old saying "value is relative" applies as much in the audio/video world as it
does anywhere else. Value is not, however, as simple to define as in some other fields of
interest. Determining whether something is a good value or not requires one to study not
only comparable products, but also those outside the realm of like-kind componentry. In
that context, you stand some chance of figuring out if the product in question is a good
deal, or a good deal overpriced.
Model: AVM 20 surround-sound
Price: $3199 USD ($3399 as of January,
Dimensions: 17.25"W x 17.25"D x 5.9"H
Weight: 27 pounds
Warranty: Five years parts and labor
- Dolby Digital, DTS, THX Surround EX
- THX Ultra certified
- FM/AM tuner
- Six-channel analog input
- Six-channel bass management
- Analog-direct mode (all inputs)
- Adjustable low-pass/high-pass crossover (from 40Hz to 160Hz
in 10Hz increments)
- Three-zone operation and record path
- 192kHz/24-bit DACs
- On-screen menu (works with both composite and S-video
outputs in both main and zone 2)
- Selectable menu-background color
- Center-channel equalization
- Surround modes (10)
- Composite video inputs (7)
- Composite video outputs (5)
- S-video inputs (7)
- S-video outputs (5)
- Component video inputs (2) (assignable)
- High-definition, broadcast-quality (1080p compliant)
component video switching
- Headphone jack
- IEEE 1394/PHAST Interface
- Sleep timer
- IR emitters (2)
- Trigger outputs (2 - 50mA, 1 - 200mA)
- XLR audio inputs (1)
- XLR audio outputs (10)
- RCA audio inputs (7)
- Coaxial digital inputs (7)
- TosLink digital inputs (3)
- Learning remote
For example, my Coda 05r two-channel preamplifier retails
for $3250, which is $50 more than the Anthem AVM 20 by Sonic Frontiers. And
the Anthem does way more, and offers a substantial increase in actual hardware. The
Coda, though, is a fraction of the price of some of the excellent Lamm preamplifiers that
Marc Mickelson has reviewed for SoundStage!. So, although priced above the Anthem,
the Coda is an excellent value in light of its performance, relative to the more expensive
preamplifiers it competes against.
At the other end of the scale, you can buy a multichannel
receiver with preamplifier-output capability for $500 to 600 -- and that even has the
amplifiers built in! In that light, maybe the Anthem isnt such a great value.
Geez, how do you sort it out? The question boils
down to this: Is the Anthem AVM 20 more like the Coda and Lamm products of the world
or is it just another product from another manufacturer?
The Anthem is impressive from the moment you lift it out of
its packaging. The brushed-aluminum faceplate is thick. The casework is heavy-gauge steel.
Suffice it to say that most receivers simply cant compete. Score one for value. Heft
rules! The AVM 20 is heavy and solid, the way a $3199 piece of gear should be.
The finish quality is excellent, reflecting attention to detail in the manufacturing
process. The connectors are robust and -- whats this? Balanced inputs and outputs? Cool.
Form must follow function though, so let's look inside.
The THX Ultra-certified Anthem AVM 20 boasts an
impressive collection of high-quality parts that reads like the guest list at a Democratic
fundraiser: All the names are there. The processor employs Motorola's 56366 DSP chip. Its
DigitalDNA technology is said to be able to handle 120-million instructions per second.
According to Anthem, that makes it the most powerful engine in home-theater processing
currently available. The DACs used are the AKM AK4382s, which are impressively rated at
24 bit/192kHz. These high-resolution DACs likely provide a performance upgrade over
the older DACs used in a number of highly touted CD and DVD players.
The AVM 20 utilizes the Crystal CS3310 analog
attenuator for all volume controls. This baby is in some of the finest preamplifiers
currently on the market, some of which cost upwards of $15,000! It certainly won't be
found in any sub-$1000 receiver that Im aware of. There are also Burr-Brown
operational amplifiers; two transformers, including one large toroidal type; 80,000
microfarads of filter capacitance (as much as in many amplifiers); and a four-layer
motherboard. If parts quality and quantity is any indication of value, the Anthem
AVM 20 is impressive as all get out -- no matter what you're comparing it to.
The AVM 20 is also software and hardware upgradeable.
An update is scheduled soon, which will include Motorolas newest chip -- one that
incorporates Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS 24/96, DTS Neo:6, DTS-ES Discrete 6.1, THX Ultra2,
Dolby Headphone and, possibly, a surprise or two. The cost for this upgrade is $300,
whether current owners upgrade their units (through their dealers), or a new buyer waits
for the factory to include these changes in production. The latter will raise the list
price to $3499. So, no penalty for early adopters. As for the software upgrade
path, there is already a new version of the software that fixes minor bugs (Anthem and
Motorola issues) available for download on the Anthem website. The new software also
allows the user to turn off THXs Re-EQ function without disabling THX altogether
(for movies with already-equalized soundtracks). Wouldnt want to double filter, now
would we? Without this feature, having THX engaged would make for a dull experience when
listening to a pre-equalized soundtrack. The ability to turn off Re-EQ while still
allowing Timbre Matching and Adaptive Decorrelation is a boon.
