April 1999Arcam Alpha 1 Integrated Amplifier
by Marc Mickelson
Arcams reputation for making cost-effective high-end products is well known. Although the company makes separates -- a remote-controlled preamp, three power amps and even two different tuners -- it is their integrated amps and CD players that have brought them the most honor. Arcams CD players are unique in that you can buy the least expensive model, the Alpha 7, and upgrade it to the most expensive, the Alpha 9 with dCS Ring 24/96 DAC. Although this is not the case with Arcams integrated amps, the company does offer a wide array of models, from the 100Wpc Alpha 10 ($1599) to the 35Wpc Alpha 1 ($399). Additionally, all of the Alpha models can also be used with Arcam power amplifiers, which are gain matched, to bi-amp a speaker system with a reasonable outlay of money. Flexibility is thus another of Arcams claims to fame.
Looks and features
The Alpha 1 is a petite piece of audio gear at 17"W x 11"D x 3 1/4"H, not much bigger than CD players in its price range and only slightly heavier at 10 pounds. Its features are fairly standard -- volume, balance, source selection, no remote control -- but augmented with a couple of niceties, namely bass and treble controls that you can switch out of the signal path completely and a headphone jack. I risk losing my audiophile union card by saying it, but I actually liked using the tone controls on the Alpha 1, especially when I was listening at low volumes, in which case a little extra oomph on the top and bottom was welcome. In addition, I heard little discernible difference when the controls were set to flat and switched into the circuit, so they seemed to add little intrinsically to hurt the presentation. Vive la différence!
The front faceplate is plastic and not the common brushed aluminum, but its nicely rounded and attractive nonetheless. On back of the Alpha 1 are the input jacks and a single set of preamp-out jacks, none of which are gold-plated. The preamp-out jacks are what you use to connect an Arcam power amp to add extra power to your system or bi-amp your speakers. Theres the ubiquitous IEC power-cord receptacle, and a single pair of the standard Arcam binding posts that are up to BFA (British Federation of Audio) standards. They will accept bare wires, spades, banana plugs or BFA plugs. The Linn Majik (review in the works) will also accept BFA plugs, but it will not accept any other kind of connection, so I admire that Arcam has given us the choice. The posts are, however, rather close together, so you need to be careful that none of the connections touch each other.
The second system
Although I spend the vast amount of my reviewing time writing about products with near-stratospheric prices, I spend closer to half my listening time with the second system in my office -- which is more within reason in terms of price. This system consists of Merlin TSM-SE speakers on Osiris Audionics Osiris speaker stands, JPS Labs Ultraconductor or DH Labs Silver Sonic interconnects and speaker cables, and a Panasonic SLS321C portable CD player, a model that Greg Smith has written about and I bought based on his assessment. My assessment? Its darn good.
Amplification for this system has varied, from the Onix A-60 I reviewed a few months ago, to the Arcam Alpha 1 and Alpha 10 integrated amps, to the Audio Analog Puccini integrated amp, to the Linn Majik. Lots of fodder here for context and comparison.
Goin with the flow
The Merlin TSM-SE speakers are terrific music-making and reviewing tools, and they seemed to get along with the Alpha 1 well -- although I had to put the Alpha 1s volume control at nearly 3/4 open to get the speakers to really jump. The baby Arcam integrated amp has a gentle, refined character for a solid-state integrated amp -- not an obvious softness, but a lack of insistence, an organic flow. While it does not impart any apparent tubelike warmth, it also is not forward or hyper-resolving either. In fact, its character is really the lack of any objectionable character at all.
Joe Elys Twistin in the Wind [MCA MCAD-70031] is a very poor recording. Theres a coarseness throughout the treble and into the midrange that makes it a disc to listen to at low volume. These problems are still apparent with the Alpha 1, but they are also made less troublesome to a certain degree. The down side of this is that the Alpha 1 does not reproduce music with the greatest incisiveness you will hear; however, it isnt veiling either -- solid-state electronics are too good these days for that. Instead, it presents a mid-hall perspective thats neither too distant nor too up-front. You dont have to strain to hear your source, and you wont have it in your lap either.
The bass of the Alpha 1 is where its mere 35Wpc seem to be a few too few. On Dire Straits Brothers in Arms [Warner Bros. 25264-2], the ubiquitous "Money for Nothing" starts to get a bit fuzzy down low as the volume increases. Of course, you can add some weight to the presentation by dialing in a little extra bass via the tone controls, but that only changes things. The Alpha 1 just cant kick with the power of the Onix A-60, which is a 60Wpc unit, but you cant have it all for $399, and the Alpha 1 makes tradeoffs that make active listening easier -- for me at least. If I were forced to choose between the Arcam and Onix, I would buy the Alpha 1.
I also listened to the Alpha 1 through its headphone jack and found the sound very pleasing with either Grado SR60 or Sennheiser HD 580 cans. The clarity of the Sennheiser phones was very addictive, but at $349, they also cost almost what the Alpha 1 does. The $69 Grados have earned their place of honor as a true budget reference product, and they made good music with the Alpha 1 too -- a bit less clear than with the Sennheisers, but very easy on the ears.
1 vs. 10
Because Ive already said a few comparative words about the Alpha 1 and Onix A-60, it may be more useful to know how the littlest Arcam integrated amp compares to its bigger brothers, and in this regard I have the biggest of the bunch here -- the 100Wpc, remote-controlled Arcam Alpha 10, which costs $1599, four times the Alpha 1s price. As you might guess, the Alpha 10 addresses all of the Alpha 1s shortcomings and even improves on its strengths too. It has lots of power -- more than my ears can stand -- and its bass is deep and resolving, no fuzziness here. It also presents a supremely clear sonic picture, as though the window has been cleaned both inside and out. Spend more and you get more -- is this any great surprise?
But there is certainly a family resemblance at work too -- neither the Alpha 10 nor the Alpha 1 has an obvious transitory tinge, although nobody will confuse them with tubes either. They offer very honest presentations, a little yin and yang. While headbangers will want the Alpha 10 (or the Onix A-60), those who listen to lots of ensemble jazz or string quartets will find an able companion in the Alpha 1. Some will find the gentility off-putting, while others, like me, will enjoy it. I suspect that one or two moves up the Arcam line, to the Alpha 7R ($549) or Alpha 8R ($699), will get you a better-balanced piece of audio gear at only a small increase in price. Of course, youll get more power too, perhaps alleviating the need for an add-on power amp anytime soon.
I was able to hear the Alpha 1 in the Gallo Acoustics room at the CES this past January, and I was impressed with the way it drove the Nucleus Micro system. The space reproduced was much the work of the Micros, but the tonal shading and overall gentility of the sound were undeniably part of the Alpha 1s doing. I dont recall the CD player being used, but if you allot $500 for it, you can have a fine-sounding high-end system thats visually unobtrusive for way under $2000. And Arcam has you covered if you want to add some power to your setup or bi-amp -- just get one of its power amps. And dont forget the tone controls, which you can switch out of the signal path when you feel like a purist.
These days, $400 will buy you some interconnects, a pair of speaker cables, a power cord (maybe two), or an equipment rack. Add to this list the Arcam Alpha 1, whose limitations are reasonable given that they dont intrude on the enjoyment of the music. I'm very fond of the Arcam Alpha 1, and you may be too.
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