Arcam’s new range-topping preamp does very little – just as it should!
This isn’t the first preamp that Arcam has ever made, but it is surely the best. Taking pride of place in the company’s upmarket FMJ range, it replaces the previous C30, which was identified as the weaker model in Arcam’s flagship stereo pre/power amp system (alongside the P1 monoblocks). It was designed from the outset to do without superfluous features like tone controls in favour of maximising the sound quality. It’s not entirely stripped to the bone – there is the option of a phono stage – but the review sample was line-level only.
For CD-only systems, a minimalist line-only preamp may seem a pointless luxury – a power amp with a volume control will do fine. OK, a preamp can usefully add gain, but most preamps spend much of their life using little, if any, of that gain advantage.
The new preamp is a fine example of how a good line-level preamp should be done. For a start, it sports a frankly lovely user interface. The more we use recent Arcam products, the more we like their approach. A nice old-fashioned volume knob of sensible size operates a very high-quality electronic attenuator in precise steps, of reference (0.5dB), fine (1dB) or standard (2dB over most of the range) size. A dedicated button for each input does source selection – none of that pesky clicking through a list to get from input one to input five. The amp remembers its last state before being put to sleep and on reawakening fades up to that level.
Arcam is changing FMJ products to feature the ‘Stealth Mat’ system of vibration reduction, supposedly using material from stealth fighters. Not having access to stealth technology, we have to assume claims of noise, hash and sibilance reduction are fact.
The use of an electronic volume control affords the possibility of having a preset gain trim for each input, the better to match levels when switching from, say, tuner to CD, and also setting balance. Like all functions on the preamp, these actions can be performed from either the front panel or the remote.
In terms of connectivity, there are sockets for seven line inputs and two ‘tape’ outputs, plus ‘direct’ and ‘buffered’ unbalanced outputs and a pair of balanced outputs. Arcam reckons that ‘direct’ connection offers some sonic advantage when short (3m or less) interconnects are used, but ‘buffered’ gives more grunt. While we could measure differences between them in terms of load-driving ability, in typical realistic situations there wasn’t much in it and sonically we couldn’t hear a lot either…
Which brings us to the crucial question – what does the C31 do sonically? As far as we can tell, precious little. It’s possible to be dogmatic because a preamp that accepts a line-level signal and outputs the same can be tested simply in bypass mode – listen without it, then put it in circuit and listen for the difference.
Arcam has never espoused the ‘do something nice to the sound’ philosophy of audio. If you’ve been enjoying the larger-than-life vocal presentation of certain valve designs, you might wonder where the spark has gone. But once things are rendered to their natural size, the relation between them becomes clearer. A lone voice or guitar is magnified, but take a bunch of them and within the stereo image something has to give. Larger-than-life can be great fun, but it is incompatible with true precision.
The C31 may not, if one is to really split hairs, be the most revealing – but you’ll have to spend more than twice the price to prove it, and barely do so even then. However, it is very, very good, impeccably built and technically so assured that we couldn’t with confidence quote specs for it (‘around the measurement limit’ for most of them). It’s also nice to use and well-specified within the confines of its design brief. If you can see the point of a preamp which does no more to the precious music signal than switching it, controlling its level and injecting it into the next component in the chain, you may have just talked yourself into buying a C31.
Arcam FMJC31 | $2998 | Preamplifier |