Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
A couple years ago, a buddy of mine shot me an e-mail telling me that he was hoping to buy some speakers for his dad, whose speakers from college had finally bitten the dust. He needed three pairs of bookshelf speakers, and wanted to spend a total of somewhere between $300 and $500 USD -- “Nothing fancy, as he probably couldn’t tell the difference between new ones and the ones he currently has.”
I quickly brought up Amazon’s website, typed in “Pioneer Andrew Jones,” and clicked on the first result: Pioneer’s SP-BS22. This little, vinyl-clad bookshelf speaker retailed for around $130/pair and had gotten several hundred reviews, over 90% of them with ratings of four or five stars. Usually, I do more research and offer another option or two, but I was confident that my friend’s dad would be satisfied and forwarded the link. A few weeks later my friend thanked me, telling me how well they’d gone over.
Just a few weeks ago I got another e-mail from him. He told me that he’d just visited his parents, and though several glasses of scotch had been rollicking through his system at the time, he’d thought the BS22s sounded “absolutely phenomenal. . . . Just wanted to thank you again for that recommendation as my parents use them on a daily basis. Cheers, bud.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t ordinarily send e-mails at 10:52 PM on a Thursday night about a product a friend recommended to me years ago. This one not only reaffirmed my affection for scotch, it demonstrated once again that it’s not about how much you pay for something, it’s how it makes you feel that matters. In the years of keyboard-tapping I’ve devoted to reviewing high-priced audio gear, my friend’s unsolicited e-mail about a $130 pair of speakers is probably the most gratifying response I’ve received -- and I never even reviewed the damn things. It made me think that, at some point, I should reevaluate my life choices.
But first I have some thoughts to share about Elac’s Uni-Fi Slim FS U5 ($1499.96/pair), a lovely if not artfully named floorstanding loudspeaker designed by the engineer responsible for the overachieving Pioneer SP-BS22.
Elac was founded in 1926, in Kiel, Germany, as Electroacustic GmbH, to research and develop sonar technology. They branched into audio gear in 1948 with the PW1 record player, and continued building turntables and audio electronics through the 1980s. Elac began designing and making loudspeakers in 1984, basing those products’ identity on their JET folded-ribbon tweeter, itself based on the Heil Air Motion Transformer and similar to the Heil tweeters GoldenEar Technology has used in its speakers throughout the five years of its existence. Elac had no presence in North America before 2015, but that quickly changed due to a high-profile addition to their company.
The products of some audio companies are almost synonymous with the company’s owner and/or lead designer. Andrew Jones is one of those individuals, and his résumé speaks for itself: KEF, Infinity, Technical Audio Devices (TAD), Pioneer, and now Elac. He’s almost as well known for his TAD Reference One ($80,000/pair) as he is for his $130/pair Pioneer bookshelf models -- such a range of design is seriously impressive. Since joining Elac in 2015, Jones has engineered, from scratch, multiple lines of speakers for them -- from the super-affordable Debut line, which tops out at $558.96/pair, to the new Adante models, whose UF-61 flagship floorstander is expected to retail for about $5000/pair. Between those ranges is, to my mind, the sweet spot: Elac’s Uni-Fi line. It’s a little confusing, but Elac offers two versions of the Uni-Fi range, each comprising a trio of three-way models: a bookshelf, a floorstander, and a center speaker. Each pair of corresponding models in the two lines are claimed to be technically identical and to produce identical sound -- the differences between the regular Uni-Fi models and their Slim counterparts are in dimensions and finishes. Regular Uni-Fis have a squarer appearance and a metallic-looking finish of brushed vinyl; their Slim versions have cabinets that are narrower but deeper, finishes of Black Satin or White Satin, and cost 50% more.
I requested review samples of the Uni-Fi Slim FS U5 floorstander ($1499.96/pair) mostly because I think its more slender profile and Satin finish look far better than the standard version, which is more simply named the Uni-Fi UF5 ($999.96/pair). Admittedly, $500 is a lot to spend on appearances alone, but my review pair, finished in Black Satin, looked pretty classy. The matte paint job was flawless, and the silver-accented driver surrounds and silvery aluminum cones offered a pleasant contrast to the dark finish. Each Slim FS U5 measures 38.6”H x 7”W x 11.5”D and weighs 37.5 pounds. The cabinets weren’t the most damped I’ve rapped a knuckle on, yielding a fairly hollow thud, though that’s not uncommon at this price point. Also in line with the price are the footer tops -- they look like brushed metal but are plastic -- and a single set of Elac-specific binding posts on the rear that seem best suited to bare wire or banana plugs. My spade-terminated DH Labs speaker cables worked, but I had to shove one side of each spade through the hole in a binding post and then clamp it down. Grilles are included, though I didn’t use them. One interesting feature I’d never seen before: pre-installed near the top of the rear panel are safety clips for securing the speakers to a wall.
