Anthem AVM 30 AV Preamplifier 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Tim Hart   
Friday, 01 April 2005

Introduction
For decades, manufacturers have produced high-end stereo components that deliver music playback so real that you can practically reach out and touch your favorite musician. Although home theatres with multi-channel surround systems have been commonplace since the early 1990s, there have been few options for the ultimate level in multi-channel reproduction. Such systems came at a price that invoked shrieks from even the wealthiest consumers. Many are familiar with the likes of the Mark Levinson No. 40, priced at over $30,000 and the Meridian G68 and Reference 861, at $8,000 and $20,000 respectively, just to mention a few. In the growing group of sub-$5,000 processors, can the Anthem AVM30 bring on the highest level of performance at a fraction of the cost of these mega-processors? One glance at the feature list and the $3,000 price tag tells me the Anthem AVM30 preamp/processor/tuner may well be the brightest contender on the price and performance landscape.

This North American-made preamp/processor/tuner is the successor to the popular AVM20, which was reviewed in AVRev.com a few years back. The new model has many new improvements and some important additions. However, one addition that Anthem did not include with the AVM30 is extra cost. Actually, the AVM30 costs about $400 less than the AVM20. The most surprising aspect of the price reduction is that it did not reduce the product’s functionality, capability or performance. In a time when it is easy to justify raising the price of a component by adding a few bells and whistles, Anthem’s approach runs against the norm. The product positioning is interesting, as it comes in under the cost of similar performers, such as Sunfire’s Theater Grand IV or Krell’s Showcase, both of which retail for $4,000. The AVM30 trumps both of these products with full bass management and speaker-distance compensation for its multi-channel analog input. This feature has been long awaited and is long overdue. Finally, here are the tools to fine-tune playback of SACD and DVD-Audio.

Sharing the same general chassis size as its predecessor, the AVM30 is five-and-seven-eighths inches tall, 17 inches wide, 14 inches deep and weighs a hefty 28 pounds. The front panel has a more refined look to it than its predecessor did, with a finely brushed clear anodized or black aluminum finish. The blue display is a nice touch that is easily read and highlights the gorgeous metalwork of the panel. Blue LEDs indicate the source path and zone in use. Red LEDs indicate the source in use. I was able to make adjustments to the system without use of the onscreen display, which says a lot about the amount of information that can be seen. The only issue with making changes at the front panel is the visibility of the labeling for each indicator and button, which should either be backlit or use larger text size. It is a bit too small and the black lettering doesn’t contrast well enough with the clear anodized finish of the review unit in some lighting conditions. I run a projection system and turning on a light really isn’t desirable. Not a big deal, just a note worth mentioning.

A large two-inch master control knob on the right-hand side of the unit controls the levels for surround mode, bass and treble, balance, display brightness and the FM tuner section. The volume has a detented attenuation of 0.5 dB increments. The knob has a nice feel to it. Around the knob are buttons for the surround mode, headphone settings for bass, treble and balance, and the subwoofer LFE level settings. All of the functions on the front panel are laid out in an organized and easily understood manner.

The AVM30 universal remote is nicer than most and has a good feel, with an easy to grip surface finish and an organized layout of large backlit buttons that are approximately the same color as the main display on the face of the unit. Thanks go out to Anthem for recognizing that most theaters are dark and remotes need to be backlit. This seems fundamentally simple, yet most remotes are not backlit and consumers are forced to struggle when using them during movies. The AVM30 has a learning remote that has all of the functions that are on the unit itself, plus a few extra features, such as AM/FM direct entry and source seek, which will automatically sense an operating source and use this signal.

The AVM30 has all but one of the latest decoding schemes for music and movie playback, Dolby Pro Logic IIx, which is currently available as a free download, and the indicator is already on the front panel in anticipation of the addition. Anthem is committed to keeping the AVM30 as future-proof as possible by offering downloads from their website to keep the software as current as possible.

Besides Dolby Pro Logic II, Dolby EX, DTS Neo: 6, EX Matrix, ES Discrete and THX Ultra2/THX Surround EX with four optional modes, the AVM30 has proprietary Anthem–Logic Music™ and Anthem–Logic Cinema™, which is a decoding scheme for older two-channel source material. All of this processing power is handled by the powerful Motorola® 56367 DSP chip.

The back panel of the AVM30 is the best I’ve seen for real estate management. Anthem chose to put the input on a black background and the outputs on a white background, which helps tremendously in sorting out the myriad of connections required for my situation, and is a very nice touch that makes life a lot easier.

Video switching and multi-zone manipulation is a strong point with the AVM30, giving the owner a plethora of options for distributed audio and video. There is no shortage of connections: seven S-video and composite-video inputs, four sets of component-video inputs and a pair of component outs with corresponding S-video and composite outputs, two composite and S-video outputs, and two sets of video outputs for each zone, either S-video or composite. The absence of HDMI or DVI switching raises an eyebrow, though. HD transmission from the source to the display can be handled by the component input and output on the AVM30, but what if you have a digital display that wants to stay in the digital domain? In this instance, you would have to bypass the switching capability of the AVM30. Things start getting tricky when you have to set things up outside of your main control system. At this time, Anthem is putting together hardware upgrades for the AVM20, AVM30 and Statement D1 and hopes to have them completed by summer, but encourages customers to visit their website regarding the latest updates.

