|Anthem AVM 20 AV Preamplifier/Processor|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps|
|Written by Bryan Southard|
|Friday, 01 March 2002|
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I started sampling movies with "Almost Famous" (DreamWorks), a film known for great music, and winner of last year’s Golden Globe Award for Best Picture. I had originally seen this film with the use of the competitive Sunfire Theater Grand II – AV preamp. With the AVM20, I noticed many immediate differences from the Sunfire. The overall balance of the system seemed more cohesive. Voices were better integrated, with less seam between recorded information. Particularly in the center channel information, I found voices were not only sweeter, but contained better balance than what I experienced with the Sunfire processor. The AVM20 made me feel more a part of the conversation and effects. On musical selections, the AVM20 sounded remarkably refined for a theater preamp, providing a clear improvement from what I have experienced as the norm. In the scene where the band's plane was crashing, it provided great separation between the conversation and the roaring plane and cracking thunder – a complete lack of audible congestion.
From "The Rock" (DTS Criterion Collection - Hollywood Pictures), in scenes such as the one in which the yellow Ferrari F355 Spider is chasing through the streets of San Francisco, subtle details such as breaking glass were loud and articulate, yet not bright and brittle as some electronics deliver such sounds at higher volumes. Screeching tires, explosions and a huge variety of very dynamic information never confused or congested the low-level information.
For music videos, I reached for Eric Clapton Unplugged (MTV Unplugged). In the song "Before You Accuse Me," the detail surrounding Clapton’s guitar was terrific. In fact, I was startled by the finesse and control that the AVM20 provided. I am very used to this recording in its two-channel CD version and have long considered multi-channel processors completely inferior for music reproduction, but in this case, the highs had a silky quality and never tended to become brittle as they can with many multi-channel processors. Clapton's voice had body and supplied an abundantly dynamic presentation. The guitar had wholesome timber and gobs of detail. In the past, I had considered this pressing to be somewhat lean, with details like the clapping becoming irritating at higher volumes – this is not what I experienced with the AVM20.
I first wanted to test the AVM20’s ability to perform on music recorded in two-channel stereo. It has always been a question for me as to whether the performance of the preamp section of a preamp/theater processor could hang with the better two-channel preamplifiers of today. This is for those who are unwilling to compromise their music for their movies. After connecting my CD source through the AVM20, I dove into some Bob Marley from One Love: The Best of Bob Marley & The Wailers (Island Records). This greatest hits compilation is superbly dynamic and nicely detailed, and of course a groovy jam for those of us who are in this for the music. In the song "Jamin" there are wild sounds from jars, cans and other Jamaican percussion instruments. The AVM20 reproduced this information better than I expected. There was nice separation between the instruments, and individual elements such as the drums had very good detail. This recording can sound a tad compressed, yet the AVM20 was quite open and liquid for its price point. I noted that the AVM20 didn’t seem to add anything negative to the playback. The question is, can it perform at the level of today’s less expensive, high-performance two-channel preamps? The answer to that is yes. I would have no reservations about combining this with a high-level two-channel playback system. Does this preamp perform as good or better than a $3,000 dedicated two-channel preamplifier? That is something you would have to decide for yourself. However, I can say that I have heard $3,000 two-channel products that did not outperform the AVM20.
For multi-channel DVD-Audio testing, I selected Metallica from their self-titled release (Elektra). This recording was a great test disc, as I first listened to it prior to utilizing the necessary bass management in the AVM20, then gave it another hearing afterward. Once configured, this recording was as fun as a white-knuckle roller coaster ride. Bass was taut and delivered great impact. The midrange was very solid, with a hint of edge in the higher frequencies. This is a quality that I have found in recordings prone to high-frequency aggressiveness. I determined that this was likely due to the AVM20’s very revealing top end.
Although this preamp/processor is a multi-channel product, I still prefer to listen to much of my music in stereo, rather than in any kind of theater surround. There is no denying that multi-channel music is exciting, yet with the lack of available software and quality recordings, stereo listening is still my favorite. My theater and music system is combined and, because my music system is at the ultimate reference level, I have never considered running my two-channel music through a theater preamp. For this, I continue to run a two-channel preamp, keeping my music as a pure connection without compromise. In this configuration, I run my CD source through my two-channel preamp, through my amps and out to my front main loudspeakers. When playing movies, I output from the AVM20 into my two-channel preamp, then out to my main loudspeakers. This would be unnecessary, if it weren’t for the fact the Anthem AVM20 can provide theater processing up there with the very best systems, and fit into systems like mine costing tens of thousands of dollars. Yet old perfectionists die hard, and it would be a tall order for this preamp to keep up with my new $16,000 Mark Levinson No. 32 stereo preamplifier.
A significant concern when purchasing a theater processor is obtaining a product that will not easily become outdated by the changing direction of digital playback. Anthem offers periodic software upgrades to assure that you are not of victim of this ever-moving industry. The way that the software is upgraded is through its RS-232 port via the Anthem website. This means that you need to have both Internet access and enough savvy to get this information from your computer to your AVM20. Although this is not difficult, it requires some basic computer knowledge and access. As always, I recommend that you run the most current tested software.
The Anthem AVM20 is a processor-preamp that performs at the highest level, regardless of price. Its easy setup and moderate price makes it a candidate for every enthusiast with a yearning for the highest level of multi-channel performance. The AVM20 is flexible and, with the use of its RS-232 port, will provide software and firmware upgrades that will make it a product not soon to be obsolete. With the looming audio format changes, most preamps lack the future connection method, as it was reported that the fire-wire has been accepted as the new method of transferring information between your DVD-Audio player and your preamp. Anthem assured me that the AVM20 possesses the ability to be easily upgraded when this new transfer method becomes available.
For movies, The AVM20 is big league. For music, this is the best theater preamp I have heard in my system to date. I recommend this unit to anyone who is looking for great sound and versatility. The Anthem AVM20’s price suggests that it should be considered in the middle of the highly competitive AV preamp marketplace, yet its performance competes with the cost-no-object big boys.