Arcam SA10
Arcam SA10
Arcam SA10

Arcam SA10 Review: A true classic

Arcam SA10
9

In an era marked by the recording of their 4th studio album by Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath, and as Mercedes was gearing up to unveil the first S-class car, two Cambridge students founded Arcam. Four years into its journey, Arcam released its inaugural amplifier, the A-60, to critical acclaim. The formula for its success was straightforward: utilize the finest materials and simplest designs. Originally planned to produce just 50 units, demand soared to 30,000—a testament to its quality, with many units still operational today. Arcam’s commitment to upgradability and longevity was evident from the start, ensuring their products were built to last.

Fast forward to 2014, Arcam introduced the A-49, pioneering the G class of amplifiers. Yet, our focus shifts to another remarkable achievement: the FMJ A19 amplifier. Priced affordably yet delivering exceptional performance.

In 2017, Arcam joined the ranks of Harman International, subsequently becoming part of the Samsung family, a move that might stir nostalgia among purist audiophiles. Following this acquisition, Arcam refreshed their lineup, introducing the SA10 amplifier.

Design and construction

The Arcam SA10 stands as a quintessential example of a class AB integrated amplifier, boasting a substantial feel right out of the box with its weight of 8.4 kg. Its dimensions, 433x87x310 mm, align with the standard for Hi-Fi components, indicating its solid presence in the audio equipment realm. Available solely in gray, this design choice might seem like a compromise at first, especially as one navigates the heft of its packaging home.

However, any initial reservations quickly fade the moment you physically interact with the amplifier. Its chassis, crafted from metal, has a subtly matte finish that distinguishes it from the offerings of other brands like Marantz. The front panel, although plastic, mimics metal so closely in texture that it’s nearly indistinguishable by touch alone. The construction quality is exemplary, with parts fitting nearly perfectly and all connectors securely in place, ensuring nothing feels wobbly or loose.

The majority of the front panel is dominated by a monochrome display that clearly shows the selected input, volume level, and input signal specifics. If an analog input is chosen, it simply reads “Analogue.” Positioned directly beneath the screen are the input selection buttons, designed in a lighter shade of gray to ensure they are easily identifiable. The mute function is conveniently assigned to the leftmost button in this series.

On the right side of the display, there’s an LED indicator for the amplifier’s operational status: red signifies standby mode, yellow indicates the amplifier is on but the amplification circuits are inactive (this also lights up when the amplifier is first powered on and when in Mute mode), and white means the system is fully operational and ready for playback. Additionally, there’s a power on/off button, embodying a classic analog design within the amplifier itself, featuring a physical movement of about half a centimeter to engage or disengage the connection between the power supply and the transformer.

On the left segment of the front panel, there are two 3.5 mm connectors alongside the volume control, which features a distinctive design. The portion of the volume knob that aligns parallel to the front panel is crafted from plastic, while the section that the user directly interacts with is made of metal. This thoughtful material contrast not only enhances the tactile experience but also adds a subtle aesthetic differentiation. Just to the left of this intriguing volume control, the only other adornments are the manufacturer’s name and the device’s model, presenting a clean and uncluttered appearance.

An alternative way to operate the amplifier is through its remote control, which is notably sizable and ergonomically designed to fit comfortably in one’s hand. Constructed entirely out of plastic, the remote’s layout is intuitively divided, with the lower section dedicated to controlling the amplifier and the upper part designed for operating a player from the same product line. A standout feature of this remote is its backlight, which activates upon any button press, enhancing usability in dim environments.

Like with most amplifiers, the Arcam SA10’s rear panel is where you’ll find all the essential connectivity options. For this model, the inputs are organized into four distinct groups, streamlining the process of connecting various audio sources and ensuring a tidy and efficient setup.

The Arcam SA10’s rear panel is meticulously organized into four main connectivity groups to accommodate various user needs:

System Connections: This group includes a USB port for firmware updates, RS-232, and LAN ports for linking control devices. Additionally, the device can be controlled via a smartphone using the MusicLife app through the LAN connection, offering enhanced convenience and flexibility in device management.

Digital Inputs: The SA10 is equipped with two coaxial and one optical input, supporting high-resolution audio. The coaxial inputs are capable of processing PCM signals up to 24 bits/192 kHz, while the optical input supports up to 24 bits/96 kHz, catering to audiophiles seeking pristine digital sound quality.

Analog Inputs: The amplifier features three unbalanced linear inputs on the back panel, alongside an MM phono equalizer input for vinyl enthusiasts. There’s also an additional linear input on the front panel designed as a minijack, ensuring easy access for a variety of analog sources.

Outputs: The SA10 boasts all-metal speaker terminals, a departure from its predecessor A19, designed to accommodate even thick acoustic cables. Additionally, there’s a 3.5 mm headphone output and a pre-out output for connecting a power amplifier. Notably, to mitigate digital interference on analog signals, switching from a digital to an analog input triggers a physical relay switch, audibly isolating the analog circuitry from the digital components.

