Atoll, the esteemed French manufacturer, has introduced its ST 300 Signature streaming preamp, priced at 3,000 euros. This new offering aims to build upon the success of its already highly acclaimed ST 200 Signature, which retails for 2,000 euros and has garnered praise from outlets like LowBeats. While the functional aspects of the ST 300 are quite similar to its predecessor, the additional 1,000 euros expenditure primarily goes toward a substantial upgrade in the analog section. The question that naturally arises: is the extra cost justified?
|Atoll ST 300 Signature|
|Converter equipment:||2x BurrBrown PCM1792|
|Inputs:||digital: 2x optisch, 2 x coax, 2 x USB (A), BT; analog 2x Cinch|
|Outputs:||analog: 1x Cinch, 1x XLR, headphones; 3.5mm jack|
|App/remote control:||for iOS and Android / yes|
|Particularities:||Firmware updates via internet|
|Colors:||Silver and black|
|Dimensions (H x W x D):||44,0 x 9,0 x 25,5 cm|
As a passionate audiophile and test editor, I was already familiar with the Atoll brand. LowBeats and other colleagues had reviewed many components crafted in the small town of Brécey in Normandy, and the results had consistently impressed. However, I had not personally interacted with Atoll until the opportunity to test the ST 300 Signature streaming preamplifier came along. To be honest, I initially approached it with a hint of skepticism. After all, in today’s market, nearly every reputable manufacturer offers some form of streaming preamp, often with more flashy external features than Atoll’s understated design. At first glance, the ST 300 doesn’t seem to boast any extraordinary functions or features.
However, as I’ve experienced in the past, true excellence often lies beneath the surface and becomes evident during practical use. The Atoll ST 300 Signature is a perfect example of a product that surprises and delights when you dig deeper.
Externally, there are minimal differences between the ST 300 and the 1,000 euros cheaper ST 200 (I’ll drop the “Signature” from here onwards). The aluminum front panel, buttons, display, chassis, and housing cover are all identical. Furthermore, the digital features, including support for HiRes PCM, DSD, and MQA, remain unchanged. A glance at the back reveals that, with one exception, both models offer the same connection options:
- IEC socket and power switch
- 1x 12V Trigger
- LAN, WLAN
- 2x USB for mass storage (1x front and back)
- 2x Coax digital IN
- 2x Toslink digital IN
- 2x Line-IN analog Cinch
- 1x Coax digital OUT
- 1x Toslink digital OUT
- 1x headphones (3.5 mm, front)
Thanks to its discrete Class A double mono design, the ST 300 boasts a balanced analog output via XLR, a feature not found in the ST 200. Additionally, the analog inputs and outputs on the ST 300 feature higher-quality RCA sockets mounted on the rear panel.
To discern the differences between the two models, one must scrutinize the technical specifications closely. To simplify this, I’ve compared the features and data of the ST 200 and ST 300 in the following table and highlighted the deviations:
The ST 300 comes with the same system remote control included with the ST 200. The package also includes a power cable, a decent RCA cable, and two screw antennas for Bluetooth and WLAN.
Based on these specifications alone, the 1,000 euros price difference for the ST 300 may seem hard to justify. However, the true value becomes evident when you delve beneath the surface. Thanks to a consistent double-mono design in the analog section and an additional power supply, the number of components has significantly increased, nearly doubling in some cases. Changes have also been made to the digital board with the streaming engine. To maintain symmetry and the double-mono concept, the ST 300 employs two BurrBrown PCM1792 DAC chips, one for each channel.
It’s worth noting that the streaming board is not an in-house development but, like many other renowned manufacturers, is sourced from StreamUnlimited Austria. In general, Atoll’s components are distinctly European, with almost all parts originating from Europe and assembly taking place entirely in France.
What truly sets the ST 300 apart is what lies behind the DAC. For the preamplifier, Atoll employs components of exceptional quality, a rarity in this price range. Examples include the shielded “ClarityCaps” coupling capacitors and the battery of filter capacitors behind the power supplies, available separately for the digital and analog sections.
