Atlantic Technology IWCB-52 In-wall Speakers 
Home Theater Loudspeakers In-wall Loudspeakers
Written by Andrew Robinson   
Saturday, 01 December 2007

Introduction
As of late, I’ve become increasingly interested in in-wall speakers, not only for their practicality, but also because they have become exceedingly good in providing truly reference grade sound in a sleek unobtrusive package. Nothing is sexier than having a guest walk into your listening room and be blown away at your system’s sound, only to ask, “Where are the speakers?” Because of these facts, my reference room features a complete in-wall speaker system from Meridian entirely hidden from view by a custom fabric wall as seen in the August edition of AVRev.com.

However, not everyone has the budget or the means to welcome a speaker system such as the Meridian into the home. Hence my interest in the Atlantic Technology IWCB-52 in-wall speakers reviewed here. Why did I choose Atlantic Technology’s IWCB-52s for this review (and for my home) over the many other reputable and wonderful-sounding brands out there today? Simple. The IWCB-52s sound amazing and they do something other in-walls claim to do but few manage to actually pull off – they can be placed almost anywhere on your wall and still sound great. While my first reason is important, it’s the second that got me interested in the IWCB-52s and was the cause for this review.

For those of you who may or may not know of Atlantic Technology, as well as its president and CEO Peter Tribeman, it is one of the few companies that not only embraces new and emerging multi-channel audio playback, but has also helped in pioneering products, mainly loudspeakers, to take full advantage of the latest trends. Atlantic Technology was among the first to offer THX-certified loudspeakers, as well as powered loudspeaker systems to the consumer marketplace.

Out of their packing boxes, the IWCB-52s are fairly standard in terms of looks when talking about in-wall speakers. They are relatively compact, a mere three-and-seven-eighths inches deep, which means they can be easily installed into traditional two-by-four studded walls. The IWCB-52s are a little over nine inches wide by nearly 18 inches tall and weigh a hefty (but not too hefty) nine pounds, and retail for a cool $600 each. It’s important to note that the IWCB series comes in various sizes, three to be exact, from the smaller IWCB-52s (reviewed here) to the larger IWCB-626s. A quick e-mail to Atlantic or a trip to your dealer will help in deciding which IWCB system is right for your room and your budget. The IWCB-52 is an enclosed in-wall speaker, with a “box” around and over the back of the speaker itself to prevent sound and excess vibration from escaping into your walls, ensuring that the maximum amount of sound and sound quality you paid for actually reaches your ears. Aside from the thick black box that encases the IWCB-52’s “guts,” the only other sight to behold on the back of the speaker itself is the single push-pin-style binding posts, which can accept various gauges of bare wire. The IWCB-52 also features a white metal grille, which can be painted to match your décor.

The IWCB-52 has a two-way design featuring a single one-inch soft dome tweeter and a five-and-one-quarter-inch Graphite Loaded Homopolymer or GLH woofer. It has a reported frequency response of 75Hz-20kHz and a nominal impedance of six ohms with a sensitivity of 87dB. While 87dB is far from super-efficient, Atlantic Technology claims that any receiver or amplifier with between 10 and 120 watts on tap will drive the IWCB-52s nicely.

Most of today’s modern in-wall (and in-ceiling) speakers feature some sort of directional or moveable tweeter to aid in their placement. However, most of these adjustable tweeters are flimsy and, despite the moveable title, offer very little in terms of positioning, resulting in a sonic image that isn’t quite on the mark with your listening position or display. Worse still, the all-important midrange is often not aligned with the treble, resulting in a vague sonic performance. Atlantic Technology has taken a different approach with their IWCB series, opting for a stationary tweeter with LRT or Low Resonance Tweeter, which handles the higher frequencies as well as the mids, giving the speaker a more or less point source sound. Couple this LRT technology with Atlantic’s new DVC or Directional Vector Control and you can electronically “aim” the high and midrange frequencies at your listening position. All sound lobes, or falls off, in a downward curve as you increase your distance from the speaker. The lobe can be tracked and compensated for, but what the Atlantic Technology has done is allow that lobe to work to their advantage. Going further still, the DVC control lets the user electronically manipulate that lobe for proper imaging when the tweeters are placed off-axis either above or below ear level. On paper, it all sounds very good, but does it work? Well, that’s what I wanted to find out.

Before I went any further, the folks at Atlantic Technology graciously loaned me their new 10e CSB corner subwoofer to fill out the IWCB-52s’ bottom end. I placed the 10e CSB in the corner along my front wall below the right speaker and, with the help of my Denon 4806’s Audyssey EQ software, had it dialed in in no time. Now, I know having a non-in-wall mounted sub somewhat diminishes the stealth factor of the installation, but the 10e CSB is unique not only in its shape and size, but also in its ability to be painted to match your décor. While I have yet to hear an in-wall sub that can match a free-standing one, the 10e CSB is a great compromise between an in-wall and a coffee table-sized sub, complimenting the IWCB-52s beautifully.

