Arcam Solo neo

This review was written by Malcolm Steward for the Hi-Fi Journal in 2009

The Arcam Solo integrated systems have been around for a while now but the neo is the first of them to provide networked music facilities.

arcam-solo-neoThe Solo first saw the light of day when most audiophiles had CD as their primary source. That is probably still the case for most but there is increasing demand now for machinery that can handle streamed music, whether that is sourced from the user’s home network or from the internet. Streaming ability is what the Solo neo brings to the party.

Naturally, being a member of the Solo family, it also offers CD and radio capabilities – the latter now including internet broadcasting alongside FM/DAB services – along with its integral pre-amplifier and power amplifier stages. Furthermore, its USB port can play music from local devices such as memory sticks or hard drives while the duplex RS232 connector offers playback and control of iPods by way of the optional Arcam irDock.

There is no doubt that Arcam’s Solo neo is a looker. Only available in Silver – because black does not flatter its lines so gracefully – the quadrant-shaped edges on the fascia give the unit a thoroughly and classically stylish appearance. Without them the neo would be plain. With them it looks…damn it, I almost said sexy.
In the lower half of the fascia there is a display panel, which provides information and feedback to the user. Arcam has been thoughtful here and provided double-height lettering where appropriate that is a considerable help for anyone with less than 20/20 vision. It is a shame that the eyesight of those past 40 was not given the same consideration when the tiny lettering and icons on the front panel push buttons were applied in grey paint on the silver background, or when the remote control handset was selected.

The Solo neo, considering it starts life as a multiple source hi-fi system condensed into a single unit, is nonetheless reasonably well equipped with inputs for external devices, and pre-amplifier outputs should you need more power than the integral 50W per channel design can deliver. However, Arcam is at pains to insist that if users connect external components to the neo then they do so with high quality, well-shielded interconnects. This is so they do not negate the efforts that the company has put into making its circuitry as quiet as can be by using cables that might act as an aerial and introduce electromagnetic interference. One unusual measure that Arcam employs to counter noise is what it calls Stealth material, a pad of which is placed above the CD mechanism and converts high frequency radiation to heat.

The unit features a Wolfson 24-bit Delta Sigma DAC that operates natively at 44.1 kHz when the CD input is selected, but switches its sample rate to 48kHz when it is used with the DAB, USB and network sources. The output is by way of a Toslink connector, used, I presume, as a further method to keep the overall noise floor down by galvanically isolating the connection to any external DAC or digital recorder.

The neo will operate wirelessly but for the review I did as I always do, and ran it through a wired, Cat 5 connection for the added security and consistent performance this brings. I tested the neo as a stand-alone player through NEAT Petite SX stand-mount speakers and Chord Company Epic cables and as a feed to two DACs, the inexpensive Cambridge DacMagic and the rather more expensive Naim DAC feeding my tri-amped active Naim DBLs to see how it fared under intense scrutiny. In recognition of its good looks it was parked on the top shelf of a Quadraspire Sunoko Vent support. Network music sources were my ripping NAS (Network Attached Storage), a NetGear SAN (Storage Area Network) and a VortexBox Appliance, another ripping NAS unit, affording access to differently stored rips that could furthermore be compared to the original CDs.

There is little argument that the Arcam Solo neo is a strikingly good looking piece of industrial design, one that is surely destined to be displayed proudly in the home and not tucked away out of view. That doubtless helps the neo target buyers who want separates performance – or close to it– from an all-in-one unit. Designing such a device brings with it positive and negative considerations: not the least of the negative elements is keeping the earth plane at zero volts when there are several separate power supplies serving different elements on the circuit board, and minimising noise migrating between the various elements of the design. This goes beyond simply physically separating the relatively clean analogue stages and the ‘dirtier’ and noisier digital sections. To minimise noise Arcam has introduced multiple power supplies using a servo technology to ensure that all zero voltage points remain at zero volts and do not waver sympathetically with varying demands for power. An easier to spot performance tweak are the dampers wrapped around selected capacitors. Certain capacitors tend to act like empty drinks cans being struck and resonate, affecting their musical performance through microphony: the dampers act like a rubber band around the can and quell that vibration.

