I have always enjoyed French electronics so, when news broke that the Atoll range was available in the UK, I jumped at the chance to take a listen to the company’s SDA200 Signature, an all-in-one streamer, DAC and integrated amplifier. It’s a concept I have grown very fond of over the years, so much so that the majority of my listening is with a single box device that functions very much like this Atoll.
The SD200 Signature arrived, well packed and with an easy-to-follow and well-illustrated manual. At 13kg it’s no lightweight, the result of solid French engineering which includes a 10mm aluminium fascia dominated by a 5-inch colour display with a large control knob on either side: the left-hand being for menu selection, and the right for volume. The front panel also houses a headphone outlet and USB input.
As the internet is now a huge source of music, the SDA200 Signature need only be coupled to loudspeakers to provide a complete high-quality system. I relied on the easy-to-use Atoll app to control the unit because my compact iPhone felt more comfortable in the hand than the elongated remote supplied and which I found ergonomically rather challenging.
Installing the two small antennae supplied (for Bluetooth aptX and wi-fi, although there is also an ethernet connection), it was simply a case of connecting my Harbeth monitors and everything was up-and-running in no time at all. Roon-ready has just become an option with a firmware update, although we are still not offered Airplay; however I managed to connect my Apple products and could stream audio from my server. I also made use of the Tidal, Qobuz and Deezer music services to great effect, not to mention having hours of fun exploring the thousands of internet radio feeds available.
Apart from the streaming and internet radio sources, inputs are provided a plenty, with four digital and a pair of analogue options as well as USB connections both front and rear. There is also a pre-out to feed a power amp. Something I did appreciate was a digital output which is often lacking on similar products: it provides for greater flexibility and permits digital recording.
A clearly well-engineered unit, the SDA200 Signature provides a beefy-enough 120W/ch with a quoted impulse power of 200W which should be enough to drive most speakers to adequate levels depending on taste and room size. Indeed, my less-than-sensitive 85dB Harbeth 30.1 Anniversary, which can prove a challenge to some amplifiers, were amply driven by the Atoll.
Inside, components (including MKP capacitors) are assembled on a large, central circuit board with a second, smaller board behind the front panel for control circuitry. The digital processor is placed centrally with near symmetrical layout for both the pre-amp and power stages. A dedicated power supply relies on a toroidal transformer. The pre-amp has discrete components and is zero feedback in pure Class A, with the power stage operating in Class AB.
The streamer can accommodate a wide range network audio protocols (including DLNA and UPnP) and uses either wi-fi or a wired RJ45 connection to the user’s preference. The front panel display shows track names, album cover graphics (although these are quite small due to the size of the panel) as well as resolution and bit rate. For internet radio (via the Airable system) this was invaluable in tracking down the highest quality signals. For example, with BBC Radio 3 it is possible to receive 320kpbs, 48kHz and 32-bit in MPEG-4 AAC – or so the display indicates.
The onboard DAC is based on a Burr-Brown PCM1792 convertor and can reproduce files from a wide range of formats, including but by no means limited to: FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AAC and MQA. Thus, we have a very versatile box of tricks although some will use it as just a DAC and amplifier, connecting a CD player, or drive, or even a phono stage.
The concept of an all-in-one box to handle streaming, DAC and amplification is anathema to some although I’ve been relying on a similar piece of equipment for many years now. It makes life so simple: connect a pair of decent loudspeakers and hey presto – good quality sound. Add extra sources as required to increase flexibility. I typically have a CD drive, Blu-ray DVD and a satellite decoder plugged in plus an Ethernet connection to my network.
Downloading and connecting the dedicated Atoll app was easy, and I could also connect my iPhone via Bluetooth without any difficulty to access material locally-stored on my network. Almost a ‘plug-and-play’ scenario, it was so straightforward. To begin with I wished the front screen were touch-sensitive but soon realised that using the App (or the remote) was far less strenuous than having to leap up from the listening chair to make an adjustment. One feature which took my fancy was the ability to assign names to the various input sources – rather than having to remembered what is plugged where.
