AV receiver from Arcam AVR850 is not the sexiest devices you can buy. But rather look at what it really is all about. And then you will discover that the top model AVR850 from the British brand can be very strong. An excellent amplification section and Dirac make this 7.1 receiver a high-end sample.
Introduction Arcam AVR850
The AVR850 is currently the flagship under the AV receivers at Arcam. You immediately notice this at the price tag of almost 5,700 euros, a sum so that this device will only appeal to people who want to build a separate home theater. But that is too narrowly viewed: the underlying design philosophy of Arcam means that their devices are more than average AV receivers aimed at music reproduction. As a result, an Arcam AVR850 is also interesting for those who want to have surround and stereo playback handled by one better amplifier.
Surround fans should not be put off by the 7.1 label. The Arcam AVR850 processes surround to 7.1.4, but if you are building such an arrangement effectively, you have to send those four additional channels to one or two separate amplifiers. One of our test setups is 5.1.4, so we used an additional Arcam P249 (1,999 euro) for the last two height channels.
Just a moment: the AVR850 is not a new device, but remains relevant for a longer time. Unlike brands such as Denon and Onkyo, Arcam does not see the need to publish updates every year for its receiver models. This is partly possible because the Arcams, such as the AVR850, do not really bet on streaming. There are still firmware updates released to keep the receivers on the surround surface current. For example, the AVR850 has been recently upgraded with IMAX Enhanced which is relatively unique in the market. Perhaps that is also because Arcam is part of the Harman group, which in turn is embedded in parent company Samsung. It may have gotten more attention for imaging technologies.
Paying for pure power
Who reads the review of the AVR-550 and then comes to this article, will quickly notice that many of the same comments return. Do you have to find that strange? Not really. The difference between lower and higher AV receivers is almost always relatively small for all manufacturers. More channels, an occasional feature, and especially a better amplifier hatch are the main reasons to buy a more expensive model. At Arcam this is not so different, although their AV receivers are even more similar than other brands. In addition, even the entry-level model at Arcam (the AVR390) has an excellent amplifier hatch, which undermines the argument that you opt for a higher model because of a better audio reproduction.
In terms of connections and possibilities, the AVR-550 and Arcam AVR850 very similar. Both can control 7.1 (or 5.1.2) and process 7.1.4. All two have 7 HMDI inputs, three HDMI outputs (but in two zones), as many audio inputs, and exactly the same support for surround codecs. The two Arcam receivers even look quasi-identical. The burning question is therefore: why spend around 2,000 euros more on the AVR850? The answer is entirely at the amplifier section. Only the Arcam AVR850 is equipped with Arcams acclaimed Class G amplifier technology, which is a very interesting combination of Class A and Class AB.
Class G technology is not the only technique that offers a solution of the battle class A (low distortion, high consumption) vs class AB (low consumption, possible distortion problems), but one of the better ones. Also in our review of the Arcam SA-20 we noticed that it combines power with a very fine sound.
Back to the Arcam AVR850. The enormous amplification hatch of this 20-kg weighing receiver delivers an amount of power that you can only find on paper with most AV receivers. If you use it in stereo mode, the stereo channels will be 120 Watt (at 8 Ohm and continuously over the full frequency range) per channel at their disposal. At 4 Ohm that is 200 Watt. With all seven channels this falls back to 100 watts (at 8 ohms) or 180 watts (at 4 ohms). Now yes, ‘fall back’. That is really a lot of power, given that only in the most crowded surround mixes is effectively sent to all channels. Throughout the testing, it was noticeable that the receiver did indeed perform very powerfully, allowing loudspeakers from a cheaper class to really excel.
A new Dirac
We strongly believe in the usefulness of (good) room calibration software. That Arcam opts for Dirac is therefore a very good thing. Whether Dirac is the very best software to address acoustic and loudspeaker placement problems is perhaps a feast for an intense café discussion between surround lovers. But without a doubt it belongs to the absolute top, nobody is discussing that. Partly because furthermore, only the impact of the room on the frequency response and the impulse response, as in conventional calibration software, is considered. Dirac also analyzes the performance of your speakers and checks whether a loudspeaker itself is phase coherent – so that the drivers of one speakers are well timed and deliver a coherent sound signal to your ears. It therefore takes into account the time domain, a serious plus.
The major disadvantage of Dirac is that the measuring process is complex. Especially when you look at how quickly you measure with roughly Yamaha’s YPAO or with the receivers from the Onkyo / Pioneer stable (including Integra), you can not help but conclude that Dirac costs quite a bit of effort. Even compared to the multi-measurements of Denon / Marantz it is more work and you need more material. Without a good tripod it becomes difficult, a USB measurement microphone is recommended. Arcam also supplies a microphone, but we would recommend that you invest a 70-80 euro in a UMIK-1 USB microphone. For a UMIK microphone you can download a calibration file, which is more accurate because then the microphone characteristics are ignored for the Dirac measurements. There are of course also more expensive options.
