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Positive Feedback ISSUE 6
tag mclaren and atc
ATC C2 surround sound speaker system and the TAG McLaren AVR32 BP192 preamplifier/processor
as reviewed by Larry Cox
I was at an electronics store inquiring about a plasma TV when I first heard DVD-A. It was through a midline B&W speaker system. I believe that a Denon receiver provided the power, although I confess that since we were looking at TVs, I hardly noticed. The TV, the electronics, and the speakers all took a back seat to the experience of a naturally recorded DVD-A discan experience all the more revelatory because I was not interested in the medium. It was like going to a sidewalk art gallery and finding an original Van Gogh. The sales guy played a track from Steely Dan's Two Against Nature. I've never been a fan of Steely Dan, feeling that they were clinical and distant, but to my surprise, the sound was close to very, very good analog. I'd heard surround-sound music about seven years ago, when the recording perspective was the composer's podium. That king of seating simply isn't available to a concert audience, nor do I believe it was how Mozart intended that his music be heard. I thought it was a joke, and had walked around with that opinion ever since, but the Two Against Nature DVD-A put me in the hall. It was like being at a concert, in a manner never achieved by either analog or two-channel digital. Ambient cues were just the start. There was plenty of reverb, but not an unnatural amountthe cues were of the sort that you hear in a big space, with lots of height. There was an analog-like lightness of touch that I found very seductive. It was magnificent, and it sent me scurrying about to find out what I could about DVD-A.
The Two Against Nature experience occurred just weeks before I received a package of 24/96 music from Hi Res Music. Hi Res has been reissuing music in the 24/96 format to excellent effect. Although the Hi Res discs are only two-channel, their glowing reviews are justly deserved. What a presentation from a $150 Pioneer DV 525 DVD player! I figured that if I had a better DVD player, the sky might be the limit, and could even exceed analog. My mind went wild. Why buy a new turntable when I could save the money and shift to surround soundbuy a surround preamp, have everything remote-controllable, and have an even more realistic rendition of music?
More serendipity then presented itself. Shortly before hearing Two Against Nature, I had read that ATC had come out with an inexpensive 5.1 music, or home theater system, if you like. Before hearing that DVD-A I was only marginally interested, as most of the movies I watch are dramas, hardly the calling card of home theater. But now I inquired with ATC's importer about listening to it. Chris Barry, one of ATC's reps in the eastern U.S., mentioned that he'd heard the TAG McLaren preamp processor sound good with ATC's C2 system, so I made a call and spoke with the very gentlemanly Mark Sherman of TAG McLaren USA, and arranged for the delivery of a review unit.
The ATC C2 speaker system consists of four powered Studio Control Monitor (SCM) 10s, a center channel speaker and a 12-inch powered subwoofer. Each SCM 10 has one 5-inch mid/woofer driver coupled to a 200-watt amplifier biased in class "A" for two thirds of its rated out put. The tweeter is a 1-inch soft dome of fabric variety, wedded to a 50-watt amplifier. Heatsinking for the amp is on the back of the speaker and runs from the top to the bottom. The speakers get quite warm. ATC has upgraded the esthetics of the speakers dramatically. The side panels are a faux granite veneer, which is beautiful compared to the big-shoebox look of the passive 10s and my passive 20s. The back of the speaker is parabola-shaped, with a single balanced input, an IEC socket for a power cord, and an on/off switch. The front of the speaker has a wire grill with a very slight bow.
The center channel is a fairly large affair, clearly too big to sit on top of our 20-inch TV, and likely to be too big for quite a few other televisions. It is the same width as the 10s, but placed on its side, and is considerably longer (or wider as you look at it). In a perfect world, with unlimited funds, you'll want a stand for it. The speaker sports twin 5-inch mid/bass drivers and a centrally located 1-inch tweeter, all of which are also powered. The subwoofer is larger than the C2 subwoofer marketed in Europe. Apparently, American living rooms are larger and require more bass reinforcement than British homes. The subwoofer's gloss black finish is somewhat imposing, but nice enough to be allowed entry into the nice parts of the house. Pumping 650 watts into the 12-inch, downward-firing woofer, the subwoofer has numerous crossover settings and the ability to provide "lift" to the bass when playing movies. I listened with the crossover set to 90 Hz and the lift set flat.
