We were invited along to ATC’s headquarters, in the heart of the Cotswolds, to get a rare insight into how they produce their award-winning loudspeakers.
By Jack Pepper
In the dining room of the ATC Factory, Gloucestershire, jazz legends decorate the walls. Space here is reserved only for exceptional talent: Chet Baker makes the cut, as does Dave Brubeck; on the adjacent side, removed from the rest, you’ll even catch a glimpse of Thelonious Monk. And yet none of these distinguished figures were chosen for the centre spot. Above the heavy hardwood dining table, and in a league of his own, Bill Evans takes care of that comfortably – a musician regarded by Billy Woodman, who set up ATC Loudspeakers in 1974, as one of the best.
We sit down to eat. Making our way across the Cotswolds, along the winding country roads, has given us an appetite. The atmosphere is quite relaxed; there’s a low light – a lull. Our conversation takes a turn towards the difficulty of doing justice to the original recording, and a vacant seat in the middle is taken by Billy without any introductions. There’s an instant gravitas. “Well when we first started, that’s what the aim was: to produce loudspeakers of neutral fidelity, true to the original” he says as a matter of fact.
“It’s not a black art, it’s an engineering science.”
Having moved from Australia to join Goodmans as an R&D Engineer in the U.K., Billy also toured the length and breadth of the country as a jazz pianist – effectively playing his way to setting up ATC. It was a marriage of a love for piano with a strong engineering background that drove the beginnings of the company, which started out on the banks of the River Thames in Chiswick.
And the current site in Chalford, near Stroud, certainly has its quirks. Before the company relocated, in 1985, the building was used as a gymnasium for the air force; the RAF airfield next door is probably the largest giveaway of the site’s previous life. Though as you arrive – even in broad daylight – you’d be forgiven for thinking the factory was a converted barn, with a chicken hutch on one side and the vegetable patch on the other.
It’s not the first place you’d expect a loudspeaker manufacturer to be based, in fact. Yet having the space to do everything in-house, from the most minuscule components right the way through to the most mammoth, gives the company complete control. And the rows of lavender leading the way between buildings provide a tranquil contrast from the intense technical know-how going on inside.
As you walk in from the carpark, the first thing that strikes you is the enormous client list. There are too many names to even mention in full. Rock royalty in the shape of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd are perhaps the most impressive, with Sting, Tom Petty, and Lou Reed in there for good measure. Jack White features somewhere halfway down, as do Mark Knopfler and Kate Bush. Then of course there are the relative obscurities: Calvin Harris, Mark Ronson, Ziggy Marley, Beck, Manfred Mann, Diana Krall, and just when you think you’re done, Daniel Bedingfield even gets in on the action.
Drills whirr in sharp bursts and metal clangs, as busy looking workers fiddle at dust-coated benches. Fixed expressions are maintained across the room, as we are told of the exploits of Vanessa, a diligent technician, who’s singlehandedly made over twenty thousand soft dome midranges by hand. “She’s quite patient,” says Ben, who leads us over to her workbench as she runs off to grab more parts. “And to be consistent – it’s difficult. You might be lucky and make one, but you need to make twenty.” Getting the midrange right is a sort of company philosophy, we’re told “It’s easy to get carried away with bass and high,” says Ben,
“ We never compromise the extremes of the loudspeaker’s performance for the bit in the middle. You’ve got to remember that’s the level at which we’re communicating now. That’s where your ear is most sensitive.”
The information that Ben and his colleague Richard Newman, ATC’s Engineering Manager, are giving us is anything but midrange, however: this is serious stuff. They explain that simple pieces of music are better to test equipment with, because each layer of a track could be looked at in more detail. With this in mind, we’re led through a door at the back to the first Quality Control room.
Hugh and Toby, two experts in white coats, stand exchanging a joke. After a brief explanation, the two fire up what they call the Manual Test Set Sine Wave Generator, which fills the room like a fully charged laser gun from an interplanetary weapon arsenal. Everyone in there, besides Toby – who simply smiles – screws their face at the sheer power of the thing. As one of the longest serving members of staff, at around forty years service, it’s no wonder that Toby is completely unfazed by this monstrous machine.
These frequency sweeps take the idea of simple music to another level entirely: basic test tones. These uncover any areas of weakness in each speaker, and this is done on every single unit, unlike most manufacturers who batch test. When some of this equipment is being used in studios that charge £1500-2000 per day, the level of precision makes sense. While this doesn’t mean that clients should hit the red with a Black Sabbath album while they mow their garden lawn, the testing goes well beyond anything they’re likely to throw at their sound system.
