July 1999Arcam Alpha 10 Integrated Amplifier
by Marc Mickelson
If youre a high-end company of any longevity and distinction, you know how to cut costs on the products you make. You also know that the real achievement is cutting costs and maintaining quality -- not an easy thing to do. Arcam has embraced this ideal with its entire line of products. For the most part, Arcams integrated amps use the same internal components and chassis, even similar front panels. The difference in the various models, then, is primarily their power, and the Alpha 10 under consideration here is the most powerful integrated amp that Arcam makes, 100Wpc, and the most expensive, $1599.
Having written about the Arcam line before, I feel like Im repeating myself with the information that follows on the general features of Arcams electronics, but here goes anyway. What Arcam has done is very smart: make their products almost universally functional and upgradeable with other Arcam products. You can buy an Arcam CD player, for instance, and upgrade it to the companys top-of-the-line unit without having to sell what you have and buy anew. Arcams integrated amps come in various power levels, and all are gain-matched with the companys power amps, so you can add a power amp to your system for bi-amping purposes. And if you choose to use a different preamp, Arcams integrated amps can also function as power amps. All of this makes Arcam equipment eminently flexible and ensures that you wont have to sell a piece you own because you want to upgrade in some fashion.
The Alpha 10 is heavy, 22 pounds, the bulk of its weight provided by the toroidal transformer located in the back corner of the chassis. It has six inputs, two tape loops, and Pre Out and Power In jacks, which are for bi-amping or using the Alpha 10 as a dedicated power amp, as I mentioned. It has two sets of British Federation of Audio speaker binding posts, but they are unlike the BFA connectors on the Linn Majik integrated amp I reviewed in that you can actually use speaker cables terminated in spades, pins or banana plugs and not just those with the special BFA connectors The Alpha 10s front panel is plastic, not the brushed aluminum we see just about everywhere else, but high-tech-looking nonetheless. Probably its most noticeable feature is the LED display, which shows the chosen input as well as a neat and easy-to-read bar meter for volume level. Unlike the Arcam Alpha 1, the Alpha 10 has no tone controls, but it does include a headphone jack and remote control.
Arcam offers an optional internal moving-magnet/moving-coil phono section, which costs a very reasonable $100. A Dolby AC-3 module for the Alpha 10 is in the works.
The heart of my budget reference system is a pair of Merlin TSM-SE speakers, which unlike their bigger brothers, the VSM-SEs, dont have an outboard bass-alignment filter. However, they share the family trait of high resolving power tempered with a distinct tonal rightness -- among other goodies. They focus on details well, but they wont chase you from the room with an intrinsically tipped-up tonal balance. Ive driven the speakers with a variety of integrated amps, from the expensive tubed Bel Canto SETi 40 to the under-$400 Arcam Alpha 1. In between were the Onix A-60, Linn Majik and Audio Analogue Puccini SE, which all together helped me discern the essential nature of the Alpha 10 as well as each other. I used my Panasonic SL-S321C portable CD player as source, and either DH Labs Silver Sonic or JPS Labs Ultra Conductor interconnects and speaker cables to tie everything together. I also used an API Power Link power cord on the integrated amps in addition to their stock cords.
Bigger, louder and uncut
My expectations for the Alpha 10 were modest -- I thought that it would exhibit the same sort of traits that the Alpha 1 did, but also have more power. While this is true, its not anywhere near the whole Alpha 10 story.
Like the Alpha 1, the Alpha 10 is not an overtly forward or insistent piece of audio equipment, but you will never mistake it for tubes. It doesnt present a lush or languid picture on the sound, but neither is its sense of precision absolute. Instead, its perspective is further back -- the Alpha 1 was mid-hall, while the Alpha 10 is a few rows forward from there. Couple this with an inherently flat tonal nature, which means that it doesnt sound in any way colored, and you have a good idea as to what the Alpha 10 sounds like.
