System Feature: Naim Audio NAC-N 272 network preamplifier and ATC SCM40 active floorstanding loudspeakers

Solid-state preamplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio
ATC Loudspeakers SCM40A,
Naim Audio NAC-N 272

Putting on ZZ Top’s ‘Jesus Just Left Chicago’ [Tres Hombres, Warner Bros] prompted me to utter “have mercy”, so smokin’ was the sound of Billy Gibbons’ guitar. This system gave me the heat and all the image depth and width that the track requires in the context of a funky groove. It’s the latter that’s hardest to achieve, the interplay of drummer and bass player has to be spot on and this can only be achieved if the system presents the entire bandwidth in time.

It’s easy to make a lean system sound coherent because the leading edges are so obvious but this is not what we have here; the ATCs are full bandwidth speakers that have grip in the bottom end and a total absence of ventilation on the cabinet. The bass is deep, solid and, thanks to the active operation, tactile. It has a degree of solidity that makes everything feel like it’s in the room, that and the ability to play at the sort of level that approaches that of live sound you get in a studio control room.

High power systems are still relatively unfashionable in British audio circles, because there is a deep seated notion that power equates to ponderousness. It’s out of date: the rewards are palpably obvious in the form of speed combined with genuine gravitas where it’s required, and if the speaker can handle the power you end up with a thrilling result. When amp and speaker are made for one another, you get control without bludgeon or excess. This is both a powerful and revealing system; Joni Mitchell’s voice on ‘The Man I Love’ [Gershwin’s World, Herbie Hancock, Verve] is breathy and limited in range, but this takes nothing away from its allure. Combined with the pitch perfect backing of Hancock’s band, you know you are enjoying a fine wine at its peak.

This system can, like most, be improved. Bypassing the preamplifier in the 272 and dropping in the Townshend Allegri brings a clear increase in transparency and speed. But the slight warmth of the existing preamp makes it more tolerant of lesser recordings, yet more than sufficiently revealing of differences between them; as a pair the Naim and ATC reflects well on modern studio practices. By this I mean that newer releases tend to sound better than older ones, (albeit not the highly compressed examples, as they still sound, well, compressed). But a Mobile Fidelity 192kHz version of Patricia Barber’s ‘Summertime’ [A Distortion Of Love, Antilles] is spectacular, with epic spaciousness, a beautiful voice, and a solid bass line. I was pleasantly surprised at how good a result the combo produced with Snarky Puppy’s Sylva [Impulse!]; this large scale ensemble can sound congested but here the prodigious low end provided a great foil to the blasting brass. There’s lots of space on the drum kit and the way that the mix is presented makes it very easy to get carried away with the moment. A 96kHz version of Regatta de Blanc [The Police, A&M] on the other hand sounded small and messy, but its origins are suspect and I imagine that the standard version would fare better.

DSDs in both DSF and DFF formats played very nicely, these included Kraftwerk’s Minimum Maximum [EMI], where ‘The Man Machine’ was rendered in expansive and controlled fashion, the bass remaining tight and articulate, a result that few systems manage because of the prodigiousness of the low end, a good example of where the active advantage is clear. ‘The Mozart Violin concerto in D major’ [Marianne Thorsen, TrondheimSolistene, 2L] upped the realism ante however, the quality of string tone being truly tactile and the piece sounding more beautiful than usual. This system’s DSD presentation is much more solid than most, much more palpable, but less ethereal. Those looking for the airiness that is often found with the format might be disappointed, but anyone looking to get a powerful sense of the music being played in a definite acoustic will be thrilled.

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