When I received the e-mail offering the Elipson Planet L loudspeakers, two thoughts crossed my mind. The first was 'Who?'. The second was that the Planet Ls looked like a Anthony Gallo clone, so how interesting could they be? After all, small speakers, regardless of shape, can offer some surprising capabilities these days, but this speaker fiend was craving a 1/2lb steak after a few weeks of low fat hors d'oeuvres.
I'm not prone to reading up on speakers in advance, lest I suffer some ill informed prejudice based on what I have read, but without even a passing knowledge of the brand, I had a peek. What I saw, was only the first of many surprises that followed.
Elipson are a French manufacturer that has been around and innovating since the late fifties. That's innovation in a way that compares with the likes of KEF, B&W, Rogers, Wharfedale and other, instantly more recognizable British manufactures that either persist to this day, or have been sadly consigned to the annals of time. Indeed the comparisons are far from specious - Elipson provided the staple range of broadcast monitors for ORTF, the French equivalent of the BBC in it's day. A quick scan of Elipson's website will reveal speakers that bare more than a passing resemblance to high end designs from the British establishment. A keener scan, will reveal that these shapes were first used by Elipson in the sixties, some years before our palettes were first tantalized by such exotic forms. The range now extends to include speakers of all shapes, sizes and prices, plus a new all-in-one 'music centre' with CD/DAB/iPhone/USB capabilities, that utilizes B&O Ice Power amplification no less.
So, I beseech you dear reader - don't just jump to the summary, because these are speakers worth reading about.
The Planet L, is the larger of the two spherical speakers in the current line up. Elipson claim to have arrived at the sphere after significant research into the ideal acoustic enclosure, although the cynical might note that nature got there first with the strongest way of containing a volume in the minimum of material. No matter, the total absence of parallel sides abhors standing waves and is incredibly strong under compression and rarefaction. By comparison, a traditional loudspeaker focuses stresses at it's corners and is at it's least rigid in the centre of any given panel, thus more material is thrown into the mix to overcome the inherent weakness of the box. A box, however, is a cheap shape to make from cheap material, is convenient to stand up and is a far more efficient way of packaging a given volume - a 30cm cube contains 27L, whilst a 30cm diametre sphere contains just over 14L and yet occupies the same footprint, or to put it another way, a sphere is larger. A sphere is also a real sod to veneer, so the Planet L's glass fibre reinforced resin cabinet, is flawlessly finished in a deep lacquer over red, white or black paint.
To the rear, beneath the neatly inlaid company logo, is a small port moulded into the cabinet and a pair of custom made binding posts. The latter accept 4mm bananas, spade terminals or bare wire and do tighten up very nicely. To the front is the magnetically fixed, curved mesh grill, which locates on two very small and short aluminium pins. It is next to impossible to knock a grill off, which is more than can be said for most magnetic grills. In fact, so tight is the tollerance of the grill to cabinet fit, it's very hard to get one off, unless you have at least some fingernails. Persevere in getting the grill off and you will find a very thin layer of acoustically transparent, open cell foam neatly bonded to the rear of the mesh. This helps to damp any additional 'zing' imparted by the use of a metal grill, which I'm not normally a great fan of. This one, owing to the tight and considerate construction, seemed virtually transparent in use.
The driver this exquisite grill conceals, is a dual concentric unit. The 6.5" nominal (130mm effective) mid/bass driver, is composed of a lightly treated paper cone, with inverted rubber surround, all supported by a very minimal cast alloy basket. There is no dust cap to the cone, it's place taken by a 1" soft fabric dome that sits on the pole piece. With the space constraints this mounting imposes, the tweeter magnet is Neodymium, whilst the mid bass driver is equipped with a large ferrite item. For the few that this will matter to, the main magnet is surrounded by a shielding can. The driver secures to the cabinet using threaded steel inserts and allen head machine screws. No self tappers here.
Aside from the shape, there's only one technical point of note that is particularly unusual. The crossover between the tweeter and the mid/bass unit is quite steep, but more interestingly, at a very high frequency - 3.8kHz in fact. The norm is usually in the 1.8-2.2kHz range. This normal range is part of the compromise in a two way speaker, in so far as it places the crossover right where your ear is most sensitive to any issues it causes, in terms of the in room power response and phase shifts. By moving the crossover point to the upper end of this region, you theoretically make these issues less audible, reaping particular benefit, in terms of vocal coherence. By covering this crucial area with just one driver you can, unless careful, introduce a different compromise instead. One of the reasons a tweeter is used is that larger cones are harder to control in terms of their own resonance and breakup with increasing frequency and this can lead to harshness and muddle in the midrange. If you're going go high, you have to be confident in the properties of the cone and the crossover's ability to roll off the driver, before these nasties become audible. It's a bold decision and a very clever one if it can be pulled off.
