When I was a little kid in the 1970s my parents gave me my own “compact stereo system.” Except, it wasn’t stereo, and it wasn’t high end. It included an LP record player, AM radio, mono amplifier, and speaker. It didn’t need anything else—just plug it in (or put in batteries) and listen. I enjoyed it quite a bit while doing the things that kids do. Of course, some years later I started getting into component hi-fi, which sounded much better but was not as portable or as convenient.
Well, here we have under review a pair of “compact stereo systems”—the $999 Technics Ottava SC-C70 and $799 SC-C50—that functionally aren’t completely unlike my first piece of audio gear. The SC-C70 even sports a visible CD drive under a glass cover, so you can watch your discs spin and spin. (An homage to the Technics legacy in turntables perhaps—the Technics SL-1200 was the pro industry standard for DJs for many, many years.) The whole thing is much better sounding of course, and much more sophisticated-looking than the brightly colored plastic of my first record player. The Ottava SC-C70 is a true high-end system of quality and refinement, with its brushed aluminum top, extensive remote, understated display, and very cool visible disc-bay up top. It includes not just a CD player, stereo amps and preamps, and speakers, but also an FM radio tuner, a streaming music app (Tidal-capable), and analog, digital, network, and USB inputs.
Why review just one, when you can review two? Indeed, Technics also sent me the $799 Ottava SC-C50 for listening and comparisons. It is essentially the SC-C70’s little brother, with no CD player. It is also a more recent addition to the line, and quite a different design in shape, speaker complement, and sound, though it does have most of the same features and abilities as its bigger brother, and sells for only a slightly lower price. Let’s see what these compact all-in-one players (systems) are capable of.
First let’s start with features common to both products. As comprehensive all-in-one units they include networking/streaming inputs such as Bluetooth v.4.2 (AAC, SBC), Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, wired LAN, and USB. Connectivity options and streaming services include Apple AirPlay, DLNA, Internet radio/podcasts, music files from network devices/phones, Spotify, Tidal, and others. I stuck with Tidal most of the time, since I think it sounds the best of the streaming services. A great feature of the SC-C50 is that you can buy a second unit and configure it for stereo operation, with one unit reproducing the left channel and the other reproducing the right. Multiple SC-C50s can also be combined to make a whole-house wireless multiroom system.
File formats that are compatible include linear PCM up to 24/96 on the optical digital input (TosLink). Both USB and wired LAN can input MP3, and AAC, WAV, FLAC, AIFF, ALAC—up to 24/384. The SC-C70 is compatible with DSD up to 5.6MHz, and the SC-C50 will decode DSD up to 11.2MHz. There is also a stereo analog input on 3.5mm mini-plug (AUX). Unfortunately, the power cable connects via a 3-cylinder style connector, so I was unable to try exotic power cords with the systems. In my last review (the Dali Callisto 2C wireless integrated loudspeaker system), I found that the AudioQuest NRG Z3 power cables made a huge improvement to the sound of such complex components. So if you can find a premium power cable with 3-cylinder style plug, give it a try.
Now for the unique details. The SC-C70 has a CD player, AM/FM tuner (antennas included), headphone jack, and remote control, and the SC-C50 does not. The SC-C70 has more buttons on top of the unit itself, nine total, spaced nicely across the top so you will not confuse them. The SC-C50 only has six buttons on top, arranged very tightly around the circular display. The signal processors/DAC circuitry in both are nearly identical. However, the amps in the SC-C70 are spec’d with more power at 20Wpc vs. 15W for the SC-C50 (FTC method). Considering these specs are fairly close, it is possible that they are the same amps, just with more heatsinking or bigger power supplies in the SC-C70. The situation is actually more complex than that, since there are three “channels” of amplification in the SC-C70 (driving five speakers), whereas the SC-C50 has four “channels” feeding seven speakers. The extra amp channel in the SC-C50 is for “center channel” speakers. How Technics thinks it can have right, left, and a distinct center channel in such a small, single box is beyond me, but the configuration seems to work.
