Soundstage and dimensionality were about midpack in performance. Orchestral layering, string sections, for example, were good but the sense of “seeing” past the orchestra’s percussion section to the back of the concert hall was only approximated. Ranked shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of an MBL Corona C51 or a Pass Labs INT-250—amps that carve soundscapes the way Michelangelo sculpted marble—the Atoll loses some ground yet is still in the game in this vaunted company. While the Atoll sacrifices some bloom and treble air at the extremities, the IN400SE’s opulent mids and potent bottom end are sufficient to give either a run for the money.
If you’re looking for a real bon-bon to show off the IN400SE’s sonic virtues, try one of the terrific new Joe Jackson remasterings courtesy of Intervention Records. If, like me, your only real exposure to Jackson’s music was either compressed onto AM radio or given a lackluster transfer to CD, you’re in for a real treat. These LPs virtually explode into life. Hearing the hit “Steppin’ Out” or “Cancer” from the Night and Day LP was like hearing it fresh for the first time, fully restored in all its analog colors and shadings. There’s the bass-line thrumming like the steady pulse of the New York nightlife scene, the hypnotic, harmonic ringing of the xylophone, the double-tracking of vocals and various other contrasts, and low-level transient details from songs that once played in such heavy rotation on the radio you might have tuned them out years ago. Have another listen.
The Atoll also managed a less sensitive loudspeaker, such as my ATCs, with ease. Many amps reduce acoustic-suspension speakers of this ilk to sounding overly controlled and compressed, or at times even a little dead in the midbass as if notes were having their decay times clipped off. The Atoll would have none of that. As I waded into a selection of jazz and pop favorites in formats that ranged from SACD to LP the Atoll hooked me with its dynamic authority, low-level sensitivity, and hints of midrange warmth that I’ve always found appealing. It had a quiet, darker presence and balance that reproduced the body of both piano and acoustic bass in all their reverb and sustain. The unmastered version of Patricia Barber’s Café Blue was especially compelling. The acoustic guitar solo during “A Taste of Honey” displayed the transient sting of the flatpick off the string with an excellent bell-like sustain.
Turning to the Atoll’s built-in DAC—it performed well over USB (sourced from my MacBook and PureMusic software) but not quite up to the standards of the Lumin A1 media player or the T+A MP 2000 R player (review forthcoming). Its soundstage was shallower and narrower with images lacking the elbow-room I’ve come to expect on airy, immersive tracks like Norah Jones’ “Come Away with Me” or Leonard Cohen’s backing chorus from “Going Home” from Old Ideas. Compared with the immediacy and speed with which the IN400SE performed throughout the rest of my evaluation, some hesitancy had seeped into the performance and subtracted some of the electricity and liveliness that I expect of this recording.
The Atoll IN400SE represents the kind of classic, purist audiophile virtues that know no nationality. It’s a serious integrated amplifier that speaks fluent High End (and without even a trace of a French accent) and is a welcome contender in the under-ten-grand ranks. I’m left with only one final question: I wonder how the croissants are up there in Atoll’s hometown of Brécey? I’m betting they’re extraordinaire!
Specs & Pricing
Power: 160Wpc into 8 ohms (300Wpc into 4 ohms)
Frequency response: 5Hz–100kHz
Inputs: Five RCA, (aux. for optional phonostage or digital SPDIF), bypass, one XLR, USB input (B type) 24/96kHz
Outputs: Two RCA, tape, preamp
Dimensions: 17.3" x 14.6" x 5.12"
Weight: 44 lbs.
Price: $6995 (PM50 mm phono board, $130; P100 mc phono board, $190, digital input with coax SPDIF, $320; wireless streaming at CD-quality, $430; 12V trigger $60 per trigger.