The three-way, bass-reflex Slim FS U5 has three rear-facing ports (port plugs are not included), a coaxial driver in which a 1” soft-dome tweeter nestles within a 4” midrange with an aluminum cone, and three 5.25” aluminum-cone woofers. All drivers were designed by Andrew Jones specifically for the two Uni-Fi ranges, as was the crossover network, which in the Uni-Fi Slim FS U5 has crossover frequencies of 270Hz and 2.7kHz. Jones used coaxial drivers to great effect in his designs for KEF and TAD, and their benefits can be many: tweeter and midrange drivers launching their soundwaves from a virtual single point; consistent off-axis response in all directions; and increased sensitivity of the tweeter because the midrange driver acts like a horn around it. The results are usually a wide sweet spot and unusually precise imaging. Also noteworthy is that the three woofers hand off to the midrange at 270Hz, a couple hundred hertz lower than in most three-way designs. This means that the entire lower and middle midrange are handled by that single midrange driver, leaving the three small woofers free to focus on plumbing for maximum bass response.
The Slim FS U5’s frequency range is specified as 42Hz-25kHz. Its nominal impedance of 4 ohms (minimum 3.4 ohms) and lower-than-average sensitivity of 85dB/2.83V/m mean that it should probably be driven by an amplifier putting out at least 50Wpc, with 100Wpc or more being ideal. Elac specifies the speaker’s peak power handling as 140Wpc, which indicates that the Slim FS U5 would be most at home in a room of small to medium size.
The Uni-Fi Slim FS U5s’ outriggers and floor spikes were easy to install. Though my spade-terminated DH Labs Q-10 Signature speaker cables weren’t ideally suited to the Elac’s unique binding posts, they did the job. I wired up the Elacs to my Hegel Music Systems H360 DAC-integrated amplifier and did all of my listening through the Hegel’s AirPlay input, streaming content from Tidal and iTunes through my iPhone 7 and iPad Air 2. The Hegel was plugged into an Emotiva CMX-2 power conditioner, which helps eliminate my old house’s DC hum.
I plopped the Elacs into the same spots in my living room normally occupied by my reference KEF R700 speakers: about 8’ apart, 8.5’ from my listening position, and 1’ from the front wall. I toed each speaker in about 25°, was satisfied with what I heard, and began listening.
Because Elac’s Uni-Fi Slim FS U5 is basically a $1000/pair speaker wearing a $500 suit and tie, I expected a dramatic decline in sound quality from what I’m used to from my KEF R700s ($3599.98/pair). That’s not what I heard. Sure, the sound wasn’t the same, but overall, the characters of the two speakers’ sounds were similar. The Elacs sounded far more balanced across the audioband than I’d ever expected. Evidently, Andy Jones really knows his stuff.
I kicked off with Abel Korzeniowski’s music for the film W.E. (16-bit/44.1kHz ALAC, Interscope/Universal/Tidal). Recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios, it’s a beautiful score for a dreadful movie. Track 1, “Charms,” is lively, beginning with plucked strings and an emotive solo violin, and rapidly swelling as the entire 60-piece orchestra joins in. I was quickly struck by, well, everything. The violin popped from the center of the soundstage with a smooth vibrancy that I would come to recognize as one of the Elac’s greatest strengths. There was abundant detail with each bow stroke, and a sense of transient snap that any listener will value, yet the sound of the violin also had a sweet, golden quality. The call and response between the violin and a full, textured-sounding solo cello in the first 90 seconds was almost jarring in its clarity and precision. The stereo imaging was excellent -- I could easily pick out soloists without losing track of the flutes and percussion that flit in and out of the mix.
The Elacs threw a soundstage moderately wide but not particularly deep. I know that “Overture,” from Daft Punk’s superb score for Tron: Legacy (16/44.1 ALAC, EMI/Tidal), can produce a big, atmospheric sound befitting the 85-piece orchestra that recorded this track in London’s Air Lyndhurst Studios. Yet I couldn’t quite make out the edges of the venue, a former church. While the Elacs didn’t produce the most spacious sound -- a theme, I’ve found, with speakers having soft-dome tweeters -- their subtly polite top end was far preferable to the more hashy-sounding metal-dome tweeters I’ve heard in other speakers costing $1000/pair.
The Uni-Fi Slim FS U5 more than made up for this with its ability to resolve fine detail. Part of what I like about “Overture” is that it’s not scrubbed of the transients and artifacts associated with a live recording. In its first 30 seconds, which feature the string and brass sections softly establishing the foundation of the Tron theme, I heard the tinks of music stands, individual inhalations of brass players, and the ebb and flow of entire sections holding one note for the better part of half a minute. The track then builds to include the entire orchestra, complete with soaring violins and crashing cymbals. I noted the slight emphasis in the presence region that makes these instruments more prominent in recordings, but they were reproduced so smoothly that I suspect most listeners would appreciate this quality.
