Amp Reviews – The Arcam Spark and the Naim XS 3

A truly impressive little amp that covers all bases perfectly. Equipped with the legendary BIAS tone engine and HDMI connectivity for TV-partnered performance, as well as headphone output for silent practice sessions when necessary, this unit truly stands out.

An ideal starter amp for anyone stepping into the world of amps, this amp features an ISF setting to balance British and American tones.

1. Onkyo A-9110

Award-winning and setting the standard for budget amps, this Onkyo continues to set an excellent standard. Though lacking DAC input and thus inability to play back hi-res files may be an issue for anyone using digital sources as sources, as an amplifier it still delivers everything it should do.

Onkyo’s MM phono input allows you to connect your turntable and enjoy vinyl records in the best way. Their engineers have made further refinements of the original amp design by fine-tuning key components and adding an enhanced phono stage, giving your music an expansive yet detailed sound without losing detail.

The result of all this work is an amp that sounds fantastic with any type of music, from rock and jazz to the acoustic version of “Highway 40 Blues” by Ricky Skaggs (16/44.1 AIFF, Epic), played through an Onkyo amp was impressively accurate at reproducing lilting vocals and rhythmic patterns in an acoustic version. Furthermore, its soundstage was kept proportionate when band members threw up their hats after their solos, and voices remained clear even when mixed heavily with echo.

Wide Range Amplification Technology (WRAT) is key to Onkyo’s lively dynamics. This low-negative feedback amplifier topology distinguishes timbral qualities between instruments or voices and delivers reliable high-current power stability to speaker drivers for accurate and assured reproduction. Large EI transformer, low ESR filter capacitors, and discrete power transistors ensure dynamic changes are reproduced accurately and with clarity and fidelity.

Onkyo provided exceptional weight and punch to kick drums and bass lines, without any noticeable hiss or hum at any volume – likely thanks to their great circuitry as well as thick chassis construction which helps isolate vibrations that could interfere with its signal.

The Onkyo may look outdated with its simplistic display and knobs, but you’re likely to forget its visual flaws when hearing its sound quality. A great choice for any system in a moderately-sized room; even without digital sources it provides superb amplification at an incredible value.

2. Arcam A5

Harman-owned British hi-fi brand Arcam is back with an affordable stereo integrated amplifier offering superb value for money – the A5 model from Harman Audio Group! Packed full of facilities and boasting sleek premium styling for an outstanding audio experience.

The A5’s Class AB amplifier technology delivers an impressive 50W per channel of output into an 8 ohm load, providing ample power for most loudspeakers while being designed to reduce distortion levels, producing rich, detailed sound. Backed up by its class-leading performance has been its robust build quality – including three sets of analogue inputs as well as high resolution digital coaxial and optical inputs, plus Bluetooth with Qualcomm aptX Adaptive codec support as well as an internal antenna – this amplifier truly leads the pack in class AB performance!

Whoever prefers playing their music from their computer or smartphone will appreciate that the A5 offers both Roon and Chromecast support, in addition to an external USB DAC input capable of playing back high-resolution files up to 24bit/192kHz resolution using an ESS ES9018 chip DAC – creating a dual mono power amplifier solution if they require high levels of performance.

Additionally, the A5 features an impressive assortment of functions, such as an auto-reset circuit for overheating protection and an IR repeater to control other devices in your system. There are also outputs to connect powered subwoofers for increased low frequencies as well as an RCA output which enables integration into an integrated hi-fi system.

A custom set of high-grade aluminium alloy loudspeaker terminals with shrouds to guide wires neatly is included as well as IEC mains inlet and standard 3mm speaker connections, along with IEC mains inlet and 3mm connections for speaker connections. This front panel-centric device features only one large volume control for optimal use in most scenarios – which makes sense since this will likely be your sole means of operation!

3. Positive Grid Spark

The Spark is an elegant and clever little amp that stands out from its competition. With app integration making learning simple for novice players and practice and jamming features designed for touring professionals alike. Plus it sounds amazing and looks good – an ideal addition to either home rig or travel setups!

This app unlocks an array of helpful practice features, including YouTube-based play-along videos with onscreen chords, automatic song transcription, backing tracks for practicing licks or repeating difficult passages, built-in tuner functionality, multiple pedal and amp models onboard and the capability of replaying back transcribed songs completely for greater understanding of how they were originally recorded.

Positive Grid’s top-of-the-line amps use BIAS modelling software, making the Spark an impressively capable amp. You can take advantage of tens of thousands of guitar, bass and acoustic tones controlled through its app; plus 33 amp models and 43 effects which you can fine-tune to suit your playing style using its knobs.

Though the Spark sounds great straight out of the box, there are a few areas for improvement. Primarily, its default bass-heaviness means that your heavy metal tones may sound amazing but high strings may lose articulation due to this.

Practice at home or jamming along to YouTube tracks may not be affected much, but recording in your DAW could become less than ideal. While you could connect the amp directly to your laptop via USB recording, this does add noticeable latency to the audio output.

Apps, however, do have some glitches – particularly with headphone volume levels being far too quiet for comfortable listening and being manually raised above half way. Thankfully this issue was addressed in a recent update; to get the most out of your Spark device it’s recommended you update to this latest version of the app.

4. Mission XS 3

The Naim XS 3 integrated amplifier is part of their smaller XS range (below is Nait 5SI from their two-model SI line; above it is their flagship Supernait 3 from Classic). It boasts the first onboard moving-magnet phono stage to appear in an XS model as well as several minor improvements throughout. You also have the option to upgrade its power supply using one of Naim’s external units; although many owners may prefer investing in bigger black box instead if you purchase an ND5XS streamer instead – its combination offers better sounding and value than Supernait3/Power Line Lite systems).

The XS 3 looks much like its predecessor, featuring a simple front panel, volume knob, selector buttons and mains switch on the rear – along with its signature link plug for integrated amplifier duties or can be removed to be used with moving-magnet phono stage applications. Its rugged yet industrial aesthetic may surprise those used to seeing more refined products from this hi-fi company.

Naim’s XS 3 has much to recommend its sound. It is both dynamic and responsive, capable of producing punchy performances when required but equally adept at producing more subdued performances such as modern classicist Poppy Ackroyd’s Quail track where looped strings and percussive sounds were present without sounding harsh or overblown.

Naim’s customers have come to expect outstanding phono stage performance from Naim, and that expectation is met in spades by the XS 3. Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black provides an example. Listen closely and you’ll hear her doleful vocals float across the stereo image with grace and beauty that may otherwise be lost on more aggressive or digital amps. In fact, the XS 3 stands out as one of those rare pieces of hi-fi that appeals both emotionally and intellectually.

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