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With companies like Denon, Onkyo, and Yamaha bringing new A/V processors to market as frequently as once a year, it can be difficult for higher-end, smaller-volume companies like Anthem, Bryston, and Krell to keep up. Whereas bigger companies often enjoy the luxuries of big engineering and design teams, and seemingly bottomless R&D and licensing budgets, smaller firms must usually make do with far less.
This dichotomy has challenged many makers of high-end processors, and forced them to come up with creative solutions. One approach seems to be a type of streamlining: Instead of offering five to ten processor models, each with a different feature set and price, makers of high-end A/V processors limit themselves to two or even one model. Furthermore, these components are usually designed on the basis of highly adaptable, sometimes modular platforms that can be more easily upgraded as technologies change. This saves manufacturers valuable production and R&D costs, and translates into better value and flexibility for the customer.
The subject of this review, Anthem’s AVM 50v 3D A/V processor, is a case in point. Changes in the marketplace over the last six years, largely driven by the accelerated evolution of HDMI, have kept Anthem on its toes. In 2006, by discontinuing the AVM 40, the company reduced its number of processor models from three to two: the AVM 50 and its flagship big brother, the Anthem Statement D2. The three years since, which saw the advent of HDMI 1.3a and lossless surround-sound codecs, prompted the releases of the Anthem AVM 50v and the Anthem Statement D2v. This update doubled the numbers of HDMI sockets, to eight inputs and two outputs, and added decoding for all lossless formats, including Dolby Digital TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. It wasn’t long before history repeated itself, with the release of HDMI 1.4a and 3D video -- thus the launch of another Anthem processor, the AVM 50v 3D.
From v to v 3D
At $6500 USD, the Anthem AVM 50v 3D costs only $500 more than its predecessor, the AVM 50v, yet offers superior value with a number of updates intended to offer the latest in 3D functionality. The composition of a 3D signal radically differs from that of a 2D signal. They began by using a new 3D signal-detection software for HDMI inputs 1-4 that instantly recognizes a 3D signal. The software then prompts the video processor to go into a bypass mode in which the signal is sent directly to HDMI 1 untouched, at resolutions up to 1080p. Three things are of note here:
1) In this pass-through mode, the refresh rate is automatically matched to the source rate down to 24Hz, saving much toggling through the various refresh rates available from the AVM 50v 3D.
2) When 3D material is being viewed, the onscreen status overlay (volume, source, etc.) is not displayed because the video processor is completely bypassed.
3) Your AVM 50v can be upgraded to 3D status. Although pricing could not be confirmed at the time of writing, the dealer-installed upgrade is expected to cost less than $1000. It involves replacing the two smaller video boards for HDMI Inputs 1-4 and HDMI Output 1 with a new mezzanine board, and updating the AVM 50v’s software via a download available from Anthem’s website.
Other than those internal changes, the AVM 50v 3D is identical to the AVM 50v, occupying the same 17.25"W x 6"H x 14.25"D chassis and weighing 31 pounds. The front panel, now available only in black finish, is still the antithesis of a minimalist approach, but this is one of the things I found endearing about this processor -- I like having easy access to the functions I use most often. All source input buttons are on the left side, directly below the zone selection and record buttons. At the far right are three Power buttons: Main, Zone 1, and Zone 2. Above these is a rotary volume control flanked by an arc of buttons allowing direct access to all of your connected speakers. These easy-access buttons were a joy to use, as they allow for movie-by-movie adjustments independent of the more permanent level settings one saves via the onscreen display (OSD) menu during initial setup. At the center of the faceplate is a blue LED display that, although a little old-school in appearance, was very functional, and legible up to 10’ away. Below the display are direct-access buttons for radio stations and controls, as well as for Surround format, Tone (Bass, Treble, Bypass), Balance, Status, Mute, and the much-appreciated Display -- when pushed, this last button dims both the LED and faceplate lights in multiple steps, from bright to off.
Around back, I couldn’t imagine anyone needing more flexibility -- the AVM 50v 3D offers one balanced input pair and a full complement of single-ended inputs, enabling it to accommodate up to seven stereo sources and one six-channel source. There are also 19 digital inputs, including the eight HDMIs, and a host of connections enabling full integration with even the most complex control systems. Connections to amplifiers are made via your choice of balanced or single-ended 7.1-channel outputs. There are sockets for two additional Zones, Record Out, and S/PDIF out for an external D/A converter. Video connections will most likely be made via one or both of the parallel HDMI outputs -- but if you have a sentimental attachment to older electronics, Anthem’s got you covered with an array of composite, S-video, and component outputs.
It’s the AVM 50v 3D’s flexibility that sets it apart from the crowd, particularly the feature that gives you the option of running up to four sources per input, or one source as four different components. I found this feature simply brilliant -- it let me use my Oppo BDP-95 universal player as a BD player via a single HDMI connection for my first configuration, assigning the Anthem to do all the processing of both audio and video. My second configuration used HDMI for video, this time with a different refresh rate, and the six-channel input for analog audio. For my last two options I set up the Oppo as a two-channel source with both single-ended and XLR connections, which allowed me to perform quick A/B comparisons, and to take advantage of the Anthem’s high-end A/D converters. These ADCs can digitize any analog input signal to rates of up to 96kHz, which in turn allows full utilization of all post-processing, EQ settings, bass management, Dolby Volume, and Anthem Room Correction (ARC) on any analog input you choose.
