Arcam SR250 Stereo Receiver Review
Looking at Atmos and wondering if there's another way?
What is the SR250?The Arcam SR250 is an AV receiver that features completely up-to-date HDMI video and audio decoding but then deviates from the norm and supports two channels instead of the more conventional five, seven, nine or eleven. On the face of it, this might look like the bicycle that your fish has always wanted but this product is not an act of lunacy or an especially long lunch - there's some very prescient thinking behind its existence.
For starters, the SR250 is not Arcam abandoning multichannel. It is intended to augment Arcam's AV receiver range rather than replace it. As a company that started in stereo, Arcam is full of people that prefer two channel listening to multichannel. At the same time, they aren't blind to the requirements of making full use of Blu-ray, HDTV and streaming services and the notional benefits of 4K which all largely involve HDMI. If you truly want a stereo amp to do everything in 2015, it is going to need some of the trappings of an AV receiver.
At the same time with stereo staging a fairly impressive revival in its own right, we are at a technology point with AV receivers that for many of us means we will have to consider a change to our hardware to continue to support the material coming on stream at the moment. For more than a few people, the idea of making use of object-based surround is an unlikely one. If you are going to be making such a change, why not look at the possibility of changing your priorities at the same time? Clearly Arcam is hoping that there's a niche to be filled here. Is this the case and is the SR250 good enough to fill it?
SpecificationThe SR250 is built around seven HDMI inputs and a pair of outputs. These are HDMI2.0a with HDCP2.2 so tick the required boxes in order to grant the SR250 the necessary future proofing to be relevant for a reasonable period of time. These HDMI inputs are able to decode all of the relevant surround formats with the exception of the object-based surround ones. These are supported by their multichannel AV receivers but in the case of a product that is being asked to do a lot of downmixing, it is probably a step too far to add height channel information into that downmix.
Additionally, the SR250 has a pair of optical and a quartet of coaxial inputs. These can be assigned to HDMI connections or run independently and give the Arcam a degree of legacy support. The digital connections are then backed up with six RCA analogue inputs. The resulting input set should be sufficient to handle an extensive home system without too much of a struggle.
In keeping with a number of AV products we have seen recently, the SR250 has dispensed with legacy video connections and performs no video upscaling on the HDMI inputs. Simply put, the benefits of both are becoming more and more fringe in their appeal to consumers and they add cost and complexity to the product. Arcam has fitted an auto setup and EQ system however and here the SR250 is very sophisticated indeed. The Dirac system that Arcam has employed on this generation of products is a powerful piece of EQ Software that puts the SR250 into a very special category of two channel products- most of which continue to do without such a system.
Dirac is a little different to the systems commonly employed by AV products in that while it takes measurements with a microphone, the SR250 itself doesn't act directly on that information. The results of the room measurements are sent back to Dirac HQ, processed there and correction data returned to the amp to implement. Arcam will be strongly encouraging dealers to go and install these products themselves so while the SR250 will come with the means of running such a setup yourself, the idea is you won't have to. I'll cover what the effects and implications of Dirac were on my own room and speakers in the Setup section.
As befits a receiver, the SR250 has a DAB/DAB+/FM tuner on board and is also fitted with an ethernet connection that allows control via app and UPnP streaming up to 24/48kHz. Arcam has also included Spotify Connect functionality as well. This places the SR250 at a slight disadvantage compared to some rivals which have wireless functionality included in their specification. As you would expect, the AV functionality also extends to an on screen menu which while not an interactive masterpiece is clear and easy to use.
Internally, the SR250 makes use of Arcam's proprietary 'Class G' amplification. This is a system that uses multiple voltage rails to avoid the audible issues of crossover distortion in Class A/B amplifiers- Arcam has included a comprehensive white paper on their website so I'll avoid regurgitating large chunks of it here, except to say that the benefits of getting shot of crossover distortion are considerable and worth the expended effort in terms of eliminating it. The amplifiers themselves have 90 watts measured 2 channels driven, 20Hz - 20kHz (or 'properly' for those not inclined to pay much attention to measurements) which compares favourably to both stereo and multichannel rivals.
