to equip an amp with three digital inputs in 2018, I would have been inclined to make one a USB DAC input (there is a USB connection but it is for the connection and playback of USB files). If I was going to go with coaxial and optical, I’d still most likely fit two optical to one coaxial. It’s perfectly possible that Arcam doesn’t want to undermine sales of their irDACII which is so equipped but it leaves the SA20 feeling a little less than a complete article than the similarly priced Cyrus ONE or the more affordable Audiolab M-ONE where you can simply bolt on a NAS drive and get running. As it is, you can do this with the Arcam too but there is a little more work involved.


    Arcam SA20
    The rest of the Arcam’s functionality is conventional enough but no less welcome for that. There is a 3.5mm headphone socket and a 3.5mm aux-in for quick and dirty connections and the speaker terminals are good solid examples of the genre. What is a welcome thing to have straight after the Bluetooth app controlled Cyrus is a conventional IR remote handset. This is able to drive the SA20 and the matching CDS50 CD player and streamer and while it isn’t a thing of beauty, it works very well and is a useful thing to have.

    Of course, the SA20 couldn’t have a Bluetooth remote as it does without Bluetooth altogether (although Arcam makes a suitable bolt on). This is a shame as Bluetooth’s painful progression from mere convenience feature to genuine high-performance connection is now pretty much complete. What you do get is an Ethernet connection. This is here to allow for IP control of the SA20 in a multiroom environment which could potentially be very handy and allows for a bit of tweaking. It’s a shame that there’s no streaming via the connection but it could potentially be added in due course.
    The HDA casework that the SA20 comes in is quite a clever piece of industrial design and it has grown on me while it has been here. On the one hand, this is a reasonably up to date amplifier with a display to tell you what it’s up to and a useful spread of controls to work it without recourse to the remote. Thanks to that ‘not silver, not black, not entirely grey either’ finish it looks pretty smart and should continue to do so even when mixed with other devices.

    On the other hand, like the Cyrus ONE, there are some clever nods to the company’s past that have been included without going overly retro. The power button on the right hand side is an Arcam trademark, while the volume knob (and I’m showing my age here) feels oddly reminiscent of the one fitted to the Alpha units in the nineties. It might be easy enough to argue that there are simpler pieces of industrial design at the price and I do prefer what Cyrus has done with the ONE, but the SA20 is an amplifier for grownups that should be able to sit happily in a variety of spaces without issue. It is well made too with the casework and controls feeling very solid.

    Arcam SA20
    Arcam has effectively ‘doubled up’ large sections of the SA20’s amplifier innards

    How was the SA20 tested?

    The Arcam was connected via an IsoTek Evo 3 Aquarius mains conditioner and run into a pair of Spendor A1 and Acoustic Energy AE1 Classic standmounts. A Melco N1A was fitted with an M2Tech USB to coaxial converter to allow for testing with that and an LG 55B7 OLED was connected via optical for broadcast and on-demand TV use. Source equipment included a Yamaha WX-AD10 for some streaming and streaming service testing and a Michell Gyrodec with SME M2-9 arm and Goldring 2500 moving iron cartridge was used for testing the phono stage. Material used has included lossless and high res FLAC and AIFF along with Deezer and Tidal, broadcast TV and Netflix along with vinyl.

    Sound Quality

    Arcam SA20 Sound Quality
    Historically, Arcam amps were designed to straddle an important sonic boundary. They avoided harshness and aggression like I do the collected works of James Corden. They then managed to balance this with enough timing, agility and general get up and go that you found the result innately musical. ‘Easy listening’ is a phrase that gets a lot of stick but the idea of finding it easy to listen to whatever you fancied listening to at that moment should be an appealing one.

    The good news is that the SA20 doesn’t abandon this philosophy. Having run in for a bit playing endless episodes of Dangermouse on Netflix, it takes the Spendor A1 and manages to coax a little extra low-end urge from those small, sealed cabinets without destabilising their wonderful even-handedness and assurance. Revisiting the wonderful Resistance is Futile by the Manic Street Preachers on this combination via the Yamaha WX-AD10, is genuinely satisfying. The soaring chorus of Vivian is relayed with plenty of warmth and tonal realism but never at the expense of the ability to get the head nodding.

