15 years ago I was on the verge of downsizing life. My audio system couldn’t escape, something had to go. ‘Can I really do it?’ I pondered, looking at B&W 802 speakers, the pinnacle of two decades of system building (the current version is over £20k).
Deep breath and …… sold. The surprise came when much lower-cost Harbeth standmounts replaced the B&Ws. My enjoyment wasn’t overly diminished, the Harbeths still connected me to the music, and then some.
The memory came back after installing the entry-level Elac Debut B5.2 speakers. I was really enjoying the music, not listening to the speakers per se. And the ones they replaced were 20 x dearer Spendor D7.2 floorstanders. No this isn’t David v Goliath, the Spendors are really good (Darko review here). It’s just that the Elac Debut B5.2 gets the fundamentals right, big time. Let’s explore how and why.
Andrew Jones, until recently the face of Elac, is one of the industry’s most respected designers. An expat Yorkshireman with a long pedigree (KEF, Infinity, Pioneer, TAD), his time at Elac involved him scattering magic dust on everything from megabucks speakers to the entry-level pair here.
The Debut 2.0 B5.2 (to give it its full name) sells for a street price of around £230/€210/US$260 and marries a 1” silk-dome tweeter to a 5¼” Aramid-fibre woofer in a braced MDF cabinet, all wrapped in black ash vinyl. A front-mounted port helps with positioning (rear facing ports don’t like being too close to walls)
At 180x340x234mm WHD the Debut B5.2 is fairly compact. Build quality is good for a speaker of its ilk – not luxurious but better than many. Round the back sits a single pair of terminals.
So far so good – the baby Elac’s makeup is more than good enough, albeit unremarkable. No problem. At this price exotic components are off the menu, the question is how well the designer can juggle lesser elements.
Onto listening. But what to partner the Debut B5.2 with? Pamper it with expensive electronics to see what it’s really capable of? Or go real-world with something price-appropriate? I ducked the question and did both.
Step forward Gold Note’s DS-10 streaming pre-amp (£2,500) and an Ayre AX-7e amplifier ($3,950) to really test the Elacs. Closely followed by a Marantz PM7000N three-in-one streamer, DAC and amplifier (Darko review here). At around £950 it’s more representative of what the Debut B5.2 will be used with.
Position speakers well and they’ll sound better, it’s worth experimenting a bit (within the constraints of your room / kids / pets etc). With the Elacs I ended up with them on the Target stands 40 cm from the rear wall, 220cm apart and angled in so they directly faced the listening seat 3m away. Like this they sounded slightly fuller thanks to reinforcement from the rear wall (some bass bouncing back off it essentially). Further into the room the sound lost some body.
Normally having speakers close to the wall messes with the 3-D image the speakers present – everything becomes a bit more 2-D. It didn’t make much difference with the Elacs though.
Angling the Debut B5.2 in more than I normally do helped locate the musicians more precisely in the soundstage. And leaving the plastic / cloth grills on dulled the treble slightly so I left them off. They looked better that way too.
All of which gives the impression the Elacs are fussy on positioning. They aren’t, even working well sitting on top of my equipment cabinet. A little experimentation got the best out of them though.
Open, detailed, and above all expansive – the Elacs portrayed a wide & tall acoustic. The sound was nuanced too, getting to the core of simpler stuff like chamber music or singer-songwriters. Midrange was communicative – vocals, cellos and other midrange-rooted music certainly shone. Yet the Debut B5.2 also did propulsive when called upon. Playing ZZ Top loud was a hoot.
The high and low frequency extremes showed how well Jones has worked his magic. Bass didn’t go low – it’s only a small box after all. What’s there was well controlled though, and the illusion of heft, of grunt, was impressive. Turn the volume up on stadium-rock Queen, pumping Grace Jones or full-tilt Tchaikovsky 6 and you forgot it was a little standmount assaulting your senses. I was taken aback. Great – surprises like that are what this game is all about.
At the other extreme the treble didn’t appear to reach particularly high, yet the sound was precise and intricate when appropriate. A non-audiophile friend who hears most of my equipment considered the B5.2 to be detailed. “You can hear a lot going on”. And yet she’s heard more detailed speakers here without commenting.
All of which is dissecting the sound in extremis. Forget analysis, it’s missing the point – you’ll soon forget about the individual characteristics. The Elac’s key strength is its balance, blending all the elements into a lovely whole. One where the music takes over, where the enjoyment factor makes analysis difficult. Just where the Harbeths took me over a decade ago.
That’s as heard with the expensive Ayre & Gold Note system, hardly bread & butter for the Elacs. In went the Marantz PM7000N.
Fundamentally it was the same sound. Nothing out of place, it was still a big sound that communicated well thanks to strong midrange performance. Treble was slightly subdued, but only if you listened for it. Similarly bass wasn’t quite as controlled but it was a long long way off soft or wallowy; the Debut B5.2 could still roll up its sleeves and charge hard. Even if it lost composure slightly earlier as the volume increased.
And again, none of that mattered when you listened as a whole, to the music not the sound – the Debut B5.2 is a really balanced speaker.
Which is probably its main fault, it’s very good at most things rather than excelling at one or two. So if forensic detail, gut wrenching bass or holographic imaging are your thing then look elsewhere. Although I’m not sure you’ll find anything suitable at this price level.
The first HiFi Starters speaker review and it’s a scorcher – the Elac Debut 2.0 B5.2 surprised me with how well-sorted it is, beating expectations by some margin. That Andrew Jones managed to deliver such a balanced sound from modest components is (yet another) credit to him.
The speakers are good with all types of music, and you have to push them hard before a lack of composure sets in. Pair the Debut 2.0 B5.2 with price-equivalent kit and you can get a really neat system. They also respond to better electronics and ancillaries, ideal for inveterate upgraders (guilty as charged).
So consider my interest in the Elac brand well and truly piqued, I feel the need to explore further. In the interim if you’re looking for an entry-level speaker then give the Debut 2.0 B5.2 a listen. At £230 it’s an out and out bargain.
After the review I bought the next model up – the Debut B6.2 – for use in HiFi Starters reviews. Same sonic signature, just slightly bigger / slightly better than the B5.2 If you can manage the extra £50 it’s the one to go for. If not, don’t fret, the Debut B5.2 still cuts the mustard.
Or if you have £500 burning a hole in your pocket then consider the Debut Reference B6.2. They sound like a refined B6.2 and look a million dollars. Very classy indeed. Darko review here.