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.