For audio, the AVM30 has seven S/PDIF RCA inputs, seven pairs of RCA single-ended inputs, three Toslink digital inputs, one AES/EBU XLR input, a pair of XLR stereo inputs, six analog RCA inputs for SACD or DVD-Audio, four pairs of single-ended analog outputs for the two additional zones and recording, and 10 XLR and single-ended outputs to run to your amplifier. Additionally, there are connections for three relay triggers, an RS-232E port, 12-volt triggers, I.R. emitters and FM antenna, and a blank panel for an IEEE 1394 interface connector, which I’m assuming is a future update.

Set-up
The flexibility doesn’t stop with the multi-zone set-up. Using the quick start guide provided with the AVM30, I installed the unit in my system and had music playing in no time. Using the OSD, I started with setting the time and day. This gives the AVM30 the ability to be an alarm clock with two different timers for each zone. You can turn your gear on at any time during the day or set it so that it will turn off at night if you happen to fall asleep. That’s pretty cool.

Next up was speaker configuration. The AVM30 gives you two different bass management set-ups for cinema and music, so you can really dial in the LFE in each application based on the style of listening you like.

Size; level matching, crossover settings for each speaker and subwoofer phase, polarity and crossover can be easily set up in one menu. The distance from the listener can be dialed in to within six inches of the listener’s position and level matching is at .5 db increments, which is more than adequate for most installations. I would prefer a finer adjustment for speaker position, but using my trusty Radio Shack SPL meter, I was able to get the AVM30 pretty much where I wanted it. A nice aspect of the AVM30 is the ability to adjust levels on the fly without having to get into the setup menu. Different program material will sometimes benefit from small tweaks and to get that ability without the OSD is pretty cool.

Source set-up pays big dividends when time and patience is spent in setting up the configurations for each of your components. The AVM30 makes it straightforward for the user to set up surround modes, level match components, adjust equalization, assign audio and component video input, and change the name of the source you are setting up for optimizing movie or music playback.

The room resonance filter is a tool by which you can tame nasty resonance peaks by means of a single notch filter. By determining the offending low frequency with an SPL meter or your calibrated ear, you can center the AVM30 on that particular frequency and reduce the dB within a 3 or 18 Hz range. Be aware that this can have an adverse effect if done wrong. You might want your dealer or a trained acoustician to set this feature up for you. The same can be said for the supplied bass peak level, which tailors the LFE to match you main loudspeaker capabilities. Done wrong, this could turn things sour in a heartbeat.

Bass management and speaker location for SACD and DVD-Audio takes the AVM30 to the front of the line with the ability to adjust LFE levels and such for all high-resolution formats. You are no longer stuck with the “one set-up fits most” scenario.

The Music
To me, if a preamp/processor can pass the two-channel listening test with CDs, it can be said that almost everything tends to sonically follow suit. It is an important benchmark in my mind, because a good portion of my listening is with two-channel material, whether it be CDs or stereo SACDs and DVD-Audio software. I like working up the sonic ladder, because it reminds me how far digital music playback has come in just a few years and it also tunes my ears up to the task at hand.

I started off with English prog rocker Marillion (Intact Records) and their latest effort Marbles to explore the AVM30’s portrayal of ethereal sonic textural landscapes. “Angelina” opens with whispery synthesizers and deep textured bass line that paints an aural landscape by which Steve Hogarth’s voice hangs suspended within it. Steve Rothery’s soulful and tasteful guitar interweaves with a detailed and delicate accompaniment of Pete Trewavas bass line. The AVM30’s transparency is duly noted on this tune. I did not discern much character that the AVM30 imparted to the music.

Switching over to DVD-Audio, I put in a gem I ran across recently, Pat Travers From The Front Row…Live (Silverline Records). Silverline is notoriously skimpy on information regarding when any artist recorded a particular concert or at what venue it was recorded. However, if you are a fan, you must own this disc. Recorded in 5.1 DVD-Audio at 24-bit/96 kHz and Dolby Digital 5.1 at 24 bit/48 kHz, Travers sounds better than I’ve ever heard him. The transfer captures the live experience with heart-thumping energy. Travers’ blues and rock style of playing and is topnotch. Screaming sustained guitar notes with their associated feedback sound incredibly detailed and have great presence on “Stevie.” The thundering bass lines have a wonderful midrange and lower register with a slight echo in the surrounds that gives you a feel for the venue where it’s being played. Travers’ voice is locked dead center and is crystal clear. “Getting Betta” highlights Travers’ crunchy and funky guitar riffs and unique vocal style. The AVM30 allows this recording to carry you away to another era in rock, when guitar gods ruled the airwaves and rock ‘n’ roll reigned supreme.

