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...