A feature exclusive to the SC-C50 is Chromecast. You can use the Google Home app to set it up on the network, and then “cast” to it from Chromecast-enabled apps. Also, through some DSP magic (and a mic) the SC-C50’s “Space Tune” automatically adjusts the sound, and accounts for the nearby room environment to optimize soundstage, frequency balance, etc. The functionality is less automatic in the SC-C70, but that unit also includes three different Space Tune settings: free-environment, near a wall, and in a corner. As already stated, the speaker complements are different, basically three tweeter/midrange pairs in the SC-C50 (2½” midrange), and two sets in the SC-C70 (3¹/8” mid) for basic stereo. Both have a single reflex-ported 4¾” subwoofer, with its own amp.
You can connect music sources to these compact systems in a variety of ways, but I have become fond of either digital from my CD transport (or from the built-in CD player) or Tidal. For products like these (and the Dali Callisto system), which include DSP and D/A processing, it seems superfluous to send an analog signal, only to have it converted to digital then converted back to analog again for the speakers. Perhaps I am biased since I have no LPs anymore, but it is nice to have the functionality there when you need it, though I found analog, Bluetooth, MP3, and lossy streaming services to have noticeably lower sound quality. Give me pure CD-digital or Tidal (Hi-Fi or MQA) all day long. That is where the richness is, the vivid 3-D soundstage, the complex instrumental timbres, the subtle musical details, the artistic touches. That is what I like. These modestly-priced Technics systems have enough of a taste of the high end for you to hear the difference.
I was able to select the SC-C50 as a “speaker” in the standard Android Tidal app, after finding it on Bluetooth and pairing with it. However, the sound was not as good as Tidal-direct, and also for some reason the same tablet would not pair the Bluetooth with the SC-C70 (even though it was detected), so I was not able to compare one system directly to the other. I then installed the Technics Music App (for the SC-C70), and Technics Audio Center (for the SC-C50) onto my Android tablet, and used the Tidal functionality available within them.
Listening to old Rush favorites like the albums Permanent Waves, Counterparts, or Test for Echo, I heard details I never noticed before. Was that a Balinese gamelan in the right channel on “The Spirit of Radio?” I was fonder of the frequency balance of the SC-C50 for this album than through the SC-C70, but they both had fine qualities. Both players did an admirable job of presenting bass frequencies—more so than you would expect from units of this size. The SC-C50 had somewhat flatter and smoother tonal balance through the midrange. It appears the inclusion of a subwoofer (if you can call a 4″-and-change driver such a thing) in both models was worth it. Not nearly as impressive as the Dali Callisto 2C speakers I just finished reviewing, but certainly enough to do credit to rock music.
Moving on to Talking Heads’ 1980 Remain in Light and the more famous Speaking in Tongues from 1983, I was surprised by how many different elements—percussion, instruments, voices, noises, etc.—popped out of the mix here and there. It made it seem like there were nine members of the band rather than just four. Of course, in the studio they could add whatever tracks they wanted where they wanted, without having to play it all simultaneously. On tour they might have had nine people in the band anyway! All the extra touches made the music even bouncier, more danceable, and more exciting. Really fun stuff, this music will give you energy. Again the SC-C50 had a preferable frequency balance for me (smoother midrange), and I saw a trend emerging. Playing around with the “remaster” setting on the SC-C70 did not really help in this department, though it did make a noticeable change to the overall balance.
Partway through my review, the SC-C70 automatically detected a firmware update available on the Internet, so I clicked “install,” and it successfully updated to version 1.10. This was a very good update. Afterwards I noticed a more natural frequency balance, with more believable vocals, a more neutral midrange, and seemingly deeper bass. It really kind of spruced things up for this player, particularly with rock music (my main staple). For the SC-C70, though, the natural balance only applies when your head is on or near the horizontal plane of the middle of the unit. If you stand up things change. I’m not sure if this is due to the special louvers I saw on the tweeters in a cutaway-view drawing, or the additional horizontal rails that are obvious at the front of the unit. Sound can reflect off these on its way out of the front of the drivers, and in my opinion that causes the frequency balance to be less realistic, particularly for vocals as I stated previously. I would not say the vertical dispersion is super good, though things sound quite fine if you keep your head near the horizontal plane. This may be a very low place for your noggin, depending on placement, so I would recommend either a low chair, or a high table for the SC-C70 (I had both, but I’m tall) for serious listening.
