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Amp/Preamp Asylum: REVIEW: Arcam DIVA A90 Integrated Amplifier (SS) by tangojim

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REVIEW: Arcam DIVA A90 Integrated Amplifier (SS)

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Model: DIVA A90
Category: Integrated Amplifier (SS)
Suggested Retail Price: $1900
Description: 90 watts/channel integrated amp
Manufacturer URL: Arcam

Review by tangojim on October 19, 2007 at 18:54:33
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for the DIVA A90

I have had the unit for about one month now and have been very impressed and happy with it. I think I like it the most of the all the integrated I've owned so far over the past 10 yrs or so. Just for reference, my past integrateds were Audio Refinement Complete, YBA Integre DT, Sim Audio I3 and Sim Audio I5.

The challenge I usually have is finding an integrated that will produce unexaggerated vocal sibilance but still deliver good high freq extension. I listened to several makes and models at various shows and 2 channel shops but it seems that a large majority of them don't seem to balance these two qualities well. I should caviat the fact that I haven't listened to all the units out there, but surprisingly, some of the more reputable brands like Mark Levinson and Krell sounded surprisingly bright unless you play a well recorded track thru them. On the other hand, some integrateds would sound ok with bad recordings (eg, Anthem, Aragon, and some higher end chinese brands) but then they would only have so so transparency when you do play a good recording thru them. So far, one unit that seemed to balance the act well in my limited experience is the YBA Passion Integrated. It's not cheap at around $4000 plus but it's definitely a marvelous sounding unit. Unfortunately, even a used one is above my price limit of $2500.

It wasn't until recently that I stumbled across a very upbeat review from Wes Philips on the ARCAM A85 in which he really praised the performance of this moderately priced integrated. I was naturally curious to see if I might find the Arcam's performance as impressive as he did. ARCAM had discontinued the A85 and is now producing the A90 which appears to be very similar to the A85 but costs about $400 more. The price increase is supposed to be for an improved power supply which according to Arcam, delivers better performance with regard to soundstage, depth, drive and bass quality. This may be more about advertising that facts but since the A85 is no longer available, I'm left with the pricier A90. The Arcam dealer in my area didn't have the A90 or any other Arcam integrated to demo, so I had to rely on his advise that the Arcam is one of the best integrated he carries and he thinks the Arcam sound is very close to what I was describing as my preferred sound. He did offered me a decent discount since I was making a purchase based purely on his advise.

Right out of the box, the A90 sounded very good. The sound was relatively smooth and the music seemed to have a lot of flesh to it. The bass performance was also very authoritative. Sibilance, particularly from female vocals, was well managed with very minimal tizziness. The HF extension was not as open as I would like but it was still quite acceptable. All the fundamental qualities (such as soundstage, image, low level details retrieval, air around instruments) were present. I did noted that the speed and attack perhaps were not comparable to the Sim I5 I previously owned, and the transparency which was good , was maybe not as impressive as the YBA Integre’s. But then I am comparing the Arcam against the respective qualities that these other units are so famous for. This is probably not reasonable considering the Arcam A90 is priced substantially less than the Sim and YBA integrateds.. Again, these were strictly out of the box impressions during the first few days of listening.

Arcam does offer digital tone control on the A90 so I should discuss this feature. According to Wes Philip and one other professional reviewer, the tone control feature does not seem to have any obvious detrimental effect on the sound quality. Philips gets into a technical description of how Arcam implements this feature in his Soundstage review but it was somewhat too technical for me to understand. But I believe the takeaway he wanted to offer was that Arcam used a pretty sophisticated approach which was intended to be nonintrusive and bears very minimal impact on the rest of the frequencies. I personally agree with Mr. Philips and the other reviewer that using the tone control doesn't smear or distort the overall qualities of the sound. The A90 actually sounds pretty good with no tone adjustments but since my speakers are relatively small two way floorstanders, I tried boosting the bass up 2 notches, out of 12, if I’m not mistaken. I left the treble alone since I was happy with that aspect of the sound. Naturally, I wanted to see if the slight bass boost would affect the rest of the sound. Since the A90 remote cannot control the tone control defeat function, I asked my wife to sit next to the amp and toggle the tone control defeat button back and forth while I sit back in the sweet spot and compared the difference. I was quite amazed by the fact that the slight bass boost turned out to be a win win situation all the way. I didn't hear or sensed any degradation in soundstaging, imaging, focus, midrange or treble clarity. Out of curiosity, I also tried adjusting the treble a couple notches up and down to see how the sound is affected. I was also somewhat surprised that adjusting the treble up a few notches didn’t add any obvious glare to the music or made it sound more edgy in any way. Likewise, taking it down a few notches didn’t take remove any noticeable amount of air or details from the music either. The result was a very slight smoothing of the sound similar to the way different cables could alter the sound of your system. This was all very interesting to me since I know most audio folks including myself don’t always have ideal acoustics in their listening area. I recalled all the efforts I had went thru in swapping ICs, cables, DACs and even speakers just to get the right audio synergy into my listening room. I wondered if I would have gone thru all that if I had known what I know now after owning the Arcam A90 and having a chance to thoroughly evaluated its tone control function.