DesignThe Arcam is built into the latest version of the Arcam FMJ casework and thankfully, this generation of receivers has reverted back to including a volume control. The SR250 might 'only' be a stereo unit but it is still a very sizeable box indeed that will require a fair amount of space. The build is solid though and the green on black display is clear and easy to read. There are some minor annoyances though. The headphone socket is 3.5mm only which precludes the use of some home headphones. The front power button is a two position on/off switch so to place the unit in standby, you have to use the remote which is also a little odd.
The remote itself is a solid piece of kit. There are a fair few buttons on it but the layout is logical and easy enough to follow and the range and off axis performance is very good. As well as controlling the SR250 it can be used to control other devices used in the system which should come in handy. One slight quirk of this function that is worth explaining is that if you select an input, the remote will assume you also want to begin controlling this source. To control much else on the SR250 other than volume, you will need to press the 'amp' button on the remote to do so. Easy when you know how...
The input set should be sufficient to handle an extensive home system without too much of a struggle
Arcam AR250 SetupThe SR250 was installed by Arcam which ensured that Dirac would be able to deliver the best results. In the interests of disclosure and transparency, I was happy for this to be done on the understanding that Arcam expects a dealer to perform a similar process for a customer so the results of my listening should not be radically different or unrepeatable for an owner.
After some discussion, the unit was setup to the 'sofa' setting on Dirac. This means that the EQ would be relevant to a wider sweet spot than a single listening position. With this selected, the test sweeps were run and the results of the speakers in room are below.
The blue line shows the performance with no EQ. The most notable aspect of the performance is the expected room node at 46-55Hz and a smaller one at 70Hz. What is less expected is that thanks to one speaker being in relatively close proximity to a cabinet, it has measurable bass augmentation over its partner which doesn't. The lift at the upper frequencies is a trait of the speakers as designed. Nonetheless, the purpose of this review was to establish exactly what Dirac can do and as Dirac posted an optimal trace (in orange) without it, after some discussions, I requested that it be eliminated in the corrected response- which is visible in green. As the Dirac can be switched in and out on the remote in a second or so, I felt this would be the most worthwhile test.
The SR250 has set a new record in terms of connected equipment as it replaced two amps rather than the usual one. As such, it has had a Cambridge Audio 752BD and Sky HD and a Fire TV stick connected via HDMI and outputting to a Panasonic GT60 Plasma which was in turn sending Netflix and iPlayer back via ARC. Additionally, a Naim ND5XS and Avid Ingenium Twin connected via Cyrus Signature Phono phono stage were connected via RCA. The SR250 was connected to a pair of Neat Momentum 4i speakers and all equipment was connected via IsoTek Evo3 Sigmas and Evo 3 Aquarius mains conditioners. Test material has- as a result- been absolutely everything.
Performance with Blu-rayAs the Arcam performs its own downmixing, it feels a little odd to put a disc in to your player knowing that far more channels of information being sent than it has to amplify but this is what is recommended. Kicking off with my go to 'know every last bump of it' test disc, Unstoppable was an illuminating experience and in many ways, sets the tone of the SR250's performance for the rest of the test period.
Put simply, if you have a large surround system of well setup speakers, the SR250 is not going to deliver the same experience. There is no attempt at virtual surround or any other trickery and this means that the Arcam doesn't even try to generate the same levels of immersion as a surround equivalent. What has surprised me- and was the case for me personally after about thirty minutes- is that this mattered less than I thought it would. Aided by the Neats being potent speakers in their own right, the Arcam produces a sound that has plenty of slam and impact coupled to an integration and delicacy that is rarely achieved with speakers and sub. There's still a palpable force when the train hits something but there's a speed and deftness to the effect that is very pleasing. The tonality of voices and effects is also rich and believable, greatly aided by the presentation of the SR250 being relatively neutral, possibly erring fractionally on the side of warmth.
This is also aided by the Arcam generating the best 'Phantom centre' I've ever heard despite notionally not bothering with a such a processing effect. Dialogue is locked to the screen and the panning from left to right is as cohesive as a good conventional AV system. When you combine this with a soundtrack that has less surround energy in it like the final drum solo in Whiplash, the Arcam is able to produce a seriously impressive performance. The SR250 is able to make you concentrate on the information as processed in such a way as to break your attention from the channels that aren't there.
