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Equipment Review

May 1999

Anthem Integrated 2 Integrated Amplifier

by Paul Schumann

 

 

Review at a Glance
Sound Lots of low-level information; a slightly dark, laid-back presentation -- "the front edge of the soundstage just behind the speakers"; "solid and precise" bass.
Features Hybrid design; high-grade parts; remote control and headphone jack; generous 90Wpc into 8-ohm load.
Use Easily able to drive lower-efficiency speakers and those that pose tough loads.
Value A true taste of the high end at a bargain price; a great unit to anchor a start-up high-end system.

A robust hybrid

The label "hybrid" can bring varying images to one’s mind. A positive example of a hybrid is triticaline, the "super" high-yield wheat that improved grain yields the world over. A negative example is the Chevy El Camino: drives like a truck, hauls like a car -- bah! Therefore, it was with great interest that I took on the assignment to review the Anthem Integrated 2.

But why a hybrid? Anthem products are made by Sonic Frontiers, a brand already quite familiar to those regular readers of SoundStage! Chris Jensen and Chris Johnson are definitely what you call "tube guys," having developed a line of highly respected tube-based products. Why then are they fooling around with solid-state output devices now? Unfortunately, a tube amplifier powerful enough to drive many of today’s lower-efficiency, low-impedance speakers is expensive. The majority of this cost is taken up by the output transformers, which must be built to high standards to handle the higher power levels and retain good sonics. This clashes with Anthem’s stated goal of providing high-end equipment at an affordable price. Hence, the solution…a hybrid design.

My first impression of the Integrated 2 when it arrived at my doorstep was "Golly, what a big box!" My second impression was when I lifted the unit out of the box and said, "Jeez, this sucker’s heavier than I thought!" At 19 inches wide and 16 inches deep, and weighing in at 38 pounds, this certainly isn’t another girly-man integrated. The robustness is further reflected in the 3/8-inch-thick brushed-aluminum faceplate and sturdy steel frame.

When I popped the top and plugged the tubes onto the main circuit board, I was able to snoop around the innards a little. What catches your eye is the long rod connecting the selection control knob at the front of the Integrated 2 to the actual switch in the back. I’ve seen this nice design touch on little preamps, but never on a unit this big! The layout was uncluttered, with most of the components on one large circuit board. As you would expect given its Sonic Frontiers lineage, the Integrated 2 uses top-notch components such as MultiCap and Wima capacitors, Holco and Draloric resistors, a Noble balance pot, and Kimber interconnect wiring. This is the kind of attention to detail that makes you feel like you’re getting their money’s worth.

Description

The preamp portion of the Integrated 2 accepts four line-level inputs, has inputs and outputs for a tape loop, and one regular preamp output. The controls on the front panel consist of a volume control, a balance control, a selector switch, a mute switch, a stereo/mono switch, and a tape loop switch. Two lesser-seen features are a surround-sound processor (SSP) switch, which bypasses the connection from the preamp portion to the amp portion so you can control volume with a connected surround processor or bi-amp with the Integrated 2, and a headphone jack. All of the controls feel solid. Remember, if it feels cheap, it probably is cheap. The provided remote controls the volume, mute switch, and SSP switch. While not quite a nifty as Sonic Frontiers’ "puck" remote, it worked without a hitch. It gave a reasonable amount of control over the volume setting. A quick key hit moves the volume control a 16th of a turn. The remote works to about 45 degrees off axis. This worked well for me since my equipment is off to one side of my speakers.

The preamp section utilizes one Sovtek 6DJ8 tube per channel to drive the output section. The tubes give the line-level inputs a healthy input impedance of 40k ohms and are non-inverting. Motorola bipolar transistors are used for the final gain stage. According to published specifications, these transistors generate a maximum of 90Wpc into an 8-ohm load and 145Wpc into 4 ohms.

The Anthem Integrated 2 behaved reliably and predictably during my time with it. The internal heat sinks kept the Integrated 2 running cool, as the top plate was never more than comfortably warm to the touch. I only had one slight problem during my review. After about two weeks, the power transformer started to hum noticeably. I contacted Chris Johnson about this. He advised me to tighten the transformer’s mounting bolts, which may have come loose during shipping. The next evening I heeded his advice and it rectified the problem.

Sound

The first sonic characteristic of the Integrated 2 that catches your attention is the wealth of low-level information that it brings out in a recording. This in no way means that the Integrated 2 sounds etched or detailed (if I really know what that means). It just retrieves many of the nuances that make up a musical performance. Early in my reviewing process, I had a transcendental experience while listening to Mahler’s Fourth Symphony by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra [RCA LSC-2364]. Since I first started listening to this disc, I had always thought it to be a bit on the dull side. I guess I was wrong. In the opening movement, the sleigh bells and triangles sparkled with clarity. The interplay between violins and violas was hypnotic as the strings developed and expanded the opening theme. The brass was penetrating but never edgy. I kept finding myself becoming so engrossed in the music that I forgot to take notes. The wealth of subtleties that the Integrated 2 brought out in this lyrical piece helped me to gain a more profound understanding of what Mahler was up to. As the last bars faded into silence, I realized I was gently swaying in rhythm with the basses. Relaxed, I turned off the system and went to bed, eager to connect to another performance the next night.