No $1500/pair speaker is perfectly neutral. What so impressed me about the Uni-Fi Slim FS U5 was its clever voicing. Between the smoothness of its tweeter and the mild upper-midrange emphasis that can make a speaker sound spirited, it worked magic with well-recorded voices. Zoë Johnston’s entrance in “We’re All We Need,” from Above & Beyond’s We Are All We Need (16/44.1 ALAC, Anjunabeats/Tidal), is gorgeous. An introduction of softly played piano chords and lightly distorted synths to left and right pave the way for Johnston’s voice, which then dominates the center of the soundstage. The imaging through the Elacs was superb -- her voice emerged from the silence to hang squarely between the speakers. In Johnston’s almost mournful singing I heard richness, texture, and air. It was engrossing. Such evenhandedness throughout the midrange is rare in speakers this inexpensive -- I hadn’t heard it at this price point since KEF’s monster minimonitor, the LS50 -- and that’s a bookshelf design that doesn’t offer anywhere near as much bass as the Uni-Fi Slim FS U5.
Bass? Tom Holkenborg’s raucous original score for Mad Max: Fury Road (16/44.1 FLAC, WaterTower Music/Tidal) is a bass torture test and a veritable orgy of sound, frenetic strings playing off violent drum volleys and tetchy synths, all somehow capturing both the dystopian atmosphere and the veins of hope in George Miller’s masterpiece. One of the standout tracks, “Blood Bag,” features an infectiously propulsive drum line in 2:30 of aural discord. The Elacs were able to keep pace with the quick drum work and distorted electric guitar without difficulty, as well as with the powerful bass line: I heard plentiful bass energy down into the low 40Hz range, and it sounded even and composed. I’ve no doubt that, had the inclination struck him, Andrew Jones could have mustered deeper bass response, but I suspect that it would have come at the cost of outright control. Even so, with “Blood Bag” I heard a top-to-bottom evenhandedness that belied this speaker’s price of $1500/pair.
In December 2015, when I reviewed Monitor Audio’s Bronze 6 ($1099/pair), I was blown away by its outsize performance envelope. Its build quality and finish was also very good, though I think I prefer the Elac Uni-Fi Slim FS U5’s more unassuming satin finish to the Monitor’s vinyl. The Monitor sounds nearly as good as the Elac, but in a markedly different way. While the Elac exhibited a characteristic smoothness from the lower midrange right up through the treble, the Monitor sounds sharper, more on its toes. With “Blood Bag,” I described the Monitors as sounding “überdynamic” and “fast,” with “rapid transient decay.” Put another way, they sounded electric. With most types of music that was a good thing, but I found the Bronze 6’s aluminum-dome tweeter a little brash and unrefined with the Mad Max track, in comparison to the Slim FS U5’s more relaxed and likely more accurate treble. Transients and percussion sounded splashier, more shimmery. I liked this quality in the Monitor, but I know that other listeners might be turned off by such a lively top end.
Similarly, the two-and-a-half-way Monitor’s bass response was accurate but more conspicuous than the Elac’s. For instance, the bonkers drum work in “Blood Bag” was both more prominent and more impactful than through the Elac. With a 6.5” midbass driver and two 6.5” woofers, the Bronze 6 perhaps benefits from its slightly larger cabinet and greater radiating area than the Slim FS U5, and through it I heard more midbass definition and slam. But in retrospect I can’t help thinking that these characteristics of the Monitor were amplified by a tastefully contoured frequency response. Through the Monitors, everything sounded punchy down low and lively up top. The Elacs sounded more balanced, the exception being only that slight upper-midrange emphasis. Taking that and its superior imaging into consideration, it’s clear to me that the Uni-Fi Slim FS U5 is the better, more accurate loudspeaker.
Some, like me, will love what the Monitor Bronze 6 can do; others will probably hate its sound. But I think everyone would like the way the Elac sounds, and that has to be the highest compliment you can pay a loudspeaker.
Elac’s Uni-Fi Slim FS U5 is a terrific loudspeaker. What makes it so special is its comprehensiveness as a package. Its three-way design leverages the benefits of a coaxial tweeter-midrange array to produce vivid stereo imaging and alluring magic through the midrange. Andrew Jones’s voicing of the all-important mids is commendable -- voices sounded rich and lifelike yet highly detailed, while instrumental tonality was accurate without turning hard or zingy. So, too, with its precise, metered low-frequency output, which combined solid extension with unswerving control. This Goldilocksean recipe of “just right” means that the Uni-Fi Slim FS U5, with its narrow cabinet and unassuming satin paint job, is a speaker that anyone can appreciate looking at and listening to for the long term -- and that usually comes at a price far dearer than $1500/pair. Highly, highly recommended.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers -- Bowers & Wilkins 704 S2, KEF LS50 and R700 and Q750
- Earphones and headphones -- NAD Viso HP50, PSB M4U 4
- Integrated amplifier -- Hegel Music Systems H360
- DAC-headphone amplifier -- Oppo Digital HA-2SE
- Sources -- Apple iPad Air 2 and iPhone 7 and MacBook Pro running Tidal, Roon
- Speaker cables -- DH Labs Q-10 Signature, Dynamique Audio Caparo
- Analog interconnect cables -- Dynamique Audio Shadow RCA, Nordost Blue Heaven LS XLR
- Digital interconnect -- DH Labs Silversonic USB
- Power conditioner -- Emotiva CMX-2
Elac Uni-Fi Slim FS U5 Loudspeakers
Price: $1499.96 USD per pair.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Elac Americas LLC
11145 Knott Avenue, Suites E and F
Cypress, CA 90630