Still, there were a few things about the AVM 50v 3D that were not so endearing -- e.g., the antiquated OSD and menu. Reminiscent of an old Atari game console, the pyramidal menu is simplistic in its approach, and all too easy to get lost in -- almost every page looks like the one before it. Also disappointing was the remote control, which feels flimsy, and looks very like the one that came with my $300 cable box. It’s fully backlit, but the dark-blue illumination does little to make the tiny black labels readable. Finally, for all the digital inputs and outputs squeezed onto the color-coded rear panel, there was no USB input to be found.
Those gripes aside, the AVM 50v 3D looked to be a high-quality jack of all trades, and I greatly anticipated exploring two of its greatest attributes: ARC, and Anthem’s implementation of the Sigma Designs VXP video processor. If you’ve heard of Anthem, you’ve probably heard of ARC, which is widely considered one of the top room-correction softwares in the industry. Used to its full potential, ARC can measure up to seven channels, plus a subwoofer, at bit rates as high as 192kHz, for up to ten independent listening positions. The measurements are taken using the supplied software, a calibration microphone of very high quality, and a mike stand and cable, and can take up to an hour to complete, depending on how many speakers you have. With all the data recorded and crunched, ARC then applies corrections for crossover frequency, room gain, time alignment, as well as correcting for both room modes and anti-modes for each channel measured.
To help me understand ARC a bit better, I enlisted the help of Nick Platsis, Anthem’s product manager. He began by explaining that ARC uses a narrower Infinite Impulse Response (IIR) filter than most other room-correction softwares. (Most other EQ softwares are limited by the number of points they can accommodate.) This higher resolution allows for greater accuracy, and therefore lower noise during correction. In addition to these filters are custom limitation filters that work in the background to ensure that the correction curves don’t demand from your amplifiers anything they can’t handle. Platsis then mentioned that Anthem uses two DSP engines rather than one, due to the huge number of calculations per second required. Typically, the first engine acts as lead, performing common tasks such as decoding codecs. The second engine goes to work when ARC is applied to the most demanding situations, such as when DTS-HD MA or Dolby TrueHD are being decoded even as, simultaneously, Dolby Volume, bass management, and delay corrections are being performed. Furthermore, Anthem lets you store two separate ARC configurations, in case you want to use one for music and another for movies.
As impressed as I was with the engineering behind ARC, and the results (which I’ll get to shortly), I was equally beguiled by the AVM 50v 3D’s prowess with video. Anthem uses the latest-generation Sigma Designs VXP digital image processor to handle both deinterlacing and scaling of all incoming video signals (except 3D). In addition to using 12-bit processing, the VXP engine offers many user-adjustable features, such as mosquito-noise reduction, block-artifact noise reduction, detail enhancement, and gamma adjustment, all of which are accessed and adjusted through an easy-to-use OSD separate from the AVM 50v’s basic setup OSD.
When reviewing a two-channel preamplifier, one of the things I listen for is if the preamp itself adds or subtracts anything from the original recorded signal. What I hope to hear is the ideal: nothing added to or taken away from the sound of the recording. Reviewing a home-theater processor is a different story -- if I see low-level details, such as pores in someone’s skin, more clearly, or experience an explosion with a heightened sense of dynamism, both can add to the realism of the experience. Added realism is exactly what I was witness to during chapter 16 from Iron Man 2. In this chapter, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his military colleague, Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), are discussing an attack plan as drones begin landing all around them. The thud of each drone’s touchdown was presented with a sense of impact, solidity, and transient speed that I’m not used to hearing.
And the AVM 50v 3D’s video performance during this scene was simply stellar. As the camera pans around the atrium while the drones are landing, the motion is smooth and meticulous without even a hint of jaggedness. Gray-scale control was fantastic, revealing details in the shadowy background I hadn’t seen before: I could now see, in darker areas, where the grass ends and the bushes begin. I could count ripples in the water in the distant surrounding ponds, and could see individual leaves on the darker trees in the distant background.
In chapter 5 of Downey’s second Sherlock Holmes movie, A Game of Shadows, there’s a scene in which Dr. Watson (Jude Law) and his new bride (Kelly Reilly) have just settled into their first-class railway compartment. Through the AVM 50v 3D, it really grabbed my attention. Corduroy of pretty much any kind throws most processors into a frenzy, leaving the viewer with a jagged, blurred image anytime that piece of clothing moves. Here, however, the peak and valley of each groove in Mary Watson’s corduroy dress was maintained throughout her every movement. Equally impressive was the rendering, in chapter 10, of a round being loaded into and fired from "little Hansel," a German cannon. Each sound was perfectly placed in my room, from the gun being raised and the pin making contact with the round inside the chamber, to the round being fired, hurtling through several trees, and eventually exploding offscreen. Small details that I’m used to hearing -- such as the added shimmer of a rifle round being fired in slow motion, and the sound of cracked wood and earth hitting the ground after the explosion -- were slightly diminished, but the cohesiveness of the presentation was downright seductive. At one point I paused the film, went back to the beginning of the chapter, and listened to it again with my eyes closed.
