Most AV enthusiasts buy receivers these days but, for those who want more of everything, a separate audio processor and multi-channel power amplifier is usually the preferred solution. There’s a lot of convergence with receivers now, most of which have HD decoding, surround processing, video processing, GUI interfaces and a sackful of channels. Audio processors are rather different, and there are few manufacturers who offer high-quality processors with the sort of feature-set that was considered essential for receivers two generations ago.
Anthem is an exception to this generalisation and has been keeping on top of the game for a while. I’ve been looking forwards to listening to the Anthem D2v / A5 combo for a few years, so I was pleased to see Tom Garrett on my doorstep recently with a couple of large, heavy, boxes. Tom is the product specialist for Anthem in the UK, and I was pleased that he also spent some time to show me round the D2v processor and A5 power amp, which nobody should be left alone with initially.
Anthem have had proven audio processors for some time, including the high-end D1, then added HDMI inputs and video processing functionality for the D2 version. This additional functionality was available as a modular upgrade to D1 owners, which demonstrates much better support to their customers than many well-known competitors. Rather than throw in a low-cost processing solution. like many receivers, Anthem went for the Sigma Designs (was Gennum) VXP processor, which was used in the respected Crystalio 2, and subsequently the Lumagen Radiance. There’s no better credibility than that, and this is an effective and worthwhile implementation.
More recently, Anthem has launched Anthem Room Correction (ARC). Though that might be confused for Audio Return Channel or Audio Rate Control, it’s not just another off-the-shelf room correction facility. It was developed by Anthem themselves, based on research performed by the Canadian National Research Council under the supervision of no less than Floyd Toole, and is rather different to everyone else’s systems….
I generally describe receivers as a jack-of-all-trades, but Anthem is on a mission to provide all the functionality you get on the latest receivers – and much more – but without suffering the compromises you get when one box does everything. Of course, receivers sell in relatively large numbers, and benefit from economies of scale. Audio processors generally don’t have this luxury, and if you want both top-drawer performance and a full set of features, you’re going to have to pay for the privilege.
If you accept that power amplifiers don’t have many features, except in this case the choice of both RCA and XLR inputs and a healthy 5 x 180W output, then I’ll concentrate on what the processor does. It’s a full-function, three-zone, high definition, multi-channel audio/video processor that caters particularly well for system integration and home automation.
It’s probably easier to describe what it doesn’t do, rather than what it does. Well, ARC works on audio signals up to 96kHz sampling rate, not 192kHz, and the multi-channel analogue audio pass-through is 5.1 channel, not 7.1, but then its only intended for DVD-A or SACD sources that don’t have HDMI outputs. If you want to use a media player, then you’ll have to get a media player, and there’s no support for 3D video, although I’ll come back to that later.
Many receivers have peculiar limitations in the combinations of input and output video interfaces and formats that can be supported, which the manufacturers manage to keep quiet about. Not the Anthem, that does whatever you want with the main output (though not the zone outputs, which are switched but not converted). I couldn’t think of anything else. If you wrote down your wish list of features for an AV processor on a blank sheet of paper, you would get something pretty close to the D2v.
The A5 power amp accepts both RCA and XLR inputs, and has robust and versatile speaker binding posts. It’s a big, heavy, monolithic brute, and looks the part The processor, on the other hand, takes a bit longer to summarise. Basically, it has all the legacy stereo and multi-channel analogue and digital audio and video inputs that you would expect, plus the capability to deal with current high resolution audio and video sources.
There are some noteworthy interfaces worth mentioning. Audio outputs are both balanced and single-ended, and there’s a balanced stereo input and an AES-EBU digital input. There are eight HDMI inputs and two outputs, and seven stereo, spdif, and composite & s-video video inputs, which is more than I have come across before. You can even have balanced audio and component video outputs for zone two.
I assume the HDMI connections are version 1.3 (they carry bitstream HD audio plus deep colour video) but there’s no reference to this in any Anthem literature that I could find, which is a breath of fresh air. At a time when receivers are desperately clawing over every meaningless marketing feature, as a means to distinguish themselves, it’s good to see a manufacturer concentrate instead on the functionality itself.
192kHz/24-bit DACs are commonplace now, and the D2v up-samples and over-samples everything to 192/24 where necessary, but the input ADCs are 192/24 spec as well, which still isn’t so common. The D2v has multiple triggers, timers and IR receivers and emitters to support custom installs and home automation. There are a lot of logos and buttons on the busy front panel, and there are good reasons for that.
