Like the government health warning, you should consider getting more active(s)
IntroductionWith fairly unexpected pieces of equipment gaining volume controls, as I have been saying for the best part of a year, the component parts of a hi-fi system are changing. The preamp is under threat from all sorts of directions but, in many ways, the future of the power amplifier is also less than clear cut. If you have source equipment with a volume control, why not keep the box count down to a minimum and look at a pair of active speakers instead?
The minor catch with this is that active speakers remain a bit of a specialist proposition. Some hifi companies - Meridian and ATC to name but two - have made actives a substantial part of their product offering for many years now. However these are serious bits of kit that have an asking price that means that the ‘saving’ on not buying an amp is not exactly clear cut - indeed top flight products from both are in the serious high-end category. A new wave of less expensive options are hitting the shelves but these are set up with more lifestyle based connections and will limit the options available to you in terms of what you bolt them too.
If we turn to the pro side of audio, the number of active options increases substantially but there are some other issues - the main one being that most active speaker designs are determinedly hideous. We often joke about the ‘wife acceptance factor’ in audio but my own threshold for black crackle is pretty low regardless of what my wife thinks. The speakers you see here might be the answer to the shortage. German company ESI are a pro audio based organisation but their active speakers have evidence of styling and considering that they also feature a ribbon tweeter, they seem to be incredibly fairly priced. With this in mind, I secured a pair of the uniK05 and uniK08 from UK dealer Purite North and set out to discover if these little boxes are the answer to what to do with your volume control.
DesignBoth uniK models are different sized variations on a common theme. They are two-way standmount speakers that are built around an internal amplifier. Each speaker is self-contained and they can be used individually if required. Beyond the bald description of the design, the ESI’s also have a few design details that are less conventional - but very welcome nonetheless.
The first deviation from the norm is the use of a ribbon tweeter rather than a conventional dome. Ribbon tweeters are not new and they are undergoing a bit of a renaissance at the moment but to find them on a product at this asking price is rather unusual. Both the 05 and 08 make use of a 49x26mm tweeter which is a commendably big radiating area. This larger radiating area is extremely light and because it is in turn driven by a larger and more powerful magnet than a conventional dome, it can in turn start and stop faster and go on to produce a higher overall frequency response than most conventional domes. Making a good one is neither cheap nor easy and to find them on speakers that cost £310 and £470 respectively is quite an achievement.
This tweeter is partnered with a Kevlar midbass driver. As the Germanically logical naming terminology suggests, this is a five inch version in the 05 and amazingly enough, an eight inch one in the 08. This manages to feel impressively substantial without coming across as being built like a PA system. These are mated to a ported cabinet where the port takes the form of a slot built into the very top of the rear panel. This is a fairly large area and as a result of that, the port never feels like it is shifting a huge amount of air which in turn means that placement close to a wall isn’t a problem either.
The amplification in both speakers is relatively restrained. The 05 gets by with 60 watts per speaker and the 08 90. This is spread evenly between the tweeter and the mid bass driver and is a reflection of the power demands of the ribbon tweeter that this is the case rather than the more common procedure of passing the bulk of the power output to the mid bass driver. There are no visible heat sinks or cooling fins on the chassis but both speakers run commendably cool in use.
The connectivity on both models is effectively based around a multijack input that will accept a neutrik type connector or (as was actually used in the review) a quarter inch jack connection. In the case of the 05, the only control on the rear panel is a manual level adjustment pot but the 08 additionally has trim switches for the bass and treble outputs that allow you to tune the output for your specific room. While it might have been nice to have an RCA or true XLR input, this is not the end of the world and there are no shortage of suitable cables available from online specialists. The only other connection is a single IEC mains socket fitted to give the amp the power it needs.
Where the ESI’s score over most of their competition is that they are far less utilitarian than the bulk of their rivals. The front panel is finished in a gloss black and has some evidence of styling which is a rare decision in something aimed at the pro/semi-pro market where any attempt to make something less physically hideous can be viewed with considerable suspicion. The gloss section only covers the front panel - the rest of the cabinet is standard pro audio matt blackb- but it is enough to give the ESI’s a pass into domestic situations that most of the competition might be barred from. The only clue to the ESI’s being active is a small blue LED running light on the front panel (and the mains cable poking out the back but you get the idea).
The build quality is excellent too - everything feels very carefully assembled and there aren’t many other speakers professional or domestic at or anywhere near the price that feel as solid as these do. If I were in the pickiest of picky moods, some form of rubber traction on the base of the speaker would have been good but this is one of the many reasons why blu tack was invented and some small blobs of this miracle substance had the ESI’s in good contact with the stands.
