It shouldn’t be weird. I think that is the main point that John and Steve were driving at, back in New York. Not that it couldn’t be done. Or even that it hadn’t ever been done before. The point was that it was rare. And that fact alone says “things” about the industry as a whole. An indictment, of sorts.
We talk about this. Often. “Gear doesn’t have to be expensive to be good.” That’s been repeated so often and for so long, that it’s cliché at this point. Of course price doesn’t entail sound quality. Of course not!
Such declamations are usually followed with one of two things, however. It’s either a sense of outrage and righteousness at the current sorry state of pricing in high-end audio, or a certain smugness that invites a caveat: “Price certainly does seem to correlate with quality, though!”
There is something to that, I’ll confess. I want to say that speakers don’t necessarily get all that much better the more expensive they get. I want to say that. I also want to say that an entire audio system can be had for under $100 (or $250, or some other arbitrarily low-level), and further, that the sound coaxed from that system fully rivals the sound coming from systems costing many, many thousands of dollars. I want to say that. I really do. It would be nice to believe that. But I don’t. Not really. If it were true, if it were possible, it would be rare.
I’ve explored this end before. Just a bit. It was a direct result of panel I hosted last year at the New York Audio Show, with Steve Guttenberg, John Darko and Art Dudley. I called it “The 21st Century Audiophile”, and we talked about a lot of things. But the bell that Steve rung around “affordable audio” has reverberated around in my skull — so, I spent a couple hundred bucks on cheap audio components in my own Guttenberg Challenge.
The upshot? Meh. There was one pair of speakers and an amp to match that didn’t necessarily make me want to throttle myself with my own intestines. But good? To the point of actually endorsing? Not so much. Or rather/better, endorse to what end? For dedicated two-channel music thrills? Or something (marginally) better than what your iMac is capable of with it’s built-in speakers? I’m exaggerating, but you take my point. But on the off-chance you’re being dense, here’s the punchline: if all you had was $200, based on my Guttenberg explorations, what I would recommend is a pair of AKG K7XX headphones from Massdrop. Instead.
Which brings me to ELAC.
Affordable Meets Jones. Again.
I’ve met Andrew Jones a couple of times, glancingly. He’s the guy running the demo. I’m the chair-jockey, vying for the center seat. He jokes. I laugh. It’s not really a relationship.
Jones recently left Pioneer/TAD to join ELAC. I remember the announcement came shortly after I’d decided that the little Pioneer SP-BS22 LR loudspeakers won my Guttenberg Challenge. Not to make it all about me or anything. Whatever. Anyway, Jones made some extraordinary speakers for TAD, speakers I’ve been repeatedly startled by, both by their cost ($$$$$) and their quality (amazeballs). The fact that he slummed around and bothered to design and launch the sub-$150 Pioneers is something of a marvel. The fact that they don’t suck is a testament directly to his design, but I remember wondering if it was a calculated move or something of a design exercise. A game. “What if I only spent ($) instead of ($$$$$) on parts? What then?” The upshot, of course, is irrelevant — again, not to make it all about me, but I have a full surround-sound complement of those Pioneer speakers and for their price, they’re really quite good. In fact, I have an award that I bring forward whenever I find a particularly salubrious intersection between cost and performance. Given their price, these speakers are all that and a bag of chips. They’re not the TAD versions, of course, but they’re also less than 1/100th the price. What more could you ask?
Well, apparently, there is more. At Munich this past year, Jones and (new) company released another set affordable loudspeakers, the Debut Series B5, at $229/pair. This move says, to me at least, that the baby Pioneers were not an accident, but part of a grander plan. Worthy audio for the masses? Be still, my little proletariat heart. While I completely bypassed this demo at Munich (I plead jet lag), I did find ELAC at RMAF this year. I wasn’t going to miss them, again! To my surprise, Jones had a whole new speaker — the floor standing F5 at $580/pair.
The B5, and later, the B6, are two-way bookshelf loudspeakers. The driver complement is a silk-dome tweeter paired with a woven
Kevlar Aramid-fiber mid/bass cone. Both are 6Ω nominal (pretty common), with a 120watt handling capacity (not that I’m going to dump that much into them) and a mid-80’s sensitivity (which is low, which means they’re gonna want the juice). The B6 steps in front of the B5 by adding a slightly larger mid/bass driver (6.5″ vs 5.25″), but both crossover at 3kHz and both slip down into the mid-40Hz region before massively rolling off.
