Evett & Shaw Elan loudspeaker

Like many audiophiles, I am finding myself listening to more and more music sitting in front of my computer. My experience with the little plastic-box horrors sold as "computer speakers" has not been positive, however, with even models from Altec Lansing and Cambridge SoundWorks scoring an "F." For a long time, therefore, I used a pair of RadioShack Optimus LX5s, stuck at the far ends of my desk because their unshielded drivers messed with the colors on my monitor. I tried and liked a pair of the A/V version of PSB's best-selling $249/pair Alpha. Then Jonathan Scull recommended I try a pair of the diminutive Elans from Utah-based Evett & Shaw, with which he had been impressed at the 1999 Consumer Electronics Show.

"They're not bad!" he told me. Assuming he was turning some of my typical English understatement back on myself—to a Brit, "not bad" is about as high praise as you ever hear—I asked for a pair for review.

"The Ultimate Desktop Luxury Statement"
Priced at an astonishing $2200/pair, the Elan is smaller than a shoebox, yet surprisingly heavy: 15.5 lbs. The cabinet is constructed of 6.5mm-thick aluminum plate throughout and is then heavily braced and damped with 1.5 lbs of North American black wool. The front and rear panels are aluminum; the top and bottom plates appear to be faced with mineral-loaded black acrylic (white is also available); the side panels on the review pair were finished in mirror-polished wood veneer, though many other finishes are available.

Beneath a removable perforated-metal black grille on the Elan's front baffle can be seen a single drive-unit, with a 2.5"-diameter plastic cone. (There is no tweeter!) This driver crosses over below 250Hz to a pair of similar drive-units mounted facing downward on the speaker's base. To give the low frequencies room to escape, the front of the speaker is propped up at the front on two solid-bearing bronze cones, with a single vestigial cone at the rear. An optional accessory is a flat 12" by 6" sheet of polished grained marble, for the speaker to sit on.

According to Evett & Shaw's website, the Elan "requires 127 steps prior to completion, giving it Swiss-watch build quality." They refer to their speaker as "The Ultimate Desktop Luxury Statement."

Sound at home
Although Evett & Shaw states that the Elan has been "specifically engineered for nearfield listening," I started my auditioning in my dedicated listening room in order to get a baseline reference for its performance. I placed one of the accessory marble slabs on top of a massive 24" Celestion SL stand, this spiked to the floor beneath the rug. Each Elan was placed on top of one of these slabs and toed-in to the listening position. The slight tiltback from the speaker's different-sized front and back cones meant that, in my listening chair, I was on the midrange-treble unit's axis.

I wasn't expecting any low bass, nor did I hear any. This is not a speaker on which to enjoy the finer qualities of the Puff Daddy remix of Sting's "Roxanne." I also didn't hear any midbass frequencies. But the upper bass was exaggerated in level. Kick drum had little slam, but each impulse was surrounded—not by "boom" as such, which implies more lower-frequency content—but by a warmish follow-through tone. This was not unpleasant, and gave the impression that the speaker was reproducing more bass information than it actually was. However, this excess of upper-bass energy will make integrating the Elan with a subwoofer more problematic than usual, unless you set the crossover above 200Hz, which in general is too high a frequency for optimal imaging.

Listening to the speaker cabinet's resonant behavior with a stethoscope revealed how well damped and braced it is. I couldn't detect any discrete resonant behavior at all.

At the other end of the frequency range, the highs sounded mellow, even rolled-off. The various tinkly belltree effects on Clannad's Magical Ring (English RCA ND71473) just didn't tinkle enough, and cymbals came over with more of a "swush" than a "swish." However, the highs were notably free from grain—provided you didn't play the Elans too loud. The level peaked at about 85dB SPL at my listening position, which was about 8' from the speakers.

But where the Elans did impress in this farfield situation was in stereo imaging. Laterally, images were extraordinarily well focused. When I played the dual-mono channel-identification track from Stereophile's Test CD 2, the image of my 1964 Fender Precision bass guitar occupied a very narrow slice of space exactly midway between the speakers, with not a hint of that image "splashing" to the sides at any frequency. As a result of this imaging precision, the speakers threw an enormous soundstage, wide and deep, but with individual instrumental and vocal images unambiguously placed within that stage. In Classic Records' excellent 24/96 disc of the Minnesota Orchestra playing Ravel's orchestral works (DAD 1025), the ensemble was convincingly staged between and behind the speakers in a satisfyingly stable array.

