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.
True, the Atrias cannot play the lowest bass notes at full strength. You can hear this on the bass line that forms the coda to “Don’t Give Up” from Peter Gabriel’s masterful album So. The last note of the motif, which is the lowest, is a punch slightly pulled. Mind you, the note is clearly there, just at a reduced level. If you want to hear it at full strength, step on up to Rockport’s Avior, the Atria’s larger sibling. The uplift costs about $11,000, and only you can decide if that’s feasible and worth it.
Even with this very minor compromise in bass extension, the Atrias need make no apologies in this area. That’s because their bass is every bit as tight, impactful, and informative as larger, more expensive speakers. Indeed, other than ultimate extension, bass is one of the Atria’s greatest strengths. There is no slop, no overhang, and no sense of the driver overcoming initial inertia (the ability of the bass to start and stop on a dime explains a lot about the solid rhythms the Atrias churn out).
Furthermore—again, with the exception of the very lowest tones—this is not a quality versus quantity situation. When it comes to bass energy in the broad sense, these Rockports give up very little to larger, multi-woofered designs. Going back to the Peter Gabriel bass line, the instrument should step forward, away from the background, and strut its stuff. Through the Atria, it does, while also reproducing this particular instrument’s somewhat unusual tonality. Similarly, the string bass on the Analogue Productions SACD of Dave Brubeck’s familiar Time Out never lurks in the shadows, as it can through speakers more reticent in this zone. Meanwhile, the Atria again conveys this particular instrument’s own (very different) harmonic structure.
The second thing you would expect the Atria to give up, by virtue of their charmingly modest (impeccably-finished) stature, is soundstage scale. It does, but only in the dimension of height. The Atria’s soundstage barely rises above the height of the speaker itself. However, assuming you are seated at a normal listening level, this limitation is neither particularly noticeable nor bothersome. But stage height is inarguably something bigger speakers—good ones, at least—can do better.
On the other hand, everything else having to do with soundstage and imaging is most certainly in the Atria’s wheelhouse. Credit its extremely low resolution floor and low distortion that permits it to transmit those almost subliminal spatial cues. On a great recording, like the stupendous ORG pressing of Mehta conducting Holst’s The Planets, the soundstage is so convincingly deep it’s downright spooky. Width is similarly impressive. The Atrias are happy (there it is again) to be positioned well apart, and will still completely fill the space in between. Between this depth and width, the Atrias let you hear the placement of every orchestral section, as on the Holst, right down to the solo violinist’s position within the firsts.
OK, so besides soundstage prowess (other than height) and good bass (within minor limits), what else don’t you give up that you might expect to in a speaker of this size and price? For one thing, dynamic range. Of course, low-distortion speakers can usually play softly without losing important musical details (think Quads and Maggies); but, they can’t necessarily play loudly with the same alacrity (think Quads and Maggies). Oh, but the Atrias can! Whether sustained or in a burst, the Atrias are perfectly happy to overload your ears and your room. Rockport’s Andy Payor says one of the Atria’s limitations compared to the Avior is its ability to fill a large space. I can’t say I agree. My listening room is quite large, yet the Atrias had no trouble commanding it.
The Atrias also excel at the micro end of dynamics. Listen to a chamber octet, as on the Prada CD of Dvorak’s Songs from Bohemia, and the speakers will reward you with each player’s most minute dynamic inflection. In this way, you can really hear the players relating to each other, passing the theme around through understated dynamic emphasis and de-emphasis. In a live classical performance, the conductor, through gestures to a particular section, often visually cues the audience as to where the theme currently resides. “Pay attention now to what these players are doing,” the maestro seems to say. But in the solace of our listening rooms, we must rely on audio alone to provide such cues. The Atrias are fully up to this task.
There are two other traits associated with more exotic speakers that I am happy to report are fully embraced by the Atrias: air and speed. Two seconds of listening to these Rockports is sufficient to hear a top end that ascends to the heavens. This frees music from any sensation of being stifled or of hitting a glass ceiling. Equally—and as immediately—obvious is the Atria’s speed. All those little details to which I referred earlier would not be possible if the Rockports couldn’t field a fast transient.