The volume control (ranging from 0 to 100) is purely analog, based on resistor conductors in IC construction. In terms of sound quality, this is one of the finest methods of volume control. It eliminates concerns about wear and channel imbalances, as often seen with sliding track potentiometers, and avoids resolution loss, a common issue with most digital controls. One drawback is that adjusting the volume on the Atoll is only possible using buttons, and at a fixed rate. To bridge larger level ranges, such as when switching between headphones and speakers (discussed below), one must hold the button down for an extended duration.
If needed, there is an option to activate a digital volume control in the menu. However, this primarily affects the digital output and is likely to be rarely used. Nevertheless, Atoll has considered even these minor details.
Connection and Setup: A Breeze!
Like most streaming-capable HiFi components, the Atoll comes with a dedicated app for both iOS and Android. It’s advisable to download the app on your smartphone or tablet before setup. In addition, the Atoll Streamer can be accessed through a web interface. Simply enter its local IP address in a web browser’s address bar, and you’ll access a menu where some system-related settings can be adjusted. Most of these settings are also available through the app, including the ability to rename the device or inputs.
Setting up the hardware itself is straightforward, even without consulting the instructions. If you’ve ever connected a hi-fi device and can differentiate between various types of sockets, you’ll have no trouble completing the wiring with your sources and a suitable power amplifier (or active speakers) within minutes. For amplification, Atoll offers the AM 300 stereo power amplifier (2,295 euros) or the top-tier AM 400 Signature (4,495 euros), both of which pair beautifully with the ST 300.
After connecting the power cable and flipping the main switch at the rear, the system boots in approximately 20 seconds. The color display on the front panel presents an intuitive menu structure that’s easy to navigate. Simply use the corresponding buttons on the device or the remote control to scroll up and down, select the desired function, or access submenus with ease. Every function on the device can be managed using the display and buttons. You can even log into your music accounts (Qobuz, Tidal, Tidal Connect, Deezer, Spotify, and HighResAudio, with Amazon Music support coming soon). Entering passwords can be a bit tedious, especially for long and cryptic ones. Any mistake requires starting over, making it more convenient to handle such tasks through the associated app.
I recommend using a LAN connection for network access. While the ST 300 performs well with Wi-Fi, a wired connection is generally more reliable and, in my opinion, often delivers superior sound quality. Bluetooth, while not audiophiles’ first choice, can come in handy, especially for visitors who want to stream their favorite playlist via the Atoll after a quick pairing.
In summary, three key takeaways stand out regarding functionality and operation:
- The ST 300 offers a comprehensive range of functions, although it doesn’t introduce any exceptional features within its device category. Notable features like calibration functions or integrated subwoofer crossovers are absent.
- Operation is swift and consistently impressive thanks to the easy-to-read display, user-friendly app, and direct control via IR transmitter and onboard buttons.
- Roon users will have an even more seamless experience with the Atoll, as it is Roon Ready and can be set up quickly with a familiar interface.
No Standby: “Pre-Warming” Instead
There are “Power” buttons on the remote control and front panel of the device. Pressing either of these buttons mutes the music, and all displays, except for a white standby LED on the front, go dark. However, it’s important to note that the device is not technically in standby mode, as defined by EU regulations, which require standby power consumption to be 1W or less. In the so-called “network standby” mode, which allows the device to be quickly reactivated via an app (or Roon), power consumption should not exceed 3 to 12 watts. However, the ST 300 consumes around 14.5 to 15 watts in this mode. (For reference, it draws around 20 watts when actively operating or idling.) Consequently, Atoll refrains from referring to it as “standby” and instead calls it “pre-warming.”
The key concept behind this approach is to keep the most sound-relevant components in the device at a minimum temperature. This strategy prevents significant temperature fluctuations in the components, ensuring the device can deliver maximum sound performance shortly after powering on. If you prefer not to pay this energy cost, you can always completely disconnect the ST 300 from power using the rear-mounted power switch.