SetupI had planned to give the ESI’s an outing with the recently reviewed McIntosh D100 but that was the only review sample in the country so it has already winged its way to pastures new. Into the breach stepped a Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6 which although rather less gothic than the McIntosh is also a great deal less expensive and as a result is probably a more logical (if less awesome) price partner. The Cambridge was switched to digital preamp mode and the ESI’s were bolted on via some RCA quarter inch jack cables supplied by Purite North. The ESI’s were kept off the deck by a pair of Soundstyle Z60 stands (and blu tack). Material used was mainly lossless and high res FLAC but I also used a bit of Spotify via the rear USB of the Stream Magic 6 and some listening was done via internet radio.
Sound QualityKicking off with the 05’s, the first thirty seconds of listening proved more than a little surprising. By chance, I had selected Massive Attack’s Mezzanine to open proceedings and the results with Angel certainly subverted expectations. Put simply, there are precious few £300 speakers that have a bass output like the 05 does and when you take into account that the ESI has saved you the cost of an amp as well, the performance is even more impressive. ESI quotes output down to 49Hz but this is presumably within a predefined roll off and in reality, the 05 has useful output below that. Neither is this low end a flabby and ill-defined performance that is dependent on the port for the bulk of the output but deep, clean and detailed bass that really helps the performance along.
There is much to like about the upper registers too. As befits something designed with an eye on the studio, the ESI is not an especially romantic or warm performer - after all, it is designed with a view to giving a user an accurate appraisal of what is going. That said they manage to do this in a way that is comparatively benign. Even when I invited the ESI’s to play The Prodigy Experience at a whistles and glowsticks level, they stayed controlled and impressively smooth. There is an impressive amount of detail in the performance but the overall presentation is very well integrated and extremely consistent. The integration on both models between the tweeter and the mid bass driver is impressively seamless considering the differences between the two in material and operation.
Given that the 08 is rather larger than the 05, the differences between the two models is less than I expected. This is partly down to the bass response of the 05 being as good as it is and I suspect also because the extra headroom that the 08 has wasn’t something I could easily reach in my listening room without my neighbours killing me with a spade and throwing me in the canal. The 08 does have a bit more bottom end than the 05 and can extract a little more detail in the process but there really isn’t that much in it. With the tweeters being identical barring the extra power available to the 08, the treble performance also has much in common with one another. In a big room, the extra power available to the 08 could be useful but you will get much of what ESI is about from the smaller speaker.
Another area where these speakers excel (and an area where the larger 08 does have a further advantage over its little brother) is the soundstage. Following the basic ‘rules’ of active monitor setup and creating an equilateral triangle with me at one point and the speakers facing me down the lines of the triangle, there is a stereo image that is extremely consistent with detail both between the speakers and extending beyond them too. They might be sold separately but the effect as a stereo pair is entirely convincing.
Against this positive performance, there are very few complaints. As the ESI’s are amp and speaker in one package, the only real variation to performance will come from the source/preamp and given that they are fairly revealing, you would probably want to steer clear of anything that was seriously bright but with the Stream Magic 6 (which turns in some pretty accurate measured performance of its own), the performance was very well balanced and managed to excel with high res material while staying pretty forgiving with less brilliant recordings. Every now and again, I felt I might want a bit more excitement from the performance, however the products that generally produce this sort of sound won’t be producing a measured performance that is as good as the ESI. Besides this kind of performance is a necessity of the sort of roles the ESI will be asked to fulfil.
- Accurate, involving and powerful performance
- Excellent build
- Extremely good value for money
- Still not exactly beautiful
- Limited connectivity
- No grip on the underside
ESI Unik 05/08 Active Standmount Speakers Review
Having spent as long as I have banging on about the number of products that can work extremely well with active speakers, it is very satisfying (and a little relieving) to have two models that I can recommend to people who actually want to take me up on the idea. The ESI’s deliver exactly what an active monitor should - they are compact, accurate and revealing but they manage to deliver these attributes while being extremely forgiving of less perfect material and also boast an appearance that won’t demand that you use them in a darkened room.
There is much to like about both models but it is the smaller 05 that steals the show for me. It delivers so much of the performance of the 08 at a price that is a solid and unambiguous bargain. Combined with a DAC/Preamp like a Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus or TEAC UD-H01, you would have a system that took up negligible space, handled the latest and greatest high res formats and sounded absolutely brilliant while it did so - and this doesn’t even hint at the possibilities that might exist in multichannel. For this reason, both speakers but the 05 in particular are an automatic Best Buy and should be high on anyone’s list if they are looking to create a system of this nature.
Value For Money8
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