The category of preamps has changed a lot in the past decade or so. On the AV side of the equation, there are exciting new frontiers in room correction, seemingly constant HDMI updates, improved internal DACs, feature-rich control system drivers for the likes of Control4 and Crestron, and so much more. In the two-channel world, though, preamps haven’t evolved as much, with many of the products that were sold 10 years ago still being somewhat relevant today. One exception is Anthem, who was a somewhat disruptive force in AV preamps ten years ago with the Statement product line. Today, Anthem is making waves in the stagnant pool of stereo preamps with its STR DAC-preamp.
Priced at $3,999, the Anthem STR stereo preamp isn’t cheap by any measure, but considering that it includes Anthem Room Correction, a high-end internal 32-bit, DAC and the latest in analog preamp technology--as well as the coolest front faceplate complete with an TFT display for full control--it is uniquely positioned as a potential high-end audiophile value. The build quality of this Canadian-made stereo preamp is absolutely first rate and comparable with audiophile components costing many times more than the STR. The unit has other goodies, too, including bass management for two subwoofers, which is a nifty feature normally reserved for AV preamps and receivers.
The preamp can accept asynchronous USB audio up to 32-bit PCM and the latest of DSD formats, which gets the HD audio enthusiast in me excited. You can easily match levels on inputs, which is a reviewer favorite in terms of features. There is IP/RS-232 control, which allows this stereo preamp to live comfortably in a modern, smart home controlled environment. The unit comes in black or silver and can be matched to an Anthem STR power amp with the same finish starting at $5,999. I was lucky to have an Anthem STR amp to use for the review, along with a Krell Theater Seven, Parasound JC5. and others. The pairing of Anthem STR components together looks just fantastic--modern, sleek and sexy. The TFT display on the front of both the amp and preamp are total eye candy. The preamp’s front panel is a little more useful for setup and input management, however.
To call the Anthem STR a preamplifier doesn’t really do the component justice, as it’s packed with a bunch of goodies not often found inside of a top performing stereo preamp. Some, though, are pretty standard--although much appreciated. The analog direct mode, for example, allows you to defeat all digital processing, leaving only analog filters and gain amplification. There’s also a home theater bypass feature that allows the user to defeat all processing and gain control completely, such that your AV preamp or receiver can handle processing when you’re watching movies and pass its signal straight through the STR, even with the power off.
Anthem doesn’t ignore those still spinning vinyl, either. Far too often, AV manufacturers choose to ignore an internal phono stage from their stereo preamps, be it for greed’s sake (so they can sell you another black box) or perhaps for performance’s sake. The built-in phono stage in the Anthem STR includes step up amplification for both moving magnet and moving coil inputs. A number of DSP phono EQ filters are included to get the best out of your LPs, even if purists cringe. But to assuage said analog purists, the included RIAA EQ filters use such high-quality components that they achieve a +/- 0.1dB tolerance. And yes, these are completely run in the analog domain, so they still work when you push analog direct mode. Still with vinyl lovers in mind, listening modes can be set to allow one to listen to those mono LPs on either the left, right, or both speakers in mono.
On the digital side, the Anthem STR accepts most digital inputs except HDMI/ I2S. You can stream from any digital source, and the built-in DAC will work with virtually any digital source including high resolution formats like double DSD and 24-bit/192kHz. Virtual inputs allow users to setup and save up to 30 different settings for sources. I can’t imagine pushing this feature anywhere near its limits, but I like the flexibility nonetheless.
Anthem also sent me a pair of the new Paradigm Persona 5F speakers along with the aforementioned Anthem STR amplifier to play with, in addition to my reference Salk Signature Soundscape 10 speakers. My reference stereo preamp is a Parasound JC2BP with an Anthem AVM 60 in use on the home theater side of things. For the duration of this review, and in every tested configuration, I relied on Wireworld interconnects and speaker cables--running XLR balanced audio connections between preamplifier and amplifier. Anthem installed its most advanced 32-bit version of ARC (Anthem Room Correction) to date before the preamp shipped. Unlike with some higher end automatic room correction programs, setting up the Anthem STR was a breeze and took less than half an hour including all connections, installing the ARC software onto my laptop, and following the onscreen instructions as well as using the included microphone. ARC might not be Trinnov in terms of total room correction power. but you don’t need a Ph.D. in electrical engineering to make it work, either, which was good for this reviewer.
I first cued up Nirvana’s Nevermind (DGC Records) on CD. On “Come As You Are,” Kurt Cobain’s voice sounded extremely open and airy with the Anthem in my stereo rig, be it with the Salk or Paradigm speakers connected. The soundstage sounded wide and deep, with clear ability to place Cobain’s vocals, the drums, and additional guitars across the soundstage. Bass notes in the introduction of the track were taught and well defined, not flabby as I have heard with lesser gear on this track.
Every cracking raspy detail of Kurt Cobain’s voice was showcased for my listening pleasure, as was the crunchy texture of that guitar sound, which was the pinnacle of the grunge movement in the 1990s. At low volumes, I could easily make out all the dirty details. And by adding volume to the STR, I could hear an obvious increase in scale, dynamics, and size of soundstage. But what surprised me, especially with grunge music, was how I never got the sense of harshness or listening fatigue even at sustained fairly high volumes that I have heard without the STR in my setup.
Switching to female vocals, French-Canadian singer and now Las Vegas icon, Celine Dion, is one of my personal favorites. Playing her French language classic “Sur Le Meme Bateau” from her S’il suffisait d’aimer album (Columbia/Epic) was just marvelous with the STR in the loop.
