To Doug Schneider,
I’m more than a bit puzzled about Gordon Brockhouse’s review of Elac's Navis ARF-51 active speakers on SoundStage! Simplifi. The review mentioned “excessive [and ‘hot’] sibilants,” as well as a “slightly hard edge” that a minus-1 adjustment on the rear-panel mid- and/or high-frequency switches would not fix.
When I reread the earlier review of the smaller ARB-51 bookshelf model, I found NO mention of anything remotely like that in comments about its sound! Similarly, I saw no mention of these (I’d certainly say NEGATIVE) attributes in reviews by Neil Gader in The Abso!ute Sound, or in online reviews by John Darko (he characterized them as “lovely”) or Steve “The Audiophiliac” Guttenberg. I note that both Neil Gader and Steve Guttenberg were using pricey Pass Labs preamps, and what I would call “upscale” DACs.
I also saw reviews at Michael Lavorgna’s sadly “defunct-yet-still-up” Twittering Machines website about several powered speakers, and in Jason Victor Serinus’s review of the Vanatoo powered speakers in Stereophile, that mentioned the salutary effects of aftermarket power cords (and power “conditioners”) with active speakers. I note that Gordon mentioned using AudioQuest power cords, but I don’t recall if they were in use for these reviews.
Gordon Brockhouse responds:
Doug Schneider has forwarded your e-mail to me. I was very aware of this discrepancy when I was writing the review, and after I completed it. I don’t have any deep explanation, other than to say I heard what I heard, and wrote it as I heard it in the time allotted. As I noted in my review, the “slightly hot” sibilants were apparent with some, but not all vocals.
This can be partly explained by the program material -- as I noted, Youn Sun Nah hyper-enunciates in this track, as she is prone to do. And the Webb sisters (singing backup to Leonard Cohen) have a breathy, whispery style. But the sibilants, as I noted, didn’t sound as prominent through the Dynaudio Focus 200 XDs.
Was this effect “a NEGATIVE,” as you emphasize? It wasn’t enough to keep me from buying the review samples, which I have been enjoying tremendously. It should be obvious from the review that my reaction to the ARF-51 was overwhelmingly positive.
As to the discrepancy between the two reviews, several possibilities occurred to me after reading your letter. The ARF-51s were brand-new, straight out of the box, when I reviewed them. Because a sample of another product in for review turned out to be defective, I had to delay that review, and bump up the review of the ARF-51s by two weeks, to maintain our publishing schedule. Were the ARF-51s insufficiently broken-in as I was writing the review?
Or maybe, as you suggest, my source components were a factor. That wouldn’t explain the discrepancy between my reviews of the ARB-51 and ARF-51. I used current Bluesound products as the main source components for both speakers -- a Vault 2i for the ARB-51, and a Node 2i for the ARF-51. Doubtless, the sonics would be better with higher-end components, of the sort Neil Gader and Steve Guttenberg used in their reviews. As Andrew Jones observes, and as I confirmed by using the Lumin T2 network player for part of my ARF-51 review, Navis speakers definitely benefit from upstream improvements.
As to your question about power cords, I used AudioQuest NRG-Y3 cords with the ARB-51s (the AQ cords are routed up through into the Dynaudio stands I placed the Elac bookshelves on), and Wireworld Stratus 7 cords with the ARF-51s. I can’t imagine this being a factor.
I hadn’t listened to the Youn Sun Nah or Leonard Cohen tracks since writing this review, so after reading your letter, I played these songs through the ARF-51s, which now have hundreds of hours on them. I used two different source components: NAD’s C 658 BluOS streaming DAC (review pending) and Naim's ND5 XS 2 network music player. On these tracks, I still heard those slightly hot sibilants. Were they hot as when I wrote my review? I can’t say, but they definitely were there. I will say one thing though -- the sibilants didn’t seem to be as displaced from the singer’s vowels as they were earlier. It may well be that using better source components made a difference, or maybe it’s because the speakers are fully broken-in. But the effect was still present.
I didn’t listen to these tracks with the ARB-51s, and no longer have the review samples, so I can’t comment on whether they show the same effect.
I suspect with a couple of recordings, I chanced upon program material that shows up some irregularity in the ARF-51’s response, and once I hear something like that, I keep noticing that effect whenever it appears.
