Introduction - what is the Arcam SA30?
The Arcam SA30 is an integrated amplifier. At least, it’s described as an integrated amp. Like a few of these we’ve looked at over recent years, if Arcam had dispatched it to us as an all-in-one system, the long suffering Andy Bassett, who oversees the collation of products into our content management system, could have entered it as one without a single value being a problem. The boundary between the two categories becomes ever more elastic.
Nevertheless, the SA30 is the range topping integrated amplifier from Arcam and unlike the capable but relatively straight laced SA20 we looked at two years ago, it arrives with a specification that promises a great deal. This is an amplifier that brings certain functionality together in such a way that I’ve not seen up until this point. It then proceeds to do so at a price that undercuts a few very capable amplifiers that have passed through this year. If it delivers, it will be a serious contender.
Of course, that’s a big if. We have seen killer specification products here before fail to martial their technical resources to truly be the category killers that they promise to be. Does the SA30 tie everything together to deliver a knock out blow to all its rivals? It’s time to find out - and this time with the added power of graphs.
Specification and Design
At a nuts and bolts level, the SA30 looks like a logical jump from the SA20. Power rises from the 90 watts of the smaller amp to 120 watts here; a figure that really ought to be sufficient for most domestic requirements you might have. Like other Arcam amps above the entry tier, the SA30 is a Class G amp which effectively means it doubles up the output stage in a bid to stave off the effects of crossover distortion from the output switching. As with the SA20, I find myself wondering if a sensitive pair of speakers might never result in the additional output being used but that’s by the by.
Like the SA20, the SA30 has a combination of analogue and digital inputs but the scope of these has been expanded so this bigger amp feels a great deal more ‘complete’ than its little brother. Starting at the old school end of things, the SA30 has a phono stage in the longstanding (and admirable) tradition of doing so but here you have the choice between moving magnet and moving coil support which considerably broadens the options available to owners.
These are joined by three (ignore Arcam’s claim that there are five inputs on the SA30. This is true insofar that there are five sets of RCA connections but two of them are for the two flavours of phono stage. The actual number of non phono based inputs is three) RCA inputs and a stereo pre-out, which now has a choice of power amps to be attached to it. There are additionally four conventional digital inputs; two optical and two coaxial. This is a decent spread of connections but at this point, the SA30 kicks on. The conventional inputs are joined by a single HDMI eARC input that slaves the volume to your TV remote.
Neither is the SA30 done there. There is an Ethernet connection that allows for UPnP streaming, AirPlay 2 and Cast support. DSD and MQA are supported too and maximum PCM handling is 192kHZ. Last but by no means least, the SA30 is able to function as a Roon endpoint. This is a specification that puts the SA30 on a very similar footing to the NAD M10, with the only real difference being that the Arcam is still resolutely described as an amp (albeit an ‘intelligent’ one) and not an all in one.
That comparison to the NAD is made more valid by the presence of Dirac. The Arcam comes supplied with a setup mic and can be set against the Dirac optimal setting, a custom curve from Harman Luxury and, if you’ve lots of time and a fanatical sense of self-belief, a custom curve. The Dirac license here is for the full frequency response and you can save more than one set of results to the amp. It won’t separately EQ a subwoofer in a 2.1 setup however. If you measure a 2.1 system it will be EQ’d as a 2.0 with the sub corrections integrated in.
This is a lot of technology to pack into an amp so let’s cover off the good and the not so good. The good news is that the Dirac installation works very well. The software has improved considerably over the years and the prompts and feedback help to make it a less intimidating experience. I got no false results running the measurements and the upload of the settings - something I’ve had issues with in the past - was faultless.
As to the results themselves. The measurements were taken with a pair of Focal Kanta No1 standmounts placed where they normally sit. From the screenshot below you can see that there isn’t much wrong with what the Focal does with no EQ applied. Given I use this room for testing and there are neither serious anomalies in placement nor the room itself, this is not terribly surprising. The scope of Dirac to sort more onerous room issues is something to consider though. Nevertheless, even with these fairly benign results, a degree of correction can be applied and this was done to the Dirac spec rather than the Harman one.
