Turning 50 is a milestone in anyone’s life and I’ve had a pretty static system for two decades - Naim Cdi/NAC102/HICAP/250/SBL while my Michell Gyrodec/QC/RB600/AT-OC9 has proved a formidable analogue front end. Recently though I have added a Naim NDX streamer and am thoroughly enjoying its engaging presentation of music and its superb integration with the ipad app.
The listening room is 33ftx14 feet with a breezeblock internal wall behind the SBL’s which fire across the short axis of the room. What I have always loved about the SBL’s is their transparency and speed when responding to transient signals. They are just glorious on female vocals, plucked acoustic guitars and the like when fed well recorded material from a fine source. What I have always disliked about them is their somewhat limited ability to reproduce deep bass and scale in the lower registers. I know the SBL’s can do deep bass, but not really at lifelike levels so acoustic guitars sound somewhat anaemic and bass drums do not really punch with lifelike impact - for that the NBL’s are better and the DBL’s are superlative!
From my years reviewing at Hi-Fi News, countless speakers came and went through my system. Many speakers offered prodigious scale and bass but rarely did they offer the control and slam I was seeking. The vast majority exhibited significant overhang or merely tuneless rumbling where bass synth line notes should be! I’d rather have the fundamental accuracy of the SBL’s over any number of loudspeakers incapable of carrying a tune, even if I have to compromise on the scale of the sound.
The only exception to this were a set of ATC SCM20 monitors that I reviewed many years back. They came in for review as ATC’s then smallest 5.1 home theatre combo and I still recall that their ‘baby’ subwoofer arrived direct from ATC on a truck in a wooden packing crate marked ‘Two man lift only’ - this then was a company that didn’t do things by halves!
The sound those ATC’s produced driven by a huge 5 channel Bryston power amp was staggering for its immense detail and transparency and yet also its scale. It was the first time I had a speaker in the house that threatened to unseat the SBL from its perch as my reference speaker. As a result I used to pay particular attention to making sure I heard ATC at shows and earmarked them as a potential speaker replacement when funds permitted.
After an expensive career change from IT to flying and the expenses of raising a child the opportunity to change the system significantly didn’t arise for many years, but now with finances slightly improved I have this weekend borrowed a set of ATC SCM40 passives for further investigation.
The first thing that struck me is how incredibly heavy these ATC’s are. The SBL’s are no lightweights but it isn’t fun moving the ATC’s around to seek the best position in the room. They are however beautifully finished and everything from the fit of the integral stands to the magnetically attached metal grilles speaks volumes for quality and attention to detail.
I started off by selecting a number of tracks for audition comprising:
Lynyrd Skynyrd - ‘Sweet home Alabama’ (boogie, ability to deal with poor recording, tonal balance)
Rolling Stones - ‘Miss you’ (boogie, transient response on snare and realism of guitars)
The Corrs - ‘no frontiers’ unplugged (female vocal transparency, imaging, clarity, dynamics, realism)
Shawn Mullins - ‘Twin rocks Oregon’ (male vocals, transparency, acoustic guitar transients)
Cake - ‘Short skirt long jacket’ (transients, speed, timing)
Vivaldi 4 Seasons - ‘Winter’ Academy of ancient music (acoustic, tone, vivacity, realism)
I played all six on the SBL’s and without question this was a very engaging presentation - with the exception of the Skynyrd which is poorly produced the rest all showed the SBL’s to have remarkable precision, transparency and excellent dynamic range. The Corrs in particular was just exemplary, it’s a beautiful natural recording and the voices of all three female singers were astonishingly lifelike.
I switched to the ATC’s and while it was clear that the Lynyrd Skynyrd had more weight to the presentation the band certainly weren’t playing in the room by any stretch of the imagination and the whole performance felt constrained. Moving on to the Rolling Stones though I found myself simply astonished. All of the clarity and speed of the SBL’s was there but now there was lifelike scale to the rendition. The sensation was akin to walking into a bar to find Keith, Mick, Ronnie and Charlie jamming in the corner. The drums had lifelike heft and impact behind them but remained fast and agile too. It was one of the most memorable hi-fi experiences of my life and it was very clear that in the words of the great Nigel Tufnel ‘these go to eleven’.
(With apologies to Nigel Tufnel)
It was time to move on to the Corrs unplugged track which had sounded so beautiful on the SBL’s. This time the piano accompaniment had a richer tone and sounded more lifelike and the vocals were slightly warmer sounding. I did wonder if there was a slight decrease in transparency and openess compared to the SBL’s, perhaps just a shade less sense of being right in front of the performers and indeed I think this may be the case.
The Shawn Mullins track is another superb quality recording and his bourbon and honey soaked voice came across as rich and multi-faceted while the fingerpicked guitar sounds were magnificently lifelike. You could tell that Mullins was playing a full sized jumbo acoustic because of the warmth of the tone. Delicate details like breathing and squeaks as his hands dragged on the lacquer were ruthlessly clear. It’s this ability to expose the fine detail of a recording that hints at ATC’s roots in studio monitoring.
The Cake track showed that the ATC’s have no problem dealing with very snappy rhythms and are capable of displaying great nimbleness. This is a fairly bright recording and the ATC’s reflected that just as the SBL’s did but without either speaker becoming too shrill or unpleasant - testament to the excellent design of the tweeters in both designs.
The Vivaldi displayed a similar sense of openess to the SBL’s but with greatly enhanced sense of acoustic space and offered a presentation that gave the instruments a more lifelike presence in the room. The sound was slightly fuller of course but also larger.
I moved on to other tracks too - Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat it’ was just blistering on the ATC’s. I realise that mention of playing Michael Jackson right now is about as bad as admitting to the rotary club chairman that you once voted Labour but boy can the man deliver a song! The drums beats were just stunning and hit home with visceral impact that the SBL’s could never hope to match yet remained as tight as the knicker elastic on your first girlfriend’s underwear.
The ATC’s then are simply astonishing. When you walk into a room and a band are playing live there’s a palpable sense of the air moving in the room and the instruments being live because the sound of a snare being hit has such transient attack. It’s that quality that I fell in love with when I first heard naim amplification and it’s something very few hi-fi manufacturers seem to pay much attention to. It’s clear that ATC do though. The SCM40’s do everything that the SBL’s do, but in addition offer a far wider bandwidth sound that enables the lower registers to be fully realised and which conveys the true sound of the instruments being played.
As my music system also incorporates a projector based home cinema system courtesy of the Pioneer LX73 receiver, I think I will add the C3C centre channel speaker to the order. I never found an acceptable centre channel speaker to combine with SBL’s and so have run in phantom centre mode since the system was established.
As for the SBL’s after 20 years at the head of my system I had begun to wonder if they would ever be bettered - at least for a price I could afford! I love them too much to ever part with my immaculate beech finished MK2 pair. So they will move to rear surround duties where I expect their clarity and transient abilities will be hugely beneficial.
Not so much a case of the king is dead, more a case of he’s semi-retired.
Interested as ever in other people’s experiences and hope this provided some useful insights!