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Notes from ATC World: “Dogs and Cats Living Together”

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by JB on September 05 '06

  Domestic Scm50Ann
For all you discerning audio aficionados, SonicFlare essayist JB sidesteps individual component reviews on his path towards complete system synergy. Read his adventures with two legendary brands the US scene has all but forgotten: ATC and YBA.

Also, check out JB's previous coverage of the HE2006 show.

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About seven years ago, James Gregan, of the Sound Asylum in Venice Beach, California, passed along a YBA Integre for me to try with a pair of passive 10s. The 50 or so watt YBA didn’t really have enough juice to entirely wake up the ATCs, but did sound unlike any solid state I’d heard outside of multi power-supplied Linn electronics. I don’t mean it sounded like Ivor’s little black boxes—in fact it certainly had a fairly idiosyncratic sound that extended up the YBA line, but it avoided the five cardinal sins of solid state. It didn’t have any grain or grit, it didn’t sound hard and forward, it didn’t sound tonally cool (with an accompanying slew of details without musical value), it didn’t sound dark and closed in, and it didn’t sound like it was offering an ultra-smooth, synthesized representation of music. (Those who’ve been playing with audio toys for awhile are free to associate critics’ solid state favorites with each of the above traits.)

But the YBA stuff didn’t really sound like tubes either: although it somehow over the years has acquired the reputation of being “tubelike.” It in truth wasn’t. It was, like the early Linn stuff (before Ivor unfortunately decided to move all the power supplies back into one box), a pretty odd duck that in many ways reproduced music more engagingly with many speakers—certainly not all—than almost anything out there. It was as rhythmically alive as the best solid state, and as grain-free and non-fatiguing as the best tube stuff. Its peculiarities were, to my tastes, that it was generally bass light, and recessed a bit in the presence region for reproduced sound. So, like everything else, it had weaknesses where some other equipment had strengths. It wasn’t as colorful as the best tube stuff, and not as authoritative down low as much solid state. And while, if Josh’s experience is an indicator, it seems YBA’s freedom from solid state problems gained the YBA electronics a reputation for being as over-ripe as some tube stuff was, and still is, it actually had a fairly light tonal balance, and could sound tilted up with some speakers.

For a time, YBA was a darling with the critics. At Stereophile, Sam Tellig fell in love with the integrated, while Jonathan Scull raved about the six box outrageous top of the line preamp, and if I remember correctly kept it on for awhile in “Chez Skull” as his reference to front a system with the JM Lab Grand Utopias. Even John Atkinson jumped on board. He kept the YBA 2 preamp in use for two years as one of his references, and in July, 1994, gave it a sensible, and I think pretty accurate, glowing review (http://www.stereophile.com//amplificationreviews/421/index.html.) His view:

“...clean, clear, transparent, with liquid-sounding mids, tight, extended, superbly well-defined low frequencies, and a good sense of pace; on the slightly negative side, the overall presentation occasionally verged on sounding lean, and with slightly tipped up highs. . . . The YBA 2 joins that select group of components that I would live with in the long term. . . Highly recommended. . . . I shall miss it.”

But after the couple of years of Stereophile raves, YBA more or less dropped off the the US audio map. How come? I can guess at a couple of reasons other than the stuff sounded lousy (it didn’t) or audiophiles are simply fickle. First, small boxes with large (though not utterly silly) prices provoked cognitive dissonance in American audiophiles, who generally like their solid state electronics Levinson large, and Halcro imposing. Second, the distributor, Audio Plus Services, linked the YBA electronics—perhaps irreversibly—in the consumer consciousness with their other product, JM Lab speakers. At every audio show, and every dealer, the two products were mated. I don’t think the marriage of YBA and JM Lab was ever convincing: partly for the reason that I never thought they sounded very good together. And having heard them now separately many times, I believe the large JM Lab speakers to be the less interesting partner. Of course, I could be wrong, since JM Lab/Focal became the distributor’s cash cow and took off, while YBA seems to have become Audio Plus Service’s forgotten step-child (it’s only forgotten in the US, by the way, and not—as Josh writes—in the rest of the world.)

