Tom Norton on Trade Day

When longtime TAD/Pioneer speaker designer Andrew Jones moved on to design new speakers for German manufacturer ELAC, we expected big things, though not quite immediately. Speaker design takes time. But Jones and ELAC made a big splash at the Newport show with the new line of Debut speakers. The first model ready for demo was the baby of the Debut family, the B5. It's shown here with proud papa Andrew, with its 5.25" aramid-fiber woofer and 1" cloth-dome tweeter, and is expected to retail for $230/pair in early fall when the entire lineup should be available.

The amp used to drive the demo pair was a Bel Canto integrated, chosen because, well, you can't use a cheap integrated amp at this sort of show. Andrew commented that the price of the speakers would just about pay for the tax on the amp, but he wanted the speakers to show off at their best. The sources were computer music files.

The price given above is not a typo (!). Nevertheless, the demo pair produced jaw-dropping sound—and not just "for the money." It was naturally weighted with a smooth yet detailed top end, uncolored mids, surprisingly solid and extended lows, and superb imaging. Overall, it was far closer to true high-end sound for little bucks than simply the cheap-and cheerful result you often get from budget speakers. But Andrew has been here before, with the Pioneer speakers he designed over the last few years.

It would be an exaggeration to say that this was the best sound I heard at the show, but if the production versions do as well (and we have no reason to expect that they won't), the ELAC Debut series could well show a clean set of heels to some of its competitors selling for many times the price.

There will also be other Andrew Jones-designed ELAC speaker lines, up to and including very high-end models. Electronics are also in the pipeline. Expect the next range up from the Debut, likely sometime later in 2016, to employ Andrew's favored concentric driver units (with the tweeter located at the apex of the woofer/midrange). That will allow for an optimum, three-way center speaker for home theater fans.

In addition to the ELAC Debut B5 discussed elsewhere here, other expected models in the Debut line will be the B6 (expected MRP $280/pair) the F5 floorstander ($279 each, 2.5-way, three 5.25" drivers, with the top one optimized for midrange), the B6 ($280/pair, with a 6" woofer), the C5 center ($180 each, 2-way with 2 x 5.25" woofers), and the A4, an add-on module for Dolby ATMOS systems ($230/pair). Several of these models are shown here with Chris Walker, another long-time Pioneer veteran who also moved to ELAC with designer Andrew Jones. Chris is the project manager and bean counter to Andrew's mad scientist designer!

There are also three Debut subwoofers, with the top two models (the 10" S10EQ and S12EQ, with 10- and 12" drivers respectively) incorporating a slick setup technique. Either an iOS or Android smart phone is first loaded with a real-time analyzer App. Using test tones built into the sub, the phone is first held close to the sub to calibrate the phone's microphone. (Subs are generally very flat in the near field, apart from their inherent bottom end rolloff and user-selected low pass filtration.) The phone is then moved to the seating position where the process is repeated and the sub automatically tunes itself to the room with its own internal DSP! Fully manual, 12-band DSP is also available. This technique has apparently been used only once in the past, in an ELAC sub offered in Europe. Even more amazing are the projected prices: $699 for the 12" S12EQ and $499 for the 10" S10EQ. Power is 1000W and 400W respectively. There's also a smaller S10 sub ($249) without the auto EQ bling.

The Chapman T-5 has been seen and heard at previous shows. A 3-way, ported design with a 10" woofer, 5.25" midrange, and 1" silk-dome tweeter, it's still available at $4995/pair. The cosmetic design is attractive but unassuming, with a mostly black "sock" finish apart from a bit of wood on the top and the wood plinth at the bottom.

But the T-5 is now also available as the Custom Tribute Edition with a hardwood finish. The exact price will depend on the finish chosen. Cherry appears to be the standard at $7495, but a range of other finishes is available.

The technical design is said to be identical to the more prosaic black sock T-5. But it was the custom version I heard (finished in a gold paint rather than wood grain). Neither T-5 version offers a removable grille. The monoblock tube amps being employed here were from a new company called Ampsandsound (really, that's their name). They weren't particularly stylish, but offer 50Wpc and cost $2500/pair.

From what I heard, the amps were a terrific match for the Chapmans, at least in the smallish hotel demo room. With some of my own music selections on hand (this was one of the few rooms that offered CD playback, though other options were available), I thoroughly enjoyed the system's well-balanced, weighty, yet in no way bloated sound.

Sony used a room big enough for a Senior Prom to demonstrate its pricey SS-AR1 loudspeakers. These aren't new, but the sound was, for me, one of the highlights of the show. The source was Sony's HAP-1AZS DSD music server, and all of the files played were DSD downloads. The other electronics, including the monoblock amps in the picture, were from MBL.

The big room likely didn't hurt; the bigger the room, the less chance of bloat-inducing standing waves (a problem heard in more than one of the smaller show rooms). Bloat was nowhere to be found here. The sound was crisp but natural, the bass tight, and the overall sound free of obvious colorations.

