AVM 30 Surround-Sound Processor
Gee, it seems like only yesterday
that I reviewed Anthems
AVM 20 v2.0, but a quick check of onhometheater.coms archives reveals that it
was almost exactly one year ago -- which is either almost the same thing or an eternity
ago, depending on whether you go by my befuddled sense of time or the average product life
of a high-end home-theater component.
A lot can happen in a year. In the past 12 months Ive
reviewed great components from companies that are no longer around (TAG McLaren), and
Ive discovered great products from companies that have been around forever but
Id never heard of before (T+A). Oh yeah, and Anthem has upgraded the AVM 20.
Usually, the way this works is that a company takes a
well-received and well-reviewed component, upgrades the software, makes a few cosmetic
changes, and increases the price to adjust for "current market conditions." But
I dont think Anthem has read the Rapacious A/V Retailers Handbook,
because the AVM 30 looks better and has more capabilities than the model it replaces
-- oh yeah, and it costs more than 10% less.
"Bad form!" the other high-end A/V companies may
scream -- but the rest of us will be shoutin "Right on!"
Even Alan Greenspan would have to approve.
The sublime and the ridiculous are often so nearly
related, that it is difficult to class them separately
The AVM 30 is big. It has to be -- it sports
one of the most completely packed rear panels Ive ever seen in an A/V preamp, which
is a reflection of its comprehensive list of control options. And lets start there:
Telling you what you can connect to the AVM 30 will go a long way toward telling you
all it can do.
The Anthem AVM 30 is an impressive video switcher,
allowing you to connect seven S-video and composite-video inputs. It also handles four
sets of component-video ins and a pair of component outs. It has S-video and composite
main outputs, two composite and S-video recording outputs, and two sets of remote-zone
The AVM 30 has seven S/PDIF inputs, three TosLink
inputs, and one AES/EBU input. It also sports seven pairs of single-ended analog stereo
inputs, as well as a pair of balanced XLR analog inputs -- which doesnt count the
six-channel single-ended audio inputs. There are also complete analog multichannel outputs
in SE and balanced -- as well as analog and digital recording outputs. Add relay triggers,
RS-232 input, DC triggers, antenna inputs for the tuner, and a most intriguing blank space
silk-screened "IEEE Interface," and you have a very stuffed rear layout.
So the AVM 30 is a multizone, video-switching,
surround-sound processor, tuner, DAC, and -- we havent discussed this because
its on the front panel -- headphone amp. And its upgradeable -- Anthem has
already thought about the next step, which includes IEEE input, HDMI switching, and video
transcoding scaling up to 1080p (upgrade available toward the end of the year).
The AVM 30 uses Anthems own digital signal
processing (DSP), which runs on the Motorola 56367 chip. It offers a comprehensive package
of surround options, including the companys own Anthem-Logic Music multichannel
playback and Anthem-Logic Cinema. It also gives you Dolby Pro Logic II, Dolby Digital
Surround EX, DTS Neo:6, DTS-ES Matrix, DTS-ES Discrete, and THX Ultra2/THX Surround EX
(with four optional modes). At the moment, it doesnt feature Dolby Pro Logic IIx,
but an insert in the owners manual promises that DPL IIx software will soon be
available as a free download.
Downloadable software upgrades are an important part of
Anthems strategy of keeping the AVM 30 current. Anthem takes this aspect of
customer service very seriously: The AVM 20 has had three major upgrades so far, and will
continue to accept future upgrades to stay competitive.
Under the hood, the
AVM 30 has 1Mbit of motherboard memory -- twice as much as the 20 -- allowing it to
store more code, and permitting better number crunching for future software upgrades. It
also sports a microprocessor with twice the clock speed of the 20s. This, Anthem
claims, means "significantly faster response from the front-panel controls, as well
as from the units remote control." Yeah, as if the AVM 20 was responsible for
remote-control delays -- usually, they were caused by my inability to remember which
button did what.
The front panel is better-looking than the AVM 20s --
it features better anodization and a softer, brushed-aluminum facade. The display is a
blue fluorescent jobbie, which, to my mind at least, is nicer to look at in a dark theater
than the 20s green LCD (although the LCD was more sharply focused).
