Some audio equipment functions absolutely perfectly, sounds amazing, and represents excellent value for money – which makes reviewing it pretty straightforward. Some audio equipment functions only spasmodically, sounds rough, and represents questionable value for money – and so it too is pretty straightforward to review.
Most audio equipment, though, is less cut-and-dried. Most audio equipment works pretty well, has both merits and shortcomings to the sound it makes, and consequently represents debatable value for money. So, reviewing it is not quite so straightforward.
Which leads us, not especially coincidentally, to the Arcam SA30 network streaming system.
Without a doubt, a product like the SA30 is exactly the sort of thing Arcam should be turning its hand to. Fundamentally, it consists of 120 watts (into 8 ohms, 220w in 4 ohms) of Class G amplification, a fistful of analogue and digital inputs (running from both moving magnet and moving coil phono stages to an enhanced Audio Return Channel HDMI socket), plenty of wireless connectivity and a very agreeable Sabre ESS9038K2M 32bit DAC.
This is amplifier topography Arcam has been refining for over a decade now, and for further sonic assistance the SA30 comes complete with support for Dirac Research’s ‘Live 3’ room correction software (plus a mic with which to get the full benefit). It’s possible to load up to three distinct Dirac profiles into the Arcam (because you’ve used the mic and software to measure your room for all occupancy eventualities, obviously) so the SA30 should always sound its best.
The SA30 is housed in a (robust, impeccably finished) box from Arcam’s HDA design vocabulary, and in most ways that’s a good thing. It’s of classic kit-rack proportions, feels just as expensive as it looks, and the physical controls behave nice and positively in their action.
The display, though, is as ‘classic’ as the styling. If you’re wirelessly streaming to the SA30 (and your options here are numerous, from Apple AirPlay 2 and Chromecast to Roon and UPnP) then your source device will have a nice, colourful, informative display with album art and what-have-you all available. And if you’re using an analogue source, then you’re not expecting much in the way of related information anyway. But Arcam’s dot-matrix white-on-black display, with its single-line, slowly scrolling text, looks like a throwback to the early days of MiniDisc. Compared to, say, Naim’s identically priced and quite similarly specified Uniti Atom – which is all crisp OLED screen and bright, well-rendered album artwork – the SA30 is a bit basic.
When not using a digital source to operate the Arcam, control is via a fairly standard learning handset. It works perfectly well almost all the time – although be aware that as its batteries fade, it has a period of intermittent operation rather than it simply stopping working. The key indicator here is the backlit buttons; if the backlighting powers off immediately after a button press, change the batteries fast. Control can also be achieved via Arcam’s MusicLife control app, which is nominally for iOS and Android. At the time of writing, however, the Android version of the app is still in beta testing.
There’s no such grumbling about the expansive nature of the system the SA30 can support, though – and so for testing purposes the Arcam played host to a Clearaudio Concept turntable (connected to the moving magnet phono input via its hard-wired phono cables), a Cyrus CD t disc transport (via QED Performance digital optical cable), a MacBook Air (running Roon), an Apple iPod Touch 7 packing version 13.5.1 software (for use with the MusicLife app and AirPlay 2) and a Sony Xperia 5 smartphone running Android v10 (for use with Chromecast). At the front end were a pair of Acoustic Energy AE1 Reference Series mkIII speakers on Atacama Moseco 6 stands, connected via Chord Company Rumour X speaker cable.