Theta's new Dreadnaught D Amplifier is available with up to 8 channels—$5850 for 2-channels and $11,000 for 8. While it's a class-D amplifier, it uses a linear rather and a switching mode power supply (as does the company's flagship $6000 Prometheus monoblock amps). Rated at 225Wpc into 8 ohms, it can also be driven bridged for 500W, also at 8 ohms. Unbridged, it easily drove a pair of new Wilson Sabrina speakers. But sonic judgments in this room were difficult since the Dirac live room correction in the Theta Casablanca surround preamp-processor was used here (though in 2-channel mode). The Dirac likely cleaned up some of the nasty modes that often plague hotel demo rooms.

The Madisound room was demonstrating two ambitious DIY speakers, designed for them by PBN Audio. The taller and more elaborate looking of the two (the SB Acoustics XMax, named for its SB Acoustics drivers) is actually the least expensive as a kit; the price per pair for the parts alone is $1690, but the cabinets look like a real challenge to build. The parts for the smaller of the two (The Scanspeak B741, after its Scan speak drivers) will run you $3490. Either can be had already assembled, and while I didn't catch the precise assembled costs, the B741 was around $8000 and the XMax $12,000. There's an interesting factoid in this. You pay dearly, here and in all audio products, for elaborate, difficult and expensive to manufacture, cosmetic design that my or (more often) may not affect the performance. This also applies to fancy casework in high-end electronics.

Reminiscent of Focal's upscale Utopia designs, but smaller and a bit less expensive (though hardly cheap) are the new Focal Sopra No2 ($14,000/pair), on demo at the show, and Sopra No1 stand-mount ($9000/pair—visible on the banner between the Sopra No2s).

The speaker's most obvious features are its angled cabinet (likely to minimize variations in time of arrival at the listener's ears from the individual drivers), and the striking color options available. Is the orange pair shown here in honor of the show's Orange county, California venue, or is orange the new rosewood? According to Focal reps, however, the orange has been an extremely popular color in these recently introduced models.

At $1400/pair, the new Magnepan .7 (not 0.7!) may not be an impulse buy, but considering just how good the pair sounded at the show, driven by Moon electronics, you might be tempted. But they really need a subwoofer for challenging material, and the Magnepan room had two, both from JL Audio (the new F110 Version 2). The transition was seamless. Of course the JLs cost $2500 each, but there are less expensive subs, and depending on your room you might be able to make do with one.

Sonus Faber's newest range of speakers is the Chameleons. The name comes from the removable side panels, available in a range of colors, including black and white, which let you alter the look of the speakers. And you can order another color and easily change the panels at any time. There are several models in the line, including a bookshelf (the B), a 2-way enter channel (the C) and a floor-stander (the F—I'm sensing a pattern here). I listened to the latter, driven by a rack full of expensive McIntosh and Audio Research gear, including the McIntosh MC-152 power amp that drove the speakers. The Chameleons were one of the show highlights for me, with superb sound. The price for the T is $2000/pair, and it's said to be made in Italy, not China.

The stand mount positioned next to the Chameleon T is not a Chameleon model. It's Sonus Faber's Extrema, a model released last year in very limited production—something like 30 pairs worldwide. No price was set for them, but the floor was something north of $35,000/pair. Only a few pair are left unsold. I listened to them briefly and they were possibly the best stand-mount speakers I've ever heard, as they should be. I'm not saying that the Chameleon T equaled them, but they weren't embarrassed by the comparison.

I'm not sure of the connection, but this Zesto tube amp was displayed next to a classy BMW M4 hardtop convertible. Maybe BMW is considering using tube amps in their car stereos. (Nah!) But in any event there were more hot and exotic cars dressing up random areas of the show than I've ever before seen in one place. A car buff who knows nothing about audio could spend a happy day here just ogling the sheet metal.

COMMENTS
JRT's picture

Congratulations to Andrew Jones on such a strong showing at this debut of your new loudspeakers. I have not heard them, but all reports including this one have been very positive.

With MSRP at <$115/each, and subtracting retail markup, distribution costs, warranty support, marketing, etc., and leaving enough margin to make it all worthwhile, doesn't leave much design budget to work with. But work with it you did, and with exemplary results by all reports. Doing that displays some skillfull and well considered engineering, and well deserves this highlighting.

On the hope that Messrs. Jones and Walker may actually read this... I will include that I would like to see Elac (and others) offer some sub-$1k/each MSRP 3way active loudspeakers with coaxial midrange-tweeter, suitable amplification, DSP, and with digital input using Audinate Dante via wired Ethernet, for both the digital audio input and the control input. That would allow interconnection via ubiquitous gigabit ethernet cables and switch, and would allow a very inexpensive front end consisting of little more than a commodity WinTel laptop running JRiver Media Center (controlled remotely by smartphone), and with Dante virtual soundcard operating via the wired ethernet port. The majority of the consumer's system budget would be focused in the active loudspeakers, and that networked system would allow modular expansion by adding active loudspeakers and adjusting software configuration.

K.Reid's picture

Tom, though I am a Huge MBL fan, I thought I would just send a courtesy note that the name of the new series from Focal is Sopra not Supra. Please amend your post accordingly.

John Atkinson's picture
John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile