Epos ES 14 loudspeaker John Atkinson review part 2
I started off using the foam inserts in the ES 14s' ports, but in my room, which is rather bass-shy, the balance was too lean. The acid test for a loudspeaker's bass alignment—pace all those who diss those of us who find nonclassical music useful for reaching accurate value judgments—is to play a rock or fusion track with heavy four-in-the-bar bass guitar and kick drum. It might seem obvious, but, as demonstrated in a paper presented at the 1994 AES Convention by Sean Olive and Floyd Toole, you can't judge a loudspeaker's performance at the frequency extremes with program material that doesn't have any content in these regions—even if it is the sound of acoustic instruments in real space. Forget high-end political correctness; what's important is to choose music that exposes what's right and what's wrong with a component's behavior.
For quite a while now, my favorite torture track to test bass performance has been Stanley Clarke's East River Drive album (Epic EK 47489), particularly track 5, "Africa I'm Home." With the foam in the ports, the 0dBFS kick drum on this track jumped out of the speakers, but lacked a little body weight. I ended up doing almost all my auditioning with the speakers in reflex mode. Though this gave the most extended and satisfying midbass performance, with good, weighty low frequencies audible down to the 35Hz region, the speaker did sound a little slower in the lows. This, I felt, was an acceptable tradeoff, given that the "Africa" kick drum was now viscerally exciting, the leading-edge sound of the drumskin being supported by a generous amount of body.
In absolute terms, this was a little too much, but it wasn't too turgid in the manner of the BBC LS5/12A's upper-bass balance. The adrenaline-laced title track of Stanley Clarke's 1976 School Days album (Epic EK 36975), for example, boogied like a good'un, my feets a-tappin' nonstop in response to the Clarkemeister's powerfully percussive picking'n'popping. "Musique non-stop!" agreed Kraftwerk on their Electric Cafe CD (Warner Bros. 25525-2), the next up at bat on the Levinson '31, the Epos's low-frequency extension making me desirous for some synthesized and sampled sub-lows.
Listening to this deconstructionist Teutonic mélange at high levels, I realized that what I wasn't hearing was the usual scrunching-up of dynamics and grainy grunging-up of the midrange that I associate with affordable two-way speakers. Whatever the soundsource playing (and on this album, they range from thunderous drum synths through sampled voices to telephone tones, all washed down with a variety of reverberation and gated echoes), they seemed much clearer, and freer from overlap with each other, than I'm used to.
This freedom from grain, or accurate reproduction of music's microdynamics, however you want to term it, was as easily apparent on classical recordings. The contrast between different instrumental tone colors seemed enhanced. The excellent Chesky "Gold Series" reissue CD of the Barbirolli Sibelius Symphony 2 (CG903), for example, more effectively conjured up visions of Finnish fastnesses fighting off the icy attack of Winter.
Perhaps because of this aspect of its performance, the ES 14 was a soundstaging champ. The pizzicato strings punctuating the Sibelius's first movement could be heard to light up the acoustic of Walthamstow's Town Hall via the Eposes. (I performed in this cavernous hall a few times in my musician days and never could conquer the acoustic. But with an engineer of genius at the console, like the legendary Kenneth (Wilkie) Wilkinson on this 1962 Sibelius recording, the auditorium's ambience is forced to perform in the service of the music.) And on my Robert Silverman Concert recording (Stereophile STPH005-2), the piano image, while diffuse as a result of the spaced-omni mike technique I used, was palpably present in spades.
There was one aspect of the Epos's highs that did bother me, however. A treble spitchiness was occasionally noticeable. This sometimes accentuated modulation noise on analog tape recordings and lent a shrieky quality to recordings that were already overcooked in the highs. And when I was experimenting with the noise-shaping curves provided by the Meridian 518 digital processor to prepare our recent Concert CD, the more extreme DSP algorithms, which heavily boost the noise above 10kHz, could be heard to add a strange whispering quality on climaxes via the Epos ES 14s which was not noticeable on, for example, the Harbeth LS5/12As. Don't get me wrong—I'm not saying that this was the fault of the Eposes, nor did it happen very often. Rather, they were changing the program material's high treble balance so that digital errors—either in the original ADC or in the subsequent DSP—that should have remained safely tucked out of harm's way became unmasked. I can't see that this idiosyncrasy should be a major problem with the ES 14s.
Oh, and of midrange colorations? The ES 14's upper mids are a little forward. That's it. No vowel vocalizations, no identifiable character.
I was pleasantly surprised by the Epos ES 14, this eight-year-old design still proving more than competitive at its relatively affordable price. My few quibbles were minor ones; I can confidently recommend the ES 14 to those without a fortune to spend on loudspeakers but who want good bass extension, excellent soundstaging, a pretty clean treble, and good dynamics.
I was sorry to see the Epos ES 14s leave my listening room. At $1395/pair ($1645 with stands), I was very sorry.