There is no hotter topic at HomeTheaterReview.com among the writing staff than what features make for the best AV preamp. Is it technology, ease of use, inputs, room correction, cost or a combination thereof? It's fair to say that not many agree on the subject, with some reviewers bucking up for $30,000 reference preamps, while others cling to older, more audiophile preamps that lack the HDMI switching and HD codecs that come piping in from Blu-ray.
• Read AV Preamp Reviews from the likes of Anthem, Sunfire, Meridian, Arcam, Krell and many others.
• Read a review of the Arcam FMJ AV888 AV preamp from Dr. Taraszka.
• Read a review of the McIntosh MX-120 AV preamp
This discussion brings me to Anthem's latest version of their highly touted and wildly successful Statement D2 audio/video processor, the Anthem Statement D2v audio/video processor. Okay, so the name doesn't quite do the update justice, but then again, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The original D2 was hardly a slouch and the D2v on paper looks to be more of the same, which is why I requested it for review. However, having lived with the D2v now for a few weeks, I'm beginning to wonder if Anthem didn't overdo it just a bit. But then again, who am I to criticize excess - especially at this price?
For starters, the D2v retails for a stiff but understandable $7,500, which places it in the company of the Classe SSP800 ($8,000) and the Krell S-1200u ($10,000), though it admittedly costs incrementally less and does more. The D2v looks pretty much the same as the old D2. In fact, current D2 owners can have their units upgraded to the D2v specification for a reasonable fee of between $3,900 and $4,300.
The notable new additions to the D2v include eight HDMI 1.3c inputs and two parallel HDMI 1.3c outputs, a Sigma Designs VXP broadcast-quality video processor with deep color support and improved noise reduction, 7.1 channel PCM inputs and two dual-core audio DSP engines to decode Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD audio signals. Anthem's award-winning ARC (Anthem Room Correction) system is now included with purchase. On top of what's new, the D2v still has all the old bells and whistles found on the original D2, including more inputs and playback options, not to mention customization for said inputs and options, than you're ever likely to find or frankly need in an A/V processor. Getting back to the D2v's HDMI prowess for a moment, it's important to point out that beyond just having a plethora of inputs, the D2v will also switch between HDMI sources, as well as upscale all SD and HD signals to full 1080p. Also, the D2v's HDMI inputs are capable of accepting 7.1 multi-channel audio signals (the last version could only take 5.1 via HDMI), as well being able to decode and play back all the latest surround sound formats past and present from an HDMI feed.
I could go on indefinitely about every little detail and feature Anthem has managed to shoehorn into the D2v, but I would have to break this review into chapters to do so. Suffice to say, the D2 was already a feature-laden powerhouse and the D2v only improves upon the breed. If you're looking for an AV preamp that can take advantage of the latest HD formats, as well as sound superb with two-channel audio and be the base station of a fairly impressive whole house audio/video system, look no further than the Anthem D2v. Seriously, short of walking the dog or taking out the trash, the D2v does it all.
Judging by my previous statements, we could pretty much wrap things up right here and now. On paper, out of the box, the D2v is a masterpiece - until you have to plug it in and set it up. Earlier, I said I thought Anthem may have overdone it a bit with the D2v. Upon installation and set-up, it's true, for with great features comes even greater, ahem, frustration. Before I go any further, chances are, your Anthem dealer will install and calibrate your D2v for you. Even if it costs additional money, do it. Trust me.
Since I didn't have an Anthem dealer or rep on hand, I had to set up the D2v myself. Making the requisite connections is easy enough and no different than any other product. In fact, it is possible to plug in all your sources and begin enjoying the D2v within a matter of minutes. However, you can also climb into a BMW M5, turn the key and drive off, but unless you access the on-board computer, you're not really getting all the performance you paid for right out of the gate. The same is true of the Anthem D2v. The D2v's set-up menus are immense and the onscreen display, if I'm honest, isn't exactly written in plain English. Furthermore, the included remote control is horrendous, yet essential to navigating the vast onscreen menus.
For starters, Anthem suggests letting the D2v handle all decoding, scaling and processing of your source material, which means going into all their set-up menus and turning them into transports, for lack of a better term. Once that's done, you'll begin the process of tailoring the D2v's controls to maximize the performance of each source individually down to what type of video scaling, noise reduction, detail enhancement, audio processing, conversion, playback, etc. you want the source to have. It sounds a lot like what any AV preamp can do, but it isn't. There is a huge difference between telling my Integra DTC 9.8 to upscale video signals SD and HD to 1080p and getting the D2v to do the same thing.
