About 10 or 15 years ago, the world of AV gear was much simpler. When I say simpler, I mean that there was a lot of stability in formats. On the video side, DVD was king, although the Blu-ray format had launched and was beginning to gain popularity as TV manufacturers pushed 1080p-resolution video as a must-have for home entertainment. On the audio side, the world had settled on a happy co-existence between the DTS and Dolby Digital multi-channel formats. The big-box stores (and back then there were plenty to choose from aside from Best Buy, including Tweeter, Circuit City, and others) mostly carried popular Japanese receivers.
The stability helped create a fertile breeding ground for high-end manufacturers and their AV preamps, sold in high-end audio shops or included with high-end home theater installations that were in full bloom at the time. These higher-end processors often featured higher-quality circuitry with more refined audio and video processing, and they offered AV enthusiasts the dual promise of delivering superb home theater sound processing while being good enough with two-channel audio to allow said enthusiast to dump their reference two-channel preamp to integrate both their home theater and audio listening into one system.
Anthem positioned itself as a value player in high end with various AV processors starting with the AVM line and culminating in the flagship Statement processor. The Statement D1 first came out at $5,000 retail at the time when brands like Krell, Meridian, and the like sold their flagship models at several times that price.
Of course, the market dynamics have changed drastically, making it difficult for high-end AV preamps to survive. Audio formats changed rapidly, digital connectivity came out in droves (as big-box receivers plastered sell sheets with connectivity icons by the dozen), and HDMI seemingly issued a new standard every three to six months, making older hardware unable to offer the latest and greatest. It no longer made sense for many high-end consumers to drop $30,000 on a Krell Evolution preamp when it would be incompatible with new standards just a year after purchase.
Now that the AV world seems settled on new set of standards at least for the near future, Anthem is back on the scene with a vengeance, launching its first new AV preamp in years: the AVM 60. This preamp's spec sheet reads like it could be the top-shelf unit sold at a Best Buy/Magnolia: It includes support for 4K Ultra HD video and HDR, and it conforms to the latest HDMI 2.0 standards, allowing you versatility in connecting to the latest devices. It can handle all of the audio encoding formats you can think of, including Dolby Atmos object-based audio (and DTS:X is coming via with a future upgrade). Its feature set pretty much mirrors that of the company's flagship receiver, the MRX 1120, which Dennis Burger reviewed recently--including DTS Play-Fi connectivity, which allows you to wirelessly stream audio from a number of sources and services.
At $2,999 retail, the AVM 60 is actually $500 less than its receiver counterpart, the MRX 1120. Of course, you have to (or get to, as most separates fans prefer) provide for your own amplification through a separate component. There are a few other differences, too. Balanced audio outputs are offered on the preamp but not the receiver. For those who want the best possible noise rejection, this is important. Another more subtle difference is that, while the MRX 1120 simply re-routes the front left and right channels for headphone amplification, the AVM 60 actually includes a separate, dedicated headphone amplifier. If you're sensing a theme, you're right. All of the additional time and attention was spent making the AVM 60 as quiet a preamp as possible, with separately purposed components of very high grade, designed to take the signal coming in and pass it on to the next component in the chain as clean and true to the original source as possible. One of these components is an upgraded analog-to-digital converter resulting in lower noise and a wider bandwidth versus the MRX models. For the audiophile who listens to a lot of high-resolution audio, this is a big bonus.
I used my Wireworld XLR cables to connect the AVM 60 to the MCA 525 amplifier that Anthem also provided for the five main channels. A couple Crown XLS-2500 amps covered the four height channels I used for Atmos material. For speakers, I used the PSB Imagine X system I had on hand, including four PSB Imagine XA up-firing Atmos speakers. The PlayStation 3 served as my physical media player for most of my test material.
One of Anthem's greatest strengths is its proprietary room correction software, ARC. Included is a microphone with a stand. The first thing you'll notice that is different between the Anthem system and the competition is that the microphone included is actually quite hefty. It looks and feels like a more quality microphone than the small plastic discs with a thin wire attached that you get with most receivers out there. And the stand that holds the microphone can be telescoped and angled to fit virtually any position and tilt necessary. ARC is one of the most advanced room correction systems out there, allowing you separate frequency bands for equalization for the fronts, surrounds, center, subs, and height channels, as well as a number of custom tweaks to your target curve that are offered in far more costly room correction setups from the likes of Dirac and Trinnov.