Set-up
I had requested the IWCB-52s for my office system. While the room itself is not huge, a mere 11 feet wide by 14 feet deep, I spend an awful lot of time listening to music and editing in there, so I figured it was as good a place as any for a second system.

I have a 50-inch HD Vizio display mounted on the front wall of my office, which pulls double duty as a third viewing monitor, as it’s connected to my Apple G5 film editing system. Because my ceiling is only eight feet high or so, the large plasma display takes up a lot of real estate both visually and physically. The IWCB-52s had to be installed above the display, which not only put the speakers off-axis vertically, but set the all-important tweeter/midrange drivers roughly seven feet off the ground.

The installation went very smoothly and installed much like any traditional in-wall speaker would. The installation was so easy I wouldn’t hesitate in saying any dedicated DIYer couldn’t do it alone. However, hiring a custom installer would alleviate any potential mishaps and save one a bit of time. Plus, by using an Atlantic Technology authorized dealer/installer, you can rest assured you’re getting all the IWCB speakers have to offer.
Once they were in the walls, I powered the IWCBs with my trusty Denon 4806 receiver that was connected to my Dish Network HD DVR, Macintosh computer and Toshiba XA-1 HD DVD player. Since my Vizio display is not 1080p, there was no need to upgrade my player to something more current. All cabling came by way of Monster, with the power duties falling to Richard Gray’s Power Company.

Music And Movies
I kicked things off Diana Krall’s Love Scenes (GRP Records) and the track “My Love Is.” The opening finger snaps sounded natural, with good speed, detail and air. The accompanying double bass was also quite nice, allowing the sub to strut its stuff while blending beautifully with the IWCB-52s’ lower midrange. Speaking of the lower midrange, the IWCB-52s’ was rather good and plunged deeper than I was expecting, while remaining extremely nimble. Krall’s vocals through the IWCB-52s were natural-sounding in both tonality and scale. However, they were a bit forward-sounding, which brought Krall way forward in the soundstage, which in a small ensemble number such as “My Love Is” was welcomed. As far as imaging is concerned, the IWCB-52s are capable of producing a strong center image, which is where Krall was firmly planted, with the large double bass further back in the overall aural picture. The IWCB-52s do an admirable job of producing a soundstage, but they don’t quite have the depth beyond the front wall that more expensive in-walls have. Still, their side to side presentation is very good. So, does the DVC work? The entire track, and I mean everything from the large double bass to Krall’s vocals, rang out at or near ear level, creating quite an interesting performance, if not a slightly disorienting one. You see, my eyes could see the speakers, yet my mind told me that the sound was coming from directly in front of me. If I remained focused straight ahead, the sound appeared dead center, as if from nowhere, but if my eyes wandered up, the sound would move up to the speakers. It took a few songs for me to get used to the illusion, but once I was used to it, the effect was eerie and cool.

I decided to give the IWCB-52s a bit more to grapple with and cued up Incubus’ latest album, Light Grenades (Sony). On the track “Dig,” I decided to punish the speakers a bit and throttled the volume towards 11. At the extremes, the IWCB-52s’ sound flattened a bit and became a bit more forward and aggressive, but not fatiguing or overtly harsh. The sub remained incredibly composed and dished out rich, deep and taut bass, despite my aggressive attempts to make it blow up. Bring the volume back to Earth a bit, the sound filled back out and retained a bit of its composure and musicality. The vocals remained the focus and fell forward of the rest of the musical spectrum. The guitars had the appropriate amount of bite to them and, for the most part, sounded natural to my ears. However, that last bit of detail and air that would fool one into thinking they were hearing the real instrument was missing, but even the most expensive in-wall speakers generally suffer in the same way. My guess is that it is just a measure of physics more than any kind of design flaw.

Before I dove into movies, I took a detour with some multi-channel music spinning up VH1 Storytellers: Matchbox Twenty on DVD (VH1 Television). Starting with the track “Mad Season” in Dolby Digital, the IWCB-52s’ presentation sweetened up a bit. The IWCB-52 upper midrange was still a bit forward-sounding, but it didn’t shout quite as much when I pumped the volume. The tweeter and subsequent higher frequencies gained a bit of smoothness and sparkle. The bass remained most consistent, as did the lower midrange. The nice thing about the IWCB-52s is that they paint a very large image for speakers of their size. Skipping ahead to the song “Crutch,” the swanky rendition wasn’t robbed of its lounge-like quality through the IWCB-52s. The jazzy cymbal crashes sounded the most natural thus far in my listening tests, with a fair amount of air and shimmer. Rob Thomas’ vocals had tremendous presence and scale and stood out in stark contrast to the rest of the musical elements. The horns were my favorite, sounding full, rich and the most natural by far.