If the Dirac works well, the ‘Music Life’ streaming app is a bit less assured. It’s fundamentally stable (it doesn’t like switching in and out of Roon but given, if you have Roon, you are highly unlikely to switch in and out of it, that’s a special reviewing gripe that real people can ignore) and logical enough to use but it feels a generation behind what Naim and Bluesound are doing with their own apps (and also offering Roon support at the same time). There’s a similar clunkiness to some of the setup menus as well (changing between MM and MC inputs on the phono stage is quite wilfully illogical) and the SA30 never looks or feels as slick in use as the true all in ones. The response to the remote isn’t 100% either. Honesty dictates I admit that I also managed to brick it updating the Chromecast software necessitating a hard reset (although all was well after).
In better news, the basic construction of the Arcam is very good. It feels sturdy and while the display isn’t going to have the designers of the NAD M10 rushing to knock up a redesign, it is good enough to show what the amp is doing at any given time. I’m still fond of the ‘HDA’ casework design too. The Arcam is not a radical piece of design and quite deliberately so. Instead, it looks and feels reassuringly solid and grown up and has just enough nods to Arcam’s past (the right hand power button and Alpha series type volume control in particular) to feel like an Arcam.
The specification of the SA30 might be something of a letdown for anyone who was hoping that the rather more radical SR250 might get the HDA treatment. This is a stereo amp with extended features and not a cut down AV receiver in the manner that the SR250 was. I was truly impressed by the SR250 when I tested it and I regard it as one of the most important first generation products in the ‘Post AV’ progression that has been gathering pace in the last few years. Nevertheless, I can see why Arcam has taken the path they have with their second generation of post AV product (and this is one of the only second generation devices in existence at the time of writing; August 2020). The complexity of the SR250 was both a strength and a weakness. It is barely less involved in use than a normal AV Receiver and, thanks to the format handling and the like, it has high licensing costs and obsolescence issues. The SA30 is largely immune to this. It takes up less room, it’s simpler to use and the eARC fitment should ensure it talks to tellies for the foreseeable future.
The Arcam comes supplied with a setup mic and can be set against the Dirac optimal setting, a custom curve from Harman Luxury and, if you’ve lots of time and a fanatical sense of self-belief, a custom curve
How was the SA30 tested?
The SA30 has been connected to an IsoTek Evo3 Sigmas mains conditioner and used with wired Ethernet for networking. It has mainly been tested as a Roon Endpoint but the standard streaming has been tested on iOS and Android with an iPad Pro and Oppo Find X2 Neo reading a library on a Melco N1A. Cast and AirPlay have also been tested. Additional listening has been carried out via a Rega Planar 10 (in the same configuration as tested) running to the phono stage and a quick test of the optical input with an LG 55B7 (HDMI ARC on the LG remains broken). The speaker in all cases has been the Focal Kanta No1. Material used has included FLAC, AIFF, DSD, Tidal and Qobuz, on demand streaming services and some vinyl.
More: Audio Formats
The review sample had clearly been active prior to arriving with me so critical listening kicked off from the outset - initially with Dirac disengaged. At the core of the SA30 is a fundamental that sounds obvious when stated but when the nature of the amp topology, various extra bells and whistles and on board DAC is considered, really isn’t. That fundamental is that it sounds like an Arcam and, as far as I am concerned, this is a good thing.
Listening to the monumental bombast of My Own Soul’s Warning by The Killers shows this off to excellent effect. This is a civilised amplifier. Even when provoked with thoroughly childish volume settings, a speaker that has a streak of ruthlessness to it and a mix that has the classic ‘hot’ edge of a Killers record, the SA30 is unflappable and wonderfully composed. You can listen at these levels for as long as you think your neighbours will tolerate them for and not feel fatigued or edgy from doing so.
