Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
A&R Cambridge Ltd., or Arcam, as it is more commonly known, was originally founded in the United Kingdom in 1976, but since 2017 has been owned by Harman International Industries, which is in turn owned by Samsung. Nonetheless, Arcam continues to maintain its unique identity by producing new and relevant electronic products, as it has done since the 1970s. For instance, the company’s top-of-the-line SA30 integrated amplifier-DAC, introduced a couple of years ago, includes streaming capabilities and a plethora of features, including DSP room correction and a proprietary class-G amplifier topology. Priced at $3300 (all prices in USD), the SA30 bowled us over with its robust sound quality and reasonable price when we heard demonstrations at the audio shows.
As with many audio products, production of the SA30 slowed during the pandemic, limiting the available supply. But earlier this year, Erikson Consumer, the Canadian distributor for Arcam, informed me that a sample was finally available and asked if I was still eager to review it. Remembering how wonderful the amp had sounded when I first heard it at High End 2019 in Munich, Germany, of course I told them yes!
The SA30 is part of Arcam’s HDA (High Definition Audio) line of components and has a slightly more rounded and less busy look than their previous FMJ (Full Metal Jacket) series. The case measures 17.0″W × 3.9″H × 12.7″D and weighs 26.5 pounds. The dark-gray finish is the only one available, and while not beautiful, it gives the SA30 a clean, businesslike look. A sizeable, centrally located matrix display with relatively large characters provides plenty of information, but it is quite coarse-looking, and I am not a fan of the way information that can’t be presented all at once scrolls across the display. While informative, this type of scrolling display is a little inelegant in its operation.
So the SA30 isn’t a looker by high-end audio standards, but it’s got it where it counts. It features Arcam’s own class-G amplification technology, which employs two power supplies to feed the output transistors, with the first set of power rails running in class A for most listening situations. When additional power is required, MOSFET “lifter” devices can switch to higher-voltage power rails in less than a microsecond. Only as much power as is needed is supplied, up to their full output rating, resulting in a very efficient design, according to Arcam. They rate the SA30 at 130Wpc into 8 ohms or 200Wpc into 4 ohms with a total harmonic distortion plus noise value of 0.002% and a signal-to-noise ratio (A-weighted, ref. 100W) of 112dB in Analogue Direct mode.
The SA30 also features an ESS Technology Sabre ESS9038Q2M DAC chip, which supports MQA; two optical (TosLink) and two coaxial (RCA) S/PDIF digital inputs; Wi-Fi as well as an Ethernet port for network connection; Dirac Live room correction; streaming capabilities, including support for Chromecast, AirPlay 2, and UPnP; Roon Ready compatibility; and a moving-magnet (MM)/moving-coil (MC) phono stage. It also has a headphone output and an HDMI eARC input for connection to a compatible TV. The one thing that the SA30 doesn’t have is a USB Type-B input for direct connection to a computer for digital audio playback. Instead, there’s a USB Type-A port for playback of music files from an attached USB storage device. This USB-B omission is not unique to Arcam—other integrated amps I’ve encountered have lacked this connectivity, too—so it’s not a deal-breaker.
The TosLink digital inputs can accept PCM data with resolutions up to 32-bit/96kHz, while the coaxial RCA inputs can support up to 32/192. Seven switchable digital filters are available for the DAC section; as I usually do with digital filters, I just used the default setting, Apodizing, because I could hear little or no difference between the various filters. Digital files on attached USB storage devices can be accessed through the menu system via the remote or the front panel. These files are limited to a maximum resolution of 32/192. Incoming analog signals can be digitized by the AKM AK5552 analog-to-digital converter at a resolution of 32/192, allowing them to benefit from Dirac Live room correction. The SA30 also has an Analogue Direct mode, which keeps incoming analog signals in the analog domain, but you can’t use Dirac Live this way.
The back panel of the SA30 is sparsely populated with three sets of line-level analog RCA inputs; a set of RCA preamplifier outputs; and separate MM and MC inputs for the phono stage (both RCA); the previously mentioned HDMI eARC connector; an RS232 connector; and two connectors for the included Wi-Fi antennas. A standard IEC inlet accommodates the provided power cord, and a switch is provided to select between 115V and 230V operation. Five-way speaker binding posts are located directly to the right of the digital and analog inputs. I would have preferred some more space between the inputs and the speaker outputs to accommodate heavy-gauge cables, but at least there are no jacks situated directly above or below the binding posts.