Since I’ve had the A90 for about a month now, the sound quality has really opened up for the better. HF extension sounds more natural with almost no veil over them. Low level details are much more obvious than initially out of the box. Bass notes sound extremely tuneful and with great focus. There are now even more noticeable air around instruments and vocals. The one and only penalty is that some recordings with female vocals tend to have a bit more sibilance now than before, in a relative sense that is. This is really only noticeable with a handful of CDs that I own, the majority of my CDs sound fine, actually more than fine.

In terms of power and drive, the A90 feels closer to 50 (or maybe 60) watts instead of the rated 90. This is based on my past experience with the YBA Integre DT (50w) and Sim I5 (70w). Saying the A90 sounds more like a 50 watts integrated doesn’t mean I’m dissatisfied with it. 50 watts is a lot of watts unless you have to throw a party or a concert in your living room. I’m really saying that the A90 is tuned for your day to day real world volume listening. With the Sim I5, the music comes flying at you at 100 mph, whereas the YBA and the Arcam offer a somewhat more natural presentation. I can’t say which is better since that depends on mood and listening preference. When I owned the Sim I5, I enjoyed the speed and attack along with the slam factor it offered. I ended up listening to music like anthems and orchestral pieces that played well with those sonic qualities. With the YBA Integre and now the Arcam A90, I’m less choosy of my music, mostly because their presentation can be intimately articulate or excitingly loud based on whatever I choose to play thru them.

The A90 does have a couple of minor oddities that should still be mentioned.
First, the speaker terminals are set up for A and B hookups, so they are very closely bundled together. The default terminals are very low to the bottom that you would have a hell of a time hooking up any cables that are stiff and can’t easily bend. It took me a good 15 to 20 minutes just to hook up my cables to the A90.
Second, the display can be turned off but it will come back on after you perform a power up. Not a real big deal but I thought mentioned it for picky folks such as myself.

In conclusion, I would say that the A90 is an extremely well and intelligently designed integrated. It has great inherent audio qualities plus it offers a very civilized way to tune the sound of your music to your taste and room acoustics. I think that for most people, the A90 should make a very good choice. For those who needs more power for their low impedance speakers, I read that the P90 amp makes a very nice add on. For those who still need more refinement beyond the A90, there is the FMJ A32 which cost about $600 more but is supposedly better sounding according to people that had a chance to hear both, I personally haven’t, unfortunately. Although I do feel, in retrospect, that I perhaps should have bought the A32 knowing now how well Arcam designs their integrateds. Ah, maybe one day soon …

Thanks for the reading my review.

Product Weakness: Horrible speaker terminals placement making it a pain to hook up stiff cables.
Product Strengths: Superb inherent sonic qualities. Sophisticated digital tone control allows you to tweak the sound of your system without any noticeable degration to the overall sound quality. Digital balance control works similarly well if used.

Associated Equipment for this Review:

Amplifier: Arcam DIVA A90
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): None
Sources (CDP/Turntable): Sony ES with CI Audio DAC1/VAC1
Speakers: Tyler Acoustic Linbrook Floor Monitors
Cables/Interconnects: Anticables/Audioquest Python
Music Used (Genre/Selections): Jazz, scores, vocals, classical, piano and violin sonatas
Room Size (LxWxH): 22 x 17 x 9
Room Comments/Treatments: Not much except for carpet on floor
Time Period/Length of Audition: One month ownership
Other (Power Conditioner etc.): VH Audio Flavor 4 power cord
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner

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Topic - REVIEW: Arcam DIVA A90 Integrated Amplifier (SS) - tangojim 18:54:33 10/19/07 ( 1)