Elipson Planet LW and Audio Bridge Review
Want something a little classier than a Soundbar? Check this out
IntroductionSometimes the first iteration of a product can show immense potential but fall at the last hurdle in terms of being considered a perfect fit. When the original iPhone broke cover, there was little doubt that Apple had built something that would reshape the smartphone market but the lack of 3G and one or two little niggles in the early versions of iOS gave rivals at least a minor sense of a breathing space. Less than a year later, the 3G version arrived, some of the more antagonistic restrictions of iOS were relaxed and the iPhone really delivered on the initial promise.
What you see here is another example of a slight ‘miss’ hopefully being corrected. Elipson has been determinedly forging themselves a meaningful presence in the UK over the last few years. Their reimagining of the classic Planet speaker - a spherical monitor that was a fixture of French broadcasting for many years - has been extremely successful. The Planet L and smaller Planet M have been well received here and elsewhere and have managed to demonstrate that a speaker can be visually interesting and still deliver the sonic goods.
The last member of the Planet family managed to come agonisingly close to being the best of the bunch but missed the target slightly. The Planet LW is an active version of the Planet L and each speaker packs a stereo power amp into the spherical enclosure. The result was genuinely excellent - and intriguingly different to the passive version in some aspects of the performance - but having built a very talented active speaker, Elipson took the decision to limit connectivity to a USB dongle and iProduct connector making it essentially a lifestyle product albeit a bloody good one. Now Elipson has returned with an add on called the Bridge that does what it says on the box - provides a link between source equipment and the LWs. Does it unleash the promise of these intriguing actives?
DesignThe Planet LW has already passed through the AVF review process and a more detailed rundown of the features and specification of them is available there. To recap briefly, the LW is the same size to the millimetre as the passive L version and uses the same 6.5 inch doped paper driver and a soft dome tweeter - not the most exotic selection of materials but ones that can be persuaded to produce exceptional results when implemented correctly. While the passive speaker sports a pair of solid binding posts on the rear, the LW features a figure 8 mains lead and a power switch. This is because the LW uses the Bang & Olufsen ICEPower module we first saw in the Music Centre all-in-one system. The most immediately notable aspect of this is that the amp in each speaker is stereo meaning that each driver has a dedicated amplifier with the crossover placed in front of it. This notionally means that the LW is impossible to damage with the power it has to hand - although that isn’t something I set out to test.
The connectivity of the LW as designed is limited to a pair of dongles - one USB and one thirty pin Apple connector and to be clear, these are still functional with the setup you see here. The Bridge is an addition to and not a replacement for these components - you can still use them to increase the number of inputs available to you. What the Bridge does is give you a pair of conventional inputs, one optical and one RCA analogue and also gives you another convenience option in the form of Apt-X Bluetooth. Like the Dynaudio active speakers recently tested by Steve Withers, the transmission between the Bridge and the speakers tops out at 16/48 which is a little disappointing but at a real world level there is ‘enough’ bandwidth for the Elipsons to do what they need to do - handle a CD or HD broadcast channel soundtrack (in stereo of course). The Bridge exploits the way that the LWs connect to one another to join the system. When you plug a pair of LWs less the bridge, they discover one another automatically but the Bridge effectively then connects to the pair of speakers. This proved simple enough to do in practice and once done, the trio stay connected.
Whether one optical, one analogue and a Bluetooth module (plus the original modules themselves) is enough for you is a decision that you’ll have to make yourself. With a TV that has an optical output, you can route inputs to it and use it as a collator for the Bridge or in the case of some of the more impressive Blu-ray players on the market, you can also use them as the collator point for your inputs. Compared to some dedicated soundbars, this is a slightly sparse connection set - and it won’t accept Dolby Digital or DTS - but it needn’t rule out the use of the Elipson as the basis for a TV based audio system.
The other reason why you might want to make allowances for the Elipson is that like the rest of the Planet range, the system looks and feels superb. I’ve actually had dealings with Planet Ls and LWs before but this is the first time I’ve seen them in the black and while I think that white and red look a little better for the bold, there is no escaping that this is still a fantastically assembled and striking looking pair of speakers. The paint is immaculate and has a fantastically deep shine to it. There are sound engineering reasons for why building speakers as spheres makes sense but it does also mean that aesthetically, the Elipson is a talking point in a way that a box speaker, a bar or a plinth simply isn’t. The LWs are supplied with a mounting ring for placing on a horizontal surface and a well-designed and heavy duty wall bracket is also available.
There is no escaping that this is still a fantastically assembled and striking looking pair of speakers.