This is where it gets complicated, and the route followed by the D2v starts to diverge from the wish-list. With familiarity, you can do a lot of the set-up from the front panel, but the remote control and (HDMI) on-screen display is usually the best way. You, or your installer, will also need to use a laptop to do the job properly, and I would emphasise the word “your installer”. The combination of the user interface, remote control and owner’s manual are sufficient for an enthusiastic owner to do what’s needed but, judging by the speed that Tom Garrett flew round the menus, I think there would be a lot to gain by having someone experienced to set this up. The on-screen display is something from the DOS age in a Windows World, and there are no soft-keys or touch-screens to be seen on the modest-looking 57 hard-button remote. I expect an Anthem owner is likely to use something rather better anyway.
You could say that configuring the Anthem is less important than using and listening to it. You don’t do it often, and once it’s done, it’s done. Having lots of equipment pass through my hands, I don’t quite see things this way: setting up amps and processors takes longer than listening to them, and it’s usually a new process every time. This is an area where the latest receivers have moved ahead of Anthem (though it is probably the only area…). Flexibility undoubtedly brings complexity, and you need to tell the D2v what the configuration of your system is. It won’t work it out for itself, and if you get it wrong, the set-up fails, and you have to start again.
Connecting the inputs and outputs is conventional enough, but then the D2v shows its serious video processor credentials by offering four video output configurations. These configure the resolution, refresh rate, colour space, colour format, colour depth, aspect ratio and secondary video outputs. There’s pretty good guidance about how to configure your system for best results. There’s some thing about user manuals that are written in native language, rather than translated, that eludes most receiver manufacturers.
There are also two speaker configurations, movie and music, that can be optimised for different sources. Speaker management is conventional enough, though you do have to measure and set the distances yourself. The advanced option allows you to set different cross-over frequencies for the main and subs, which allows some additional equalisation, and there is a manual notch filter that allows you to kill a dominant room mode without having to resort to room correction. There is also the option for using two subs.
Configuring the inputs is conventional enough, so video and audio sources have to be assigned to each input, with the addition of assigning the video output format and audio format that you want to use for each source. Then you set names, levels, volumes, timers, triggers, displays and surround processing modes (although as usual, I would avoid them). At this point, you save user or installer settings, and there’s an option to apply password protection. That’s a good idea, as there are plenty of opportunities to make serious mistakes, and you will at least need a strong cup of tea by now.
This is where Anthem takes a different road to everyone else. Anthem Room Correction (ARC) is a proprietary system that’s also available on the cheaper AVM 50 processor, and now the MRX 3/5/700 receivers. Anthem claims that it uses a microphone to analyse the effects of the room, in multiple positions, on each speaker individually, them computes the required correction to each speaker. Nothing very original about that, but the method and the results are different.
Instead of a ‘Christmas cracker’ microphone that plugs directly into the receiver, there’s an expensive, calibrated microphone with a heavy telescopic stand and a calibration file that ARC will expect you to use. The mike also plugs into a USB socket on a PC, on which you have to run ARC, and the PC connects to the processor with a serial cable. How many laptops have those, these days? The room measurements and corrections are performed by the PC, and the necessary filters are loaded onto the processor when all is finished.
ARC doesn’t detect what speakers you have connected, or work out how far away they are – you have to do that, as I mentioned before. It doesn’t try to give you a flat response across the full bandwidth either. ARC figures that you can’t make any worthwhile correction to high frequency, short wavelength, sounds above 5kHz, so it doesn’t try to. It also assumes that you will expect to hear room gain in the bass, so it generates its own house curve for the target. ARC also goes a long way to levelling the averaged room curve, rather than just minimising the worst of the room peaks like some systems do.
It’s an ambitious system, and takes a while to run. It runs on a PC, and has a lot more flexibility and interaction than most. There are automated and manual measurement schemes, and you can tailor the room curve to suit if you wish. You can measure and record the averaged room responses, and save them to disc, so with one laptop it’s possible to characterise and compare a wide range of different rooms and systems (which is very interesting indeed!). Tom also gave me a beta version of ARC software V3.0, which has the novel facility to analyse speakers in real time. You can move speakers, the sub and the mike around the room, and watch how the response varies in near real-time. This was enormous fun, and very helpful for finding the best positions to avoid the worst suck-outs.