But back to the story:

Somewhere along the line Gregan, who was a YBA/JM Lab dealer, succumbed to the ATC siren, and—I’m guessing here—must have started throwing electronics in front of the new speakers. As with many folks, he found the ATCs terrific with some tube electronics, and then he must have just for the hell of it dropped some YBA stuff in the mix. Hello! While the tonal balance of the YBAs would seem to disqualify them with the low distortion, detailed, ATCs (the YBA stuff is a terrific match with Spendors), in fact the sound was in many ways very, very good. The sound was lightweight compared to the sound of ATCs with tube electronics like Atmasphere or EAR up front, but ended up being quick and delicate, and—if a little forward up top—very listenable. Attractive sound came out that had many of the qualities of live music.

Seven years later:

My beloved, but long in the tooth, preamp I use with my pair of passive 10s gives up the ghost, and when I let Gregan know, he has a guy drive on by the next day with a YBA Passion Integrated for me to use while my preamp is off to repair. (I didn’t buy the one that rolled over, by the way, from James. Pretty interesting behavior from a dealer, huh?) With 100 watts, the Passion Integrated manages the 10s, and, with some careful biwiring, even the passive 20s quite well. And the sound is excellent. The bass is extended and (as YBA’s bass has always been) pitch-perfect, and there is more color than I remember from the previous generation of the electronics. Tonally, the package sounds very believable. Well, the result is I never can make myself send the preamp off for repair, and after a couple of months I just give in and buy the integrated.

And this intensified the game I had already been playing for awhile of “chase the preamp” for my Anniversary 50s. For months no preamp I brought in the house could make the Anniversaries—for all their detail and bass extension—as musically satisfying as the the little ATC 10s with the Passion Integrated. Sooner or later I always stopped listening to the 50s with whatever current mega kilobuck preamp I had in front of them—however good the system seemed to sound in isolation—and came back to listen to the 10s with the YBA. (I’ve listened to a good Maseratis worth of preamps so far.) So why didn’t I just try a YBA Passion preamp in front of the Anniversaries? Easy to imagine, hard to do. Gregan and I independently made contact with Audio Plus Services, but nobody at Audio Plus could seem to locate a demo. Now, that caught me a little by surprise, since I had imagined YBA to be just a bigger deal in the US. And I can’t say that the folks at Audio Plus dismissed me as some joker trying to glom an expensive pre for a month of free listening. Michael Rousseau, the contact for technical support, was enthusiastic and positive through a series of emails encouraging me along. Chris Brightwell, one of the Western US representatives, was as encouraging with James.

I could, however, probably have sent a rowboat to France to pick up the piece in the time it took for one to show up. And then what arrived was a well traveled top of the line Passion pre from the previous generation of Passion gear (along with a remote that didn’t work.) Nevertheless, everything should have been OK, since the Passion pre at my door—I was assured—was the same as the new generation Passion 1000 except for the cosmetics. (And except for a completely different volume control, I should add, and, I suspected, a different grounding scheme than the star grounding YBA is describing on its web site as one of the characteristics of the new Passion line.) So, I connected it up in a state of hopeful anxiety to discover that—despite heroic efforts in all sorts of ground-lifting—the speakers hummed like crazy with the Passion in front of them. Not good. The extraordinary tease was that, when connected through a line balancer which was delivering its own white noise accompaniment to the music, the older Passion in some ways produced the best sound I had heard up to that time from the Anniversaries. But I sure didn’t feel like living with a line balancer stepping on the sound and hissing along, so I packed the preamp up and sent it on back.

