Home Theater Havoc
(Featuring the Anthem AVM 20, PVA 7 and Aperion Speakers)
It occurred to me recently that in writing for this magazine over the past several years, I haven’t covered much in the way of home theatre gear. In fact, besides some 32 inch TVs awhile back, almost no home theatre gear at all. Shocking! Shameful even, especially considering how much I love movies and that I work in the film business by day. “This will not stand!”, I said dramatically, feeling more than a little bit like Alec Guiness in The Bridge on the River Kwai, as I confronted some free time and (finally) an appropriate room in my new apartment in which to wreak home theatre havoc. I had the space, I had the time, all needed was the gear.
As is often called for in these crises, a call was promptly dispatched to AIG HQ. I suggested to our intrepid editor that starting small might make a lot of sense. A receiver maybe, some entry level speakers. You know, work my way up to the more expensive stuff a step at a time. A flurry of emails and phone calls later the brand new and much anticipated Anthem AVM 20 surround processor/preamp and PVA 7 seven amplifier were on their way.
So much for entry level. With a combined price approaching seven grand, not to mention 7.1 surround channels on tap, “small” was no longer part of the equation. Now I needed speakers. Lots of speakers, as it turned out. Ever since hearing that Edge Audio was one of the first adopters of the Diaural crossover developed by Kimber Kable I’d wanted to review their speakers. A trip to their website revealed two things: First, that they had changed their name to Aperion Audio, and second that they had packaged systems ranging up to 7.1 channels: Just what the doctor ordered. After some friendly exchanges with the Aperion folks in Oregon, their 7.1 theatre package with the 12 inch sub was also on its way. Luckily Aperion is equipped with more than just speakers. With the recent addition of Onkyo electronics to their online catalogue, Aperion can ship you everything you’ll need to get your system up and running, including all manner of cable from Kimber Kable and stands from Lovan. The Lovan/Kimber connection turned out to be extremely handy, as I was going to require support for six speakers and enough wire to connect them all.
Anthem AVM 20 Surround Preamp ($4499 - CAN)
The current generation of surround sound equipment is just begging for someone to rethink audio/video product nomenclature. For instance, Anthem calls the AVM 20 a “Preamplifier - Processor - Tuner”; a mouthful to be sure. It’s bang on the money as descriptions go though, if a little long winded, as the AVM 20 will do pretty much everything a full featured A/V receiver will do (and a few things more, in most cases) except drive your speakers directly. Indeed, the input/output possibilities offered on the rear panel of the AVM 20 should be enough to satisfy any professional installer, and bring smiles to the faces of cable manufacturers everywhere.
The AVM 20 has all of the major features you’d expect to find in a state of the art surround preamp, including support for DVD-Audio and SACD with full bass management control. On the movie side of things support for the two major 7 channel surround formats, Dolby Digital EX and DTS ES, is now de rigeur for any surround processor with high end aspirations, as is THX processing. The AVM 20 is Ultra THX certified and features THX Surround EX, “a process that decodes a rear channel from the left and right surround channels on Dolby Digital DVD’s encoded with Surround EX and DTS-ES Matrix DVD’s.” I find it more than a little ironic that now that we have discrete, digital surround for movies that this new iteration on 5.1 essentially uses prologic style matrixing to create the new channel at centre rear. Now, just in case you might harbour the notion that this only adds up to 6.1 channels, the powers that be have decided that up to two speakers are required for this matrixed rear channel information. Why, you may well ask? Is there any great need for a centre rear channel in the average home theatre system with one speaker, let alone two? Is this a case of “feature hype”, designed to make last year’s equipment newly obsolete and sell more speakers, cable and stands? More on this below.
All singing, all dancing:
To go into any significant detail on everything inside the AVM 20 and the myriad features Anthem has built in would gobble up far more column inches than I have at my disposal so I’m going to touch on some of the major points and leave much of the minutia for those interested enough to follow up (all the details are available for your perusal at www.sonicfrontiers.com). The digital heart of the AVM 20 is “the new Motorola Digital DNA 56366 DSP chip, rated at 120 million instructions per second” and “built into our very own state-of-the-art, modular 2 pcb DSP implementation.” Similarly serious AKM D to A converters capable of 24/192 operation and A to D converters (for digitizing incoming analog sources, if desired) at 24/88 are other key components of the digital chain. There are an improbable number of circuit boards stacked inside the very busy interior of the AVM 20, all independent and isolated. Two of these circuit boards are dedicated to the AVM 20’s prodigious “broadcast quality”, high-definition video switching capabilities. Allowing switching of signals up to 1080p resolution, “without degradation” the AVM 20 features seven S-video inputs, seven composite inputs, and two sets of component inputs. Video outputs include one set of component and five each of S-video and composite.
Audio input/output flexibility is similarly thorough. I’m not sure if superstition is at work, but seven is once again the operative number, the AVM 20 boasting seven spdif digital inputs, seven single ended analog inputs, three toslink digital ins, an AES/EBU digital input, and a single pair of balanced analog inputs. There is also a set of six channel, single ended inputs designed specifically for DVD-A or SACD duty. On the output side are two spdif digital, four single-ended stereo pairs and matching sets of six channel surround outputs, one balanced and one single ended. These surround outputs also feature extra jacks for an additional sub and centre channel, should you feel a single sub or centre channel inadequate.
Now, just in case some of this seems redundant to you, it’s important to keep in mind that the AVM 20 is designed around four “paths”. In other words, it can do “four things, simultaneously, in separate areas throughout your home� The main path provides video and multichannel audio for music and home theatre. The Zone 2 and Zone 3 paths provide video and 2-channel audio output with volume, tone and balance controls that operate fully independently. Finally, the Record path provides video, 2-channel analog audio and digital audio record outputs selectable by source.” In other words, the AVM 20 can control systems in four different rooms and, due to redundant surround outputs, can even run two fully separate multi-channel systems. This kind of multi-zone operation wouldn’t really fly without the three relay trigger inputs, RS-232 port, three infra-red receivers, two infra-red emitters and an optional IEEE1394 (Firewire)/Phast interface at your disposal on the rear panel. Dizzy yet? I better not forget the headphone jack, which can be configured to mute the speakers when in use, or not. Anyone who can use every input and output on the back of the AVM 20 clearly deserves some kind of special award.
No Course Required
Even though the AVM 20 is equipped to handle just about anything a professional custom installer could throw at it, the average home theatre buff won’t need a course to run it. The options are extensive, but menus are clear and intuitive, whether seen on the dot matrix display on the front panel or through your video display. The front panel display is especially effective, efficiently communicating the current source, the source routing (ie. Processing of sources can be selected as direct Digital, Analog-DSP, where digital processing is applied to analog sources, or Analog Direct), the type of surround processing and the volume. The remote is also thoughtfully and ergonomically designed, with easy to find buttons, sized and shaped by priority, that glow blue when pressed.
Clearly Anthem has gone to great lengths to position the AVM 20 as a do-all preamp for audiophile multichannel systems. There are a number of features specifically aimed at satisfying purist types as well. In addition to the aforementioned high quality DACs and balanced ins and outs is an analog direct mode which bypasses any EQ settings and the digital chain entirely, allowing the Anthem to be used as a pure analog preamp in this mode. The configuration options also bear this out, allowing extensive system control and fine tuning. Each speaker, for instance, can be setup differently, the AVM 20 taking into account size, location, dipole or monopole, crossover point, listener distance, high frequency cut off for the subwoofer(s) and more. Another feature that will please many folks trying to combine high end-audio and serious home theatre into one system will be the ability to engage the subwoofer even with the main speakers set to large, activating an otherwise silent sub on stereo source material. Each input can also be configured in a number of different ways, allowing custom EQ settings, volume and routing options to be “remembered” for every source.
Surround modes are well thought out and simple, with the typical, but more restrained than usual Hall and Stadium type DSP modes included as well. I stayed away from such gimmicky sort of surround modes, as I usually do, but Anthem’s excellent sounding implementation of “All Channel Stereo” was often used for background music while I worked at my desk and the similarly good “Cinema Logic” mode worked very well with stereo sources such as TV programs. Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised at how good the sound from off-air TV was through them Anthem, the few shows I watch (I confess to being a hopeless Simpsons addict) sounding as good as I’ve heard from broadcast TV. I didn’t spend a lot of time listening to the Anthem’s tuner, aside from the occasional morning session with KCRW, but it sounded quite good and had no trouble bringing in the major LA area stations clean and strong with an ordinary whip style FM antenna. More on sound with movies and music below.
Anthem PVA 7 Amplifier ($2249 - CAN)
It only makes sense that Anthem would build a power amp meant to be paired with the AVM 20, the PVA 7 one of only a handful of seven channel power amps on the market. In terms of simplicity and value this amp makes an awful lot of sense, eliminating the need for multiple amps and clocking in at a comparatively reasonable $321 dollars per channel. Your chances of finding a stereo amp that sounds as good for 300 odd bucks per speaker are mighty slim, I’d suggest.
Much of the value inherent in cramming seven channels into one box comes from the fact that all those channels can share the same power supply, in this case consisting of a custom built 800 VA toroidal power transformer and “advanced power supply regulation with high quality, low ESL, low ESR filter capacitors”. In total there are 100,000 pico farads of storage capacity on tap, more than enough to ride comfortably through the most demanding action movie transients. With all channels driven the PVA 7 makes 105 watts per channel into 8 ohms and 140 into 4. Perhaps the most impressive number on the spec sheet, however, falls under the heading of signal to noise ratio. The Anthem’s impressive 122 dB rating suggests significant low level prowess, with inky black sonic backgrounds, something that was borne out in listening tests.
Amps don’t get much easier to use than the PVA 7. Around back are 7 single ended inputs and seven sets of beefy binding posts, all of high quality and all well spaced. Particularly handy, especially in the multi-room or custom install context, are the trigger inputs and turn on modes. The PVA 7 can be turned on the old fashioned way, with the switch on the front, or via an upstream trigger signal (from the AVM 20, for instance), or automatically when it senses a signal on any of its inputs. In this mode, after twenty minutes of silence, the PVA 7 will click a relay and drop back into standby mode until you’re ready for more.
Aperion Audio 7.1 - 12 Home Theatre Speaker Package (US $1730 excluding stands and cables)
When they started out as Edge audio a couple of years back, Aperion was one of the first internet specialty audio retailers to set up shop. They were also one of the very first adopters of the DiAural crossover originally developed at Kimber Kable, a technology we first reported on in the Summer 99′ issue). The business plan is a fairly straightforward one: Build American designed speakers in the orient and market them online, eliminating both distributors and traditional retailers from the chain, a business model AV 123, which sells the Diva line of speakers online, has also adopted. Savings on production costs are amplified by the fact that retail margins on speakers are generally much higher than those on electronics, allowing a vertically integrated company like Aperion to offer very attractive pricing compared to traditional competitors.
What they can’t offer is the all important in store demo and all the sales and service features of a good specialty audio retailer. The heated debate about internet vs. brick and mortar audio retailing is not a subject I’m going to wade into here, suffice to say that a company like Aperion, which serves the middle of the market, has a much better chance of succeeding without retailers than a manufacturer of much more expensive and exotic equipment. In other words, people are more likely to drop two grand on gear they’ve never seen or heard before than twenty.
Still, two grand ain’t exactly peanuts, even if it does buy you seven satellite speakers and a subwoofer with some change left over. Like most other internet or mail order outfits Aperion offers a “no-hassle” 30 day money back offer, allowing you test their wares in the best demo room of them all: yours. If you’re not happy, send it all back and, as their website proclaims, “no hard feelings”. See, I told you they were friendly!
So Many Boxes
All of Aperion’s home theatre packages are built around their 512D satellite speakers (which are also available separately for $189 each, by the way). Although their packaged systems run from two channels to 7.1 their product range is actually very simple, consisting of the 512D, 512D-C (essentially a 512D turned on its side to make a centre channel) and two subwoofers; one eight inch with two passive radiators, and one rear-ported 12 incher.
11 inches high and just over 7 inches deep, the 512D is the kind of minimonitor you can hold in one hand. The little Aperion is no flyweight though, constructed from a 1″ thick combination of HDF and solid wood with the kind of natural, high quality finish you’d expect to see on speakers over $1000. Forget about vinyl or the ubiquitous, often chintzy looking “black ash” you’ll find on other products in the price range, Aperion’s box is very solid, and much prettier than it has any right to be.
Mounted in the magnetically shielded box is a 5-1/4″ in mid-woofer with what appears to be a polypropylene cone and a 1″ soft dome tweeter. Around back is a small reflex port and a single pair of high quality, five way binding posts. Like many minimonitors the 512D is no efficiency champ, rated at 86 dB, but with an impedance of 8 Ohms, it should (and did) prove to be an easy load to drive. The technological highlight of the 512D, however, is its DiAural crossover. This circuit eliminates the capacitor found in most designs, using only inductors and resistors. The goal is to eliminate Doppler distortion by wiring the woofer and tweeter in series and feeding them both a full range signal. Feeding low frequency information to a tweeter, however, is usually an extremely expedient way to destroy one, which is why most crossovers filter this part of the signal out. The solution in this case is “an inductor wired in parallel with the tweeter to protect it from the damaging low frequencies while a resistor levels the impedance of the woofer, decreasing its inductive impedance rise at high frequencies.” The intended result is much improved phase coherence and a reduction in distortion, especially with signals containing significant, simultaneous low and high frequency content (ie. a choir accompanied by pipe organ).
With usable bass response down to only 60 odd Hz, the 512Ds can sound pretty lightweight on their own, having been designed to be mated with a sub. I opted to flesh out the bottom end with Aperion’s best sub, the SW-12, a 20″ x 15″ x 21″ reflex loaded box finished in the same lovely light cherry as the 512Ds. It’s also just as solid as the little guys, its 1″ HDF enclosure tipping the scales at 66 pounds. Motivating the 12″ long throw woofer is a 250 watt digital switching amp capable of delivering 400 watts of peak power. All the major features you’d expect on a good powered sub are also in evidence, including speaker and line level inputs and outputs, auto turn on/off, and variable crossover and phase controls. If all this sounds impressive for only US $599 I guess the high quality feet, beefy spikes and brass footers are thoughtful, and functional little bonuses. The real deal closer, however, it the sound of the SW-12; its power, authority and depth sufficient to put it on a very short list of killer subs under $1500, much less $1000.
The Audience Is Listening
I put the little Aperions to the ultimate test very early, breaking in the front left and right pair and listening to them in my two channel system. When it came to imaging and soundstaging the 512D’s behaved admirably, disappearing behind a large, seamless curtain of sound the way only fine minimonitors seem to be able to do. Perhaps it has something to do with the DiAural crossover, but one of the first things most will notice about these speakers is the ease with which they conjure up acoustic space, soundstaging far better than any speaker this cheap reasonably should. Once broken in the Aperions delivered very open and natural sound with smooth top end and convincing mids which tended to err slightly on the chesty side with vocals. The small enclosure must be well damped and braced since boxy colourations were never a concern.
The presentation was certainly lightweight, however, until the sub was added to the mix, the 512D’s not well suited to a large room on their own if you expect to hear much in the way of bottom end. In my 20′ x 13′ space the SW-12 anchored the sound very nicely indeed, pulling a disappearing act even more effective than the 512D’s and blending with the little satellites so effectively that with your eyes closed you’d swear you were listening to full range, floorstanding speakers. I’ve never used a sub that was so easy to place in a room or so easy to mate with satellite speakers. In many sub/satellite systems it can be all too easy to identify and localise the sub, thumping away in time but still somehow removed from the action, as if its cheering from the sidelines. Sure, careful attention to placement and judicious use of phase and crossover controls can go a long way to solving these kinds of problems, but the SW-12 never seemed to need much tweaking, besides a cursory twist of the crossover and level controls, to integrate smoothly with the 512D’s. As with the satellites, the SW-12’s very solid box goes a long way to eliminating the kinds of resonances which offer aural cues to a speaker’s location.
It’s the driver in the box, and the amp behind it, however, which provide the oomph needed to flesh out music and soundtracks. In the oomph department the SW-12 is fully stocked, offering deep, clean and well controlled bass with no boom or bloat, and a minimum of overhang. Low frequency transients were sharp, decaying crisply and quickly. Dynamic performance was extremely impressive, with the kind of impact as much felt as heard. Never, ever, even at levels which would surely frighten small children, did the SW-12 sound like it was losing its composure or clipping its internal amp. I think it’s telling that the word “effortless” appears in my listening notes a disproportionate number of times.
Indeed, the words “effortless” and “dynamic” came to mind repeatedly when I put the Anthem gear and the full Aperion speaker system to its first serious test in the home theatre room. This test consisted of the recent Tim Burton remake of Planet of the Apes combined with the happy coincidence of my upstairs neighbours moving out the week before (and no, I did not drive them away, they left of their own accord without ever complaining about loud music or movies). I wired up the Aperions in seven channel mode via the supplied runs of Kimber model 4PS and 4VR speaker cable, placing the two rear channel speakers fairly close together behind my listening chair and the surrounds in their traditional positions off to the sides.
Ornery Apes and Angry Romans
Although Planet of the Apes epitomises the current Hollywood trend of blockbusters long on production values and short on script, its excellent soundtrack and score told me just about everything I needed to know about the Anthem/Aperion system. Plus, it’s one of the few DVDs which allowed me to put Dolby Digital EX and the full seven channels of surround at my disposal, through their paces. With no compunction to restrain myself in the interests of maintaining cordial neighbourly relations, I had a fantastic time playing this film as loud as I bloody well wanted. This turned out to be pretty damn loud. I’m not normally a degenerate leadfoot when it comes to my playback levels, but the sound in this case was so clean, so dynamic, so effortless and percussive, that I just kept turning it up and up. Listener fatigue, which tends to rise exponentially with volume, was never much of an issue, something which speaks volumes about the equipment involved.
Danny Elfman’s score is about as dark and intense as they come and the SW-12 did a fabulous job of fleshing out the relentless drum tracks, moving vast quantities of air without ever sounding strained. The Anthem PVA-7 certainly seemed to have no trouble keeping up with the demands of the 7 satellites either, the Aperions never succumbing to dynamic compression and creating an impressively seamless surround field occasionally augmented by sound from direct rear. I was also impressed by the fact that even at very high levels the top end never became brittle or harsh, as it so often does in commercial cinemas (on some DVDs, with particularly bright top end, you can apply the AVM 20’s THX cinema mode which uses a process called “cinema re-equalisation” to help tame the highs in the front channels considerably). The seemingly few quiet scenes in the film were also deftly reproduced with little details popping out all around me from very black sonic backgrounds. Dialogue from the centre channel didn’t appear to have any significant shortcomings, sounding as clean and natural as everything else.
Next up was the DTS-ES DVD of last year’s Oscar juggernaut, Gladiator. Like Planet of the Apes, Gladiator is one of the few discs available with the new rear channel information (denoted by the ES suffix). While a little less bombastic than Apes it was just as gripping sonically, and a decent movie to boot. The Anthem/Aperion system did an excellent job of delineating all the competing sound effects, not to mention score, reinforcing my impression of uncoloured, effortless and extremely dynamic sound. Gladiator’s score sounded particularly good on this system, the strings sounding sweet, delicate and open, the brass possessed of convincing timbrel bite. Again, direct rear channel information was noticeable, particularly in the combat sequences, but generally subtle and not substantially different from the signal coming out of the surrounds. In my modestly sized room (15′ X 13′) I didn’t really feel much need for sound from centre rear, but in big rooms, where getting a convincing spread of sound across the back wall might be more difficult, it will likely make a lot more sense. As with Apes, the sound was so involving and exciting that I was drawn into the film much more than I might otherwise have been, especially in the case of the former film whose soundtrack and aesthetic are just about its only redeeming features.
When I started listening to CDs through the Anthem/Aperion system I wasn’t surprised by what I heard. It was quickly confirmed that the AVM20 has excellent internal DACs, the system sounding substantially better via the digital output of my Panasonic DVD-A 310 than through its own analog outputs in CD Direct mode. Again, smooth, clean, and dynamic sound with taut, authoritative bass was the order of the day. While it couldn’t quite muster the level of detail or resolution of my two channel system, the Anthem/Aperion gear definitely made music when operating in stereo mode. Soundstaging and imaging were again the standout areas of performance, traits readily revealed by extremely involving sound on well recorded electronic music like Radiohead’s Amnesiac and Air’s 10,000 Hz Legend.
When there were flaws they were subtractive, not additive, which is always a good thing. The Aperions are not the last word in delicacy or transparency, are a little reticent in the lower midrange, and can sound quite coloured if you’re significantly off axis (ie. more than 30 degrees), but these shortcomings were fairly minor and never got in the way of the music. For a speaker which retails for less than US $400.00 a pair, they offer exceptional performance, and the sub is an absolute steal at US $599. I salivate to think, however, what the Anthem gear would sound like mated with a speaker system more commensurate with its loftier price. If you’re looking for a home theatre front end with all the bells and whistles, and audiophile credentials to boot, including excellent stereo performance, you can have your cake and eat it too with the AVM 20 and PVA 7.