As the speakers are powered, the ATC C2 system allows you to be free of thick, inflexible speaker cables. While you'll be spared the purchase of speaker cables, you'll need interconnects from your preamp/processor to the speakers, which in the case of my rear speakers was 25 feet. And, you'll need to run a power cord to each of the speakers. A powered surround system requires you be attentive to the location and number of power outlets in your house! With two front channel speakers, a center channel speaker, and a subwoofer, I had four power cords going into my API Power Wedge, and I still hadn't hooked up the preamp and my two source components, so I had to organize a bevy of power cords to even start listening. Fortunately, our house has enough well-placed power outlets that I didn't have to run extension cords. The other housekeeping issue is what to do with the speakers when you're not listening. With two channel, you can leave the speakers where they sound best, but having five speakers (plus a big sub!) in a room is close to overwhelming. I ended up unplugging everything and moving the speakers into the corners each time I was finished using them. Not a problem, but something to work around.
The TAG AVR 32 BP 192 preamp was formerly TAG McLaren's top of the line at $5500, but it is now its second from the top. The "192" in the name tells you that the unit upsamples all digital signals to 192 kHz. This makes the TAG more of a digital center for music than the typical audio preamp. Happily, it is also remote controlled, which means that you can slobber in your seat all night while slipping from one source to another until you drop into a catatonic state. The ATCs accept only XLR inputs, and the TAG is a single-ended-only preamp, so I used interconnects provided by ATC that were terminated with XLRs on one end and RCAs on the other. Full access to the TAG requires use of a video monitor, as other AV units do. Setup is menu driven, and you have to have a monitor, or in our case a television, to select what you want. The alteration available via the menu is great, and worth the work. We're not television watchers, so we don't have a nice TV. We're using Fred and Wilma's television, with coaxial inputs. This was a pain, and required that I learn about S-video and other horrors, none of which I'm going to talk about because I managed to work things out without understanding why. This is a partial testimony to the ease of setup of the TAG unit.
In the menu, you can set what sort of signal goes to each speaker. This means you'll choose whether the speaker is full range or not. In the case of the SCM 10s, I chose not. Some preamps ask what the crossover point is, but the TAG makes it simple. Once you've selected the range of each speaker, you also tell the TAG how far each speaker is from the listening position. The TAG then generates a test tone through each speaker. You may want to have a sound pressure level meter to measure accurately, though I didn't. It wasn't a problem, as I listened to determine that each speaker sounded as loud as the rest.
Here's one of those things you may not have been thinking about: There is a sweet spot in a stereo, and with a wide dispersion speaker, the spot may be big enough for two or three people. But what about when you're setting things up for a whole family of listeners, or even your family and guests? How do you accommodate all the bodies and have everyone in a sweet spot without having the speakers right on top of you? If you push the speakers up against the wall, you'll impact their sonic character. There is a definite limit on keeping the speakers far enough away, given that you want them to be roughly equidistant from all listeners. It's a tough part of the surround music/home theater sell and a logistics concern for the listener. It was still manageable, but let me know that my new, "big" living room is still quite small for home theater.
There were a couple of oddities to my introduction to surround music/home theater. First was the number of connections required. With the powered ATCs (6), my DVD player (2), CD player (2), VCR (3two audio and one video for the onscreen display), and tape unit (2), I had fifteen interconnects on the back of the unit. The back of the TAG was just wild with interconnects, but had room for more. Screw-on connectors like my Ensemble Dynaflux and Silver Audio Silver Bullet 4.0s presented difficulty, as the spacing for the jacks is tight. The work requires skinny fingers or lots of planning.
The remote was a breeze to use, and mostly intuitive. There are buttons at the top that determine what buttons at the bottom are accessed, which are CD, tape, auxiliary, etc. Apparently this remote is used for TAG McLaren's other audio gear, and by choosing the button at the top, you tell the remote which of TAG's units you are accessing. Accessing control, not of a CD player, tuner, etc., but the preamp itself, was done by selecting "A/V". Once I got that down, everything worked easily. TAG has made this unit, and all of their products, really easy to use. When I got tripped up it was a function of my ignorance. The unit was easy, functional, and allowed control of many things. The remote volume and source selections were welcome.
I find TAG's software upgrade policy very noble. As I understood it from Mark Sherman, as TAG upgrades its decoding software, you will be able to upgrade to the most current version at no charge, ever. This does not, however, include upgrades of licensed software technology like THX, Dolby Digital, etc., just TAG's proprietary software. Still, this is a relief, and it really invites looking at TAG for ease of ownership.
