Review: Arcam SA30 Amplifier : More and more ‘real’ hi-fi amplifiers are taking into account the presence of a television in the living room. One of the intriguing devices uniting music and TV viewing this year is the EISA Award-winning Arcam SA30. In addition to an HDMI-eARC connection, it features Dirac room correction and class G amplification. The latter is usually only found with much more expensive Arcam devices.
Arcam SA30 Amplifier
This year the Arcam SA30 Amplifier was awarded ‘amplifier of the year’ by EISA. A great honor, especially when you take into account the stiff competition in this segment. The fact is: many good stereo amplifiers have appeared in 2020. British Arcam – now part of the Harman group, which in turn is part of Samsung – easily convinced the jury by building a series of useful features on an impressive foundation. We are talking about the class G amplification that is specific to Arcam and which with this device is good for 2 x 120 Watt (in 8 Ohm) of power. On this foundation rests a new software platform that uses Chromecast and AirPlay 2 and is equipped with Dirac room correction. In terms of connectivity, the many connections stand out, in particular the HDMI-eARC connection.
All this gives the 2,399-euro Arcam SA30 a deserved place on the list of people who want to listen to music in higher quality with one device and who want to enjoy better stereo reproduction when watching TV. The demand for a combination device to do both seems to be increasing. In the past year we see more and more stereo devices that come with an HDMI input, such as the NAD M10 and the Denon DRA-800H. They are an alternative to sound bars, especially for people who put listening to music first. The cost is a bit higher than with a soundbar. The amount that you pay for the SA30 also includes the cost of a set of speakers. On the other hand: a premium soundbar is also not that cheap.
|What||Integrated stereo amplifier 2 x 120 Watt|
|Inputs||2 x optical, 2 x coaxial, 4 x cinch, 1 x phono (MM / MC), HDMI-eARC|
|Streaming||Chromecast, AirPlay 2, Roon Ready (update), DLNA, Bluetooth|
|Extras||Dirac, Support Control4 and Crestron|
|Dimensions||43.3 x 32.2 x 10 cm, 12 kg|
Not an eye-catcher
Perhaps the biggest criticism you can have of the SA30 is its appearance. Arcam prefers a sober, somewhat boring design language. That makes this amplifier not really an eye-catcher that you will proudly display on your TV cabinet. Not that it is inferiorly finished. With its gray housing and black and white display, it is simply sleek and to the point. Nothing wrong with that, but if you get a kick out of visual extravagance, Arcam is not the right place for you.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other reasons to consider the SA30. We must also be honest and admit that in terms of design, this device is already a big step forward compared to previous Arcam generations. It is not purely functional design that does not care about the environment in which a device will end up. The matte finish, also of the buttons, makes the SA30 blend in well with a modern interior. Can we still complain? The letters on the buttons could be slightly more legible.
A glance at the back is enough to make it clear that this is not an AV receiver but a stereo device that you can place next to a TV. Here you will not discover a row of HDMI inputs, but only (many) inputs for audio devices. And of course also only speaker terminals for two speakers. A plus is that there is a phono input for a turntable and that it is suitable for MC and MM cartridges.
The lack of HDMI inputs is compensated by the presence of an HDMI eARC connection. This ensures that the audio from sources that hang directly on the TV arrives at the Arcam amplifier in the best quality. OK, strictly speaking HDMI-ARC was already sufficient for that, at least for stereo, but eARC does mean that things like lipsync and HDMI-CEC will go better. If you connect the SA30 to an older TV without eARC , it will switch to ARC.
Apple and Google provide the main options
With an amplifier that positions itself as a total solution, streaming in 2020 should not be missing. Coincidence or not, just like the other Harman brands, Arcam is fully committed to Chromecast and AirPlay2. This allows you to send almost any music service from your mobile device to the SA30. You can also connect the amplifier with other compatible speakers and devices via both streaming technologies so that the same song can be heard throughout your house. With AirPlay2, you can play a playlist in Apple Music or Spotify simultaneously via the SA30 in the living room and a Sonos One in the kitchen, for example. Chromecast offers roughly the same possibilities. The SA30 doesn’t have its own microphone, but if you add a device like the Nest mini, you can do some basic things with voice commands. For example, adjust the volume or choose music via Spotify or YouTube Music. Incidentally, thanks to Google and Apple, you can also quickly connect the SA30 to your WiFi, which makes setting up the SA30 easy. Via Google Home or the WiFi settings of an iPhone or iPad, the amplifier is quickly found and you can register it on the wireless network. However, you can also work with an ethernet cable. Mind you, you are still going to have to register the SA30 via Google Home if you want to cast.