For films, I kicked things off with Bad Boys II (Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment) on DVD and chaptered ahead to the freeway chase scene and let ‘er rip. Bingo. From the roaring engine note of the Ferrari 575 to the crashing and crunching sound of the cars bouncing off the pavement, the sound was epic and involving. I’ve spent my share of time in mixing studios and the sound of the IWCB-52s with movies is up there with the best of them. The adrenaline-fueled ride the IWCB-52s can dish out is intoxicating. The sounds of shattering glass were enveloping, explosive and extremely nimble across all five speakers, creating a seamless 360-degree circle of carnage. The midrange, especially dialogue, held firm amidst the action unfolding on screen. The lower midrange was quite nimble and hugely dynamic, which helped solidify the sense of speed from the sub, especially in regards to the bob and weave driving of the large semi-truck. Dynamically, the IWCB-52s are juggernauts; they don’t take a whole lot of power to do their thing, but they can and will use it judiciously if need be to rock you to your core. The surround sound performance was seamless, allowing me to forget about the speakers themselves and focus not only on their sound, but also ultimately on the film itself, which is the idea.

I ended my evaluation of the IWCB-52s with Signs (Touchstone Home Entertainment). Signs, despite being a huge blockbuster movie, is filled with subtlety. The quiet backdrop of the farm and rustling of the crops and leaves down to the gently clanging wind chime were rendered faithfully and without incident. The IWCB-52s did a remarkable job of conveying the sparseness of the landscape and even the characters themselves. It’s the film’s lack of crash and bang sound and the IWCB-52 complete restraint that made the important sounds, like the alien dialogue, all the more relevant, haunting and dynamic. James Newton Howard’s score was beautifully rendered through the IWCB-52s and remained rather subdued and in the background when necessary, despite the IWCB-52s’ tendency to be a bit forward. When the action finally picks up in the end, the IWCB-52s’ ability to go for broke was highly effective. The IWCB-52s really know how to grab at the pulse of a scene and pump blood through it, however fast or slow it’s needed. They really are exceptional speakers for movies, especially ones calling for suspense and action.

The Downside
The IWCB-52s are purpose-built in-wall speakers. By purpose-built, I mean they are made for home theater. If you’re looking for a speaker that will recreate the true feeling of the movies or, better still, a Hollywood recording/mixing studio, then the IWCB-52s are for you. If white-knuckle, short of breath, eye-bulging action is your bag, then the IWCB-52s are for you. If you’re a Sense and Sensibility kind of person, then the IWCB-52s are not for you. That said, the IWCB-52s do their movie magic best when not seen. Yes, the DVC works and works well. However, the illusion is never fully an illusion when your eyes can glimpse the speakers. My best viewing and listening sessions with the IWCB-52s were during the evenings when they were hidden in darkness, never allowing my eye or mind to sway to their trickery. I’m sure painting them to match my décor would help the illusion, but I’ve decided to cover them with a fabric wall instead. Those of you building dedicated home theaters may want to look into perforated screens for the IWCB-52s to go behind for a truly remarkable and professional look and sound. The less you can eye the IWCB-52s, the more convincing they become.

Lastly, while the DVC does work well, I wouldn’t push your luck by mounting the IWCB-52s too high or low. Yes, you can turn them upside-down and mount them below ear level and get the same effect. Ear level for most chairs and viewers hovers somewhere around three or so feet from the floor. If you are considering the IWCB-52s, or any of the IWCBs for that matter, I wouldn’t recommend mounting the tweeter much higher than three feet above ear level. The same holds true for those of you mounting below as well.

Conclusion
Unlike other ubiquitous in-walls products from numerous other manufacturers, I consider the IWCB-52 to be a unique niche product. The IWCB line of speakers is for those who almost exclusively watch movies and have a dedicated space to not only do so, but do so with a bit of conviction. The IWCB-52s really are exceptional loudspeakers and fit Atlantic Technology perfectly, for the company has always been about recreating a dynamic theater experience at home. Toss any of the IWCB series of speakers behind a perforated screen or fabric wall, as Atlantic does in all of their demos, and you won’t know what hit you; mount them off-axis and utilize the DVC and the effect will send chills down your spine. With the money you save by buying the IWCB in-walls over the costlier competition, you can afford to add a level of stealth to your home theater. Just don’t forget the sub. Then again, how can one forget the 10e CSB, together with the IWCB-52s? It was a match made in movie heaven.
Manufacturer Atlantic Technology
Model IWCB-52 In-wall Speakers
Reviewer Andrew Robinson





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