Finally, we come to the mounting hardware, because as previously noted, without some sort of specialist provision, the Planet L would be want to roll away. The solution as supplied, is a solid aluminium ring with soft rubber inserts top and bottom. This means you can mount them on any level surface (normal speaker stands would obviously work well) and then orientate the Planet L in practically any direction you choose. This is not where it ends though. On the bottom of the speaker, is a solid aluminium blank, that when removed allows you to either bolt the Planet L to the dedicated floor stand (as supplied - £199/pair) or a rather clever wall mount. There is even a mounting option to suspend the Planet L's from the ceiling, so in there somewhere is going to be an option that suits you. The stands look tall and they are, but they do place the tweeter bang on ear level. They are also a lot more stable than they look, not least because the stainless steel shroud at the base, disguises a considerable lump of cast iron with a decent footprint. The stand weighs in at 15kg to the speakers 6kg. The stand also allows a beefy gauge of cable to fed up the column, resulting in a very clean appearance.
Installation proved to be simplicity itself. Being a relatively small speaker, bass output stopped short of troubling the deepest room modes. The Planet Ls were moved around until they offered the flattest response down to their natural in room roll off, which is a shade under 50Hz. This point was a domestically friendly 20cm from the front wall. With a broad and omnidirectional dispersion from the dual concentric driver, I found little difference in character at all but the most extreme toe in angles. There is a slight rise in frequency response across the tweeters range and so either firing straight down the room, or crossing slightly in front of the listening position can tame this, if you want to. I preferred the former, but I do have 120cm of clearance to the nearest side wall and that is heavily draped at that, so as ever, your mileage may vary.
The first thing that will immediately strike you about the Elipson Planet Ls, is their light and airy balance. Not being a bass monster, serves to reinforce this impression, as indeed does the slightly rising top end balance. If the treble were ragged and harsh, this would be a problem, but it's not. It's crisp and capable of reasonable resolution. Delicate brushed cymbals, the crystalline ring of a triangle at the back of an orchestra, all have a explicit clarity without any added zing or tizz. Even the clocks at the beginning of Pink Floyd's 'Time' failed to set your teeth on edge, unless you pushed the volume envelope too hard.
The bottom end whilst not deep, isn't peaked up to deliver an impression of added weight. The bass is tuneful and incredibly nimble, tracking a fast bass guitar riffs in a very adept fashion. It also lets go of notes very quickly, again belying it's reflex port design. The implementation of the reflex port is very subtle, adding just a little extra level and depth, that keeps the subjective speed intact. This could have been lost, had Elipson sought to deliver bass feats in excess of the enclosures size, in order to impress on a quick demo.
These qualities, sensibly judged as they may be, are not the stars of the Planet L show. That would be the midrange, which I may go so far as to say is very good at five times the price and extraordinary for the £600 asked. Level wise, it's on a very even keel between the bass and the treble, meaning that it has virtually no engineered in balance to fool the ear. There is no pronounced 800Hz dip followed by an overt 1.5kHz lift (or any other such trick) to project vocals with an increased illusion of space and indeed, some may find the Planet L a little less tonally colourful than the norm. In fact, between 350Hz and 3.5kHz, the in-room response stayed with +/-1.5dB (1/6 octave smoothing) limits, which is more than most speakers can manage near field - a staggering result.
Tonally then, we have a very neutral loudspeaker, but it has another quality that is as obvious when you listen to it, as the measurements suggest. With the mild port tune and the tweeter out of the way until nearly 4kHz, the mid/bass driver is handling a very large part (and almost all of the most audible part) of the Planet L's output. With no large frequency response swings, nor crossover slopes in the way, the phase response is very, very smooth being +90deg at about 70Hz, smoothly shifting to -90deg at about 2.5kHz with no sudden shifts or swings in between.
Now I'm labouring the technical aspects of the midrange in unusual depth, because this tonal neutrality and phase coherence, delivered over such a large part of the frequency range, deliver the two star standout qualities of the Planet L. It's vocal expressiveness and timing abilities are right out of the top drawer and make it an incredibly engaging listen with music of all forms. I've heard few speakers that tease the emotion out of a well performed vocal like the Planet Ls. Cassidy, Krall, Kraus, Lennox, etc. are all capable of filling a song with feeling, but too often you find yourself examining hi-fi minutiae and missing the message the song carries.
'People Get Ready' was an overtly religious song penned by a Curtis Mayfield in somber mood. When Eva Cassidy sang it, knowing she had a matter of weeks to live, it takes on a deeply profound sense of imminent release, tinged with sad celebration. It's a tear jerker and I did, albeit not quite as much as I do in the last half hour of Toy Story III - I still can't be left in a room by myself with that one. Progressing through the masterful, reminiscent melancholy of Sinatra's 'A Very Good Year' and onto the introspection of love lost, with 'Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us' by Alison Kraus, it was only a matter of time before I started dusting off the Leonard Cohen. Something had to be done, so I threw on some AC/DC
'Thunderstruck' from The Razors Edge was the chosen tonic and even though the Planet L rendition lacked the bottom end grunt it possesses, the Planet Ls carried the relentless drive with vigour. In fact, anything with the least hint of rhythm is enjoyable through the Elipsons - the transparency to vocal expression, also manifests itself in very cohesive timing and forgive me for saying it, results in a very toe tapping experience. If you like your Jazz, Blue Man Group, Peter Gabriel, or anything that relies on inventive use of percussion, then the startling mid range dynamics on offer, are going to be right up your street. Guitar is similarly well served, as the initial pluck of a note is beautifully sudden and underpinned with no more than the natural warmth of the instrument, to flesh out the decay. Combining rhythmic articulation, with sonic fireworks, Rodrigo y Gabriella's dueling spanish guitars provided much hilarity, as the eponymously named album plays straight into the hands of the Planet Ls strengths. Stirring, breathlessly rapid stuff.
It almost goes without saying, that a coincident source driver in a rounded cabinet is going to image well and indeed, it does. Images are pinpoint accurate and hold up when listened to off axis, resolutely hanging clear of the cabinets. Had the Planet L's been bass happier, a bit further clear of the front wall (as indeed they might be in a smaller room) then there's a good chance the image depth would match the excellent width. None the less, it was impressive the way they described real acoustic venues and the space around the performers.
So what don't the Planet Ls do well? After all, this is only a pair of £600 stand mounts, so they can't be the answer to everything. The lack of bass is the obvious one. I can think of plenty of standmounts, not to mention floorstanders for the price, that dig deeper and combine this with a higher volume ceiling. This lack of extension, is a limitation of the physical volume of the cabinet and so anything with a significant bass content, really pushes the mid/bass driver hard. The knock on effect is that this then clouds the mid range and because the mid/bass driver carries so much of the information, it can be made to sound quite hard at moderate volumes with the wrong content. However, I would suggest that if you're a bass-head, then you probably wouldn't have the Planet Ls high on your 'must hear' list, but it is a point worth noting.
If you can bass manage your system, then a lot of the above becomes irrelevant. With a good subwoofer picking up the heavy lifting duties, the Planet Ls can get on with doing what they do best, responding extraordinarily well even at silly volumes. In fact, whilst experimenting with 2.1, it struck me that I wished I'd had another three Planet Ls on hand, because there were hints of some serious movie potential. Not only because of the breath taking dynamics and imaging precision, but also because of the previously noted vocal intelligibility. If Metallica at full chat, can stay uncompressed, clear and open, then there's a more than averagely good chance movies will too.
Back to the caveats; It's also probably fair to say, that the overall tonal balance, combined with the forensic mid range, isn't terribly flattering of bright front ends and amplifiers, or come to think of it, the minimalist 'lifestyle' front rooms they will inevitably be pictured in. That goes for most speakers, it's true, but what if you were looking for an amp to pair them with? I'd consider a refined fifty watter, over a slightly ragged 200w grunt meister. The Class A and valve boys will find much to be happy about for instance, as indeed will the Naim and DNM devotees, albeit playing to slightly different strengths.
- Exceptional mid range insight
- Stunning build
- Bass light
Elipson Planet L Stereo Loudspeaker
It's fair to say, you don't get many bad speakers to review. After all, why would manufacturers send out the 'gap fillers' that are likely to disappoint? It does tend to leave this reviewer feeling like he enthuses too much, which makes it rather hard to emphasize the genuine joy, when a real surprise lands in his lap.
The Planet Ls aren't, even in the white and black options, going to slip unobtrusively into the average front room. Does any speaker with a 165mm main driver? That being the case, it may as well be a feature and if it is, it has to bear up to close scrutiny. Fit and finish are absolutely first class. From the deep, blemish free lacquer, to the cigarette paper tight grill fit, to the flexible mounting. Every part of the Elipsons shows consideration and thought. The grill, which could so easily be a sonic mess, is aurally invisible and the myriad of mounting options are as thoughtful, as they are surprisingly cheap, considering their bespoke nature. Nothing seems left to chance.
Now, I'm not a fan of things that look different for no apparent technical reason, doubly so, if it isn't backed up with some solid engineering. Thus it's easy to dismiss, at first glance, the Elipson Planet Ls as a larger than average lifestyle bauble. But these work. The combination of the inert cabinet material, it's shape and the driver implementation, deliver a performance that is revealing at worst, and utterly captivating at best. No £600 speaker is without compromise and the Elipson Planet Ls choose mid range coherence over bass extension which, for me at least, is exciting and right. It is after all, easier to introduce a subwoofer in support, than it is to regain extra clarity and there is always the Planet Subwoofer to sort out the former. The result is a level of musical expression, reminiscent of a good full ranger, but missing many of the draw backs and that is way outside of anything I've heard at the price.
They bear serious consideration on their own terms. I can appreciate that not everybody listens to music for the same reasons and if you like your club music, then you'll need a lot more bass and won't miss the midrange excellence. But for me, it's like this; If you value music's unparalleled ability amongst the arts, to communicate a message, lift the spirits, or change a mood, then you're going to like the Elipson Planet Ls, a lot.
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