The latest in the compact ‘r’ series of components, Paul Rigby reviews Arcam’ new phono amplifier, the rPhono
A truly specialist piece of hi-fi equipment, the phono amp’s job is to amplify the tiny signal produced by a turntable’s cartridge. It’s so specialist that a basic amplifier can’t handle it. Because the amplification job is so large in terms of the differences between the start and end points, any small amount of noise that is introduced early into the process will be magnified to horrible proportions by the time the cartridge signal is large enough to be heard. A careful phono map design is, therefore, required. Hence, one of the most important parts of any analogue chain is that phono amplifier.
The Arcam rPhono arrives in the now familiar brick-sized, compact chassis. The front area of the fascia offers a power light while, at the rear, are inputs for both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges plus a range of DIP switches that control impedance (MC-only), input capacitance (MM-only) and gain settings (30dB-82dB). A rumble filter can remove ultra low frequency noise, useful for warped records.
You can change the DIP switches with a fingernail or the end of a pen but these options are wholly lacking in élan. Which is why Arcam has supplied a brilliant little DIP switch flicker tool that is stored at the bottom of the rear of the chassis when not in use.
I began the sound tests playing a selection of music from the 80s post punk outfit, Bizarre Unit, combining vocals, sparse early synths with organic instruments, via the German record label, Vinyl on Demand.
Considering the price point, I began the sound test in moving magnet mode. The Arcam impressed in its sheer physical presence during this track. The bass was pronounced, adding a mass and weight within the lower frequencies that provided a solidity in both the percussion but also the bass guitar which was a quiet yet important facet within this track. I loved the growl of the bass guitar reverb which added a sense of lower frequency threat to the presentation. The percussion itself held a rich and meaty flavour that ploughed the sonic depths.
Despite the impressive lower frequencies, for the price, I didn’t feel that the bass swamped the soundstage or bloomed all over the upper midrange. For example, the rolling rhythm guitar did gain weight but only in terms of authority while the metallic nature of the strummed instrument retained detail and a sense of tonal balance.
Some listeners might point to a small reduction in air and space around the upper mids and a slight lack of dynamic extension, noticeable especially during vocal performances. These issues are relatively minor, especially for the price and, in return, you do experience a smooth and rather lush presentation that is eminently listenable and easy on the ear. More so because the unit offers low noise, hence, more music information is available to the ear.
I then turned to moving coil and the jazz vocal of Gogi Grant and the track By Myself, from the 1960 LP, Granted It’s Gogi on Living Stereo.
In terms of approach and tone, the Arcam’s MC stage retained the smooth nature of the presentation with an easy and flowing delivery. Grant’s vocals may have not reached for the dynamic heights but, instead, she added a rich, confident and authoritative presentation that soared.
As for the orchestra, the brass and sax sections offered a relatively sweet persona yet retained a enough detail to inform the ear. The upright bass was strong, characterful and effective in terms of its impact while the percussion drove the track easily. Treble might have neglected to reach the very height of its possible extension but the cymbals retained an informative stance, you never felt short-changed in terms of the information on offer.
The Arcam rPhono offers an attractive sound quality that will give any budget or midrange vinyl-based system an easy going, carefree, smooth and unforced presentation. Well built, offering plenty of options and feature variations, the rPhono is the Dean Martin of phono amplifiers…but the rPhono never falls over.
ARCAM rPHONO PHONO AMPLIFIER
Good: bass impact, smooth midrange, build, musicality, broad soundstage
Bad: dynamic extension
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All vinyl was cleaned using an Audio Desk’s Ultrasonic Pro Vinyl Cleaner