The name Andrew Jones is already synonymous with great budget speakers. However, the launch of the Elac UF5 and the other Uni-Fi speakers shows that Jones's name should instead be synonymous with "designing a product the smartest way for a given price point." I've known Jones for about 20 years, and what has always struck me about his work is that he always seems to find the best engineering solution for a particular application and budget. I remember back around 2004, when Jones demoed his prototype of the $80,000-per-pair TAD Reference One for me, then minutes later explained with equal enthusiasm his driver designs for a Pioneer two-way speaker built to sell for $60 per pair at Circuit City.
The new Uni-Fi speakers embody something Jones told me many years ago: "The best two-way speaker is a three-way speaker." By that, he means that a two-way speaker with a conventional midrange/woofer and dome tweeter is a compromise between woofer dispersion and tweeter power handling, and that adding a midrange driver eliminates this compromise--if the price of the speaker is high enough that you can afford to add a midrange driver. That wasn't the case with the Debut line, the first line of speakers that Jones designed for Elac. However, the higher (yet still reasonable) prices of the new Uni-Fi line enabled him to encircle each speaker's tweeter with a four-inch midrange cone.
"Encircled" is a key word here because the tweeters and midrange drivers in the Uni-Fi speakers are concentric--which means that their acoustic centers are always the same distance from your ears, so you suffer none of the comb-filtering effects that are typical of speakers with a physically separated midrange (or woofer) and tweeter. Concentric drivers have been a hallmark of Jones's non-budget designs since his days at KEF, the company most famous for concentric tweeters.
According to Jones, the UF5's bass response is basically the same as that of the UB5 bookshelf speaker, despite the UF5's two extra woofers, larger size, and twice-as-high price. The lower two woofers are walled off from the upper drivers in their own enclosure, but the volume of this enclosure is twice that of the top woofer's enclosure, and it has two ports, so the UF5 is basically the UB5 with two extra bass sections added. Why spend more for the UF5? Because it'll play deep notes much louder without distortion than the UB5 can.
The UF5 lists for $499 each. Also in the line are the $499/pair UB5 bookshelf speaker and the $349 UC5 center. There's no subwoofer designed specifically to complement the Uni-Fi speakers, but Jones feels the Debut Series subwoofers are up to the task.
ELAC created a slightly slimmer, painted version of the UF5 for the European market, which it has decided to bring to the U.S. around September at a price roughly $400 higher. Jones told me the slimmer version sounds the same as the original. In my opinion, the slimmer version looks much nicer...yep, $400 nicer.
Jones came by my house to set up the UF5s, although he didn't end up doing anything differently than I would have done. He put the speakers in the same spots where I had placed other tower speakers I was testing, and moved them just slightly after a bit of listening. Because of the consistent off-axis response of the concentric midrange/tweeter, the Uni-Fi Series speakers are not at all fussy about placement.
The UF5s have two features that ease installation. First is a set of extra-beefy speaker cable binding posts, with knobs big enough that you can tighten them firmly by hand. Second is a pair of metal outriggers that bolt into the bottom of the speaker. The carpet spikes that come with the speaker thread into the outriggers, and they can be precisely adjusted with a hex wrench or your fingers. Once the height of the spikes is set, you can cap them off with some threaded knobs.
During Jones's visit, we used the Sony STR-ZA5000ES AV receiver I already had set up, with a Samsung Blu-ray player as the source and the receiver set for stereo bypass. Later, I substituted my usual test rig: a Class� Audio CA-2300 amp and CP-800 preamp/DAC, with a Music Hall Ikura turntable and NAD PP-3 phono preamp, all connected with Wireworld Eclipse 7 speaker cables and interconnects. For level-matched comparisons with other speakers, I used my Audio by Van Alstine AVA ABX switcher.
It might not be best to start a speaker evaluation with a substandard recording; but, after hearing all of usual test tracks during Jones's visit, I was dying to put on The Red Norvo Trio featuring Tal Farlow and Charles Mingus, a classic side from the early 1950s that I found in pristine condition at a record store in L.A. for $3. On tunes such as "This Can't Be Love," I loved the UF5's clean and neutral reproduction. Every note of Mingus's lightning-fast walking bass line sounded perfectly clear. Perhaps more important, though, is that I heard a natural sense of space on this recording from Norvo's vibes and Farlow's guitar, even though it's mono. Sounds even seemed to be coming from the sides of the room. (The link here is apparently the same recording, sourced from a different album.)
