Elipson Music Centre Review
A high quality all-in-one with well rounded capabilities
Weíve visited a couple of Elipsonís speaker packages recently in the shape of the Planet L and Planet M speakers, which share an obvious spherical similarity. Here, we are examining Elipsonís first foray into partnering electronics, the appropriately named Music Centre, which retails for approximately £1300. Now, whilst Elipson clearly didnít loose much sleep over the nomenclature, they were definitely focused when it came to the workings of the Music Centre. It includes a built-in CD player, employs a Bang & Olufsen stereo ICEpower module for it's amplification and includes the Elipson Well system for wireless compatibility. There's an optional dongle available to allow connection to iThingies but otherwise all you need to do is add speakers and a subwoofer. So let's do just that and see how the Music Centre sounds...
Given that it looks superb, is beautifully crafted, sounds expensive beyond it's price and offers so many user friendly features, the conclusion of this review is overwhelmingly positive. My knowledge in this market sector (the quality all-in-one) isn't all encompassing, but I'm on firmer ground with separates. The Elipson Music Centre sets up an interesting conundrum; I am struggling to think of a separates system that could blend this set of features and deliver this level of performance for the price, whilst including a subwoofer output, plus iThingy wireless compatability.
It would be perfection if it had network streaming capability and I must confess, an extra digital input or two wouldn't go amiss. It would become a true 2.1 audio hub if this were the case. However, wish lists are cheaper than adding facilites and as it stands, the price is keen for the ability on offer. To put it another way, if the Elipson Music Centre has the facilities you want, then rest assured, you're not compromising on musical quality and that makes the MC superb value. That Elispon have managed to package this all in a chassis that actually brightens the look of your room, is the icing on the cake.
The first thing that hits your eye with the Elipson Music Center is the circular form. Whilst you could nod to the fact that this will help suppress internal resonances, the fact that the top and sides are solid casting of aluminium is probably more significant in this regard. It is a stylistic choice to match the shape of the speakers (spherical) and Planet Sub (cylindrical) and it is one that places the Music Center in a rare group - itís an item of AV you donít want to hide away. The shiny machined alloy case, curves upward at the rear, to reveal a matte casting that houses all of the Music Centerís connections to the outside world and is bisected at the front, by a large smoked acrylic panel. Shining through this, is a large, clear and dimmable florescent display, which shows two lines of data. Beneath this is the loading slot for CDs, with a row of illuminated touch sensitive buttons at the bottom. From these, you can access the standby/on, CD transport and volume control. In use, I found that my sausage sized pinkies, could quite easily put the unit into standby when loading a CD that was held by the edges and had to train myself accordingly.
The rear of the Music Center is a slightly crowded place, but there was adequate room for all but the most oversized of cables. Dead centre, are the gold plated, plastic encapsulated speaker binding posts. These can accept 4mm banana plugs, spade connectors and bare wire. Unless you plan on regularly disconnecting the unit, I suggest bare wire as extra connections in the signal chain are pointless. The binding posts are good quality, do up nice and tight and stay secure. To the right, as you look from the rear, is a 2-pin reversible power socket, hard on/off switch and a covered voltage selector.
To the left, is the interesting stuff. There are a couple of stereo RCA phono inputs (labelled Aux 1 and Aux 2) plus a 3.5mm stereo jack to take the headphone output from a portable music player, which is handy. Adjacent is also a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack, which I feel would have been better placed on the front panel. There is a single optical S/PDIF input and a USB port (MP3 & WMA compatible), although this will only read files from a pen drive or stand alone hard disk Ė the Music Center canít address a network. It will however, read files up to and including 24/96 resolution.