Performance with TVVery little of the Arcam's basic attributes change when broadcast and on demand material is used instead of blu ray. Once again, the Arcam's greatest attribute is how good the front soundstage is. The performance is impressively seamless left to right and this gives the Arcam the ability to handle dialogue no matter how mumbled with clarity and accuracy- the now traditional test with Elementary showed it to work very well in this area.
What further helps the SR250 is that as is doesn't need to balance the gain of speakers and sub, it delivers a tremendously consistent performance almost regardless of volume level. This makes it a tremendously accomplished partner for late night viewing. Also worth noting is that no latency issues were experienced with Sky which is usually the worst offender for this issue in this system.
The SR250 is able to make you concentrate on the information as processed in such a way as to break your attention from the channels that aren't there
Performance with MusicGiven that the Neat speakers are predominantly used in stereo and without any form of EQ, the music listening served both as a test of the Arcam's abilities in two channel and the easiest place for me to judge the effect of Dirac on the performance. As, I imagine there will be most interest in the latter, we can begin with that.
Given the size of the room node that the Dirac system has corrected, the effect of applying Dirac mid track to bass heavy material is not as pronounced as I had thought it might be. There is certainly not the drop in bass output that there might be. Instead, when the processing is applied, the bass response of the speakers tightens up and seems a little faster and better defined. My suspicions are in this case that as the Neat has no shortage of bass extension, it is still able to produce meaningful low end impact. It is possible that there would be situations that the bass response of the speakers might be significantly curtailed but I can't report on what hasn't happened.
The effect on the engineered treble lift of the speakers has also been less pronounced than I thought it might be. I suspect this may be down to how the Arcam and my resident Naim amplifier differ in the top end. The slightly brighter top end of the Arcam effectively redresses the balance of the cut treble output. This means that switching the Dirac in and out of the signal doesn't suddenly drastically change one area more noticeably over another. Instead, the sound is more uneven and has a slightly ragged feel to it. Unlike a number of EQ systems I've tried over the years, Dirac really does feel like a complimentary rather than adversarial process- extracting a little more from the equipment rather than beating it into submission.
This means that the SR250 is a very capable stereo amp indeed. With an analogue signal from the Naim ND5 XS, it produces a powerful but refined performance that works well across a very wide variety of genres. Most important for the SR250 as a premise is that the performance is directly competitive with more conventional stereo amps at a similar price. There is an effortlessness to the way it works with the Neats that can only be the result of the power output being accurately represented and backed up by good power supply arrangements.
This really comes into its own with vinyl. Connected to the Avid Ingenium twin and Cyrus Phono Signature, the Arcam works superbly. On an entirely subjective level, I feel that the Dirac implementation has been most effective here. The EQ tweaks allow analogue to sound slightly leaner, faster and cleaner than was the case without it. On a more fundamental level, the Arcam is so far the only product I have ever reviewed that has the wherewithal to play Psyence Fiction on Vinyl at the same time as you route HDTV through it.
- Exceptional stereo performance
- Strong Movie and TV performance
- Dirac is genuinely useful
- Not as immersive as surround rivals
- No balanced connections
- Odd remote process
Arcam SR250 Stereo Receiver ReviewThere is no dispute that the Arcam SR250 is a very specialised product and one that is unlikely to face a huge amount of competition from similarly specced rivals. A number of you who are reading this will have decided that an AV receiver without surround is a pointless undertaking. Others will feel that their stereo systems do not require this functionality. In short, this is not a product with universal appeal.
After a bit of time with the SR250, I am a convert to what the Arcam offers. There are a few products I've reviewed over the years where I'm left thinking that were I to stop reviewing, I would look to them as the basis of a 'normal' home audio system. The Arcam is one of these products. If you are looking at the basics of DTS X and Dolby Atmos and thinking that this simply isn't going to be something you are going to bother with, or even looking at speakers in all corners of your lounge and realising that this doesn't appeal as much as it used to, the SR250 might be the answer. Equally, if you are a two channel hi-fi owner and you want your system to integrate better with your TV, the Arcam is in a league of its own at offering the ability to do this. The SR250 might be a specialised proposition but it is also an exceptionally good one and as such it comes highly recommended.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £2,500.00
Ease of use9
Value for money8
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