And then:

Two weeks ago, Gregan shows up with the Passion 400. This pre looks pretty much brand spanking new—and it is as quiet as the grave connected to the Anniversaries. Ear pressed up against the drivers, I hear nothing. Out of the box it sounds discouragingly bland, but sounds better day by day. Then, somewhere between seven to ten days out of the box, it just starts throwing a party. It produces, as Josh writes, far and away the most compelling sound yet from the big ATCs.

This is not really a review, just a cautious endorsement with notes that kn31’s comment on Josh’s piece inspired. I’m also responding in part to the desperation of some soul who on some message board a couple of months ago pleaded for help trying to keep his 20s from hammering him to death with solid state electronics. My experience is that there really aren’t a whole lot of electronics—tube as well as solid state—that make the magic that some claim for ATCs. So, either ATC speakers are too aggressively revealing, or the problems with electronics are just too easy to hear through dynamic speakers that are unprecedentedly (hope that’s a word) accurate. Take your pick. Doesn’t matter to me, although the fact that I’ve got more ATC speakers in my house than most dealers have testifies that I do think there’s some real magic to be had.

The YBA 400 offers the greatest variety of tonal colors along with the greatest clarity I have heard in electronics in front of ATCs. It has more colors than even the best tube stuff to which I’ve listened. I don’t mean that the tonal colors are as saturated as they are, say, with the really fine Atmasphere preamp in the mix. They’re not. But they seem more realistic to me, and I think as a consequence more varied. The result of this combination of clarity and color is that music just seems remarkably alive and believable. The colorations of the previous generations of YBA stuff also seem to me to have almost entirely disappeared. The bass is as extended as any bass has been through the speakers, with a degree of tonal accuracy that has escaped all the other pres that have been in front of the ATCs. And there are no longer the presence range anomalies that used to, on the one hand, offer a liquid presentation, and, on the other, edit the tonal reach a bit.

The pre does, of course, have its particular “sound.” The active Anniversaries have mercilessly made me aware of the various “sounds” of all the preamps in front of the speakers. Music through the YBA 400 sounds, to me, more like a live mic feed than a live event listened to from a distance; or more like that produced in a colorful, but very lively recording venue (Usher Hall in Edinburgh comes to mind), than in a sumptuously colorful one like Carnegie. The 400 does offer all sorts of strange “audiophile” delights, like the sound of fingering on woodwinds or the pages turning for a conductor, which I just hadn’t heard before. More importantly, all the small details of a recording have a musical value. I suppose both a pleasure and distraction is that I become aware much more readily of the arrangement and engineering of a recording—as often when a recording is exquisitely produced as when one is botched.

What’s wrong with it? To my tastes, not much. But, with a couple of recordings, it has seemed a little tight, or out of air, in the upper midrange/lower treble: above the human voice and down the neck of mandolins and violins. Don’t know if this is a recording artifact or a tendency of the electronics. For me, so far, it’s not much of an issue. Every preamp that has sounded better in this band on these recordings has retarded the timing of the recordings, making them more boring than they deserve to be. My bias is in favor of clarity, and timing. That’s not necessarily the bias of some ATC folks I respect very much.

What I find terrific about the 400 preamp is that the $5k “entry” preamp of YBA’s premium line is good enough to not make me fret at all about the two pieces above it in the line. In other words, it’s not a $2k preamp selling for $5k. It’s a genuinely distinguished piece that has way outperformed some of the supposedly best of the best preamps available that are three or four times its price. This means to me that anyone who has invested in ATC 10s or 20s has at least one solid state preamp option that he (or she) might live with for a long time without losing sleep about the next best thing out there. A pair of active 20 towers and the 400 is—if you share my biases—going to be spectacular.

There are also hints that there are some other solid state options out there that will make ATCs sing. From my time at HE 2006, I’m guessing that Charles Hanson’s Ayre preamps, GamuT’s new electronics, and, possibly, Plinius electronics might be interesting fits. I’d add also that the older Electrocompaniet 4.6 is a very good preamp with active ATCs. I don’t know, however, about the latest iterations of the preamp.

