ATC Multichannel Concept 7 Collection powered surround speaker system Page 2

The whole thing is neat, simple, and—theoretically, at least—capable of better performance than is usually gotten from separate components. The only potential drawback is that good loudspeaker designers are not always good amplifier designers, and vice versa, so a powered speaker is not necessarily better than a passive one. It can be, but it must be judged on its own merits—which, of course, was my intent here.

After its price, the second thing I noticed about the C7 system was how heavy its cabinets are. For someone accustomed to passive speakers, which are only wooden boxes with a few pounds of magnets in them, the mass of the C7 speakers was intimidating even as I realized that each box houses from one to three beefy amplifiers. Even if each amplifier weighed only 30 pounds, that would be 90 pounds for one of the 3-way units before you added the driver(s) and the heavily braced box.

Despite this, the full-range left, right, and surround speakers are relatively easy to move, even with their foot spikes installed, because their relatively compact footprint makes them easy to "walk" from one location to another. On the other hand, you'd have to be foolhardy or drunk to try moving the woofer or center-channel unassisted. Most of the weight of the full-range L, R, and surrounds is near the bottom of the cabinets, which makes them very stable despite their height. No toddler could knock one of them over without using an auto jack, and even a beefy adult would have to tackle it with intent to harm in order to topple it.

The 3-way speakers have no tweaking controls—no driver-level or equalization adjustments. This struck me as indicative either of ATC's smug arrogance or of supreme confidence in the speakers' designed-in balance. The subwoofer has continually variable controls for level, bottom lift, and lowpass crossover from 50Hz to 2kHz. The unusually high upper figure seems to imply an extremely fast subwoofer, and its sound tended to confirm that. The full-range speakers have a shaped dispersion pattern similar to what THX requires: 30° horizontal dispersion, 10° vertical. This produces a wide seating area while limiting reflections from the floor and ceiling, for minimal smearing.

The accompanying literature describes a signal-sensing power auto-Off/On function, but in fact the speakers I got (which were very early units) were not so equipped. Having to turn six speakers off and on manually every time you want to use them, from switches artfully concealed behind the enclosures, may not be all that big a deal, but it's completely unacceptable in what, at this price, is unarguably a luxury product. (The very rich do not bend over for anyone.) There was also supposed to be a selectable "movie mode"—presumably with hyped bass—but that feature also seemed to be absent from my review system. I couldn't care less about the "movie mode," but I'd like to assume that the missing auto-On/Off feature will be part of the C7 by the time you read this review.

Installation and Listening
The C7 was delivered and set up by Steve Kregling of ATC importer Flat Earth Audio. All of the units were initially placed where most other systems have worked optimally in my room: the L and R speakers closely flanking my 7-foot-wide Stewart projection screen, the center-channel right between them and a little farther back, the surrounds behind the listening area at ±120° from front center, and the downfiring subwoofer between the left front speaker and the left wall. The rear speakers were aimed to converge at the rear middle of the listening area.

ATC recommends running the L/C/R and surround speakers full-range and setting the sub to around 40Hz lowpass to fill out the extreme low end, which is the configuration I started with. I balanced out all channels using my reference Lexicon DC-2's internal signal generator and the RadioShack 33-2050 sound meter (70dB range, C weighting, slow response, aimed vertically).

The first thing I auditioned was a compilation DAT tape of film-sound excerpts—music, dialogue, and effects from LDs and DVDs—and it took only the first of these to make it clear that this system was something special. The sound was the furthest thing imaginable from the lifelessly laid-back daintiness of the home-theater speakers from most high-end speaker companies. More striking, though, was the amazing resemblance of most reproduced material to the sound of the real thing.

Spectral balance, which I had initially set by measurement alone, proved to be perfect except for a slight heaviness through a narrow bass range centered at around 40Hz. This prompted me to roll off the sub and upper-range speakers at 50Hz, which is how I always run my reference Tannoy 10DMT/Genesis 900 system. The heaviness was gone. Then I started listening seriously.

The ATC C7 system provoked the most protracted orgy of auditioning of any review system I can recall. I dragged out dozens of LPs, CDs, DVDs, and home-made tapes that I hadn't listened to for years, sampling some and getting so involved with others that I had to listen all the way through. I was in pig heaven! Unlike most of the "home theater" systems I've reviewed in the last 10 years, the C7 seemed more intent on reproducing reality than on glorifying music.

In terms of the real thing more aspects of the sound were right than weren't. Dialogue intelligibility, a common weakness with audiophile-speaker home-theater systems, was outstanding, not because of any horn-type sizzle or "aw" coloration, but because of truly amazing clarity and inner detail. The C7 was as free from coloration as any speaker I've ever had in my home; pink noise revealed no perceptible sizzles, rumbles, or vowel colorations. And beyond mere intelligibility, dialogue had an uncanny degree of realism, as did vocals, sound effects, and interior spaces.

The C7 did not seem to compress loud material at all, making explosions, gunshots, and clanging swords harrowingly realistic. It was equally responsive to quiet sounds like dripping water, rustling leaves, and Foley effects like rustling clothing and clinking jewelry. On many occasions, isolated surround effects were so startlingly realistic that—well, they startled me. (Sheffield Records' Doug Sax calls this "jump factor.")

The C7 was absolutely quiet. With the Lexicon's gain set to 12dB above Dolby/THX zero, there was no hum or hiss audible with my ear right up against any speaker. And this despite the fact that the speakers were plugged into different AC outlets on both sides of the room. Impressive!