RMAF 2017: ESS Labs 40 Years Strong, All Night Long

That may sound like a cheesy FM Radio DJ reference, and it is

By Eric Franklin Shook

ESS Labs of California, USA press released an updated version of their well-regarded studio speaker, the AMT 6 and ML-8 earlier in 2017. I’m glad to be on hand at RMAF for their North American Debut. ESS speakers are no stranger to me, I’ve known of their use in recording studios, but in my own experience it’s been with home use. I’ve sat in front of many vintage and rebuilt pairs, pining away for their unique way of demonstrating electro-musical energy. More widely they are known for their open baffle double-side loading and use of exclusively patented ESS-Heil Air Motion Transformers drivers, a tweeter technology originally pioneered in Germany by Oskar Heil. If you are looking for speed in the top end, definitely look here first.

Noble-RMAF-2017 940 x 300
RMAF 2017 coverage is proudly sponsored by Noble Audio.

ESS labs speakers are no stranger to tubes, but in this demo room 100 watts of Channel Islands electronics is in dutiful control of the digital signal and driver manipulation. First up for my short audition, the newest baby stand or bookshelf monitor of the AMT line, the AMT 6”. Like it’s bigger floorstanding siblings the AMT line, it shares the outright same wood cabinet and familiar driver loading design, but now in a more compact and versatile package. Admittedly I’ve always felt the floor standing and vintage models I’ve heard would benefit from taller dispositions, so the idea of a stand mounter appeals to me. We kick off the listening session with full-bodied live jazz music and everything I hear is familiar, but without the usual age that vintage examples have shown. These are well refined, and especially in the top end. Bass is not high on their list of priorities, but that’s not to be expected for their size nor their lineage. To add it now, would somehow leave them the black sheep of the family. Everything is in typical ESS proportion, right where it should be.

For listeners who prefer a bloomy and open top end treble, here could be a tube friendly match. However some room treatments might be in order to make sure the treble doesn’t fly too high. Bass detail is tight and accurate, again leading me to why these are so popular in recording studios and nearfield. I can’t help but applaud the overall accuracy of the speaker to render the timbre of horns and cymbals so accurately. Especially for what is a large woofer two-way design.

Up next, ESS’s redesigned ML-8, a two-way loaded studio monitor with rear loaded passive radiator, and attenuable heil tweeter. Bass is more full than the AMT 6, but still with the characteristic tone and control of the more restrained cousin. This is a speaker that I feel could more easily appeal to a wider audience in both studio and home duties. In fact, I might have a nightmare or two about not owning a pair. Floor standers are cool and all, but there’s just something really sexy about an overachieving stand mount monitor “that could.