A few parting words:

I hope it’s clear that if you’re interested in ATCs, you’ve got to pay some serious attention to what’s in front of them. I’ve had both a $20k and $15k preamp in front of the Anniversaries that made the speakers genuinely unlistenable for me. In a way, that might make the speakers a bit of a false value. You’re apt to need to reload a preamp for the active versions and a pre/power amp (or appropriately muscular integrated) for the passive numbers. When you get it right, however, you’ve got speakers that can be more satisfying than almost anything out there. (If, like kn31, you’ve got a pair of active 10s with an appropriate preamp—or, for that matter, a pair of passive 10s with appropriate amplification, you’re apt to have little curiosity for things like Magico Minis at 22 grand, and some sympathy for folks who do.)

Now, if I can convince Charles at Ayre or David, who distributes GamuT, to send along preamps, I’ll report back in. Aloha.

Comments

Just a quick add on a week or so later: The upper mid/lower treble issues were results of the material, not the preamp. String quartets, mandolins, twin fiddles on everything else so far are lithe and alive: no need for cpr. With ATCs, in my listening/living room, the YBA 400 is pretty much pure pleasure.
I love this preamp-to_ATC discussion. I am about to go there, but from a different impetus. I bought an older pair of huge ATC SM150 active pros and I just am amazed every time I listen, which is basically every night now. However, the ground loop demons have arrived via my unbalanced Modwright pre-to-XLR connections. I've tamed them with ground straps and holy water but they show up enough in the HT bypass, etc to fill my setup with cheater plugs and other isolation paraphenalia. It's no way to live! I am now on the warpath to find a great pre to marry to my ATC's and would love nay opinions by ATC'ers out there. I will clearly go find a YBA, but I live in the hinderland of Cleveland, OH. I will attempt to scour the East Coast for some ideas. Nothing against the Modwright; it sounds wonderful so far, but it's becoming a case of irreconcilable differences.
Ted: I think you will be very pleased if you can find a balanced pre to work with the 150s. One glorious fact about ATCs is that the older ones are right there with the newer ones in sound quality. And you've obviously discovered what the 150s have to offer. Pretty interesting, huh? I thought I had a handle on my Anniversaries, and was quite pleased with them. Then I dropped in the YBA. And I found the speakers were actually substantially better than I had thought. (This came after running numbers of different balanced and unbalanced pres in front of them.) If you like how the speakers sound with tubes--and you can live with a lack of remote, some fairly large steps in the volume control, and a preamp that is just as homely as can be--the Atma-Sphere MP-3 in its latest version is really wonderful. This is a very different sound than that which comes with the Passion 400. I believe I could live with either: although my preference is for the YBA. If you're biases mimic mine, it might be worth your while to contact by email some of the possible contacts at the distributor, Audio Plus Services, to see if someone can figure out how to arrange your listening to a YBA preamp. This, I've learned, is not an easy thing to accomplish: which is an incredible shame. They have a dealer locator on the website, but it is pathetically out of date. I'd try all three of these folks: John Bevier, the North Eastern US Rep, at jbevier@audioplusservices.com; Ian McArthur, the Central States rep, at imcarthur@audioplusservices.com; and Michael Rousseau, the technical representative at mrousseau@audiplusservices.com. I think it's worth the effort of trying to find a 400 to listen to with your speakers. As I write above, the Ayre preamps, and the new Gamut preamp are intriguing balanced options that worked well in the systems in which I heard them at the Stereophile show. Good Luck.
JB, Thanks. I am very excited to get on this path to find a great balanced pre for them. I will blast an email to all three and go from there. I desperately need a remote capability, as well as an HT bypass. The invert function is a nice-to-have. What do you think pre's like the ARC LS26 or Ref 3 would sound like with my 150's? Also, some have said to try the Cary SLP05 or the VTL line, but I suspect some of these are in your list of "been there, surprised it sucked, done that". I'm surprised you think the Ayre SS pre would work...but then again, the YBA is all transistors and crystals too, huh. Thanks
