Receivers

Anthem AVM50v Audio/Video Processor

ARTICLE INDEX
Anthem AVM50v Audio/Video Processor


Introduction

Secrets has a rich heritage covering the Anthem brand of surround sound processors.

It started way back in 2001 when I reported to you on the exquisite AVM20, which to this day for various reasons still represents to me a watershed. Two years later came the "V2" upgrade for the AVM20 wherein we swapped out the processor board for a more powerful one, opening up the then much enthused about Pro Logic II, upgrading the THX suite to Ultra2, and adding more bass management options. The following year Sandy covered the V.2.1 software upgrade with its increased setup granularity, much expanded bass management including the then novel "notch filter" for the subwoofer (a single-band parametric eq), and an expanded tool set for custom installers. In 2004 I brought you our report on the phenomenal D1 processor which launched Anthem's Statement line, featuring "full time" audio up sampling and an analogue output which put virtually every thing out there to shame. Two years later Kris Deering covered the D2, essentially a D1 with HDMI and an extensive Gennum video processor.

Specifications

  • Codecs: Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic IIx, DTS HD Master Audio, DTS, DTS ES, DTS 96/24, DTS Neo:6
  • Sigma Designs VXP™ Image Processor
  • True Inverse Telecine and Motion Adaptive 1080i De-interlacing
  • 8 HDMI (v1.3c) inputs, 2 HDMI Outputs
  • Video Transco ding to HDMI from S-Video and Component Video
  • Video Up scaling for Analog and Digital Video streams
  • Anthem Room Correction
  • THX Ultra2 Certified
  • 3 Zone/4 Path Operation
  • RS-232 Port, 3 Triggers
  • Dimensions: 5.9" H x 17.25" W x 14.25" D
  • Weight: 31 Pounds
  • MSRP: $5499 USA ($5899 Canada)
  • Anthem AV

Round about that time the AVM20 was renamed the AVM30 (which included any and all updates to that point) and two new models were put on the table: the AVM40 which added HDMI (but no video processor) and the AVM50 which boasted the same video processor as the D2. We didn't report on any of these because all facets were covered in our other reviews.

Then just last year I reviewed the addition of "ARC", or Anthem Room Correction, to the D2, this being Anthem's version of room correction/compensation processing, and of course it, in many people's eye, trumped everything else out there.

Today Anthem's line has been consolidated somewhat in that it now consists of the original AVM50, the AVM50v, and the Statement D2v. It's that little "v" that's got us writing about Anthem processors again.

Specifically, what's new is an expanded HDMI set including HD audio decoding, a further refined video processor, and ARC comes standard (it is still an optional extra for the plain AVM50).


Design

Anthem AVM50v Audio/Video Processor

Almost nothing has changed on the back panel. Seven conventional analog stereo inputs are each augmented with coax digital audio, composite video, and S-Video. Two have complete sets of analog audio and video outputs to feed the record lines on those components. There are three Toslink (optical) digital inputs and one Professional AES/EBU digital input, all of which can be assigned to any of the previously mentioned seven basic inputs. There is a dedicated two-channel balanced input and a six-channel (5.1) single ended analog input. A quartet of component video inputs can be assigned to any audio line. In terms of HDMI we find the one change: we now have a total of eight, yes eight, HDMI inputs, plus two, count 'em, two HDMI outputs.

Of course we still have the complete 7.1 audio output in both single ended and balanced formats. Both still include two jacks for the center and subwoofer (10 outputs per set total). Stereo audio, composite, and S-Video outputs are provided for Zone 2, Zone 3, and the Rec Path, while a pair of coax digital audio outputs is also available. Two component video outs are there as well. Despite the abundance of jacks, and the fact that at first glance it looks overwhelming, Anthem has kept the concept which has worked so well for them thus far: All inputs are on a black background, while outputs are all on a white background. It's just a pity the industry at large has all but abandoned the THX standard for color coding of multichannel jacks.

The DVD and TV inputs can each have up to four pseudo inputs, the SAT input up to two (selected by repeat presses of the corresponding input). Pseudo inputs are basically "alternate setups" for the input in question. This is useful if for example you have DVD1 setup to use clean video processing, and DVD2 setup to employ a lot of noise reduction or detail enhancement. Then you just select inputs to chose whether the one real source gets the extra processing applied or not.

