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ELAC Uni-Fi UB5 review: ELAC Uni-Fi UB5 speakers belt out insanely good sound for the money

The hype surrounding speaker designer Andrew Jones' newest creation was deafening.

The saying goes that everyone who saw the Sex Pistols' first gig started a successful band. It seemed to me that everyone who heard Jones' ELAC prototypes -- including ourselves -- wrote a tweet or post or article saying how the new speakers blew them away. The UB5s promised the sonic world that they could rock, they imaged like crazy, and they would be damned affordable.

I can now report that they do indeed live up to the buzz. For $500, here is a speaker that offers a true three-way design, a compact form factor and true high-fidelity performance. The ELACs produce a stereo image like nothing else at the price, and bass response is superlative. These speakers are both poet laureates and mustachioed headbangers.

ELAC Uni-Fi UB5 review: ELAC Uni-Fi UB5 speakers belt out insanely good sound for the money

The only minor caveat to our recommendation of the ELAC is that the cosmetics could use some work. The design is "love it or hate it", and this isn't helped by a vinyl wrap which is not as resilient as that on other speakers.

Between $500 and $1,000 you'll find a lot of performance bookshelf speakers vying for your attention, but on pure value-for-money terms, none we've heard can hold a candle to the the ELAC UB5. The company is clearly on a roll, and based on the showing of the UB5 we're looking forward to hearing the other announced models in the Uni-Fi line such as the floorstanding UF5 ($999) in the near future.

UK and Australian availability and pricing isn't yet announced but according to reports the UB5 will get a slightly modified design in those countries (including a different, more expensive finish). Current exchange rates convert to £342 or AU$689.

Design

In the past few years, the true revolution in audio hasn't been the resurgence of vinyl -- which actually never went away -- but instead it's been that "true hi fi" has finally become something most people can afford. Andrew Jones, first at Pioneer and now at ELAC, has been at the forefront of this movement, and the Uni-Fi UB5 is the clearest statement yet of his intent.

ELAC Uni-Fi UB5 review: ELAC Uni-Fi UB5 speakers belt out insanely good sound for the money

Given that the fundamental design is eerily similar to Jones' earlier, similarly priced Pioneer SP-EBS73-LR it's no surprise that the two sound alike. And as with the less-expensive ELAC Debut, most of the money goes on performance, not on pretty doo-dads. The UB5 is an MDF box -- albeit a much better braced one than before -- which measures roughly 8 inches across, 13 inches high and 11 inches deep.

The star of the UniFi's design is the concentric driver: it consists of a 1-inch soft dome surrounded by a 4-inch aluminum cone. This driver is paired with a 5.25-inch aluminum cone, and the design is rear-ported. As a result, keeping the cabinet at least three feet away from walls will help to contain boominess -- however unlike the competitive B&W 685s, there aren't any foam bungs to contain bass response.

The Uni-Fi is covered in the currently chic "brushed vinyl," and while it looks pretty suave, this material is actually a bit of a problem. We've seen other speakers covered in it -- from both ELAC and Klipsch -- and the material in many cases has either started to warp or lift at the corners. There is one caveat though: we move speakers around a lot and so some of this is from handling in a busy testing studio. That said, even the wrap on one of the UB5 speakers we received had a small ding in the finish at the edge straight out of the box.

ELAC Uni-Fi UB5 review: ELAC Uni-Fi UB5 speakers belt out insanely good sound for the money

In response, Andrew Jones says the model we received wasn't new, but had been used for demonstration purposes previously. In addition, Digital Audio Review reports that the brushed finish will only be used in the US -- the UK (and possibly Australia) will be getting a painted finish instead for a slightly higher price. We have reached out to ELAC for confirmation and pricing.

The older, more traditional "wood vinyl" is much harder-wearing, and a speaker featuring this finish would be the preferable option if they are going to be in a high-traffic area.

Sound quality

The bass went deeper than a speaker armed with just a single 5.25-inch aluminum-cone woofer has any right to. Using a tone generator we explored the Uni-Fi UB5's deep bass extension, first at 50 hertz, then we lowered the frequency down to 40Hz and the Uni-Fi UB5's output dropped, just a bit. We continued down to 30 Hz and the Uni-Fi UB5's output dropped a few more decibels, but those very deep bass frequencies were still very present! That's simply superb on a speaker this size. Mind you, this was in the 14-by-17-foot listening room, larger rooms will soak up more bass energy.

Bass definition on kick drums on our Talking Heads albums was truly extraordinary. The bass drum sound was controlled and detailed. Moving up from there, midrange tonality was superb, voices sounded like voices.

At this point we brought out our ELAC Debut B6 bookshelf speakers to compare to the Uni-Fi UB5. The B6 is still an awfully impressive speaker, but the bigger Uni-Fi UB5 is better in every way. It has deeper, better defined bass as well as clearer midrange and treble, and the UB5s image better. Listening to the Rolling Stones "Exile On Main Street" album, the B6 lost some of Mick Jagger's attitude, and the band's energy was too polite and restrained.

The Uni-Fi UB5s were better than the B6, but the Uni-Fi UB5s still seemed to be holding back, so we hooked up a pair of Klipsch RP-160M speakers, and they brought the Stones back in full force! Dynamics were much more alive over the RP-160Ms. Continuing with Battles' "Gloss Drop" prog rock album, the Uni-Fi UB5s sounded fuller and warmer, but the RP-160Ms rocked harder, so the sound was brighter and more exciting. The Uni-Fi UB5s had more weight and low-end punch, but missed too much of the RP-160M's dynamics. What was going on?

