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In the glory days of hi-fi, it used to be that value and performance were mutually exclusive. "If it sounds good it has to be expensive", went the unspoken maxim. Those words still hold true in some cases, but one of our favorite speaker designers has been bucking the trend since 2011.
It was then that Andrew Jones -- known for his high-end work at KEF, Infinity and TAD-- focused his talents on a set of highly affordable Pioneer speakers which garnered rave reviews from both critics and consumers. Then in early 2015 Jones moved from Pioneer over to ELAC (a major German speaker company), where he became Vice President of Engineering for ELAC America.
The ELAC Debut F5 tower speaker and the B6 bookshelf are two parts of an entirely new range which demonstrate that Jones hit the ground running. As soon as we started listening to the floor-standing F5, it became clear Jones isn't resting on his considerable laurels. The new speaker is light years ahead of his Pioneer designs.
At $560 a pair, it's also more then twice as expensive (Australian and UK pricing and availability has yet to be confirmed). Though the smaller B6 speakers offer better bang for buck, the F5s offer a much bigger sound and even greater bass response. For this level of sound quality, they're a steal.
In short, the ELAC Debut series has instantly become the new standard for hi-fi value.
In an interview with me a few weeks ago, Jones described the close working relationship he has with the factory in China that makes the speakers. He also mentioned the factory's measurement system, which mirrors the one in his ELAC America facility in California. His ultimate aim, he said, was to create speakers that sounded significantly better than what he had achieved for Pioneer. That attention to detail was immediately evident when we examined the new Debut speakers.
The Debut F5 is a three-way, bass-reflex tower speaker. It features a 1-inch silk dome tweeter set into a deep-spheroid waveguide and three 5.25 inch woven Aramid fiber drivers. The top 5.25 inch midrange driver (and the tweeter) are housed in a separate chamber within the cabinet and it comes with its own bass port. The bottom two 5.25-inch woofers share a common space and two bass ports. Jones designed a special three-way crossover network for the F5 to maximize the performance of each driver.
The speaker stands 38 inches (96.5 cm) high, 7.87 inches (20 cm) wide, and 8.75 inches (22.2 cm) deep; each Debut F5 weighs 32.8 pounds (14.9 kg). The floor-stander's handsome medium-density fiberboard cabinet is covered with an attractive "brushed" black vinyl finish, and a removable, black cloth grille protects the drivers. We liked that instead of putting the pins that secure the grille to the speaker on the grille, the sturdy-feeling pins are on the speaker's front baffle.
Rap your knuckles on the Debut F5 cabinet, and it sounds hollow. While we'd prefer a more solid feeling box, no other tower speaker in its price class feels better built, and we heard no adverse affects from the lively cabinet.
We also noted one rather unusual bit of hardware on the Debut F5's rear panel, a small, black metal clip. Turns out it's provided for folks who are concern the speakers might tip over if jostled by an earthquake (!) or more likely children or pets. To stop Debut F5s from tipping over you would have to secure the clip with a chain or wire attached to the wall behind the speaker--a low tech, but effective solution.
For the home theater portion of this review we auditioned the F5s as part of a matching Debut surround system. It consisted of the Debut C5 center channel speaker ($180), two Debut B5 bookshelf speakers ($230 per pair) for the surrounds, and the Debut S10EQ subwoofer ($500). The entire ELAC 5.1 package costs $1,470.
The two-way C5 center speaker uses the same tweeter and woofer as the F5. It's a big center speaker, measuring 18.75 inches (47.6 cm) wide, 7.87 inches (20 cm) high, and 8.75 inches (22.2 cm) deep, and it weighs 18 pounds (8.16 kg). A pair of bass ports adorn its back.
The B5 bookshelf speakers ($230 per pair) again use the same tweeters and woofers. The B5 measures 12.75 inches (32.4 cm) tall, 7.87 inches (20 cm) high, and 8.75 inches (22.2 cm) deep, it has one bass port on its rear, and it weighs 11.5 pounds (5.2 kg). (We've separately reviewed -- and love -- the larger Debut B5 bookshelf speakers .)
All Debut speakers have the same rated impedance, 6 ohms, and they each sport one set of sturdy all-metal, gold-plated binding posts that work with most speaker cable terminations.
