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A working class hero: ELAC’s Uni-Fi FS U5 Slim loudspeaker

  • “You can never be too rich or too thin” went Wallis Simpson’s infamous 1936 quote. A different era, but not necessarily for the high-end audio world where a five figure salary remains a pre-requisite for shopping on the otherworldly surface of its bountiful summit.

    Back at base camp sits Andrew Jones and ELAC whose Uni-Fi series, a performance and price level up from the Debut series, was last year introduced first to the USA at CES and then to the European market by way of Munich High-End 2016.

    In Germany, an unexpected twist: the Uni-Fi range had undergone a makeover for the EU. “Thin is in, in Europe”, quipped Jones from the floor of the MOC. Catch up here:

    Same loudspeaker, different looks: a satin (black or white) finish had replaced the black vinyl wrap of the Stateside version; the front baffle was narrower, the cabinet deeper. Jones assured us that the Euro Uni-Fi Slim would sound pretty much identical to the big-boned original.

    As a result, there would be minor model-name changes to get our heads around: for its Euro remake, the three-way UB5 was now the BS U5 and the three-way UF5 was now the FS U5. (BS = bookshelf, FS = floorstander). Pricing had, not unreasonably, journeyed northward: the BS U5 could be yours for €700/pair, the floorstanding version hit the wallet at twice that: €1400/pair.

    From ELAC’s Munich 2016 exhibit (and website) we can readily discern that the floorstanding version adds a pair of rear-ported 5.25″ bass drivers to the standmount’s coaxially-mounted 1″ soft dome tweeter / 4″ aluminium midrange driver combo and single rear-ported 5.25″ aluminium bass driver.

    Both models clock in with the same electrical specs: sensitivity at 85db; nominal impedance at 4 Ohms, crossover points at 270Hz and 2.7kHz. Both models are bass reflex: the standmount has one rear-firing port, the floorstander has three.

    How would the two models, FS and BS, compare sonically? This is where show-based listening hits a hard limit for this commentator. With too much background noise, too little audition time, unfamiliar music and – most challenging of all – an unfamiliar room in play, we’ve no next to no clue about sound quality. I liken the show audition process to assessing a television’s picture quality through several layers of patterned and/or opaque glass.

    Dropping €1400 on the back of a show audition alone is for those who don’t have to worry about €1400. I wouldn’t do it. I doubt you would too. A show report is therefore not a review. All bets are off when it comes to pegging either of these loudspeakers’ audible personalities from the confines of the MOC (or other show venue).

    To find out what these loudspeakers can really do we must get them home. Listen to a handful of loudspeakers in the same room over a number of months and the room itself reveals its aural fingerprint. It becomes a known quantity making it considerably easier to peel away the loudspeaker’s contribution to sound quality from that of the room.

    The room can also be removed by switching the same loudspeakers between, say, bedroom and lounge or, better still, contrasting one pair of loudspeakers with another. KEF’s LS50 served as ‘control’ throughout my recent review of the Uni-Fi BS U5 Slim.

    Home is also where, for me, ambient noise levels are supremely low and where I have complete control over associated hardware. For the FS U5, I alternated between a full suite of PS Audio electronics and a Devialet Expert 200 with the occasional foray into Peachtree nova300 territory. For turntable listening (Peachtree excepted), a Technics SL-1200G fitted with a Zu DL-103R. For digital, Sonore’s microRendu. AudioQuest’s Rocket 88 cable joined loudspeakers to amplifiers.

    For this indie rock, alt rock, Dad rock and electronic music fan, home listening means a return to the familiar for both vinyl and digital listening: Luna, FSOL, Patti Smith, Daniel Avery, Grandaddy, Robyn Hitchcock, Matrixxman and, most recently, Kraftwerk’s 3D box set.

    Incidentally, neither ELAC loudspeaker came from the manufacturer as a reviewer loaner. Owning them provides a wider time window in which to conduct each review; thoughts coalesce more organically.

