The Fifth Element #59 Page 2

My contention is that Gurrelieder provided the DNA for the sound-world of a major portion of the movie soundtracks (and a lot of the TV soundtracks) we grew up with, up to and including the original TV series Star Trek and Star Wars. The means of transmission could have been Erich Korngold and all the other composers who later turned to film, who came here from Austria and Germany either for career advancement or to flee persecution. The fully orchestrated version of Gurrelieder was premiered in Vienna in 1913. Korngold, a child prodigy who had already had an opera performed before Emperor Franz Josef II, easily could have been in that audience, or heard a rehearsal. Or, perhaps, the means of transmission was Leopold Stokowski's 1932 live recording, on 27 convenient 78rpm sides. (You can download MP3s of the whole thing from for $1.98—some believe it to be the performance against which all others must be measured.) That, anyway, is my contention, and I'm sticking with it until someone disproves it.

Now, if someone listens to Gurrelieder on my say-so, and ends up concluding that Gurrelieder is what happens when you put Tristan und Isolde in the microwave oven and press "Warm Up Leftovers" too many times, I won't argue—we'll just agree to disagree. It's a lot to take in at one sitting, and a lot of cultural water has gone over the dam since 1913. But a masterpiece it is, and this is a great recording of it. Highly recommended. And if you buy it and hate it, donate your copy to your public library.

ATC SCM 40 loudspeaker ($4250/pair)
I was very impressed by ATC's SCM 11, a two-way standmounted loudspeaker ($1750/pair) that I wrote about in the December issue. (John Atkinson commented that his measurement results indicated very solid engineering.) I was so taken by the SCM 11 that, in wrapping up my long search for a music lover's stereo in the $2500–$3750 range, I suggested that, if people needed their options narrowed down as much as possible, they get a Peachtree Nova USB integrated amplifier, then choose between Aerial's 5B and ATC's SCM 11.

Curiosity got the better of me—I wanted to hear what ATC could do for 2.5 times as much money. By which I mean their SCM 40 three-way, sealed-box floorstander ($4250/pair).

When it comes to naming their products—see Sidebar, "Clue Us In"—ATC is neither the best nor the worst company. The first untangler I learned, from Karl Kregling, of ATC's US consumer-loudspeaker importer Flat Earth Audio, in Connecticut, was that the numeral in an ATC product name refers to the volumetric capacity of the enclosure in liters (footnote 1). Therefore, the ATC SCM 40 has a little less than four times the volume of the SCM 11. Okay, thanks.

From there it gets a little more complicated, because ATC does not have just one line in speakers, it now seems. The two-way SCM 11 costs $1750/pair, while the SCM 19, a somewhat larger two-way, costs $3150/pair. Going by specifications alone, that's puzzling: the $1400 increment buys you a grand total of 2Hz more bass extension. The explanation is that the SCM 19's woofer uses ATC's proprietary Super Linear magnet technology, while the SCM 11's does not. One assumes that the $1400 payoff is more in matters of transparency and comparative lack of distortion.

Back to the SCM 40, the top of ATC's entry-level line. The SCM's 6.5" woofer does not incorporate Super Linear magnet technology, and its tweeter is the least expensive ATC uses. However—and I think this is important—the SCM 40 uses the same 3" dome midrange as ATC's most expensive speakers. The SCM 40 is about 38" tall by 9" wide by 12.4" deep and shares its basic appearance with the SCM 11: cherry veneer on all surfaces except the driver-mounting baffle board, which is some kind of composite with a black eggshell finish. A metal base about 5/8" tall is attached to the bottom of the enclosure; four spikes can be fitted to it. Brass terminals allow for triwiring with spades or bananas. The SCM 40 weighs about 52 lbs and is very solidly built.

I set up the SCM 40s about 5.5' apart (inside edge to inside edge), and about 8' from the front edge of my listening couch to the plane described by the speakers' front baffles. I experimented with toe-in, from none to pointed directly at my ears. No toe-in gave a wider soundstage and sweet spot. Total toe-in gave wonderfully solid center images. Most important, toe-in or lack of same did not adversely affect the SCM 40's tonal balance; neither did my standing up vs my sitting down. On the channel-ID and phasing tests on Stereophile's Test CD 2 (Stereophile STPH004-2), the SCM 40s' performance was excellent: a wonderful fullness in the sound of JA's solo electric bass, with well-integrated upper harmonics; and the in- and out-of-phase signals of track 2 sounded about as different as I have ever heard them.

When Karl Kregling later stopped by to drop off ATC's integrated amplifier, he thought the sound was just fine and suggested no changes. One of the first things I tried on the SCM 40s was Alan Gilbert's truly excellent new recording of Mahler's Symphony 9 (SACD, BIS SACD 1710). I came this close to naming this recording as one of my "Records To Die For" in the February 2010 issue, but as wonderful a performance as it is, two minor things held me back. First, although the Stockholm Philharmonic never sets a foot wrong, I got the impression that the effort was effortful; that playing at this level was not second nature to them. Second, especially toward the end (and here is one instance in which the remarkable clarity of the recording might have worked against them), the string portamenti sounded as if they had been Photoshopped in—the slides didn't strike me as being organic parts of the music making. Aside from these two things, which perhaps I've blown out of proportion, this is an engrossing performance. The last page of the music just totally pulls you in. My dear friend, the Mahler authority Jerry Bruck, agrees, saying: Ignore the naysayers. (It seems that a few Mahlerians have been saying "nay" to this performance on the mailing lists.) That two of the first things I listened to were Schoenberg's Gurrelieder and Mahler's Ninth should indicate that the SCM 40 has satisfying rather than frustrating bass performance. I credit this largely to its sealed-box bass loading, and its generous size for its claimed bass extension. ATC says that the SCM 40's –6dB point is 48Hz, but the more important factor is that a sealed box rolls off half as quickly as a ported box. My guess is that I was getting some room gain just where the SCM 40s were rolling off in earnest, because the balance was very natural, with no boom anywhere.

The SCM 40s could play very loud without seeming to make excessive demands on any of the amplifiers I tried them with (Luxman L-505u, ATC SIA2, Leben CS600), so their 85dB sensitivity rating probably should not be a matter of concern. On smaller-scaled music, the SCM 40s could get out of the way, if not quite disappear. I've been listening to an awful lot of Gordon Lightfoot, preparatory to writing a retrospective on him. The SCM 40s were emotionally engaging, but lacked the jaw-dropping and addictively holographic effects of the Harbeth P3ESR (a descendant of the shoebox–sized BBC LS3/5a), which I briefly auditioned.

Footnote 1: ATC Loudspeaker Technology Ltd., Gypsy Lane, Aston Down, Stroud, Gloucestershire GL6 8HR, England, UK. Tel: (44) (0)1285-760561. Fax: (44) (0)1285-760683. Web: US distributor, consumer products: Flat Earth Audio, 98 Main Street, Seymour, CT 06483. Tel: (888) 653-5454, (203) 888-3759. Fax: (203) 888-3769. Web: Flat Earth Audio handles ATC's US consumer markets; professional markets are handled by Trans Audio in Las Vegas. A consumer can buy an ATC professional monitor (gray-painted finish, active; or passive, with Speakon connector) by special order through one of Flat Earth Audio's consumer dealers. Furthermore, for home-theater or custom-installation applications, customers can order consumer speakers with a gray-painted finish.