Arcam AVR850 Receiver Review
By Mark Vignola on
The Arcam AVR850 is a refined and high performing AV Receiver – and at $6000, among the most costly available for purchase today. What does one get for that $6000? Easily the best amplifier performance I’ve ever experienced in a dedicated AV receiver, paired with cutting edge Dirac Live room correction. Together, these two attributes mean the AV850 performance rivals many separate processor/amp combinations, with the convenience and footprint of an “all-in-one” AV receiver. While lacking some bells and whistles present in more mainstream receivers, the AVR850 represents an exciting alternative to separates for someone who values sound quality and top notch room correction, with potentially little-to-no compromise in performance.
Cutting Edge Features
Arcam states that the AVR850 is built from the ground-up for audio performance. The AVR850 uses their own implementation of Class G amplification.While it is beyond the scope of this review to dive into the technicals, Class G operates very similar to traditional Class A/B amplifiers but is more efficient especially with higher output levels. It is more expensive to build than Class A/B, which is why you see it restricted to higher-end components and bigger amplifiers, but it can provide more power with less energy use than a Class A/B amplifier can. D/A conversion is handled by Cirrus CS42528 chips, which are nicer than you’ll find in more mainstream units.
The other key feature in the Arcam AVR850 is the presence of Dirac Live. The AVR850 is the only AV receiver to incorporate this advanced room correction platform. Again, while it is beyond the scope of this article to dive into the details of Dirac – at RHT we are big fans of room correction, and Dirac is among the best systems available today. Prior to the AVR850, Dirac was only available in a handful of AV processors – so the addition of this to an “all-in-one” solution is, to us, an important feature.
Other aspects of the AVR850 are pretty standard. The unit is capable of handling all typical sound formats, including Atmos – though, with only 7 amplified channels, you’ll be stuck making choices as to what to use the extra two channels for (Atmos, rear-surrounds, etc). There are a plethora of HDMI 2.0a inputs and dual HDMI outputs.
The remote for the AVR850 is well laid out and is backlit. It is a bit quirky in use – and even after I learn the logic of how the remote works, I still struggle from time to time. We anticipate that most users will use this with a universal remote of some sort, which will make the remote superfluous, so we don’t think this is a big issue for most users. There is a remote control app available – it’s reasonably functional and better than some other receiver control apps we’ve used – but that bar isn’t necessarily all that high. The app does allow for UPnP / NAS streaming but we didn’t test these features.
The AVR850’s only streaming platform is Spotify Connect. If you want anything else you’ll need to employ some sort of external streaming solution. This isn’t necessarily a big deal, but worth noting – if you like other platforms, like Tidal, your system will need to be incrementally more complex.
I am disappointed to see that the AVR850 lacks wireless internet connectivity – a feature that has become fairly standard in AVR’s. Given the AVR850 requires internet connectivity for proper set-up – and the fact that I don’t have wired ethernet near my equipment stand in my apartment – I had to remedy the problem with the purchase of a wifi access point. This all worked fine in the end – but we still would like to see wifi in an AVR of this cost. Arcam tells us that they opted for wired ethernet only as they like the more stable connection and believe wifi negatively impacts sound quality. We understand the choice, but we’ve used wifi in other products without issues.
Best left to the pro’s: Set-Up of the AVR850
At RHT we’ve praised guided setups from the likes of Denon and Marantz – unfortunately, there is nothing similar here to help users from a software standpoint, and the manual isn’t geared towards providing detailed instructions. Along with that, the addition of Dirac to this unit essentially means there are multiple work streams required to get the AVR850 up and running correctly.
The simplest thing we can say about the AVR850 set-up is: it’s a bit quirky, so either be prepared to roll up your sleeves or, preferably, just leave it to your dealer to handle.
Astonishing amplification & room correction
I am absolutely floored by both the sonic performance of the AVR850, as well as the improvements conveyed by Dirac. This is easily the best sounding AV receiver I have had the pleasure of using.
From an amplification standpoint, the AVR850 performs flawlessly. My current system consists of a pair of KEF Reference 1’s, a KEF Reference 2C and two KEF R100’s as surrounds. The AVR850 runs this system with ease. My first movie experience with the AVR850 was with 2016s Sully. Not only was this a fantastic movie, the Dolby Atmos soundtrack is excellent. Beyond the obvious scenes of the actual plane “water landing” (not crash as Capt. Sullenberger reminds us), there are more intimate dialog heavy scenes to help evaluate the AVR850. Everything in the movie just sounds terrific. I never found myself wanting for extra dynamics – the AVR850 clearly has enough reserves to keep up with the swings we see in this movie. Everything is clean and tight.
