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.”