I heard a similar sense of wraparound on Brian Eno's Ambient 1: Music for Airports. In this recording, lots of reverb is added to the piano, so it sounds pretty spacious through almost any speaker. While the reverb added a sense of depth behind the speakers, the wraparound effect I got from the UF5 made this album more involving than it would be on an average set of speakers.
The UF5s delivered a nice, straightforward reproduction of jazz singer Susie Arioli's "Spring," from the CD of the same name. Once again, I heard an enveloping sense of space, particularly from the piano and vibes. "Just a big, room-filling sound," I scribbled in my notes. Arioli's vocal sounded exceptionally clear, and in fact the UF5s seemed to bring out her vocals a bit more from the mix than I'm used to hearing.
Wondering if the UF5s might be contributing a bit too much sense of space to the recordings I was playing, I put on "From Dream to Dream," from The Nights of Bradley's by pianist Kirk Lightsey and bassist Rufus Reid. This album was recorded at Greenwich Village's now-defunct Bradley's jazz club, which I often visited when I lived in New York City. The UF5s seemed to disappear completely with this recording; there was a deep soundstage between the speakers, but only a modest wraparound effect--which is what the narrow, deep space sounded like. I especially loved the way the UF5s transitioned smoothly from Reid's bowed solo to the pizzicato walking bass line he played behind Lightsey's solo; the speakers caught all the high-frequency detail in the bowed sound without emphasizing the couple of squeaks that Reid's bow made during the solo, yet they also captured Reid's rich, woody, hard-grooving pizzicato sound (which I've had the pleasure of hearing unamplified at a distance of about 10 feet).
"Stressed Out" by Twenty One Pilots showed that the UF5 can be powerful and dynamic when it needs to be. I cranked the tune way up to see if the speaker's bass would thin out or distort under stress, but it didn't. Even though the deepest bass notes didn't sound as full as they would with a larger speaker, I didn't hear even a fleeting hint of distortion in the bass--or in the midrange or treble, for that matter.
Although I didn't have a full UniFi home theater system on hand, I decided to play the scene from the Thor Blu-ray disc in which Thor is attacked and apparently killed by a big robot, then gets his powers back and destroys the robot. As with the Twenty One Pilots track, this scene showed that the UF5s can handle plenty of deep-bass abuse without audible distortion or port noise.
As I usually do when I review tower speakers, I compared the UF5 to my $3,499/pair Revel Performa3 F206 speakers, using the Van Alstine AVA ABX to match the levels and perform the switching. On many tunes, such as "Gloria's Step" from Bill Evans--the Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, it was extremely difficult to hear the difference. The biggest difference on this tune was in the bass, which actually sounded smoother and more natural on the UF5 because the F206 has, to my ears, just a little bit of excess punch in the bottom end.
Click over to Page Two for Measurements, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
On-axis: �3.4 dB from 42 Hz to 20 kHz
Average �30� horiz: �2.6 dB from 42 Hz to 20 kHz
Average �15� vert/horiz: �3.0 dB from 42 Hz to 20 kHz
min. 3.8 ohms/397 Hz/-11�, nominal 6 ohms
Sensitivity (2.83 volts/1 meter, anechoic)
The first chart shows the frequency response of the UF5, the second shows the impedance. For frequency response, three measurements are shown: at 0� on-axis (blue trace); an average of responses at 0�, �10�, �20� and �30� off-axis horizontal (red trace); and an average of responses at 0�, �15� horizontally and �15� vertically (green trace). I consider the 0� on-axis and horizontal 0�-30� curves to be the most important. Ideally, the former should be more or less flat, and the latter should look the same but should tilt down slightly as the frequency increases.
The response of the UF5 is quite flat overall. Because of that on-axis dip at 7.5 kHz (which isn't as apparent off-axis), the speaker measures flatter across either of the two measurement windows than it does off-axis. (Without that 7.5-kHz dip, on-axis response would be �2.3 dB.) That dip is narrow enough, shallow enough and high enough in frequency that I doubt it would bother anyone. The one anomaly I see in the measurement that I expect would reveal itself readily to the ear is that peak centered at 2 kHz, which might make the speaker sound a little brighter but would probably also have the positive effect of enhancing voice intelligibility.