The clever bit is that this never comes at the expense of the excitement and emotional content. The SA30 is a genuinely invigorating amp to listen to. It’s a different sort of invigoration to the Naim Nait XS3 in that it isn’t as urgent (although, the Arcam is entirely together in terms of its timing). Instead, there’s an involvement and richness from the midrange and a realism to voices and instruments that pulls you into the presentation. This is the classic Arcam balance because it means you can listen to pretty much anything, no matter how gruesomely mastered, and it will deliver on a musical level.
What has impressed me is that this is achieved with the digital section being present too. In fact, the digital section has almost no defined characteristics of its own. It exists to complement and enable the amp in doing what it does. This is a fine use of an ESS DAC because there’s (almost) no trace of the ‘house sound’ of the silicone. Instead, the SA30 delivers a performance that is effectively (there’s a slight caveat we’ll come to in a bit) source agnostic.
Enough messing though. Large swathes of you want to know about the Dirac and I can’t leave you waiting any longer. As with the SR250, it’s simplicity itself to switch in and out of your Dirac program and doing so here doesn’t result in night and day changes in presentation because the corrections are fairly small and being applied to a competent speaker that has been advantageously placed. Nevertheless, the elimination of that circa 40Hz swell cleans up the low end of the performance noticeably and can be appreciated as beneficial.
Further up the frequency response though, things are less clear cut. This is a less pronounced effect than was the case with the SR250 and my Neat Momentum floorstanders but some of the ‘corrections’ being made here are fundamentally altering the balance of the Focal. It’s here that there will be a difference of opinion. Some of you will read that and say something to the effect of “so what? The altered trace is more accurate” and this is a perfectly valid approach. Taking a more traditional position, I’m not always convinced this is what I’m after. Quite often, I’ve found myself switching out of the Dirac settings and reverted to straight because - bluntly - I prefer what it sounds like used this way. This is easy for me to say though. In a room that fundamentally isn’t benign, the Arcam has more tools at its disposal to alleviate this than any rival.
There’s one final ribbon to this already fairly enticing bow. It’s been a very long time since I’ve listened to an Arcam amp with a moving coil phono stage on board and I had forgotten that the company is rather good at them. Whereas with the recently reviewed Leema Acoustics Pulse IV, the moving coil section felt less accomplished than the MM part, here they have a very similar overall balance and the MC section is impressively quiet and the huge headroom that the SA30 has to its name is enough to ensure you’re very unlikely to struggle for gain. This means the SA30 is a fantastic partner for turntables, including those its rivals would struggle with. At £4,500, a Planar 10 is probably over matching the target but a Planar 8 with Ania cartridge would be a near perfect match.
The SA30 is a genuinely invigorating amp to listen to
- Truly superb specification
- Sounds consistently good
- Well made
- Some minor software quibbles
- Can't quite challenge the best conventional amp in its class
- Some people find the looks a little dull
Arcam SA30 Integrated Amplifier Review
In the film The Naked Lunch, (a film I’ve never seen but as an avid Bomb the Bass fan I know this quote verbatim) there is the magnificent line "I think it's time to discuss your philosophy of drug use, as it relates to artistic endeavor (sic)." This is oddly applicable to the SA30 (bear with me). The Arcam was requested for AVF because of the technical endeavour it represents. It makes most rivals look pretty Neolithic in comparison. It can work without further sources and, as it already undercuts some talented rivals, it looks serious value for money.
The thing is though, the SA30 is not a great amp because it’s an impressive technical endeavour. It’s a great amp because at its heart, it’s a great amp. Strip away the Dirac, the networking, even the digital inputs and, at the core is an amp that consistently satisfies. To this, Arcam has added cleverness that augments the basic qualities, rather than covering for a lack of them. It’s not perfect; there’s a few wobbles to the core software and, in a benign room for someone who already owns source equipment, the Nait XS3 is a smidge better but this is an amp that does a vast swathe of things and does them brilliantly. This is everything that an Arcam should be; a clear successor to the innovative, user friendly all rounders that so appealed in the early years of my interest in the world of Hi-Fi. This tremendous return to form is therefore, an easy Best Buy.
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