The white-crowned tapaculo was formerly considered a subspecies of rufous-vented tapaculo (Scytalopus femoralis) but was separated based principly on differences in their vocalizations.
Three subspecies of northern white-crowned tapaculo are recognized, the nominate Scytalopus atratus atratus, S. a. nigricans, and S. a. confusus. However, the vocalizations of birds of the eastern Andes (S. a. atratus in part) differ from those in the west, “suggesting that [they] are a separate species”.
The white-crowned tapaculo is 12 cm (4.7 in) long. Males weigh 24.6 to 32.5 g (0.87 to 1.15 oz) and one female weighed 25.3 g (0.89 oz). The male of the nominate subspecies is mostly blackish above and slightly lighter below. The flanks and vent are reddish brown and have black bars. It has a white patch on the crown of the head. The female is paler than the male and washed with brown above and is more reddish on the flanks. The juvenile is rust colored with heavy barring. The male S. a. nigricans is darker than the nominate and the female is gray underneath. The male S. a. confusus is paler than the nominate (slaty black) with a brownish lower back. The reddish brown on the flanks and vent, however, covers more area and has heavier barring.
The white-crowned tapaculo is found from western Venezuela to central Peru. Subspecies S. a. nigricans is found only in Venezuela, in Sierra de Perijá and the southern slope of the Andes in Táchira and Mérida states. S. a. confusus is found in the central and western Andes of Colombia. S. a. atratus is the most widespread. As it is currently defined, it ranges from the eastern Andes of Colombia and Ecuador to the central Andes of Peru as far south as the Department of Cuzco.
The white-crowned tapaculo inhabits the undergrowth in the interior and edges of humid montane forest. It ranges in elevation from 850 to 1,900 m (2,790 to 6,230 ft).