Denon/Arcam AV Receiver/Amp Comparison Write-Up

shug4476

Active Member
I keep posting these but the simple reason is that comparison threads were very useful for me to read in selecting kit, so hopefully somebody will use them. I have actually put percentage marks in for the relative performance, which I hope provides some ordinal context to the subjective observations I make.

I began running the Denon with the A80 driving the front stereo speakers. For me, this was fine, but I had no end of complaints from the missus that she didn't know how anything worked. All the HDMI connections were run through the Denon, so to use a video source, she had to switch that on and then find the correct input. But to listen to anything, she also had to switch the Arcam on. Obviously what I am after is good stereo performance married to an AV solution.

The somewhat odd collection of kit I have compared and contrasted is:

Denon AVR-3808
Arcam A80 (stereo amplifier)
Arcam AV9
Arcam P80

These have all been driving ATC SCM7 speakers, a BK Monolith FF+, and fed by an Arcam CD93T, Denon DVD-2930, and Rega P2 turntable.

Denon AVR-3808

In summary, this had the worst sound quality of the group (although not 'bad'), but is also the most pleasant to use and operate.

I am currently selling this, and I am sorry to see it go. But for its stereo performance, it really is a one box solution. It has HDMI switching and handles almost all audio formats (certainly the ones I will use), a phono stage for the turntable, a radio tuner, Denon Link for SACD/DVD-A, and the superb Audyssey. The GUI is a pleasure to use. This flexibility is extremely appealing (I am almost talking myself out of selling it as I type this!).

For movies, and indeed perhaps for multichannel music, this may be as good as you'll ever need. It supplies lots of clean power. I feel as though it drove my previous Wharfedale 220s to their limits.

On movies, it reflects the quality of the mastering of a soundtrack very well. One of the very best mixes I have heard recently is the Blu Ray release of Ash vs Evil Dead, a television series spin-off of the classic film trilogy. This sounded simply superb over the Denon. Where Ash confronts one of the deadites, the roar of his chainsaw burst into the room and brought a large grin to my face.

With multichannel music, the Denon is fairly comfortable. Denon Link, which really is worth investing in if you have the kit, makes a big difference. I compare the stereo CD of Norah Jones' Come Away With Me to the multichannel SACD. In stereo, all the adjectives you might use for a mediocre budget stereo amp spring to mind. Clean. Inoffensive. Pleasant to listen to.

In multichannel, the soundstage opens up, and you do get the impression of a much more sophisticated performance of musicians and their artistic synergy. As I've Got To See You Again plays, I can hear the subtle shifts around the microphone of Norah Jones and what sounds like maracas in her hands being subtly moved around the same microphone.

Switching back to stereo, even with the brilliant Arcam CD93T in the chain, the soundstage has collapsed and, although it sounds very pleasant, it simply cannot match the SACD performance.

Another demo-worth disc is Queen's A Night At The Opera on DVD-Audio. Bohemian Rhapsody is a song I suspect everybody has heard dozens of times over their lives. However well you think you know this song, you simply have to get hold of this multichannel mix. Over the Denon, it is as if hearing it again for the first time. Freddie's voice sounds glorious, and the extra channels open up the mix bringing out details which, whilst clearly there all along, I had simply never noticed before.

Switching to Lang Lang's SACD performance of Rachaminov's Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. Now usually I am no fan of Lang Lang. I feel he 'tinkers' too much with what's in the manuscript in order to try and sound different. For this performance, there is a constraint he has to accept - he has an orchestra behind him, who are playing to script. So he keeps the innovations in check (although there are still plenty of them there). Through the Denon his performance is detailed, clean, but ultimately uninteresting. The piano simply did not arrest my attention, and I was looking around the room after a few minutes' listening.

I drop in Tom Waits' The Early Years Vol 2 on Vinyl. I don't know how others feel, but I have never been that keen on Waits' early studio albums, which sound pretty corny to me. It's as if as soon as he took his songs into a recording studio they were cleansed of any deeper meaning. But these acoustic versions of his early songs are simply glorious and it is almost impossible to believe this is the same singer as on the much later Orphans. Through the Denon, The Early Years sounds pleasant, sometimes tuneful, and vinyl actually seems to suit the characteristics of the amplifier rather better than does CD.

In conclusion, multichannel SACD and DVD-A cannot fully overcome the lack of ability of the Denon to communicate music intellectually and artistically. I never pondered the meaning of a track as I listened to it, or what the artist had in mind. As I explain below, this was a flaw that was equally attributable to the Arcam A80, so one should not be too harsh on the Denon. These go for under £100 at which price they represent a value that is difficult to match. If you are running a sensibly priced multichannel speaker array, such as sub-sats, or something like the Wharfedale 220s I previously ran, then it is as good as you will ever need.

It is worth adding, the pre-amp stage of the Denon dominates its performance. Putting the P80 into the chain did not transform its stereo performance. It did tighten it up a bit, but the Denon itself is prodigiously powerful and more than man enough for most speaker loads.

