Arcam AV860 "Reference Status"? Yup, that's right.

Home Cinema Choice gets their paws on the new Arcam AV860 audio video processor and likens it to the world's best professional gear. The resulting sound is truly reference status and at home in the world's best home cinemas.

When Arcam announced that they were releasing a new pre-pro in the recently redesigned home theater range we were more than casually interested. Arcam has a reputation for building the best AV gear on the planet, and the previous 3 generations of preamp-processors were always at the top of the heap. When we finally got the new AV860 we were beyond ecstatic. The sound of it bowled us over, not to mention it's managed to be $3000 LESS than its predecessor. If you are in the market for a "3D" object-based audio processor capable with state of the art room correction and true 4K capability, look no further. You have met our match! $5500 US retail price. Find an Arcam dealer near you.

Keep reading for excerpts from the Home Cinema Choice review or download it here.

I kicked off my listening with the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix on the new Rogue One Blu-ray (see p96). As Orson Krennic’s ship approaches and lands on the surface of Lah’mu, the Arcam presents a wonderful appreciation of sound steerage, panning the audio effortlessly. The mix sounds clear, loud and very crisp with a rich, deep bass.

I did a side-by-side comparison of the AVR850 via its phono outputs and the AV860 via XLR (using Constellation Audio power amps and Wilson Audio speakers). What was immediately apparent was how superior the AV860 was. It had a depth and clarity that surpassed the receiver.
Moving on to Dolby Atmos material meant I decided to switch player (to a 4K model), which thankfully didn’t cause the Arcam to stumble over any HDCP 2.2 handshake issues. Mel Gibson’s WW2 drama Hacksaw Ridge (Ultra HD Blu-ray) won an Oscar for its soundmixing, overseen by legend Kevin O’Connell who – despite being nominated 20 times – had never won before. It’s a thrilling Atmos track. I spun through to the assault on the cliffs, which begins with Navy artillery fire, building slowly to the engagement where the sound kicks like a deranged mule. Some Atmos tracks seem shy of using the extra channels – this film isn’t. Via the AV860, it brought up memories of Saving Private Ryan. I felt like I was trapped in the centre of the action. Compared to any other processor I’ve heard (except the aforementioned Dolby 850), this sounded clearly bigger and more powerfully presented. The weight and positioning of effects is exemplary, making the onscreen action seem almost too close for comfort.
This was all with the AV860 running the Dirac Live EQ, of which I am a huge fan. It’s the crème de la crème of consumer EQ suites, although not designed for the casual, time-poor user. I covered it before with the AVR850, but I’ll briefly explain again how it works.

First, it conducts room analysis, listening to each speaker you have, logging its characteristics (phase, time alignment, frequency response) and presenting them in a graph. You can take multiple measurements from 9 different positions – the more points you analyse, the better eventual correction you will get. Don’t do just one to save time...

All this data is then analysed and a correction curve arrived at to allow the AV860 to re-tune your speaker’s performance, based upon the unique characteristics of your listening environment. Bespoke target curves can be set; I go for Dolby’s X Curve. Tuning includes subwoofers, too, which is particularly useful as these are often the hardest things to get sounding good.
Anyway, for a change of pace from sci-fi and warfare, I queued up La La Land (Ultra HD Blu-ray). I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it as I hated the film when I first saw it, but this disc has an Atmos mix, too. The performance of the AV860 with the opening dance number actually made me want to watch it all. Scary. It had rhythm and timing in abundance, and also showed up how bad the lip syncing is in the freeway sequence.

That same sense of timing and precision, of unimpeded resolution, makes it a good choice for hi-fi fans. A recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 by the London Symphony Orchestra (SHM-SACD), fitt the Arcam’s delivery like a silk glove.
Next off the pile, then, was the Ultra HD Blu-ray
of Patriots Day – you can’t knock a Mark Wahlberg/ director Peter Berg combo. As with Hacksaw Ridge,
it’s not a happy story, and sound plays a major part in the drama. There’s realism to the spatial accuracy of sound effects, with the 3D audio yet again putting you front and centre of the action, be it the layered crowd scenes or quieter, less busy moments. It was never too loud or too quiet; the AV860 with Dirac was giving a masterful, assured performance worthy of any high-end screening room.

And that’s the thing. You would never run the
AV860 with Dirac disabled. Do that, and your speakers, subwoofer(s) and room acoustics are being left to their own devices, and the sound will shrink down and become muddied as a result. But Dirac isn’t exactly a plug-n-play EQ system, meaning this Arcam isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s designed to be the sonic heart of a high-end setup, and could take a day if not more to get it running correctly. Like any high-end instrument, it’s only as good as the fine-tuning.

...If you want a 3D sound preamp/processor and you want the best with available software (the absence of Auro-3D isn’t really a concern), this is it.