I've been on an affordable two-way bookshelf speaker kick as of late. I've recently reviewed bookshelf speakers from Aperion, SVS, Paradigm and HSU Research. I've done this primarily for two reasons. First, I believe two-way bookshelf speakers, when combined with a capable subwoofer, are not only a cost-effective solution but also able to actually outperform larger, costlier floor-standing speakers. Second, I believe two-way bookshelf speakers, when properly configured and mated to a subwoofer or two, get you closer to the cinema ideal than anything else, because they rely heavily on the same principles of divide and conquer, albeit on a smaller scale. This is why all my bookshelf speaker reviews have been compared not to each other, but to actual cinema loudspeakers - JBL Cinema 3677s, to be exact. It should be noted that the 3677 also has a two-way design. The latest two-way bookshelf speaker in question, the E5Bi, comes from another Internet-direct brand, EMP Tek. EMP Tek is an offshoot of a larger and arguably more notable brand from Utah, RBH. I've been an admirer of RBH for some time, though admittedly have never spent any quality time with the company's loudspeakers, so I had no idea what to expect when it came time to listen to one of RBH's most affordable loudspeaker designs to date. Suffice to say, never judge a book by its cover, or in this instance a loudspeaker by its size or price, for the E5Bi from EMP Tek doesn't just challenge the status quo - it takes it out back and shoots it dead. Fans of music and movies, read on. Manufacturers, take notice.
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The EMP Tek E5Bi (E5) bookshelf speaker retails for $250 per pair and is sold direct via EMP's own website. Like other similar Internet-direct offerings and all EMP products, the E5 comes with a 30-day risk-free trial period, with EMP paying the return shipping should you not like what you hear. The E5 is part of EMP's Impression Series of loudspeakers, which also includes the floor-standing model E55Ti ($795 per pair), center speakers E5Ci ($220) and E56Ci ($450), the E55Wi surround speaker ($499 per pair) and two subwoofers, the ES10i ($375) and ES1010i ($499). It isn't difficult to build a multi-channel speaker setup comprised entirely of EMP-branded loudspeakers without breaking the bank. For the purposes of this review, I'll be focusing on just the E5.
The E5 is a moderately-sized, two-way bookshelf speaker that features a high-gloss finish - your choice of Red Burl or Black Ash - wrapped tastefully around a tapered cabinet. The speaker measures nearly seven inches wide by twelve-and-three-quarters inches tall and eight inches deep. Weight is solid, but hardly backbreaking at seven-and-a-half pounds. Despite its somewhat compact size, light weight, and affordable retail price, the E5 feels solidly built.
At first glance, the E5, like all the speakers in the Impression Series, bears more than a passing resemblance to some of Revel's more pricey loudspeakers - not suggesting they're the same, just that there are some stylistic cues shared between the two vastly different loudspeaker brands. Behind the E5's removable grille, you'll find a single one-inch fabric dome tweeter mated to a single five-and-a-quarter-inch aluminized poly-matrix woofer, an RBH staple. Around back and slightly recessed into the spine of the E5's cabinet rests a single pair of five-way binding posts, along with a single threaded mounting point and a small rear port. Pretty basic, but then again, most two-way monitors are. The E5's one-inch tweeter and five-and-a-quarter inch bass/midrange driver are good for a reported frequency response of 60Hz to 20kHz. Impedance is listed at eight ohms, while sensitivity is rated to be 85dB. The E5 is therefore not hugely efficient, but still suitable for a wide range of amplifiers and/or AV receivers.
For the purposes of this review, I requested five E5 loudspeakers to be used in conjunction with a subwoofer in a 5.1 setup. The total cost of five matching E5 speakers in their Black Ash finish would be $625 plus shipping which, depending upon where you live in relation to EMP's warehouse, may be free. Just sayin'. The five matching E5s were set up in my reference theater, which is home to a variety of loudspeakers and electronics. For the purposes of this review, the E5s were powered by my reference Parasound Halo A21 and A31 amplifiers. AV preamp duties fell to my Integra DHC 80.2, while I used my Dune HD Max as my source. Content was streamed locally to the Dune HD Max via a custom-built NAS solution. All cabling came by way of Monoprice, with the exception of speaker cables, which were courtesy of Binary, a SnapAV company.
