Atlantic Technology System 920 Speaker System and Onkyo TX-SR503 A/V Receiver

Thinking outside the box.

Who says you have to sacrifice performance to create a small, affordable speaker system? Not Atlantic Technology. With the new $899–$999 System 920, they set out to prove that we can and should expect more than we're currently getting from most tiny sub/sat and HTIB speakers. I put their claim to the test for this Spotlight review by mating the speakers with Onkyo's brand-new $300 TX-SR503 A/V receiver. Add an inexpensive universal disc player to this combo, and you've got a complete home theater system for about $1,400.

Feeling Whole Again
The System 920 is the least expensive ensemble in Atlantic Tech's line, but you wouldn't know it by looking at it. The build quality is outstanding. The speakers and sub inherited their driver and design technologies from the company's higher-end lines. The inert MDF cabinets create an impression of heft, but each speaker weighs only 4 pounds. The magnetically attached grilles and attractive polished side panels, available in black ($105) or silver ($120), are wonderfully stylish touches that belie the low price.

The next thing that caught my eye was the center channel—or lack thereof. Rather than including a horizontally aligned center speaker, Atlantic Tech supplies five identical, vertically oriented 920 LR speakers, each with a 1-inch soft-dome tweeter and a 4-inch GLH woofer. There's another difference. Narrow is all the rage in speakers these days, and many manufacturers accommodate this style by substituting a couple of small woofers for one larger woofer, then they put the whole driver array in as skinny a cabinet as they can design. Small speakers have a hard enough time reproducing midrange frequencies; minimizing their drivers and cabinets doesn't make their job any easier and puts a lot more pressure on the subwoofer to carry the midbass load, while also handling the lowest frequencies it was intended for. Atlantic Tech does not employ this practice with the 920 LR.

The trend seems to be that subwoofers are getting beefier as the speakers get thinner. In contrast, Atlantic Tech's 102 SB features a modest 8-inch woofer and 100-watt (rated) amplifier in a modestly sized but well-built sealed cabinet that measures just slightly more than a foot in each dimension.

Before I introduced the speakers to the Onkyo receiver, I decided to listen to them using a receiver that I know well, Pioneer's $1,700 Elite VSX-55TXi, which is admittedly a higher-priced model than most people would use with these speakers. The Pioneer has a warm sound that takes off the harsh edges found in brighter systems; so, when a system sounds bright through it, you can imagine how much brighter it would sound with a more up-front receiver. The 920 LRs have a rated frequency response of 100 hertz to 20 kilohertz, so I set the receiver's crossover at 100 Hz. I then ran the speakers in for a while using a five-channel stereo mode, and then switched to Dolby Pro Logic II to casually listen to audio from my cable box. I always listen to my stereo TV signals in DPLII, which means the center channel does most of the work. If that speaker falls short, my everyday entertainment experience suffers.

The quality of the dialogue that emerged from the 920 LR in the center position stopped me in my tracks. I've listened to many sub/sat systems, and I've come to expect a certain tonal quality from tiny center channels—usually a thin, nasal sound. The less nasal it is, the more I usually like the system's performance. I couldn't judge this center by the same standard because it had a completely different sound—the sound of natural midrange. What a concept.

If you're used to a horizontal center channel, the 920 LR center's tonal shift may throw you off, but I liked the fact that it sounded like the rest of the speakers in the system, especially with music. I'm often reluctant to use DPLII for music, even if I want a bigger soundstage, because I find vocals to be more natural in stereo. With the System 920, I enjoyed the best of both worlds: a large sound and vocals that retained the same character whether they came through the center or left/right speakers.

There's some chestiness with deeper male vocals, but I'll take a little chestiness if it means I can hear more center-channel effects in movie soundtracks. That's what the 920 LR center gave me, whether it was relaying more of the battle sounds in the "Battle of the Pelennor Fields" from The Return of the King or just putting vocals on an even footing with special effects in The Empire Strikes Back.

That upgraded 4-inch woofer doesn't just benefit the center channel. The surround field was fuller in the middle without sacrificing high-end clarity. The sound had a wholeness that's often missing from smaller systems. Surround effects didn't just consist of higher-frequency swooshing and whizzing; the effects had real meat on their bones, which made them more believable. In a scene like "Lobby Shooting Spree" from The Matrix, the music behind all of those machine guns and high-pitched shell casings is often buried, but here it had enough presence to complete the scene. Whether I was listening to stereo music, high-resolution audio, or movie soundtracks, I was consistently impressed by the System 920's cohesiveness, the way each piece of the ensemble seemed comfortable carrying its own weight.

