HOME THEATER & SOUND -- www.hometheatersound.com



October
2003

Reviewed by
Anthony Di Marco
REVIEWERS' CHOICE 2003


Anthem
MCA 50
Multichannel Amplifier

Features SnapShot!

Description

Model: MCA 50

Price: $1999 USD
Dimensions: 17.25"W x 7"H x 17.5"D
Weight: 61 pounds

Warranty: Five years parts and labor


Features
  • Signal-sensing, remote-trigger, and front-panel turn-on options
  • Toroidal transformers
  • 30,000F of capacitance per channel
  • Eight bipolar output transistors per channel
  • Balanced and unbalanced inputs
  • Mirror-imaged channel modules
  • Heavy-gauge steel case
  • Aluminum faceplate
  • Gold-plated five-way binding posts

Frippery is an interesting word. No, it’s not related to all things Robert Fripp (though fans of the virtuoso King Crimson guitarist may have tried to coin the term). Frippery means frivolous, showy, of little or no importance. Look around at most consumer and high-end audio gear and you’ll see a lot of frippery -- everything from cool blinking lights and thick, machined-aluminum faceplates to power cords and speaker cables that would make a NASA scientist scratch his head.

Paradigm Electronics, the parent company of Anthem, prides itself on sticking to designs that are steeped in proven research and development -- not frippery. This philosophy is evident in the company’s speaker designs, and in their Anthem line of electronics: Paradigm has received much-deserved raves for their less-is-more approach to amplifier and processor design.

Construction

The chassis of the Anthem MCA 50 fairly shouts "No frills!" A faceplate with three horizontal scores running along its lower edge, a single green LED for power, and exposed heatsinks for each of the amplifier’s five channels -- these are the only styling cues that stand out on its unassuming yet solidly constructed box. Around back, the same no-nonsense attention to detail is apparent. Good-quality, well-spaced five-way binding posts run along the bottom, while balanced inputs and unbalanced, single-ended inputs are lined up to the north. Hooking up the MCA 50 is a snap.

The MCA 50’s simple casework hides a heavy-duty power supply and, according to Anthem, circuits that feature a simple yet high-quality topology. Anthem uses two large toroidal transformers, along with 150,000F of capacitance to supply power to its five amplifier modules. One of the transformers feeds the front two channels, while the other takes care of the center and surround channels. The company points out that each amplifier channel is perfectly matched to the other, which is supposed to ultimately translate into a seamlessly coherent surround-sound image. Coupled to a robust power supply, each amplifier channel reportedly delivers stable power into loads as low as 2 ohms. The MCA 50 is rated to deliver 180W into 8 ohms and a whopping 340W into 2 ohms, with all five channels driven.

The simplicity of the design allegedly contributes not only to three-dimensional surround sound but also to an incredibly low noise floor. At a reported signal/noise ratio of 120dB, the MCA 50 is one of the quietest amplifiers I have ever listened to.

Sound

The MCA 50’s low noise specification proved to be the real thing. The beach scene in Die Another Day displayed an extremely clean top end. Even the highly revealing tweeters of my Canton Ergos revealed nothing other than what was on the soundtrack. Waves of water emerged from a noise floor that was well below the sensitivity of my hearing. I also failed to hear the annoying 60Hz hum that can plague many amplifiers and receivers. Hum is often the result of ground loops, but can be caused by poorly isolated transformers. In the time I used it, the MCA 50 exhibited neither problem.

The combination of an extremely low noise floor and healthy power reserves reproduced the intense action in chapter 4 of Die Another Day and the avalanche in chapter 19 of Vertical Limit with startling and enveloping clarity. And, like the surf in Die Another Day, the sound of collapsing snow washing over me was reproduced realistically.

The MCA 50’s sonic signature established itself on the cool and slightly brighter side of neutral, but at the same time was incredibly smooth and detailed. There was no sign of harshness or glare. Adding to the experience was just the slightest sprinkle of sweetness in the high frequencies. This sweetness, and the MCA 50’s three-dimensionality, were apparent in scenes where there was a lot of "air" and ambience. The rustling of cornstalks and the faint breeze in chapter 9 of Signs sounded so clear that I had to listen to it several times.

The MCA 50’s bass impact was very good, even if it did not possess quite the jackhammer solidity of some solid-state amplifiers. Low frequencies out of the Dynaudio Audience 82s had a tactile, extended quality reminiscent of a well-designed powered subwoofer such as Linn’s Sizmik. Though not what I’d consider warm or full, it nonetheless delivered both the uneasy atmosphere of a haunted submarine and the full concussive impact of the depth charges in chapter 4 of Below.

Classical music benefited greatly with the Anthem at the helm. The crescendos in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring [Telarc CD-80054] sounded big and bold. As with the film soundtracks, I was able to hear the recording’s noise floor clearly. Cymbals and violins were well-rendered, but sounded slightly thin whenever the recording called for it. As I listened to more recordings, I found that this was a characteristic of the Anthem’s transparency: It apparently did nothing to the audio signal but amplify it.