What all this stuff does
Parts quality can make all the difference between
good and great gear, according to many manufacturers, but only if the initial design
supports the performance to begin with. The Anthem AVM 20's design features make it
apparent that Sonic Frontiers built it to sound great by any measure.
Its tone controls (bass and treble) can be bypassed,
completely removing them from the signal path. The AVM 20 utilizes an analog-direct
mode that permits the user to bypass the internal processing and its inherent
A-to-D/DSP/D-to-A conversion. This option can be chosen for any input you wish, since it
is configurable in the set-up menu. These features maximize sound quality when the user
wants the most direct approach. This is purist behavior, folks. These design choices have
very little wow factor, but they tell you a lot about where the Anthem line is
The Anthem's rear panel is
packed with single-ended RCA and, surprisingly, balanced XLR connectors. It has XLR inputs
for both analog and digital (AES/EBU) connections, as well as outputs for all channels. I
consider this an important feature for higher-priced home theaters that may employ
monoblock amplifiers located close to each speaker. I'd feel much better using balanced
cables to minimize noise for runs of cable as long as those you're likely to encounter in
some larger rooms.
The AVM 20 includes a six-channel analog input
primarily for multichannel music on SACD or DVD-A, and then, on top of that, adds XLR
outputs. But then they went one step further and included bass management for the
high-resolution multichannel audio formats. There are a limited number of players that
offer any such on-board facility, and a couple of after-market devices that address this
much-needed functionality, but there's not much available in the processor world -- until
now, that is. In the AVM 20, you simply choose the "Analog DSP" mode for
the six-channel inputs. This routes the DVD-A or SACD signals through the Anthems
A-to-D/D-to-A section, thereby allowing you to use the bass-management function in the
Anthem with the analog inputs.
Some purists may scoff at converting high-resolution audio
signals to digital and then back to analog again. Maybe they have full-range speakers all
around and dont need to. Fine, they dont have to use the bass
management functions in the AVM 20. Anthem gives you choices, which is the important
point to remember. And if I had to choose between limited functionality versus proper
programming for my speaker system, I'd choose proper set up in a heartbeat. The
AVM 20 can accommodate many different system configurations, which points to forward
thinking on the part of the folks at Anthem.
Speaking of adaptability, the AVM 20 will, of course,
let you program the normal things like speaker-level calibration, delay times, and
bass peak levels (so you dont overdrive your subwoofer), but it actually offers much
more. It has "broadcast-quality video switching" to manage multiple video
sources. It can also set the "on" default volume for each of three zones. I
thought this was especially useful when coupled with the ability to program the maximum
volumes -- it isnt too loud when you power-on, nor can the maximum volume exceed
safe levels in case someone gets happy with the volume control. Smart thinking -- the AVM
20 can even save users from themselves!
The AVM 20's learning remote control is fairly
straightforward, as home-theater remotes go. It is not a touch-screen unit, but it is
fairly well organized, with source selection grouped at the bottom, menu commands near the
middle, and four small buttons located around the central toggle for on-the-fly level
adjustments of the surrounds, LFE, front, and center speakers.
The many faces of the AVM 20
The Anthem AVM 20 is so versatile one hardly knows
where to begin an evaluation. Since most home theaters use the digital output of a DVD
player to feed the processor, this was where I decided to start. I tested both the Dolby
Digital and DTS versions of the Pearl Harbor soundtrack. The sound, using either
one, was clean, spacious, and seamless. The multiple flyovers in the attack scene were
presented with good delineation of detail, a seamless pan from rear to front, and plenty
of visceral force. It was hard to fault the sound quality with this disc in the player.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was
similarly hard to fault. Chapter 36, "Wipe Them Out," created excellent ambience
throughout the room and wall-flexing bass power from the LFE track. It sounded right, from
the beginning to the end. I could only conclude that the internal processing for both
Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks was handled perfectly. From both sonic and
user-interface standpoints, the AVM 20 was a joy to use.
Moving on to the six analog inputs, I tried a variety of
DVD-A discs. Aaron Nevilles Devotion has become one of my favorites and,
through the Anthem AVM 20, it sounded even better than I remembered. Listening to
"Let it Be" through the AVM 20 was a frighteningly real experience. Vocals
were clear, full-bodied, and had the breathy texture you typically only hear in person.
I used the bass-management function to identify the Von
Schweikert VR-3.5 rear speakers as small, thereby routing the low bass into the subwoofer.
Listening to the detail still present in the rear speakers, it was difficult to determine
whether the Anthem was inhibiting performance due to its A-to-D/D-to-A converters being in
the loop. Now dont get me wrong, it did sound better with the rear speakers
run full range, but this had everything to do with the fact that full-range speakers all
around simply sound better, rather than any inherent flaw in the AVM 20.
