Arcam is responsible for a great deal of innovation this spring. In addition to the innovative SA30 stereo amplifier, the British brand presents a series of new devices for those who dream of a serious home theater at a higher level. Of the new HDA models we view the AVR20, the middle of three powerful and versatile AV receivers .
The AVR20 that we are viewing here can be seen as the successor to the AVR550, although you may find that older model on the market for a while. Similarly, the AVR10 is the successor to the AVR390 and the AVR30 of the powerful AVR850 . In terms of design, there is a whole lot different and the underlying platform has also been updated, which you will notice from the much better streaming options, a DAB tuner and the new interface philosophy. This is therefore a completely new family at Arcam that bears the HDA name, compared to FMJ previously. The same family also includes stereo products such as the SA30 amplifier with HDMI-ARC and Dirac on board. Also note that at the same time as the new AVRs, a high-end AV processor and output stages were proposed.
The Arcam AVR20 costs 3,599 euros. That is a hefty price with which this receiver is aiming higher in the market. You cannot simply compare this device with a 7.2-channel receiver that you purchase for 700 euros, mainly because the amplification part is of a much higher quality. The AVR20 also comes with Dirac, which is an expensive but highly effective acoustic solution, and advanced integration options. So it is really a device intended for the serious home cinema builder and professional installer.
Despite the many changes that the new HDA series introduces, not much has changed on the amplification side. Like the older AVR550, the Arcam AVR20 is a 7.2-channel receiver with 110 watts per channel, with class AB gain and with a similar power supply. Since this aspect of the AVR550 was completely wrong, the lack of change on this front does not seem a big problem. 110 Watt, by the way, can really be called a nice figure, especially since Arcam communicates realistic power and loads on all channels. Not the fantasy figures that some other brands cite and that are obtained with a tax on one channel. If, by the way, you want to go a step higher, then the AVR30 with Arcams impressive class G. Class G is interesting because it first operates in class A. This certainly provides slightly more quality when listening to two-channel music.
The AVR20 can you bet for a 5.2.2 setup or 7.2, or 5.1 with a second zone. But more is possible: after all, surround processing goes up to 9.1.6. There is support for DTS: X and Dolby Atmos, in addition to IMAX Enhanced . There is also DTS Virtual: X present if you want to simulate a height effect with your regular 5.1 surround setup. This codec does not always make a big impression, but during the testing of the AVR20 we tried a few to realize that it was right. Perhaps that is due to the good Dirac adjustment.
The extra (non-amplified) channels come out through pre-outs and you have to send them to a separate amplifier. The great thing is that Arcam gives you the necessary flexibility. You can use those extra pre-outs for all kinds of things, such as middle heights or extra wide front channels. The AVR20 can only be used as a processor, if you want to invest in the new power stages that Arcam presented at the same time as the HDA receivers. This kind of flexibility is not found in boarding devices.
Brands such as Arcam that aim for builders of real home cinemas usually invest less in an elegant design. With the new AVR devices, the British do not deviate from that no-nonsense course. The AVR20 is tightly drawn, there are few frills that attract attention. A central location is reserved for a large white LCD screen. This shows information such as the volume level, selected input and active surround codec. And that in a clear, larger way, so that you can read everything from a great distance. It looks fine, but not tempting, just like a Marantz SR8012 is. But in a real home cinema this is not necessarily necessary.
Below the screen there are a series of push buttons, which you use, among other things, to switch through the inputs and to operate menus. As we will see later, Arcam chooses to give the new devices hardly a TV interface. That makes these buttons and the screen a little more important, because it is here that you see information about settings appear – not on your TV or projection screen. Given that choice we find it regrettable that Arcam opted for dark gray inscriptions on the silver colored buttons. Even if you are standing in front of the receiver, they are very difficult to read. A remarkable detail that we did not expect, given that the receiver is very well put together.
At the back we are confronted with connections that are placed clearly and spaciously. You will not sigh when you connect sources and speakers, because it is really provided for an easy installation. This is Arcam, which means that the center channel is at the center of the speaker terminals, with all left channels on the left and all right channels on the right. With many receivers center is at the far left and the speakers follow in their traditional groups with L and R together (front, surround, rear surround, height). As you would expect at this level, there is actually nothing missing in terms of inputs. There are three HDMI outputs (with one eARC compatible) and seven inputs, all HDMI 2.0b. Audio inputs are also available, both digitally and analogously. We are somewhat surprised by the lack of a phono input. Perhaps that is seen as something that does not fit with a more professional home theater.
