By Ryan Waniata, via our partner site, Digital Trends /
Ah, the bookshelf speaker. Often taking a literal back seat in the home theater realm, bookshelf speakers tend not to generate the excitement garnered by their more prominent (and expensive), floor-standing brethren. But we’ve a special place in our hearts for bookshelf speakers — chalk it up to all those hours we spent in the hazy glow of studio control rooms.
Few speakers we’ve encountered since those long studio days and nights stir up the nostalgic, magic-moment feels like Elac’s Uni-fi UB5. Like our favorite studio monitors, the UB5 offer uncompromising clarity, elegant balance, and remarkable accuracy across genres. Simply put, if there’s a better $500 pair of speakers out there, we haven’t heard them yet.
OUT OF THE BOX
Having lugged the UB5 home, the big takeaway is just how heavy these babies are. At 16.5 pounds each, they pair up to make for a heavy box that will tax your back if you aren’t careful — and that’s just what we like in a pair of high-performance speakers. Pulling away the packing foam inside, the UB5 peek out with Elac’s familiar concentric-driver design, which sets a 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter smack in the center of an aluminum 4-inch midrange driver, all set above a 5.25-inch aluminum mid-bass driver. The combination of the tweeter inlay and the matte-silver glint of the cones makes for a sleek and stylish look. If you’re into a more demure aesthetic, a pair of magnetically-affixed speaker grilles is included as well.
A black, brushed-vinyl finish wrap around the UB5’s hefty MDF cabinets is the only real physical indication that these are a price-conscious pair of speakers. Still, the hefty cabinet reclaims some admiration thanks to internal bracing to limit vibration, and 5-way binding posts set beneath a dual flared bass-reflex port at the back.
FEATURES AND DESIGN
While we think the UB5’s gorgeous three-way design is more than sufficient to please style-focused buyers, the speakers are also available in a walnut finish, as well as a Slim design in satin black or white finishes (called the BS U5). However, the Slim cut pushes the price up to $750 per pair, so we’re cool with the vinyl.
The UB5 were designed by audio guru Andrew Jones, who made a name for himself at audio hubs like KEF, Infinity, and TAD, where he created the incredible $80,000 Reference One speakers. More recently, however, Jones has garnered an impressive reputation for squeezing heaps of hi-fi sound out of exceptionally affordable speakers — first for Pioneer, and now for Elac.
Crossover points for the UB5 are set at 270 Hz and 2,700 Hz, with a total frequency response of 46 to 25,000 Hz at 4 ohms impedance. To power the speakers, Elac recommends a maximum of 140 watts per channel, and our pair came towing the brand’s capable EA101EQ-G integrated amp, which pushes 80 watts per side.
You don’t have to take our word that the Uni-fi UB5 are an amazing pair of speakers — it’s pretty much objective truth, what with all the universal praise they’re receiving in audio circles. But since we’re here and all, we’ll explain why these gorgeous bookshelves represent some of the absolute best audio performance you can snatch for $500.
The Uni-Fi are ambassadors of gorgeous, balanced, and detailed sound. That’s true no matter what you connect them to, or what content source you use. Compressed audio from your favorite music streaming service sounds great, as does Netflix, where those lovely concentric drivers take special care to carve out the subtlest details at the tips of the sound, especially when it comes to dialog. The transients in lip noises have a musical touch, as if the speakers are sonically choreographing the words themselves for supreme clarity.
But perhaps their greatest talent is how well they rise to the challenge when you raise your signal-path game. These are a foundational pair of speakers, effortlessly improving as your system does. That means you can buy the Uni-fi, say, before that big promotion you’re after and they’ll absolutely deliver with your cheapskate amp, bringing balance, detail, a wide and voluminous soundstage, and excellent instrumental expression, no matter the source.
However, if you fuel these bad boys with a powerful and refined sound engine — say, Peachtree Audio’s Nova220SE sourcing Oppo’s UDP-203 UHD Blu-ray player with some hi-res jazz laced into the mix — you’ll be astonished how far your $500 can really go. Given the chance, the Uni-fi step up from a capable, detail-laden pair of speakers to an outright audiophile starter kit, crafting each instrumental track, each note, and each buzz of the reed or clang of the drum stick with the utmost care and artistic expression.
It’s hard to choose a favorite moment in our evaluation as a whole, but when it comes to jazz, it’s no contest: percussion takes the day. Crash cymbals expand and hang in the air like Gandalf’s fireworks (we counted six seconds on a few tracks), brushes scrape drum heads like sandpaper on cedar wood, and drum sticks strike ride cymbals with enough tonal color to spell out the elemental ratios of the alloy blends beneath. Ahmad Jamal’s Silver was a prime example, flush with a rich forest of percussion tones, from papery hand drums to sharp timbales, strewn across the wide soundstage with clarity and depth.
We were also constantly elated with the variation in sound between thump-y kick drum and string bass rattles, and the silvery sweet clarity of ride cymbals. The UB5 switch fluidly between ample bass response — which is rich, musical, and thick enough to keep bass junkies satiated, even without a subwoofer — and the effortless, floating cymbal puffs above.
Of course, percussion work is just one of the many tools mounted in the UB5’s loaded shed. These speakers relish in all instrumental expression, ushering forth trumpet lines with sweet silvery bliss, cutting the air with the squeaky harmonics of saxophone reeds long before their notes have time to land, and rendering the meanderings of grand piano with equal parts clarity and cream. Vocals are cut with sparkle and presence at the center image, and electric guitar tones rotate between down-and-dirty distortion and glistening hollow-body sustain with ease.
Add in a wide and expansive soundstage to go along with supreme dynamic expression, and you’ve got a pair of full-frequency bookshelf speakers that can easily stand alone as your long-haul musical companions.
Elac offers a three-year limited warranty from the date of purchase from an authorized Elac dealer. The warranty covers repair or replacement of the speakers as long as they haven’t been altered, abused, or connected to a power source that exceeds the maximum 140 watts per channel.
Whether you’re seeking Spotify convenience, hi-fi bliss, or nostalgic vinyl saturation, Elac’s Uni-fi UB5 deliver impeccably great sound at an impressively low price.
How long will it last?
Built with robust internal bracing and high-quality components, there’s no question about the UB5’s durability. Moreover, their ability to expand their talents and grow with your system makes these an airtight purchase for pretty much any music lover.
What are the alternatives?
We compared these speakers to a pair of Pioneer Elite bookshelves ($750), which held up well, and also come with top-mounted concentric drivers to allow for a full-on Dolby Atmos/DTS:X experience. Still, while the Pioneers (also designed by Jones) held their ground, they didn’t quite match the UB5’s overall clarity, dynamic expression, and, especially, bass response. For grins, we also paired the UB5 against our older pair of Cambridge Audio Aero 2s ($250 per pair), and while we applaud the latter for their price-to-performance skills, they were crushed in competition.
Should you buy it?
Absolutely. We can only think of one reason not to buy the UB5 at this price, and that’s to jump up to their Uni-Fi kin, the floorstanding UF5 ($1,000 per pair). Even then, we’d have a hard time believing you’ll get as much bang for your buck as what’s offered up by the UB5 bookshelves. They’re just that good.