I then turned off all of the Anthem’s post-codec processing, changed my JVC RS50u projector to 3D mode, and put in Tron: Legacy 3D. With its 7.1-channel DTS-MA soundtrack and outstanding 3D picture quality, this Blu-ray is a tour de force. Still, I didn’t expect to see any differences in picture quality from what I’m used to from my Classé SSP-800 A/V processor, and I didn’t, which indicated that Anthem’s bypass solution is just that. What I did see were clear, crisp, smooth 3D images with excellent color rendition and focus that popped off the screen when asked to.
But with the AVM 50v 3D set to simply apply ARC and pass along 7.1 audio, I began to notice a few welcome changes, particularly with actors’ voices. Consistently throughout the movie, voices sounded a little less integrated into the front soundstage, similar to what I’m used to through the Classé. Activating Dolby PLII Movie mode helped integrate the actors’ voices back into the center of the soundstage, but at the price of less detailed sound elsewhere. After some toggling back and forth, I reverted to using 7.1 direct. Now I could hear most of the microdetails I’m used to hearing with the Classé. This was particularly noticeable during a scene in chapter 5 of A Game of Shadows, as the memory disc smashes the glass under the players. The level of detail during the shattering of the glass sounded more like what I’m used to. As well, the audience and applause in all four surround speakers could now be heard with less effort, and the referee’s voice, coming from the entire front of the soundstage, now sounded bigger and more in the room.
Side by side
Comparing the AVM 50v 3D to my reference Classé SSP-800, I couldn’t help but wonder about the origins of the two processors. The Classé performs as if it were originally conceived as a two-channel preamp that was later modified to function as a home-theater preamplifier-processor. The Anthem exudes the exact opposite character, excelling with superior connectivity, flexibility, room correction, and benchmark video processing. My listening confirmed this observation -- the two processors were radically different in their approaches to the sounds of music and films. With music, whether in analog, analog DSP, or bypass mode, or fed a bitstream signal from my Oppo, the Anthem’s sound was slightly less polished, with less dynamic range, softer bass, a warmer midrange, and less detailed highs. The Classé sounded more neutral, with a delicate, airier, more detailed top end and better bass control. That said, AVM 50v 3D deserves to be commended for what it could achieve at a price $3000 lower than the Classé’s. One could easily use the AVM 50v 3D as a reference two-channel preamp.
With movies, and with ARC engaged, the Anthem greatly narrowed the performance gap, consistently treating me to a more coherent, 360-degree surround soundstage. The AVM 50v 3D allowed sounds to appear from everywhere around the room. With respect to video performance, there was no contest -- the Classé doesn’t process video signals, it merely switches them -- so I compared the AVM 50v 3D to my Oppo BDP-95, which includes Marvell’s very-well-respected Kyoto-G2 video processor and second-generation Qdeo technology. Until inserting the Anthem in my system, I’d thought the Oppo was about as good as it gets at video deinterlacing and scaling, but I was wrong. As good as the Oppo is, the Anthem was better, offering the best picture quality I’ve ever seen -- not only in my own room, but from any video-scaling device I’ve seen anywhere. Black levels were deeper, jaggies were further reduced, edges were crisper with both standard- and high-definition material, upscaled DVDs were as close to true HD as I’ve seen, and there was a notable increase in detail retrieval and overall sharpness.
It had been some time since I’d reviewed any home-theater gear, and I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I’d spent some time with Anthem’s new AVM 50v 3D A/V processor. Fully configured, it generated the best picture and the most holistic soundstage I’ve seen or heard in my room. The levels of performance, engineering, and outright value that Anthem offers for $6500 scream "Benchmark product!" I’m going to have a hard time reacclimating to my Classé-Oppo combo. Highly recommended!
. . . Aron Garrecht
- Speakers -- B&W 802 Diamond, B&W HTM2D, B&W CWM 7.4 (4)
- Subwoofers -- JL Audio Fathom f112 (2)
- Amplifiers -- Classé CA-M600 (2), Classé CA-M300, Halcro MC50
- Preamplifier-processors -- Classé SSP-800, Classé CP-800
- Sources -- Ayre Acoustics C5xeMP, Oppo BDP-95 universal players
- Cables -- Kimber Kable Select KS-6063 speaker cables, Kimber Kable Select 1126 interconnects, Synergistic Research Tesla T3 and Analysis Plus Oval 2 power cords, Analysis Plus digital link
- Power conditioner -- Synergistic Research Powercell 10 SE Mk.II
Anthem AVM 50v 3D Audio/Video Processor
Price: $6500 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
205 Annagem Blvd.
Mississauga, Ontario L5T 2V1
Phone: (905) 564-1994