It would have been helpful to hear a really small
subwoofer/satellite system where the main speakers needed to be crossed over. The
Von Schweikert TS-350 surrounds were briefly used, thereby illustrating the
AVM 20s ability to insert its crossover while maintaining fidelity. I think
its a safe bet to assume that if your speakers are unable to handle low bass, your
system will sound better with this function enabled.
Telarcs DVD-A, Celebrating the Music of Weather
Report, sounded clean and dynamic, with excellent brass-instrument detail and enough
bite to sound strikingly real. Now I know this is a combination of excellent recording
quality and the high-resolution DVD-A format, but all would be for nothing without this
fidelity being passed on to the listener. The analog pass-through on the AVM 20 is very
neutral sounding. Low-level details, such as the sounds of nature on American
Gramaphones Ambience DVD-A, remained intact. The rustling wind and bird
chirps created a virtual outdoor space around me -- I was simply there.
Anthem also includes its Cinema Logic surround mode, which
is used primarily for two-channel music. If you enjoy surround sound, you still have the
usual choices such as Theater, Stadium, Club, Church, and All-Channel Stereo. Cinema
Logic, though, operates a bit differently. Whereas many surround modes collapse the sound
of the front soundstage into the center-channel speaker, Cinema Logic allows for a large
portion of the mix to be routed to the front stereo pair of speakers. The center-channel
speaker can be thought of as an anchor for the center of the stage, as opposed to carrying
all of the weight on its own.
Playing Hans Zimmers Gladiator soundtrack
[DECCA 289 467 094-2] in Cinema Logic, I was able to retain the expansive front stage,
which was not unlike listening in stereo. The center-channel information did not stand
out, and the surrounds offered an appropriate level of ambience. It certainly added to my
enjoyment of the work, which is something I cant say about most surround modes.
With good old-fashioned two-channel audio, like Andrea
Bocellis "Ave Maria" from Sacred Arias [Phillips 289 462 600-2],
the Anthem sounded damn close to my reference Coda 05r. It was within spitting distance of
being as quiet and dynamic, while keeping images locked in on an accurate soundstage. This
is high praise indeed. Bocellis vocals soared and brought on a wave of emotion that
instantly told me that the music was making it through unharmed.
In light of the recent film Ali, were having
our own "Rumble in the Jungle" right here at Home Theater & Sound.
This time though, we have two heavyweight home-theater champions contending for the title.
In one corner, we have the reigning 2001 Product of the
Year, the $3500 B&K AVR307. Not only did the B&K win an award from us this past
year, but it has also garnered critical acclaim from users throughout the home-theater
community. I found it to be simply fantastic, as you can read in my Home Theater &
Sound review. In
the other corner, we have the Anthem AVM 20. Get ready for a rumble!
The B&K AVR307 has strengths in its user interface --
features such as a built-in notch filter and adjustable crossover -- and a sound that is
extremely adept at low-level detail and neutrality. It also has seven channels of
fine-sounding amplification built in. The Anthem AVM 20 counters with an equally
excellent user interface, tons of processing features such as the built-in bass management
for the analog inputs, balanced connections, and unarguably pristine sound quality. In
fact, the AVM 20 sounds even better than the B&K through its analog inputs and
its own internal DACs. The difference is subtle, mind you, but there is a smoothness to
the sound that preserves detail yet gives soundtracks more texture. The B&K just
doesnt offer as much information, whereas the Anthem gives us the whole picture.
The B&K is still my favorite receiver, and by a large
margin. I consider it a good value based on its sound and the fact that it is a
stand-alone component with internal amplification. For an all-in-one unit, it is
fantastic. As a processor though, the B&K simply cant keep pace with the Anthem
AVM 20. Pair the AVM 20 with Anthem's own $1499 PVA 7
seven-channel amplifier, and you have a championship team.
You have to know where a product resides in comparison to
its competitors in order to attach a relative value to it. First though, you must know its
competitors. Simply put, the Anthem AVM 20 is closer in quality to the cost-no-object
high-end purist components than to the mass-market receivers that populate home-theater
central. It feels, sounds, and performs like any number of really
great, typically expensive, products Ive had through the Fritz household over the
years. It is separated by a wide gulf from the budget components seen at the local
mass-market stores. Theres nothing wrong with those products, mind you, but the AVM
20 deserves to be placed among the best available. Its that good.
Anyone looking for a preamp/processor in the $5000-and-up
realm simply must consider the Anthem AVM 20. For $3199, it offers more than
even this jaded reviewer could have imagined before he experienced it for himself.
Its a terrific piece, without qualification. Given everything it does right,
everything it offers, and its more-than-reasonable price, the AVM 20 is a knockout.
|Speakers - Von Schweikert
Audio (VR-3.5, LCR-35, VR-S/3, TS-350), Wilson Audio Specialties (X-1 Grand SLAMM Series
III, WATT/Puppy 6, XS)
- Krell Theater Amplifier Standard, Anthem PVA 7
|Source - Technics DVD-A10
|Monitor/projector - Sony WEGA FD
Trinitron direct-view TV, PLUS HE-3100 Piano DLP projector