It feels invigorating to get your long held audiophile pre conceived notions smashed to smithereens on occasion. This was such an occasion.
Three weeks earlier, it felt as though I was knocking on the door of a very cool house party location. The host answered and looked at me with surprise. 'Actually, the party's just winding down'.
I have the same feeling about the new line of petite, inexpensive speakers from German manufacturer ELAC.
The subject of our review, the B5 Debut at available at Amazon for USD$229.00 and the slightly dearer B6 Debut and the Uni-Fi UB5 version (both less than USD$500) have all received raves in the audiophile press. Akin to the 2nd Coming.
Time for Audiophilia to have a listen. Welcome to the party.
The new ELAC line had a good start in life, the product of ex KEF, Pioneer and TAD designer, Andrew Jones. Much like celebrity chefs, I don't usually put much store in 'celebrity' designers.
England's Andrew Jones certainly would not have self anointed, but he must have noticed and enjoyed the many layers of coverage at audio shows and ELAC speaker events. In the past six months, a lot of praise has been directed his way. Our turn to hear if the Jones ELAC magic is real.
The B5 Debut is a small bookshelf model, probably fitting more comfortably under 'mini monitor' designation. 'B5' indicates 'Bookshelf 5 inch'. It's a 2-way, bass reflex design with a 1-inch cloth dome tweeter and a 5.25-inch woven aramid-fiber cone woofer. More on these magical beans of drivers later.
At 85 dB sensitivity, the B5 requires some solid power to get its drivers moving. Killing it with kindness, I used my Audio Research VS110 with 100 watts per channel and played music for a few days before I began serious listening.
Nominal impedance is 6 ohms.
The construction is basic black brushed vinyl with 5 way metal binding posts. It's all entry level stuff to keep the prices rock bottom. Dimensions are Height: 12.8 in, Width: 7.9 in and Depth: 8.7 in. Weight is 11.5 lb each.
How do they sound?
On initial assessment, pretty wonderful. I was excited to hear how these sounded more than any high end kit in a while. Patience, though. All well designed electronics need some break in. These were no different.
Break in was 50 hours of my splendid Esoteric remaster of Mozart's Symphony No. 40, first movement. During that time of mezzo forte volume, I heard a lively presentation right out of the box. The drivers took time to lighten up but the character of the speaker remained from the start. Energetic, cheerful with a definite spring in its step.
That's the short view. The big umbrella view on initial serious listening? This speaker has to be one of the stone cold deals in high end audio. Detailed, punchy, but with a sophistication well up the very cool ladder.
A little scrutiny -- and a little YouTube research -- led me to believe the magic was in the drivers. Yes, the magical beans Jones worked on at his KEF bench, modified for real cheap Pioneers and very expensive TADS, and here, magically rediscovered for ELAC.
Even if that does seem an overly simple answer to real musical prayers, Jones did spill on camera the B5's show debut was the first time he'd heard the full speaker constructed. Here's a man who knows his drivers and how they measure in a cabinet.
And so it began. My quest to find fault with the speakers. [There’s that audiophile snobby git creeping through.] To be fair, stars like these don't appear all that often. But there I sat. Listening intently for gaffes. Here a gaffe, there a gaffe. Gotta be at the price, right? No one can deliver that much musical promise on so few dimes. No one.
Frustration crept in and tried to dilute delight. Why did the Elac's capture that ever so slight crescendo in a tertiary string line and the bass clarinet reed squawk at rehearsal Letter A on my Naxos CD of The Happy Forest by Bax? Did I hear those two incredibly subtle musical cues on the my 32 times more expensive reference monitors? The damn metal, sand filled stands I was using to mount the speakers cost the same (the Raidho's come with their own $900 proprietary stands).
The search for musical good news pressed me to return to the drivers. There was a sweetness, an honesty about them that was inviting, natural. The balance was there, an attempt at coherence within the parameters of the small, untreated box. Jones’s original thoughts on mechanics obviously worked. Why not just use a gentle rework? No no need for reinvention. Whatever he ended up using, these drivers work. They work individually, and in tandem. Musically and mechanically joined at the hip.
So well, that the woodwind section's fast downward staccato G minor scale in the Mozart Symphony opening movement was crisp and tactile. Unnervingly so. Each note a gem in its space, and fast, fast, fast. Cheap drivers act like slugs. Not these. Fast as quicksilver. Even vibrato in this Allegro tempo did not escape scrutiny. Rare, and in found the time domain of much more expensive tweeters. Think about the old Esotar or Focal’s superb Beryllium models. Not as good, of course, but trending that way.
If you want the speakers to drive some, throw on The Clash. The old staple for the old town, London Calling, sounded fresh and driven. The angst heard against the speakers trying to add a 21st Century sophistication. And failing, courtesy of the personality and energy of the band. Steely Dan's Golden Earrings was superb, too. A great song for an emerging speaker class. The $229.00 shooting star.
Bass was emphasized on the B5 in a fairly benign, mid bass way — no low bass at this size. But what remained was effective adding to the coherence we spoke about. There's no criticism meant in suggesting this. When some oomph was required, the B5s complied. But they complied in my smaller reference music room.
Where the ELACS shone was in its very lovely midrange. Rich and detailed. Not effulgent and all enveloping, but balanced. This, married to the superb tweeter, and the total is yet another musical winner from the ears of Mr. Jones.
All this heaped praise as heard with quality ancillaries attached. And if we include a silly season, I tried them with 50K hooked on [Antipodes Audio, Bel Canto, Transparent, Audio Research Corporation]. Pretty damn glorious. But, with my standby NAD C356BEE Integrated Amplifier and Kimber PBJ, Bluetooth, Tidal and a MacBookPro, the ELACs sunny nature remained, albeit less of everything that audiophiles crave. But still a go getter and punching way above lightweight.
Placement is a doddle — they played great firing off/on axis, close to the rear and side walls, or sitting out on my 28” 'Firm' Target stands. Or plain Jane as the center of my computer desktop setup. Impervious. My choice was sitting out a few feet from each wall on my stands firing straight out. Best soundstage and imaging for my favourite repertoire. Here they really shone. And stayed that way during most of the three week audition stretch.
I'm so happy to report to you the past three weeks were amazing, I really loved the speaker earning an Audiophilia Star for its purest implementation of the Star’s criteria. The perfect trifecta of sound, design, and value.
And then it was time to return to my reference — my Raidho X-1 Loudspeaker. A speaker many times the price of the ELAC B5s. And, yes, listening this weekend was of a bit of a shock. I was smiling a lot, at least on the inside. The Danish beauties are fantastic speakers. Incredibly coherent with a timbral accuracy that is frankly unnerving and a front/back and side/side that goes for miles. I loved they were back in the system. However, I did forget them for a while. And at the hands of a $229 monitor. That has to tell us something important about our avocation. And great news it is.
Further information: ELAC