I tested both approaches: switching off via the power switch after listening sessions for a few days and using the “pre-warming” mode for another few days. Indeed, after a complete shutdown and reactivation of the cold device, it took about 30-40 minutes for the sound to fully blossom. With “pre-warming,” the enjoyment returned almost immediately. The Atoll’s “standby” function can be likened to a car’s auxiliary heater, which warms up the engine before setting off. However, the pre-warming in the Atoll lacks a time control.
In my view, I don’t have much to complain about with this approach, as it ultimately leaves the choice to the customer. Since the main switch is located at the back and isn’t easily accessible in every setup, and because the device needs to boot up again after a hard switch-off, it would be beneficial if Atoll also offered an “Eco” standby option that consumes just 1W. While this mode may not allow network wake-up and could reset the last playback position, it would be a greener alternative for those who don’t mind the slightly longer startup time.
Listening Test: A Revelation
Right from the outset, it became clear that the Atoll ST 300 Signature is no ordinary streamer in its price range. And once it reaches its operating temperature, the value of its roughly 3,000 euro price tag becomes undeniable.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have access to an ST 200 Signature for direct comparison, so I can’t quantify how much the ST 300 distinguishes itself from its predecessor. However, when considered in isolation and within the context of streamer preamplifiers and integrated amplifiers I’m familiar with, the Atoll ST 300 instantly captivated me with its expressive overall performance.
With a streamer/DAC/preamplifier, the final sound quality is highly dependent on the power amplifier used. In my testing, the T+AA 200, which has served me admirably since its review, was employed, and at 3,790 euros, it complements the Atoll without breaking the bank. I opted for symmetrical cabling between the preamp and power amp, using Wireworld Silver Eclipse 8 XLR cables. My reference speakers, the Børresen 02 SSE, rounded out the setup.
What sets the Atoll apart most prominently is its astonishingly smooth and velvety sound signature for a “digital device” (keeping in mind that everything becomes analog after the DAC). This characteristic doesn’t come at the expense of well-defined details or crisp highs. I’m struggling to find a fresher descriptor than “analog-like,” but it truly encapsulates Atoll’s emphasis with the ST 300—placing it squarely in the analog realm. If it didn’t feature digital components, it might very well be a well-kept secret among purists seeking an analog preamplifier of remarkable quality.
It doesn’t matter whether I streamed smooth jazz, classical, electronic, or pop/rock from Roon Core to the Atoll over the network, used the internal Qobuz connection to stream music, or opted for internet radio (provided it had a sufficient bit rate). The verdict remained consistent: The ST 300 is a remarkable sonic talent in its category, and that’s a fact.
Finally, it’s worth noting the ST 300’s integrated headphone amplifier. While die-hard headphone enthusiasts might prefer an external DAC/headphone amp with more versatile connection options, the Atoll still delivers impressive sound quality in this department. The presence of a 3.5 mm headphone jack is a welcomed additional output option.
When listened to in analog mode with the recently reviewed T+A Solitaire T headphones, the Atoll acquitted itself admirably. However, a word of caution: the ST 300 doesn’t remember separate volume settings for headphones and line out. Most headphones require a much higher output level than line output, so switching from headphones to speakers can be a startling experience.
Conclusion: The Atoll ST 300 Signature
For anyone in search of a full-featured streaming preamplifier with top-tier sound quality and an impressively user-friendly interface, the Atoll ST 300 Signature is a compelling choice. This French solution may even convert those who have previously steered clear of digital music playback.
The Atoll ST 300 Signature stands as an enticing option for individuals seeking a comprehensive streaming preamplifier that combines top-tier sound quality with a remarkably user-friendly interface. This French-made solution may very well change the minds of those who have been hesitant to venture into the world of digital music playback. Here’s an elaboration on why the Atoll ST 300 Signature is such a compelling choice:
1. Exceptional Sound Quality: The standout feature of the Atoll ST 300 is its exceptional sound quality. It manages to deliver a listening experience that is often associated with high-end analog systems. The audio output is characterized by a pleasingly smooth and velvety texture, showcasing intricate details and impressive clarity. This makes it an ideal choice for audiophiles who demand nothing short of the best in audio fidelity.
2. High-Quality Components: Atoll has spared no expense in equipping the ST 300 with premium components. From shielded “ClarityCaps” coupling capacitors to meticulously designed analog sections, every detail has been carefully considered to ensure optimal audio performance. This commitment to quality is evident not only in the sound but also in the build of the device.
3. User-Friendly Interface: While audiophiles often prioritize sound quality, ease of use is equally important. The Atoll ST 300 strikes a balance between sonic excellence and user-friendliness. Its interface, including the intuitive menu structure, is designed with the user in mind. Setting up and configuring the device is a straightforward process, and this simplicity contributes to a hassle-free user experience.
4. Roon Ready: For users who are already familiar with Roon, the fact that the Atoll ST 300 is Roon Ready is a significant advantage. This means seamless integration into Roon’s ecosystem, allowing for easy setup and access to Roon’s powerful music management features. It’s a feature that enhances convenience for users who rely on Roon for their music library management.
5. Potential for Conversion: The Atoll ST 300 has the potential to convert those who have been hesitant about embracing digital music playback. Its analog-like sound signature bridges the gap between digital and analog audio, appealing to traditionalists while providing the convenience and versatility of digital streaming. For those who have been skeptical about digital music, the ST 300 offers a compelling reason to reconsider.
However, it’s essential to acknowledge some potential drawbacks, including the device’s relatively high price point, the absence of a traditional standby mode, and certain limitations in functionality. Despite these considerations, for those who prioritize sound quality and a user-friendly experience, the Atoll ST 300 Signature is a noteworthy choice that can bring the world of digital music playback within reach of even the most discerning audiophiles. It offers a harmonious blend of cutting-edge technology and audiophile-grade performance, making it a standout option in its category.
- Exceptional Sound Quality: The Atoll ST 300 Signature offers outstanding sound quality, characterized by a smooth and velvety analog-like signature. It excels in delivering detailed, clear, and well-defined audio, making it a great choice for audiophiles seeking high-fidelity playback.
- High-Quality Components: Atoll uses top-tier components in the ST 300, including premium capacitors and a well-designed analog section. These components contribute to the device’s excellent audio performance and build quality.
- Balanced Output: The inclusion of a balanced analog output via XLR allows for enhanced audio signal transmission and is a valuable feature for those with compatible amplifiers or speakers.
- User-Friendly Interface: The ST 300 boasts a user-friendly interface with an intuitive menu structure, making it easy to operate and configure. The included app and web interface further enhance the user experience.
- Roon Ready: Being Roon Ready streamlines the setup process for Roon users and provides access to a familiar interface, enhancing compatibility and convenience for users of this popular music management platform.
- Price: The Atoll ST 300 Signature is relatively expensive, which may put it out of reach for budget-conscious consumers. The 1,000 euro premium over its predecessor, the ST 200 Signature, could be a significant drawback for some potential buyers.
- Lack of Standby Mode: The device’s “pre-warming” mode, while aimed at maintaining optimal sound performance, consumes more power than a traditional standby mode. This higher power usage may not align with energy-efficient preferences.
- Limited Functionality: The ST 300, while offering a broad range of functions, doesn’t introduce any standout or unique features compared to similar devices in its category. Some users may miss advanced features like room calibration or integrated subwoofer crossovers.
- Analog Volume Control Limitation: The device’s purely analog volume control, while offering excellent sound quality, may not be as convenient as digital controls for users who frequently adjust volume settings, as it lacks fine-grained and rapid adjustment.
- Volume Setting Memory: The ST 300 does not remember separate volume settings for headphones and line out, potentially leading to abrupt volume changes when switching between headphones and speakers, which can be a nuisance for some users.
Ultimately, the Atoll ST 300 Signature offers exceptional sound quality and a user-friendly experience, but its premium price and certain limitations may not align with every user’s preferences and budget. Potential buyers should carefully consider their priorities and needs when evaluating this streaming preamplifier.