It may not have escaped your attention that high-end audio has gone slightly mental. The desire to listen to recorded music in the home has been with us for a long, long time now but some of the equipment being made is pitched at insane prices: one hundred thousand pound plus amplifiers, huge speakers with similar price tags, jewellery-adorned, exotic cabling.
Who would have thought that a company like Naim Audio, for example, would release an pre/power amplifier costing way above £100k during the same period where they announced the Muso, a fantastic and affordable music machine, at under £1k, for the home that is of excellent quality and multi-faceted in its ability and appeal. Why, it’s market forces, dear boy.
The very idea that one could buy a really interesting pair of speakers for £250 seems like wishful thinking, especially given the economies of scale required and the paucity of suitable quality drivers that have found their way into such low-cost designs for years. But Andrew Jones has different ideas. Andrew, who did such great work for KEF before moving on to Pioneer/TAD and now ELAC, has taken full advantage of modern driver technology and mass produced manufacturing costs to produce a range of speakers for that most venerable of German audio companies. These ELAC speakers are making a lot of people sit up and take note of what can be achieved by understanding where to make the inevitable and often savage compromises with such low-cost designs.
He started off with the drivers and these are the B5’s strongest weapon in the armoury. It uses a woven cone of Aramid (heat resistant, strong synthetic fibres often found in body armour) and a 38mm voice coil with plenty of venting around the cone. This would certainly help dissipate heat build up in the magnet assembly. The 135mm driver is capable of very decent power handling while the all-important tweeter is a 25mm cloth dome with what is called a “deep steroid wave guide”, which is fortunately completely free from ‘roid rage. From the outside it looks like it is mounted within the throat of a moulded horn. As far as traditional low‑cost speakers go, the tweeter was invariably the limiting factor and have disappointed for years.
The medite cabinets are interesting in that there is no internal bracing or internal wadding, designed to damp the cabinets internally at all. Rap them with your knuckles and you will hear a rather hollow ring but, if you judge their potential with that blow alone, then you are going to be in for a surprise. Andrew knows, better than anyone, that the cabinet especially at this level, is another whole load of compromises but the fact that he hasn’t damped the lively little cabinets to death inside goes a long way toward their remarkable sound quality I think. Seems like the only cabinet treatment is the entirely predictable wood-grain vinyl wrap which is certainly boring, but inevitable. At the rear is a plastic insert flared port of substantial diameter to ease the airflow and a pair of decent 4mm/screw down connectors mounted straight onto the plate that houses the crossover internally. Personally I wish these connectors had been vertical instead of at an angle as it would have made connections with some thicker cables a little easier. There is a detachable two-piece grille with a full frontal lightweight grid and the drivers themselves are covered in grilles, too. I would suggest some experimentation with the grilles both on and off. I appreciate that they are designed with a specific acoustic purpose.
So, a small speaker then, the B5 translates as a bookshelf speaker with 135mm bass/mid driver while the F prefix on larger models in the range indicates a floor-stander with the following number describing the main driver size. Over in the US they call small speakers ‘bookshelf’ though we tend to think of them as standmounts, which of course means that you are going to need a pair to support them. I would love to say that any stand will do but, in all honesty, I can’t. Conventional wisdom seems to be that small speakers need a massively heavy stand, filled with sand, lead shot, or some equally weighty but inert substance. Over the years I have found few speakers, at any price, that have responded to this theory as well as they have to lightweight, low mass designs. I did try the B5 on a pair of ancient behemoth supports, but got a far better result by using an old pair of the superb Quadraspire acrylic designs that had done excellent work over the years with plenty of the smaller Focal speakers. On these the B5 was far livelier, faster, sharper, and more precise I thought, whereas they were considerably more ponderous on the heavy-duty designs. Just a thought but the ‘right’ stand does bring considerable musical benefits.
I pressed an older Moon amplifier and CD player into action and hooked the whole system up with some basic Chord Company cables, although I confess that I had a lot of fun with them sitting at the end of the Berning QZ amplifiers and the dCS Vivaldi: unrealistic, but informative.
I was impressed from the first few tracks. After a couple of hours of the system warming through I was a few steps from being amazed. Firstly, they have an excellent tonal balance and this is helped no end by that tweeter and its mounting arrangement. There was no harshness, no edgy over-compressive bite at all. In fact, the whole top end was rather breathy and superbly textured. This was balanced off with extension down in the bass coupled with very decent control with quite a bit of ‘punch’ and stop/start drama. Pulling them into the room broadened the musical picture out of the boxes somewhat but I preferred them closer to the back wall for that extra sense of body and weight. The music flowed through these little speakers with an eloquence that was more than surprising and although they are not the most efficient at 85dB, the Moon amp has enough presence and can swing decent dynamics, to which the ELACs respond willingly. But it was the subtlety of the tweeter that was most impressive during those early days. What it lacks in ultimate HF extension it more than compensates for with the sheer colour and texture it breathes into the room. It really does make listening to the B5 for lengthy periods a lot easier.
Push them further and further power-wise and there is a little confusion that builds up as the bass begins to trip over itself a little. Is this the lack of internal damping kicking in? I am not sure but it was at levels that I would be unlikely to listen at so it’s a moot point for me. The lively nature and speed though is something else and so is the musical subtlety. This is not a speaker that does any one thing to the detriment of others. It is happy playing softly too.
Over the course of my time with them I continually forgot that they were so incredibly cheap. In fact nobody who heard them could believe it either. There’s a lot to be said for an audio system that just gets on with it and this was certainly it. Drum ‘n bass, massed violins, female vocal, acoustic, electronic? The B5s walked through any task I set them. The longer I used them, the looser the whole set-up got. Those drivers really have been the breakthroughs that have set this new ELAC range on the way. They are superb and the way they have been integrated into that plain little cabinet is quite remarkable.
When writing a review like this or indeed listening to them sat at the end of a system, it is tempting to continually refer to their very low price. In a word, they are great little speakers. I recommend that you grab a listen to them and perhaps they will find their way into first systems for any number of younger people for whom MP3 and headphones is the usual listening method. They are a genuinely exciting little speaker regardless of their price and I wish them all the best because I found my time with them was musically interesting, but mostly refreshing. Very highly recommended!
- Type: Two-way stand-mount speaker with bass reflex port.
- Driver complement: One 135mm woven aramid fibre cone with oversized magnet and vented pole piece. One 25mm cloth dome unit with custom deep spheroid waveguide.
- Freq. response: 46Hz-20kHz
- Crossover Freq: 3kHz
- Impedance: 6 ohms nominal
- Sensitivity: 85dB
- Dimensions (H×W×D): 324×200×222mm
- Weight: 5.2kg each (unpackaged)
- Price: £250 per pair
Manufactured by: ELAC GmbH
Distributed by: Hi-Fi Network
Tel: +44 (0)1285 643088