Off-axis response is fantastic, as expected from the concentric midrange/tweeter array. As you move farther off-axis, you get a nice, smooth, consistent treble roll-off with no significant dips in the midrange response, which is exactly the way decades of scientific research tells us a speaker should respond. The grille has a somewhat larger-than-average effect, reducing response by -1 to -2 dB between 2.3 and 6.8 kHz, and also introducing a couple of very narrow (and almost certainly inaudible) dips at 10.3 and 16.3 kHz. So, if the speaker sounds a little bright for your taste, the grille can tame the lower- and mid-treble response subtly but usefully.
The impedance of the UF5 is a little low, dipping below four ohms for a bit, but it can safely be called a six-ohm speaker. Sensitivity is a little on the low side at 83.6 dB (measured at one meter with a 2.83-volt signal, averaged from 300 Hz to 3 kHz), which means the UF5 can hit about 100 dB with about 40 watts. So it'll perform well with pretty much any receiver or halfway-decent amp, although I wouldn't recommend using it with one of those under-$50 Pyle or Lepai amps.
Here's how I did the measurements. I measured frequency responses using an Audiomatica Clio FW 10 audio analyzer with the MIC-01 measurement microphone, and the speaker driven with an Outlaw Model 2200 amplifier. I used quasi-anechoic technique to remove the acoustical effects of surrounding objects. The UF5 was placed atop a 36-inch (90cm) stand. The mic was placed at a distance of two meters at tweeter height, and a pile of denim insulation was placed on the ground between the speaker and the mic to help absorb ground reflections and improve accuracy of the measurement at low frequencies. Bass response was measured by close-miking and summing the responses of the woofers and the ports, and splicing this result to the quasi-anechoic results at 188 Hz. Results were smoothed to 1/12th octave. Measurements were made without the grille except as noted. Post-processing was done using LinearX LMS analyzer software.
As I stated above, the UF5 held up well in direct comparison with my Revel Performa3 F206 speakers, but there were a couple of tunes that showed the benefits of the F206's more costly construction. On "Wives and Lovers" from Frank Sinatra and Count Basie's It Might As Well Be Swing album, I could hear that the Revel's tweeter is better. It sounded smooth, natural, and free of sibilance on Sinatra's vocals; but, when I switched to UF5, I could hear a mild amount of sibilance. I also noted this effect on the Susie Arioli recording and the Thor Blu-ray disc.
Also, the F206s sounded a little more open and spacious, making the UF5 sound a little "boxy" in comparison. Given the UF5's demonstrably excellent dispersion, I think this might have been due to a mild resonance in the UF5's cabinet, which isn't as solid or well-braced as the 3.5-times-as-costly F206.
I noticed that the UF5 has a subtle trace of lower treble emphasis. I would describe the way it sounds as lively, not bright. However, if you're into a more relaxed, mellow sound, the UF5 might have a touch too much top end for you.
Comparison and Competition
There are lots of tower speakers around $1,000 per pair. The UF5 is at the very least competitive with any of the ones I've heard, and it's a better value than most because it's a three-way design and most of its competitors are 2.5-way designs, with a relatively large midrange/woofer driver plus one or two more matching drivers running only in the lower frequencies. While most of the major speaker companies have appealing offerings in this range, their larger midrange/woofer drivers might not allow them to sound as open and enveloping as the UF5's four-inch midrange/one-inch tweeter concentric array will. These speakers include the $449-each PSB Imagine X1T (a 2.5-way with dual 5.25-inch drivers), the $549-each Monitor Audio Bronze 6 (a 2.5-way with triple 6.5-inch drivers) and the $499-each Klipsch RP-260F (a two-way with dual 6.5-inch drivers). I can't say for sure which of these speakers you'd like the most because, of course, there's a certain amount of personal taste involved. I doubt you'd think any of them will sound substantially better than the UF5, though.
Tougher competition might come from the Definitive Technology BP9020, a $649-each, three-way bipolar design with a powered eight-inch woofer and dual passive radiators. I heard the BP9020 at a recent event and was pretty impressed. I doubt it'll match the UF5's sonic purity, but the bipolar design will likely sound even more enveloping, and the powered bass section will almost certainly deliver deeper bass response than the UF5 can muster.
I've heard a huge number of $1,000-per-pair tower speakers. I did my first shootout of them for an industry magazine about 20 years ago...and the UF5 is the best I've heard to date. It's a great value, it's impeccably engineered, and it simply sounds great. Plop a couple down in your living room, hook 'em up to a decent receiver or amp, and you'll experience some of the best sound the audio biz has to offer--at a cost that an average household can easily afford.
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