SBL v ATC SCM40

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!

Jonathan

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Amazing review, thank you Jonathan! :+1:t3:

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Like you i have just turned 50 and my naim system hadn’t changed much over 25 + years.
It all stated changing a few years ago, when i also got my 1st streamer and with that it opened up my ears to lots of new music that i just wouldn’t have found.
My system started with a 3.5 cd, 82, 250, 2 x hc and sbl’s, i then later added a dual TT and it stayed like this for around 20 years, until i went active with a second 250 and snaxo 2-4, which really got the sbl’s singing at there best and is well worth doing, this did help in the bass department and overall control and for me was one of the best upgrades.
But i agree 100% on how you find the sbl’s and like you i find the bass department to be lacking a bit of weight and this is with them on a solid floor, soild wall behind and careful set up. But i could live with the slight bass problem as they are fantastic in all other areas, but my biggest problem came when i moved rooms, no longer did i have a solid wall and even my double boarding the wall with sound board to try and improve things, it still didnt bring them back to what i had before. I lived with it like this for a few months and in that time i also upgraded a few other bits of kit, which did help a bit but at the same time even more highlighted the problem that i was trying to step round, as i love my sbl’s and didnt want to have to go speaker hunting.
Being active and wanting to keep it that way is a bit of a problem when looking for new speakers to better the sbl’s and most of the contenders dont come up for sale often. But i had a chance to try the lovely SL2 on my system and i must admit these had been on my radar for years, wired in and ready to go, i sat back and put private investigations on.
They sounded nice, better than the sbl’s but not by much, but more to the point they added no more bass weight at all and I guess they were never going to, so back to looking.
Then out the blue i spotted some S600 with bmr snaxo, only problem being the size and different set up, but after some thought i decided what had i to lose in trying them.
In they went and first thing was the size and weight of them, i left them on the casters as i had no idea on how much space they needed, then i noticed that i had to change the connections over to the special octave ones and also join up the bass driver connections.
Finally i was ready to go and once again i went for my trusted track, to start with they sounded duller and nowhere near as alive and i was once again disappointed, but they did have bass and lots of it, very deep but very dull, errrrrr, anyway it was late and work next day so left it and hoped that once it had a few hours to warm up it might sound better.
The following night i tried again and was pleased to say it was sounding better, but still not great, but after moving them around and removing the casters, it all came alive and now i am loving them 100% dont think the neighbour’s like them as much, ha ha.
But what i am getting at is that, there is life after the sbl’s its just hard after 20 years to come round to it.
I now run a 52, nds/555, p8/superline and 3 supercaps and the active S600 really do sing well, great speed, lovely vocals and deep bass, very much like a bigger brother to the sbl’s and naim sound.
I love my music once again and that is what matters and it looks like you are also doing the same, enjoy streaming and finding new great music.
Cheers dunc

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Great write up Jonathan! Looks like you have made your choice which is fine.

I couldn’t help notice your SBL backs onto a radiator rather than being hard up against the wall. I expect you have no choice in this so your preference for the ATCs is still valid. However, if you could make an adjustment you might squeeze a little more bass response from your Sibbles and save some money in the process.

Just a thought, nice choice to have given how difficult it can be to choose speakers.

Stu

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Stuart,

Yes that radiator is a pain and actually as it is permanently switched off I should probably have it removed but that would impact carpet etc. In my previous house I did have the SBL’s hard up against the wall though and the issue with scale and bass remained the same - indeed it was worse because the wall was plasterboard backed by timber frame and clad in a brick outside wall.

I probably should point out that the hair and costume was for a rock stars and groupies 50th party and I don’t normally look quite like that!! LOL

J

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For what its worth: my wife likes the bay window benches.

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Jonathan, if you are impressed with the Passive ATC SCM40’s, I can thoroughly recommend the Active version. I went from Passive ATC SCM19’s with a Naim 250DR to Active SCM40’s and I love them! I know ATC have a demo set doing the rounds, so if your dealer could get hold of them, I’m sure you wouldn’t be disappointed. Best regards, Russ.