Bring the laptop out
Speaking of professional: the new AV receivers from Arcam strongly focus on integration and smarthome . The first thing you notice is that you do not set up the receiver via menus that appear on the TV screen, but via a web browser or the front screen. That is completely different with a typical Yamaha or Denon. It already indicates that Arcam is aiming for more professional installers, because they often choose to configure devices via a laptop. The remote options may seem somewhat limited, but those are also features that you usually have to look for at an even higher class, such as Trinnov. Then you will soon lose 10K or more.
Anyone looking for integration can control the receiver via IP or RS232. Moreover, there are extensive IR trigger options, also for a second zone. That can be handy. For installers, there is also extensive documentation, an important asset.
Working via a web interface is special – and perhaps somewhat challenging if you are not used to a sparing approach. After all, it is all presented soberly and textually. This is not the kind of device for the surround beginner who would like to receive some text and explanation, because something like Denon's Setup Assistant is completely missing. It's all very to the point, just like the design of the AVR20 itself. But if you know what you are doing – and Google is often a good friend in that regard – you will get the Arcam receiver set up very quickly.
The web interface also has its advantages. For example, it is very simple to set everything per input as you want, such as the desired sound mode if you listen to 2-channels or which correction is used.
High-end receivers often have just less streaming and tuner options. That certainly applied to the previous FMJ generation from Arcam. But not for the AVR20 from the HDA series. Arcam, nowadays in the same group as Harman Kardon, JBL and other brands, has this time equipped its receivers with an FM / DAB tuner and generous streaming options. With Chromecast and AirPlay 2 two popular ways to stream in high quality from almost any music app are built in. Both technologies also make the AVR20 multi-room compatible. You can, for example, play music from, for example, the Apple Music app on your iPad and play it on the speakers that hang on the AVR20 and via an AirPlay 2 speaker in the kitchen. Both Chromecast and AirPlay 2 work well and stably, and have the plus that you are looking for and choosing music within the app of the service that you already know. Spotify, Deezer, Qobuz, Tidal, YouTube Music and many others support both AirPlay 2 and Chromecast. For those who are wondering: you cannot cast video, only music. This is the case with all receivers with these two technologies. There is only one small disappointment: when casting music you don't see an album cover appearing on the screen.
A device like the AVR20 will probably hang on the network via an ethernet cable. But a wireless connection is possible. The advantage of that support for casting and Airplay is that configuring the WiFi becomes very easy. Via the Google Home app or via the Wi-Fi settings of your iPhone / iPad, the receiver is automatically found and you can connect it to your home network. The Home app also immediately integrates with Google services and puts casting in order.
In the higher segment you must of course also think of the critical music lover. Arcam has provided support for Roon for him. The AVR20 is not yet officially certified for Roon, which means that only a generic icon and settings appear in the music software. But we did not experience any problems with regard to operation and streaming. Also present: Bluetooth, as a fallback option to stream with.
Finally, the AVR20 retains the old Music Life app from Arcam. This allows you to stream your own files via UPnP, for example from a NAS. The app also provides access to various streaming services (Qobuz, Tidal, Deezer and others), internet radio and podcasts. There is another app, Arcam Control, that functions as a replacement for the physical remote. However, the Control app was not fully up to date during testing. Adjusting the volume and choosing inputs on the AVR20 was already possible, but the information displayed about the content we viewed was incorrect. Comes soon, Arcam promises.
Calibration with Dirac
The AVR20 was visited very early in the test room, before all firmware was final. This meant, among other things, that we used the device for a while without Dirac calibration, since that function only became active a little later. However, by the time you read this, all devices in the store are completely up-to-date. The longer Dirac-less period was interesting because we had a good view of what the reinforcement had to offer. Of course you can also set a lot manually, such as the distances to each speakers, individual levels and crossover points. The basics, as it were. For the best integration we needed Dirac.
Many home theater experts know Dirac by now (and in a background article we have discussed the latest version in depth), but for others this software deserves a dash of explanation. Almost all AV receivers come with calibration software. This software will, after a measurement with test tones in your room, create a filter that adjusts the sound to the characteristics of the room. If there is a disturbing room mode in which a bass frequency is enormously amplified (and thereby removes resolution elsewhere), then the AV receiver will suppress that frequency, for example. Calibration software also measures the distances to your speakers and ensures that the sounds coming from the different directions reach your ears at the right time.