Associated Equipment

Loudspeakers – ADS L620; Thiel CS1.5.

Integrated amplifier – Jolida SJ202A.

Analog – Yamaha P-350 turntable modified with AudioQuest Turquoise interconnects, Oracle sorbothane mat, and Music Direct tonearm wrap; Grado 8MZ cartridge; Creek OBH-8 phono preamp.

Digital – Onkyo DX-C730 CD player.

Interconnects – Kimber Kable Silver Streak, Nordost Red Dawn.

Speaker cables – AudioQuest Indigo.

Accessories – LAST record-care products; Caig Deoxit; Caig ProGold.

This experience sums up what is so great about the Integrated 2: the ability to help the listener emotionally connect with the music. I’ve been fortunate enough to listen to quite a few pieces of gear from Sonic Frontiers, and they all share this characteristic. While many components will intellectually stimulate you, it’s the special ones that allow the music to touch you as well. I don’t know if I have a technical explanation for this phenomenon. I’ve read many theories concerning this aspect of music reproduction, but I’ve never been entirely satisfied with any of them. The Integrated 2 exhibits revealing microdynamics, good retrieval of low-level information, and lacks any unpleasant artifacts in the upper octaves. I think all of these factors contribute to its ability to connect the listener with the music. After that, I’m at loss for words.

Tonally the Integrated 2 is slightly dark. Using our arcane lexicon of audiophile terminology, I liken the Anthem’s tonality to polished pewter. Both of the speakers I used to review the Integrated 2, especially my reference ADSes, are what I would consider bright in the upper octaves. Despite this, naturally recorded instruments and voices never take on any sort of unnatural bite when the speakers are driven with the Integrated 2. A good example of this is the period-instrument recording of Mozart’s Requiem by the Boston Baroque Orchestra [Telarc CD-80410]. Quite frequently, the strings on period-instrument recordings can sound metallic in their timbres. While the sounds of the violins and violas are not as lush on this recording as one might hear with modern instruments, there is never a sense of steeliness or hardness to them. The more I’ve listened to this recording, the more I’ve come to appreciate the way these unfamiliar-sounding instruments commingle. This piece opens softly with woodwinds and strings in what can only be called a foreboding funeral march. With the Integrated 2 in use, I am struck by the rightness of the blend of these instruments. Listening to this, with instruments sounding very much like they did 200 years ago, I’m able to better understand the genius of Mozart.

Being a tube guy myself, I was curious to hear the Integrated 2’s midrange. A warm, communicative midrange is the strength of tube amplification. It is also the area in which quite a few lower-priced solid-state amplifiers fall short. The Integrated 2 reproduces the middle band quite well. A good test for a piece of equipment’s capabilities in this area is Anonymous 4’s A Star in the East [Harmonia Mundi 907139]. This album is always such a trip to listen to; after a while, I always find myself breathing in sync with those exceptional women. The Integrated 2 cleanly separates the four voices without degrading their blend. Sibilants, a killer with any vocals, are only slightly exaggerated. The timbres of their voices are realistic in their nuances, and it is quite easy to tell that the sopranos are to the right and the altos are to the left. Only lacking is that last bit of palpability that tubes can give you, but it certainly isn’t anything that I longed for while listening to the Integrated 2.

The bass of the Integrated 2 is solid and precise. On The Sheffield Track Record [Sheffield Labs 20], the kick drum is taught and punchy, even at high levels (the Thiel CS1.5s show this off very well). Despite this control, one never feels that the notes are choked off or truncated in any way. I can distinctly hear the tone and decay of the kick drum as it vibrates after each impact. The bass guitar in this direct-to-disc album is also well rendered, with the Integrated 2 bringing out the metallic overtones of the strings as they are plucked and hammered. As a tube guy, I find the differences between the Integrated 2 and other tube gear I’ve heard are instructive. Most tube amps in the price range of the Anthem Integrated 2 tend to round off the edges of a bass note, leaving it sounding fuller. The Integrated 2 gives you more of the jagged edges that comprise a bass line. A good example of this is the sound of the upright bass on the Dave Brubek Quartet’s Time Out [Columbia CK 40585]. When played back through the Integrated 2, the upright bass is piquant in its flavor. The sounds of the fingers plucking the strings and the strings’ vibrations are favored over the sound produced by the bass’s body. This gives you a cleaner, more-precise bass sound with an understated-but-resonant harmonic signature. This also affects the instrument imaging, which I will discuss further. This emphasis also leaves the Integrated 2 slightly lean in the midbass. What this observation shows us is that even with an excellent integrated amp like the Anthem Integrated 2, some compromises still need to be made.