Played through the Merlin TSM-SEs, speakers that offer only smatterings of their own intrinsic character, the Alpha 10 made favorites like James Taylors two most recent studio recordings, New Moon Shine [Columbia CK 46038] and Hourglass [CK 67912], sound present and linear. (Ive been a sucker for James Taylor since high school, when I played two LP copies Greatest Hits [Warner Bros. 3113-2] to death.) However, playing less-than-ideal discs like Joe Elys Twistin in the Wind [MCA MCAD-70031], which I also listened to for my Alpha 1 review, shows the Alpha10/Merlin TSM-SE combination to be less than forgiving. The coarseness of the recording shows through clearly, making me realize to what extent the Alpha 1 hid this propensity, although it was still noticeable. Have I become too used to listening to tube gear like my reference Lamm separates? I dont think so. Through the Lamm gear and my ProAc Response Four speakers, Twistin in the Wind sounds just as grating, but the musical details are more apparent, so the sound is less problematic. Theres more of the heart of the music on display. This points out the differences between something like the very expensive Lamm electronics and the Arcam Alpha 10 well, and underscores what you get when you spend the big bucks: more of the complete package.
Down low, the Alpha 10 does not disappoint. Its bass is tight and powerful, the equal in quality of the fine Audio Analogue Puccini SEs bass but without the overt plumpness that the Puccini SE has down low. The 100Wpc that the Alpha 10 puts out made cranking something like Walter Beckers 11 Tracks of Whack [Giant 24579-2], which is eminently smooth, a real treat. "Book of Liars" has some thumping bass tones that the Alpha 10 reproduces forcefully, even at very loud levels. Needless to say, the much cheaper Alpha 1 doesnt approach this kind of power overall, especially in the bass, which I found it be its main Achilles heel. In fact, the Alpha 10 has an almost limitless sense of power. My ears and nerve to keep turning the music up gave out long before the Alpha 10 did.
Through the midrange and into the midbass, the Alpha 10 is very fine -- clean and resolving, if missing some of the palpability that good tube gear can give. I found, for instance, that the vocals on Roseanne Cashs 10 Song Demo [Capitol CDP 7243] were more rounded and engaging through the Audio Analogue Puccini SE, but they sounded more lively and present through the Alpha 10. Both showed the vocals for what they are: a little too far forward and prominent in the mix. So much of high-end sound comes down to these kind of distinctions, which ultimately relate to a listeners personal preferences. In my case, I would choose the Puccini SEs way of portraying the midrange and the Alpha 10s way with bass and overall drive, but not by any great margins. Can you get both of these in a piece of audio equipment? Probably not at the prices of the Puccini SE or Alpha 10, or anywhere near them.
I also compared the Alpha 10 to the fine Line Majik integrated amp. The Majik is clear and gentle, while the Alpha 10 is larger-sounding but with a distinct sense of reserve. The Majik did its best work with small-scale jazz, sounding great on older recordings like the Modern Jazz Quartets Concorde [JVC JVCXR-0203-2], while the Alpha 10 always tempted me to turn it up and jam with Sublime or Rollins Band. While the Alpha 10 sounded darn good playing Concorde too, a bit more present through the midrange, the Majik seems optimized for such recordings -- just as the Alpha 10 sounds its most impressive with more butt-kicking discs. No way will the Majik play as loudly as the Alpha 10.
The soundstage the Alpha 10 throws is good, but not as expansive and clear as that of the Linn Majik. However, there is a notable blackness to the Alpha 10s background, making individual sounds stand out more than they do via the Majik, whose image outlines are thinner by comparison. But while the Majik shares the Alpha 10s somewhat recessed perspective, it sounds more airy overall, creating a greater sense of depth and width to my ears.
I drove both Grado SR-60 and Sennheiser HD 580 phones with the Alpha 10, which re-created the sound heard when driving speakers: slightly distant, no obvious tonal abnormalities, very good bass. The Grados, which are a budget reference themselves at $69, were a very good match with the Alpha 10, although the HD 580s are more transparent, portray space better and are much more comfortable.
Your ears and mine
If you need an integrated amp thats flexible and powerful, give the Arcam Alpha 10 a go. Its sound is unagressive but not veiled, powerful and driving, and lacking in aberrations that would make reviewer types like me take note. I especially like what it did with a wide array of music, bringing drive and life to rock and an unadorned midrange.
As I noted at the beginning of this review, the Alpha 10 is the last in a line of integrated amp reviews that I've been working on. Ive been lead all over the sonic landscape, discussing the traits of the integrateds Ive reviewed in greater detail than most consumers would. After all this, I come away thinking that the Alpha 10 is, in many ways, the most unique piece of the group, perhaps because its the most powerful, perhaps because its the top-of-the-line integrated amp from a company that makes a number of models. Overall, it doesnt jump out at me like some other pieces of equipment have, including Arcams own Alpha 1, and this is perhaps its most distinctive trait. The Alpha 10s self-effacing character should translate into long-term enjoyment of your music collection.
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