The remote is a monster, but its well laid out, and
its programmable and a learning remote. Its not sexy enough to go on
the cover of a magazine, but it does what its supposed to do, its big enough
to allow Ol Sausage-Fingers (that would be me) to hit the right controls, and
its heavy enough to survive the cat-town races that seem to take place in the home
theater after Ive retired for the evening. And really, thats all I ask of a
remote -- it is just a remote, after all. Does it have to be cover-girl sexy, too?
All this for $2999 USD.
Class isnt something you buy
The AVM 30 was extremely easy to set up. Part of this
is because Anthem has included an unusually flexible version of the THX Audio Setup
software that Ive never seen in another HT processor, and that I assume has been
customized by Anthems engineers. It not only allowed me to fine-tune the
rear-speaker delay in 7.1-channel playback, it also let me specify the degree of room
reverberation present for subwoofer fine-tuning -- a touch that ought to be
standard and isnt. Theres also a Boundary Gain Compensation menu to improve
bass balance in boomy rooms.
And while Im passing out setup kudos, I should
mention that the AVM 30s 77-page manual is complete, well-written, and
inclusive. This is what a product manual for a $3000 component really oughta be. Darn few
products, even ones costing three times as much, have a manual as good.
I didnt use the AVM 30s multiroom
capabilities, but they appear to be extremely straightforward, based on the manual. The 30
can control four separate systems -- any source can play in any of four paths. (You need
to use the Record path and an outside preamp to get four systems up and running, but it is
The AVM 30 lets you watch a video source while
listening to an audio source in a different room, or run two different 7.1 HT systems
simultaneously. Ive already begun planning how I can use this flexibility in the
coming weeks, and Im surprised that its never before occurred to me how much
of a necessity this sort of flexibility actually is. Its not as though I
never wanted to listen to music in my office while my wife watched The BBC News
Hour in the theater room -- only that I assumed I had to have different rigs to do it.
I did use the Anthem in my current reference rig: five
Musical Fidelity M250 monoblocks, Krell DVD Standard DVD player, McCormack UDP-1 universal
audio/video player, SIM2 HT200 DMF projector, Paradigm Reference Seismic 12 subwoofer,
Magnepan MMG W/MGM C speaker system (with a pair of Axiom QS8s for the rear channels in
The mass follows class
If I make a big deal of the AVM 30s setup
capabilities, its because I find myself adjusting to a new, dedicated home theater,
which means I dont have a few years of experience dealing with the rooms sonic
quirks. As a result, I was extremely grateful for all the help the 30 gave me. I needed it
-- especially the boundary compensation.
However, the AVM 30 got me up and running in my new
room PDQ, and I had a ball checking out all the DVDs that had piled up during the
transition to the new HT room. Don Coscarellis over-the-top Elvis/JFK monster movie,
Bubba Ho-Tep, was at the top of the pile. Who could resist Bruce Campbell as the
aging Elvis? Not me!
And darned if the AVM 30 didnt reveal Bubba
Ho-Tep to have an extremely convincing surround soundtrack. I wasnt expecting
much in the way of aural presentation or video resolution, but if the movie skimps on
anything, its special effects, not video quality (first-rate, with deep blacks and
sharp details) or audio quality (very immersive and sonically specific). And, given the
deliberate cheesiness of the plot, making Bubba Ho-Tep so obviously a guy in a rubber suit
makes a strange sort of sense -- or, at least, took me out of BH-Ts fantasy
less than a flatter soundtrack would have.
I was also eager to see The Butterfly Effect,
another film that was less than well-reviewed, but that had so arresting a trailer that I
moved it onto my shortlist for rental upon its DVD release. Call me a lowbrow, but I found
it fascinating -- not perfect, but jammed with more ideas than I anticipated experiencing
in a movie so universally dismissed. Plus, the DTS-ES soundtrack is brilliant.
Theres stuff happening all the time -- not the too-busy-all-the-time overload of bad
Foley, but really subtle effects. Well, most of the time; there are some real
corking effects, too.
With The Butterfly Effect, by the way, I was able to
get a handle on the AVM 30s video resolution, which clearly revealed an overlay
of grit on the transfer. This has been widely discussed on the Web -- opinion is divided
as to whether its a poor transfer or an artistic decision -- but the 30 didnt
pretty it up and smooth it over. It revealed what was on the disc.
