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High-End Tricks at a Mid-Fi Price

The ATP8500 steps into the realm of stiff competition in the $3,500-to-$5,500 range for pre/pros, but it comes prepared.

Why is it so much harder to sell the concept of value to people as they cross over into the higher end of the A/V realm? In the lower price ranges, people don’t only appreciate value, they actively seek it out. Down there, people whole-heartedly buy into the idea that you can often find equivalent performance, features, etc., for less. But, as price tags get bigger, some people’s rationality seems to fade. Part of it may be name recognition.
Whereas most of the lower-end brand names are more familiar, many names in the higher end are unknown to the masses. Thus, price becomes a security blanket: “If it costs more, it must be better.” Maybe some people who can afford higher-end gear figure, who needs value when you’ve got money? The bottom line is, price can be a dubious barometer of quality. The number of factors that go into each particular manufacturer’s pricing decisions can be bewildering, and assuming that price really tells you anything about a piece of gear can be an expensive mistake.

There is such a thing as value in the high end, and ATI is proof of that. As a major OEM manufacturer for a number of well-known brands, they’re usually content to maintain a relatively low profile for their own brand and let people who’ve done their homework come to them. But they’re not hiding, either. The company’s first foray into the pre/pro game, the recently released ATP8500, generated as much buzz as I’ve heard from them in some time. Of course, with a name like Amplifier Technologies, you know they’re never going to drift away from their bread and butter, as the AT2007 – the seven-channel configuration of their AT2000 amp – clearly demonstrates.

The ATP8500 steps into a realm of stiff competition in the $3,500-to-$5,500 range for pre/pros – but it comes prepared. The base price of $3,995 gets you the basics (DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1, Pro Logic, and other DSP modes); another $500 gets you the new upgrade board with Dolby EX, DTS ES, and Pro Logic II. ATI is currently working out some issues with THX. Although some units have a THX button on the front, as of this writing, the ATP8500 doesn’t have the THX post-processing. Your first glance at the front panel will reveal on of the ATP8500’s rarer features: the slick 5-inch color LCD screen that allows you to preview almost any video source or access the onscreen menu system (which you can also output to an external monitor). This is especially handy for things like cuing video sources or checking a television guide without tying up the main screen.

The back panel also indicates some advanced features, starting with a full eight-channel complement of balanced outputs. There’s also a pair of balanced inputs, which is truly rare at this price. Digital audio gets two optical inputs and an output, one AES/EBU jack, and four coaxial inputs, which is comparatively lean but will be plenty for most systems. Analog audio options include a 7.1-channel input for use with external processors (most importantly, DVD-Audio and SACD) and 10 stereo pairs. There’s also a tape loop and a stereo pair for a second zone. Video gets six composite and S-video inputs, plus three full-bandwidth component video ins. Video outputs consist of two composite (one of which can be dedicated to the second zone) and S-video connections and one component. There’s also two IR jacks, three remote triggers, and an RS-232 connection. A large expansion area indicates a degree of futureproofing, which ATI will accomplish with “daughter board” upgrades and connection additions of the hardware side and RS-232 and EPROM updates for some software functions.

Balanced (XLR) connections are a highlight on the AT2007 ($2,995), as well. This amp is a true differential design and is balanced from input to output (some amps that claim to be balanced are not). Naturally, seven unbalanced RCA jacks are provided, as well, along with seven sets of five-way binding posts. The AT2007 is rated a 200 watts per each of its seven channels (with all channels driven), which is a significant amount of horsepower to pack into one chassis – especially at this price. Protecting all of those ponies are optically coupled protection circuits and an instant shut-off system that prevents any high voltage from passing through, which should save you a few fuses. The two massive toroidal transformers use a soft-start procedure to prevent turn-on overload.

Despite the high degree of tweaking that ATP8500 offers, setup is relatively quick and easy, thanks to a good remote and a well-executed onscreen menu system. If you want to take the time to tweak, the control is there for you. If you want the quick approach, you can be done within a few minutes. I began my review at our studio using the quality, mid-priced B&W CDM 9NT speaker system and a couple of different sources, including the Onkyo DV-SP800 SACD/DVD-Audio player. The ATI gear also saw time in my home A/V system, which includes the Energy Veritas speaker system and a Philips SACD1000 SACD/DVD-Video player, along with an Anthem AVM 20 pre/pro, Aragon Palladium monoblocks, and a Krell KAV-500 mulitchannel amp mixed in at times to give each ATI unit a chance to do its own thing.