Speakers this fast, resolving, and extended in the highs tend also to be unforgiving. I don’t know how the Atrias do it, but they manage to be both extraordinarily revealing and forgiving at the same time. So is a case in point. Depending on the track, Gabriel’s voice can stray into grate territory. The Atrias never let it get that far. You might think they accomplish this through glossing and smoothing, but that is not the case. On the contrary, these speakers not only reveal every nuance of Gabriel’s vocal delivery, but they allow me to hear more layers of this complex recording than I ever have. This combination of resolving power with forgiveness is rare indeed in audio components, yet it is what live music routinely delivers.
So far I have said nothing about the Atria’s tonal balance. Here is yet another surprise. For all their detail retrieval and dynamic incisiveness—traits that are often associated with a lean tonal balance—the Atrias are tonally on the mellow side. Listen to the alto sax on Time Out. Through the Rockports, the instrument may be a bit more warm and golden than you’re used to. You might take that as either a compliment or a criticism, depending on your proclivities, but it would only be the latter if the speaker went too far in that direction. They do not. And because they do not, the Atrias will appeal to those who lean toward romanticism as well as those whose fealty is more to accuracy. I myself am in the latter category, yet I still find the Atrias bewitching and would gladly own a pair.
Coincidentally, near the end of my time with the Rockports, I was in California and had the opportunity to hear Robert Harley’s reference system. At the time, it consisted of Magico Q7s, Constellation electronics and a full dCS Vivaldi stack up front—such are the perks of being Editor in Chief! We listened to several SACDs that I had brought along, taking particular pleasure in the Analogue Productions release of Rickie Lee Jones’s quirky, beautifully recorded Traffic in Paradise. The sound was delicious. Although the system visually confronts listeners with brutish-looking, massive gear, the aural impression is, in contract, light and lithe.
Upon my return home, I was able to audition the same SACDs through the Atrias, once again zeroing in on the stellar Rickie Lee Jones disc. Unsurprisingly, the album sounded better at Robert’s house—but not by as wide a margin as you might expect. The Q7 is capable of throwing a larger soundstage (especially height) than the Atria, is more strictly neutral, has even more air on top, and….and that’s about it. I felt no loss of speed, detail, ease, depth or dynamic whomp. Impressive, wouldn’t you say?
The reason the Atrias can hold their heads high compared to one of the best speakers in the world is the consistency of Andy Payor’s design philosophy. Never mind that this is Rockport’s entry-level offering; its goals are exactly the same as those of its bigger brothers. Specifically, Rockport believes that resolution and musicality need not be mutually exclusive—and won’t be if informed design is executed at a sufficiently high level. Consequently, the Atria uses the identical components, drivers, and production techniques as Rockport’s larger speakers. With this in mind, and their sound in your ears, their $21,500 price starts to look like the bargain it is.
In sum, I cannot imagine anyone being anything but captivated by a pair of Atrias. They are true Rockports, brought to a more accessible price and size range. They are also so revealing of wondrous detail, so free of distracting artifacts, so effortlessly “right” in their presentation, and so darn happy to be making music, they can’t help but make you happy, too.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Three-way, dynamic driver, floorstanding loudspeaker
Driver complement: 9” carbon-fiber sandwich composite woofer; 6” carbon-fiber sandwich composite midrange; 1” beryllium dome tweeter
Frequency response: 28Hz–30kHz +/-3dB
Nominal impedance: 4 ohms
Dimensions: 12.5” x 43.5” x 20”*
Weight: 150 lbs. each
586 Spruce Head Rd.
South Thomaston, ME 04858
By Alan Taffel
I can thank my parents for introducing me to both good music and good sound at an early age. Their extensive classical music collection, played through an enviable system, continually filled our house. When I was two, my parents gave me one of those all-in-one changers, which I played to death.More articles from this editor
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