REVIEW: ANTHEM STR INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER
Canada's Anthem stepped up with their STR series. While its previous Integrated, the 225i retailed for less than $3,000, the new STR Integrated retails for more than twice that, $7,999 RRP.
That’s quite a bit of hard earned coin. So the big question is, does the new STR Integrated Amplifier perform at a level that justifies the higher asking price. Well, let’s find out
STR Integrated Amplifier
I owned the previous 225i for a time. It was a fair amp, but I found it a little on the dull side. Not a bad amp as such, just not as involving as I would have liked it to be. However, a friend of mine borrowed it for a few weeks, and he loved it, so not everyone agreed with my assessment.
The new STR is an entirely new design and comes with both MM and MC phono stages built in. It also has quite a comprehensive choice of digital inputs, USB, AES and dual coax and optical plugs. All will handle 24/192 PCM signals except for the USB which steps up to 32/384 (and DSD up to 5.6 MHz).
Add in the more traditional options of four unbalanced, and one set of balanced inputs and I was feeling a bit spoiled for choice. The STR Integrated can also be used via IP control over a local network, but as I’m not in a position to test this option out, I have to say I like the idea. So while connectivity options abound, the only thing missing is HDMI.
I’m still not completely sold on the look of the STR series, but I do like the option to show more than just the volume on the screen. A press of the “info” button on the remote adds the input name in the top left of the screen, sample rate at left bottom, stereo/mono on the bottom right, and the top right will either be clear or show that Anthem's Room Correction (ARC) is active.
Which brings me to the remote, it’s a nice small and light unit, uncluttered and functional. And since it’s made of aluminium, it still manages to feel solid and worthwhile.
Case construction is solid and clean and the unit is reassuringly heavy to lift. By that, I mean that it feels heavy enough to be taken seriously but not quite heavy enough to strain the back of someone who isn't used to regular heavy lifting.
As usual, this review was performed using my YBA Heritage CD100 CD spinner (mostly as a transport), Aurealis coax digital cable, Redgum Audio Pipeline speaker cables and my old faithful Lenehan Audio S2R stand mount speakers.
I did do a little DAC comparison between the Anthem and my usual YBA, finding the Anthem's internal DAC to be a bit more capable in the area of strings and percussion, but I couldn't pick a difference on vocals until I set up ARC.
I chose to perform this review a little differently to others. I was aware of Anthem's ARC functionality from the beginning, but I wanted to hear the STR Integrated in its uncorrected form before I went through the ARC set up process. Every other amplifier I’ve heard in my room is without DSP assistance, so I wanted to compare apples with apples before I go adding any candy glaze or cinnamon to the recipe.
After receiving the STR, I ran it in for as long as I could manage, about 250 hours in this case before starting to work through my usual collection of albums. Once I was confident I had a handle on the STR sound. I spun up my test disc and made pages of notes.
The next day I downloaded the ARC software from the Anthem website and ran through the setup procedure using the microphone and tripod that came with the amp.
I then repeated the entire procedure, slightly faster this time as I didn’t need to be concerned with running the amp in, and made more notes. So as I work through the rest of the review, I will be talking about the performance of both the STR in uncorrected form, and with ARC employed and the differences between them.
So, getting down the nitty gritty - how does this new Anthem integrated sound?
THE NITTY GRITTY
Brass has a nice harmonic edge to it with trumpets keeping their feeling of acoustic bite but not sounding hard or harsh. Triangles put me in mind of a series of little rippling bells, they carry more vibrant life and have a more pleasing ring to them than usual.
Both soft and hard piano come across exactly as they should, the soft is mellow and sweet while the hard retains its speed and impact but maintaining its pleasant sonic flavour. ARC does have a noticeable effect here and it is a positive one, but it is small and attempting to describe it would be splitting hairs.
Flexible and musical, the mid-range of the STR is fuller than most. Interestingly it also sounds larger than most, with both instrumentals and vocals sounding larger than life. There is also a harmonic edge to the music that is both captivating and satisfying with every vibrant string pluck.
Every touch of a bow to a string jumps out across the room, and every light, percussive tap grabs your attention. ARC also has a positive effect here, with it engaged the music sounds just a touch clearer and a little higher vertically in the soundstage.
Solid and large, the bass performance of the STR rolls well, but punches feel a little on the light side. It works well for smaller drums and rolling thunder but is a little light to give kick drums their due. Turn ARC on, however, and that changes. Drums come to life with a crisper initial impact and a deeper and fuller mid-note. There is also a little of the vibrant energy of the midrange down here as well which comes across as a sort of soft, warmth to the bass which is quite frankly addictive. As one would expect, this is where the functionality of ARC shines, in countering the room nodes that affect the bass frequencies.
Honest and nuanced and about 20 percent larger than life, or 40 percent larger with ARC running. From soft and sultry to operatic from the ladies, and from gravelly to hard and hungry from the gents, the STR does everything well. And some things far better than just well.
Several times with the STR I heard vocal overdubs as I had not heard them before. While I could audibly separate four different layers from each other without ARC engaged, engaging ARC once more resulted in somehow only being able to distinguish three vocal layers. Each one was a little clearer and more detailed, but the light subtlety needed to get down into that extra layer just wasn’t there. So while ARC is very impressive, it doesn’t seem to be quite perfect, at least not yet.
Soundstage placement is a little understated with the STR. It is seamless and detailed, but you have to concentrate to notice the details. It does not lack stereo separation or even 3-dimensional sound, but neither is portrayed so blatantly that they distract from the musical performance.
It does, however, feel larger than usual in the same way that the singers feel larger than life. On occasion, instrumental separation is apparent enough to stand out and be noticed, but for the most part, the soundstage does its job and stays in the background.
Putting all of these individual sections together results in a tall and broad mid-range which is supported by a highly resolving top end and a solid, lively and full (but not overpowering) bass section. The flexible midrange is the real star here, but it is supported so well from both ends that it really shouldn’t be allowed to claim all the credit.
The Anthem STR did an excellent job with everything I could throw at it, but the real stand out is its performance on stringed instruments. Strings really stand out as its strong point, even against a background of other points that are rather strong themselves. And if we extend that performance to powered string instruments, well, I’m afraid I’d be in danger of gushing over it just a little.
I have an Electric Guitar Test track (one of my favourite tracks from Joe Satriani) that is on regular rotation for every amplifier I audition or review. Some amps do well, some don't, and some do very well. I usually write notes on the level of energy, or harmonic bite, or rebellious feel, or whatever else comes to mind as I listen. On my sheet of notes for the Anthem STR, I was a bit lost for words, so I just drew a smiley face!
I then went on to spin up some Gary Moore, Aerosmith and Van Halen before moving on to a couple of Steve Vai’s solo albums. I’m not certain if the STR offers the best reproduction of electric guitar I’ve ever heard, but I'm sure it's planted firmly in the top 5.
Anthem's STR Integrated is a very musical amplifier which is capable of reproducing a wide range of instruments and vocals exceptionally well. Add in Anthem's Room Correction functionality, and this is a component with vast appeal.
Overall it's an excellent foray into the higher end of audio by Anthem. I have to admit I was not expecting an integrated amplifier that could play in the same price range as products produced by long-established companies such as Luxman and Accuphase, but I am delighted indeed to discover that my expectations were thoroughly exceeded.
The Anthem STR Integrated Amplifier is available now in black or silver finish.
For more information visit Anthem.
Jeff thought Chemistry might be his passion but in 2012 discovering StereoNET, that was the end of that. An enthusiast of most things Hi-Fi, he particularly likes Integrated amps. He is working on broadening his horizons but integrated amps remain his first love.