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ELAC Debut F5 review: Great-sounding tower speaker sets new standard for hi-fi value

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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).

Setup

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.

Performance

Stereo

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.

Surround

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.

Conclusion

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.

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