What I didn't adjust to were some things unrelated to the TAG, but to the new audio formats. I haven't experimented with them as I've been saving for a new turntable and, before starting this review, would rather have listened to LP than foray into new territory. SACD and DVD-A seemed to call greedily for too much of my money already. So, to make use of the surround music system, I went out and bought a few high-resolution DVDs, including Bucky Pizzarelli's Swing from Chesky records, the Eagles' Hotel California, and a handful of others, but I mostly used the system for watching movies. It can be expensive to keep a catalog of music around to review a format you'll listen to for one month and then quit! Although I couldn't do a side-by-side comparison, Hotel California rivaled my recollection of the LP's sound. Swing, on the other hand, proved a nightmare. It is recorded as a 24/96 DVD, so I couldn't use the TAG's 192 kHz DAC because my DVD player didn't send the correct signal. I needed five analog outputs to do that. The TAG automatically defaulted to mute when I sent it the DAC's digital output. To listen to Bucky I had to use the analog outputs of my cheap Pioneer DVD player. I was afraid that I would lose the opportunity to hear surround music with the analog output, but somehow the TAG figured out how to process the analog signal and create an enveloping surround-sound presentation. Until I figured that out, however, I was frustrated like you wouldn't believe, furiously pressing the mute button to no avail. Read the manual. I didn't.
Here's the other thing that I didn't realize: While my DVD player will play digital audio discs and DVD-A discs, it doesn't send a DVD-A music signal. To do that, you need a DVD player with six analog outputs. My DVD player had only one pair of stereo analog outputs, and allowed for surround music by playing DTS sound, which was still quite nice. Another feature that was available, but which I could not use, was the analog bypass. TAG spent big bucks figuring out how to arrange a surround-sound process, but the owners of the DVD-A and SACD software don't allow any processing to be done by electronics at this point. All decoding and delays are done at the software level, so the "analog bypass" is literally allowing the analog signal of the DVD-A or SACD machines to pass through the preamp untouched. Therefore, bass management, etc. is done on the software level. Thinking as a lawyer, I feel this is a design by the music industry to keep control of their intellectual property, despite their claims to the contrary.
After figuring out all of these niggling details, everything proceeded simply and enjoyably, and I finally had a chance to hear surround music and theater at home. It was a totally unexpected delightas immersive as the experience of Two Against Nature, though perhaps more dynamic. I've been a big ATC (Acoustic Transducer Company) fan for quite some time. ATC, started some twenty-plus years ago in England, has made its way into numerous recording studios around the world. Sony and Phillips chose an ATC surround music system to roll out SACD. Telarc has also chosen ATC for their mastering duties, so good companies listen to and through ATCs. I've heard quite a few of their speakers over the last five years, as well as two of their amplifiers, and I've owned a pair of their Studio Control Monitor (SCM) 20s for about four years. ATC doesn't name their speakers after flowers, composers or operas. Instead, they name the speakers based on their unoccupied internal volume. How romantic! Thus, my SCM 20 reference speakers have 20 liters of unoccupied internal volume, the 10s have 10, and so on.
If I've had a complaint with ATC speakers, it was that they were expensive. About four years ago, the entry-level price was about $2500 for a pair of passive 10s in black ash. A yew wood veneer took you to $2900. The 10s produced only about 60Hz in an anechoic chamber (though closer to 45Hz in a real listening space), so value may have seemed absent for some. My 20s retailed for about $4100, and had an anechoic response to 50 Hz, though I have measured bass into the low 30s. These prices were for speakers without amplifiers, and ATC speakers are discriminating about both the quantity and quality of power, so amplification was likely to cost about as much as the speakers. Now, however, a set of powered 10s sets you back a mere $2500, and that's a much better value. ATC speakers are still essentially hand constructed. The mid/bass driver is electrically connected to the amplifier, and the midrange dome driver is stitched or mechanically attached on top of the bass driver and mechanically crossed over. The dome looks a lot like a really big tweeter on top of and in the middle of the bass driver. It is a rather ingenious creation. Check ATC's website at www.atc.gb.net for more information. ATC says little about the tweeter, save that it is a soft dome textile driver.
When you shop for an automobile, you look for a finished product, the chassis and all that rests on it, including the motor. Who would know better than the boys in Detroit, Stuttgart, or Tokyo what is needed to power their cars? Not me, and chances are, not you. Who would want to purchase a chassis and then go looking for a motor? An audiophile! Our hobby is not sensible. Thank God for sensible types like Billy Woodman, ATC's founder and managing director. It is sensible to match the motor to the wheels and the power to the speaker. ATC knows what their speakers need and they provide it. You and I are still free to roll our own, that is to say, match any old amplifier to a speaker and HOPE. So it goes.
