Technics Ottava SC-C500 hands-on: Hi-res audio meets old-school hi-fi
For anyone that ever caught the hi-fi bug in the 90s or stepped foot in a nightclub in the last four decades, Technics is a marque with legendary status. Now, after more than a decade of silence, the brand has been reborn – following a new range of ultra-high-end audio hardware released back in November of last year, Technics has unveiled its Ottava SC-C500 system, which combines the past, present and future of audio in one gorgeous-looking package.
The first shock, perhaps, is that the Ottava’s CD-playing function takes centre stage. The centrally mounted CD mechanism is covered with a thick plate of perspex which slides to one side with a reassuring, muffled thunk. Evidently, Technics believes that the kind of person to whom the Ottava SU-C500 appeals – essentially, anyone who can afford to spend £2,000 on a lifestyle hi-fi system – will have just as many CDs as they do digital downloads. It’s probably a fair assumption.
However, the SC-C500 also looks toward to the now of digital downloads, as well as the slowly-emerging future of easily available hi-res digital audio. With 802.11n Wi-Fi, 10/100 Ethernet and twin USB connections front and rear, the Ottava hopes to cover every possible audio angle. Format support is broad, including MP3 and AAC files, up to 24bit 192khz tracks in lossless FLAC, WAV, AIFF and ALAC formats, and DSD audio at up to 384KHz. Spotify Connect is also on the cards, allowing you to play music directly from your smartphone or tablet, and Technics’ dedicated app also allows you to control all of the Ottava’s functions from handset.
With such an iconic catalogue of classic hi-fi design to draw upon, rekindling the essence of the Technics brand presents a tricky balancing act between new and old. It’s fair to say that the designers have done a fine job, though. The entire range was on show at IFA, ranging from hulking audiophile systems retailing for the kind of sums which would require a second mortgage (£40,000, if you’re wondering), to more dainty music servers and futuristic-looking monitor speakers.
The Ottava SC-C500 epitomises the new family of products, managing to simultaneously hark back to Technics’ hi-fi separates heritage while looking fresh and modern. The iconic logo remains, as does the distinctive all-silver metallic fascia, which became synonymous with the brand’s classic hi-fi equipment from the 1970s and 1980s. Curved corners soften the unfussy, plain design, and alongside the unusually-shaped, petite rectangular speakers, the system cuts a truly unique dash.
Getting big, room-filling sound out of tiny speakers is a stiff challenge for any acoustic engineer, but providing good quality sound throughout a room, unrestricted by the narrow ‘sweet-spot’ of traditional stereo speakers, is even more of a task. If, like most people, you want to be free to sit where you like, rather than perfectly equidistant between two painstakingly-positioned speakers, then standard two-way, unidirectional speaker designs just don’t cut it.
Technics has taken a novel approach to the problem. Each of the speakers is equipped with twin bass drivers and a spiral-shaped acoustic bass port which spreads lower frequencies out as widely as possible from vents along the bottom of the cabinet. Above, twin tweeters radiate high-frequency sounds throughout 270 degrees. Given that the SC-C500 is aimed at people who want their music to take centre stage, rather than their hi-fi, the design, at least in theory, makes a lot of sense. Factor in the dedicated digital Class D amps for both low and high frequencies – 50 watts for each channel – and the SC-C500 has everything it needs on paper.
The effect is pretty impressive. There was no obvious audio imaging to speak of in the demo I heard; no sense that musicians and instruments were sitting in a 3D space between the speakers, such as you get with good-quality conventional set-ups, but the flipside is that you can move freely from one side of the room to the other without the high-frequencies become muffled or inaudible. Wherever I stood, I was greeted with crisp, taut, clear sound. Bass was very light in the brief demonstration I heard, but it’s probably unfair to judge too harshly; stuck in the centre of a huge open space, the tiny 2kg speakers were never likely to shift enough air to make any real bass impact, especially without any nearby walls to help reinforce the lower octaves.
For all the technology and painstaking design work that’s gone into the Ottava SC-C500, there is the nagging feeling that you’re paying a hefty premium: £2,000 or thereabouts is a hell of a lot to spend on a compact hi-fi system.
What’s more, with the Devialet Phantom providing a similarly-priced, and arguably more exotic route towards gorgeous hi-fi with a tiny footprint, it all comes down to a matter of taste and your particular priorities. If you value style and easy room placement over all out sound quality, then the Ottava SC-C500 may yet strike the perfect balance. There’s no way this journalist could ever entertain the expense, but then that barely matters – I can always look forward to a more extended listening session once the Ottava hits retail later in the year.