The key differences, and I do mean differences with a capital D, are the 19A’s improved imaging, immersiveness, and tight-fisted low-end control. The active version sounds like a stronger, more muscular version of the passive one—as if the little SCM19 has spent the last few months at the gym. It now resolves more ambient cues, and with a broader and more colorful palette of timbre and texture to draw from. Listening to Arimasa Yuki’s “Forest” solo piano from an MQA high-resolution file is a prime example of the way mid- and low-frequency dynamics emerge from the keyboard with captivating and authoritative detail. The touch of the player and the gradations, impact, and surface quality of the piano’s hammers striking the strings are hypnotizing.
Image placement is fastidious; at times almost startling in the way musicians inhabit their own space with authority, clarity, and specificity. In the same way an Olympic gymnast “sticks the landing,” there is a grounding to the orchestral soundstage that once heard is difficult to forget. This characteristic is on display during Harry Connick, Jr.’s cover of the classic “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” where he’s joined almost note for note in duet with Branford Marsalis on tenor sax. This recording captures the two voices in time and place with almost geo-tracking precision and a level of timbral specificity and intimacy that still leaves this listener breathless. In general, reproduction of low-level details is beyond reproach with the SCM19A but I do not mean to imply that the ATC was behaving like a cool and clinical studio-monitor, either. That is, unless transparency and resolution have somehow become very dirty words. But it also doesn’t flatter average recordings. If a vocal is mixed a little hot, the ATC is there to expose it in all its gritty and false hyper-detail. Likewise a stellar recording takes on an otherworldly and soaring luminance that makes it seem as if it couldn’t possibly be coming from a loudspeaker in the first place.
Keep in mind the SCM19A does have limitations—both in output and in extension. It is still a two-way after all, so that while midbass into the 40–50Hz range is solid, you’ll need one of ATC’s larger models, like the SCM40, to catch a glimpse of the bottom octaves. (I know of no two-way compact that authentically reproduces a pipe organ.) Also some may quibble over the qualities of acoustic-suspension bass compared with bass-reflex configurations. They both have a house sound—the former requires more power and leans toward tightness and pitch control, while the latter is more efficient but tends toward a looser, fuller presentation. The bass drum, timpani, or rock ‘n’ roll kickdrum are good examples. On a ported loudspeaker, bass resonances decay more slowly, as if being released in a deep exhalation. With acoustic-suspension bass like that of the ATC, the decay “exhalation” is more precise. Both can work, and the differences become more superficial in the more expensive segments of the loudspeaker world.
Passive versus active is an argument that is anchored deep in audiophile culture. Though active loudspeakers will likely remain a relative rarity in high-end circles, it is heartening that hybrid designs outfitted with powered woofers (Vandersteen, MartinLogan, Paradigm, for example) have gained some well-deserved prominence. Ultimately, it comes down to implementation. Whether passive or actively powered, does it do the job of reproducing a musical performance in a way that approaches the authenticity of the live event? Well, some may accuse me of heresy, but I won’t be passive in my appraisal of the SCM19A. There is no two-way loudspeaker that I would recommend more highly.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Two-way, acousticsuspension floorstanding
Drivers: 1" soft-dome tweeter, 6.5" mid/bass
Frequency response: 54Hz–22kHz
Integral amplifier power: 150W (woofer), 32W (tweeter)
Dimensions: 14.4" x 38.6" x 13.5" (includes plinth and amp)
Weight: 68 lbs.
ATC LOUDSPEAKER TECHNOLOGY LTD.
GL6 8HR, England