I've moved into a new house and listening room. The room is approximately 16 by 20 feet, with a ceiling that rises cathedral-like from about 8 to 14 feet. I positioned the center channel and front speakers at the lower ceiling end and the surround speakers via 25-foot interconnects underneath the higher ceiling. The listening room is open to our dining room and kitchen. This adds another 10 feet, making the listening room more like 26 by 20 feet, or about 5200 cubic feet. One set of speakers was 80 inches from the side wall, and the other probably too far away from any room boundaries to make any difference.
The ATC/TAG McLaren system was just great. End of review. Okay, you want more details? Dynamic, explosive, fast, fun, immersive, musical and a real eye opener. End of review. More details? Okay. Truth be told, I've had a hell of a time putting my impressions in writing. I've been trying to twist my mind in a way that could wring out a more objective description of the TAG/ATC system, but I haven't figured out how, so I'm going to break this down so that I can express my experience of the system in parts.
Two-channel sound through the SCM 10s and the TAG without a subwoofer was not able to fill my large listening room. In fairness, the room also challenged the $8900 Ensemble speakers, which claim a bottom end going to 30Hz. The ATCs were able to play loud, but sounded slightly lean, partly because of the too-large room. In a smaller room with a less lofty ceiling, the speakers would likely lock in better, and the bass would improve, providing a richer sound. Even so, I still had a sense that I was hearing almost all of the music on the discs I played, with speed and force. Ein Straussfest with the Cincinnati Pops had drive, bounce, and a way with rhythm. This recording is a great example, if artificially created, of dynamic music structures, and the 10s were up to the challenge. Percussion lacked the heft I know is in the recording, but the speed and rhythm of the music was communicated. The speed of the cymbals on this recording was exemplary, if not as open and airy as some, perhaps reflecting the 10s' heritage as speakers originally designed to be on a soundboard, four feet from the mixer's ears. These impressions were borne out with my usual fare, like Facing Future by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, Ry Cooder's Jazz and Chicken Skin Music, as well as Mary Black's No Frontiers. The powered 10s are an excellent value, but belong in rooms less palatial than mine. I quickly moved on to a more appropriate setup.
I stuck in the ATC subwoofer. With the SCM 10s, we're looking at a $6300 system, not inexpensive, but don't forget, there is no need to purchase an amplifier. Adding the subwoofer to the mix added weight and, oddly enough, a bit of emotionality. Although emotion was not obviously absent with the un-augmented 10s, when the weight of the subwoofer was added there was a greater connection to the music. Although there were numerous ways to integrate the subwoofer, I didn't mess around, and followed ATC's instructions, setting the crossover at 90Hz and the lift (bass boost) set at zero for music. It worked. The Straussfest had even more dynamic weight, as the bottom end sounded more akin to the dancing elephants in Fantasia, with a big sound that seemed impossibly fast. The ATC subwoofer was, in short, quite agile, providing a welcome addition. This mix was very, very satisfying, and made the 10s seem bigger. I'd say that very little music is beyond the SCM10/ATC 12-inch subwoofer system, save that it requires listening at louder levels, which is characteristic of ATC speakers. Their dynamic range reminds you of the original event, and those original events are recorded at louder than lullaby levels. Said another way, there is such a great experience of a live event that listening at non-live levels seems false, like you're missing out on the experience available with just another turn of the knob. I usually find myself turning the knob up.
Dynamic pieces like the opening of Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor were rendered really well by the sub-complemented 10s, although images were slightly miniaturized. The opening crescendo was explosive, exciting, and emotionally engaging. Dynamic contrast in the music was good, but not quite up to the reference level of my passive 20s when properly powered. This, I think, illustrates what Billy Woodman of ATC says about dynamic range being a function of bandwidth. In fairness, while my 20s didn't go as low, it seems that the excursion of the 8-inch woofer on my 20s was greater, and the dynamic range of the 10s not as great. More money invested in the ATC line buys more dynamics, for sure.
I then hooked the ATC subwoofer up to the Ensemble Figura speakers, and it was a seamless match, allowing more bottom end and filling the room with more warmth, fullness, and again emotion. The sound was wonderful, as at $13,000 for the combination it should be. The ATC/Ensemble speaker system wasn't, frankly, much different from the powered 10s and ATC subwoofer, another demonstration of diminishing returns. The more expensive system had more emotion, and more detail presented in a relaxed, yet incisive way. By comparison, the powered 10s softened edges. The comparison was close enough it took two listens for fellow Muser Francisco Duran to be persuaded that the more expensive system was better.
