Speak the name Arcam to an audiophile and you'll have their full attention. The company is well respected for its high-quality amplifiers and CD players. Usually associated with hand-picked separates systems, it's a surprise to discover the elite Arcam brand catering for what is traditionally the hallmark of the proletariat: a mini system.
Mini systems are often considered the hi-fi choice of dilettantes -- those who have a passing interest in music, but none of the passion and dedication of a true audio buff. This line of thinking is more than blind elitism, there are several good reasons why a mini system will fail to match the output quality of a well chosen separates system.
Firstly, mini systems tend to use a single power supply, meaning that the power available to the integrated components (CD player, amp, radio) is shared. Separates systems, however, use higher-quality, independent power supplies for each component. Mini systems tend to cater for the middle ground, excelling in no particular area, opting for affordability over quality of sound. Popular with teenagers and students, mini systems are often shunned by the audiophile.
Although we have the technology to overcome many of the technical problems a small, integrated mini system presents, the stigma attached to them has remained. As a result, few serious hi-fi manufacturers have ventured into this area. The Arcam solo seems an unlikely hero, but has Arcam single-handedly revived the market for compact audiophile-pleasing hi-fi, or is the mini system hi-fi doomed to second-class status forever?
The solo integrates a 100W amplifier (50 per channel), CD player, FM and DAB radio. The CD player stage borrows from the excellent Arcam CD73T, using the same transport and DAC circuits, while the DAB stage is essentially the Arcam DT-91. This is an impressive heritage, and explains why the units sound so good.
The key to any great hi-fi is the amplifier stage. The solo's amplifier delivers a crisp, punchy sound. Although 50W per channel may look unimpressive in comparison to some manufacturer's specs, wattage as a raw measure of volume is often misleading. In our auditions the solo proved itself a very powerful package. The Arcam alto speakers (pictured with the solo above, but sold separately) were driven hard by the amplifier. At near top volume, the 8ohm, 75W cabinets still sounded clean. Output is fairly threatening at this level, and we can't imagine home users wanting much more volume.
Listening to Brendon Benson's Metarie, the solo delivered a promising performance. We initially gave it very little time to warm up, yet the solo rendered instruments with good separation and unstrained attack.
The track begins with a low-fi guitar and vocals which blossom, after around a minute, into an indie rock jaunt. Despite our relatively small speakers, the result was delightful and represented the track as well as we've heard on any consumer system.
It's a common saying in engineering circles that "there's no replacement for displacement", but although the Arcam alto speaker cones are small (displacing relatively little air) they seemed well matched and authoritative. Low frequencies were represented well, and listening to Benson's entire Lapalco album quickly became more of a pleasure than a laboratory test.
The solo is an extremely heavy unit despite its compact chassis. It may look like it would rest happily on a wall-mounted bookcase, but in all likelihood it would destroy it. You'll be fine lugging the solo around your house, but it definitely doesn't have the portability of low-end mini systems.
The reason the solo is heavy is the same reason the solo sounds good -- the amplifier stage uses a massive, weighty coil. It's this that provides the unit with its decent volume output. Given that there's a good reason for the solo's ludicrous chubbiness, it's easily forgiven.
They said it couldn't be done, but Arcam looks suspiciously like it's done it. The solo belies its small chassis and produces a sound worth caring about. Audiophiles may shirk the idea of an integrated unit that matches a hand-picked separates system, but the solo defies expectations.
If you're looking to replace your lovingly-crafted valve-powered, hewn-from-the-Cross-of-Christ amplifier and speaker system with something that's half the size, this is it. It's difficult to get over the idea that small systems mean bad sound, but the solo makes a convincing riposte.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield