Friday, August 19, 2011

Anthem AVM 20

Some of you may have heard of Anthem, a company out of Canada that produces audiophile class preamplifiers, processors, and amplifiers, among other products. Today, I'm reviewing the Anthem AVM 20. I purchased this unit after the HDMI craze and was able to get it at a formidable discount when compared to it's MSRP of $3400.00 USD. I was looking for something that could produce 5.1 channel audio with the same fidelity as 2 channel audio and an option for XLR balance preamplifier outputs. The AVM 20 fit the bill and had all the features I hoped for.

Initially, I thought that everything I had read was simply hype. How could this unit really be as good as everyone is stating it is. Anthem even offered firmware updates via a serial port. It all seemed too good to be true. I was happily mistaken.

There is no way to accurately describe the clarity of the audio from this unit. I am using the same solid core silver interconnects to a separate amplifier as I was before. Where my previous unit had hum and hiss, this one did not. It is silent at low volume with no feedback interference to speak of. The audio resolution difference was like the difference between DVD video playback and 1080p. When I thought I could hear no more detail, I was surprised with more. Every little nuance of the music passes through this unit with perfect detail and clarity. This unit has to have one of the best DACs I have ever heard. It is simply astounding.

After considering how unbelievable the audio was, I began to think about the philosophy behind such a unit. It was clear to me that Anthem had focused on delivering accurate playback of the source material. It seems like they have accomplished that quite well. For me to say that is a huge compliment to Anthem because I am one of those guys that will not adjust the bass or treble to make up for any room/equipment inadequacies. I test and run everything with all the settings set to flat.

The AVM 20 user interface is amazing. With individual crossovers for each speaker and a subwoofer crossover setup like I have never seen, this unit provides masterful control over all channels. Because there is so much control, the UI can be a bit intimidating and even a little confusing, but with a little effort, one can easily overcome that and learn how to adjust whatever they desire. It is a beautiful thing.

This unit is adequate for 2 channel or surround processing. It's fidelity is exceptional and hard to beat. It is the best preamp I have ever tested and has all the bells and whistles anyone could desire from its era. Sure, HDMI would be nice, but if you really want to keep up with the technology game, Athem will accommodate your need for a price. Anyone would be lucky to own this product from Anthem. If you can find one for a few hundred dollars, or a bit more, jump on it.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sony EP9ES Preamplifier/Digital Signal Processor

The Sony EP9ES is a preamplifier produced to manage only digital source material. Basically, what this means is that although this unit has a volume knob, it has no analogue inputs. It contains one coaxial input and four optical inputs. The menu is detailed and well thought out, although a little tricky to navigate. With all of that said, it is manageable and rewarding. It has several surround modes and effects. For my audition purposes I used only stereo with all tone controls bypassed.

This unit resembles other home theater components produced at the time. It has the traditional style readout display and knobs. It is pleasing to look at, maintains a low profile, and visually fits in easily with other mainstream audio gear despite the "ES" at the end of its model number.

I own a Anthem AVM20 and it is a fantastic sounding unit, maybe one of the best. The EP9ES was able to deliver audio at the same level. In very few cases was I able to tell the difference between the two. They were just that close. The audio is clear, warm, detailed, smooth, and transparent. After aquiring this little gem, I'm reluctant to give it up. Only because I have the Anthem AVM20 as my main unit, I am using the EP9ES as my computer preamplifier. I will emphasize; however, that if the AVM20 were to ever kick the bucket, I would have no reservation swapping this into its place. It is just that good.

For the $40.00 that I spent on this unit, I have to classify it as one of my most rewarding purchases of all time. It is a pleasure to hear my .FLAC format audio from my PC through my 10" full range drivers on the left and right of my monitor. I never go a day without loving this unit.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Pioneer SA-8800 Integrated Amplifier

I made the daring move to purchase a Pioneer SA-8800 amplifier off of eBay in hopes of experiencing the vintage audio movement. I had heard rumors that some of the amplifiers from the 1970's could produce audio that would compete with some of the best of today's current production lineup.

First Impressions
When I received the unit, I was pleased to find that it had been packaged properly and arrived undamaged. The machined knobs were cool to the touch and had a very solid feel and appearance to them; a far cry from the big box mart mainstream equipment sold today. The detentes in potentiometers added to the feel that I was now the owner of something truly well-made.

I tested the unit with some of my common test media: Randy Roos, Diana Krall, Enya, among others. The sound was extremely transparent. It was light and smooth. I could not be happier. I did notice that it seemed to have a little bias in the upper treble frequencies - something that I have noticed on other Japanese amplifiers. Bass was punchy and accurate. Rated at 80 watts RMS per channel, it is no tank, but it held its own into very high volume levels with no sign of distortion.

The phono section was everything one could hope for. With several different cartridge options and settings, I'm not sure there is a record player that this could not accomodate. Again, audio from vinyl was everything I could hope for. I enjoyed my entire collection all over again just auditioning this amplifier.

The Pioneer SA-8800 amplifier is an amazing unit. For the mere few hundred dollars one can really get a great deal of quality audio out of this unit. At low wattages, the unit remains Class A, producing a good deal of heat, but excellent resolution and fidelity. If you come across one of these, you would be lucky to pick it up. Even if it sits on a shelf, it is a piece of art. Used for its intended purpose, it brings color-free art to ones ears.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Heaven in My Ears: CriticalListenAudio CLA 8.1 Speakers

Recently, I reviewed CriticalListenAudio's CLA 8.1 Mid-tower full-range speakers. I was skeptical that a speaker with only one driver in each cabinet would be capable of accurately reproducing the source material. I was delightfully mistaken.

CriticalListenAudio claims that the CLA 8.1 is capable of producing frequencies from 37Hz to 20kHz. Normally this would not be that big of a claim, but since they claim to accomplish this with a single driver in each enclosure, it is a much bigger deal. In most cases, a speaker consists of multiple drivers which serve multiple functions. Usually, this is manifested by a tweeter, midrange, and sometimes also a woofer. In order for these separate drivers to perform their functions properly, without distortion, a crossover network is necessary. In most cases, this network is hidden inside the speaker enclosure so the end user rarely sees how it is filtering frequencies for its respective drivers. The addition of a crossover to a speakers adds an entire level of complexity to the speaker's design. Phase issues, coloration, crossover frequency points, materials, etc. all become part of the equation to make accurate audio and to protect the individual drivers. Additionally, in every case where a passive crossover is used, efficiency is lowered and coloration is added. It is physically impossible to maintain the same efficiency with a passive crossover network in the audio path when compared to the same speaker with no crossover network.

So, what does this have to do with the CLA 8.1? Where I thought that the CLA 8.1 would be weak, it excelled. That it only used one driver, with one voice coil, is only an improvement towards resolving phase and timing issues of audio coming off the front of the speaker. When more than one driver is used, there are always timing variations between the two drivers. Why? Well, for one, audio is coming from two separate points in space rather than one. Secondly, the voice coil for a tweeter is always different than a voice coil for a midrange driver. This introduces a delta in the inductance (Le) of the two coils. The specification Le represents the amount of time it takes to charge the voice coil and its magnetic field to the point that it results in force production, or the point at which the cone of the driver begins to move. Therefore, two drivers with different voice coils will have different Le ratings and consequently, begin moving at different times after both receive a signal simultaneously. The CLA 8.1 does not have this problem because it has only one voice coil. This results in perfect synchronicity among all frequencies being produced. It is a beautiful thing to hear.

Because the single driver produces all the frequencies with one voice coil, the CLA 8.1 does not require a crossover. There is no tweeter that bass frequencies could damage. The vocals are produced by the same driver that produces the bass. What does this mean? Well, it means that all of the complexities I mentioned earlier are completely avoided in the CLA 8.1 speaker's audio reproduction. Additionally, with no crossover, efficiency is optimized. Boasting 98db@1w/1m the CLA 8.1 is claiming a massive increase in efficiency over the average audiophile speaker. The average speaker efficiency is around 88db@1w/1m. Essentially, what this means is that the average speaker requires about 9-10 times the power to produce the same volume that the CLA 8.1 achieves with 1 watt. This is a big deal. The more power needed, the higher the noise floor. Conversely, the lower the power requirement to produce volume, the lower the noise floor. This equates to pin-drop accuracy and detail with every nuance in the source material. I found this absolutely to be the case when auditioning these speakers.

The Music Audition
Auditioning speakers is always a fun and exciting opportunity for me. Listening to Diana Krall's "A Blossom Fell" was breathtaking. The piano sounded as though it was in the room. Additionally, the piano was full-bodied in its note production. The same resonant tonality present when listening to a piano live was present in the reproduction. Additionally, a pleasant surprise was that I was able to hear the piano bench creaking as she played during the recording. Pin-drop accuracy is definitely the way to describe experiencing these speakers.

Vocals were smooth and full. I did not notice any gaps in frequency production, nor any particular bias. Where other speakers I've auditions excelled at parts of the vocal frequencies, these excelled in all. I was amazed at how real and present every nuance of her voice sounded.

Another of Diana's tracks utilized a double bass. As the bow was drawn across the strings, I could pick out every detail of the sound. Once again, the audio was so accurate that it captured the full body of the sound. The same resonant production heard from the double bass live was present in the CLA 8.1's reproduction. This is where the driver's efficiency really delivered. The noise floor was so low, I could hear every detail of the vocals and instruments.

For kicks and giggles, I threw in some Metallica from the infamous "Black Album". "Nothing Else Matters" never sounded better. Once again, all instruments and vocals were fully represented and effortless. The guitar was palpably real.

Randy Roos "Liquid Smoke" album was like liquid heaven in my ears. He is meticulous in ensuring his recordings are top notch and the CLA 8.1's were true to the recording. If you haven't experienced Randy Roos, and you love acoustic guitar, I highly recommend his work. You may find that you use his work as your new test media. When an artist is able to connect with the listener it is a wonderful experience for that listener. Randy Roos is naturally talented to that end. Without having him available 24-7 to play live for me in my living room, the CLA 8.1's were the next best experience. Words can't describe the listening pleasure delivered by these speakers.

The Home-Theater Audition
The more I listened to these speakers, the more I began to think that they could produce any genre of music correctly. From jazz and classical to electronic and heavy metal, there was nothing I could throw at the CLA 8.1's that they couldn't produce with absolute clarity and accuracy. So, I thought that I might try some movies. Using one of these drivers as the center channel was astounding. I'd like to say that it was like watching a movie in an IMAX theater, but the sound was better! These make wonderful center speakers and consequently, side and surround speakers. For the first time, I can recommend a single model speaker for both 2 channel listening and surround sound audio reproduction.

In conclusion, CriticalListenAudio has found a way to produce exceptional audio and eliminate some of the larger problems that plague most speakers today. By eliminating phase and timing issues, lowering the noise floor, and increasing efficiency, the audio reproduction capabilities are nothing short of amazing. Any person would be fortunate to own a pair of these speakers and the best of all they are affordable. I dare say that that this is the best bookshelf/mid-tower speaker at any price and easily the best value.

More information is available on these speakers at:

Similar Products Auditioned: Linn Audio, Wilson Audio, McIntosh, Krell, Marantz, B&W, Boston Acoustics, Kef, Martin Logan, Sunfire, Carver, etc.