Stereo Performance - 54%
Multichannel Performance (Music) - 63%
Multichannel Performance (Movies) - 72%


Arcam A80

This is a mid-level Arcam amp. For those who know their history, Arcam's major leap forward in stereo amplifier design was the A85 with its current feedback topology. Its power amp stage formed the basis of the remarkable P7 amplifier. Below the A85 sat an A75 and A65 (both revised into a "plus" version), neither of which performed particularly well and had the unfortunate luck of being released at the same time as some cracking kit from Rotel, NAD and Marantz in the same price bracket.

The A85 was different. It is hugely powerful, and can turn out over 500W/channel into 1 Ohm under dynamic conditions. Eventually it was 'revised' into the A90, which was largely the same albeit with a slightly larger power supply and some interface revisions. The FMJ-A32, the top of the range at the time, was also very close to the A85 in design and gave a similar performance in lab test results.

This A80 was a distillation of the A85, but is a substantially different design. Whilst it is built on the same current feedback circuitry, cuts had to be made, both in the pre and power-amp stages. It is much less powerful than the A85, particularly into dynamic conditions, and as such does not have the same speaker load tolerance.

In use, it is a pleasure. It has a 'processor' mode for seamless integration into a multichannel system. It has a perfectly respectable MM phono stage as standard. The remote control is simple and intuitive.

And in performance? I was content with how this sounded whilst using it. It essentially has quite similar characteristics to the Denon but does everything better. The soundstage is clean from top to bottom. The bass is tight and controlled. CD sounds quite clinical. Norah Jones, although clean and insightful, essentially sounds like a better version of the Denon. The sound is very 'HiFi'. It would make for a good demo but, as with the Denon, I am not intellectually curious about the music from CD, nor emotionally moved.

Vinyl is a different matter, and really plays to the amp's strengths. It is much more enjoyable. Listening to some Nina Simone, and the swing and sheer joy of the music is quite infectious.

Whilst the A80 is clearly an improvement on the Denon in a lot of technical ways, I cannot absolutely say I felt substantially more involved with the music than I did with the Denon. This only goes to highlight the superb flexibility and engineering achievement that the Denon represents. If you are planning to run a stereo-only system, the A80 makes a very good starting point, and can be had for good money online. However, given a choice, the A85 or even A90 would make an altogether better centre piece for a stereo system.

Whilst the A80 had a particular talent with vinyl, the Denon more than counters this with its multichannel music capabilities.

Stereo Performance - 63%

Arcam AV9 + P80

It was always a question I have been curious about, whether an old but well-regarded AV processor can match a new, much better specified machine like the 3808.

The AV9 is a simple device. It is virtually identical to the earlier AV8, which dates all the way back to the early 2000s, to which it has added HDMI switching (which is now largely useless as it generates too many handshake errors to work properly with my television). That is about it. It does not directly decode any of the HD audio formats. It has no digital input for handling multichannel SACD or DVD-A. It has no automatic setup routine or equalisation.

This puts the Arcam a significant technical disadvantage compared with the Denon. Where the Denon can handle, decode, and apply full bass management to 24 bit 7.1 Blu Ray audio at high sample rates, the Arcam has to make do with old fashioned 16 bit 5.1 Dolby Digital, compressed to a bit rate barely higher than an MP3.

Equally, the Arcam is not a dedicated stereo amplifier, and some technical compromises had to be made to allow for its role as a processor. The linear PSU of the FMJ stereo range is gone, replaced with a switch-mode. The chassis abounds with video and processing circuitry which undoubtedly presents a technical challenge for navigating through a stereo signal unimpeded.

So I was half-expecting that the AV9 would be 'squeezed' between the dedicated stereo performance of the A80 and the multichannel sophistry of the 3808. Before I listened to it, I had decided that, provided it could match the A80 in stereo, I would keep it, to meet the aim of simplifying my system to keep the wife happy.

But the story does not end there. The AV9 was the distillation of all of Arcam's design prowess at the time. The pre-amp stage was roughly modeled on the range-leading C30 stereo pre-amp. Internal DACs are the same as those in my superb CD93T.

Briefly, before I begin on the performance of the AV9, I coupled it (in stereo) with a P80 I have been using temporarily. The power stage of the P80 and the A80 are as close to identical as you can get. What the AV9 would be revealing, if anything, would be the strengths or the limitations of the A80 and Denon's pre-amp stages.

Another brief comment is that the AV9 is not pleasant to use. The remote control - the CR80 - is a horror to use and made me long for the Denon. It is not intuitive how one switches between digital and analogue sources (I had to read the manual to learn the secret method of holding down the source selection button). It is even more difficult to switch back to digital again (I am yet to figure this out, and it is not in the manual). The OSD is a chore.

