ATC A7 Loudspeakers Reviewed

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"Hot minis continue to proliferate." It's the kind of phrase you'd expect to find in any show report, in any magazine, covering any British hi-fi show. It's the clich that has marked the British loudspeaker industry ever since the 1970s, when big KEFs and IMFs and even Quad ESLs made way for BBC LS3/5As and a flood of £100-per-pair budget boxes. And yet this never stopped ATC from producing massive floorstanders, rendered bombproof for use in studios - audiophiles be damned. But ever since the company 'domesticised' the range, there's been a core of ATC wannabees counting the days until the release of a sub-£1000, dinky-sized, yet 'proper' ATC. At last, the counting can stop. Now, ATC has a mini that looks set to, uh, proliferate.

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What made the appearance of such a beast as the diminutive A7 so unlikely is ATC's absolute refusal to go the way of so many other British companies, those not above whoring nor flushing their reputations down the toilet. Unwilling to use cheap, off-the-shelf drivers from Taiwan or Timbuktu, unable to wrap its mind around vinyl cabinetry or cheap terminals, ATC held out until it could deliver a design which eschewed even metal dome tweeters - still the current fashion in many circles - but which still managed to contain a version of the company's expensive, in-house-produced dome mid/bass unit. And with Billy Woodman's insistence, any ATC baby would have to wear a real-wood veneer, contain a superior crossover network and sport the kind of terminals which wouldn't make audiophiles want to retrofit aftermarket substitutes: gold-plated, chunky, multi-way and bi-wirable describe the standard fittings.

Amusingly, recent trends in preferred amplification mitigated against the notion of a budget ATC speaker because (1) ATC has never pandered to the high-sensitivity brigade, (2) the company has cushioned itself from onerous amp-matching with wares from other brands by promoting active speakers, and (3) the company now makes its own solid-state (what else?) stand-alone amplifiers. But a reality check shows that people buying sub-£1000 speakers tend not to own the kind of amplifiers measured in hundreds of watts and costing thousands of pounds, and - more to the point - a speaker priced below £1000 precludes a built-in amplifier. Meanwhile, the world had gone nuts on low-power, single-ended triode amplification...

So, with no small sense of irony, the new A7 is described as "a very easy amplifier load" by virtue of being 3dB more sensitive than traditional ATCs. Whoa! Planet Earth to Billy Woodman, Planet Earth to Billy Woodman: 83dB for 1W at 1m (8ohm impedance or not) is hardly what the typical hi-fi user would regard as an easy load or a sensitive system. But, before we're confused by specifications vs actual practice, here's what constitutes an A7:

Housed in a rock-solid 7-litre enclosure measuring an unobtrusive 330x175x220mm (HWD) are a newly-designed 25mm soft-dome tweeter and a new bass/mid unit with a 130mm cone surrounding a 45mm dome. The former, which carries a neodymium magnet, is fitted to a nicely flared surround, mounted as close as possible to the latter; the surround 'cuts into' the frame of the woofer. The woofer, derived from the SCM10 driver, immediately stands out from others by virtue of the dome technology developed to offer 'broad and even dispersion. Hand-assembled at the ATC factory, it features a voice coil using ribbon wire around a Kapton former, the polyester weave cone is hand-doped and its magnet weighs a serious 3.5kg, contributing to a single A7's weight of 7.5kg. The magnet is black-anodised and acts as a heatsink, the entire unit assembled on a die-cast chassis. In addition to addressing thermal concerns, the A7 woofer's other safety feature is a long throw of 35mm. The two drivers cross over at 2.5kHz via an eight-element network, assembled with air-core inductors, special OFC wire and - instead of electrolytics -- metallised polypropylene capacitors of 250V rating.

ATC offers the A7 in European Cherry, Walnut and an eco-friendly rosewood substitute called 'Rosenut'. The curved-edge baffle is finished in a semi-gloss black, offsetting the real-wood wrap, and a nicely-made grille on a solid frame completes the package. Because of the build quality, the finish, the fit and, yes, the weight, the A7 appears to cost more than its actual £749-inc-VAT price tag. Like, uh, way more. If I'd been told £999 or even £1200, I wouldn't have raised an eyebrow. Then again, the A7T, the floorstanding version of the A7, sells for exactly £1200, so in ATC's world view an extra 590mm of cabinet height is worth £450

But the latter is part of the quest for more bass, something which I never felt to be something worth pursuing the entire time I used the A7 in the kind of space you'd expect to be allocated by the Bitch Wife From Hell for a small system: roughly 3.5x 4.5m. The A7s were placed on top of 24in Partington stands and connected to...a pair of Radford MA25 monoblocks. And your alarm bells are ringing, right?

ATC says right on the back of the brochure that it expects to see customers using amps rated between 50W and 300W, to best cope with that 83dB sensitivity. OK, OK - the only reason I went straight to the Radfords is pure sloth. They returned from a complete overhaul at Woodside (call 01994 448271 for details) in the same week as the ATCs, the amps having been placed in my custody for caretaking by the Good Dr Hawksford. And I couldn't wait to hear how they sounded. And so perfect was the marriage that it was all I could do to wrest myself away from them to try the speakers with a host of others. Musical Fidelity X-A50s and Sutherland 2000s at opposite ends of the price scale, Quad IIs, the Nightingale ADM-30, Roksan's Caspian - a host of wildly varying amplifiers, and not once did I notice a lack of grunt. So what gives?

Whatever magical excuse I wanted to elicit from ATC, the response was calm and measured. "We designed the crossover so that it didn't present any nasties. What you're hearing is good behaviour." And I couldn't fault the logic. Admittedly, the solid-staters of higher wattage performed better than the weedier models, but the small tube amps, especially the Radford, took to the ATCs in a way which could only horrify the pro-transistor Woodman. [Note to anachrophiles: marketing and promotion at ATC are now handled by Alan Ainslie, possessor of one of the finest collections of vintage valve amps in the country. Which might or might not have influenced - spiritually if not actually - the instant synergy the A7 shows for glassware.]

With the Radford pre-amp's rear-panel-mounted gain pots set at mid-point, I still couldn't whack the main control past 11 o'clock without thinking, 'This is too damned loud'. At no point did I hear amp clipping, nor any sensation that the speakers were working at less than their full capacity. But we're entering a grey area here, one which invites contradictory responses, so don't rush out and buy a pair of A7s thinking that they'll work a treat with some obscure, undependable, flabby-bottomed S.E.T. with output of the 5W/ch variety. Because the A7s, while not as hungry as their spec suggests, can turn nasty if the amplifier shows sonic weaknesses.

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