Goodness, I can’t recall the last time I was able to put an FM tuner through its paces and yet there was a time when I used to undertake group tests, there were so many coming to the market. Having recently enjoyed the streamer/DAC/integrated SDA200 Signature from French manufacturer Atoll I jumped at the chance to listen to the first TU80 Signature tuner to arrive in the UK.
Opening the box, the tuner is supplied with one of those hopeless indoor ribbon aerials (only of use if one can see the transmitter!), decent-looking RCA audio leads and a user manual. This is an audiophile tuner and not a DXers device; that’s vital to understand from the off. Here we are interested in receiving and decoding RF signals to produce high-quality audio to feed a high-end system. This is not intended to chase far-off stations and so much of the operation is automated, by which I mean sensitivity and selectivity. That makes it a joy to simply plug-in, switch on and start listening.
Celebrating its silver anniversary, Atoll was founded in 1997 and remains privately owned by brothers Stéphane and Emmanuel Dubreil. All the products are made in their factory in Normandy and encompass amplifiers, network streamers, DACs, CD players, phono stages and this FM tuner. Such is the relatively limited demand for standalone tuners nowadays, there is but this single model on offer. But if it does the business then there’s no need for an entire range of products which are virtually doing the same thing.
Atoll suggest a burn-in period and, to avoid any controversy, I left the tuner running for a week before sitting down to listen in earnest. These days I do not have the luxury of a rotatable antenna, just a fixed Yagi pointing at the main FM transmitter which broadcasts a mix of regional stations as well as national BBC and commercial networks. This proved more than enough to put the TU80 through it spaces.
Much of the 5kg weight of this unit is down to a heft case and two transformers within. Otherwise, circuitry is confined to a main circuit board, with an RF chip mounted on the underside, and a smaller board behind the front panel to drive the alpha-numeric fluorescent display and input controls.
User-friendliness extends to 30 customisable channel pre-sets, automatic channel scan and basic RDS to provide channel name display, but with an eight-character limitation. There is also a stereo mode reception indicator.
As designer Tony Levallois explained, at its heart the TU80 Signature has a Silicon Labs SI4735 FM RDS tuner receiving chip covering 76-108MHz. This device has taken a lot of the heartache out of designing a tuner circuit from discrete components. It boasts a decent specification in a single package.
To adapt the level and impedance of the output signal, Atoll have added discrete component pre-amplification audio stages. These have been optimized by ear to obtain optimal musicality. In addition, they have opted for linear power supplies with independent regulation for each element of the circuit, and link capacitors used from MKP technology, also chosen by ear. To reduce power consumption and provide an elegant display, they have chosen a high-contrast OLED graphic display. All output stages are Class A and made up of discrete components.
Coupling the analogue audio output to my trusty Hegel H190 and playing via Harbeth M30.2s, I was all set. The tuner has an optional remote but, unless you plan on channel hopping, it’s not needed.
Enough of the technicalities and down to the serious business of listening. Auto-scan, to place easily received stations into the memories, was straightforward and everything I expected was detected and stored. I have to say that, for the majority of the time, I left the TU80 on BBC Radio 3 and enjoyed hours of stress-free listening. Only when the station goes into its (now all too prevalent) ‘alternative mode’ did I start to enjoy other options on the airwaves.
For three hours one afternoon I became totally absorbed in Capuçon plays Elgar and it seemed highly appropriate to hear the French violinist Renaud Capuçon via French electronics. A highlight of the afternoon concert was Elgar’s expansive, romantic concerto in B Minor, Op61 with the BBC Philharmonic in fine form.
The TU80 did what it had to do, and did it with aplomb if I might add. It took me, the humble listener, to the performance; or brought the performance to me, if you prefer. Either way round, the sound was to a very high quality and I was able to immerse myself in the concert with a feeling of ‘being there’. Which is a great accomplishment for any audio component.
Yes, the Hegel H190 (used purely as an integrated amp) and my BBC-style monitors played their part, but it was the source which was doing the bulk of the hard work. And, we must not forget the skill and dedication of the engineers at the venue and those in Broadcasting House as well; all had their part to play in my immersive enjoyment.
It is hard to fault this tuners’ abilities. The soundstage was deliciously wide with consummate width and depth so as to place the performers across a believable soundscape in front of me. The audio was typical of that achievable with FM transmissions and had a wonderful richness and slight warmth, this despite all the digital parts of the immense audio chain from venue to studio to transmitter and on to my receiver.
With Radio 3 deciding, as it does, to eschew classical material at times I took the opportunity to sample the delights of Radio 1 and some regional radio output. Clearly there is less attention to technical quality and one has to suffer intolerably high-levels of compression which makes humans appear to be suffering from asthma attacks when merely reading the news or announcing the next track. That apart, I was blown away by the bass on the TU80 as modern tunes came through with more than their fair share of gusto. While I would not, from choice, sample Grime or Harris and Lipa’s One Kiss, they did reveal the tuner’s ability when it came to pace and timing by displaying an enormous ability to reproduce rhythmic tunes with an involuntary toe-tapping of the listener. In fact, I ended up listening to these ‘alternative’ stations for much longer than I intended: that in itself is testament to the TU80’s abilities across genre.
Even that supplied ribbon-aerial that I was so dismissive about managed to pull in a fair selection of stations but obviously with nothing like the fully-quieting signal strength of my rooftop antenna.
Another notch along the dial (figuratively speaking since the old idea of actually tuning is all automatic) and I found myself listening to much speech material from Radio 4. Human voice is so telling in determining audio performance and it was a pleasure to be able to sit back and enjoy a mix of current affairs, documentary and drama. All, I hasten to add, revealing a neutral balance across the audio spectrum and commensurate with the highest possible FM performance. There were no nasty surprises, voices did not take-on any anomalies such as unwanted sibilance, nasality or chestiness as can be the case with poorly implemented designs. No, here we had just natural voices with nothing added and nothing taken away.
I had the TU80 in daily use for over two months and used it in preference to my usual reception from satellite or internet radio; it never failed to provide enormous entertainment. Notwithstanding early fears, I didn’t suffer from any unpleasant artefact, flutter or drop-out, despite being on a Gatwick flightpath. Day after day, the Atoll did what it was meant to: deliver absorbing and entertaining radio, effortlessly and to a high standard.
Every time, I was aware of those glorious qualities of VHF signals which I used to so adore before my switch to internet/satellite reception, that presence and warmth (due partly to signal processing in the transmitter chain) which is typical from the 15kHz of bandwidth (before the steep filter to prevent the 19kHz pilot tone from becoming audible) and some 76dB headroom from FM broadcasting standards with crosstalk hardly better than around 30dB.
Atoll’s engineers have managed a delightful implementation of the acclaimed Silicon Labs’ tuner chip. To achieve such great reception, even with just an indoor antenna where needs must, and producing such clear, crisp sounds and good soundstage, the designers have done well and should be complimented.
With fewer dedicated FM tuners now available, Atoll are to be commended for adding the TU80 Signature to their portfolio and for continuing to enhance their RF design as the Signature variant is successor to the previous TU80.
I can recall paying a four-figure sum for the last tuner I bought, a Revox back in about 1995; that makes the Atoll tremendous value. Couple that with its sonic abilities and we clearly have something of an audiophile RF bargain here. Highly recommended.