Ted: bottom to top: I don't know if the Ayre would work; but it produced music from the Vandersteen Quatros (which, as I describe in my show report were unfortunately tuned to be bass-silly) while the ARC driven Vandersteen Fives were almost colorless. I am probably more intrigued with the new solid state stuff from Gamut, since the sound from the room at the show was almost impeccable--and I'm also shallow enough to get all excited about something new I haven't yet heard in familiar surroundings (of course until I actually hear it.) And, yes indeed, I've in fact "been there, etc" with ARC well before the current preamplifier chase. I just haven't ever warmed to the sound in the various systems--including a couple of my own--in which I've heard ARC preamps. I don't imagine ARC tendencies would work particularly well with your 150s, but then Larry Cox didn't imagine the YBA would be the best fit--to date--with my ATCs. (I didn't really imagine that either.) I've not heard the latest Cary preamps, so I can't give any feed back. I would offer a word of caution that you probably don't need. The low input impedance of ATC amps in the active speakers disqualify some (generally tube) preamps with high output impedance and coupling capacitors right off the bat. And speaking of BAT, years ago I tried a BAT preamp with some active 20s and they just couldn't produce any bass with the impedance mismatch. But that was a long time ago. I would imagine that the newer models might not have the issue, and be of interest to you. I can't give a read on the top of the line VTL either, although it's on my list to pop in front of the ATCs before I actually purchase a preamp. (From what I heard at the Stereophile show, I'm a trifle skeptical; but I have never heard the the preamp in speakers that I thought were particularly involving.) I also would love to hear the Manley Wave preamp driving ATCs, and am probably going to give Eve Anna a call to see if that might be arranged. Hope that helps a bit. To date, only the Atma-Sphere has really awakened me among the tube preamps to which I've listened. And most of the solid states in the house over the last nine months have been pretty unmusical. The exceptions there have been the Electrocompaniet 4.6 (which I think is a genuine classic) and, of course, the YBA Passion 400. But the chase has been a lot of fun, and I'll probably continue it just so I might serve as a resource to other ATC owners caught in the dilemma of having world class speakers that are intolerant of a lot of electronics (some very, very expensive) that seem to work well enough with other speakers. JB
So if I have this right, I should first discount/eliminate any pre's that have an output impedance over 1k ohms, correct (since the amps have 10k input impedance)? Hopefully that's correct cuz most on my list so far are way below that (300-700 ohms for all ARC/Cary/BAT/Aesthetix mentioned above; the YBA Passion 600 and 1000 are listed at less than 20 ohms!!). Funny, but not even a mention of the Passion 400 on the website. I'll email the distributor this morning.
BTW, Jason Kennedy marries ATC SCmM50 actives to the Ayre K1-Xe in his Hi-Fi Choice review of Nov 2005, and loves the combo. Thanks for the tip on Ayre. I'll go find a dealer.
Well, since I need a new pre/pro that's balanced and has flexibility beyong what I'm using now (Denon 4806 as pre/pro) I got a great deal on a Bryston SP2. I'll post when it arrives and I have a chance to listen via 2 channel bypass.