Naturally, I was shocked to see how badly my room measured, with a profile that the Pyrenees would be proud of. ARC plots a detailed graph of the measured response for each speaker, superimposes a target curve, and then adds a predicted curve to show what you can expect.
Although I’ve tried various companies’ room correction systems now, I find myself rather sceptical of their benefit. I’m pretty sold on automatic, multi-filter, parametric equalisation for subwoofers, as this is where most of the damage seems to be done. As an audio purist, I’m not keen on any additional processing that gets in the way between source and listener, and think it may take away more than it adds. It’s trading transparency for colouration. Popular implementations of low-budget systems like Audessy 2EQ really don’t benefit the system, apart from helping a novice user to set it up.
Anthem ARC is a completely different kettle of fish, and really shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as inferior systems. It’s the first room correction system that I found really effective, and has begun to change my mind about the benefit of such systems. It’s a closer realisation of in-room tonal neutrality, and promotes the suspension of disbelief by helping you forget that you’re in your room, rather than transported to wherever the producer was trying to take you.
I usually begin by assessing AV amplifiers for stereo music performance. These are the easiest to set-up and get going, and, more importantly, this is where the differences between products tend to show up most. Especially with Blu-ray sources, modern AV electronics perform to a consistent standard. CDs, by contrast, tend to have higher standards to achieve and less raw material to work on, and tend to trip up most AV equipment.
I believe that Anthem made special efforts with music performance with the D2v, over and above the baseline audio functionality achieved with the AVM 50. The results varied depending on the source used, and on the connection used. I believe many people use BD players and DVD players to play CDs, and these are often connected with HDMI cables. This all works fine with DVD and Blu-ray, but I believe it’s the worst possible scenario for CD, with its lower bit rates and high susceptibility to jitter. Anthem claim good jitter rejection from their HDMI implementation, but I’ve read this a few times now, and remain sceptical.
Using a Denon A1UDCI universal player, which is a good source of digital audio, I thought the D2v sounded reasonably good. It had a large-scale, authoritative sound, with good confidence and projection. It was no shrinking violet, as the Denon tends to be, but wasn’t very refined or insightful. On a superficial level it sounded great, getting the bones of the music right, but it never quite put you there. There was always a modest layer of muddle and defocusing to fine detail and to the soundstage. Switching to a cheap LG player, things got worse, with less definition and a flatter soundstage. The degradation wasn’t as bad as I’ve heard with lesser processors, so the Anthem was still doing something right. Nonetheless, the D2v still sounded rather better when using an SPDIF connection instead. This is often the case, and I rather liked the results. It dug deeper into the music, and sounded more natural and more musical. It was good performance, although perhaps not quite as good as the entry fee demanded.
Things really took a turn for the better when I tried the analogue inputs. I was using a much-modified NuForce Oppo BDP-83SE when I had the Anthems, and this had very good-sounding analogue outputs. I often find that AV receivers and processors can sound best when the player is doing the D to A conversion, as long as they have a good-quality analogue pass-through. The D2v does have a good pass-through. There’s a 5.1 RCA multi-channel input, and a stereo input with XLRs. The latter, in particular, sounded very good, and I spent many happy hours forgetting about reviewing and just playing music. The sound was transparent and uncoloured, with a big envelope and deep soundstage. There was a very slight veiling and loss of focus, but for a fully featured AV processor, it sounded very good indeed. Of course, the overall results then depend on the player, but CD players tend to have a good performance to cost ratio compared with multi-channel gear, and the Anthems would make the most of a decent player.
Most of my focus was on the processor, as this is the most complex and difficult to evaluate, and also where things tend to go wrong. Power amplifiers have less variation, as long as you’re not asking too much of them with difficult speakers. Listening to the Anthem A5 in isolation, I thought it was one the better multi-channel power amps that I’ve heard in the last year, though not quite the best. It reminded me of the Arcam P7, which is praise in my book, although with rather more get-up-and-go. It had a good combination of dynamics and subtlety for movie soundtracks, but I thought it was particularly successful with music, with an energetic pace and some enthusiasm, which I wasn’t quite expecting. It was also well up to driving difficult speakers like my Final 700’s. However, my CinePro 3k6 has beaten all-comers, and the A5 didn’t change that. Strong and deep though the A5’s bass was, it still sounded slightly rubbery and not quite fully defined (not that the CinePro is perfect in that area) and didn’t maintain the last word in resolution. If you wanted to get the D2v, then the A5 would be a logical partner, although the converse is not necessarily true. I don’t think many people would firstly choose the A5, then decide to pair it with the D2v. I thought the A5 justified its price, and for those that want more, there’s always the 130lb, 5 x 325W, Anthem Statement P5, with individual transformers for each channel (instead of two shared between five) and the ability to drive silly loads. Very silly loads.