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Good idea Russ - I could be quite tempted by that although it would mean ditching the 250 and significantly increasing the budget. By all accounts though the active SCM40’s are on a whole new level! I think a 250 is ‘just’ enough to drive the SCM40’s, mine is running at around 10 o’clock and delivering what I would describe as healthy listening levels which people would perceive as fairly loud but not party loud and the 250 is fairly warm doing it.

Aside from budget the only deterrent is that should I ever return to reviewing it would complicate matters (or at least I would have to keep the 250 on hand purely for review purposes) but I must admit I am intrigued by just how much better the active version is.

Brg,

Jonathan

Thanks Ardbeg - this house was like a set from George and Mildred when we moved in but gradually we are stamping our own identity on it! Glad your missus approves though and the cupboards under the bay window are great for storing junk like the printer, game controllers, nas drives etc.

J

Why would removing it affect the carpet?
I’d get it removed before you made any decision about new speakers.

If whoever did the plumbing did it correctly then it’s 20 minutes to remove it.

And the 102 needs swapping for an 82, the 82 gives a much more lifelike presentation.
:blush:

In my experience it is rare for plumbing to be done what I call properly!

But it could still be fiddly removing the protruding pipes to do it properly, and/or if necessary, depending in part from where they protrude - I assume through the floor given the carpet comment.

If my previous experience with this house is anything to go by nothing was ever done properly!! The previous owners who had it from new in 1967 seemed to bodge everything and we’ve faced insane plumbing, poor wiring, smoking chimneys, bad plastering and generally crap everything! The only consolation is that we bought it knowing it ‘had potential’ LOL and it is just about getting there.

Yes the pipe comes up through the floor which is concrete so I always assumed it would be difficult to cap off without protruding and in addition would leave a hole in the carpet where the pipe used to come up.

However you have set me thinking about removing the radiator which I think will benefit whatever speaker is there so I will call a pretty good plumber I used before for his view.

As for the amp then I’m keeping eyes out for a good 82/282/52 so it’s on the list! The general aim is to get to 52 if a nice one comes up! That has always been my goal.

J

Another member of the 1969 club here though I’m not fifty until October so still young compared to you 50 year old gits!
I had some SBL’s very briefly in an all Olive 82/SC/250 and as good as they where and they where very good when I connected my Dynaudio Contour 3.4s up the leap was large in every department so your findings don’t surprise me but I’d take the advice above and try the active ATC40’s I heard a 52/SC connected to a pair a couple of years back at a clients house and it sounded fantastic.

Don’t forget you need a Supercap to run a 52 :grin:

Guinnless,

Absolutely - which is why I think moving to 82/282 makes most sense for a while or even forever.

Jon

I went from 102/Hicap to 82/Hicap and then to a 82/Supercap.

With the 82 the speakers disappear and voices sound so lifelike but without being ‘forward’ like the 102.

The Supercap added scale that extended above and out of the speakers, vocalists now appear life sized.
After my Supercap (Olive) was serviced I needed to reposition my Spendor A7s due to a much extended bass performance. It took a couple of months for the Supercap to run in post-service over which time it just got better and better.

I too have just turned 50 and having sold my active, CD driven, SBL utilising system, have just pushed the button on a set of active SCM50s

It will be interesting to see how experiences pan out and apologies for my comparatively brief introduction here

Chris,

I’ve never heard 50’s but in a big room I think they would be sensational!!

Personally I think Quad’s statement all those years ago about a straight wire with infinite gain being the ideal still holds true for me and that’s what ATC seem to strive for too.

J

But which wire? That’s a whole can of worms you have there.

Congratulations chris5 I’m sure the active SCM50’s will sound amazing. Did you go for the Classic or the Tower version, did you compare the two? I love my Active 40’s but if I ever do upgrade it will be for the Active 50’s Tower version.
Best regards Russ.