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Positive Feedback ISSUE11
SCM 35 loudspeakers
as reviewed by Larry Cox
Buying a new house brought new audio concerns. A much bigger room and suspended floors created different problems than the slab floors below the eight-foot ceilings Iíve lived with most of my audio life. I needed speakers with sufficient output to be able to fill a 5500-cubic-foot room without visually dominating it. (The former is an audiophile concern, the latter an aesthetic one.)
My previous stand-mounted speakers (ATC SCM 20s) simply did not have enough output to fill the room. The Dali Grands easily did so, but didnít fit visually. The Ensemble Figuras that my wife and I loved but couldnít afford didnít have sufficient bass output. The Verity Audio Taminos were nearly a perfect fit, except that the rear firing ports meant that they had to be well out into the room, making them aesthetically and ergonomically less desirable.
ATCís SCM 35s came on the market earlier this year. In a slight departure from previous ATC designs, these speakers are a relatively efficient 85 dB. My SCM 20s at 83 dB were always thirsting for more watts, and ATCís SCM 10s (no longer available in an unpowered version) were 80 dB. While a step up in efficiency, the 35s are hardly triode country, but they work well with my 100-watt E.A.R. 509 Mk II tube monoblocks. Like the third bowl of porridge for Goldilocks, the SCM 35s are a great match for my room, tastes, amplifier, and budget. Unlike the Taminos, there is no need for a subwooferóthe 35s go deep, and I mean really deep. The tonal balance was a welcome mix of warmth and detail, presented in a more relaxed way than the Taminos. Their imaging was also a surprise and delight.
Before I get into the nits, let me give you the details. On its web page, ATC says that the 35s have bass down to 48 Hz, which is not terribly impressive. However, ATCís American importers tell me that ATC measures their speakers in the middle of their warehouse, with no side wall reflections or room support to add to the bottom end. At higher volumes in my room, bass was 4 dB down at 31.5 Hz on the Stereophile Test CD, but I could feel the impact of 20 Hz at the same volume level.
These drivers consist of a one-inch soft dome tweeter, ATCís patented three-inch mid-dome driver, and an eight-inch woofer. A fraction of the cost of ATCís larger siblings, the SCM 50s, the 35s share the 50sí mid and treble drivers. The 8-inch woofers on the 35s are one inch smaller than the ones in the 50s, and seem to be missing the doping. The 35s are an excellent value within the ATC line, and to these ears and pocketbook, an exceptional value on an absolute scale. The 35s initially sported a $4000 price tag, and would have been an excellent buy at that price, but when the price dropped to $3600 they looked like a steal. Now theyíre selling for $3300, and invite giving up a life of crime and working for ownership.
The speakers are tri-wireable, with one connection for each of the three drivers. Iím not sure about the value of tri-wiring. While the idea may be attractive, few people are going to have three output jacks on their amplifiers to be able to triple-wire the 35s from individual output jacks, and I wonder about the efficacy of two wires sharing the same output jack. Ironically, Mr. ATC, Billy Woodman, said he didnít feel that multiple wiring made a difference. This is the first set of ATCs Iíve had which offer the option, and I donít hear a difference, so I think Billy is correct.
The 35s are sealed boxes, like the 20s, so there are no ports to accommodate. The grilles look unexceptional, which is fine, but the speakers sound best with them off. Finally, the speakers have an acrylic-looking plate on the bottom, which has three stabilizing spikes. While not as nice looking as the Taminos, theyíre not ugly ducklingsójust a bit plain looking. I prefer the aesthetics of ATCís active home theater speakers. That would probably drive the cost up, but given the performance of the 35s, it would be worth it.
Out of the box, the speakers were a little dry, distant, and rather vanilla, if you know what I mean. Nothing was out of place, but there was little to attract my ear. Frankly, I thought the 35s were not speakers Iíd end up with. Break-in alterations started occurring after about thirty hours, and again at perhaps a hundred hours. After about three months of listening and watching movies, they seemed to completely open up. They became more liquid and less "papery." The bottom end blossomed, and there was more space in the upper midrange. The blossoming was at least in part attributable to scooting the speakers from six and a half feet out into the room to a little over three feet from the front wall. Also, because of near reflections on the right speaker, I turned that speaker so that it was facing almost directly at me. The left speaker, with no near reflections, pointed nearly straight ahead. This was an odd setup, but it provided excellent bottom end speed and tightness, and the best imaging and openness.
I lived with the 35s for quite a while. They didnít really grab me the way the 20s did when I first took them home, but I was enjoying lots of music, in fact finding that there were a lot of really great CDs in my collection. Henry Miller said, "Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such." My golden moment occurred on one of the movie nights my wife and I have recently started hosting for friends. We donít have a processor or surround speakers, and we have a twelve-year-old 20-inch Toshiba television, but among my climbing buddies Iím the only one with a stereo hooked up to the television, and own the house that most easily accommodates a crowd of people, so weíve started watching movies together. We decided to watch The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers over two weekends, in anticipation of the Return of the King premiere.
