ELAC Uni-Fi UF5 Floorstanding Speakers Reviewed

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ELAC Uni-Fi UF5 Floorstanding Speakers Reviewed

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ELAC-UF5-thumb.jpgThe 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.

The Hookup
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.

ELAC-UF5-rear.jpgThe 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 Classé 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...

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