The different manufacturers of AV receivers use calibration software that they invented themselves or bought elsewhere. Arcam – just like NAD, Lexicon and others – opts for the software from Dirac, a Swedish company that also sells its audio software to car brands such as BMW, Volvo and Bentley. Car interiors are also difficult environments to get a good sound. We think the choice for Dirac is a good one, because we think this software is the best available. Admittedly, even with the new Dirac Live 2.x generation, using it is still more difficult than most alternatives. Fortunately, with version 2.4, Dirac is a little more generous with an explanation so that you know better what it is all about when measuring. You measure that with a measuring microphone that you connect to a laptop on which Dirac runs. It is also possible to work via a mobile app, but that is less powerful than via the full app.
You can take a Dirac measurement around a listening chair, a seat or in an auditorium. With the first, the focus is very narrow and you have to measure nine times, with the larger seating arrangements there are additional measurements. The more channels you have, the more test tones are played. In short, in a larger room with a complete Atmos set-up you are busy for a while. After measuring, you will be presented with the results and you can adjust the target curve yourself. That is usually necessary, because the curve – that is, the correction – that Dirac proposes is very flat and is immediately applied to all speakers. This sometimes requires very large adjustments compared to what has been measured, which is not always feasible. So you may want to adjust the curve yourself, perhaps per speaker group. There are quite a few options here, but we would like to refer you again to our background about Dirac. After this, the Dirac program creates a filter that you can upload to one of three slots on the AVR20. Three slots is nice, because this way you can create slightly different filters and then listen to what you prefer.
Completely in the mood
Many films that are used to test surround setups are spectacle films. “Ready Player One” is a current favorite of ours in that regard, but (some) Marvel films are also very useful. With the AVR20, we wanted to look at something else. 'Arrival', for example, the intense SF film by director Denis Villeneuve (Ultra HD Blu-ray, Dolby Atmos), which from the first tones of Max Richter's 'On the nature of daylight' grabs you by the throat and through the film the firing craziest sounds (thanks to the groundbreaking work of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, check the incredible making-off on YouTube). Just like with “Sicario” (another one from the duo Villeneuve-Jóhannsson), the soundtrack plays a central role here to immerse you completely in the story. Sometimes your emotions are played through enormously. Occasional dynamic surround effects, such as fighter planes flying over or a firefight in the distance, are set down powerfully and convincingly by the AVR20. In terms of movement and placement, everything is fine, even with a Dirac measurement that we – admittedly – completed a bit quickly. But it is mainly the musical performances that we find punishment, especially because Johansson sometimes opts for very deep and multi-layered sounds. The dialogs also roll out with a lot of depth from the center speaker, although we might be allowed to work on the Dirac filter a bit to get a slightly higher sense of detail. But still, with relatively little work, we now enjoy a very good experience on our 5.1 Dali Rubicon set-up. The quality test: if we watch a film completely during testing, then that is a very good sign.
Our search for more dynamics brings us to the recent 'Ford v Ferrari', a surprising fascinating narration of a high point in car history. Whether you like four-wheelers or not, the sound effects with this film (Ultra HD Blu-ray, Dolby Atmos) are spectacular enough to appeal to almost everyone. The filmmakers regularly put you behind the wheel, which sometimes makes it seem like you're playing a racing game. Screeching tires and racing cars that tear past, thanks to that good integration you can experience Le Mans from the asphalt. We also note good spatial reproduction with Dolby’s “Audiosphere” demo. With this demo it is always listening to the high, thin tones that are sent through the height channels: do they sound artificial or just as light as a feather? The result in this case is the goal in terms of realism, as far as we are concerned.
The AVR20 is also a real heir to the AVR550 when it comes to music reproduction. It remains an AV receiver, but one that easily switches to high-quality stereo playback. The AVR30 with class G – which we are also visiting – certainly has more to offer, but in many situations the AVR20 will already deliver what you are looking for.
The AVR20 is one of the best premium AV- receivers on the market, thanks to the combination of a strong amplifier section and the presence of Dirac. It carries a premium price, which is also reflected in the great flexibility that advanced home cinema builders will appreciate. For some consumers, it may seem a bit more challenging, although the web interface is actually clear. Compared to the AVR550 that it succeeds, the AVR20 is a new beginning for Arcam – but at the same time not. Much has changed, such as streaming, but the core of the device remains the good AB amplifier hatch.