ARCAM SA30

MJ10.10.2020

Integrated amplifiers

Provided that you don’t insist on using a turntable or a CD player the Arcam SA30 can be the only component – together with loudspeakers – that you’ll need to play your music. Just grab a smartphone or a tablet and stream from it directly to the amplifier. Still, the SA30 can easily accommodate both vinyl and many other sources if need be. The best thing, however, is how this rather ordinary looking amplifier plays the music – it sounds nothing short of amazing.

Function and form

90%
Ease of use
70%
Sound
30%
Appearance

Today’s asking price of the SA30 is around 2.5k€ which would be circa 500€ in late 80’s. Back then, and at this pricing point, one could choose from a plethora of Japanese hi-fi and some of it actually was quite good performing. These devices set the benchmarks of consumer electronics in 80’s and 90’s. The consumer electronics of 2020, represented by the Arcam here, has made a big leap forward.

The attractive looking amplifier is what the SA30 is not. It can’t be more ordinary – it is a simple steel chassis with greyish front panel and plastic buttons and knobs that look better on pictures than in reality. Fortunately the look from behind reveals massive connectivity options. There are 3 pairs of RCA inputs, built-in MM/MC phono preamplifier, pre-out, two 3.5mm outputs for headphones or auxiliary components, as well as high quality gold-plated speaker posts that accept both lugs and bananas (I recommend using bananas as the low-profile Arcam does not provide too much clearance for bending thick cables). The digital connections are routed to a 32-bit Sabre ESS9038K2M DAC chip and they include RJ-45 Ethernet, wi-fi antenna, AirPlay, Chromecast and uPnP streaming options, USB-A , USB-C, HDMI, two Toslink and two coaxial S/PDIF inputs. There is also an RS232 connection for easy integration in home automation systems.  The SA30 is also compatible with Roon and MQA. The only features that may be missing for some are a Bluetooth receiver and XLR inputs. The latter can be easily solved by using adaptors.

The power output of the Arcam is rated 120W per channel into 8Ω, 220W per channel into 4Ω, enough for driving any speakers.

Bass management

Weight
80
Slam
78
Articulation
82

I was 60 seconds into the Missing You track of Stevie Ray Vaughn and it was clear already that the SA30 is a competent amplifier. I reviewed it with its Dirac DSP processing disengaged. The Dirac is one of the most advanced and bullet-proof digital room correction engines on the market today and having it implemented into the SA30 Arcam makes so much easier for a user to integrate the amp/speaker set up with the room. Yet, even without the Dirac, the SA30 sound was great.

The melodic bass guitar is – with an apology to Mr. Vaughn – the real backbone of the Missing You. I may have missed bigger volume of the bass and its weight, yet this can be easily fixed with the Dirac. At its price the Arcam SA30’ s performance on bass was well balanced and the instrument had that combo feel which made it so alive and present in the room. I hardly know of any consumer electronics that can mediate such immediacy.

Clarity & delicacy

Detail
79
Air
78
Transparency
80

The Arcam SA30 did not become perplexed with more complex sounding program either. Through the Arcam The Syd Lawrence Orchestra with Big Band Spectacular perhaps could not reach the fidelity and nuances of much more expensive electronics, yet it managed to reach high levels of listening satisfaction. I appreciated the way the SA30 separated individual instruments no matter whether the played solos (like the excellent solo on drums) or in orchestral tuttis, with the band going full throttle. The sound remained resolved and perfectly legible.

Tonal accuracy

Timbre
74
Dynamics
74
Temporal resolution
80

The sound of the SA30 is open and expressive, with a great sense for rhythm and timing and – at the same time – it has good flow that makes it more akin to high end than to consumer electronics. I would not say the SA30 is sounding warm, but it does not sound cold either. At the same time it does not sound like a typical solid-state device, nor does it have embracing bloom of tubes. It is a kind of combination of everything that makes the Arcam so successful and satisfying. Yes, there are digital traces on the top end which is perhaps not so smooth as with specialized (and more expensive) devices, but this is just a minor quibble.

The Eagles and Hotel California were really rocking through the Arcam. And they were rocking even more when I started turning the volume knob of the SA30 to the right. At high volumes the bass did not lose anything of its rounded articulation and punch, I guess it is because the successful implementation of the Arcam’s proprietary Class G amplification. At low volumes the amplifier works in pure Class A, running from a primary supply, once the amp is asked to rock the rail is switched to a secondary rail into Class B, thus delivering enough juice.

Spatial resolution

Holography
86
Soundstage width
87
Soundstage depth
85

I finished my listening sessions with the Arcam with vinyl playback. It was actually quite interesting to compare Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms album in digital files against its identical vinyl pressing. I would not say that either was necessarily better. The vinyl was more centered on midrange that was more colorful and smoother, and the highs were more nuanced, although a bit rolled-off. The digital had better frequency extremes, with more opened and crisp highs and more thumping and dynamic bass. The phono preamplifier in the SA30 has two inputs, one pair of RCAs for MM cartridges, and another pair of RCAs for MC cartridges. This is also quite unusual. As good as the phono section is it will be easily bettered by an external phono preamp; still, the Arcam SA30 was built as an audio-center, an all-in-one device, and this is how it should be judged.

I trust that if the SA30 innards were mounted into a milled fancy aluminum chassis one would not object to pay for it twice its price and it would remain competitive sound-wise. I am not surprised that it was awarded by EISA.

Price as reviewed:66 000,- Kč

Recommended resellers

AQ s.r.o., Červenka, tel. +420 585 342 232

Associated components

  • Sources: TIDAL streaming, Pro-Ject Extension 10, Pro-Ject Evolution raménko, Gold Note Donatello GOLD MC vložka
  • Loudspeakers:Acoustique Quality AQ Pontas 6
  • Interconnects and speaker cables: AudioQuest Castle Rock Bi-Wire, AudioQuest Pearl RJ-45
  • Power conditioning:  AudioQuest PowerQuest 2

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