The front three E5 speakers were placed atop 26-inch Sanus Steel Series stands behind my 120-inch AcousticPro4K screen from Elite Screens. Projection duties fell to my reference SIM2 M.150 single-chip LED front projector. My room is roughly 11 feet wide, meaning the center-mounted E5 rested approximately five-and-a-half feet from either side wall in the center of my room, about three feet forward of my front wall (still behind my screen). The left and right mains rested, slightly toed in, about 18 inches from their respective side walls. My entire front wall is treated using GIK Acoustic products, which include the amazing Tri-Traps running floor to ceiling in my two front corners. The remaining two E5 speakers were used as surrounds and mounted to my ceiling using a pair of wall/ceiling mounts from Monoprice. I had to make an adapter of sorts in order to secure the E5s to the Monoprice mount, as the E5s have but one threaded mounting point, whereas most speakers and/or mounts have or require two. The E5s used as surround channels were then mounted horizontally, near my ceiling and aimed slightly downward at my primary listening position - a configuration that works well.
Because the front three E5s were resting behind an acoustically transparent screen, I removed their grilles, but left them on for the surround channels. Lastly, I mated the E5s to a subwoofer, RBH's reference SX-1212P/R. While the SX-1212P/R may seem like overkill (it is), integrating it with the E5s was simple, thanks in part to Room EQ Wizard and my outboard parametric EQ, the Behringer Feedback Destroyer Pro. All speakers were then level-matched inside my Integra's setup menus and allowed to play together for an afternoon before sitting down for any sort of critical listening.
Read about the performance of the EMP Tek E5Bi on Page 2.
Straight away, let me just say this: the E5 only plays down to 60Hz on a good day, which in some installations may be enough. However, for true full-range sound, you're going to want a subwoofer. Therefore, any and all comments that follow include a subwoofer having already been added to the mix, though if you note a lack of bass description regarding the E5s, it's due to their reliance upon said subwoofer. For the purposes of this review, I crossed all E5 speakers over with the subwoofer at the THX customary 80Hz.
I began my critical evaluation of the E5 with some two-channel music by way of Alanis Morissette's MTV Unplugged (Mavrick/Reprise). Starting with the track "That I Would Be Good," the first thing that struck me was how resolved the E5's center image was. Not only was its center image rock solid, it possessed a staggering level of dimension by way of both scale and air. There was an authoritative amount of midbass weight, though true "grounding" fell squarely on my subwoofer's shoulders. The center image was so convincing that I even went so far as to double-check my AV preamp setting to be sure I had not left a ProLogic or other DSP mode on. I hadn't. Obviously, being fooled into thinking that I had also speaks volumes to the E5's spatial abilities, specifically its breadth of soundstage, which with this particular track was cavernous. Lately, a lot of the bookshelf speakers I have encountered have favored width over depth. Not so with the E5, as its soundstage was equal in both dimensions, well-layered and neatly defined throughout. Moreover, there was a greater sense of vertical scale with the E5s than with any of the previous bookshelf speakers I had in hand for review. Morissette's vocals carried with them her trademark timbre, with nary a hint of editorializing or coloration that I could detect. It's possible the E5's presentation might be construed as a touch forward, though I would urge readers not to misunderstand or imagine the E5 is lean or aggressive - it's neither. I found the E5's midrange to be among the more neutral and uncolored that I've encountered from any budget two-way bookshelf loudspeaker to date.
There was enough low-end heft to the E5's midrange to give you an ample window to blend it with a subwoofer and, when handled properly, the transition should be seamless, as it was in my experience. With a sub in tow, the grandness of the E5's sound is one that cannot be overstated, for it is exactly that - grand. High frequencies, such as Morissette's flute solo at the end of the track, were nimble, as well as rife with air. Not only was Morissette's breath naturally rendered, but the resulting notes possessed a true sense of three-dimensionality, with the leading and trailing edges each having an organic roundness, a trait not often found or even associated with speakers in the E5's price range. More importantly, at no point in the performance did the high frequencies become brittle or harsh, nor did they come across as rolled-off or subdued in order to keep them from being objectionable. Dynamics were good, though admittedly I was feeding the E5s a fair amount of power, courtesy of my Parasound Halo amplifiers. Still, the pair of E5 speakers responded in kind and proved nimble and punchy.
Moving on, I cued up an older favorite, Apollo 440's "Stop the Rock" off their debut album Getting High On Your Own Supply (Epic). I went ahead and set the volume on my Integra preamp on stun and braced myself for nastiness. It never came. In truth, the E5s played well into the mid to upper 90dB range without flinching. It was only when I cracked triple digits (100dB plus) that I sensed strain. That's huge, as many budget bookshelf speakers can't play comfortably to 90dB, let alone 100. The resulting sound was wall to wall and floor to ceiling, which is to say it was large. More exciting still was that in the face of raw SPL, the E5s still maintained their focus and resolution, meaning the resulting soundstage was still nicely appointed and clearly defined. This track relied heavily on my RBH sub, though again the blend between the "lowly" bookshelf speakers and the towering sub proved seamless.
Moving on to something a bit more subtle, I cued up the album Taking the Long Way (Columbia) by the Dixie Chicks and skipped ahead to the track "Easy Silence." For me, one of the marks of a good loudspeaker is its ability to give me Goosebumps. While not highly scientific, it's not an automatic reaction when demoing a lot of loudspeakers, so imagine my surprise when, upon fifteen or so seconds into the song "Easy Silence," I got chills. The focus of the singers' vocals was just impressive, as was the delineation of space between each of the singers and the physical space they each occupied individually. It's not that other speakers miss the track's subtle harmonies, it's just that great speakers bring those harmonies into sharper focus, something the E5 did and did well. All of this is a testament to both the E5's high frequency prowess and its uncolored and articulate midrange. Moreover, what I found most interesting was that, despite being asked to "make do" with a lowly 320kbps MP3 rip of this beautiful track, the E5 dished out a performance that would have befitted a reference moniker. I wrote the following in my notes: "For $250/pair, they're (the E5) stupid good." Pretty much sums it up, don't you think?
Moving on to movies, I began with the '90s classic Independence Day (ID4) (20th Century Fox) on Blu-ray disc. The opening of ID4 has it all: subtlety, dynamics, teeth-rattling bass and more, so I didn't chapter ahead, but rather let the film play. Two hours and twenty minutes later, the film was over, and I failed to take any notes, so I re-watched the opening twenty minutes and noted the following. The opening sequence's epic scale was captured and reproduced brilliantly via the five matching E5 speakers. The resulting surround sound performance was the very definition of seamless, as the tonal quality was the same, front to back, side to side and everywhere in between. Because of the E5's wide dispersion, the imaging present between the left and right mains and their corresponding surround channels was every bit as solid as what I had experienced in my two-channel demos, likewise between the left and right surrounds. Also, due in part to how I had the surround channels mounted, the surround channel information was also floor to ceiling, creating a dome-like sound field. Dynamics didn't feel the least bit restrained, nor did they come at the expense of detail and articulation. As with my two-channel demos before, dialog proved natural and accurate in both its scale and weight, not to mention inflection. There was a staggering amount of audible ambient detail that many budget speakers gloss over. Elements such as room tone proved less like noise and more like deliberately mixed-in sonic components. There were even a few moments where I mistook bird sound effects for actual birds outside, only to glance out my office window and find none were present. More importantly, the entire presentation felt cinematic, which is to say that, if held to the same standards as others in these tests of mine, the E5 dished out a performance that was as engrossing as my actual cinema loudspeakers, the JBL 3677s, though I would argue the E5 possessed more subtly and nuanced articulation in my room, when directly comparing the two speakers' overall performance, provided you have a capable subwoofer or two on hand.
I ended my evaluation of the E5s with another favorite, Moulin Rouge! (20th Century Fox) on Blu-ray disc. I skipped ahead to the scene featuring the tango rendition of Sting's "Roxanne" and marveled at what I heard. Without sounding repetitive or harping too much on individual details, let me just say this: the scale, magnitude and majesty of the sound matched the visuals on my screen frame for frame. Without question, had others been present and not been told ahead of time of the E5's price or makeup, I doubt many would believe they were listening to anything less than a reference-grade setup. That is how a) good the E5 is and b) how strongly I feel about its performance. Nothing that I have encountered so far, at this price or even several clicks above, has managed to captivate me in quite the same way as the E5s did during my demo of Moulin Rouge! It was simply phenomenal and, in truth, better than it had any right to be. Not only did I find the E5s to be more capable than just about every other affordable bookshelf speaker I had on hand or have committed to memory, they challenged the bar set by my reference Pendragons. That's is not a statement I make lightly, and yet, in my room, and in my humble opinion, it's how I feel.
