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Atoll IN 80 - integrated amp
A holiday on a French Atoll
Product: Atoll IN 80 integrated amp
Atoll? Say what? Do you really want to read a long story or will you be happy with a short resumee? Ok, let's go for the short resumee :-)
Manufacturer: Atoll Electronique - France
Rue des Ecoles, 19 - 50370 BRECEY - France
tel. 02 33.48.44.06 - Fax. 02 126.96.36.199
Approx price: 650 $ (600 Euro)
Atoll Electronique is a new French HiFi Company founded in September 1997 and rapidly earning a very good reputation among French audiophiles thanks to some rave review appeared on the French HiFi press.
Every Atoll HiFi component (integrateds, power amps and preamps) is designed having in mind the best sound quality at the most affordable price: more or less the same philosophy that has been inspiring Rotel and NAD designers for several years till now.
So, nothing new under the Sun, except the (pretty relevant) fact that Atoll gear is designed and assembled entirely in France so...the task of keeping prices so low is a little bit harder.
The quest for HiFi components with a very high quality/price ratio has always been one of the TNT-Audio main guidelines: we believe everyone should be able to afford good quality HiFi components.
So, when the Italian distributor of Atoll, Yair Wahal from Le Miroir de la Musique (can you guess he's from France? :-)), proposed me to test this 80 watt integrated I couldn't resist and I suddenly answered Oui!!!
The appearance of this amp isn't very different from some Cairn amp: black metallic cabinet, two simple knobs (volume and inputs selector), tape monitor and headphones output socket. A led indicates the amp is on, since the power switch is located in the rear panel, near the detachable power cord.
Here you'll find the loudspeakers output posts and the gold plated RCA inputs (phono available on request).
You get 4 line inputs + 1 tape in/out plus two pairs of pre out RCA's. These are meant to be used for bi-amping or for connecting an active subwoofer.
The front panel is made out of thin anodized aluminium with "rounded" corners. It is clear, even at a first glance, that the major savings have been made on the outside. As soon as you take away the top cover you understand it all. Please have a look at the significant picture below.
The Atoll IN 80 delivers 80 watt per channel @ 8 ohm that become 120 @ 4 ohm. The power supply uses a massive 300 VA toroidal transformer and a set of power filtering caps for a total of 30,000 µF of capacitance.
The quality of the components is quite high and so is the overall very sano layout.
All this stuff is contained into a standard (44 x 25.5 x 9) metallic cabinet which weighs in 8 kgs (16 lbs, more or less).
The Atoll catalogue includes also a cheaper IN 50 amp, with 50 watt per channel @ 8 ohm, very similar to this IN 80 for layout and inner quality (price around 550 $).
I've tested the Atoll IN 80 with my two HiFi systems: both the reference one (very far from the IN 80 price range) and the budget-oriented one where the French amp was more "at home".
A holiday on a French Atoll
Back in 1990 I used to live in France because I was studying for my PhD in mathematical physics so I can say I had the time to know the French HiFi scene...and reviews.
I used to read almost everything regarding HiFi and visited the most a la page HiFi dealers, for example the Alain Choukroun's Maison in Paris and Les Artisans du Son in Mulhouse - the latter organized a kind of HiFi Show each year.
Hence I think I learned something about the way French audiophiles consider HiFi.
Namely, I've learned the French press is quite nationalist when it comes to HiFi components, more or less like their British enemies :-)
So, when I've read the very, very positive reviews about the Atoll IN 80 I wasn't neither surprised nor impressed, I already knew the guys. For example...Laurent Thorin on HiFi Magazine N.23 (August '98) has defined the IN 80 as the bargain of the century which sounds way excessive to my ears and with some good reason: first of all the century isn't over yet :-) and secondly it is impossible the good Laurent has listened to every integrated amp (or HiFi component) made on Earth during this century ;-)
I've greatly appreciated the positive review written by Jean Hiraga on NRDS (Nouvelle Revue du Son) instead.
Finally, you may want to know the IN 80 has received the popular Diapason d'Or award.
Now, let's put the bargain of the century under test :-)
The Atoll IN 80 can be easily detected into any HiFi chain: just close your eyes and listen to the Music...you'll be able to detect if the IN 80 is playing or not without any doubt.
Its voice is crystal clear thanks to the mid-high range soooo open and analytical that you won't believe it is coming out from a so affordable solid state amp.
This has been the first thing that hit my ears.
Later you start to evaluate the bass range, very powerful and tight, as usually is the bass range of any good hi-current amplifier. It is so tight that it sounds less deep than it actually is (and it goes deep, I can assure you...). Then it is controlled, a kind of no fear bass: electric bass, double bass, pipe organ, the IN 80 just plays it all with plenty of energy and control. Only with very complex musical programs and very deep bass notes it seems the little French loses some of its aplomb and French class.
Regarding the bass range performance of this amp let me disagree with some review I've read on the French press which refers of a light bass...the IN 80 is plenty of bass, you just need to use loudpseakers that can go really deep.
Using minimonitors with a bright tonal balance can easily lead to misunderstandings: since even the Atoll is quite on the bright side (I'd rather say "open") a matching with bright bass-limited louspeakers would be a nightmare and a chinese torture for the ears.
Please also consider the Atoll has a light lower-mid and you get the whole picture!
Because of this light lower-mid the male voces appear lighter than they should be while the female voices are simply excellent: open, clear and so just-being-there-ing (a new word, well, maybe :-)).
Sibilants come out evidently if the recording of the voice isn't good enough. For this reason the Atoll can reveal and castigate bad recordings more than some of its natural competitors but!!! lazy and lifeless recordings live a new life!!!