    For the BS U5 (in black), between cash drop at Max Schlundt in Charlottenburg and review going live sat four weeks. The similarly slender floorstanding FS U5 have been making music at the DARhaus for quite a bit longer. This white pair were purchased from Saturn (think: Best Buy for Germany) back in November 2016. Six months of listening has gone into this review. Little wonder a show report’s reliability pales in comparison.

    Also paling in comparison are the Uni-Fi series’ standmounts’ audible performance to that of their floorstanding brethren. BS U5 and the Atacama Nexus 6 stands parked to once side, the ‘Towers of Power’ (ELAC’s words) offer a more all-consuming listening experience. With larger cabinets and more drivers, Robyn Hitchcock comes on as a more life-size in-room illusion. No, liberated.

    The most immediate difference, as one might reasonably expect, is on bass reach. The floorstanding ELACs go lower and are more impactful, offering greater heft at lower volume levels. No need to crank Daniel Avery’s DJ Kicks mix quite as hard to bring peak-time Berghain sounds to one’s lounge room. However, they also demand more attention is paid to their room placement, especially for apartment dwellers like yours truly where physical space is a long way from abundant. Far less expected was the FS U5’s ability to disappear as readily as the standmount version.

    Then there’s the floorstander’s comparatively wider and considerably taller soundstaging, most noticeable on Kraftwerk’s catalogue, carefully reworked for – and recorded at – live shows around the world between 2012 and 2016 and now available as the 3D The Catalogue 8CD box set, Blu-Ray, 9LP vinyl box and MQA stream (via Tidal). I’d not before heard Kraftwerk sound so expansive, partly attributable here to the artist’s (and Parlophone’s) attention to sound quality and partly to the ELAC towers’ ability to resolve them. One word to nail the floorstanding Uni-Fi’s essence: majestic.

    And it’s this sense of aural majesty that sets the FS U5 Slim apart from the almost identically-priced KEF LS50 standmount. The ELACs sound larger and more effortless but they’re also a little more sluggish around corners than the hairpin bend-hugging KEF.

    Also different is each loudspeaker’s ability to communicate a sense of transparency. ‘Sense’ because I wasn’t in the studio when Luna recorded Penthouse and neither were you. Oft overlooked by reviewer’s who draw heavily upon classical and opera, for Matrixxman and techno acts like him, there is no original studio performance. Here, the ELACs don’t conjure up the mental image of player placement quite as crisply as do the KEFs.

    The LS50’s midrange is the more eager of the two, especially in the upper-mids where a good deal of music gets its sense of energy. (There’s that S-word again). I find the ELAC more reticent here; they impress more than they excite, most notably on the squelchy synth lines that dress Grandaddy’s guitar chug in retro-futurist clothing. Peachtree’s nova300 is a most rambunctious sounding amplifier and returns a little spice to the ELAC’s milkier presence region.

    Which loudspeaker is more neutral? Who cares when our choices ultimately fall to subjective tastes and how music playback makes us feel. I enjoy the LS50 more because I prioritise voice clarity over bass depth. Your preference might move in the other direction. Both the ELAC and the KEF have their role in this reviewer’s toolbox.

    Even in their slimline incarnation, the ELAC’s boxier look comes on as more traditional than the more visually daring Racing Red LS50. My job is to call out such differences rather than claim one as better than the other. So too with sound. If my living conditions were different and I were unable to wind the wick for fear of upsetting neighbours, I’d opt for the ELACs. But they’re not – living atop five floors of offices means SPLs can be pushed with impunity, which keeps the LS50 in the picture. The KEFs require the additional of stands pushing their total cost of ownership toward the US$2K marker. The ELACs keep us locked to €1400.

    There’ll be no flashy conclusion here. No hollow claims that the Uni-Fi FS U5 Slim compete with rivals selling for two or three times the price. After all, I didn’t compare them with anything of the sort. Every review is bound by whatever hardware happens to be on hand at the time. A specific slice in time. The complete picture can only come from digesting more than one slice.

    What I can say with reasonable confidence is that this is a very good, highly enjoyable floorstanding loudspeaker for which we need not be too rich (or too thin) to afford a pair. And that, in the immortal words of Forrest Gump, is all I have to say about that.

    Further information: ELAC

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

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