I led off with two-channel music, and the ATI gear quickly reacquainted me with the sound I’ve come to know from ATI – crisp and dynamic, but not without a sense of warmth that prevents the overall sonic profile from leaning toward sterility or harshness. My initial impression of the ATP8500 was that it likes to get out of the way and let the amps and speakers do the talking – exactly what I want in a preamp, especially with music. The ATI gear confirmed this hunch when I used it in my home system with the amps and speakers I listen to every day. The AVM 20 is a rather neutral pre/pro, and the fact that my system’s sound remained virtually unchanged is a strong indication that the ATP8500 resists almost all temptation toward editorialization. Naturally, there were subtle differences, but I think you’ll find that the ATP8500 takes its role as a processor and controller (but not necessarily a creator of sound) very seriously.

The AT2007 won’t do anything to disrupt your system’s sound, either. Still, as is always the case with amps, its sonic profile is more obvious. This amp will tell you right away that power is rarely going to be an issue, especially with two-channel material. Out of the gate, its sound was big and bold with considerable dynamic range and a relatively massive soundstage. Based on what I heard with the B&Ws, which I know to be fairly neutral up top, my initial thought was that the AT2007 may have a tendency toward brightness and occasional graininess inn the upper frequencies. With the Energy speakers, however, the brightness was virtually eliminated. This surprised me, given that the Energies are more aggressive than the B&Ws – they don’t roll off the top end at all. With both systems, the AT2007 was consistently excellent with bass. While both of these setups are based around larger towers, said towers rely on two smaller woofers rather than one large one to move low-frequency air, which puts more pressure on the amp. This was not problem for the AT207, whose ability to draw a full, potent sense of upper bass/lower midrange from the Energies especially impressed me. Many amps leave this region thin and underpowered. The powerful, haunting drive of the cellos from the opening theme of Dracula was large and intoxicating, even in the two-channel CD soundtrack. Rather than seeming to float a couple of feet behind the main image as they sometimes do with these speakers, the cellos were clearly up front, steering the piece’s powerful thematic nature without getting too far into the listener’s face.

This ATI combo will certainly get your attention with multichannel music, but for the right reasons. Rather than hammering you from all sides with bright, aggressive noise, it sucks you in with a seemingly boundless soundstage and a bass drive that will make meeker speakers roar and stronger speakers pick you up and slap you around a little. At the same time, the bass maintains its musicality and refrains from crossing the line into simple, raw SPL. The big bass drum kicks present throughout Bucky Pizzarelli’s Swing Live disc hit with precision and natural attack and decay – not boomy, mushy monotonality. The rest of the presentation wasn’t bad, either. The B&Ws displayed little of the brightness they had offered up on CD, despite having ample opportunity via the ever-present clarinet, abundant cymbals, and other high-frequency ringers. Midrange was silky and transparent through both speaker systems, with and immediacy that was unmistakable.

The AT2007’s power truly came to the forefront during movie demos – and I’m not talking about simple watts. I’ m talking about truly high current capability. I hammered it with my usual battery of Saving Private Ryan, Snatch, Phantom Menace, and others, and I was only able to get even a hint of compression at an excruciating volume level. I particularly liked the throaty roar that the ATI combo offered as the pod racers prepare for battle in chapter 19 of Phantom Menace. Even without a sub, the AT2007 conjured up enough SPL through the B&Ws to deliver an intense physical impact that was also clear and defined. Dexterity was no problem for this pair, either. Long, wide EX pans were quick and full-bodied with a highly successful sense of spatiality. This combo handled the circulating spy droid from chapter 26 particularly well.

The high end will always be the high end, with prices that are unattainable for those who can’t spend thousands of dollars on A/V equipment. As this ATI combo proves, though, there are good deals even at these prices. The ATP8500 and AT2007 offer rock-solid performance, excellent build quality, and features you normally have to spend more for. That’s real value. You’ll be hard-pressed to find an amp that performs this capably with this much power and balanced inputs for less. If you don’t know the ATI name yet, you should.