However, those aren’t the only streaming options you have. Like the AVR models, the SA30 is also uPnP / DLNA compatible. So you can play your own music files over the network. You can do this via Arcam’s own MusicLife app or one of the many other DLNA apps that you will find for Android and iOS devices. Some of those apps also allow you to have DLNA plays music from streaming services, something the technology wasn’t designed for but made possible with some mild hacking from app developers. This is the case with BubbleUPnP and mConnect, for example. MusicLife also offers this option, including support for internet radio. Via the option ‘Streaming Services’ (which appears just below all DLNA sources on your network) you can log in to Deezer, Napster, Tidal and Qobuz. The Arcam even supports the German Highresaudio service, you don’t see that often. The Arcam app looks rather dated at the moment, but a completely new version with a much more modern interface will appear in January or February. That is necessary, because in terms of ease of use MusicLife is not extremely good either. We will update this article with some screenshots when the refreshed Musiclife arrives.
We also have to wait for Roon Ready. All software is already in the SA30, but for the time being the amplifier appears as non-certified in Roon and you cannot stream music. According to Arcam, all steps have been taken to become Roon Ready and we are waiting for a green light from Roon himself. In the meantime, streaming can be done from Roon via Chromecast.
You can operate in many ways
The supplied remote is typically Arcam. We immediately recognize him from previous reviews. In terms of design, it is just as functional as the amplifier itself. The only downside is that some buttons refer to inputs that are not there or that do not really fit a stereo amplifier. SAT, for example, is the second optical input. Of course you get used to that quickly
You can also control the SA30 via the Arcam Control app (iOS). It gives you access to all the functions of the remote, although there are some that don’t seem to do anything. For example, you can choose between DAC filters in the app. However, we did not immediately hear anything change. It also seems like you could accidentally turn off processing mode in the app, which would mean bypassing the volume controls right away. You’ll want to do that if you’re using a different pre-amp, otherwise it could be a painful mistake. While streaming, you just use the volume control in the relevant app.
Since Arcam is included in the American Harman Luxury group that is very focused on the custom install market, it is not surprising that installers have been thought of. Like all new Arcams, IP control and compatibility with home automation platforms such as Crestron and Control4 are provided. Together with Google compatibility, this makes the SA30 an interesting option for projects.
What is Class G?
Equally technical. Arcam’s flagship technology is class G technology. It is not a real ‘class’ like class A or D , but something really unique to the brand. In essence, class G is a kind of mashup of class A and AB, where the amplifier functions up to a certain power in class A. If the volume knob is turned up further, the amplifier switches seamlessly to a class AB approach. For those who are wondering: you will not notice that transition.
The advantage of this double amplification approach is that in most cases you are just listening to a class A amplifier. And class A is basically the most pure amplification technology because it doesn’t add any distortion. The downside is that class A does this by always consuming a lot of power, even when no music is playing. That really adds to the electricity bill when it comes to large capacities such as 100 Watt or more – and you really notice it in the heat development. Believe us, Class A power stages really act as hefty heating units in your room. And this is why most manufacturers are more likely to opt for Class AB or D technology, with a few exceptions. AB and D are not bad technologies by the way, but in their way they introduce distortion which then has to be counteracted with additional electronic parts. This means that the quality of classes AB and D strongly depends on the implementation and chosen techniques.
Class G is therefore an interesting alternative because with normal use it offers all the advantages of class A, but if you play loudly or connect demanding speakers, switch to a technology that uses less power and generates less heat. The SA30 switches to AB when more than 30 watts is required, which in practice means that – depending on the specs of your speakers – you usually listen in class A.
Class G has been on the menu for some time at Arcam, also with AV receivers. Due to its complexity, it is an expensive technique that usually only appears with the expensive Arcam devices. With the receivers, the AVR20, costing 3,700 euros, is class AB, for example, while the AVR30 of 5,700 euros is equipped with class G. It may be more channels than with a stereo device, but we give those prices because it is quite remarkable that the relatively affordable SA30 is class G. It is by no means a cheap device, not that, but it is a low price point for this technology.
Better sound through software
An important advantage of the SA30 is the presence of Dirac . With this function, the acoustic problems of your living room – and those problems are sure to be counteracted. Dirac goes a step further by also optimizing your speakers themselves, by ensuring that the individual drivers are better attuned to each other in terms of impulse response.
We know Dirac quite well, partly thanks to a training that we followed a few years ago at Arcam in Cambridge and thanks to previous test experiences of receivers with Dirac (in addition to Arcam, NAD also uses the software). Don’t convince us: it is a very valuable addition to a stereo device. Dirac is considerably more difficult to set up than ‘fast’ room correction functions, such as YPAO from Yamaha. It does more and can be more effective, but it takes effort. That is why it is a better idea for some to approach your dealer for this.