It's not that the process is hard, but it is time-consuming and, like I said, the menu architecture is not all that intuitive. Some of the language could be a bit clearer in order to make the whole process a bit more understandable and straightforward. Furthermore, you can configure the D2v to treat a single source in a variety of different ways, depending on how you plan to use it. For example, let's say you have a universal Blu-ray player that can also play back DVDs, DVD-Audio, SACDs, CDs, MP3s, etc. and has the necessary outputs to take advantage of each format's strengths. You can connect that same source to the D2v in any number of ways and have the D2v treat it as five different sources if you'd like. Again, sounds like something you could do with any AV preamp. Well, yes and no. Most AV preamps like to make blanket adjustments, especially when it comes to video performance and/or scaling. Say you don't like upscaling DVDs, but think the picture quality is better through the HDMI cable, as opposed to, say, a component connection. Well, with the D2v, you can connect the player to the D2v via an HDMI cable, but have that same input labeled as two different sources, each with its own unique set-up options. For Blu-ray playback, it's DVD 1 and for DVD playback, it's DVD 2, yet it's using the same input and HDMI cable. You can do the same for audio, too.
Seriously, there is so much control and so many ways of skinning the proverbial cat inside the D2v that you begin to second-guess some of the choices you make. Once you've connected everything and feel confident that you have set all the D2v's internal settings correctly, it's time to move on to the D2v's party piece: room correction. The D2v's room correction system reminded me a lot of Audyssey's ProEQ system that I reviewed a while back, in that it features a calibrated microphone. No auto-EQ hockey pucks here. It requires the use of a PC or a Mac capable of running PC software. However, that's where the similarities stop. I'm a Mac guy, so using the D2v's ARC system required me to purchase a PC emulator just to run the disc. From there, I had to go back to Best Buy and pick up a serial port adapter, since my laptop doesn't have the necessary serial port. To all manufacturers out there, if you require the use of a computer to set up and/or calibrate your product, stop with the serial ports. It's called USB and it's pretty much standard these days. Once I figured out how to make everything talk to each other, it was time to launch the ARC program. The system's process is a lot like any other EQ out there, in that it produces a series of tones and sweeps from your speakers, then analyzes the in-room response from five microphone locations and shows you a series of graphs and curves on your computer screen. From there, it shows you the optimal correction to apply for best results. If you agree, you can send that data to the D2v and be done with it. If you want to tweak, you can do that, too, then send the data along. All in all, it's a pretty straightforward process, minus getting it to work on a Mac, and the results are absolutely staggering. The entire process of installing, setting up and calibrating the D2v for my system took several hours and required the manual on several occasions. In the end, I was able to get everything to work and work well, but I have to say, at $7,500 retail, professional dealer installation should come standard.
Let me get this out of the way: the D2v's remote is junk, the same universal remote found with the most budget receivers. Some of the most basic or necessary controls require a combination of keystrokes just to access them, making set-up tedious and frustrating. Once set up, the remote is fine, because you're really only using it for volume and source control. However, if you have a universal remote or control system, such as a Crestron or an AMX, you're going to have a far more enjoyable time day to day with the D2v.
Before I forget, Anthem was kind enough to lend me their Statement P5 amplifier for this review, as well as their new 1080p LCOS projector, the LTX 500 (review pending), creating what Anthem calls their ultimate home-theater-in-a-box. I like the way they think.
After spending the better part of a Saturday integrating the D2v into my system, I wanted nothing more than to be blown away by its music and movie performance. They say good things come to those who wait. Well, great things come to those who work for them, because the D2v is stunning. I kicked things off with some two-channel music, beginning with Evanescence's The Open Door (Wind-up Records), which is far from the best audiophile recording out there. On the track "Call Me When You're Sober," lead singer Amy Lee's opening vocals were palpable and rich, with a bit of smoothing in the upper frequencies that tamed some of the digital harshness I normally hear with this track through lesser components. Also, the D2v was able to clearly resolve Amy's own self-harmony just before the raging guitars kick in, which is something lesser components incorrectly capture as a sort of reverb or delay. When the rest of the band launched into full swing, the music remained controlled, exhibiting tremendous separation and detail, never allowing any one musical element to overpower the next. There was a sense of balance to the entire performance I just hadn't thought was present on this disc. Furthermore, the D2v imparted a sense of analog sound that made the whole track come off less digital-sounding and far more natural. When played back at high volumes, Amy Lee's piano melody can get a bit lost in the shuffle. However, this was not the case with the D2v. Dynamically, the D2v is virtually without equal. When mated to the P5 amplifier, the combo proved to be quite a tour de force.
Moving onto the track "Lithium," the same nasal digital hiss I associate with the upper register of Amy Lee's vocals was all but gone through the D2v, replaced instead with air and a sense of falsetto breathlessness that was haunting and completely engaging. The simple piano melody was stunning and sounded like a real piano that had somehow materialized in my listening room. The guitars, while grungy, were rife with texture and, despite the excessive reverb and processing, I could hear each and every chord change and strum with little effort. The kick drum was rendered with such heft and impact that I could feel it in the seat of my pants. The cymbal crashes hung in space, decaying naturally and sounding more real and dimensional than I had previously encountered through an AV preamp. Overall, with the Evanescence disc, the D2v possessed a richness and natural ease that made the upper frequencies and midrange sound far more analog and natural, while still retaining a bit of that solid state low-frequency slam.