Despite its advanced capabilities, it's also super simple to use. Completing the setup was a breeze, since I chose the simplest process. I plugged the microphone into the Anthem, downloaded and installed the ARC software into my computer (which I hooked up to the Anthem via a USB cable), and ran five measurements as it called for in different listening positions around the room. ARC spit out the target curve, the measured response, and its suggested corrections, which I saved and uploaded back into the AVM 60. Done.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Concusion...
Beginning my evaluation with music, I queued up one of my favorites from Aloe Blacc's Lift Your Spirit album (CD, Universal), "Wake Me Up." This is the acoustic version of the track, not the more common techno version that Blacc did in collaboration with Avicci. The piano and guitar background sounded clean and distinct, and the AVM 60 managed it perfectly to where they did not overpower Blacc's voice. In line with my expectations from past experience with Anthem products, tonally the AVM 60 comes across well balanced and neutral, but leaning just a touch warm. It made Blacc sound inviting and familiar, especially when he goes into his humming in the intro. The Anthem's handling of Blacc's slightly nasally voice was surely impressive, presenting it in a very matter-of-fact way without ever rubbing it in your face. Altogether, it was a most pleasing sound.
Next up was a little Jimi Hendrix. "All Along the Watchtower" was Hendrix's rendition on his Electric Ladyland album (CD, MCA) of a song that Bob Dylan made famous. It still amazes me how far ahead of his time Hendrix's electric guitar skill and creativity were. I cranked up the volume. As I did so, the Anthem just scaled up the music, making it sounding louder and bigger, but clarity and resolution were always constant, starting at a pretty moderate volume level on up. Every bending note, hammer on and pull off of Hendrix's guitar strings was reproduced with stunning precision. Again, to characterize the sound, it's a warm shade of precise, not a surgical one--meaning that the Anthem lets you hear the details but doesn't draw attention to itself as a precise machine. This is especially true with ARC corrections engaged. Whereas some automated room correction systems make some improvements in the sound, the beauty of ARC is that it makes a marked improvement in the sound quality, but leaves no footprints behind giving you that "it's been edited" feeling. This is one of most natural auto room correction systems I've heard.
Another thing I observed as I listened to more Jimi and then moved on to more '80s-variety big hair bands at similar volumes was how listenable it was. Obviously, the whole audio chain works together as a unit to create this performance, and it certainly helped that the PSB Imagine X system was able to keep up every step of the way. Still, the Anthem did its job of never, ever becoming the bottle neck in the chain.
As a two-channel music preamp, the Anthem rivals my reference Parasound Halo JC2BP preamp in clarity and tonal balance. And while my Parasound edges the Anthem out slightly in refinement, its more akin to Rocky holding his own with Apollo Creed until the last bell rings and losing the decision on points. It was never out of its league, even when compared to the best. That's saying a lot for an AV preamp that has far more jobs to perform than just reproducing two-channel music.
Before moving on from music, I flipped open the small panel on the front to reveal the headphone out and plugged in a pair of Sennheiser RS175 over-the-ear headphones I had on hand. To be sure, the headphone amp on this unit is not the weak link. I always heard great clarity and never felt like it was running out of power to deliver great sound.
Now, on to some movies. I slipped in the cult favorite John Wick (Blu-ray, Thunder Road) to test out the Anthem's Atmos chops. In one scene, Keanu Reeves (who plays the titular character Wick) enters the spa section of a crowded club through the restroom to exact his revenge on the son of an Eastern European mob boss who killed his dog. Music is blaring in the background outside the spa area, and you can hear it as being loud yet muffled. As Wick proceeds, a henchman is shaving, and you can hear the water splashing distinctly and clearly. You can hear every texture in Reeves' low growl as he interrogates the henchman as to the whereabouts of his boss. Of course it ends in a brutal fight scene, where you begin to realize the prowess of the Anthem as every punch, bone crackle, thud, crash, and more is reproduced to exacting standards.�
The music gets louder as Wick enters the main spa section, and the scene begins an almost operatic progression as Wick dispatches his victims one by one with his unique "gun-fu" fighting style. As the camera pans around, the Anthem dutifully followed, placing all the right sounds in the right locations. As the fight scene moves from one angle to another and one direction to another, the transitions were quick and deliberate, but very natural and without drawing attention to themselves. What the Anthem got right was a graceful procession as the scene was designed to be, instead of a sharper, louder, more obnoxious presentation that I've heard in many lesser components.