To use Dirac, you first make a number of measurements around your listening position. You will be guided through the process by the Dirac Live software, which has been much more user-friendly since version 2. You can run Dirac on a laptop (macOS / Windows) or on your mobile device. The first option is more interesting if you want to manipulate the results of the measurement yourself. This is easier on the larger screen of a laptop. In this case, the laptop is also your only option, because the mobile Dirac apps only work with devices with their own microphone (input). That is not the case here.
To really measure correctly with Dirac, a microphone stand (or photo tripod) is highly recommended. You only get the very best results if you experiment with the target curve (the target sound on which Dirac is aiming), which requires some patience and time. Fortunately, the SA30 has three Dirac slots so that you can easily compare your own adjustments.
Setting up Dirac may sound complex to some, but to be honest it depends on how far you want to go with this function. The use of Dirac is not mandatory anyway.
All-rounder who makes no compromises
This is actually the second time we have visited the SA30. As part of the EISA Awards, we looked at the amplifier when it just appeared on the market. Then we combined the Arcam amplifier with the Monitor Audio Gold 100 speakers, price-wise and also a good match in terms of sound. Now we are a bit more ambitious and the Focal Sopra N ° 2 speakers are attached to the SA30. Admittedly, it is not just about ambition; the Sopras were already lined up and their relocation is quite a feat due to their weight and delicate gloss lacquer. But after our previous experience we are convinced that the Arcam can handle the French speakers despite a big difference in price range.
Since that HDMI port is a showcase for the SA30, we connect the Arcam amplifier to the Sony KD-65AF9 in the test room. The Arcam representative already warned us that the Sony ARC implementation sometimes presented problems, but in our case everything worked flawlessly. You must of course switch the audio output to PCM stereo, because the SA30 does not process Dolby Digital or bitstream audio. The fact that we didn’t include a subwoofer in this story isn’t really a problem with these two large floorstanders. The many gunfights and the increasingly improbable car stunts in ‘Fast & Furious 8’ (Netflix) are already rolling out of the speakers in a quite powerful way. We certainly have no complaints with the new episode of season 5 of The Expanse (Amazon Video). Already with that beautiful opening song we get a nice stereo soundstage presented and dialogues in particular are presented fuller and fresher compared to the speakers on the Sony TV. It again proves that you already get a nice TV viewing experience with separate stereo speakers.
The musical performance is perhaps the most important for many. The ESS9038K2M DAC hatch in the SA30 provides a very nice conversion from digital to analog when playing ‘Beethoven Transformed vol.2’ by Boxwood & Brass via a Project CD Box RS2 T. This recording of reworks of some of Beethoven’s well-known works, including ‘Egmont Overture op. 84 ‘, fits the moment perfectly. Chill outside again, warm, cozy chamber music inside. We also like to hear the flowing, just not too sharp character of the fiddle in ‘Women of Ireland’ by The Chieftains (also known from Kubrick’s ‘Byron Lyndon’). This number can come out really too bright on some DACs, here it is just right. The bright edges have been filed, because it produces a typical ear-friendly Arcam sound. The SA30 provides immediate proof that it has the power to drive more difficult speakers while playing the thumping beats of ‘Never Come Back (Floating Points Remix)’ by Caribou (aka Dan Snaith). This uplifting track is put down tight, but not so tight that it becomes clinical. With a little more power, the Sopras really got the most out of it, but to be fair: with speakers from the 10K price class, you usually have to aim a little higher than this in terms of amplification. The Arcam SA30 performs very well in our tests for an all-rounder with an excellent amplification hatch and many features, in any case. but not so tight that it becomes clinical. With a little more power, the Sopras really got the most out of it, but to be fair: with speakers from the 10K price class, you usually have to aim a little higher than this in terms of amplification. The Arcam SA30 performs very well in our tests for an all-rounder with an excellent amplification hatch and many features, in any case. but not so tight that it becomes clinical. With a little more power, the Sopras really got the most out of it, but to be fair: with speakers from the 10K price class, you usually have to aim a little higher than this in terms of amplification. The Arcam SA30 performs very well in our tests for an all-rounder with an excellent amplification hatch and many features, in any case.
Arcam SA30 Amplifier – Conclusion
The SA30 doesn’t look sexy, but it offers everything you could need to listen to music in high quality. It is a nice amplifier that sounds excellent. Your TV sound will also get a nice upgrade. The great thing about this Arcam amplifier is the great combination of a powerful Class G stage with streaming and Dirac room correction. We still have to wait for those latest software updates to say that the SA30 is perfect, but most people looking for a solution at a higher level will be completely satisfied by now.
Pros of Arcam SA30 Amplifier
- Excellent spicy reinforcement part
- Class-guiding room correction
- Chromecast and Airplay2
- Fits many usage scenarios.
- Slim and discreet appearance
- Still waiting for Roon and MusicLife update
- Dirac is very good, but has learning curve
- Cold start takes a long time