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The West Wing, Stirling House
Waterbeach Cambridge CB25 9PB UK
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In the 1970s, the city of Cambridge was very much hi-fi central, with companies such as Arcam, Audiolab, Meridian and more springing up, and Quad being long-established in nearby Huntingdon, having moved their after it was bombed out of its London location in the WWII Blitz. And the story of Arcam is very much a classic Cambridge hi-fi one: founders John Dawson and Chris Evens met while at university there, and Dawson was a mainstay of the Cambridge University Tape Recording Society, other alumni of which included Ray Dolby  – so when the company was formed, it was called A&R Cambridge, the letters standing for ‘Amplification and Recording’. And Arcam, as it would later become known, hit the deck running with its first product, the £140 A60 amplifier, launched in 1976 complete with a wooden sleeve. Our oldest reviewer remembers the amplifier featuring in the window-displays of hi-fi shops in the city, of which there were several, in the lates 70s, and the salespeople proudly playing on the ‘Made in Cambridge’ line.

Amplifying success

Building on the success of that initial amplifier, the company expanded through the ‘peak hi-fi’ years of the 80s, launching its Alpha range of entry-level products, and the upmarket Delta series. And the company wasn’t afraid to stick its neck out, launching the Alpha One CD player to challenge the likes of Marantz and Sony in the mass-market, the first add-in DAC in the form of the ‘Black Box’, and the first domestic tuner for DAB digital radio. However, not all its innovations were mass sellers: there was the Delta 150 NICAM tuner for TV sound, and the first UK-made Dolby S cassette deck, the Delta 100, which went on to – well, it went on to be the only British-made Dolby S deck.

Constant reinvention was the Arcam hallmark: by 1999 its hi-fi separates were split into FMJ (for Full Metal Jacket, indicating their improved casework) and DiVA (Digital Video Audio), brought in as the company became an early adopter of the home cinema trend, first launching Zeta products for this purpose. That FMJ later got reinterpreted as ‘Faithful Musical Joy’, which always seemed an acronym too far, but by then the company was also making its Solo models, combining a CD player and amplification in a single enclosure, later expanding this into surround sound with a 5.1-channel version – all with iPod integration for music playback.

Going to the movies

Later came home cinema receivers and processor/power amplifier systems, and even its own Blu-ray player, the BDP300, the company making great play of the fact this machine had been optimised for music playback.

Throughout the peak years of Arcam’s amps and CD players, the products were all designed and built in Waterbeach, to the north of Cambridge, from populating circuitboards to final assembly and testing. The somewhat sprawling site was to a great extent staffed by the relatives of personnel serving at what had been WWII bomber base RAF Waterbeach, by the transferred to the Royal Engineers as Waterbeach Barracks, and the company had an old electric milkfloat, called Ernie, to shuttle part-made and finished products between the various sections of the place.

Bought in 2012 by Canadian-based JAM Industries, Arcam became part of Harman International in 2017, which by then was already a subsidiary of Samsung. Harman still has offices in a business unit in Waterbeach, where some of the engineering of new Arcam products is carried out. It’s just across the road from the site of the old factory.

Product reviews

Arcam Radia ST5 Music streamer: "You may find a model offering more flexibility, and a crisper sound, for less outlay – but then it won’t look as good beside your new Radia amplifier, nor offer the remote convenience."

Arcam Radia A25 amplifier: "If you are looking for an amp that will support multiple inputs across different connection types, do justice to all of them and look very tidy while it does it, the A25 is where you should start looking. Arcam’s all things to all people approach is as successful as ever."

Arcam AVR31 AV receiver: "The Arcam AVR31’s seven channels of Class G grunt combined with peerless processing results in a superior performance; add eight more channels and you’ve got an insanely immersive 15.1-channel system. The HDMI 2.1 connections are sure to please next-gen gamers, audiophile DACs will delight music lovers, and film-fans will be spellbound by the classy object-based sonics."

Arcam ST60 music streamer: "As smooth in its sound as it is in its looks, this network player is the ideal alternative for those who find ‘computer audio’ too bright and brash. Warm and rich, the presentation here is easily combined with a wide range of amplification and speakers"