Playing Yello's "Oh, Yeah!" was a riot. The synthesized, nearly subterranean bass was as deep as I've heard on this track. My four- and six-year-old nephews were singing, dancing, and laughing while my wife was cupping her ears and laughing. Piano through the TAG, versus my reference, was just a wee bit less realistic, with the right hand of the piano sounding a shade more strident during crescendos. Of course, the Grieg piece is a better example of natural dynamics than Yello, but it just doesn't have as much bottom end. And, who says listening to music is always serious?
The $5495 TAG provides nearly every feature you could want. What it may lack in resolution it delivers in an immersive goldmine. Two-channel audio requires more purity, clarity, and image specificity to provide the experience of immersion that the TAG so easily and completely provided with five. As this is my first foray into surround sound, I really can't compare the TAG to other AV processors, just my reference analog preamp. Though the TAG was no slacker, emotionality and liquidity were greater through my reference tube preamp. I could probably live with the TAG if I didn't already have Pandora's Box opened by my E.A.R. 864. When pushed, the TAG clipped less graciously, and was more strident at very high volume levels. I also preferred the extra body that my Audio Note CD 3.1x provided, even though it didn't sample at the 192kHz rate of the TAG. Nevertheless, I rarely had a complaint with the TAG, save for the emotional component that some may argue is a distortion characteristic of tubes. To make sure you're not missing some of the advantages of the TAG, remember that you get a 192kHz DAC in the mix. If you have an older CD or DVD player, you are instantly upgraded to 192kHz sound, and there is a huge upside to not having to upgrade your DAC for years. With free digital upgrades for life, you'll have at least very good sound with the TAG.
The TAG was not sweet, analytical, or incisive. It was on the laid-back side, with little character of its own, and though it was more than competent for movies, I noticed a shortcoming in very low-level dialog. In The Fellowship of the Ring, there is a scene in which Aragorn takes Frodo upstairs to warn him about his use of the Ring. Sam, Merry, and Pippin arrive moments after Aragorn closes the door, and they burst into the room with swords drawn. The TAG obscured the language, which was probably recorded too low. My E.A.R. 864 let me know that Aragorn says "You're a stout Hobbit," but with the TAG, I was left wondering. Of course, the E.A.R. is a $3k preamp that doesn't provide surround excitement. It is also possible that I set the center channel's volume too low using my ears rather than a sound meter. I don't know.
I'm a J.R.R. Tolkien fan. I've read the Lord of the Rings trilogy eighteen times, and tracked down as much of his verbose but excellent story telling as I could find. My wife and I used our two-channel setup to watch the disappointing theatrical release of The Fellowship of the Ring before the Director's Cut was released. The Director's Cut is MUCH BETTER, and we have watched it seven or eight times. It was my sister, Donna, who introduced me to the trilogy, and then soured to the story. I mention this because she normally runs from the room when I mention The Lord of the Rings, or audio, but I wanted her to hear what the C2 system could do, so I tied her to my couch and put on the Director's Cut, playing the tracks that take you from Frodo's first interaction with the ominous Black Riders through the Black Riders breaking into the Hobbit's room at the Prancing Pony. Not only was Donna totally hooked by this fifteen-minutes home theater demonstration, she asked to borrow the DVD!
The ATC/TAG system effortlessly, and with immense excitement, transported my sister and three or four other friends to the world of the movies, despite viewing it through a small, ten-year-old television. The sound was huge, all out of proportion to the speakers' size. My experience with The Fellowship of the Ring was mirrored with almost everything I played through this system, including Lost in Space, Face Off, and a bevy of other action films I normally wouldn't seek out. There was no necessity to cover your ears to avoid nasty frequency response anomalies. At all times, the sound was full, robust, dynamic, and absolutely room filling, although the dimensions of our room are about the limit for the 10s. After finding that I was playing The Fellowship of the Rings at relatively high levels, I decided to see what full volume was like. Neither the TAG nor the ATCs got ugly.
I suggest that you read my conclusions as those of a home theater neophyte, though I think I have some pretty good ears. I found the TAG/ATC system exemplary. The ATC SCM 10s are really wonderful. They're small and unobtrusive, which helps when there are five of them in the room. ATC's 12-inch subwoofer was really easy to incorporate in the room, and provided delightful full-range sound. The $10,900 C2 system is a lot of money, but you get mostly class-" A" amplification, a subwoofer that will match easily and seamlessly with $9000 speakers, and five speakers that provide a fully immersive experience. The TAG AVR 32 BP192 is a wunderkind of technology, yet it is quite easy to work with. I'm grateful that my feet first entered the waters of home theater with the TAG unit, as it made an overwhelming experience all the easier, start to finish. Larry Cox