Custom Installers will continue to enjoy no less than three 12V trigger outputs (1/8" jacks), two infrared outputs (also 1/8" jacks), and a 12V terminal strip to power such things as IR receivers. A DB-9 RS-232 serial port of course now serves not only as a vein for the AVM50v to communicate with whole home systems, but is integral to the now included ARC system we'll take a refresher on in a moment.

Antenna terminals are still hanging in there for the built-in AM/FM tuner.

There are four independent zones (or paths is perhaps a better term). The Main Zone is the full 7.1 channel layout. Zones 2 and 3 are completely independent 2 channel paths complete with volume and tone control. The 4th is the Record path, again, independent of all the others. Any source can be routed anywhere, though digital sources can only be played in Zone 2, 3, and Rec if they are copied from the main zone (in other words if you are playing one digital source in the main zone, you cannot play a different one in another zone). This is the industry norm since doing otherwise requires a great deal of expense (not just more DACs but digital format decoding DSP as well) and at this time custom installers assert that ancillary zones of SSPs and AVRs are employed principally for background music or a TV in a bedroom such that making a second, analogue connection from a source does just fine.

Under the hood Anthem continues with their highly successful power supply topology and processing compliment. DACs and ADCs remain unchanged since the original AVM20, while the DSP compliment now has been upped to twin dual-core Freescale units in order to get the decoding of the HD audio formats, which by the way is the only embedded/off the shelf software Anthem employs. Everything else is, literally, theirs from scratch, some of it reaching into 56bit precision.

Anthem AVM50v Audio/Video Processor

Anthem continues with the same sizable, robust remote control unit since the AVM20 (it is not unique to them, as several other companies oem the same one). There implementation is commendable given the compliment of buttons. As with most units of its ilk it has built in codes for a myriad of components and brands and can of course learn functions it does not already know, but it has the same "one component at a time" limitation (volume control being the exception) so in all likely hood while it is possible to wrangle it into being your only remote, there is no substitute for a good Pronto (or for the more lazy among us, the proverbial remote control array).

Form and function

Bottom line: nobody came close when the AVM20 floored us with its software, and to this day many still struggle to beat 'em. Anthem continues to have one of the most comprehensive, yet still accessible, system software and functionality going.

Anthem AVM50v Audio/Video Processor

There are four video and two audio configurations which can be setup. For example, one video configuration might be setup for HDMI output at 1080p60, another 1080p24, while one audio config might include a subwoofer and all speakers high passed, while the other might consist only of a stereo pair of full range speakers. You then may choose which from among these basic configurations will be used by each input. Each input can be renamed to anything you like up to six characters, can have any digital input assigned to it, or may be designated as analog, in which case you'll chose between converting it to digital or leaving it as analog (heaven forbid). Each input may have a global delay applied to it, in range of 0-170 ms, and each has an input gain, as well as its own unique Bass and Treble settings (yea, remember those?).

In the case of digital, a given input can be set to use short, medium, or long muting, this referring to the mute all processors apply while waiting for and locking onto bit streams. This used to be a much more critical feature when things like "DTS CDs" or the inefficient DTS 24/96 were still in circulation, as processors tended to exhibit a significant pop or squeal at the start of the bit stream, but the option to tailor it to each input is still a useful option today because not only does it extend the mute, but also the length of time the processor will stick with a given format (very useful when channel surfing digital TV).

Each input now has seven signal formats to which default playback modes may be assigned: 2 channel, 2 channel surround encoded, 6.0, Dolby Digital5, EX, DTS, ES, and raw 7.1 For each of these you can set a default mode for play back (exactly what you have to chose from of course depends on the format in question).

The AVM50v still sports the same clock as its predecessors with time/day, giving owners a comprehensive set of timers.

Digitally controlled analog volume control is exploited to the fullest. A default power-on volume level may be specified for each of the three zones. We've already mentioned that each input has its own gain trim. A maximum volume level can be set (may I suggest for your safety you set it to "0 dB"), and at your option, the Mute button can either be a total cut or an attenuation, your choice.

Anthem AVM50v Audio/Video Processor

As is my reputation I gloss over nothing so here is a sore spot: The front panel display sadly has been carried over from the original Statement D1 and is now featured in all the Anthem models. Why do I say "sadly"? Sure it is an excellently clear and legible dot matrix with two rows of text and a decently high dot count, sure it is judiciously used to its fullest by Anthem, but with only 3 levels of brightness to chose from, the lowest of which is most certainly not "dim" at all, it remains a blemish on an otherwise exquisite presentation. My wife, who is an excellent unbiased outside opinion for these sorts of things, actually found the display at its dimmest setting "ugly and distracting". Sure you can turn it off completely and rely on your home theater's big screen to convey the information (albeit transiently only), but I have a better idea: return to the original AVM20's display! What was the difference? Unlike the current fluorescent display, that one used a back-lit LCD with dam near infinite adjust-ability. The AVM20 in fact offered 15 brightness values, the lowest of which literally could barely be perceived in a pitch black room.

Anthem continues to get all "the little things" right such as comprehensive access to Pro Logic II Music's non-mandatory adjustments, judicious implementation of Dynamic Range Compression, flawless detection and execution of things like EX flags, and of course THX's Re-Eq can be turned off independently of the THX Cinema/THX Surround EX.

All material is down-mixable to two-channel for the other zones, headphones, or tape/CD recording (for digital or digitized inputs, only when they are copied from the main zone). This includes all multi-channel digital formats as well as the 5.1 analog inputs.

For old untreated soundtracks, the industry standard Academy Filter is still available as is a non-filtered mono mode, an all-channel mono mode, and an all-channel stereo mode. Anthem's own matrix decoders, Anthem Logic, are still on the table and present a subjective alternative to Pro Logic IIx.

A Dolby Volume logo is somewhat preemptively featured on the face plate. Preemptive in that it has yet to be incorporated (but we are assured soon will be in a future software revision).

Anthem is still including their center EQ (a curve with a handful of presets to counter the boundary effect of a TV screen) as well as the Room Resonance Filter (a single-band parametric EQ), both of which seem pointless since the included ARC has, literally, made these obsolete and redundant. Speaking of which....

ARC (not Noah's)

By now in a review I should have spent at least several paragraphs covering speaker and subwoofer setup parameters, features, and options, and waxed poetic about what's good and what is gimmick. Truth is, with ARC, pretty much all of the old tedium is gone. Not to say everything is not still available. Listener Position/speaker distances may still be manually input (in razor sharp half-foot or .2 meter increments), and basic speaker level calibration still one-ups the norm by letting you deviate from THX reference input level for the test noise itself, which is nice if you have remarkably efficient speakers or an amp of unusually high gain (though you could also just start with all speakers set to levels well in the negative). You may, if you are forgoing ARC, elect to use "simple" speaker setup where a single, common crossover frequency is used, or "advance" where each pair of channels, the LFE channel, and the subwoofer output itself get their own setting. And on top of everything else, as previously mentioned you can have two completely different configurations in terms of speaker settings and adjustments, conspicuously named "Movie" and "Music", terms which I take exception to as they imply that an otherwise properly setup system will require fundamentally different configurations based on material being handled. Stuff and nonsense! In my opinion the only valid use for the "Movie/Music" thing is comparing different ARC implementations, which is what I'm supposed to be talking about here anyway.

For a more in-depth look at ARC system, I hate to steer you away but my review of it from May of 2008 (http://www.hometheaterhifi.com/surround-sound-processors/343-a-secrets-ssp-review.html) will give you more of the story than I'm willing to go into here, except to say hooray it is standard fair in the AVM50v, and if you are a previous AVM owner who has not tacked it on, well, too bad for you.

ARC differentiates itself from the ever growing list of "auto setup and filter" systems by employing some serious math (the use of a personal computer is NOT an option) and more importantly Anthem's VERY unique application of psychoacoustics and audio shaping algorithms. So good is it that I can with every confidence say you will NEVER not use it, which is why we can now forget the old debates about subwoofer/speaker settings and just let ARC have at it.

The only thing I would like to add to my previous review of ARC by way of update is that in the latest revision of ARC, Crossover Frequency selection and Target Filter are addressed somewhat independently. In other words while the Crossover Frequency is selected by and taken into account by ARC, it is not necessarily coincident with the filter's roll off. Without going into an entire technical tangent, this simply means that whereas before you could override ARC's choice of crossover frequency (BEFORE downloading to the processor) without compromising ARC too much (such as when someone was obsessed with rolling off their tower speakers at a ridiculously low frequency) it is now very much discouraged as the effect may be much farther reaching.

Anthem AVM50v Audio/Video Processor

Also I'd like to note that (unfortunately) Anthem is still using the same mic stand, the one which when placed on a seat places the mic WAY above the ear plane (and yes that makes a difference, sometimes a big one depending on the room). You really have to fuss with it to take your measurements at ear level as you are supposed to.


Setup: The (updated) Video Processor

Finally we get to what is really new in the AVM50v (and D2v for that matter): The new Sigma Designs chip. All incoming video is funneled into this chip with a selectable output up to and including 1080p60 (24 frames per second is now also supported). Custom resolutions are supported (via an attached PC running Live Video Settings Editor) but it is more than likely that the one you want will be among the 21 different standard ones to chose from within the unit itself.

The output color space is selectable between HDTV, SDTV, and auto. Many display devices forcibly use the HD color space (REC 709) when fed anything above 480P (even though most DVD material is metered in, and output by the player in, SD color space, REC 601). So the Anthem allows you to force a color conversion or let the EDID information from the display dictate.

For data format you can chose from YCbCr 4:2:2 or 4:4:4, RGB, or Extended RGB. As Kris explained in our original review of the D1, 4:2:2 YCbCr is the standard output of most MPEG decoders, is what DVD and Blu-ray is mastered at, supports the full 10bit resolution of the VXP chip, and thus is the recommend setting for just about everyone (despite the academic benefits sited of the other settings).

The output menu also lets you select the level of "gray" for pillar-boxing or letterboxing applied to the image, adjust the sync of the HDMI output, and select the output of the second component output (same processed resolution of Component 1, unprocessed, or set for Zone 2 which is also unprocessed).

Thus far we have been within the realm of Anthem's text based setup menu. Tapping into the VXP itself takes us to its on-chip GUI in full color and high resolution. When invoked, five basic tabs appear: Picture, Crop Input, Scale Out, Output, Pattern, and Info. All of these advanced picture options in the VXP are independent for each source, important given the granularity of what can be done here.

In the Picture menu you'll find selections for Input Color Space, Image Color (contrast, brightness, saturation and hue), Film Mode (de-interlacing mode), detail enhancement, noise reduction, and motion threshold. Input color space includes choice of HDTV YCbCr, SDTV YCbCr, or Auto. The VXP does all of its video processing in the RGB domain so regardless of this setting all input signals are converted to RGB and then converted back to the output color space selected in the output video menu. Auto continues to be the recommended setting.

Also in the in the Picture menu are Film Mode and Motion Threshold. Film mode is either On or Off (no real reason to ever turn it off), and since the VXP is proven to do an an excellent job picking up cadences and locking on, its default setting remains satisfactory.

Anthem AVM50v Audio/Video Processor

Next up are Detail Enhancement and Noise Reduction, the latter of which has been upgraded since the original. I personally am a fan of neither, especially detail enhancement, since they are by any definition a distortion, but for the sake of completeness I do test them and found not much has changed since Kris's original review.

Detail enhancement is broken down into detail level and noise threshold. While the detail enhancement can be a subjective benefit for poorly mastered DVDs, it's real easy to get carried away and the VXP really lets you go to an extreme so try not to be tempted to the farther reaches of these sliders. On the other hand the noise reduction, which I do appreciate the option of when watching the occasional really, REALLY bad signal quality material, is borderline benign. Adjustments are broken down into Block Noise and Mosquito Noise. While other such systems permit a latitude of adjustment which goes from nothing to so over processed that the image takes on a water color painting look to it, the VXP just did not do enough for me to call it useful in this regard. Even with the slider pegged at max, only what I would call a moderate noise reduction was witnessed. Comparing it to the Oppo BD-83's own noise reduction, the latter proved superior, though decidedly less practical since you have to dig into a setup menu as opposed to setting up a pseudo input on the Anthem which has noise reduction cranked up.

The Crop Input menu remains unchanged and still includes the ability to mask the borders of the image. With players like the Oppos' actually sending us ALL the picture with no pixel cropping, and digital displays which NO over scan, it's nice to have the option for that odd time (such as poorly done cable or DSS feeds) to Crop for 1-20 pixels if you find distracting garbage in the margins. Comprehensive letterbox settings, scaled output options, and pre-rendered test patterns round out the offerings.

Scale Out gives a comprehensive set of controls for scaling and positioning the input signal within the output.

Output is new since the original D1 and consists of gamma compensation controls. Instrumentation is really not an option for tapping into this stuff, but for those with the hardware, it's a slick addition to the tool chest.

The last menu is the Info menu, which provides input and output resolution, timing, and color format data. Kris had found in the original implementation that this info was not always accurate. I unfortunately had no way to conclusively test whether Anthem has fixed this.


In Use

In my mind, while there will always be some HD material which is shot interlaced, or progressive material handled as interlaced, as well as material which can benefit from noise reduction and other shaping, video processing of Blu-ray is almost point moot in that we are dealing with an industry which finally matured from the mire of telecine'd material and is now into 24p from source to disc with no intermediary conversion. Here the Anthem should simply be asked to be transparent but my experience fell a little short. Specifically I found the AVM50v to be a little fussy in terms of receiving HDMI signals. On occasion a stream would play with video but no audio, or the video would be in the wrong color space. I also ran into situations where a 2.0 PCM track would be fed, the display would show "2.0 + Pro Logic II", but the Anthem would actually be in stereo mode. In addition there is a certain amount of snap, crackle, pop as you navigate around discs which can get pretty annoying after a while. Bottom line though is that while we can expect a more challenging road for companies writing their own software, at this price point we should see interoperability a least as smooth as off-the-shelf solutions. However, Anthem's track record of continuous improvement and refinement of their product and software gives faith that things will get better.

The video processor on the whole does an excellent job when put through the paces of our DVD Player Benchmark in term of SD processing and scaling, and on the HD side it did a mostly flawless job with the Spears & Munsil tests. Here we found it could get tripped up on the time-compensated cadence test, and also did not do quite as good a job on the 1080i60 real-world material, in particular the ship test with its challenging ropes and riggings. Here jaggies were just more prominent than on other solutions out there, though I don't want to overstate this. The VXP remains terribly useful for Digital Cable and DSS, both SD and HD flavors thereof, but for disc an Oppo "doing its own thing" would still be my recommendation.

An interesting tid-bit I stumbled on is the fact that the Anthem does not include a comb filter. In other words composite video cannot go through the VXP, as I discovered when I connected an aging VHS player, thinking I would for once see Macros Plus properly deinterlaced. "Just not worth the extra cost" I was told is the simple reason.

Enough has been said about the audio output quality of the AVM series that I don't need to reinvent the wheel here. As mentioned at the onset of the review, that portion of the product is practically unchanged since the original and continues to impress and inspire with its insanely neutral and natural quality, ridiculously low noise floor, and flawless presentation. At the end of the day, this is what really counts.

As for HD audio decoding, this is one area I have to comment on. Yes Anthem was pressured to incorporate the decoding of Dolby TrueHD, DTS HD master, and all that jazz, and make no mistake I'm not saying they shouldn't have, but this is such a tremendous example of the industry's failure to educate, and we at the press must take our share of the blame. Why did people yell for HDMI 1.3 and the new codec's? No reasons other than the number is higher than 1.1 and there remains the complete and utter misconception that Dolby TrueHD (or whatever) sounds better if decoded at point B in the playback chain as oppose to A. The truth is while any NEW product better darn well include the feature, the lack of it should not be seen as a shortcoming in incumbent ones. There is NO advantage (at this time) to sending the HD audio bit streams to an SSP or AVR, and in fact there is a disadvantage in that you cannot have any secondary audio from Blu-ray. The point of this little rant is for the existing AVM50 owners out there: unless you are seriously hurting for more HDMI inputs, just add ARC to your existing piece if you haven't already, but don't feel like you have to pawn your 50 and grab a 50v just to have those extra logos on the front. Other than verifying their implementation, for the duration of the review my Blu-ray player was set for PCM output.


Conclusions

This, at the end of a decidedly lengthy review, is the challenging part. What can be said that has not been already? Way back at the introduction I illustrated just how mature the product line is. Anthem's AVM line of audio and video processors remains a solid, SOLID value, delivering top tier features and performance, deceptively so since although not priced cheap, are still in the mid-range when looking at the market and industry whole.

I did have to report the HDMI quirks, though I have every confidence in their being address by Anthem in the weeks or months to come.

That point notwithstanding, there are precious few pieces of consumer audio/video equipment which are as safe a bet as the Anthems. In a phrase, "Buy with confidence".