The F5 is more similar to the B5 — in fact, the B5 is pretty much the top portion of the F5, with the same tweeter and mid/woofer. Here, however, the F5 adds two more 5.25″ woofers and makes a genuine 3-way out of the design. Again, mid-80’s sensitivity and a 6Ω impedance implies a lust for power and a fair level of ambivalence about it.
The cabinets on any of these include five-way binding posts, post-mounted removable front grills, and a “brushed aluminum” finish. Okay, no, it’s not aluminum, it’s textured-vinyl-over-MDF — it just looks like the kind of finish you’d find on an all-aluminum case. Each driver has its own contrasting-color surround — skip the grills. That done, and from a sheer aesthetic standpoint, these little buggers are undeniably hot.
If you’ve checked out the RMAF report, you’ll know that I was impressed by the demo of the new Debut Series speakers. Impressed enough that I went out and picked up a pair off of Amazon as soon as they were available.
Do note that there are now local dealers that can let you demo them locally. Failing that, Amazon can get them to you in two days, courtesy of Prime.
Playing with Debut
I started out with the B6 for no other reason other than the fact that they showed up first (thanks, Amazon!). I pulled out my Reference 3A adjustable stands, slapped down a Svelte Shelf from Symposium Acoustics, and I was ready to go. Given the sensitivity (87dB), I figured “power required”, so I sidelined all my luscious BorderPatrol 300b-based amplifiers in favor of a rather healthy Pass Laboratories INT-60 integrated amplifier ($9,000) I also just got in for review.
Obviously, this is an absurd pairing — no one (except me) is going to pair their Pass integrated with a pair of $580 loudspeakers. But I really like this amp, and I’ve really needed to get some more time on it, so that’s what I did. For the record, I don’t really have an amp that fits into the relevant price point. In fact, I think the idea of “relevant price point” is actually worth expounding on … at some point … because there’s no real good reason to assume that the relationship is straightforward. That said, I think the Common Wisdom has it that the amp shouldn’t be more expensive than the speakers. Of course, my main listening rig is a $26k SET amp lashed to a pair of $12k high-sensitivity speakers, so perhaps I’m not one to really advise about this. Ahem. Anyway, I think even an arbitrarily high budget puts the amp price at about $1k. The only potential pairing, and one that seemed to make a lot of sense, was the PS Audio Sprout … but my Sprout has yet to find its way back from reviewer John Richardson (review is coming very shortly). Besides, I kinda want to know what the speakers sound like — we’re here for ELAC, not ELAC-system (that’s another post). So, Pass Labs it was.
The first thing I noticed about the ELAC was that they seemed a little dark. Maybe it’s a voicing thing — cheap speakers are going to be paired with cheaper amps, amps which have a nasty tendency to bright screechiness — but I found that the speakers sounded dramatically better (fuller, more coherent), when I turned them up. This is generally true of just about anything so I think of it as a bit of a truism, so take it for whatever it’s worth — these are not sleepy, play-it-at-night speakers. Turn them up and the impact is pretty remarkable.
Fed a healthy watt-filled diet, I got the ELAC speakers on a roll with whatever it is that Infected Mushroom is. I say that in all humility — I have no real idea how to label this band. It’s part electronica, part indie rock, part who-knows-what and part WTF. There are vocals, there is a EDM-like bass track, there’s syncopation, there’s … a lot … but the whole thing reels off more than a little like a rave. It’s also more than a little addicting.
Are the speakers room filling? Oh my, yes. While the lowest registers were a little anemic (the speakers are rated to 44Hz for the B6 and 42Hz for the F5), I heard clarity and openness — I noticed that Rodrigo y Gabriela play on nylon-stringed guitars, for one completely random example. During “Tamacun”, a rip-roaring acoustic assault, it occurred to me that the strings sounded very similar to the guitar my Dad used to play for us kids. Weird, the associations a particular playback of some random piece of music will make. On the other hand, though on “Roadhouses and Automobiles”, my go-to track for detail, the crickets and birds were more felt than heard.
I kinda got into this with the Guttenberg Challenge, so that makes a good place to start. Compared to the Pioneer SP-BS22 LR loudspeakers, the B6 played way bigger. That Pioneer speaker, the hands-down winner of that mini-speaker round-up, was here clearly outclassed. The mid/woofer on the Pioneer is only 4″, compared to the 6.5″ on the B6. The Pioneer’s case features a boat-tail desing, whereas the ELACs are traditionally boxy equal-sided-ness, but other than that, and the ELAC cases being significantly larger and bling-y-er, the two speakers are rather similar — both are soft-dome tweeters, nestled into a waveguide, with a 6Ω load and a 3k crossover point.