Below the front-panel matrix display are a set of nine buttons: Menu (for the onscreen menu system), Input- and Input+ (for cycling through the inputs), Dirac (to enable or disable correction curves), Mute (to silence output), Info (to scroll through information shown on the display), Direct (to enable or disable the Analogue Direct mode), Display (to adjust brightness), and Bal (to adjust left/right channel balance). The unit is turned on by the Power button to the right of the display, and it can be put on standby manually with the remote or allowed to go to standby after a preset amount of time with no input signal. The SA30 can be taken out of standby with the Power button on the remote or by simply adjusting the volume knob, which is to the left of the display. Also to the left of the display are 3.5mm jacks for auxiliary input and headphone output.
The provided remote control is a generic-looking plastic unit, which is common at this price point. But it can also control Arcam Blu-ray and CD players in addition to various devices from other manufacturers using preprogrammed codes, which is handy. The Arcam Control remote app provides access to all the basic functions: volume control, muting, and input selection, as well as a few others. Arcam also provides their MusicLife app for music streaming and download, which supports Tidal, Qobuz, HighResAudio.com, Deezer, Spotify, Napster, internet radio, and podcasts.
There are many setup options available through the onscreen menu system. Some of the more useful functions include setting the display brightness; disabling inputs to avoid scrolling through them during selection; disabling auto standby or setting a specified period of inactivity (20 or 30 minutes, or even one, two, or four hours); assigning one of the three stored Dirac curves individually to the various inputs; assigning one of the analog inputs to processor mode, including setting a fixed volume level for that input; setting a maximum initial volume level at power on; and selecting whether the speaker and preamplifier outputs will be disabled when connecting headphones.
Extensive, but sensible and flexible setup
After installing the two supplied Wi-Fi antennas, I connected the SA30 wirelessly to my home network through Google Home. I was then able to use it as a Roon endpoint or cast audio to it using Chromecast Built-in. As with many other integrated amplifiers I have recently reviewed, I started out by using the SA30 in my family room system with a pair of PSB Alpha T20 loudspeakers, my LG CX OLED TV, an Arris cable box, and an Nvidia Shield TV Pro media player. It also spent time in my main system with MartinLogan Masterpiece Classic ESL 9 hybrid electrostatic speakers, an Oppo Digital UDP-205 4K Ultra HD universal Blu-ray player, and a Pro-Ject X1 turntable with Ortofon Pick it S2 cartridge.
I set up Dirac Live room correction on both systems and used it with all sources including the Pro-Ject turntable. I also configured my main system both with and without dual JL Audio E-Sub e112 powered subwoofers and stored the Dirac correction curves separately so that I could switch back and forth between speaker configurations.
I streamed music primarily from Qobuz via Roon on an Intel NUC PC running Windows 10. I also installed the MusicLife app on my MacBook Air to see how it would perform when streaming Qobuz and controlling the SA30’s functions. I found the app a little clunky in comparison with NAD’s BluOS, Lyngdorf Audio’s web-based interface, Roon, or even using Qobuz directly. However, I do admire Arcam’s dedication in providing a streaming platform for their products. And for those who do not stream music from the internet, but do have ripped files on a USB storage device, it’s possible to navigate files on an attached USB drive with the remote or the front-panel controls by selecting USB as the input and scrolling through the filenames on the display.
A classy and correct performance
The SA30 easily drove the budget PSB Alpha T20 floorstanding speakers in my second system with total control, even in the less-than-ideal corner placement of this system in my family room. The clarity of sound was simply astounding and imaging was rock-solid for television and movies. Sound effects and dialog tracked the onscreen action perfectly. As I found with the Lyngdorf Audio TDAI-1120 integrated amp ($2199), room correction significantly improved the performance of the system in this room. And with the more powerful Arcam, music was taken to a new level of performance. Makeover (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Nonesuch/Qobuz), the compilation of dance remixes of k.d. lang songs, was totally banging even through the relatively small Alpha T20s. The pumping bass of the EDM version of “Lifted by Love (Club Xanax Mix, 1993)” was extremely taut and responsive with Dirac room correction and the ample power of the SA30. The delicate a cappella vocals in the opening of “Theme from the Valley of the Dolls (Junior Vasquez 7″ Mix, 1997)” had an amazing transparency and purity that was present from the lower midrange all the way up through the treble frequencies, and the electronic strings and synth effects moved precisely across the soundstage with little evidence of strain.
