About a year ago (in Issue 7) Playback conducted a survey of 10 sub-$1,500 stereo integrated amplifiers with an eye toward discerning which models were the best musical performers under real-world conditions. This month, we continue in the spirit of that original survey to investigate the Anthem Integrated 225 solid-state integrated amp, which is priced at $1,499. As it happens, the “225” in this amplifier’s name is a reference to its power output per channel—output that would have made it by far the most powerful amplifier in our original survey. What is more, the amplifier also claims impressively low distortion and wide bandwidth specifications—both of which are generally useful indicators of sonic potential. The real proof of excellence, however, always comes in the listening (not from reading a specifications sheet), and as you’ll learn in a moment, listening to Anthem’s Integrated 225 is a real joy.
Before we jump into the review proper, some background may be in order. Anthem is a Canadian A/V electronics manufacturer that is the sister brand of Paradigm loudspeakers; the firm is probably best known for its award-winning, home theater-oriented, multichannel audio components (such as the superb Statement D2 controller and Statement P5 multichannel amplifier Playback uses as its references). But in the beginning, Anthem originated as the offshoot of a well-respected Canadian high-end audio company called Sonic Frontiers. Back in the day, Sonic Frontiers catered to a discerning, purist, two-channel audio clientele and made its name by offering components that offered top-tier technologies and sonic refinements but at less-than-stratospheric prices. In a very real sense, then, the Integrated 225 is a product that reaches back to Anthem’s earliest, truest, and deepest roots.
Consider this amplifier if: you want an amp characterized by a robust, full-bodied sound that is, at the same time, beautifully controlled, refined, open, and full of finesse. And man, is this thing ever powerful; you can wade into challenging sonic territory (yep, Gustav Mahler, we’re talking about you) that would make lesser amps fold up and collapse, secure in the knowledge that the Anthem Integrated 225 will back you up every step of the way.
Look further if: you’ve got your heart set on buying an integrated amp that incorporates a top-shelf phono section. While the 225 provides a moving magnet phonostage, and one that has its strengths (a good signal/noise ratio and great bass), the fact is that the phono section is not in the same performance league as the rest of the amp.
Ratings (relative to comparably priced integrated amps)
- Treble: 8
- Midrange: 9
- Bass: 10
- Soundstaging: 9
- Dynamics: 10
- Value: 10
- A whopping 225 watts per channel of power output at 8 ohms.
- Balance control, tone controls with a tone bypass switch, and a mute switch.
- Analog inputs: five single-ended (RCA jack) stereo analog inputs, one balanced (XLR) stereo analog input, and a front panel mounted portable audio (mini-jack) input.
- Built-in phonostage suitable for use with moving magnet or high-output moving coil cartridges. (But note: the Integrated 225 phono section offers relatively low gain—just 35dB—so that you’ll want to use cartridges with fairly high output).
- Built-in headphone amp.
- Superb, illuminated remote control.
- Premium quality parts used throughout the audio signal path, including gold plated RCA input jacks, oversized speaker binding posts, close tolerance metal film resistors and “high-quality film signal capacitors.”
- Power supply that incorporates a massive “advanced generation toroidal transformer,” a pair of “oversized, low-ESL, low ESR Nichicon filter capacitors,” and a preamp supply “fed by two precision voltage regulators.”
- Fully symmetrical complementary Class AB output stage featuring “three pairs of high quality bipolar output devices per channel.”
Let me begin by offering a hint that should help maximize your enjoyment of the Integrated 225. I found that, on a pretty consistent basis, the amp seemed to require 20–30 minutes of warm-up before sounding its best. Upon initial startup, sound quality is good, yet a little bit flat, dry and mechanical sounding. But wait a few minutes and you’ll hear a noticeably richer, more nuanced, and significantly more three-dimensional presentation. Good things come to those who wait.
Once warmed up, the Integrated 225 provides a bedrock-solid foundation of powerful yet very tightly controlled bass that remains stable even at quite high output levels. Upon this low-frequency foundation the 225 builds a midrange band that is characterized by qualities of openness, transparency, and—for want of a better word—“forthrightness.” When a recording shows a vocalist or instrument appearing on stage, for example, the Anthem presents their sonic images with real solidity, always supporting those images with plenty of rich details that help define the leading and trailing edges of notes. Highs, in turn, are well detailed and beautifully delineated—almost, but not quite, achieving the sumptuous levels of harmonic richness that today’s best tube amps provide. But what, if anything, makes the Integrated 225 sound special? I would say the two qualities that set the Anthem apart from other good amps are its fearlessly robust dynamics and its ability to deliver an almost “sculptural” quality of three-dimensionality.