Dirac easily outperforms the Audyssey XT32 / Audyssey Professional combination that I use in my room with a Marantz AV8801. In all regards, Dirac is clearly superior to this system. Everything sounds tighter and cleaner with Dirac. I hope this technology finds its way to more platforms because the results I achieve in my multi-use room are clearly superior to what I have been able to achieve previously.
The Dirac/Class G combination doesn’t just excel on movies but also sounds terrific with music. Whether rock or folks, I am consistently happy with the pairing. I will also note that the AVR850 was quite friendly to less pristine sources. The AVR850 isn’t too clinical sounding and preserved listenability with Spotify Connect (my wife’s listening mode of choice).
We were introduced to Courtney Barnett on Saturday Night Live’s season finale last year. I am continually surprised at SNL’s ability to mix artists more obscure artists with Top 40 acts. I had never heard of Barnett before that show and am a big fan of her modern, punky sound. These tracks are terrific on the AVR850, which easily kept up with the driving and dynamic album. It is especially fun to experiment with Dirac on and off. With Dirac engaged, every aspect of the tracks tightens considerably. Vocals are more clear, and every instrument is easily tighter, clearer and more distinguishable.
The AVR850 didn’t just do well with harder punk/rock, but also handled the mellow side with ease. I’ve had Brandi Carlile in rotation recently in anticipation of a “tribute album” slated to come out this year with covers from the likes of Pearl Jam. With more laid back tracks like “The Eye”, the AVR850 does a brilliant job at resolving the subtleties in this track. Again, toggling Dirac on and off produces a marked improvement – the guitar riffs and vocals possess a tightness I’ve never before heard in my room.
Any improvements to the AVR850?
As with set-up, there are few quirks with the AVR850 in use. Firstly, the unit didn’t play well with my Roku 4. Audio takes quite a while to lock in, and in some cases, I experience lip-sync issues with this source. These type of issues were common years ago as companies worked to debug HDMI, but are far less common now.
While the Arcam is internet capable, and internet connectivity is required for Dirac software, firmware installation happens via USB. Additionally, it doesn’t appear that the AVR850 is capable of using the internet to tell users that a new firmware exists – so you’re left to check on your own to see if any firmware is available. We’d like to see at least some sort of notice be pushed out to users as to when a new firmware is available but this is the same situation as the Anthem receivers.
We mentioned earlier in the review that the AVR850 only offers Spotify Connect. While we don’t think this will be a big deal for most AVR850 users, we’d still like to see support for a broader cross section of music services. Also as mentioned earlier, we think that wireless internet should be standard.
Lastly, I didn’t have success pairing the AVR850 as a pre-amp with my Parasound Halo A51. The key reason for the lack of success was the 12-volt trigger – which just didn’t play well with my A51. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t get reliable pairing with the A51 – and at times the amp would pop on and off due to the unreliable connection. I’m confident that as a pre-amp the AVR850 will play well with amplifiers from Arcam (necessary if you want to run a full 7.4 Atmos setup) – but it is worth testing with you amp before committing to the AVR850.
Who is AVR850 for?
Who do we think is the right customer for the AVR850? If you are considering separates, but are concerned about the footprint, this is a terrific unit to take a look at. The $6000 you’ll spend on the AVR850 is similar to the cost for many pre-amp/processor combinations, and cheaper than other seven channel Dirac Live combinations. You might end up with more pure watts, but I can’t stress enough how impressed I was the Arcam Class G amplification – and I’m left wondering what system that this unit would struggle to power. It certainly didn’t struggle with my KEF system.
Additionally, if you’re looking to move beyond Audyssey (or the various knock-offs that are present in other more mainstream units), but don’t want the complication of a pre-amp/processor in your system, this is definitely a unit to consider. Every day I use the AVR850 I am surprised by how good Dirac sounds, and the AVR850 is the only receiver that implements this unbelievable feature.
Conclusions on the Arcam AVR850
The AVR850 is an impressive AV receiver. The combination of high-end amplification with best-in-class room correction software means the AVR850 is an exceptional sonic performer. If you are interested in peak sonic performance but haven’t wanted to embrace separates, then the AVR850 deserves strong consideration. In use, the unit can be a little quirky, and it lacks some features that are standard in other units, but competent installation via a qualified AV dealer can easily alleviate these issues. The unit is undoubtedly expensive, but we think it is a very interesting option for the right user.
Jaw dropping amplification paired with top-of-the-line room correction.
The set-up is fussy, and best left to professionals; in use, performance can be quirky at times; lacks some basic features we have come to like in receivers like wifi and streaming platforms.
The AVR850 is a truly high-end AVR option for those concerned with best-in-class performance sonic performance: Arcam’s Class G amplification paired with Dirac Live room correction software, means a user can achieve very high performance, without resorting to the complexity of AV separates. The unit lacks some common features and can be quirky in performance, but both of these can be managed through the proper installation with your AV professional.