I didn't want to spend to much time on two-channel music, for the D2v is an AV preamp, but after hearing what it could do with a poorly-recorded disc, I wanted to see how it handled a well-recorded one. I cued up an all-time favorite, Nirvana's Unplugged in New York (DGC), and the track "Jesus Don't Want Me For a Sunbeam." This being a live recording, I wanted to hear how the D2v handled the natural noise floor of a non-studio space. Through lesser components, the sense of air and space is betrayed, portrayed as simple speaker noise. Through the D2v, the sense of space before a single note is played was not only evident but felt. The entire performance materialized before me with Kurt Cobain front and center, possessing lifelike scale and weight. The raw quality of Cobain's vocals was spot-on and the subtlest details, like hearing his voice being amplified back to him from his floor monitor, were all present. Each band mate had his own space, rendered fully and faithfully within a soundstage that was not artificially wide or deep, remaining true to the performance in the round that was present on the day.
Satisfied that the D2v is as much an audiophile two-channel preamp as an AV one, I moved on to the Superbit edition of David Fincher's Panic Room (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment) starring Jodie Foster. Panic Room is a great indicator of a processor's true video performance. Letting the D2v handle all the video processing from my Denon 3910 universal player, I skipped to chapter three, "The Panic Room," where Foster's character is shown the impenetrable bunker for the first time. The opening seconds of the scene are largely dark as Foster and the two realtors step into the room. Through lesser players and processors, these brief moments are usually rife with noise and showcase a real lack of low-light detail. Through the D2v, not only was the video noise kept to a minimum while still retaining the film stock's natural grain structure, but subtle details in all of the darkest regions of the room were present and easily discernable. When the realtor turns on the lights, bathing the panic room in a pale blue hue, the shadows retained their depth and dimension, though the midtones and high lights kept a bit more of the overhead color. With the lights on, there was a stronger contrast between light and dark, which were balanced wonderfully by the D2v's internal video processing. The added light upon the flat concrete surfaces revealed true texture and grit, not added noise. Edge fidelity throughout the scene was superb, as was depth, and the actors' movements were smooth and natural.
In terms of sound, this particular scene is also a very good test, for it features a constant bass line against the high buzz of the overhead fluorescents, both of which need to be balanced against the actors' dialogue and the foley tracks. With the disc set to DTS, the bass had more pulse and rhythmic quality to it through the D2v and the overhead lights were decidedly mechanical and metallic-sounding, creating a very uneasy, lifeless surround sound backdrop for the scene. The subtle reverb variations in each of the characters' voices were evident and clear, as was their placement in the space and consequently in my room. There was a true three-dimensionality to the whole scene, both visually and aurally. Overall, with the D2v strutting its stuff in terms of audio and video processing, this scene of Panic Room in Superbit was elevated dangerously close to a level that could be mistaken for HD.
Moving on to something a bit more bombastic and very much HD, I cued up the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment) on Blu-ray disc. With true 1080p/24 material, the D2v has little to do other than stay out of the signal's way. On the audio side of things, it has to ingest the incoming audio signal, which in this case was the DTS-HD option, and play it back, since I was not allowing my Sony Blu-ray player to decode it first. In terms of video performance, the D2v passed with flying colors, as I couldn't really detect its presence in the chain at all, which is good in this instance. The Day the Earth Stood Still is not really a noisy or grainy film, apart from the stock's natural grain structure, which the D2v preserved nicely. Color fidelity, tonality, highlight and shadow detail were phenomenal and rendered beautifully through the D2v, though when I bypassed the D2v and sent the video straight to the projector, there was little if any change to the image. Motion was smooth and artifact-free, even when presented with the rapid chaotic motion of the swarm of alien bugs that engulfed much of the East Coast in the film's climax.
Sound-wise, the D2v didn't disappoint, locking on, decoding and playing back the DTS-HD signal with no problems. The same smooth, natural balance and spatial rightness were again present, creating a realistic and enveloping experience regardless of whether the onscreen action was two people talking or an 18-wheeler being ripped apart. The bass tracks were something to behold, as the D2v was able to extract more texture and frequency changes than I had previously heard through my Integra DTC 9.8, evident in the scene where the alien orb landed in Central Park. The dialogue track was always clear, with appropriate weight and scale to the voices, without sounding overly forward or boxy, as can be the case with some lesser processors.
Read the High Points, Low Points and Conclusion on Page 2