On Lord of the Rings night, the twenty-minute pizza delivery turned into over an hour and ten minutes, so I played Yelloís "Oh, Yeah!" to demo the bass, which is the audiophile equivalent of flexing your biceps. Demure smiles from my friends. Noticing the sickening pulls at the sides of their smiles, I popped in Mark Knopflerís Golden Heart CD, and played "Golden Heart," "Rudiger," and "Are We in Trouble Now," the ballad beauties on that album. Healthy, happy smiles pulled up the corners of their mouths, and things were good. " I then played "Murder in the Red Barn" from Tom Waitís Bone Machine, a record two of the friends in attendance introduced me to about ten years ago. The sound was atmospheric, evoking a story spinner sitting on his front porch, rocking in his chair, and talking about people disappearing and blood on an axe, noting: "Thereís always some killing to be done around the farm." Doug felt it was the best sound heíd heard at my house. Iím not sure, but it was quite good.
Hereís where I had my golden moment: I donít know if the rendition of the song was the most lifelike, transparent, or holographic. What I realized was that I didnít care. Big audiophile sin. It wasnít important if the rendering was perfect. It was damned goodógood enough to let me forget for a couple of moments that it was a recording. The system allowed me to know that, from pretty deep bass to relatively high treble, the whole package was delivered. Were there things to quibble about? Sure, but on the whole, it was all I wanted. Thereís something about ATC speakers that nearly always has me feeling like Iím getting the real deal, or at least an accurate perspective on the real deal. As there are different seats in a concert hall, there are different renderings of audio. With the ATCs, you could ask, "Could there be a greater emphasis on the attack of a struck guitar string, or is that it?" or "Might there be more decay on this recording?" but rarely will the question be, "Is that the correct tonal balance?" or "Does it sound dynamically compressed?". Warts announce themselves, but just as warts are on the skin but not part of it, they can be heard as part of the recording but not the music. Iím completely happy with the SCM 35s. There are other speakers that can do one thing or another better, but the ATC enchilada is a tasty one, one I can happily live with.
Once the Two Towers started, the bottom end of the ATCs announced themselves as IN THE HOUSE. As the Ents were walking across the screen, there was a moment when I knew, absolutely positively, that no subwoofer was needed with these speakers. All of my guests spontaneously offered that this was the most satisfying system Iíd ever had. Iím not by nature a completist, or someone who needs perfection. I chase what I want until I find it, then move on to another chase. It feels like Iíve found my speakers, and if there are better speakers out there, I donít really care. Iíve got what I entered the hobby to haveóspeakers that have wide bandwidth, are dynamic, and fail in their tonal balance only when the source fails.
You should know about one nit. I often thought my 20s were a little rolled off on top. I thought the 35s might be, too, and this time Iím right. Listening to Ensemble Audioís Sounds in Natural Perspective let me know that the top end was rolled off. This is an excellent test record of unamplified music and voice. Not only is the music well recorded and a delight to hear, but the recordings allow you to use music to gauge your system. Track 17 is Benjamin Brittenís A Ceremony of Carols, which was written for a boyís choir but is sung by women. There is a moment when the harmonizing of the vocals reaches a pitch that creates a pressurization that isnít pleasant but is very revealing. It is a breathtaking, delightful recording. Iíve heard it on the Dalis, Ensembleís Figuras, and the Verity Audio Taminos. The Figuras and Taminos did a great job at the top end, but without a relatively high sound pressure level. The SCM 35s roll it off and make it "inaccurate" but pleasant.
My E.A.R. 509 tube amplifiers drive the 35s well, with plenty of bass and dynamics to fill a large room. They also sounded great with Codaís new 12.0 amplifier and 05R preamplifier, both solid state products, so chances are the SCM 35s will sound good with any good equipment. Iíd imagine that more watts are better than fewer. ATC recommends 50 to 300. My 100-watt tube amplifiers do a very credible and satisfying job.
The 35s will image well enough for most people, although they are laid back in character. They present an image behind the speaker plane, not in your face. They are both revealing and livable. They can have tons of detail with one set of wiring and electronics, or be suave and relaxed with a different set. Weíre buying them. I feel like Iíve found speakers that are sufficiently full range to be proper reviewerís speakers, and that match my listening room. They are sufficiently efficient that more amplifiers can be tested, which was not the case with the SCM 20s. The 35s are detailed enough that if I want, I can listen for the minutiae, but tonally balanced enough that Iíll never be unhappy listening to music. And finally, they fit my budget. Highly recommended. Larry Cox
SCM 35 loudspeakers
Flat Earth Audio