Phono section: I found the Integrated 225’s phono section was a mixed bag in terms of overall performance. On the plus side of the ledger, the phono stage is very quiet, offers strong, clear bass (better than that of many mid-priced standalone phono sections), and is reasonably well-detailed. But on the negative side of the tally sheet I observed two problems: the phono section makes upper midrange and treble frequencies sound a bit wiry and bright, while also slightly suppressing certain lower midrange frequencies. Put these qualities together and you’ve got an imbalance that can give some human and instrumental voices too much upper-end emphasis and not enough body down below (and this despite using a reference moving magnet cartridge that ordinarily sounds sweet, smooth, and well-balanced through other phonostages).
Vinyl: I put on one of my favorite reference tracks, “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”, from The Paul Desmond Quartet, Live [A&M/Horizon, LP] and came away impressed on one level, but disappointed on another. While the Anthem did a wonderful job with the ensemble’s acoustic bass and made the track’s delicate cymbal work sound highly detailed, the amp’s phono section also pulled the cymbals much too far forward in the mix while giving Desmond’s sax an imbalanced sound. The sound of Paul Desmond’s sax has been compared, famously, to the taste of a “dry martini,” but through the 225’s phono section the sax was all “gin” (higher notes and overtones) and no “vermouth” (lower notes and body). Having heard this record many times through various phonostages, I feel confident in saying that the 225’s rendition, though exciting and dramatic in its way, was not correctly balanced.
Other Sources: When you use the Anthem’s analog inputs, the amp really shines, as will become obvious whenever you put on a well made, highly transparent-sounding recording. A great example would be “The Mermaid,” from Norma Winstone’s Distances [ECM], which sounds simply stunning through the Anthem. The track opens with deep, mysterious bass notes (possibly a prepared piano) augmented with hand percussion sounds (various knocks and handclaps) and then introduces Winstone’s lilting, delicately inflected voice. Here, the Anthem’s qualities of openness, forthrightness, and three-dimensionality come into play, making the hand percussion sounds break free from loudspeakers to become vividly present in the room—as if the sounds were emanating from exact points in space, say, 10–12 feet away (you almost feel as if you could reach out and touch the performers). Then, when Winstone’s voice takes up the song, the 225 renders her voice with such achingly beautiful purity and clarity that you are able to hear subtle mouth sounds and the way that Winstone bends certain words and syllables to give them more emphasis or to allow them to ring out and sustain. Later, Winstone’s trio mates enter, Glauco Venier on piano and Klaus Gesing on bass clarinet, and their instruments, too, take up exact positions onstage and exhibit pitch-perfect timbres and textures that ring true to the sounds of real instruments. The point I want to make is that the Anthem transports you from the realm of “good hi-fi” to a higher level of involvement where you start thinking purely in terms of “great music.”
But as rewarding as the 225 can be on contemplative acoustic music such as Winstone’s Distances, it’s also a blast to hear on more energetic, electronic, rock-oriented music. I made this discovery while playing a favorite track called “Bass ‘n’ Drums” from Zooma [Discipline Global Mobile], a solo album by John Paul Jones (famed bassist for Led Zeppelin). The track is a remarkably funky, syncopated and, yes, realistically recorded duet between John Paul Jones on 4-string electric bass and Denny Fongheiser on drums. Frankly, not many hi-fi amplifiers (or loudspeakers, for that matter) are capable of reproducing bass guitars or drum kits at realistic volume levels, but the Integrated 225—which, let me tell you, is no shrinking violet—proved ready, willing, and able to handle the task. I was enthralled with the way the amp nailed the jaunty, aggressive, agile bounce of Jones’ bass lines and the crisp “snap”, “pop,” and “boom” of Fongheiser’s snare, tom-tom, and kick drum playing. To get this track right, amps have to deliver prodigious amounts of power on demand, yet also be able to start and stop on the proverbial “dime.” The 225 can do both, all day long.
Anthem’s Integrated 225 is a wonderful (and wonderfully versatile) integrated amp that offers plentiful power and equal measures of control and refinement (there’s nothing “loose” or foggy-sounding about this amp). While the amplifier’s built-in phono section does leave room for improvement, the rest of the amp is so powerful and so capable for the money that it easily earns a Playback Recommended award. Note, too, that this would be a good amp to use with hard-to-drive, power-hungry speakers.
SPECS & PRICING
Anthem Integrated 225 stereo integrated amplifier (solid state)
Power: 225Wpc @ 8 ohms, 310Wpc @ 4 ohms
Inputs: one phono input (moving magnet), seven stereo analog inputs (5 single-ended via RCA jacks, 1 balanced via XLR connectors, 1 portable audio via 3.5mm mini-jack)
Outputs: one tape output, one variable level pre-amp output, one headphone (1/4-inch jack) output
Other inputs/outputs: RS-232 control port, 12V trigger in/out, IR in/out, remote control
Dimensions (HxWxD): 5.875” x 17.25” x 18”
Weight: 42.6 lb.
Warranty: Five years, parts and labor