Epos ELS-3 loudspeaker Page 2
The startling detail resolution of the Epos enabled me to hear analytically into recordings even as it enhanced my enjoyment of them. On Mark Ribot's idiosyncratic solo-guitar rendering of John Lennon's "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," from Saints (CD, Atlantic 83461-2), his fingerpicked amplified archtop was tactile and rich, every nuance so realistic I was unable to take notes while listening. The hum of the guitar amp was clearly audible as well. On the Modern Jazz Quartet's Concorde (CD, Atlantic/JVC JVXRC 203-2), I noticed for the first time how the drums, vibes, and bass interact almost to the point of improvised fugal counterpoint. Likewise with Cantus' "Danny Boy," from Editor's Choice: it was very easy to follow the separate vocal lines of rich, naturally recorded male voices.
The whole package came together brilliantly on "Strange Fruit," from Cassandra Wilson's New Moon Daughter (LP, Blue Note 8 37183 1). Graham Haynes' opening bass riff was (intentionally) boomy but natural, rich, and deep. Chris Whitley's Resophonic guitar was scratchy and metallic, and by the time Lonnie Plaxico's tactile, burnished cornet enters prior to Wilson's seductive opening lines, all of the musicians seemed to be playing in my listening room.
The ELS-3 was not without flaws. Here's the inherent catch-22: Its overall performance was so startlingly good that, when playing favorite recordings, I would keep tricking myself into thinking I was listening to a larger, more expensive speaker, and then turn up the volume to excessive levels. When pushed hard, the ELS-3 compressed the sound; the upper midrange could get quite glary. During the hairiest passages of Stravinsky's The Firebird (LP, Mercury SR-90226), I was so taken by the Eposes' airy, ambient disappearing act, their wide, deep soundstage and vibrant dynamic range, that I kept turning up the volume—at which point the famous Mercury midrange forwardness turned into unpleasant glare during the more highly modulated passages.
Big competition for little money
I compared the Epos ELS-3 to the usual affordable suspects: the Polk RT25i (discontinued, $319/pair when last offered), the Paradigm Atom ($189/pair), and the NHT SB-3 ($600/pair).
The Polk RT25i, the nearest in price, had more extended, detailed, and crisper high frequencies as well as a lighter, less colored midbass. The Polk's overall balance was more tilted to the high frequencies than the Epos's, resulting in a presentation that was more open but less balanced. Although the Polk's high-level dynamic capabilities seemed more compressed than the Epos's, the Polk's low-level dynamics were superior, with a more dramatic presentation of solo acoustic instruments. The Epos, however, had far superior high-level bass dynamics, more tactile vocals, and even better midrange detail than the excellent Polk.
The overall character of the less expensive Paradigm Atom was very similar to the Epos's, but with less detail, less extended highs, warmer bass with limited high-level dynamics, and significantly less midrange bloom. But the Paradigm's sound, which was balanced and inviting overall, reminded me of what I liked about the Epos.
The NHT SB-3, too, was very similar in overall presentation to the Epos, but with even more midrange bloom, bass extension, and high-level dynamic drama. Midrange character and detail resolution were almost identical to the Epos's. Upper-bass definition was a bit better on the Epos, however.
Big praises for big men
Usually, a $300/pair speaker—especially one as diminutive as this—is replete with sonic tradeoffs and compromises. In the case of the Epos ELS-3, I was shocked to find no meaningful shortcomings, and strengths that I had not anticipated. Other inexpensive speakers might present different characters that some might prefer, and one can certainly get better overall performance by spending more money. But of all the speakers I've heard that are currently available, I can think of no speaker that produces greater sound quality for the dollar than the Epos ELS-3. I thank Mike Creek for fathering this design, and Roy Hall for twisting my arm hard enough to finally review an Epos product.