ATC Multichannel Concept 7 Collection powered surround speaker system

Something that never fails to irritate me is an intemperately enthusiastic review of an outrageously expensive product. I'm sure this is partly because I hate reading about something that might just be every bit as good as the reviewer says it is when I can't afford to buy it. But I think the greater part of my pique is because I suspect the reviewer was so awestruck by the product's princely price that he couldn't bring himself to find fault with it. Oh, sure, he'll pick a few nits just to show how perceptive he is, but his "report" will essentially be an exercise in idolatry, with nary a question about value for money.

Some reviewers (writing in other magazines, of course) are so slavishly consistent in their mindless veneration of five-digit pricing that their reaction is knee-jerk, even when a particular product seems ludicrously priced only to appeal to adolescent millionaires who compulsively buy the most expensive of everything just to prove that they can.

Yet from time to time I'm reminded that some ridiculously expensive products may actually be worth the asking price. One such—a massive power amp made by Boulder Amplifiers and selling for more than a quarter of what my home is worth—sounds better than any other amp I've ever heard, and by a substantial margin. But that's only for two—admittedly superb—channels of amplification. It doesn't include center, surround, and subwoofer speakers, or the extra amplifiers to drive them, all of which are included and fully integrated into the ATC package reviewed here. That doesn't make the $93,000 ATC Multichannel Concept 7 Collection (hereinafter referred to simply as C7) any less affordable to poverty-stricken reviewers, but it makes it look a lot less exorbitant.

Founded in England in 1974 by Aussie Billy Woodman (who is still its prez and chief designer), Acoustic Transducer Company, best known by their initials, ATC, started out making custom loudspeaker drivers for recording studios. They made their first complete speaker system in 1978, introduced a compact consumer monitor in 1990, and in 1996 launched a proprietary "super-linear" magnet design to minimize the adverse effects of hysteresis (see sidebar, "Hysteresis"). Today, ATC is the best-known and most respected pro speaker company in Europe, where their clients include every major audio name.

Still, few people on this side of the Atlantic have ever heard of ATC, and they figured their plunge into the US domestic market would have to make a major, attention-getting splash. They needed a system that would make a visual and audible "statement"—a term that, in my experience, often implies some sort of assault on good taste.

That is not the case with the C7, though I confess I find their appearance more impressive than attractive. Each unit consists of an extruded aluminum frame with rounded corners (to reduce edge diffraction), supporting gently curved side panels of thick, medium-density fiberboard. The subwoofer and center channel are capped with an inch-thick slab of acrylic-like material that looks—and responds to a knuckle-rap—like marble. In the system tested, the L, R, and surrounds were identical. Each was capped with a shallow cup of some composite material that went bock when I tapped it, but the cups seemed to have no adverse effect on the sound. I'm told that later production will have the same acrylic endcaps as the center and subwoofer.

The C7's vaguely art-deco appearance reminds me of the curves and tapered chrome ribs of Ginger Rogers' furniture and Buck Rogers' space ships. The system won't blend with any contemporary décor I can imagine, but my problem with its appearance was less a matter of décor and more a matter of appropriateness. Many home-theater buffs, particularly those who might be able to conceive of buying in this price range, don't want their speakers to make a visual statement; they want them to be like movie-theater speakers: invisible. Visible loudspeakers call continuous attention to the fact that the movie is only a movie, in violation of the movie exhibitor's first principle: The machinery that makes the magic must be kept out of sight, like the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain. In this respect the C7 is more like most exotic, high-end, audio-only speakers: it is clearly not designed to be modestly concealed.

ATC sheds little light on the design and construction of their speakers because, except for some of the patented innovations that contribute to sonic excellence (like Super Linearity), they evidently feel that other nitty-gritty details ain't nobody's business but their own. I can't argue with that. When a product gives me no choices about how it's configured, I don't care to know how because there's no point in my knowing. I care about how it looks, how it sounds, and how reliable it is—that's it.

I am, however, predisposed to like powered loudspeakers because they're the best way to go. Properly done, designing amplifiers and speakers specifically for each other allows every component to be precisely matched to the others. Unlike the American audiophile tradition of mixing and matching, which even its most devout disciples will admit is pretty much of a crapshoot, system integration lets every parameter of every component be optimized for all the others. Each amplifier can be tailored to deliver only as much power as its driver needs to work optimally, but not enough to burn it out; driver equalization can be added with the knowledge that it will behave tidily and predictably in every setup; and amplifier damping can be made to perfectly complement the LF characteristics of the woofer and its enclosure.