After a bit of head-scratching, we noted a couple of things in the Uni-Fi UB5's specifications that might be responsible for the speaker's finicky tastes for amplifiers. Like the Pioneer SP-EBS73-LR, which shares almost identical electrical specifications, the Uni-Fi UB5 has unusually low sensitivity, just 85 dB at 2.83 volts (the Klipsch RP-160M's spec is much higher: it's 96 dB). That indicates the Uni-Fi UB5 needs a lot more power to play as loud as most speakers.

Another thing: the Uni-Fi UB5's nominal impedance is listed at 4 ohms, with 3.4 ohms minimum. That's lower than average, and low-impedance speakers demand more current (amperes) from the amplifier/receiver than regular 8-ohm speakers. ELAC recommends 40- to 140-watt-per-channel amps, so our 80-watt-per-channel NAD should have been more than adequate.

The Klipsch's advantage faded with more sedate music. Listening to the Punch Brothers "Phosphorescent Blues," the band's mandolin, banjo, fiddle, upright bass and vocals sounded far more natural over the Uni-Fi UB5s. The RP-160M was too lean and forward, and soundstage was flatter, more two-dimensional.

Finally, we put the NAD C 356BEE amp aside and hooked up a 200-watt-per-channel Rotel RA-1592 stereo integrated amp, and replayed some of the same music over both the Uni-Fi UB5 and RP-160M speakers. Both sounded better, but the Uni-Fi benefited more from the Rotel's power reserves. The ELAC's dynamics were now more viscerally felt, and our reservations about the speaker's punch and energy all but vanished.

ELAC Uni-Fi UB5 review: ELAC Uni-Fi UB5 speakers belt out insanely good sound for the money

Our respect for the Uni-Fi UB5 jumped a few notches, and connected to the more powerful amp it sounded like a much more expensive speaker. Stereo imaging and dimensionality were excellent, easily ahead of the RP-160M and other speakers in the Uni-Fi UB5's price class. It seemed the Uni-Fi UB5 could do no wrong.

The Jesus and Mary Chain's layers of distorted guitars were full of texture and detail, with acoustic jazz the speaker's tonality was natural, and when we played the Vienna Opera House scene from the "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" Blu-ray, the Uni-Fi UB5 proved themselves capable performers as stereo home-theater speakers. The orchestra and singers were vividly presented, and the bass was so satisfying we felt no need to add a subwoofer.

Between the ELAC UB5 and one thousand dollars there are two other speakers that loom large in our estimation: the aforementioned Pioneer and the Bowers and Wilkins 685 S2. Could the UB5 be better than either of these?

In our tests, UB5 was every bit the equal of its more-expensive Jones-designed predecessor, the Pioneer SP-EBS73-LR. With acoustic music like The Mountain Goats' "Pale Green Things," the image was a little wider and more airy with the Pioneer speakers, but that's about it for advantages. The ELAC is a little sweeter with voices, but not as exacting and revealing.

These are like two clay mugs made by the same potter. They're mostly the same mug, but there are little differences. Which one is better? If given our druthers we still favor the Pioneer. The finish is better, they will play back Atmos soundtracks, and they're better built. However, if you don't need Atmos, get the ELAC -- it's that easy.

One thing we noticed with both speakers was a narrow sweet spot. If you move away from your central position by a foot, the soundstage can kind of flip-flop as you move across the couch.

Given that the smaller ELAC Debut completely destroys the B&W 685 S2 on bass output, we expected the Uni-Fi to set fire to whatever wreckage still remained. We were wrong; the B&W holds up well. Both the B&W and the UB5 had similar levels of tuneful bass, and when it came to transparency it was hard to fault either speaker on the Ladysmith Black Mambazo chorus intro to Paul Simon's "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes." Both models were clean and offered pinpoint imaging with voices, and when the the full band piped in, they both kicked with the same enthusiasm. It also bears mentioning that the dynamic range of the B&W was similar to the ELAC with the same amplification: the Klipsch was dynamically better than both.

The B&W isn't as forward as the ELAC, and so is more forgiving of bright mixes or even nasally voices, such as are found on the new Islands record "Should I Remain Here, At Sea". If you like punk or similarly abrasive-sounding music, the extra spit and shine the ELACs give may be a bit too much.

Conclusion

The ELAC Uni-Fi UB5 is one of the best speakers we've seen in the last few years, but like any performer worth paying for, it has its quirks. If you exercise some care on pairing the Uni-Fi UB5 with a decent receiver or amplifier, you will be rewarded with true hi-fi performance. This speaker offers compact size and extraordinary sound quality for an affordable price.
  • The Good The ELAC Uni-Fi UB5 loudspeakers offer the best performance of any speaker we've seen for the money. They deliver deep, tight bass; an effortless midrange and sweet highs. The soundstage is wide and unexpectedly deep.
  • The Bad The speakers' vinyl finish isn't all that durable. Low sensitivity and low impedence mean they may require an expensive, high-quality amplifier to sound their best.
  • The Bottom Line Paired with high-quality components, the ELAC Uni-Fi UB5 sounds much better than you have any right to expect from a speaker of this size and price.

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