Cuttin-Edge, On-the-Spot Reporting

Introduction to Arcam Via Cambridge

As I nestled into my seat on a Boeing 767, at 10 p.m. EST on a Monday evening, I had high hopes for the next few days. The plane was headed for London's Heathrow airport, in England, where it would arrive at 10 a.m. GMT and I would meet up with Robert Follis (in photo below). Robert has done public relations work for British firm Arcam for years, and we talked almost continuously as we wound our way from Heathrow to downtown London, and -- after a coffee and a quick drink -- up to Cambridge via the historic King's Cross train station.

Robert Follis

Compared to the expansive urban sprawl of London, Cambridge, I could tell, was a much more intimate affair as we pulled into our destination, just shy of 100 kilometers from our starting point. Arcam's managing director, Charlie Brennan, met up with Robert and me and whisked us away to Arcam's headquarters, nestled a few kilometers outside of the historic town's center. I would spend the next few days at Arcam, talking at length with Brennan, the company's current principal, as well as founder and president John Dawson, who spends his time helping to design new products.

Cambridge tour

But to speak of Arcam without first addressing Cambridge itself would be shortsighted. As I'll explain later, the company's roots are very much embedded in the University of Cambridge, which in many respects is the town of Cambridge. My hotel was just on the inside of the horseshoe-shaped River Cam, which winds its way around the heart of the area. The streets are narrow, the architecture predictably old, with stone in abundance and open space decidedly not. Trinity Street runs parallel to the Cam, and with the exception of the occasional car, it's filled with a combination of tourists, marked as I was with obligatory cameras dangling awkwardly around their necks; students on foot and bicycles carrying scholarly looking materials; and locals.

University of Cambridge

The winding street is interspersed with somewhat daunting-looking entrances to the University of Cambridge's various colleges, as well as gourmet retailers, tourist traps, and cafes. High fashion, as one would expect, wasn't necessarily high on the list of important considerations in Cambridge, where a more understated and classy approach was the standard. But the youthful vibrancy of the students and the cozy layout of the town made it all feel very much alive.

Meandering into the University of Cambridge's colleges, I sensed I had stepped into C.S. Lewis's wardrobe, and entered into a very different world. There are 31 unique colleges, each with its own distinct personality. The most famous of these are King's College, Trinity College, and St. John's College, all of which I explored. The grounds of each are immaculately kept, with lawns that would not have looked out of place on a golf course. The architecture was stunning, both in its scale and its intricacy. The various chapels were terrifically ornate, adorned with copious amounts of wood and stained glass. Curved bridges arched over the Cam, as Venetian-style gondolas slowly propelled tourists around the University.

University of Cambridge

The sense of history and significance surrounding the institution was almost palpable. Founded in 1209, it is the third-oldest university in the world. Notable alumni include Francis Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Stephen Hawking. So . . . just that, then. If there is a more idyllic place for higher education -- dare I mention archrival Oxford University? -- I don't want to know about it. I wish only that I had more time to explore both the University of Cambridge and the town itself, and that the weather had been more cooperative. Early sunlight on my day wandering about the town gave way to a brooding overcast, followed by a steady rain. England, it turns out, is not the sunniest place. Perhaps this is reflected in the relatively conservative feel of the town, and, in turn, Arcam.

Cambridge

Within the context of the town, then, it's unsurprising that Arcam are disciples of the school of audio fundamentalism, and that aesthetic considerations are somewhat secondary to the actual substance of the company's products. This is further reflected in the asking prices for their products that are, as far as high-end audio components go, on the less-expensive end of the spectrum. The company's core values are as inflexible as the bedrock that has underlain Trinity Street for centuries. This philosophical integrity can be traced back to the mid-1970s, and one rather eccentric Cambridge PhD student.

Hans Wetzel
Senior contributor, The SoundStage! Network