Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve probably noticed that Elac has been on quite a tear lately. From its entry-level Debut series to the Uni-Fi series and more recently the Adante, the Elac team has been firing on all “woofers” at embarrassingly affordable prices. So just when you’d expect the team to go on a well-deserved holiday and recharge its voice coils, here comes another loudspeaker. But it’s not just another loudspeaker. It’s a new active series called Navis.
Elac’s Navis series includes the ARB-51 compact—the subject of this review—and the ARF-51 tower. Both share basic platforms and driver components. Both are three-ways in a bass-reflex configuration. Transducers include a coaxially mounted midrange/soft-dome tweeter (4″ and 1″, respectively) and a 5″ woofer (one on the ARB-51, three aboard the ARF-51 tower). Both models come equipped with Elac’s amplification package—a tri-amped system that supplies 160W of BASH amplification to the woofers, 100W to the 4″ midrange, and 40W of Class AB to the 1″ tweeter.
But let’s pause for just a moment to appreciate the style and packaging of the Navis. With its flush-mounted drivers and softly rounded edging, these are designs of striking simplicity and taste. Fit and finish are outstanding. Both speakers are available in gloss black, white, and a zebra woodgrain that is nothing less than breathtaking. Turning to the back panel, each driver has its own individual three-way switch for analog EQ contouring and high-pass filtering with settings for flat, +1 or –1dB (–4dB for the woofer). There’s a gain switch, plus a switch for specifying left and right for wireless use. Inputs are either unbalanced RCA or balanced XLR. An IEC connector is provided for the power cord of your choice.
The “active” moniker has become something of a catch-all in audio. It has been used, inaccurately, to describe anything with an amplifier attached to it. However, for clarification, here is what the Navis ARB-51 is not. It’s not a powered digital “bundle” with Bluetooth connectivity or Wi-Fi, á la KEF’s wildly successful LS50W. Nor does it use onboard DACs or DSP. What the ARB-51 is is a true-blue, no-frills, classic “active.” Thus, according to Elac’s designer Andrew Jones, (does this guy ever get tired of designing great speakers?), the speaker represents a pure analog signal path with electronic crossover on surface-mount boards—no DSP needed or wanted. Hats off to Elac who, perceptively in my opinion, didn’t want to bring to market a product chock-full of digital tech that might ultimately be frozen in time as innovations come to the fore. Rather, let the owner take charge of these decisions if he so desires.
However, Elac does offer “options” in the form of an outboard streaming module, which activates the built-in proprietary AirX2 protocol to stream 16-bit/44.1kHz signals. It also supports AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Roon, and Bluetooth. Why no high-resolution wireless? Elac makes the argument, and wisely I think, that resolutions higher than the Red Book standard are generally less stable and often suffer from latency issues and dropouts over longer runs. And frankly most of us tend to enjoy wireless in a less critical, more casual atmosphere. Serious listening means firing up the fully wired big rig.
In setup, the active component of the ARB-51 allows owners to consider a simpler, more economical path to system building. For example, network/server-based enthusiasts can bypass a traditional linestage preamp in favor of a volume-controlled DAC, and drive the Navis directly. I did exactly that when I briefly sidelined the superb Pass Labs XP-12 preamp and used my Oppo Sonica for control. This was a pairing that was for the most part very good, and except for a shortfall in spatial cues and depth retention quite engaging for the dough. For audiophiles on a budget this route is a great way to get up and running.
I’m an admitted fan of active loudspeakers and I had high expectations for the Navis compact. The advantages of actives are well-known and equally efficacious when implemented in smaller speakers, as their limited interior volume tends to make them less efficient and have lower sensitivity. Bass response is usually the casualty. Active systems, with electronic crossover tailoring and amplification for each driver, can be optimized for these conditions. Going “active” means that losses and distortions associated with passive crossover components are virtually eliminated.
Turning to overall tonal character, the ARB-51 had a rich, full-bodied midrange that projected a warm, cozy aura that proved ideal for vocals. Fans of choral music will revel in the clarity of massed voices—the Navis singles out the subtle modulations of each singer’s contribution in all its warmth and glory. The Elac conveyed a weighty dynamic bottom-up sound that suggested a speaker that not only doesn’t need coddling but actually dares you to crank it up, which I frequently did to near rock-star levels.
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
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