an interesting word. No, its 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 youll 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.
Price: $1999 USD
Dimensions: 17.25"W x 7"H x 17.5"D
Weight: 61 pounds
Warranty: Five years parts and labor
- Signal-sensing, remote-trigger, and front-panel turn-on
- Toroidal transformers
- 30,000µF 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
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 companys 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.
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 amplifiers
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 50s 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
150,000µF 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.
The MCA 50s 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 50s 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 50s 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 50s 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 Linns Sizmik. Though not what
Id 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 Stravinskys The Rite of Spring [Telarc CD-80054]
sounded big and bold. As with the film soundtracks, I was able to hear the
recordings 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 Anthems 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 Ive 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 DiFrancos 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 Anthems 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 Simons "Adios Hermanos," from Songs from the Capeman
[Warner Bros. 46814-2].
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.
Lets 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 Anthems silver aluminum faceplate has an industrial elegance that
the Outlaws stark-gray exterior cant match. The Anthems 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 X5s faceplate tells you
theres a measure of frippery at work. There is, however, no questioning the beauty
of the X5s machined-aluminum face, or of the heatsinks rising gracefully from this
beasts 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 isnt. 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 Anthems
150,000µF of storage bettering the respective 113,000µF and 124,000µF 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 Anthems cool,
collected sonic signature was very close to the Pass X5s. The Pass exhibited a more
consistent sense of sweetness from the lower midrange up through the treble, while the
Anthems 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.
The Anthem MCA 50 is a perfect example of what
audiophiles can get if theyre 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. Its 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?
|Speakers - Canton Ergo RC-A
(mains), Ergo CM 500 DC (center), Ergo F (surrounds); Dynaudio Audience 82
(mains), Audience 122C (center), Audience 42W (surrounds)
- 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
- BetterCables, Stereovox
|Monitor - Mitsubishi WT-46809
rear-projection widescreen monitor (with Duvetyne modification and full ISF calibration)
Conditioning - Panamax, Shunyata Research