You can perform a room measurement with a laptop and the connected microphone. You make multiple measurements, up to nine pieces. With a surround setup with height channels, that takes quite a bit of time. Not only because they have a lot of measurements, but also because you have to take time to correctly position the microphone.
After the measurement, the Dirac software – which you have to install on your PC – will give you options for the results. to adjust to a graphical curve. In a final step, filters are calculated on the Dirac servers and the result is sent to the Arcam AVR850. An internet connection is therefore a must, just like some patience. You are busy with measuring, but also adjusting. Practice shows that you will probably return to the measured data to try another adjustment. After all, it requires some insight and experience to really get a good result that solves room problems and retains the character of your speakers. After all, Dirac’s standard target curve is too neutral. We find, but also many pros that we spoke to.
Chances are that you will indeed adjust the proposed curve, especially if you listen to music a lot. The Dirac curve aggressively peaks in the mid and high altitudes, but that can be just what gives that character and a sense of detail to your speakers. You can adjust the Dirac curve per speaker or per speaker group if relevant (eg left-right in front). The latter is really recommended, unless there is a particular problem with one particular speaker, for example due to a placement problem. Imagine that your right surround back speaker must be placed against a wall, while the left is free. It may then be necessary to provide a separate correction curve for the right speaker.
After adjusting the curve (s), Dirac creates a filter that is sent to the Arcam AVR850. That takes a while, with us a minute or two.
The (relatively) many work that comes with Dirac can be circumvented by having the receiver installed by an installer attached to a store. Arcam himself is in favor of this, but it is certainly not impossible to do it yourself. It’s not like you can destroy the receiver or something like that.
The good news is that Dirac is about to update its software. Even more, the AVR850 is one of the devices with which you can already work with a beta of this Dirac 2.x. And that’s a good thing, because the new Dirac version introduces a much clearer interface and also apps that work on an iOS or Android device. The screenshots you see above come from this new version. So you can also measure via your tablet, although it is a good idea to connect a measuring microphone via USB to your mobile device. We also worked with Dirac 2 during this test; You will soon be able to read our more extensive findings in a background article about this new software.
You should not be at Arcam if you are looking for an interface with lots of blingbling. No graphic elements or explanations for beginners here, such as images that show where to place speakers and how to connect cables. For that you have to be at a brand like Denon. Everything is arranged via text menus, which in itself is very clear. For someone who knows what he is doing – such as an installer – the Arcam interface is very effective. Everything is to the point, without special processing functions, so that an expert can quickly set and adjust things. In itself it is therefore quite ok. Only the Arcam AVR850 misses the (small) pleasure of an impressive interface that appears on your big screen when you dive into it. Both Denon / Marantz and Yamaha give more satisfaction in this area.
The tighter Arcam approach does not mean that things are missing. On the contrary, you even get very useful options. This way you can set useful things per input, ranging from the active sound mode (so that the CD input automatically switches to stereo) to toner controls. Very practical we find that you can set the stereo mode per input, where you can choose to have the stereo speakers full-range or limited play in combination with a sub that you can adjust separately for stereo. Do you hate DTS Neural: X? You can also permanently disable surround modes so that operation becomes simpler. You will not be surprised, however, that you do not encounter extensive DSP modes with the Arcam AVR850. You will not find the Viennese concert hall or Bavarian beer cellar sound mode here. But that is really not that bad either.
You can also enable or disable the Dirac-generated filter per input. The sad thing here is that Arcam only allows the upload of one filter, so you can not apply a spectacular filter for your surround setup and warmer for your music in stereo mode. The philosophy behind Dirac is of course that you create one ultimate filter and do not work with several, but we still think that some people would like to switch. Multiple Dirac filters would also allow for an A / B comparison between two custom filters, which is useful in the experiment phase. In our recent test of the Linn Selekt it was possible to compare that between different curves with Linn’s Space Optimization system – and that helped to fine-tune the sound to our personal taste. You can, however, switch the Diracfilter on and off with the Arcam AVR850 by pressing the audio button on the remote.
Few streaming options
We already mentioned it: Arcam is not really committed to an extensive streaming platform with multiroom capabilities. There are two options for listening through streaming. Spotify Connect is present and works as usual just as well. If you want to play your own files, you work via UPnP / DLNA. In itself, DLNA works fine, provided that all elements (server, control app and player) in the story are correct. Arcam ensures that at least two of these three things function properly. The Arcam AVR850 has a media player that likes many formats (but not ALAC); operating it is done via the Arcam MusicLife app that has recently also become available on Android. The Arcam interface on the TV may be sober, the MusicLife app is visually clever and intuitive. Nevertheless, we would advise you to look at an alternative app, at least on Android. With BubbleUPnP you control the Arcam in terms of DLNA streaming and you also get additional options, such as streaming from Qobuz, Tidal and Google Play Music. In any case, whether you are streaming via Spotify, MusicLife or another app, you will see a very boring image on your TV screen. It is not a breaking point, of course, but showing an album cover is a bit more sexy than a textual summary from the nineties.