The Bridge looks like a shrunken Music Centre and is usefully compact although it is so light that it does tend to be moved around by cables attached to the back of it. It should not prove to be a difficult thing to accommodate though. The only area where the Elipson is at a disadvantage is that both speakers and the bridge require a mains plug. Given that in most UK lounges, the plugs will be coming from a single point, you need to take this into account placing and installing the three units.
SetupTo test the Elipson as a sound bar alternative, I used my Cambridge Audio 752BD as a hub that meant I could test blu ray, Sky HD into the coxial input of the 752BD and then the analogue output of the Cambridge was connected to the analogue input of the Bridge. I then connected the optical output of the Panasonic GT86 to the input on the Bridge. I tested the Bluetooth via my Lenovo T530 ThinkPad and iPad 3. Material used included Blu-ray, Sky, Netflix and iPlayer via the aps on the GT60 and lossless FLAC streamed via the UPnP ap on the 752BD and Spotify and Grooveshark via Bluetooth on the laptop.
Sound QualityThe single most important aspect of the Bridge and one that I’ll get out of the way first up is that the basically excellent performance of the Planet LW is not affected by the arrival of the new component. The more interesting question is does performance improve because the Bridge allows for the connection of higher quality sources, even though the wireless transmission is the same as it is from the dongles? To this, the answer is… well, read on.
To be perfectly clear, the inputs on the Bridge, even the analogue one, have to be transcoded to digital to be sent to the LW’s and this means that the absolute fundamentals of the performance will be decided at this point more than anywhere else. Connecting the most ferociously talented high res source to the Elipson is likely to be overdoing it. Despite this, some tests with the lossless FLAC of ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres - an album I know especially well - I found that when I swapped between the USB dongle connected to my laptop and the same file played via the UPnP section of the 752BD and then via the analogue input of the Bridge, I preferred the latter. This is only a subjective view - I have no measurements to confirm or deny it and changing between the two sources was hardly instantaneous but even so, I felt that some of the bass depth and extremely clean tonal accuracy of the 752BD makes its way to the speakers even with the conversion of the Bridge taking place.
What is perhaps more important still is that the Bridge is the interface that these speakers probably deserved from the very beginning. With the 752BD giving me access to Blu-ray, Sky and streaming audio via the single input on the Bridge, the LWs are simply more useful in the real world than they were before. Whereas previously, I had to make special arrangements to actually listen to them via the dongles, I’ve been able to use the Elipsons in a completely real world situation this time. This means everything from Blu-ray to Baby TV has passed through them and they’ve largely excelled. The Sky box needed a little delay placed on the digital output to get lipsync correct but otherwise, performance has been impressive. The LW is not a bright or showy speaker but it sounds endlessly convincing and has far more bass extension then you would ever expect from a standmount. Neither is this a freak burst of low end bass detached from the rest of the frequency response but an impressive finale to a wide and even frequency response.
The Bridge is the interface that these speakers probably deserved from the very beginning.
In terms of day to day use, the Bridge is unobtrusive and generally effective. Switching between inputs is simple enough and pairing with the Bluetooth input works well across a variety of devices. I’d really like input buttons on the Bridge itself to make quick selections if you need to rather than waiting for the auto detect to work - although in fairness it works well. If you can use another device to effectively act as your input collator as the 752BD did in my system, the result is impressively user friendly.
- Excellent Audio Performance
- Beautifully built
- Far more flexible than before
- Input total still a little limited
- No high res or DD 2.0 support
- Planet LW still has more to give
Elipson Planet LW and Audio Bridge ReviewThere are two schools of thought about the effect that the Bridge has on the Planet LW and the effects on the usability of the speakers. I’ll get the fringe one out of the way first. I’m a purist and I am a fan of active speakers. I have been taken with the sheer ability of the Planet LW from the first time I heard them and on a basic level I want to try a pair of LWs with a single XLR input in the back and decide my own front end from there. I think the results would be barnstorming and there would be none of this limiting to 16/48KHz either. With this desire comes the acceptance that I’m an oddity and have little or no bearing on the customers that Elipson is actively courting with the Planet LW.
With this acceptance is the endorsement that the Bridge makes the difference between the LW being a limited curio that is too limited to be Hi-Fi and too specialised to be a lifestyle system and turned it into something that can credibly offer something different to the crop of soundbars and all-in-one style systems at the price. The sheer ability that the LW has is better harnessed for use in the real world. Sure, more inputs would be good and I’d like the wireless to offer a higher bandwidth but this trio of electronics is usefully flexible, seriously pretty and capable of superb performance. There are some very close parallels you can draw with the Dynaudio Xeo system recently reviewed by Steve but it is hard to ignore the fact that the Elipson is well over a grand less - which would allow you to budget for means to make full use of the inputs. If you want to augment your screen with a very fine sound indeed, you should check the Elipson out now.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £1,399.00
Ease of Use9
Value for Money8
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