Coupled firstly to another French product, in the shape of Triangle’s £1,500 Comète Anniversary loudspeakers I also tried pairing with Acoustic Energy’s AE500s (at £999) and my trusty Harbeth monitors which cost some £3,300. All fared well and didn’t reveal any unwanted anomalies in the sound quality. The SDA200 is clearly designed to work with a wide range of loudspeakers at varying price-points.
Like a good wine, I did feel that, with time, the sound from the Atoll improved – settled down would perhaps be more accurate. Initially I was impressed but, as the review period went on, even more so: the bass became more controlled and better balanced, and the treble sweeter, more refined, while the soundstage increase a modicum in depth and height to become even more realistic. So, when you go for a dealer audition (which I urge you to) ensure that the unit on demo is properly run-in so that you can enjoy the full effect.
From the first notes, it is clear that we have a well-engineered product and one which, in common with my loudspeakers, has been designed so as not to add to the recorded sound. We are therefore able to enjoy the full effect as the studio producer and recording engineer intended. The output has a good, even balance across the frequency spectrum, producing a lovely soundstage and decent imaging.
I spent a lot of my time listening to spoken word, either on recordings or from radio and TV. Throughout all this, the SDA200 rendered human voices in a tonally accurate fashion, creating a highly credible presentation of the correct size. Musically, too, the Atoll unit proved its credentials. We began with Arvo Part’s minimalist, meditative Spiegel im Spiegel on a Naxos compilation. Listeners commented on the deliciously wide and deep soundstage and pinpoint imaging and superb placement of performers. The timing was also commendable and the overall presentation of a quality rarely experienced at this price point. The Atoll continued to punch above its weight with Parry’s glorious I Was Glad (King’s College Choir under Philip Ledger on EMI from 1977) where the atmospheric recording brought the character of King’s College Chapel to my listening room in a most convincing way. The beautiful layers of the recording were maintained as we were entertained by the young voices of the large chorus bringing weight to the performance with their ethereal yet sharply focussed sound in the semi-choruses. Then the blazing brass of the Band of the Royal Military School of Music sets the spine tingling.
Proving its credentials as a faithful listening companion, the SDA200 performed admirably across all genres tested. The sound produced is well detailed, never strained, the amplifier section has plenty of power to create SPLs (sound pressure leves; volume) more than enough for a home environment. Such are the timing abilities of the Atoll that our feet were tapping away to the rhythm which the amplifier recreated with aplomb on track after track. Streaming, tried via Tidal and Qobuz, did not cause any loss of quality, as the levels of ‘air’ and punch are maintained.
Dynamics were always impressive, not necessarily speed and agility, but that uncanny knack of digging deep when required and conveying even complex pieces in a meaningful and entertaining way. This was clearly evidenced by Dire Straits and the deliberately exaggerated Private Investigations from 1981. Basslines stand out in a way I remember from hearing other Atoll products at various hi-fi shows, where decent low-end reproduction is achieved seemingly without undue effort. This is not a time to necessarily analyse the music but one to sit back, listen and simply enjoy.
Intending to listen just to the title track on Phil Collins’ But Seriously, I found myself winding up the volume and recalling what a great album this is. So much so that there is hardly anything to dislike about it when played via the Atoll. I listened somewhat mesmerized and deeply involved in the music. Wow – what an energetic sound, full of detail and that ability to master rhythm and timing again to the fore. Bass response is magical, the midrange involving and the top-end full of energy. A winning combination.
I particularly appreciated the Atoll designers’ desire to retain the sound of the original mix without trying stamp their own signature on the material as is the case with too many amplifiers nowadays. The level of neutrality from the SDA200 Signature is to be admired as is its undoubted style and panache. To have the unit not only designed but also manufactured in France is an added bonus when so much today is made in the Far East with attention more on production costs than product quality.
That so much can be accommodated in a package at this price level is astonishing. It costs less than the competition that springs to mind, and with which I am very familiar, and yet provides more inputs, internet radio access, a digital output and that central display panel which is so informative. To my mind, we have something of an audiophile bargain here and a product truly worthy to receive Best Buy status.