Hard to believe that I'm about to have anything negative to say about the E5, given how hard I've seemingly gushed over them above, and yet here we go. While they may retail for $250 per pair, that's not their true cost, for the E5s require, at a minimum, a decent subwoofer and perhaps a pair of stands.
Beginning with the subwoofer issue, I paired my five E5s with RBH's reference, which at $5,300 isn't cheap. Now, I wouldn't hesitate to suggest that others do the same, for the RBH sub is also that good but, keeping things in perspective, you don't have to use such a powerful and expensive sub to get at what I've described above. I have to imagine the EMP Tek ES10i ($375) or 1010i ($499) would fit the bill nicely, though both raise the cost of ownership up a tick or two. If it were me, I'd probably opt for the ES1010i, which would in turn mean that a 2.1-channel setup would run you $749. Before you go thinking that you should just go buy the floor-standing EMP E55Ti instead, I'd urge that you don't, for the E55Ti will still require a sub, while potentially being more difficult to place and get right aurally. I'm not suggesting that the E55Ti is somehow flawed, it's just there are certain flexibilities bookshelf speakers afford you that floor-standing models do not. If your room is, say, on the larger side (mine teeters on the edge of needing more at times), then perhaps a floor-standing speaker is a better choice for you, but I urge anyone just starting out to go bookshelf first before diving into a floor-standing model. Lastly, if you're a bass head and require true 20Hz performance, then you may need to procure a subwoofer from RBH's lineup rather than either of the EMP Tek offerings.
Stands are also going to drive the cost of the E5 up a bit, though EMP Tek does offer some that are compatible for $70 per pair. Nothing against the EMP Tek stands, but I prefer to use third-party stands, as I find them to be a bit more robust, which of course means spending a little more. The Sanus stands I used throughout this review retail for $169.99 per pair. Sticking with stands and mounts for a moment, the single threaded mounting point doesn't cut it if you're looking to wall- or ceiling-mount your E5 for surround or even main channel duties. I ended up fashioning an adapter of sorts out of some thin aluminum that is readily available at local hardware stores. Suffice to say, despite any bracket's universal claims, the E5 is going to require a bit of personal ingenuity when mounting.
Lastly, the E5's binding posts are on the smaller side, meaning those with thick cables or heavy-gauge spade lugs may want to think about scaling back. I used 12-gauge bulk wire terminated with banana ends and was fine, but for those who insist upon garden hose-like audiophile cables, you've been warned.
Comparisons and Competition
The market is flush with affordable two-way bookshelf speakers, it seems; I know I've reviewed my fair share recently. While I may personally prefer the E5 over others currently available, that doesn't mean you shouldn't seek a few of them out for your own edification. Others bookshelf speakers that I would recommend you look at are Aperion Audio's Intimus 5B ($430 per pair), Paradigm's Atom Monitor ($189 each), HSU Research's HB-1 MK2 ($159 each) and SVS' Ultra Bookshelf ($499 each). For more on these bookshelf speakers and others like them, please check out Home Theater Review's Bookshelf Speaker page.
I'll just cut to the chase and say it: the E5Bi bookshelf speakers from Internet-direct newcomer EMP Tek are better than they have any right to be and better than many a manufacturer (or consumer) will likely give them credit for. In my humble opinion, they are the budget bookshelf speakers to beat. Perfect? No, but closer to the theoretical ideal than any I've encountered thus far. Yes, they need to be mated to a subwoofer in order to achieve full-range sound and, yes, they may not be the easiest to integrate into one's home if wall- or ceiling-mounting is imperative, but beyond that, there I find little fault with them. There are good affordable speakers and then there are simply good speakers - the E5 is both. Just buy 'em and hear for yourself.