As a true stereo speaker system, the SC-C70 could produce a soundstage, which Technics augments with some special DSP tricks. The unit throws up a nice illusion that it is bigger than it is—that the speakers are as far apart as widely spaced separate speakers. But that is all it is—a pleasing illusion—for if you listen to it at normal distances (five feet or more), you do not have much in the way of a three-dimensional soundstage. Streaming Wang Chung “Wait” from Points on the Curve, I found it hard to separate instruments and voices from each other spatially, though I could certainly hear their individual lines in the mix. The bells were particularly pleasing, though this player did not quite have the hyper-resolution (to make it clear whether the bells, for example, were synthesized or real) that more expensive systems have. If you put your head very close, of course, you get more spread-out imaging, but I doubt many will listen this way on a regular basis. As mentioned earlier, you can buy two Ottava products and configure them for stereo operation, that is one unit reproducing the left channel and the other the right channel for a more convincing stereo presentation.
My soundstaging impressions were very similar for the SC-C50. In fact, this is the performance area where I felt the players were most alike. They try (successfully) to present as wide and realistic a 3-D image as possible for such closely-spaced stereo (or 3-channel in the case of the SC-C50) drivers. However, they cannot compete with the spread-out and detailed imaging you get from widely spaced individual speakers. Nevertheless, the illusion was pleasing.
Can they reproduce other types of music well? Yes, certainly. I tried some early Mark Isham (Tibet, Film Music) and it was peaceful and calming. Then I pulled up some classical music, which also takes me back to my youth, since I have been studying it and performing it since 1975. After all, these are called the “Ottava,” which means octave in Latin. I found a Beethoven Symphony 7 recording on Tidal to enjoy on the SC-C50. It sounded good, but the performance was not quite what I was looking for. That is the problem with being familiar with the Herbert Von Karajan Beethoven symphony cycle with the Berliner Philharmoniker from 1963. It makes all other Beethoven performances sound a little “wrong” by comparison. I pulled out my trusty CD from Deutsche Grammophon and started it spinning on the SC-C70. The Symphony 7 was glorious and passionate.
There is a caveat with all this. Though the phones/tablets, phone docks, and mini-systems that people are likely to compare to these Technics compacts are all also very limited in sound volume, these Ottava systems are quite limited in how loudly they can play. I could push the volume up to higher than “quiet home listening,” levels, which are good enough for a small room, but I did not want to. The thing is, the speakers (particularly the midrange drivers) are so small that they start to distort at the very beginning of headbanger levels. Things will sound clear and composed, as long as you keep levels reasonable, but don’t expect to be able to crank it up to the kind of volumes that most larger component systems can manage.
I did not find either of these compact players to be a real “giant-killer,” but I do think they are worth what they cost, which is not too surprising, since putting together a system of separate components (including cables) that could perform some of the same functions, you would need to stay in the $100–$200 range for each piece. Though $800 (SC-C50) or $1000 (SC-C70) is technically not the “starting point” for high-end audio prices, it really is in this case, as these are complete systems.
These Technics Ottava compact players have a lot in common, though their complements of features are different enough that each may appeal more to a different person. They both make excellent streaming players, complete with all you need. Just add a tablet/phone and a Tidal subscription, and you have an instantly available music collection, with fantastic sound. Those who want a more impressive-looking system and/or CD-play capability will choose the SC-C70. I actually preferred the less expensive SC-C50 for its sound quality. I thought it had more impressive bass, more natural overall frequency balance, and more realistic vocals. I do feel confident recommending both of them. They offer quite a healthy dose of value-for-money, and should provide quite a lot of listening pleasure for entry-level audiophiles (and just plain old music lovers).
Specs & Pricing
Frequency range: Not given
Amplifier power: 20Wpc + 35W for subwoofer
High-frequency driver (2): ¾” dome tweeter
Midrange driver (2): 3¹⁄8” cone
Bass-reflex subwoofer (1): 4¾” cone
Frequency range: Not given
Amplifier power: 15Wpc + 30W for subwoofer
High-frequency driver (3): 5⁄8” dome tweeter
Midrange driver (3): 2½” cone
Bass-reflex subwoofer (1): 4¾” cone
PANASONIC CORPORATION OF AMERICA
Two Riverfront Plaza
Newark, NJ 07102
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