At one time, contenders in the small-speaker segment commonly employed a one-trick-pony philosophy for performance, geared to make its offering stand out among its competitors. This was a strategy that might trade, for example, imaging and hyper-detail for midrange neutrality, or offer bass extension but sacrifice output and dynamic energy. More than any other speaker of its dimensions, the Elac balances these forces with a musicality that I’ve rarely heard in this range. And with the space-saving aspect of the concentric mid/tweeter I can’t tell you how often I’d forget about the Navis’ three-way bona fides, until I’d put on a recording such as the 1812 Overture or Pictures at an Exhibition and the ARB-51’s high-energy, body-thumping output would kick in and remind me in no uncertain terms that no two-way with a five-inch woofer ever did that before.
Also, let me dispel the notion that the ARB-51 is a warmed-over version of Elac’s Uni-Fi UB5 compact, only with amps tossed in. In fact, every driver has been upgraded over those of the Uni-Fi, most particularly the tweeter, which now features a longer voice coil and a slightly lower crossover point for better integration with the woofer. Having reviewed the UB5, I found it a segment-leading performer, but the Navis is in a class by itself, with a chestier, more forceful and assertive character in the mid and upper bass, and more finesse in the upper frequencies.
Ultimate bass extension confidently plummeted into the forty-cycle range or so. But the ARB-51 is no midbass knuckle-dragger. Its response was quick and tight and tuneful with little evidence of port overhang or chuffing. A hallmark of active bass is the way it grabs onto rhythm tracks, orchestral percussion (like kettle drums), or organ pedal points with the steely grip of a raptor. But pivotal was the equilibrium of extension, pitch, and control that the speaker displayed in the lower mids and below. The woody resonances of the cello and bass viol interplay during Appalachian Journey were exquisite. In this context, the Elac did a more than credible job of sustaining the decay of acoustic bass notes. Paul McCartney’s ascending and descending bassline vamp that anchors “Dear Prudence” was rock-steady in drive and output. In fairness Elac is asking a lot of a five-inch woofer, and it can’t be expected to deliver the textural and timbral variation and subtlety of a larger driver that can push more air into the room. Nonetheless, its performance in the bass was quite remarkable.
The tweeter’s response was open and unconstricted with good extension and transient attack. The Elac tweeter lacks the sheer silken freedom of, say, the beryllium tweeter aboard the “passive” Revel M126Be. But since the Revel is twice the price, that wasn’t unexpected. Still, the top end was nicely integrated into the speaker as whole, neither beamy nor etched.
In actuality, the Navis’ spectral balance skewed a bit towards a classic, romantic British sound. It’s not a shy presentation, but there is a slight shading on top and a clubby drawing room warmth down the middle. Personally, I favor Elac’s voicing. Rather than producing a speaker that overreaches and draws attention to its mechanicals, Elac has chosen for better inter-driver coherence and placed the emphasis squarely where it should be—in the midrange.
Imaging and soundstaging were very good, as would be expected from a tight cluster of drivers on a small baffle. The placement of musicians was specific yet naturalistic with smooth edge detail. Importantly, the concentric driver avoided any beamy behavior and was well integrated into the overall voice of the speaker. The concentric transducer is a specialty of Andrew Jones and the Elac team, and it shows. Vocal image scale was a particular standout and with my eyes closed suggested a loudspeaker that was considerably larger than the Elac’s thirteen inches.
Audiophiles who delight in mixing and matching components have largely rejected active speakers. And maybe at the upper end of our hobby they always will. But where space and design are considerations, I think the scenario is rosy for actives, in that they can make a major musical statement without blowing up the room décor. I couldn’t have been more impressed with the electrifying performance and value of the Elac Navis ARB-51. It’s one of the rare small compacts that you don’t have to scale back expectations to enjoy. So, audiophiles, you’re on notice. Elac’s latest is rising fast on my short list for next year’s Product of the Year Awards.
Specs & Pricing
Speaker type: Three-way, bass-reflex
Drivers: 1" soft-dome tweeter concentrically mounted, 4" aluminum midrange, 5.25" aluminum woofer
Frequency response: 44Hz to 28kHz
Nominal impedance: 6 ohms
Dimensions: 13.58" x 7.44" x 9.45"
Net weight: 17.85 lbs.
11145 Knott Avenue
Suite E & F
Cypress, CA 90630