What truly distinguished the MCA 50 from other solid-state amplifiers in its price range that I’ve heard was the way it separated elements within its densely populated and expansive soundstage. Instruments and vocals were rock-solid and precise in their placement, but without the artificially razor-sharp positioning presented by some amplifiers. Voices were up front, but not unnaturally augmented in any way.

Ani DiFranco’s voice on Up Up Up Up Up Up [Righteous Babe 13] was placed securely to the left of center without being thrown too far forward. Overall, the Anthem’s image stayed slightly forward of the speaker plane. Images were nicely layered despite being relatively shallow, and resisted bunching up on complex material. I could easily judge the depth and position of each of the a cappella singers on Paul Simon’s "Adios Hermanos," from Songs from the Capeman [Warner Bros. 46814-2].

Comparisons

Plenty of amplifiers have come through my home lately; recently, a Pass Labs X5 and an Outlaw Audio Model 755 made the rounds. Both amplifiers are excellent in their own rights, but at very different prices: The X5 retails at $4500, the Outlaw at a hair under $1300.

Let’s start with looks and features. The Outlaw Model 755 is basically the same size as the Anthem MCA 50, but is a bit more austere in appearance -- the Anthem’s silver aluminum faceplate has an industrial elegance that the Outlaw’s stark-gray exterior can’t match. The Anthem’s thicker sheet-metal casework also feels more robust, and less like that of a mass-produced component. Neither amplifier is gorgeous, but the Anthem definitely has a more upscale appearance without coming across as showy. In either case, no frippery.

The Anthem offers balanced XLR and RCA inputs, the Outlaw only single-ended. Both amplifiers have 12V triggers, though the Anthem offers more power-on flexibility, in the form of a three-way switch. This switch can be set to be a trigger via the 12V input, standard power-up via a power button on the front panel, or Auto, which turns the amp on when it senses an audio signal at its input. The Anthem also has a 12V loop out to permit daisy-chaining of multiple MCA 50s.

A glance at the Pass Labs X5’s faceplate tells you there’s a measure of frippery at work. There is, however, no questioning the beauty of the X5’s machined-aluminum face, or of the heatsinks rising gracefully from this beast’s flanks. Like the Anthem, the X5 includes XLR connections, but with one important difference: The X5 is a pure balanced design, which allegedly reduces the noise floor; the Anthem isn’t. On the other hand, the Anthem offers better-quality binding posts and is more flexible in terms of turn-on options. The X5 does have a 12V turn-on, but no signal-sensing circuit.

On paper, all three products have well-designed power supplies. The Anthem and Outlaw each have two toroidal transformers, while the Pass has a single massive unit. The Outlaw has ten bipolar output devices per channel, while both the Pass and Anthem have eight. Capacitance among the three is very close, the Anthem’s 150,000F of storage bettering the respective 113,000F and 124,000F capacities of the Outlaw 755 and Pass X5. Of course, this comparison fails to take into account the quality of the parts being used by each manufacturer.

While the Anthem MCA 50 is closer in price to the Outlaw 755, its sound quality approached that of the Pass Labs X5. The Anthem’s cool, collected sonic signature was very close to the Pass X5’s. The Pass exhibited a more consistent sense of sweetness from the lower midrange up through the treble, while the Anthem’s sweetness was restricted to the higher frequencies. The X5 also bettered the Anthem in terms of soundstage depth and dynamic range, sounding slightly more quick and open. And despite a lower specified power output of 125Wpc, the Pass Labs managed to sound more powerful and effortless. Still, considering the difference in price, the Anthem was incredibly close, and actually matched the Pass in overall transparency.

Conclusion

The Anthem MCA 50 is a perfect example of what audiophiles can get if they’re willing to dispense with needless frippery. The MCA 50 may not have a spit-shine chassis or drop-dead-gorgeous sex appeal, but it amplifies soundwaves with the big boys. It’s an incredibly impressive amplifier that offers high power, transparency, and a very refined top end, all for an extremely reasonable price. What more can you ask for?

Review System
Speakers - Canton Ergo RC-A (mains), Ergo CM 500 DC (center), Ergo F (surrounds); Dynaudio Audience 82 (mains), Audience 122C (center), Audience 42W (surrounds)
Preamplifier - Audio Refinement Pre-5
Sources - Panasonic RP82S DVD player, Denon DVD-2900 universal A/V player, Arcam FMJ CD23T CD player, Audio Analogue Paganini CD player, Bel Canto DAC 2 D/A converter, Philips TiVo PVR
Cables - BetterCables, Stereovox
Monitor - Mitsubishi WT-46809 rear-projection widescreen monitor (with Duvetyne modification and full ISF calibration)
Power Conditioning - Panamax, Shunyata Research
 

Manufacturer contact information:

Anthem/Sonic Frontiers International
3535 Laird Road, Unit 16
Mississauga, Ontario
Canada L5L 5Y7
Phone: (905) 828-4575
Fax: (905) 828-4585

Website: www.anthemav.com

 


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