Man, does that ease the 102 SB subwoofer's burden. With both music and movies, bass notes had excellent definition. It may not shake your room as much as larger subwoofers I've heard, but I'll take refinement over brute force any day. With the help of my room's boundaries, I got wonderful low-end presence in scenes from U-571, The Return of the King, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

That nice blend between the sub and sats meant I didn't have to experiment with the crossover setting or spend much time fiddling with speaker and sub placement, although the vertical center may prove challenging in some setups (it's 8.5 inches tall). In the manual, Atlantic Tech recommends that you keep the speakers away from the wall and align all three front speakers at ear level. This setup certainly maximizes the drivers' effectiveness and creates the fullest sound, but I also experimented with higher placements and didn't feel like I lost much ground.

I did need to push the receiver's volume a little more than usual in order to bring out the best in this speaker system. The more volume I fed it, the more it seemed to come into its own. There are other sub/sat systems that sound bigger overall, but I've yet to hear one that sounds as full as the System 920.

Nice and Easy
So the System 920 sounded great with a receiver that costs almost twice as much as the speakers. How would it sound with a comparably priced entry-level receiver like the TX-SR503?

Onkyo has found an excellent balance between features and ease of use in this new receiver. It's a 7.1-channel model that has the major Dolby and DTS processing modes, three wide-bandwidth component inputs, one set of 5.1-channel analog inputs (awkwardly labeled as part of the DVD inputs on the back panel), and an extra set of speaker connections if you'd prefer to send stereo audio to a second zone rather than use the rear channels.

During setup, I was disappointed to discover that the receiver doesn't have an onscreen display, until I realized that I didn't need it. The front-panel display is thorough and easy to maneuver, and the clearly written manual will walk a beginner through each step. I assigned the digital inputs to my sources, then set speaker size, distance, and level—and that's it. There are a couple more advanced controls to adjust the DPLII and DTS Neo:6 parameters, too.

In terms of build quality, the TX-SR503 is more substantial than most receivers you'll find in the HTIB realm, employing a hefty power transformer and Onkyo's Wide Range Amplifier Technology. The plastic binding posts for the speaker connections are the only things that reflect the receiver's low price tag; they're very close together, which makes it a challenge to insert bare wire. The receiver is available in a black or silver finish.

The remote is designed to be a universal model that controls up to five components, and it's preprogrammed for Onkyo components. Only the source buttons are backlit, but the buttons are arranged logically and have different shapes to help you find them in the dark. I'm not sure I agree with Onkyo's decision to put the number keys and input selectors on the same buttons, and AM/FM tuner functions aren't clearly labeled; but, otherwise I found it easy to use. Should you ever lose the remote, you can perform many functions using the receiver's front-panel buttons.

When I paired it with the System 920, the TX-SR503 definitely sharpened up the sound, trading a bit of the Pioneer's warmth for greater clarity. I usually prefer a warmer sound, but I liked the immediacy that the TX-SR503 added to the equation without pushing things too far to the bright end. Since the Atlantic Techs have a smoother sound than many small speakers, this combination worked very well. Brighter speakers would probably benefit from a more laid-back receiver.

With both multichannel music and dense movie soundtracks, the TX-SR503 had enough power to fill my largish room with sound. Again, the speakers seemed to thrive when I fed them more volume, and I seldom felt like I was pushing the Onkyo beyond its comfort level, although it did labor a little when I really pushed the volume during particularly intense battle sequences from The Return of the King and Gladiator. The System 920 is a 5.1 system, so I didn't drive all seven channels; however, you could add two more 920 LRs to create a 7.1 system.

Why Settle?
This Atlantic Tech/Onkyo combo proves that you don't have to spend a lot to break free from the confines of the home-theater-in-a-box. This system is easy enough for a beginner yet flexible enough for someone who's looking for a strong foundation on which to build. Atlantic Tech has certainly proven their point: Think small, and you'll get small. Think big, and you'll get the System 920. Consider my expectations raised. performs well as a center-channel speaker