I wasn't sure what to expect when I landed in London for my brief stay with Arcam. It's a company that, frankly, I always pictured as offering kind of just "decent" stuff. This wasn't predicated on personal experience with their products, or even what I'd read about them. It was largely based on their relative affordability and their sedate appearance. Superficial of me, to be sure, but I can't be alone in having thought that. Yet these qualities very much embody what the brand, and its founder, John Dawson, is all about.
Fun fact: about two thirds of Arcam's business is in the audio/video (home theater) arena. I had no idea. I also had no appreciation for the sheer complexity that is a properly executed audio/video receiver (AVR). I suppose it's because wandering into any big-box electronics store, you'll see a multitude of them from a variety of manufacturers, and none of them cost very much.
Charlie Brennan, Arcam's managing director for the past 16 years, drives a station wagon. His office is a relatively spare affair, with a simple desk, a small conference table with four chairs, and a bookshelf full of other companies' products that he finds interesting. He's neither soft spoken nor loud. But he's deliberate and astute. You can tell he's good at reading people, and even better at identifying value in things. He is exceedingly personable, and I was frequently on the receiving end of one of his rather wry smiles. Hearing him talk about the audio industry, it's apparent that Arcam has a clear and unabashed identity.
Seeing as Arcam still employs John Dawson, the gentleman who not only started the company but also pioneered the external digital-to-analog converter that is now quite ubiquitous, it's no surprise that they're making pretty good digital products these days.
By the early to mid-1970s, John Dawson had completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Cambridge and was in the midst of pursuing his PhD. He was an active member of the University of Cambridge's Tape Recording Society, a student-run organization that supported various audio-related endeavors. John's various interests had extended to solid-state amplifier design, and he began constructing his own amplifiers, selling them primarily to his peers and other local enthusiasts.
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.
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