I begin with Lang Lang's SACD performance of Rachmaninov (in stereo). At first, I am not impressed. The bass sounds significantly muddled, and it is dominating the whole performance. It is worse even than the Denon. After fiddling with the remote and the manual, I manage to get into the setup menu. My suspicion is confirmed when I find the previous user has been relying on bass management, with a cross-over frequency set of 80hz. I immediately turn all bass management off. I won't go here into the technical justification for this, but unless it is essential, bass management (and equalisation) is best avoided with music listening.

I put the Tom Waits album back on and, after a few minutes warming up, the AV9 is in its stride. Shiver Me Timbers begins playing, and I do nothing but sit grinning throughout the whole performance. This is the closest I have gotten to my system sounding like there is somebody in the room giving a live performance. Waits' voice has a real power to it that the A80 and 3808 get nowhere near. It is hugely impressive.

I switch over to the Norah Jones CD. Now that is more like it. Through the A80 and 3808, this album sounds like sophisticated elevator music. Nice enough, but emotionally uninvolving. But through the AV9, it is a transformed album. The backing instruments, whilst pleasant, retreat into the background and Norah's voice comes to the fore. I have often read that on a good system, this album can sound 'seductive'. Suddenly this adjective makes sense to me.

Turn Me On has me laughing out loud (it has never induced this reaction in me before). The song is downright dirty, with seriously raunchy lyrics tantamount to "I'm waiting for you to come home and **** me". Touche, Norah! The Nearness Of You no longer sounds like just another singer. It's as if she is singing to me in my own living room. Even the Denon in multichannel mode gets nowhere near this level of musical insight.

I put Lang Lang SACD back in, and whilst it is playing, the wife comes home. I turn the music down, and I am struggling to pay attention to what she is saying, as the piano performance is so arresting.

What about with movies? In all respects except one, this goes well beyond the performance of the Denon. The remarkable Wolfson DACs and Cyrstal processors give an insight, even into plain-vanilla Dolby Digital, that the Denon just cannot touch. I get a sense of the acoustic surrounding the orchestra during Star Wars: The Force Awakens, whilst the subtle brilliance of the soundtrack in The Departed really shines through, with dynamic gunshots ripping through my living room.

The one limitation is that the Audyssey EQ function of the Denon does a very good job of adapting the Monolith FF+ to my room. For those who do not run one, the Monolith is an absolute monster of a device and, improperly installed, it can totally dominate a system. Audyssey 'tames' it quite effectively, whilst it sounds slightly looser through the AV9. This is a marginal criticism though and does not detract from an overall superb performance.

Stereo Performance - 81%
Multichannel Performance (Music) - 87%
Multichannel Performance (Movies) - 85%
Conclusions

In another thread, where I explained how I came to settle on the ATC7s, I auditioned them with a vastly expensive Devialet amplifier. I don't mind saying that the AV9 and P80 combo sounded more musical than the Devialet, even if the Devialet was in a totally different league for detail retrieval. Bearing in mind this is with a 'budget' power amplifier in the P80, for which I paid less than £120. I am curious to learn what the AV9 can do with some real muscle on the end.

The AVR-3808 and A80 are both good value in their separate ways. If you are starting a stereo system, the latter is a good first step, and if a multichannel system, without spending serious sums on speakers and sources, the former is as good as you will ever need.

The sheer flexibility and usability of the Denon is very difficult to give up. It gives a consistently good performance across a very wide range of formats. Its somewhat soporific stereo performance is somewhat offset by its capabilities as a multichannel music amplifier. With movies, I was more than happy with it.

The A80 was actually something of a disappointment. What this listening settled for me is that the pre-amp stage of the A80 is the real weak link. It just doesn't communicate emotionally or intellectually that well.

The AV9, and similarly the AV8, must be one of the best audiophile bargains in the market right now. I simply cannot believe that AV8s can be had for less than £200. Even if you have no ambitions to make use of its multichannel capabilities, I cannot think of even a dedicated stereo pre-amplifier that can match this level of performance for under £200. If you are prepared to put in a bit more effort with setup and system matching, and ideally able to invest more in speakers and sources, then you simply must get hold of one to try. Almost as soon as I heard it, I instantly decided to sell all the other kit.

I should probably add, Paul Miller, the editor of Hi-Fi News, used the AV8/9 as his reference for about a decade (first with a P7, then with seven P1 monoblocks). Now I know why!
 
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Murman

Novice Member
Just hooked up the Arcam 550! WOW what an AWESOME piece of equipment!! Audio is pure magic. Movies are incredible. Upgraded from an older Denon. First thing you need to do is The Update. Next get everything dialed in. It'll take some tweaking. I'm running 6 ohm speakers that were Bi-Wired. Two channel CD mode kept clipping at high volume levels, not that most people would listen to it that loud. Tried the 1V fix but she still clipped. Bi-Amped the fronts using Atmos 6+7 channels. Still clipped. Went into service menu and set sensitivity level to medium, not even low. What a difference. No CLIPPING! Man does she sound wonderful, best investment I could have made!
 

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