just a few words from someone who's mentioned in john's truly wonderful article ("...I’m also responding in part to the desperation of some soul who on some message board a couple of months ago pleaded for help trying to keep his 20s from hammering him to death with solid state electronics..." - that was me:). anyway, i think we concerned owners of ATC darlings should make a database of "no-go" and "recommended" equipment when it comes to matching. for start here is my small contribution: NO NO: krell kav 250p - dynamic but cold and dry as hell. you will listen to an audio flow of bits that can't be called music. cary slp-98l - too much gain for ATCs produce congested sound, lack of flow and upper mid forwardness. despite gain adjusters on both ATCs and cary, it just doesn't work RECOMMENDED electrocompaniet EC4.7 Mk2 - the latest incarnation has a gain adjuster on the back. beautifully soft, relaxed and highly musical device that will show your ATCs in fully sweet mode you couldn't imagine they are capable of. usual problems with ATCs - harsh, ruthless, forward balance, spitty, etc - are just gone, there is nothing left. and check this: switch it to 0db and relax to the nicest tube flow and body married with SS control and detail. it lack only a final, ultimate extension in the highs, that could be also my (older) vifa tweeter in ATCs and also the cables. even with cheapo kimber PBJ it works wonders. and than, when you get hungry for more SS-like, dynamic, raw and raunchy sound, just switch the gain to 9dB and voila! so 2 sounds for a price of one, unbeatable flow and finesse or rock & hard & still very pleasent. bye for now gordan
i would add something on issue of impedances and sensitivities. the highest desirable output impedance of preamp for all the ATC is 100 ohm. everything above that will lead into mismatch. optimum impedance is 10 ohm can be considered perfect but everything up to 100 ohm will work great. YBA at 20 ohm and EC at balanced outs at 50 ohm proves that. the gain of the pre should be as low as possible. once again 0dB works wonderfull with the new EC4.7. older EC preamps (4.5, 4.6) are fixed at 6dB and that was good too, while 9dB setting of the new EC4.7 is not very musical but works well for everyone who prefers rare beefsteak over french croissant with strawberry jam. so this is pretty much of a robot pic of a desired pre for ATCs: 5-100 ohm impedance, 0-6dB gain. with valve preamps i would extend a tolerance for impedance to 200 ohm but that will be difficult to find (especially with such a low gain). don't waste your time with anything very different from this.
as john had a great time with EC4.6 and i can confirm that EC4.7 mk2 works excellent, it would be really fantastic to find a piece of old electrocompaniet preamp EC4.5 that is by many hard core electro freaks considered the best that has ever came out of the factory, especially the later units (circa 1998). there is a popular trend among norwegian audiophiles to sell the newer ECs (4.7, 4.6) and go back to the older 4.5, because it was full bodied, warmer and more open. i can't say anything as i haven't heard it but whoever had a chance to match it with ATCs, pls take care to share your thoughts with us.
last but not least - TVCs anyone had a chance to check how ATCs go with TVC based preamps? i particularly peculiar about Music First, Bent NOH and new prodigy from Maleysia, Promitheus TVC that offers (apparently) almost similar performance to MF for 10 times less price.
You may want to consider the following minimalist system that I have helped set up for a friend: ATC 50s + an Audio Aero Capitole Reference SE CD player with integrated tube preamp, three analog inputs, balanced outputs with low output impedance. Just add a pair of balanced ICs and good power cords. He is delighted with the combination. His other system has Quad 988 electrostatic speakers and quad tube amplifiers. He uses the ATC system for jazz/large orchestral works and the Quad system for chamber music. I run my Capitole straight into a 10k ohm solid state amp + ZU Druid speakers, again, with magical results, dead quiet,neutral and musical sound. The Capitole's tubes do not hiss nor show any "tubey" distortion into my 100 db efficient speakers. IMO this is a winning combination, considering that a decent balanced preamp will set you back at least 6K.
except that i might need to sell some inner organs, a great tip! i also adore AA capitole but still i haven't found a way how to fund it (nearly 10 grand AFAIK) EC preamp i mentioned above can be bought for $1000.
sorry it was me above, forgot to log in
Glad to hear that you are so pleased with the ATC anniversary speakers. ATC is leaving their mark again. Not only are they visually stricking but the sound quality out surpasses anything else.
I also have the active 50's- Does anyone have an up to date list of pre's that will work well with the ATC's?? I prefer tubes to soften the sound but am open to anything at this point-