There was a sense of richness and depth to her almost nasally overtones that I didn’t hear before the STR arrived and the Anthem Room Correction was in effect. Dion’s many extended vibrato notes showcased the tight control and timing with the STR separates combo, but was also gripping in terms of bass performance with the Parasound JC5 or especially with the Krell Theater Seven being used as an amp.
I wanted to see what the STR could do with some instrumental music versus my many other reference stereo and AV preamps. Wynton Marsalis’ album Marsalis Standard Time (RCA) was my litmus test. The STR Preamplifier handled all the syncopation and rhythm with speed and precision that represented a huge upgrade over any AV preamp that I’ve tested or owned in my system to date. While every detail and texture of the instruments were heard, I felt like it all gelled into one cohesive presentation.
Too often you hear audiophile components trying to reproduce ensemble jazz as if it were a distinct set of instruments. And of course, they are, but a live musical experience sounds more together--more unified. That’s what I heard with the Anthem STR in my rig and that is exciting at the $3,995 price range.
Whatever I threw at the Anthem STR DAC-pre, it handled in the same matter-of-fact way. Faithfully reproducing the source material the way it was recorded, with great clarity, musicality, and finesse. With rock, things never sounded too sweet or polite. The Anthem STR stereo preamp helped my system sound more exciting and engaging than in past iterations of my rig. Electronic music, even at high levels and with the bass bumping, was tight and crisp but never “night club/horn speaker harsh.”
It’s also worth noting that with the STR Pro mated with the STR amplifier, I ran through my standard battery of high resolution audio tracks and IMD test samples and found no audible problems, which is a very good sign.
There is no HDMI input on the Anthem STR Preamplifier, and the only reason that I bring this up is that the preamp is so loaded with forward thinking features that you almost expect an AV input or two on this audiophile component. Literally, I am holding it to a higher standard than nearly every other audiophile stereo preamp in the market.
The internal DAC on the Anthem STR Preamplifier is a power house, but having it married to your preamp does take some of your upgrade flexibility away down the road. Also, the internal DAC in the STR Preamp cannot decode MQA, which might miff some of the Tidal fans out there who are streaming HD music for $20 per month--many of which are MQA encoded.
I could also fault the Anthem for not having a setting for every resistance load under the sun for its phono stage. Here you get just the two most prevalent impedance load settings: 100 ohms for the MC and 47 kilo-ohms for the MM. If vinyl were your primary concern, you might need to buy a dedicated analog phono stage. Honestly, though, you would be hard pressed to find a better quality, more versatile phono stage built into a digital preamplifier/processor.
Competition and Comparison
Despite recent changes to their product lineup, Benchmark offers some cool DAC-preamp units. Benchmark’s focus is a bit more on the DAC side of things, as their half-rack sized components are heavier on the digital inputs than analog.
At $2,195 the Benchmark DAC3 HGC might be the best bet. While a lot less money, there is no solution for vinyl like with the Anthem STR, and there is no room correction, so you do save some money here and you get a recording studio quality device in the bargain, but you to lack many of the key features and the aesthetic of the Anthem STR preamp.
NAD’s M12 DAC-Preamp is likely the closest competitor to the Anthem STR preamp. Priced at $3,499, this component competes in the sex appeal department with a polished chassis and a very cool front screen. The NAD is somewhat of a modular design, so you can customize your component a little bit more to your specific needs.
It’s DAC is MQA compliant, which is especially nice for the Tidal streaming fans out there. I don’t see that the NAD M12 has any kind of room correction, however.
The Krell Illusion II preamp has been on the market for a while and is priced at $7,000, which is a significant uptick in price over the Anthem STR Preamplifier. The Krell Illusion II preamp comes with a high-end internal DAC, RS-232 control, and comparable sex appeal, as you always expect from a Krell component, but it lacks a phono stage, an LED screen on the faceplate, and most importantly room correction. Krell is going through a whole reorganization and I am sure they will have new preamps that are more like the STR at some point, but for now their offering is sonically comparable but close to double the price and lacking in features.
There are other players on the market, such as the super high-end Trinnov Amethyst at over $10,000--a DAC-pre with apex-predator-level room correction. DCS has an uber-expensive DAC-pre unit that is likely beyond the price range of anyone looking at a $4,000 preamp. Classé’s CP-800 is discontinued but was a good solution from the recent past that you may be able to find for a decent price. One would assume Classé will be back with another DAC-pre at some point down the road after being acquired by Sound United (the parent of Denon, Marantz, Polk, and Definitive Technology).
Anthem isn’t afraid to throw down with the big-time audiophile or home theater companies, and that’s just what they’ve done here with the Anthem STR stereo preamp at $3,995. Simply put, it’s one of the best sounding two-channel preamplifiers I’ve ever heard. Beyond switching your audio inputs and controlling your audio system’s volume, it includes an absolutely top-notch DAC, a nifty phono stage, and one of our most favorite room correction solutions all in one sexy-ass component. Feature wise, it pushes the limits of what you can expect to find in the stereo preamp category. Yes, even a single HDMI input-output would have made it even cooler, but that would have made it more expensive, too, and its price point is pretty fantastic right now.
Simply put, performance-wise the Anthem STR stereo preamp can hang with components priced many times above its asking price. In terms of value, there may not be a better option that you can invest in for your audiophile rig. Oh yes, you can spend more money, but you’d have to spend a lot more to get that next level of sound.