While the D2v did enough with stereo replay to show that multi-channel equipment doesn’t have to sound poor with music, the D2v and A5 came into their own with films and multi-channel replay. First of all, I would like to add TV and DVD to the Anthems list of strengths. Many recent receivers seem to be optimised for Blu-ray sources, and sound compromised with anything else, but the Anthems make everything look and sound good. Firstly, they are able to make the most of decent standard definition digital audio sources, which most receivers don’t come close to achieving. Most of us watch a fair bit of TV, and there’s a goldmine of sound quality on the mainstream channels that many people have never heard. Ironically, many SD channels broadcast 1536kbps audio, and sound distinctly better than the HD channels (conserving bit-rate, I suppose). The Anthem is able to bring even boring things like the news and commercials into your living room. The same applies to most DVDs, though to a lesser extent. Once you get used to better things, the transparency of the replay chain does highlight the limitations of the bottleneck in the media, without making it sound worse than it has to. My feeling is that AV amps ought to get SD audio right before they get all ambitious and shoot for HD audio, and the Anthems certainly do this.
Of course what makes it exciting and worthwhile is what you get from Blu-ray (and to a lesser extent, SACD, DVD-A or HD-DVD, for those like me who still have significant collections). The original D2 processor had four HDMI V1.1 inputs that allowed decoded LPCM audio to be processed and converted. The current D2v benefits from HD decoding, and I for one am pleased about that. I have a couple of high quality surround amplifiers that only accept LPCM audio, not HD bitstreams, and my feeling is that the D2v sounds better when the player outputs bitstream rather than LPCM. This is what I thought when I first tried bitstreaming on an Onkyo SC886 nearly a couple of years ago, and I’m still unable to hear the difference between bitstreaming Blu-ray players, which is a good thing in my humble opinion. When I set my Denon to output LPCM, it still sounds very good, but is distinctly better than the LG. Naturally, with bitstream, you lose secondary audio, which matters if you want director’s commentaries and the like, but as far as those irritating menu beeps are concerned, I think its all win-win.
As far as Blu-ray playback is concerned, the Anthems broadly tick all the boxes I’m looking for. Firstly, I want amplifiers to be both transparent and neutral, meaning that they don’t take anything away from the original signal, and that they don’t add anything of their own. These omissions and additions don’t have to be frequency-related, or in the tonal domain. I want an amplifier to maintain its fidelity in the tonal, temporal, dynamic and spatial domains, while demonstrating a large envelope in each. Cheap amplifiers tend to have smaller envelopes of performance, but they can still have a good balance of attributes. Expensive amplifiers can demonstrate large dynamic and frequency ranges, a clear and spacious soundstage, and respond to transients while maintaining the long-term picture. But some amplifiers are good at one or two of these capabilities, and this can make them seem superior to others with strengths elsewhere. The Anthems have a balanced spread of qualities, which tends to lead to long-term satisfaction, rather than a short-term knockout. Its not to difficult to find amplifiers (perhaps cheaper amplifiers) that are better in a specific area, but the Anthems do all of them well. They bring scale and presence to a scene, yet reproduce atmosphere and tension where appropriate. They will certainly do crash-bang-wallop, when required, while allowing dialogue to remain clear, and make the most of the often well-recorded and produced music tracks on many films that tend to get overlooked with much AV equipment.
I had a Meridian G68 during the review period, and this made an interesting comparison. The Meridian sounded a bit bigger, and better resolved, with music playback from a digital audio source, and had better dynamic neutrality. That is, it was able to fully convey detail resolution and dynamic contrasts, yet avoid harshness and exaggeration of detail. Meanwhile the Anthems are more convincing with movies, and surprisingly, with analogue sources. The D2v also had more effective room correction.