By the way, TBEs trailer was a fantastic demo
for the bass-management success of the AVM 30. In the course of its 120 seconds, it
seems to hit every major thump and boom in the entire film. I expect to see/hear it a lot
at the next hi-fi extravaganza.
Big Fish proved to be another sleeper. It
didnt get great reviews, but word of mouth from people I respected made me think it
might have promise. Wow! It was about as charming a fantasy as I could have asked for --
and, Tim Burton being a perfectionist when it comes to the look and feel of his films, it
was a visual and aural masterpiece. The video quality was exceptional, and the audio --
well, it was short on the big bangs and giant thuds that so many spectaculars rely on, but
all of the channels were cooking most of the time. I was transported out of my reality and
into Tim Burtons (and thats a trip indeed).
Like the AVM 20 before it, the AVM 30s
home-theater operation brings hi-rez performance to cineastes without bottomless pockets.
Use the Anthem for a while and youll start to think you deserve the same level of
perfection as a rich guy. Call me a wild-eyed radical, but maybe you do.
Well, even if I dont deserve it, it was sure
easy to get used to it.
Ill go through life either first class or third,
but never in second
When I was all watched out, I used the McCormack
UDP-1s multichannel analog outputs to check out some of the multichannel Telarc
SACDs that have been piling up in my to-play pile.
Jennifer Higdons Cityscape [Telarc SACD-60621]
proved even more vivid in surround. Well, the two-channel tracks of this hybrid disc are
pretty dang lively, but the multichannel mix is fuller (as it should be) and solid as a
rock (ditto). The second movement, river sings a song to trees, shimmers and flows
with as much beauty and grace as any nature music Ive heard -- and yes, that
includes Ludwig and Gustav. Did the AVM 30 make a convincing argument for music
surround? I reckon so.
Then there was Michael Murrays organ recital, The
Organ at St. Sulpice, Paris [Telarc SACD-60516].
Oh. My. Goodness. Music of Widor, Dupré, and Franck,
recorded in a reverberant chapel -- have I convinced you yet? Lets just say that
Ive never heard a stereo recording of organ that puts me in the true acoustic of
that instrument as convincingly as this one does. Think about it -- an organs sound,
more than that of just about any other instrument, is dependent on the space in which it
exists. You can play a trombone or piano or orchestra just about anywhere, but once you
build an organ, it pretty much stays where you put it -- and where it stays is as much a
part of its sound as the instrument itself. The organ in St. Sulpice is one heck of an
instrument -- and St. Sulpice is one heck of a space.
Did I say wow? The AVM 30 revealed the chapel
to be a vast space capable of supporting shudderingly deep bass and power. I may never be
able to listen to organ music in two channels again.
Yeah, the AVM 30 is one heck of a music preamplifier.
Always have class and be humble
Actually, Anthems AVM 30 is one heck of a
preamplifier-processor, too. It did everything it does really, really well. Period.
Is it the equal of the really expensive A/V pre-pros
Ive reviewed? Well, it lacks some of the flexibility and cutting-edge processing
power of the $7999 TAG McLaren AV32R DP 7.1 processor I reviewed last January, but I have
to say that, in most day-to-day use, the functional difference was minimal. (I also have
to confess that the TAG McLarens thin, sexy shape meant that its display was almost
unreadable from my usual seat across the room. The bulkier AVM 30s is a lot
easier on my aging eyes.) And, like the far more expensive AV32R DP, the AVM 30 is
supported with software upgrades and superb customer service.
The AVM 30 is intuitive and simple to use, and packed
with features I actually use. Maybe thats not important to everyone, but I
found that it added substantially to my enjoyment of my A/V system. After all, expensive,
cutting-edge A/V processors dont usually have such thoughtful touches as a working
headphone jack that will coax good sound out of my Sennheiser HD 650s -- and the
"modest" AVM 30 does.
And as for its audio and video performance, the AVM 30
is good. No, better than good -- darn near impeccable.
Of course, we ought to get that for $2999. What the
Anthem offers that a lot of expensive, complex A/V preamps dont is ease of use and
thoughtful operation that make the home-theater experience the pleasure it ought to be.
And that puts it at the head of its class.
Anthem AVM 30 Surround-Sound
Price: $2999 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Anthem/Sonic Frontiers International
205 Annagem Blvd.
Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
Phone: (905) 362-0958
Fax: (905) 564-4642