The S10EQ subwoofer features a 200-watt amplifier, a 10-inch high-excursion paper cone woofer (25.4 cm) on the front panel, and a high-excursion doped paper cone passive radiator on the bottom panel. There's an RCA input, but no volume or crossover control knobs. Instead there's a rather unusual Bluetooth control and Auto EQ app that lets you perform setup and tweak response from your smartphone. The 13.5-inch cube (34.3 cm) cabinet weighs 31 pounds (14 kg).
When we cycled though our Marantz NR1605 receiver's speaker calibration test tones over the five Debut speakers, we noted the F5, B5 and C5 timbre matching wasn't as close as we would have liked. They all sounded tonally different. The difference wasn't that much larger than we've heard from other home theater packages, but large enough that we had to mention it. Still, we heard no adverse affects of the mild mismatching; the Debut system still produced a coherent, room-filling sound field.
We found all the Debut speakers so far to be quite directional. They sound best with their tweeters placed at or near the listener's ear height. When we slouched down on the CNET couch, bringing our ears below the tweeters, the sounded grew thinner and more recessed. Likewise, when we stood up the sound was also less full than it was when we were seated.
The Debut F5 is a substantial-sounding speaker. Music had impressive weight, power, and authority, and yet the sound is still remarkably clear and immediate. Even though it's a big speaker, the Debut F5 still sounds bigger than it really is, so for stereo music listening, we felt no need to partner it with the Debut S10EQ subwoofer. The Debut F5s easily filled the small CNET listening room, and we have no doubt these speakers have what it takes to work in moderately large rooms, up to 600 to 700 square feet (56-65 square meters), with satisfyingly deep bass.
With quiet, acoustically oriented music, like Ryan Adams' beautiful tune "Strawberry Wine," the Debut F5 put Adams' vocal and guitar in the room with us. The F5 isn't mellow or laid-back, the music was front and center.
When we hooked up our Andrew Jones-designed Pioneer SP-FS52 towers for a head-to-head match, we were taken aback by how different the two towers sounded. The SP-FS52s were softer, warmer and less dynamic and clear overall. The Debut F5 is a major advance over the older design.
Continuing the comparison with the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album, their exquisite vocals sounded more fully present and naturally balanced over the Debut F5s. The SP-FS52s shrunk the scale of the recording, and muddled the electric bass' definition compared to what we were getting from the F5s. The ELACs are a little taller and bigger than the SP-FS52s, and they sound a lot bigger.
The Debut system got a major workout when we put the pedal to the metal with the "Mad Max: Fury Road" Blu-ray. The displays of muscle car horsepower were given their full due with this sub. The engines' incredibly deep rumble totally energized the CNET room, and the big gun's firepower knocked us back into the couch! The S10EQ is seriously potent, with bass definition we crave.
The dialog, meanwhile, sounded clear and clean, but we sometimes felt the C5 center channel speaker was lacking in warmth, voices sounded a little thinner than we would have liked.
The "Gravity" Blu-ray amply demonstrated the Debut ensemble's ability to produce effortless front-to-rear, room-filling surround. This disc has a Dolby Atmos soundtrack (with height channels), and while our Debut system was strictly a standard 5.1 channel array, we still heard a terrific sense of surround height as the astronauts voices floated to and fro throughout the room. We had the Debut B5 surround speakers positioned at three and nine o' clock on the sides of the room, a foot or so above our heads, the very same positions we use for surround speakers when we test Atmos endowed receivers. The Debut B5s did what good surrounds are supposed to do: disappear as sound sources. The system sounded great at soft, late-night volume or cranked up nice and loud.
Loud. That's what we went for with the recently released Rolling Stones concert Blu-ray, "Hampton Coliseum." It's a stellar show from 1981, the Stones were still young enough to totally rock out, and the recording's wide dynamic range was well played by the Debut system. Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards' interlocking, crackling guitars were each easy to follow, as was Bill Wyman's nimble bass lines, while Mick Jagger's swaggering vocals jumped out of the mix.
The ELAC Debut F5, like the other Debut speakers we've seen, are outstanding performers for stereo and home theater applications. Again, Andrew Jones defied our expectations about what is possible at this price point.
We think the Debut F5 is a remarkable accomplishment, but for buyers who can stretch their budgets, better speakers are certainly available. The SVS Prime Tower ($1,000 per pair) and Pioneer Elite SPEFS73 ($1,400 per pair) are both more natural, refined and capable sounding speakers than the Debut F5 ($560 per pair). Then again, the Debut speakers are only the beginning for ELAC America. Andrew Jones has a lot more planned.