Probably of more interest to the average all-in-one buyer is some sort of wireless compatability and here, Elipson have excelled themselves with the Elipson Well system. Bundled in the box is a USB dongle. Simply plug it into your Mac or PC and it automatically installs the necessary drivers. Switch the MC to the Wireless input and press play on your computer. Audio at up to 16/44.1 resolution will issue forth from your speakers. It's that simple. There is a re-sync button on the dongle if it doesn't pair with the MC, but I have never had to use it, beyond pressing it once to see what it did. Living on the edge, eh? It simply worked every time, without flaw. There is an optional extra (£80) dongle specific to iThingies, which Elipson kindly supplied for the review, that works in exactly the same vein. I tried it with an iPod Touch, iPad 3 (okay NEW iPad, for the pedants), iPhone 3GS and 4S. There were no issues, even when I walked into the kitchen with phone in pocket. My Netgear N600 dual band wireless router frequently can't be bothered to penetrate the one dividing wall, but the Elipson Well didn't seem phased.
All of these features, whether they tick your boxes or not, arenít half as interesting (to this hack) as the fact that the Elipson MC is a true 2.1 system. It has proper bass management, that will high-pass the loudspeakers and low-pass the subwoofer at anywhere between 50 and 150Hz, adjustable in 5Hz steps. Okay, if you arenít interested in having more than a pair of speakers, just ignore this fact, but you will be missing a considerable trick.
The stereo world has a bit of a weird position on subwoofers, mainly based on dogmatic ignorance, but this isnít helped by the fact that itís normally difficult to do it in any other way, other than the perceived convention. Normally, your speakers are driven full range and the subwoofer canít really be configured to do anything, other than roll in underneath in a supporting role. Other than delivering a bit of extra bottom end, this fails to take advantage of the benefits a well set up subwoofer can bring to all frequencies.
The benefits of subwoofer use lean on one fundamental principle - if a speaker is moving, itís distorting. The more it moves, the more it distorts and bass requires the largest cone excursions of all. The issue in a speaker, is that the cone in question is seldom doing bass alone. Whilst itís hammering back and forth over long distances, itís trying to reproduce your delicate mid range as well. Three way loudspeakers hive off the bass to itís own driver, but that driver is still connected to the same amplifier as the mid and treble, and that amp is dealing with a similar issue, namely high current, distortion inducing power demands, albeit, this issue is several orders of magnitude lower than the speakers distortion. If you take the low end bass duties away from the loudspeakers and amplifier completely, this delivers numerous benefits. Cone excursions and power demands are minimised, reducing distortion across the entire frequency range. Dynamic headroom goes up, because with the bass gone, itís a lot harder to tax the limits of the speaker and amp. Clarity in all respects is enhanced due to the easier ride the whole reproduction chain is enjoying.
It doesn't end there. The position that best suits your speaker's stereo reproduction, may have nothing to do with the best position for bass reproduction. Indeed almost all stand mount speakers suffer a reduction in bass energy, somewhere in the 100-200Hz region due to a phenomenon called 'floor bounce', and speakers can suffer complex bass interactions, not only with the room, but each other too, because there's two of them. Diverting the troublesome bass region from the speakers, into a good, well set up sub, can sidestep all of these issues adding superior bass reduction to the benefits already wrought on the speakers and amplification. It's not that tricky, but almost all stereo systems don't let you do it. This one does.
Talking of the amplification, Elispon MC employs a Bang & Olufsen stereo ICEpower module for it's amplification. Quoting 60W into 8 Ohms and 120W into 4 Ohms, Elispon are suggesting the capability to drive not only real world speaker loads, but to do so at repectable playback levels. The ICEpower units have received widespread critical acclaim for their sound quality, although it should be noted that the use of any given item, is as much about it's implimentation, rather than it's presence alone guaranteeing results. None the less, it's a serious inclusion on the spec list. The final details are DAB/DAB+ and FM tuners, which I lack an aerial of sufficient quality to test, save to say that they worked.
Speakers used varied, but were mainly XTZ 99.26 stand mounts, plus Elipsonís own Planet Ls. Subwwoofers were an SVS SB12-NSD and my own pair of 15Ē DIY jobs. Subs were EQíd with a DSpeaker Anti-Mode Dual Core. Sources used, obviously included the in-built CD transport, but also a Squeezbox Duet, streaming FLAC files from my Qnap NAS. Speaker cables were a pair of Chord Carnival Silver Screen. The subs used are both capable of clean upper bass performance, so I ended up settling on 100Hz crossovers with both speakers, when the subs were in use.
Itís been a while since Iíve heard an all-in-one and based on previous experience, I was expecting at best, a pleasant result and at worst, something for the kitchen. I was way out. The Elipson Music Center is capable of very satisfying results and is genuinely enjoyable hi-fi, that needs no excuses made.
Starting with CD, I was immediately struck by the clean and polished nature of the reproduction, the mid range being genuinely expressive and detailed, the top end exhibiting lots of air and sparkle. Both of the speakers used for the review are quite capable of exposing mid range shortcomings, but I was met with a smooth, clear rendition of female voice that carried all the emotion and expression, whilst keeping itís head when the singer stepped up the power. Cymbals and the like showed good differentiation in sheen and texture, preventing busier pieces from becoming a metallic splash fest. Dare I say it, but there was an almost valve like fluidity across the mid to upper reaches of the Elipson MC, that made it quite beguiling to listen to.
This sat on top of nicely weighted and firm bottom end, that complimented the natively slightly light rendition, offered by the Planet Ls Ė clearly, itís envisaged that this is a likely and appropriate partnership. The combination of the Planet Ls imaging ability, plus the Music Centreís open delivery, make for an expansive presentation, with plenty of perceived depth to the stereo image and pinpoint positioning across it. Turning to the slightly sterner bottom end and the amplifier test, that is the XTZ 99.26, and it's notable that the ICEPower has the chutzpha, to match it's dexterity. The XTZs have remarkably capable bass for a standmount, but the quid pro quo is that they do like something with a bit of grip (low output impedance) and shove (decent current delivery) to extract their best. The Elipson MC positively revelled in the task, with a texture and pace of bass that matched my normal reference amplifier, in all but ultimate output volume. You could seriously rock out with the MC, the drive and crunch of Metallica bursting from the speakers with unabated drive.
To this boy, born to an era of heavy metal Class A amplifiers from the States, that could dim your houselights and pop a hernia, it still seems wrong to see such a diminutive component doing this, without melting down. In fact, despite continued abuse, the cool running ICEpower amps never raise the temperature of the casework to more than slightly warm to the touch. As long as you leave some air circulation, the Elipson could live in some quite tight spaces.
When you add a sub to the equation (and I purposely chose the smallest one I had to hand), you add an extra dimension of scale and focus to the spacious presentation. The extra dynamic headroom afforded to the MC, plus the extra depth of bass adds obvious weight to music, but it's the way the stereo image gains extra spacial accuity that I found particulary impressive. The delineation of depth to a real acoustic soundstage is remarkable, but it's not so much that you've added this capability, more that it's been allowed to shine out. You can't add something that isn't inherently there in the first place, after all. It's at this point you realise, that you are dealing with a serious piece of hi-fi in it's own right. For those who want a one off purchase, with no intention of jumping on the upgrade merry-go-round, the MC may be all they may ever need.
But the Elipson isn't finished. Whilst the audio literati are abuzz with audio streaming, many people never get further than iTunes and nor are they interested. Plugging the Elipson Well into my laptop, showed that you really don't give up anything notable in audio quality. Admittedly, I store everything in Apple Lossless, prefering to rotate my iPhone music selection, rather than pack it with everything I own. I wouldn't swear to being consistently able to tell whether the CD or the laptop was playing a track, when I set the two off together. Lower bit rate MP3s were more obvious, but the Elipsons polished presentation even made these fairly listenable, if not entirely disguising the rougher edges.
The same was true with the iPhone/iPod Well, although this opened up another possibility. Using a third party app like iPeng (which allows you to control network audio streaming) it is possible to stream to the iThingy and then use the Well to stream this audio to the Music Centre. This is pretty pointless if they're in the same rack, but handy if the streamer is in your primary system and the Music Centre in another room. Unlike iPeng, which frequently punishes an errant chubby finger with no audio, the two Wells worked first time, every time. To a lot of users, that will be priceless.
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All in one 2.1 stereo with wireless streaming
Elipson Music Center
Suggested price: £1,300
Reviewed 17th October, 2012 by Russell Williams
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