Given the right speakers, the Integrated 2 demonstrates good soundstaging and imaging capabilities. The overall presentation is laid-back, with the front edge of the soundstage just behind the speakers. Images of solo instruments and voices are solid in their placement across the soundstage. While the sense of depth and layering is good in the middle, it becomes more vague with instruments located behind and outside the speakers. As I hinted above, the images produced by the Integrated 2 tend to be localized as discreet sound sources rather than aureoles of sound. On Time Out, Brubeck’s piano is located behind the right speaker, with its keyboard facing the listener. One can easily "see" as he moves up and down the keyboard, but the body of the piano is less defined. However, groupings of instruments retain their scale and position within the orchestra with the Integrated 2 in use. One of my favorite music purchases of last year has been the complete Brahms’ Symphonies, conducted by Charles Mackerras and performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra [Telarc CD-80450]. These recordings were made with only two omnidirectional microphones and provide a very natural perspective of the orchestra. With the massed strings, I can make out the general dimensions of the sections and hear that the sections are comprised of individual instruments. I am, however, unable to locate the individual instruments within each section. I should say that with a better-resolving front-end, I might be able to improve this. But in my system, this is what I observed.

As you would expect from an amplifier that can push 145Wpc into a 4-ohm load, the Integrated 2 can handle big dynamic swings with ease. Respighi’s Pines of Rome can be a real torture test for a system when it comes to dynamics, with both extremely soft and extremely loud passages. The recent recording of this work by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra [Sony SK 66843] preserves these wide contrasts and has quickly become one of my references for big orchestral dynamics. The first movement, entitled "The pine trees of the Villa Borghese," opens with an energetic trumpet fanfare underscored by swirling woodwinds and strings played at forte. It romps along through several different melodies while building in volume. Just as the cacophony reaches a fevered pitch at fff -- poof, most of the orchestra drops out, leaving the strings and piano playing at ppp to start the next movement. It’s at this point I usually reach for the remote so I hear what’s going on. The second movement, "Pine tress near a catacomb," then progressively builds in volume until it finishes at fff. If you don’t fool with the remote, you’ll be able to hear an incredibly subtle increase in volume. The Integrated 2 brings all of this off very well. It never loses steam with each building crescendo, nor does its sound become hard or glassy during the big climaxes. It just seems to soar up into the stratosphere, unperturbed by the turbulence around it. While it lacks the authority of a big valve amp, I never felt it was being pushed to its limits with the ADS or Thiel speakers. I find this impressive with the Thiels, since they do present a fairly difficult load. They are rated at 83 dB/W/m, with nominal impedance of four ohms and minimum impedance of three ohms. It’s doubtless that the Integrated 2’s ability to handle this load with aplomb is why its dynamics are so satisfying.

The Anthem Integrated 2 is revealing in its ability to dig out microdynamics also. This goes hand in hand with the low-level resolution I mentioned earlier. Ivo Pogorelich’s recent recording of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition [Deutsche Gramophone DG 437 667-2] really shines when played back through the Integrated 2. This is an expressive performance of work that I thought I knew well. The piano’s percussive nature is intact, and the varying shades of attack are startling in their realism. The blindingly fast run at the end of "Limingos" is crisp, without any blurring of the notes. The Integrated 2 brings out Pogorelich’s subtle use of portemeno during "Catacombs," which adds gravity to the movement. The most surprising moment for me is at 2:50 into "Hut on Chicken’s Legs." While playing a series of descending chords, Pogorelich executes a sequence of very sudden pedal lifts. The technique results in the notes sounding as if they are being sucked back into the piano! The first time I heard this, I had to skip back on the CD to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. Sometimes I may wonder if joining the audiophile club is worth the price of admission, but moments like this erase any doubt for me.

Conclusion

The Anthem Integrated 2 arrives on the scene in what is quickly becoming a crowded sector of the high-end marketplace. Priced at $1799, the Integrated 2 falls roughly in the middle of the pack in terms of price. The only other integrated that I can speak with authority on is the Jolida SJ202A. I’ve owned this amp since 1996. Priced at around $700, it’s still a great bargain. But the Anthem Integrated 2 clearly outclasses it in terms of speed, low-level resolution and in the ability to drive speakers. Rated at 40Wpc, the Jolida simply doesn’t have the juice to drive more difficult loads. It does have a warmer midrange and highs with more air, which is all part of the classic tube sound. Which is better? Who knows? It really comes down to what tickles your fancy. The Integrated 2’s ability to drive a wider range of speakers certainly makes it tough to beat.

I have to take my hat off to Anthem for their successful hybridization. The Integrated 2 is certainly an overachiever. The Anthem motto is "Key to High-End Audio"; the Integrated 2 fulfilled this motto by giving me a goodly helping of all the things that high-end gear should accomplish and without any glaring weaknesses. If you are in the market for a new integrated amp, the Anthem Integrated 2 should make it on your short list of products to consider. You may be surprised at what you hear.

...Paul Schumann
paul@soundstage.com

Anthem Integrated 2 Integrated Amplifier
Price: $1799 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

Sonic Frontiers International
2709 Brighton Road
Oakville, Ontario, Canada L6H 5T4
Phone: (905) 829-3838
Fax: (905) 829-3033

Email: sfi@sonicfrontiers.com
Website: www.sonicfrontiers.com

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