This has happened to me before. For example, in a review for another outlet of Totem Acoustic’s Signature One speakers, I wrote, “Right off the bat, I was bowled over by how fast, articulate and dynamic the Signature One sounds. This is an incredibly involving speaker that pulls you into the music. However, I noticed some upper midrange peakiness. Whenever a pianist hit a loud E5 or F5 (659 and 698Hz respectively), the sound was almost piercing if I had the volume turned up. (I don’t claim to have perfect pitch. But a few times when I noticed this peak, I paused the music, put on a set of headphones connected to my iPad, and tickled the ivories on a virtual piano in a keyboard app. E5 and F5 matched the offending notes.) The issue did not disappear following break-in. It was most obvious with piano, not surprising given that instrument’s long sustain time and (sometimes) sharp attack. But it was also audible with female vocals, saxophones and other content with long sustain time.”
It’s interesting to juxtapose this review with reviews of the same speaker in SoundStage! Hi-Fi and Stereophile, both published several months after mine. Our measurements showed a sharp, narrow peak around 700Hz. In his measurements sidebar to the Stereophile review, John Atkinson commented on “a strong panel resonance at 700Hz.”
I haven’t seen measurements of the ARF-51, but I wonder if there’s a narrow peak somewhere in the 5-8kHz region, where sibilants occur, that was accentuated by a couple of the recordings I used -- notably that Youn Sun Nah track. If there is, that peak goes unnoticed much of the time. I’m much less bothered by it, and it shows up much less frequently, than that 700Hz peak with the Totem Signature One.
Whatever is happening here, it hardly ever interferes with my enjoyment of the ARF-51s. I have not experienced one nanosecond of buyer’s remorse since purchasing the samples, and I certainly would not disagree with John Darko’s characterization of the Navis speakers as “lovely.”
I wish I could resolve this discrepancy more clearly, but this is the best I can do. Thanks for writing.
Thank you so much for your prompt and detailed response to my e-mail regarding your Elac Navis ARB-51 and ARF-51 reviews. Whenever I see reference to excessive and/or hot sibilants and a slightly hard edge, I think of terms like “analytical” or “ruthlessly revealing,” which it now seems don’t apply here.
As for the Totems, I’ve heard them a number of times at audio shows and have always found them a bit bright -- this is a problem for me because a lot of my favorite music is recorded in mediocre quality.
The solution, of course, would be to hear the Navis speakers for myself, but after checking dealers listed on Elac’s website, I found that in my area, almost all of those dealers are the Magnolia section of Best Buy stores. I doubt they would even have the Navis speakers available to demonstrate.
I contacted an actual storefront audio dealer shown on Elac’s Website. The dealer didn’t have the Navis speakers on display, but said they could ORDER them for me. (Why wouldn’t I just order them online, say, from Crutchfield, and save around $200 in California sales tax?!)
I’m not inclined to buy something “unheard,” so that leaves audio shows. The highly personable Andrew Jones used to conduct demos at The Home Entertainment Show in Southern California, but after the original promoter unexpectedly passed, it’s still not back to its former strength. Andrew Jones didn’t conduct a demo at T.H.E. Show demo this year or last. There was an Elac demo both years, but it was conducted by Ted Denney, who used the floorstanding Adante speakers to demo his tweaks (very effectively, I might add).
I find this very frustrating. I’d like to hear the Navis ARB-51, and the AMT-tweeter-equipped Carina, too. I’m looking at bookshelf-size speakers, because I live in an apartment, and feel the need to consider my neighbors.
Keep up the good work -- you’re one of my favorite reviewers!
You’re welcome -- and I’m very flattered by your last paragraph.
You’re definitely right about descriptors like “analytical” and “ruthlessly revealing” not applying to Elac’s Navis speakers. Commenting on Andrew Jones’s demo of the ARF-51s at the Montreal Audio Fest last March, Doug Schneider wrote, “The bass was extraordinarily deep and full, the midband tonality was perfect, the highs were exquisite, and there was all the detail I could ask for -- yet all with such smoothness that I could swear there were tubes in the chain somewhere. There weren’t.” I think Doug’s description captures the sound of the Navis ARF-51s perfectly.
All the best,