Moving the SA30 into my main system, it was immediately obvious that it could handle my ESL 9s, which require an amplifier with a stout output to make them really come to life. Even before engaging Dirac Live, the SA30 exhibited good control over these hybrid electrostats, but after setting up room correction, the performance of this $3300 amp was astonishingly good. The bass on “Lifted by Love (Club Xanax Mix, 1993)” dug way deep and was deliciously elastic and bouncy, while k.d. lang’s vocals soared high above the pulsating rhythms. Cranking “Summerfling (Wamdue’s Makin’ Me High Dub, 2000),” the dense, solid backbeat and synthesized reverb effects produced a dizzyingly complex, but coherent wall of sound between the speakers. The SA30’s ability to project such a huge soundstage in my room with absolute control was not something I expected from such a reasonably priced amp.
The Music of Copland & McKinley (24/44.1 FLAC, Navona Records/Qobuz) is a beautifully recorded album featuring Kim Ellis and Richard Stoltzman on clarinet and the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra, with Kirk Trevor conducting. Copland’s Clarinet Concerto is performed here by Ellis; her performance, and the orchestra’s, are superbly captured with the gentle melody of the clarinet in the first movement framed impeccably by the sparkling string sections. In the second movement, aptly titled Rather Fast, the orchestra, including a piano, and the soloist launch into the more jazz-inspired part of the composition with vigor. The SA30 portrayed the reedy bite of the clarinet exceptionally, without becoming screechy, during the crescendo of this movement. It was also outstanding in positioning the realistically reproduced slapping sound of the double bass in its own acoustic space, to the right of and behind the clarinet.
Subwoofers = 2.1 times the fun
As with other integrated amplifiers with room correction that I have reviewed, I added my two JL Audio E-Sub e112 subwoofers to the mix to augment the ESL 9 loudspeakers. I did, however, have to manually adjust the subwoofers’ crossover controls and output levels before I let Dirac do its thing as the SA30 has no bass management of its own. The result was that the SA30 was still amplifying the entire frequency spectrum due to its lack of an internal crossover—albeit with less power into the frequency band covered by the subwoofers. In this configuration, the presentation benefited from a more coherent sound—the bass was noticeably more articulate and a little deeper, and there was a slightly clearer midrange. The massive wall of sound the amp projected with the ESL 9s did not necessarily get any larger with the addition of the subs, but the precision with which the synth effects on “Way Down,” from Yello’s Point (24/44.1 FLAC, Polydor/Qobuz), were reproduced was simply amazing. There was a crispness to sounds as they moved swiftly between the speakers and there was better front-to-back delineation. Listening to the fantastically produced EDM tracks on Point was extraordinary fun with the SA30.
Meeting at the Summit (24/96 FLAC, RCA/Sony Masterworks/Qobuz) by Benny Goodman and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra is another wonderful recording containing Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, with the composer himself conducting. The performances, especially that of Goodman, are superlative and the SA30 allowed me to hear every last bit of his brilliance on this recording. Even though he plays this concerto faster and with a softer touch than Kim Ellis, the SA30 was still able to unravel all the virtuosity and mastery of nuance in his phrasing. In the second movement, his playful interpretation of the jazzy licks was readily apparent, and I even noticed that the slapping of the double bass on the version on The Music of Copland & McKinley was less “slappy,” with a slightly more plucked quality. The sound of the SA30 with the ESL 9s was already outstanding, but with the JL Audio subwoofers added it was sublime.
I was hesitant to expect too much from the SA30’s built-in phono stage—this amp already provides so much performance and value with its excellent-sounding class-G amplification and DSP room-correction system, considering its $3300 asking price. I was mistaken. Playing the Abbey Road Studios half-speed mastered version of Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms (Vertigo ARHSDLP004), the background was dead quiet with only some minor surface noise from this 45rpm pressing. Sting’s backing vocals on “Money for Nothing” were hauntingly ethereal and starkly contrasted by Mark Knopfler’s more measured and deliberate delivery. The opening beats on the drum kit bounced wildly between the speakers as they should, then settled precisely dead center with the taut beat of the kick drum keeping perfect pace. The more sedate “Your Latest Trick” sounded even better, with the trumpet solo sounding very distinct from the saxophone and having an overall coherency and level of detail that you rarely hear from a built-in phono stage at this price point.
The HiFiMan HE400se headphones I currently use as my reference are extremely high-value but slightly insensitive, meaning that the headphone outputs of some components will struggle to make these planar-magnetic cans sound their very best. The SA30, however, was able to drive them very well, even bettering the built-in headphone output of my reference Oppo UDP-205 universal BD player. Sting’s and Cheb Mami’s vocals on “Desert Rose” from the deluxe edition of My Songs (24/44.1 FLAC, A&M Records/Interscope Records/Qobuz) had better separation from each other and from the complex instrumentation. The bass was also more solid with the SA30, and the HiFiMan headphones exhibited less strain at high volumes. In comparison, when cranking the UDP-205, there was a slight loss of both the transparency and the sense of effortlessness that good planar-magnetic headphones are known for.
I also played music from the analog RCA outputs of the UDP-205 to the SA30 to see how this compared to a digital stream. While the differences were relatively minor, Yello’s “Waba Duba” from Point definitely lost bass impact and some of that ultra-precise imaging, resulting in a decrease in both the size and depth of the soundstage. It still sounded very good, but there just wasn’t that same feeling of extreme accuracy and control that I had heard with the digital stream. Thinking that the additional analog-to-digital conversion being performed by the amp might be negatively affecting the sound, I switched to the Analogue Direct mode, which meant that Dirac Live room correction was no longer active. The bass was fuller, but looser at the same time, and the sound did not improve overall.
Building the perfect beast
The Arcam SA30 is one of a new breed of integrated amplifiers featuring not only an integral DAC, but also room correction and streaming capabilities. My favorite product in this category is the NAD Masters M33 ($4999), which sounds nearly perfect to my ears with its Purifi Eigentakt amplifier modules and Dirac Live room correction, has a slick user interface with a color TFT touch display, and features the BluOS streaming system. The SA30 isn’t as elegant in its operation, nor does it have quite as much ultra-clean and neutral power as the M33. However, it sounds nearly as good and costs less . . . a lot less.
The budget-friendly Lyngdorf Audio TDAI-1120 is also a fantastic-sounding and feature-laden integrated streaming amplifier-DAC with Lyngdorf’s excellent RoomPerfect room-correction system. But its rated 60Wpc struggled to drive my ESL 9s to room-filling levels; unlike the SA30, which did so with ease. The TDAI-1120 is an excellent product if your power needs are modest, but for an additional $1101, the SA30 truly hits a sweet spot for price and performance in this product category.
The best of both worlds
For $3300, the Arcam SA30 provides excellent performance as a conventional integrated amplifier-DAC. It also includes Dirac Live room correction, streaming capabilities, and high-quality phono stage and headphone output. There isn’t another product I know of at this price point that does as much, or sounds as good while doing it. Of course, you could always spend more to get slightly better performance or more luxurious build quality, but the SA30 is probably the best value for a streaming integrated amplifier-DAC available today.
. . . Roger Kanno
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
- Speakers: MartinLogan Masterpiece Classic ESL 9, PSB Alpha T20.
- Headphones: HiFiMan HE400se.
- Integrated amplifiers: NAD Masters M33, Lyngdorf Audio TDAI-1120.
- Digital sources: Intel NUC computer running Windows 10, MacBook Air, Roon, and Qobuz; Oppo Digital UDP-205 4K Ultra HD universal BD player.
- Turntable: Pro-Ject Audio Systems X1 with Ortofon Pick it S2 cartridge.
- Speaker cables: Clarus Aqua Mark II.
- Interconnects: Nordost Quattro Fil, Pro-Ject Connect it E phono cable.
- Power cords: Clarus Aqua.
- Power conditioners: Blue Circle Audio PLC Thingee FX-2 with X0e low-frequency filter module, Zero Surge 1MOD15WI.
Arcam SA30 Integrated Amplifier-DAC
Warranty: Five years, parts and labor.
The West Wing, Stirling House
Cambridge CB25 9PB
Phone: +44 1707 668012