Is it bad that the Arcam AVR850 offers much less in terms of streaming than rivals like Denon, Onkyo / Pioneer / Integra and Yamaha, and no multiroom? That depends on your own preferences. If you choose an Arcam receiver, we would recommend that you extend it with a Chromecast adapter that plugs you into a free HDMI port. Then you can immediately stream from the apps of all music services and even video forwarding of video services such as Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, and that for 79 euros (if you buy the 4K version, otherwise it is 39 euros). The Chromecast adapter also allows your receiver to play with other Chromecast speakers, although you can not, for example, transmit the sound of a TV broadcast or connected CD player to speakers in the kitchen. Those are things that can be done with Yamaha’s MusicCast, for example
We use a different (more expensive) solution in these scenarios. Our Oppo UDP-203 is Roon Ready, allowing us to play our music and Qobuz / Tidal streams in high quality – with the album beautifully presented on the screen. But Roon is of course quite a niceding.
There is another app available for the Arcam AVR850. The excellent Arcam Control app completely replaces the remote control. This is how a remote app can be: quick and easy to use, and yet with all options. For the sake of completeness we also like to mention that the Arcam receiver works well with smart home platforms, including Crestron and Platform4. Control via IP and RS232 are other options.
As you already noticed, the Dirac measurement and curve adaptation is a large part of the test story with the AVR850. That is the downside of the enormous flexibility that Dirac offers. Secretly we find that nice, but most people will only have to deal with when setting up the receiver. You really feel that you can intervene on the sound, in a good way. During the test period we used the Arcam receiver with two speaker sets: our fixed 5.1.2 / 4 system based on Dali Rubicon and a Monitor Audio Silver W12 subwoofer, and a 5.1 system consisting of Sonus faber Sonettos and a compact (but very competent) Gravis subwoofer. An Oppo UDP-203 and a Panasonic DP-UB820 / 824 serve our 4K video sources.
What immediately stands out when we watch the racing scene from ‘Ready Player One’ (Ultra HD Blu-ray) is how big and focused the Arcam AVR850 displays the hectic action. It is a very long, spectacular scene filled with crashes, explosions, screeching tires, a snarling Godzilla and an angry King Kong – all made in one of the best Dolby mixes. In terms of bombast and spectacle, the Arcam is slightly more modest than the Yamaha RX-A1080 that we had recently tested, but that is actually partly due to the own Dirac curve we have chosen. What we lose, we win enormously on the side of the positioning of securities. For example, during the RPO film scene, you regularly hear the sound of coins falling to the ground, each time a race driver crashes his car, and they are collected by Parzival in his virtual DeLorean. Good about the Arcam AVR850 is how sounds like this are perfectly placed in the room. The coins really seem to fall behind us, unusually realistic. Punishment, because we do not have surround speakers right behind the listening seat.
Another film release with an outstanding Dolby soundtrack is ‘Mission Impossible: Fallout’ (on Ultra HD Blu-ray). It is also just another very exciting, successful episode in this series. For a long time, Rogue Nation has been high on our list of films that we use to test Atmos, and Fallout is now also welcome. The part where Ethan Hunt goes undercover to get the escape attempt of a terrorist to your own hand, you have to experience with a well-tuned surround setup, it’s spectacularly good. Especially on this Arcam AVR850. We open the volume well, so that we get to hear everything as it should. While Hunt on a motorbike runs through the streets of Paris – against the direction of traffic – the whoosh sounds of other cars fly from front to back in the room. With the Atmos set-up of Dali it is very nice, but also on the more accessible Sonus Faber 5.1-set the positioning is really good. Even more, we find the match between Arcam and the Sonettos unexpectedly good. The Arcam AVR850 does not drop any stitch and never runs against its limitations. Fortunately, given the price.
Arcam tunet are AV receivers on music reproduction, something that you really notice. If after the Paris escapade everything seems to be in order and jugs, a long piece follows in which only a military march version of the Mission Impossible theme plays. And that sounds detailed, dynamic and beautiful in balance. Music is an important part of almost every film, so this is really important. A good choice of Arcam (and also the reason why we like Marantz receivers so much). If we also only listen to music through the Oppo and Roon, then it simply sounds magnificent. It’s also nice that you can switch on the sub in the settings automatically and adjust it separately for a 2.1-view, so that you can experience your own better stereo sound for listening to music with little effort. It is a clever skill, especially if your stereo speakers are smaller or hanging on / in the wall.
The Arcam AVR850 undoubtedly deserves the label ‘high end’. You will notice this by the price, but especially by the good surround processing and the excellent audio performance. We have rarely heard such good focus and positioning of surround effects. That is also a merit of the Dirac system. This works very well, but requires more work than an average AV receiver to get it right. But that’s worth it.
With a flagship we prefer to see 5.1.4 or even 7.1.4 and that the Arcam AVR850 is missing, although you can build a setup with four height channels by adding a two or four channel amplifier. But that drives the cost price even higher. That makes the AVR850 no less good, but clearly a receiver for those who take their home cinema very seriously.