As the fight proceeded outside the spa section to the multi-level dance area of the club, the music got louder. Again, here, the Anthem distinguishes itself. At reference levels, the club music was quite loud. While some preamps have sounded like they were bringing you into a live club with the music blaringly loud, the AVM 60 maintained a certain control that made it always bearable to listen to. The Anthem continued to orchestrate everything in its place, with nothing overpowering the other. Amidst the cacophony, the scene moves through multiple floors, and reproduction of the space and echo was nothing short of amazing.�
Another great one to experience with the Anthem was The Martian (Blu-ray, 20th Century Fox). Dialogue was always splendidly clear, but beyond the clarity, the Anthem was able to add the setting of the dialogue perfectly. When the dialogue came through radio communication, you heard the slight muffle and metallic tinge in the communication equipment. When the scene was shot in the first-person point of view from inside a space suit, you heard the stuffiness of the confined space. And sometimes it was the very empty, vast expanse of space that the Anthem brought to life. One scene, in particular, caught my eye (or my ear, if you will). Here, our stranded Martian astronaut, played by Matt Damon, finally reaches an escape shuttle and is able to launch himself off the surface. The soundstage was appropriately big. After all, when is the launch of a rocket not a big deal in the movies? Low frequency was well controlled in the great rumble of the liftoff, and the dynamic range between this and entering the nothingness of space with its empty echo was just stunning. All throughout, the music soundtrack was reproduced perfectly to keep the gut-wrenching tension in the scene high, appropriately giving you the sense that this wasn't the end. After all, Damon's character had only shot himself into space; he wasn't safely rescued yet.
Unlike its bigger (and much older) brother, the Statement D2V 3D, the AVM 60 is fully in sync with the times in terms of video and immersive audio formats. In fact, there is very little the AVM 60 doesn't do. And last I checked, the AVM 60 actually sounds better, and it's cheaper to boot. That makes the job of finding some faults especially tough. I think it's going to come down to preference. The Anthem tends to do its job and then step out of the way to let you enjoy your source material, but some people may prefer a preamp that is a little more obvious in its efforts to exude quality--as if shouting, "Hey look at me, I'm great!" I liked the listenability of the Anthem and its tendency to not incite fatigue. But to someone looking for a more in-your-face presentation, it may feel mellow. This would probably impact high-volume rock and other modern music, as well as action heavy movie scenes. The Anthem sounds more like you are watching a movie than a live play. Don't get me wrong, it's not about the scale of the presentation, but more the style of it.
Comparison and Competition
I think the Anthem AVM 60 is the new standard to beat in today's market for an AV preamp. The Marantz AV8802A is an obvious competitor, with Denon and Marantz being one of the first in market with AV preamps capable of object-based movie sound formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. At $3,999, the Marantz costs $1,000 more. You'll get an extra zone-three control and an option to add an Auro 3D upgrade for $199. But I think you will find that, sonically, the Anthem more than competes, especially considering the prowess of the ARC system compared with the Audyssey format that is running on the Marantz. (Marantz has announced a new preamp, the AV7703, for $2,199).
A closer match sonically would be the Classe Sigma SSP that we've reviewed, but the Classe starts at $5,000 and to get the 4K/UHD Blu-ray and object based immersive sound format upgrade will cost you another $1,000.
The Yamaha CX-A5100 preamp has now been discounted to $2,499, making it $500 cheaper than the Anthem. However, the CX-A5100 has been out on the market a while now, and I think the Anthem AVM 60 offers a level of refinement that can't easily be matched. And the participation in the DTS: Play-Fi ecosystem gives it more flexibility than Yamaha's proprietary MusicCast system.
As a reviewer, I must admit that it's easy to become a little jaded. Even some of the best components that arrive on my doorstep don't ultimately inspire me to part with my hard-earned money. After all, if I bought everything that I reviewed, I would be very, very poor. But every so often, I find an exceptional item. The AVM 60 is one of those exceptional items. It is as good as some of the finest two-channel music preamps, all the while offering stunning audio and video performance in home theater--along with world-class room correction software and compatibility with all the latest sound and video formats. It just looks so comfortable sitting there on my component rack, I think I'm going to just leave it there permanently as my new reference AV preamp. Be careful auditioning the Anthem AVM 60--you might just have to buy it, like I did.
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