There’s a very human element to this factory; every area feels like a person has lived in it. Walking through the main space, you’ll see boxes of components in every size imaginable and bass drivers stacked on the floor under desks. Units sit in carefully designed cubicles, while varied adhesives – more than we were aware existed – are scattered about the place. It’s a far cry from the conveyor belts, forklift trucks, and heavy, automated machinery that plagues plenty of other manufacturers.
This is probably what a lot of small-scale factories used to be like, before they began prioritising profits. The team certainly aren’t afraid of old methods if they happen to work well, and that means ATC has managed to transcend most industry trends. A number of small choices add up: from using paper domes and diaphragms for a more neutral sound, to relying on clunky, early eighties test equipment for its tireless consistency. In the case of the paper, the idea was first rolled out as far back as the 1930s. “It happened to be a really good choice back then,” Ben explains, “and it still is now.”
There’s a clear method to all of this, and the ATC team would likely argue their case till the day is done. The same goes for the well worn hi-fi debate on active speakers versus their passive counterparts, which erupts towards the end of the tour. One of the Soundstage team suggests that whereas passive speakers are the sonic equivalent of a blunt pencil, an active set represents more of a sharpened one: a simple a matter of preference. At which point, Richard cuts in: “But if you listened objectively, you’d hear the difference. A well engineered active system will always outperform it’s passive equivalent.” This point was hit home by Billy later, who said he would always choose an active set because they provide greater control of the tonal character, staying truer to the original sound. In short, they’re more realistic.
” A well engineered active system will always outperform it’s passive equivalent.”
Through a set of double doors at the back, past several framed sets of schematics, and we finally arrive at the demo room. At first glance, it feels a little like a living room – probably the traditional rug, coffee table and cream sofa combo. Just as we get a chance to flick through some CDs stacked on the shelves at the back, the SCM50s are let rip. First a Bonobo track, then a Slayer one – our particularly eclectic track choices don’t seem to affect the system’s performance one bit, and everyone sits there stunned.
When the SCM100s are rolled out it’s an entirely different story, however. Like being kicked squarely in the stomach, the hefty bass drivers do their job and then some. Naturally, the first selection was always going to be Bill Evans: the peaceful hiss of the brushes in My Foolish Heart settles like mist in the atmosphere, while rich piano phrases silence the room. “Piano’s quite a demanding instrument to reproduce,” Ben had previously said, though this felt as if you were sitting in on Evans’s actual session – a jolt back in time to the height of modern jazz.
The infamous April In Paris by Sarah Vaughan follows – a track Ben and Richard had described earlier as “poorly recorded,” and a true test for any system. The low background buzz in the original recording is expertly tamed, while any inconsistencies that would jump out usually – the pops, the crackles, the dull murmurs – are an afterthought. Listening to the track for first time, you’d never know the engineer was having an off day.
And on to the main event. Fierce shifts in pace, from tension to release: the way in which the Scottish National Philharmonic Orchestra’s rendition of Danse Macabre flexes the system’s dynamic range is simply staggering. While everyone in the room remains speechless at how wonderfully this bold piece of music has been reproduced, Rage Against The Machine’s Bombtrack is fired in an instant, for a complete contrast, demonstrating how versatile these speakers truly are. “Engineer the thing properly,” Ben reminds us, “and it’ll take care of whatever piece of music you throw at it.”
This whole listening experience is about variety. It isn’t about how slick a recording can be; as we found out, you could just as easily plonk two microphones in a room, record a live show and balance it afterwards, like in Elvis’s Is It So Strange (Take 1). What an odd late fifties outtake this happens to be; midway through his performance, Elvis simply can’t go on. His voice begins to crack, as hysterical laughter takes hold. Citing a chuckling audience member as the root cause, the show disintegrates into a very real place. And although we’re somewhere in Kemble, that moment is captured perfectly: you feel as the you’re in the crowd of some stateside joint, on an off night. You can almost smell the cigarette smoke.
That transportive feeling was evident in Burial’s Near Dark just as well, as fractured 2-step rhythms filled the room like a thick haze. And no demo experience would be complete, of course, without a couple of Dr. Dre tracks to cap it all off. The snares in The Next Episode crack down like sledgehammers, while Still D.R.E. (Chevy hydraulics at the ready, please) reminds us that with equipment like this, it’s about what you want to listen to. It doesn’t always have to be a classical piece fit for an audiophile; sometimes a dose of gangster rap works just as well. Snoop’s verses never sounded so crisp.
Ready to hear ATC’s sound systems yet? Pop in for a demo at Soundstage, and you’ll hear exactly what we’re talking about. The work these guys put into their speakers is on another level – and it’s work we support. All there is left to do is sit back, select your favourite track, and experience it. Hell, it might even give a Bill Evans concert a run for its money.
WHAT HIFI? AWARDS 2017 - Winner
Best Standmount Speaker
“These speakers manage to knit everything into a cohesive, musical whole".