A common practice in the high end is to speak of a component’s “character.” We high-end denizens understand that term as a reference to said equipment’s sonic fingerprint—the limitations, colorations, exaggerations, and emphases it imparts to the music. But a component’s “personality” is something different. Personality has to do with the overall feeling a product conveys to the listener. I have heard many DACs, for example, that give the distinct impression of working very hard to extract information. Needless to say, listening to those DACs is not the most tranquil experience. Other components exhibit personalities that can be described as relaxed, polite, extroverted, or anal. We have all heard products that fall into one of these categories.
I bring up the notion of personality in the context of Rockport Technologies’ new $21,500 Atria because these speakers emit a very distinct—and distinctive—persona. Specifically, the Atrias are happy. I know that sounds crazy, but the Atrias give off a strong vibe of simply loving to play music. They never complain, they never strain, and they never hold back. They are doing what they were born to do, and they are thrilled about it. The way the Atrias glory in making sound for music’s sake is not only palpable, it is also contagious. To listen is to share in their delight. And just as this tends to be true about people who are happy in their work, the Atrias are very, very good at what they do. But what things, exactly, are they doing so well—what, in other words, are the character traits that enable them to convey such a strong sense of musical freedom and joy? Read on.
Any summary of the Atria must begin by indicating that they represent the best in modern speaker design—and deliver fully on the sonic and musical benefits that design promises. Thanks, for instance, to extremely stiff carbon-fiber sandwich composite- or beryllium-domed drivers, equally stiff cabinetry, and point-to-point wired crossovers, they have vanishingly low distortion. This makes them highly resolving, transparent, and easy to listen to all at once. The drivers and crossover components are painstakingly matched, so the Atrias are coherent, speaking with one seamless voice from top to bottom. And their graduated-width, rearward-slanting front baffle, combined with an elliptical crossover that provides excellent phase summation, minimizes diffraction and time incoherencies. As a result, the speakers neatly disappear, leaving only the music.
I could end this review right there and call it a day, but that would be unfair to the Atrias, because these speakers do much more, some of which you would not expect for their $20k-and-change entry fee. But before exploring those areas, there is more to say about the Atria’s very first impression: that sublimely low noise floor.
Even high-resolution speakers can accompany all that detail with a side of grit, glare, or fuzz. These artifacts may be in the background or astride the notes themselves. The Atrias, despite being highly resolving, are blissfully free of any such interlopers. The result, in a word, is purity. You’ll rarely hear a piano sound as carefree—as unfettered of having to punch through sonic grime—as it does through a pair of Atrias. But pick your instrument—drums, strings, bass, horns—they all come through unburdened by anything extraneous, like a boxer who has just shed excess weight.
This purity benefits solo instruments and voices (listen to the startling immediacy of Norah Jones on Feels Like Home), but also makes it easy to follow the individuals in a group. Instruments do not “step on” one another; rather, each emerges clearly. No detail—soft breaths, a guitar pick stroking nylon or steel, the gentle rattle of snares against a drumhead—is below the noise floor, so all are audible without strain.
One last point about low noise is that it’s just a lot easier to listen to speakers that aren’t distorting—no matter how subtly. With clean electronics behind them—I was fortunate to have the superb CH Precision stack on hand—the Atrias will never tire you out. They sound as fresh and clear in the fifth hour as they do in the first. Of course, in this price and size range, you generally have to give up something—usually several things. The beauty of the Atria is that you really give up only two. The first, unsurprisingly, has to do with bass. Floorstanders near the entry point of a manufacturer’s line tend to be bass compromised. Put another way, one of the main benefits of speakers higher in the range is more powerful, extended bass. The Atrias follow this dictum—but only partially.