    This low-end response is something that might be too much of a good thing depending on what you elect to partner the Arcam with. My current situation is very much standmounts only for test work but I suspect that connecting a pair of speakers that have a prodigious low end anyway might result in a slightly leaden presentation but for more ‘normal’ partnering equipment, the SA20 should be ideal for the task. This is in part because it feels very much like those claimed 80 watts are always raring to go and there never feels like there is any shortage of power. Purely subjectively as it isn’t possible to bench them to confirm it but it always feels like the Arcam has a little more in reserve than the Cyrus ONE at any given volume increment.
    Arcam SA20 Sound Quality
    The digital decoding section of the SA20 doesn’t significantly alter this balance. There is a character to the way that ESS DACs go about decoding that is apparent in (almost) everything that uses them and the SA20 becomes slightly more forward and ‘well lit’ via the digital board but not the extent that the overall balance of the amplifier is significantly affected. In use, I haven’t found the filters to be hugely different in performance terms. I have fractionally preferred the ‘Linear phase, slow roll off’ setting for most listening as it removes a slight sense of processing that creeps in on some other settings.

    One fitment that is useful on the Arcam is the presence of a sample rate indicator on the front panel. This allowed me to get the M2Tech USB to coax converter working correctly with minimal faffing. Having done so, it worked well into one of the coaxial inputs on the SA20 which would suggest that you can turn coaxial into a USB (albeit one less DSD) fairly easily if you allocate the extra budget to it. That slight forward edge to the digital is welcome with TV material though. Moving away from Dangermouse and revisiting the peerless Person of Interest and the Arcam does a fine job of keeping the dialogue intelligible and making sense of the information on screen. Once again, there is plenty of headroom to ensure that you can run material at pretty much any level you fancy. It’s no SR250 but, it's more than up to the job of outperforming your stereo speakers.

    Not all the functionality is quite so capable. The headphone amp is perfectly adequate for occasional late night work but it is rather outperformed by the Cyrus unit. Oddly, compared to the unburstable feeling that the main amp engenders, it can feel a little underpowered with some larger headphones too. The IP control is also something that - in a traditional two-channel sense anyway - doesn’t really feel like it adds anything to the amp. While I prefer the physical remote handset of the Arcam to the Cyrus’ Bluetooth app, I do miss the presence of Bluetooth too.

    There will be no need to allocate any additional money to the phono stage however. The SA20 has been fitted with a device that is a good deal more than a simple place filler. Listening the fabulously kitsch Return of the Fabric Four from Corduroy, their new effort after a brief 20 years off, the Arcam is simply excellent. There is no background noise, plenty of gain and a real sense of involvement to the music. That rich, unfussed tonality is the perfect foil to material like this and makes for a very happy listening partner indeed. Selecting the raucous Music for the Jilted Generation by the Prodigy and winding the level up to a point that drowns out the realisation that it is now 24 years old and the Arcam still works well. The speed and impact is there but the performance is still impressively controlled and refined.

    There is plenty of headroom to ensure that you can run material at pretty much any level you fancy

    Conclusion

    8
    AVForumsSCORE
    OUT OF
    10

    Pros

    • Rich, powerful and refined sound
    • Well made
    • Comprehensive input choice

    Cons

    • No USB DAC input or Bluetooth
    • Headphone amp a little weak
    • Possible bass issues with larger speakers
    You own this Total 1
    You want this Total 1
    You had this Total 0

    Arcam SA20 Integrated Amplifier Review

    New Arcam integrateds are rare birds and there is always a sense of occasion to them. The good news is that it is more than nostalgia that means we should welcome the SA20 to the fold. Arcam has done a few things I don’t completely understand with it - the lack of USB digital and Bluetooth inputs are the main ones - but there is no doubting that the fundamentals of the amp are very strong indeed. More than anything else, the SA20 makes a very wide spread of material fun to listen to and given the flexibility of the inputs that you can perform this with and the sensible price that it is offered at means that the Arcam SA20 earns our enthusiastic recommendation.


    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £999.00

    The Rundown

    Build Quality

    8

    Connectivity

    8

    Ease of use

    9

    Features

    8

    Audio quality

    9

    Value for money

    8

    Overall

    8

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