The ADA Suite 7.1HD is an obvious competitor, and on the two occasions I heard it (not at home) it seemed to have still more transparency, better tonal neutrality with more accurate bass, better resolution, and a broader soundstage with movies. The Anthem countered with a broader spread of capabilities, including very good analogue pass-through; its easier on the ear, and has more natural music replay.
In the US, the Anthem D2v is often compared to the Denon AVP-A1HD. They both have full feature-sets, good video processing and good build quality, but that’s where the comparison ends for me. I’ve heard the big Denon for extended periods on a few occasions and, to my mind, the Anthem is clearly superior. The Denon does have the theoretical advantage of Denon Link 4, and I think this represents a chink in the Anthem’s armour. DL4 is proprietary, and no-one uses it but Denon, but HDMI V1.3 has an optional feature (Audio Rate Control) that achieves much the same thing, and I’d like to see Anthem use that. Ironically, while DL4 neatly side-steps the problem of jitter from the player, the AVP-A1HD appears to add more jitter than the DVD-A1UD would have added to its analogue outputs anyway. And it’s the stereo analogue pass-through that is the D2v’s crowning glory.
During this review, I happened to have a number of very good video processors to compare at the same time. I had a Denon DVP-602, DVDO VP50 and Lumagen Radiance XS, and this made for some unfair but interesting comparisons. I used Digital Video Essentials DVD and Spears and Munsil Blu-ray test discs to run through these processors, plus some more close-to-home material, like the BBC weather forecast map. I’m a fan of HQV Realta processing, in general, but the DVP-602 didn’t seem to have much advantage over the Anthem as far as I could see. The VP50 benefitted from progressive re-interlacing, which helped with SkyHD de-interlacing, but then I’m not a great fan of DVDO scaling, which makes the picture look busier than it should be. I think everyone knows the Radiance is the best VP in the business, but the margin of superiority over the D2v’s implementation of the Gennum processor would be difficult to justify if you were thinking of a separate processor. The Radiance has slightly better control and flexibility, but the Anthem is still very good here, and would make a good case for itself, just as a video processor.
- Comprehensive and versatile processing capabilities
- Extensive interface set
- Very good audio quality
- Superb room correction
- Good compatibility with wide range of sources and speakers
- Excellent video processing
- Very suitable for custom installation
- Excellent manufacturer support
- Good future-proofing assured
- High price
- Busy front panel
- Complex to set-up
- No networking capability
- Dependant on good sources for best performance
Anthem D2V Processor and A5 Amplifier Review
It’s difficult to find any negative comments about the Anthem D2v and A5 anywhere, but I’ve read all that before, and I believe the proof is in the listening. So I put aside my preconceptions for this review, and they wouldn’t necessarily have been very positive.
Unlike some competitors, Anthem is particularly ambitious, and tries to hit every bulls-eye on the wish-list. This makes them expensive compared to some other solutions, and the value proposition is difficult to assess. If you look at some individual elements of the overall capability, you could say that it’s possible to achieve better performance for less money elsewhere. For example, Meridian makes processors with better music performance, and ADA with better movie performance. Lumagen make better video processors, and Lexicon do better surround processing modes. However, the Anthem’s short-falls, against the state-of-the-art in each aspect, is not great. The result when viewed overall is remarkably good, and there are lots of good options for the owner.
If the D2v is too expensive, then there’s always the cheaper AVM 50 processor, which has most of the D2v’s functionality. If the A5 power amp isn’t quite up to driving some killer speakers, then wheel out the P5. Or add a P2 if you want 7 channels. If you want better music performance, get a high quality stand-alone player, and the D2v will make good use of it. It’s hard to imagine anyone being dissatisfied with the video processing and room correction but, even then, there’s lots of tuning available to the demanding user.
I mentioned at the beginning that Anthem have a track record of supporting their customers with worthwhile upgrades, and I understand that Anthem will be introduce an HDMI V1.4 module to bring 3D video capability to the D2v. This new module will replace four of the existing eight HDMI inputs with V1.4 inputs, and add V1.4 capability to the output. This upgrade should be available in the New Year, and illustrates Anthem’s commitment to supporting their customers and keeping on top of AV developments. Very impressive.
In summary, while the D2v and A5 don’t succeed in being better at everything than everything else, I think they get closer than anyone else. That’s all I wanted to say.
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