Sound in the office
But unless they have listening rooms the size of a closet, Elan owners are not going to use these speakers on stands 8' from the listening chair. They're going to use the speakers in the environment for which they're intended: on a desk, either side of a computer monitor. That's where I set the speakers up for the remaining 95% of my auditioning, again using the marble slabs to prevent the Elan's cone feet from damaging my wood desk.

Yes, the upper bass still sounded warm and a little disconnected from the music's transient edges. But with the boundary reinforcement provided by my desk, the bass sounded better balanced with the music's upper ranges. Spoken voice also was well served by the Elans, Bob Edwards' mellifluous baritone on NPR's Morning Edition coming across with the correct degree of plumminess.

Sitting just 3' from the speakers and, again, on-axis, I now heard sufficient high-frequency energy, though the imaging precision was now merely good rather than outstanding. (There are simply too many interfering reflections from the typical desktop environment for the imaging to be as precise as it can be with a more open placement.) Transparency was still outstanding, and the Elan's restricted ultimate loudness was no longer a serious issue. The 30Wpc Yamaha desktop receiver I use at work goes plenty loud enough for the usual music fare that accompanies my office industriousness. However, when I did rock out, the Yamaha's protection imperiously cut in when things got going. As you can see from the "Measurements" Sidebar, the Elan needs to be coupled with a beefy amplifier (footnote 1) if you need to be able to drive it closer to its dynamic-range limits.

Even when I used the speaker in the appropriate nearfield, boundary-reinforced setting, there was a lack of involvement to the Elan's presentation. While I prefer speakers that are balanced on the civilized side of the line—don't send me speakers for review that "shout" in the upper mids—the Elan tended to sound too polite. When I mixed Rendezvous, Stereophile's recent CD with Jerome Harris's jazz quintet (STPH013-2), I went for an unexaggerated balance, with the instruments' natural dynamics virtually uncompromised. On a good high-end system, the more you turn up the volume control, the more there is to be got from Rendezvous. But with the Elans driven by the Yamaha, the recording sounded way too laid-back—and, of course, when I tried to compensate by winding up the volume, the Yamaha crapped out at the sudden climaxes, such as in Billy Drummond's drum solo. This was not a problem most of the time, when I was using the speakers to provide the accompaniment to my work day, but I feel it would preclude the speakers from being the main pair in a small-room system.

With the big Mark Levinson No.33H monoblocks, which can drive a short circuit with aplomb, the sound was more involving, and was less of a problem on recordings that have a more restricted dynamic range. When Robert Baird told me that this month's "Aural Robert" would be about S&M (Elektra 62463-2), Metallica's collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony, I picked up a copy. Watching the reflection in the polished marble of those tiny woofers valiantly pumping away on that crunch-guitar-drums'n'orchestra experience was memorable. And no way were the speakers the weak link in the desktop experience of this totally silly recording!

At $2200/pair, the Elan falls well outside any concept of value for money. For not much more than half its cost, you can hook your computer up to a decent pair of "real" high-end speakers driven by a conventional receiver or amplifier. But I don't think that's the point of the Elan.

Consider BMW's Z-5 two-seater. People don't buy this cute little car for sensible reasons like fuel economy or the ability to transport four adults with their luggage to the airport during a rainy rush hour. The BMW sells because enough people have enough disposable income to want to buy a car that they may use only on sunny Sundays, but that makes them feel good about themselves every time they sit behind its wheel.

This Sharper Image self-indulgence is what the terminally cute Evett & Shaw Elan is all about. It sounds surprisingly musical in absolute terms, but, more important, it makes me feel good about myself when I get into the office each morning and see one on each end of my desk. If you value hedonism over utility and are tired of the plastic schlock boxes currently hooked up to your computer, check out the Elan.

Footnote 1: Evett & Shaw makes a beautifully styled amplifier, the Flatte 50, for driving the Elans. Though one was supplied to use for this review, E&S needed it back before I could do any serious listening.
Evett & Shaw
3565 South West Temple No.14
Salt Lake City, UT 84115
(801) 293-8286