Sonically, the two speakers are more alike than different. The B6 clearly has a more authoritative reach, but let’s not get carried away — that little 4″ driver can do a lot. It’s just that the 6.5″ can do a lot … more. And by “more”, I’m referring to apparent reach. Again, I don’t want to overstate things — the B6 isn’t going to satisfy bass-nuts as it’s missing a goodly amount of that last octave, but the part that is there is wholly convincing. And there’s more than on the Pioneer. How much more? I want to say the B6 can play solidly for an additional 15Hz or so, before performance falls down an oubliette. That is, the Pioneer seem crafted as left/right speakers for an audio/video system with a subwoofer expected to come in at 80Hz. By contrast, the B6 could potentially “get by” without a subwoofer-based assist, assuming your usual musical diet isn’t a steady stream of Infected Mushroom. Anyway, I thought the B6 to have a much firmer grip on the bass registers than the SP-BS22, though, above that register, the two speakers were more similar than not. If I had to split hairs, I want to say that the B6 was voiced a bit warmer — voices just had a bit more richness to them that suggested a more agreeable complement of fundamental tones.
I had expected the F5 to sound pretty much identical to the B6, and to an extent, it was. That is, the top half of the frequency range sounded very similar across all three speakers. I want to say that the F5 which is rated only to 42Hz (vs the 44Hz for the B6; though both numbers appear to be for their -10dB performance), didn’t sound dramatically deeper than its 2-way sibling. A mid-bass hump I didn’t notice in the B6 (or in the SP-BS22) until I compared it directly, seems to have fallen away, with an overall improvement in coherence which translates as a larger sound-stage, both laterally and vertically, which was something of a surprise. In fact, while the F5 sounds best with the tweeter on-level with your ear, it still sounds pretty great standing 6-8′ away. Hmmm.
The closest pair of speakers — in the other direction — that I had on hand were a pair of KEF R300 ($1,799/pair). The R300 are the upscale cousin to the LS50 loudspeakers ($1,499/pair) that everyone went bananas over, but takes that coincident/coaxial driver and adds a third driver for a true 3-way, albeit one in a rather compact (if finished with a dramatically upscale) package. Compared directly, the KEF is clearly an “audiophile grade” loudspeaker. $250 (or $600) vs $1800 is quite a stretch and the extra outlay clearly has some impact aesthetically, but abstracting that, the KEF R300 just hits harder, plays deeper, and has significantly more finesse than the $279/pair ELAC B6 or the $580/pair F5. Does that surprise you? It really shouldn’t. But it also doesn’t really take anything away from the ELAC speakers, either. Again, that’s 3x/6x more money. Just a guess (at this point), but I suspect that’s exactly where the upcoming, soon-to-be-announced ELAC line will come in. Stay tuned for that.
Here’s the bottom line: the Debut Series from ELAC (at least, these two that I’ve heard so far) have and will continue to defy expectation. They’re the most exciting entry-level offering I’ve seen this year, and I am heartily impressed by what they can do.
I’m hoping we’ll all be forgiven for wondering how it is that something this cheap can sound this good. I think we get used to the idea, in high-end audio, that gear must be expensive in order to be great. After all, it’s a maxim! I think they’re still tattooing that across foreheads (just under the hairline) over at CES, aren’t they? Of course, the fact that expensive gear tends to be great isn’t helpful to the propensity to assume that inexpensive stuff, then, must not be great, but whatever. We’re enlightened people. We can identify biases and transcend them. Right? But this is a bias. And transcending it means work. Repeated work. Because, in this case, that work is worth it. Because, in this case, the ELAC speakers are great.
But saying that, I have to throw a flag of caution before the celebration gets too far down the field. The fact is, these speakers are not the best-sounding speakers I’ve heard. This is as unfair to say as it is unsurprising to read. To take a particularly apt example, I could mention that I’ve heard Andrew Jones’ speaker designs, back from when he worked for TAD. You could even say I’m a fan of those designs. These ELAC? These are not those.
Instead, these are something new and fall in an entirely different context. I think that’s worth recalling and repeating, lest we lose our way in a fog of hyperbole.
But I am enthusiastic. Don’t get me wrong. These ELAC speakers are the best that I’ve heard at anything like their price, and they are my new default recommendation in the “affordable audio” zone. The sheer quality of the sound, and the enjoyment I took with my time with them, earns them an Editor’s Choice Award. It also garners them a shot at Product of the Year.
The ELAC B6 bookshelf speakers and F5 floorstanding speakers are, quite simply, an extraordinary and outstanding value.