This might seem a minor consideration but increasingly nowadays the performance down close to the noise floor, the ability to reveal nuances and low-level detail, is frequently what separates the good hi-fi from the not quite so good.

To ascertain what sort of signal the network media components were sending to the neo amplifier section we first listened to the output from the DAC through the big tri-amp reference system. All seemed well with a richly detailed, musically rewarding performance emerging. The top end had plenty of sparkle and well controlled energy while the bass had speed, power and good note shape and pitch definition. Afro Celt Sound System’s “Shadowman” exhibited all its intense instrumental texturing and wealth of detail while powering along with marked polyrhythmic determination. Switching to the neo’s integral amplifier stages, the sound retained the same fundamental character. The low frequency performance, however, lost a degree of weight, though, because the NEAT Petite SX loudspeakers, unlike the active Naim DBLs, do not enjoy the benefits of 15-inch bass units.

Playing Aurelo Martinez’ “Laru Beya” and Speed Caravan’s “Kalashnik Love” the neo/NEAT combination impressed with its very generous soundstage showing a clearly organised instrumental and vocal arrangement spread across a wide, deep vista. On both types of music the system displayed excellent transient performance with distinct silences between notes, lending its temporal delivery genuine impetus and a real sense of purpose. Even “Killing an Arab” which would have been rendered far too politely on previous generations of Arcam electronics displayed distinct angst and vitality here.

I next wished to play some William Carter baroque guitar but that is stored on my NAS at 24/192 resolution, which the Arcam would not accept. Neither would it play Dawn Langstroth’s 24/96 “Highwire” album. It could not be troubled to throw up an error message but just sat there insolently saying nothing. I found the USB input equally perplexing when I plugged in a memory stick containing a variety of different hi-res tracks, starting with a 24/88 recording. It enumerated all of the tracks but sat dumbly when I pressed the play button. This is not a communicative way of dealing with problems such as users plugging in a device with overly hi-res music on it. And, in truth, 24/96 is hardly an extreme resolution these days.

The neo seemed thoroughly content with orchestral music and big band jazz, using its copious soundstage to particularly good effect on the Frank Sinatra “Duets” album. It also enjoyed smaller scale recordings equally giving voices and instruments plenty of room in which to manoeuvre, allowing the listener to choose whether to focus on one or all of them.

The performance on internet radio was excellent with outstanding clarity and freedom from coloration on Radio 4 announcers’ voices. Those voices demonstrated extreme detailing and remarkable realism with very little sense of artificiality.

The CD player, too, performed delightfully, sounding scrupulous in its information retrieval and fluent in its musical communication. Sia’s “Some People Have Real Problems” was completely engaging both in terms of her impassioned vocal performances and the recreation of her backing band’s skilful playing. The decay on the drumkit, in particular the way cymbals faded gently into silence, warranted recognition for Arcam’s seemingly successful efforts in lowering the noise floor.

The Solo neo is a very capable performer and would certainly trounce most older separates in many respects but whether it truly competes with today’s competition is a moot point: It rather depends upon the particular makes and models to which it is compared. That statement should not detract from the fact that the neo is a noteworthy achievement for Arcam: a compact and highly attractive, multi-function unit that can take the place of a rack full of boxes and cables if needs be. Certainly for a convenient second system it seems a no-brainer if one is looking for decent performance and versatility.

We compared the £1350 neo to the £2,100 NaimUniti, which offers near identical facilities – CD replay, radio and suchlike – but will handle files up to 24/96 resolution. First, the patently obvious difference, the aesthetics: the Arcam looks suave like a young Frank Sinatra while the Naim has all the polished appearance of Motorhead’s Lemmy. That comparison also applies to their musical performances: I found that I could type and listen to the neo but when the more costly Uniti was playing it was difficult to concentrate on anything other than the music. It offers a more compelling view of music from my perspective, which probably explains why I own one. I also feel that the Uniti hangs on more determinedly and sounds more composed at high volume replay levels.

The Uniti lives in my office where it sits on a shelf looking indisputably masculine and mean. The svelte Arcam by comparison sits in the family room and looks rather androgynous: it looks more glam-rock compared to the Naim’s heavy metal.

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