The Movies
I tested the AVM30 for video switching to see if an additional link in the signal path caused any degradation to the image. I currently run my Direct TV satellite and Denon 2800 universal player though a Faroudja NRS video processor and scaler. For a video switching unit, you would be hard-pressed to beat the performance of the Faroudja and the benefit of up-converting to 720P caps the deal. So, with a little trepidation, I introduced the AVM30 to the signal path via a set of Cardas Precision Video component video cables. I ran the Denon player and the satellite directly to the AVM30, then to the Faroudja, which feeds the signals to my seven-inch CRT projector. Surprisingly, I could not identify reduction in performance induced by the AVM30. I intuitively feel like an additional link in the chain is not the best approach, but the AVM30 put up a stiff argument against that train of thought by supplying simplicity and system integration.

Multi-channel DVD video concerts are one of my favorites of the format. A good mix can put you right there in the twentieth row. Dream Theater’s “Live at Budokan” (Atlantic Records) is such a disc. Most of the band’s sound comes from the front three speakers and crowd noises and the venue’s ambience come through the rear channels, making you feel a part of the audience cheering on some of the most amazing musicians you’ll ever hear or see. The sound is very detailed and the dynamics are crisp, bombastic and articulate. “Beyond This Life” displays the musical prowess, speed and finesse these guys are known for. Mike Portnoy’s double kick bass drums are thundering and detailed, while the cymbal work shimmers and is well defined. The initial snap of the drumstick hitting a tom or snare drum is conveyed quite well, considering that a typical concert recording does not pay particular attention to mike placement of this part of the drum kit. The AVM30 seems to get all of that put together right, which makes this DVD very enjoyable. John Petrucci’s fretwork is blistering and very articulate and the AVM30 sorts out all of this information with nary a congested note and it sounds effortless. “New Millennium” is another favorite that has Jordan Rudess’ subtle synth highlighting Portnoy’s cymbal and bell work, with Petrucci overlaying soaring guitar work that compliments James Labrie’s vocals. The AVM30 recreates the concert experience very convincingly with great resolution and control.

“Alien Vs. Predator” (20th Century Fox) offers some nice effects. In Chapter Nine, the exploratory team is just starting their descent into the borehole leading down to the underground pyramid. The Predator spaceship silently passes over the crew, leaving only a subsonic signature in its wake. The effect produced through the AVM30 suggests a large presence with subtle cues that outline the immensity of the craft and passes those cues seamlessly from the left front channel through the center and over to the right without changing the spatial presence much, if at all. The sub frequencies really make this effect impressive. In Chapter 14, the inside of the pyramid starts to rearrange itself, much to the chagrin of the research team. The closing of heavy stone gates and slabs of rock reorienting themselves is very impressive through the AVM30. It characterizes the echo of a large space with every nuance you would expect to hear. The movement conveys the heavy nature of the stone through a detailed and layered grinding and crunch that the AVM handles well.

The Downside
The AVM30 is not the only preamp/processor/ tuner that has yet to add HDMI or DVI switching capability to its arsenal of tools. However, a product that boasts video switching should probably include this feature. The ability to stay in the digital domain for video is not trivial and is the best performance upgrade to come down the path in quite some time.

I liked the layout of the remote, as well as the fact that Anthem chose to backlight all of the buttons with the same cool blue light as the display on the AVM30. I’ve complained about this oversight more than once on other products, as I feel that this is a requirement, not a fancy option. Nothing kills a projection system movie watching experience faster than having to turn on the lights to change the volume or any other function you may need to access on the remote. The only issue I have is that there isn’t a separate button to activate the back-lighting. Hitting any button will activate it, but on several different occasions, I hit the wrong button looking for a function and accidentally changed the source or did something else that brought everything to a halt. I finally resolved the issue by first pointing the remote away from the AVM30 and pushing a button to get my bearings, and then entering the function I wanted. A single button away from all of the other functions, perhaps on the side of the remote, would be one option.

Conclusion
I’ve reviewed many products that at first appearance seemed to have a synergistic flow to the operation, from designers who obviously had done their homework, only to have the whole thing go south because of funky gee-whiz gizmos that I would never use or a dozen different DSPs that mean nothing to me, but are there because the marketing department thought they would drag in new buyers. The AVM30 is different. It has so many capabilities that I would have to print the manual (which is very easy to follow and covers all of the operational aspects of the system) and put it in this review to discuss all of the features. The quick start guide is done very well, showing all of the options for hooking up all of my ancillary components. It had me up and running in no time. The set-up is also intuitive and easy to understand, allowing the user to customize the system to the nth degree; it is can be infinitely tailored to any imaginable configuration. I don’t think you could spend your money any more wisely than with the AVM30. With future software upgrades available online, the chance of obsolescence is practically nil. The remote is easy to see and manipulate and the display is attractive and easy to read. This unit is the best-performing processor in its class and competes with the highest price preamps in the world. The price is a bargain, in my opinion. In fact, I bought the review unit. That’s the best endorsement I can offer.
Manufacturer Anthem
Model AVM 30 AV Preamplifier
Reviewer Tim Hart





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