On large choirs the Atoll IN 80 plays it safe and it doesn't even try to mimick the detail and transparency of expensive power amps (as it knows it is such a dangerous test...).
The highs are brilliant and so the cymbals appear realistically metallic even if they seem to lack some "golden" harmonic richness.
In few words, it is a budget amp that can sound very, very musical and plenty of life, precise, shiny and emotionally involving.
Micro & macro dynamics
Maybe you are wondering why I've subtitled this review with "A holiday on a French Atoll"...well, I can hear you saying "Which Atoll? Mururoa?" (Mururoa was (is) a French Atoll used some years ago for nuclear tests...).
Well, let me say that this Atoll is really explosive...even if we're talking of good musical explosions here :-)
The power reservoir and the dynamic capability of this amp can easily untie any complex musical knot: it sounds like the best hi-current amps out there, power peaks are really impressive and prompt...listen to a drum kit solo and you'll know what I mean.
But the Atoll IN 80 isn't just a very dynamic amp...it does have plenty of continuous power too so, where underpowered hi-current amps fail to play really loud the French amp beats them hands off.
It can play gently too, when the musical program requires some grace and a silk touch. Thanks to its ability to extract so many microinformations from the Music it sounds so analytical, accurate and musical at the same time.
And what about speed? It is exactly like you'd expect it to be: scary fast :-) and, as it happens, it eventually sounds even too fast, forgetting that the legato effect of a pianoist should be really leeegaaaaatooooo :-)
So attacks are lightening fast but, surprisingly, decays appear to be slower.
This behaviour partially explains why the Atoll IN 80 seems to lack some of its natural control with deeper bass notes...it is mainly a matter of long decays.
Finally let me spend a few words about the driving abilities of this amp: hook up any loudspeaker without fear! Even the laziest and less efficient one will receive an energy kick that will make the sound plenty of life!
The clear mids and the open high range help building a shiny soundstage, where the height is the most impressive geometric dimension. The depth is good while width is the worst one. The real problem is related to the center of the image, which appears too crowded of instruments and players. A less crowded center would have given the feeling of a wider soundstage.
Thanks to its accuracy the contours of the instruments and of the players are very precise and neat and just a fast comparision with more expensive amps can reveal the natural limits of the 3D image produced by the Atoll.
Considering the price I think this is one of the best compliments I could do to its performance.
Les garcons at Atoll recommend at least 30 minutes of burn-in before listening to their amp but I recommend at least 1 hour, 2 hours being the optimum.
DO NOT, for any reason, judge it before 1 hour...or you'll be going to make a bad mistake.
As for matching partners I'd suggest to AVOID bright-sounding mini-monitors like the plague or your ears will bleed. Choose mid-sized tonally balanced bookshelves instead. For example, British-sounding bookshelves could be the perfect match for this French amp.
A match with cheap floorstanders has to be carefully evaluated...since you will risk to destroy the accuracy of the IN 80 because of a cheap and grainy sounding tweeter.
The same applies to speakers cables as well: choose some neutral-to-warm sounding wire and the Atoll will do the rest.
Some easy tweak: put some soft antivibration device under the amp: Vibrapods can work pretty well though I can even suggest G-Flex (de)couplers (stay tuned on TNT-Audio for a listening test of these fancy devices): the sound becomes even cleaner and the overall musicality increases.
Considering the cheap cabinet I'd suggest some damping treatment as well: blue-tac and tar damping sheets can help a lot.
Finally, place the IN 80 on a good HiFi rack, for example like our DIY FleXy and, though it doesn't overheat, leave some fresh air around it.
Talking about the quality of the overall manufacturing...there are soooo many things to complain about! For example the rear panel flexes when one inserts the AC power cord into the IEC socket. This happens because the rear panel isn't secured to the top cover: 3 extra screws would have solved the problem. Then there's the top cover itself: weak and very prone to resonate...again, some extra screws would have helped here.
I'm not playing devil's advocate here: the stiffness of the cabinet of ANY HiFi component affects the overall musical performance.
The quality of the gold plated input RCA's is just fair but the thing that drives me crazy is the second pre-out pair of connectors: placed so near the loudspeakers outputs that using some fatter-than-normal RCA connector was impossible (and ANY good quality RCA connector is fatter than the stock ones...).
The loudspeaker posts seem of good quality and are cleverly spaced. These are not CE compliant, though.
The quality of the finish of the aluminium front panel is just sufficient.
From a sonic point of view let me remark this amplifier comes with a strong personality: some audiophiles would love it for this while some others would hate it.
I just say that, for slightly more than 600 $, the Atoll IN 80 earns a standing ovation for being so proudly different from the rest of the competitors.
If you are of the neutral party you'd have preferred a less pronounced mid-high range and a beefier lower-mid range.
As for dynamics I'd have preferred a more balanced attacks/decays ratio.
For this price I'm afraid we can't ask for more! A precise, analytical, accurate, crisp and dynamic sounding amplifier that can even sound musical and entertaining at the same time...that's the Atoll IN 80!
Are you ready for a BIG sound? Be ready for some "savings" on the coolness factor then: the IN 80 has a so-so cabinet, no remote, no cool looks.
There are few real competitors and it is hard to find one that sounds so proud like the Atoll.
Do your ears and your wallet a favour: listen to it, you won't easily forget its strong personality.
The Atoll IN 80 is, in scale, a real hi-end amplifier.
A warm Merci! to Yair Wahal, deus-ex-machina at Le Miroir de la Musique for having sent us this amp for reviewing.
© Copyright 1999 Lucio Cadeddu - http://www.tnt-audio.com
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