Powering its class AB architecture, a significant portion of the SA10’s weight is attributed to a large toroidal transformer. This enables the amplifier to deliver 50 W per channel at 8 Ohms and 90 W at 4 Ohms, ensuring robust and dynamic audio performance. Like its predecessor, the A19, the SA10 includes ventilation holes on its top cover for cooling, with a noticeable upgrade in the capacitor department—two larger capacitors with a combined capacity of 20,000 μF replace the four found in the A19. Digital-to-analog conversion is handled by the ES9016K2M DAC from the ESS SABER line, a budget-friendly yet highly regarded component in digital sound processing.

An additional user-friendly feature is the amplifier’s auto-off function, which powers down the unit when no signal is detected, contributing to energy efficiency and convenience.

Sound

I began my evaluation with the digital inputs of the Arcam SA10. While the overall sound quality was acceptable, it didn’t quite match the exceptional standards typically associated with Arcam products. The amplifier delivers sound that is consistent with its price range, offering room-filling bass that, nonetheless, lacks depth and texture. The microdynamics across the frequency spectrum were not as refined as expected. However, the distinctive bright and dynamic Arcam sound signature was still perceptible.

The soundstage was neatly confined between the speakers, sufficient for movie viewing or ambient listening. Given Arcam’s over 50-year legacy in audio excellence and a unique sound signature, one might anticipate a more compelling auditory experience from the SA10.

Switching to an analog input via a line connection from the player altered my perception entirely. The sound quality improved significantly, becoming softer, more spacious, and enveloping the room with an added layer of charm. The SA10 managed to deliver detailed and vibrant sound without harshness, even in potentially jarring moments (such as during a live performance of Slipknot’s “Eyeless” from 2012). The amplifier possesses ample power to create a concert-like experience, accurately positioning instruments and sound sources, making it easy to get lost in the performance (I found myself interacting with Freddie Mercury’s call-and-response with the audience at Queen’s 1986 Budapest concert).

On the track “Teresa & Maria” by alyona alyona & Jerry Heil, the SA10 delivered a powerful punch that was felt even two floors away, proving its honesty and integrity in sound reproduction. It won’t embellish or fabricate elements not present in the recording, embodying the straightforwardness expected from a classic British design. Its presentation, particularly in the higher frequencies, is notably bright, suggesting a preference for pairing with more subdued components.

I also explored the SA10’s capability as a pre-amplifier, integrating it with my power amplifier, which has its distinct character. It was interesting to see which amplifier’s characteristics would prevail. The SA10 proved to be quite transparent, allowing the power amplifier’s traits to shine through, yet the Arcam’s signature highs were still discernible, showcasing its influence without overwhelming the sound.

 

In evaluating the phono stage of the Arcam SA10, it was integrated as a pre-amplifier within the system. The outcome showcased a balanced frequency response, maintaining the soundstage integrity, though the definition of individual sound sources wasn’t as pronounced as with a direct line connection. The Arcam’s treble was highlighted, delivering a smoothness devoid of harshness, aligning the mid frequencies with the highs, and demonstrating precise bass control, enriched with a spectrum of overtones.

This test, conducted with an alternative amplification component, leads me to conclude that the phono preamp maintains neutrality without imparting its own coloration to the sound. Thus, it’s the amplification section that predominantly shapes the sonic character during playback.

The final aspect to explore was the headphone output. The performance through headphones was impressively coherent. The detail and frequency response through the headphone amp mirrored that of the main amplifier, with no discernible difference in quality. However, the SA10 excels in creating a sense of spaciousness, projecting sound in a way that seems to wrap around the listener’s consciousness, effectively isolating from external distractions. The sound delivered through headphones was velvety, characterized by crisp highs and a meticulous bass response that seemed cautious not to overwhelm. Yet, in terms of dynamics, depth, texture, and overall sound parameters, the headphone experience left no room for critique, affirming the SA10’s adeptness at providing a rich and immersive listening experience.

Conclusion

The Arcam SA10 represents a caliber of amplifier capable of delivering a mature, distinct sound quality with its own unique character. Given its tendency towards bright sound reproduction, selecting complementary system components that can balance this characteristic is advisable. The amplifier demonstrates a pronounced strength in its analog performance, a testament to the engineers’ focus, despite a digital section that might not meet the same high standard. For those utilizing digital sources, the consideration of an external DAC could enhance the overall sound quality.

The phono stage of the SA10 aligns well with the amplifier’s quality, providing ample performance for turntables like the Teac TN-3B. As with any piece of Hi-Fi equipment, personal preference plays a significant role in its appeal. However, the SA10 warrants an audition for anyone in the market for an amplifier, as it could very well eclipse interest in alternatives.

In addressing whether global standardization has compromised sound quality, the Arcam SA10 stands as a definitive rebuttal.

The answer is emphatically “NO.” It preserves the distinct qualities that have endeared Arcam products to audiophiles globally. Nevertheless, it’s notable that the company has opted for a conservative approach in terms of color options, focusing instead on the sound and build quality that mark its legacy in the audio world.

Arcam SA10
Arcam SA10
9