Best of CES 2018: ELAC Argo B51 Wireless Powered Speakers

ELAC Argo Series B51 Wireless Powered Speakers

2018 finds high-end audio at a crossroads. Technology is making affordable high-quality audio more accessible than ever. Meanwhile, quite a few of the high-end outfits that occupied many of the hotel rooms at CES shows of years past have fled for greener pastures in Munich, Chicago, Denver, L.A., etc.

But that did not mean you could not find spectacular-sounding products in the halls of The Venetian in Las Vegas during CES 2018. ELAC’s new wireless powered speakers provided proof: The Argo B51 bookshelf ($2000/pair), which were demoed by ELAC’s Andrew Jones, provided a refreshing reminder that great sound can be found in a thoughtfully designed lifestyle audio product.

When I stepped into the ELAC suite where Andrew was lurking, CES was almost over and I was a tired plus tense. It is a testament to Andrew’s artistry and skill as a designer and engineer that within a minute of sitting down the music in the room had put me in a relaxed, almost meditative state.

The Argo B51 3-way wireless powered speaker from ELAC.

The speakers that pulled off this trick are something special. You can spend a whole day at an audio show listening to unlimited-budget systems and not hear a presentation as engaging and enveloping as what the Argo B51 system delivered. Here’s what Andrew Jones, VP of Engineering at ELAC America, had to say about his latest creations…

Andrew Jones at CES 2018, discussing the Argo Series B51 Wireless Powered Speakers:

As an engineer, if you had a choice you’d always do an active speaker because there’s more you can do with it, except the reality of the marketplace is active speakers have never really been popular in the past. Not for audiophiles, because they like the choice. Audiophiles like to choose all the ancillary equipment, they like the boxes, they like mixing and matching. It gives them an upgrade path to more expensive systems. If you have a powered speaker, it’s kind of… “that” and then trade it in for something else. You can’t really upgrade it.

Well, there are systems coming out now for newer listeners or people who want a simplification. They are active and all wireless. So, we thought we’d look into that and see: “What would we do?”

Looking at the choices, you can either have an analog input active speaker and make it with three power amplifiers and a line-level active crossover, or use one amplifier with an existing passive crossover network. Or, use digital crossover networks. If you can package everything together—take the digital input, DSP, DACs, amplifiers and speakers—what you buy is never going to get any better. I would’ve made all the choices to begin with, as to what refinement level each part of it got—and then you can’t go any further.

If you look at it, is there a necessity to have DSP inside the speaker? A digital crossover network, what does it do for you? It allows you to do more things, but is more always better? For example, with a digital crossover network you can add delay between the drivers to time-align them. But this is a concentric driver, I don’t need to worry about that. Then, I can do more complex filtering and more complex EQ. But, if I have to do all that complex EQ, haven’t I designed the drive unit wrong to begin with? I’d rather design the drive units well, and then use relatively simple EQ to blend them altogether and just bounce the system out.

And so, if that’s all I need to do, why do I need DSP? By building the speaker as an analog system, I can get more versatility. First of all, I’m not digitizing any analog sound source that I have in my system, like (obviously) vinyl. Secondly, if I get the analog portion of it transparent enough, then whatever source I use, if I upgrade that, I’ll hear the improvements in the speaker.

In this instance, we brought along both the Discovery music server and Peter’s new Alchemy music server DAC, which is an upgrade to the Discovery, and it’s clearly audible here when I play one or the other; I can hear that difference. So, that suggests the analog electronics are transparent enough.

We have added some wireless capability inside, but it’s a dedicated wireless transmission path, not Wi-Fi, because when you try and do stereo with Wi-Fi, you have to have a synchronizing cable running between the two speakers. We instead used proprietary RF communication. And, that module inside the speaker, when it’s not in use you can remove power from it. You can turn it off, so there is no wireless interference that can get into the analog circuitry when using a wired analog source.

We have switches on the back so you can adjust treble level, midrange level, bass level, just in case you don’t like my sound (chuckles) or to match it more to your environment, whether you are in a live room or perhaps closer to a wall. There is a selectable 60 Hz or 80 Hz low-pass filter, so you can easily integrate to the Argo B51 system to a subwoofer. In fact, the subwoofers we will be releasing have a dedicated position for that, which will optimally blend it to these speakers so you won’t have to play around trying to find the best match between the subwoofer and the main speaker.

ELAC Argo B51
A peek inside an ELAC Argo B51 speaker.

From a power amplifier point of view, there are three amplifiers in the cast aluminum base. It’s got 150 watts in the bass section, 70 watts on the midrange, and 30 watts on the tweeter. Those ratios are determined by the relative efficiency levels of each of the drivers, and they are all class A/B amplifiers with the bass section being a BASH technology with modulated power supplies which allows the class A/B amp to get closer to the efficiency of a class D amp while retaining the character of a class A/B amplifier.

ELAC Argo B51 amplification is built into the cast aluminum base.

So that’s all packaged together for $2000. We’re just running straight out of the Alchemy streamer DAC over balanced cables into the speakers. We can run unbalanced as well, there’s a switch on the back. The stands are optional, they may cost $400 a pair, we haven’t quite done the costing. They come on unassembled and you can fill the center column… I use cat litter. (story about carrying cat litter through the Venetian follows).

The rear panel of the Argo B51 has RCA and XLR inputs, plus switches for EQ, balanced/unbalanced operation, source, gain, and subwoofer high-pass.

The idea is we are giving this a try to see what the reaction is in the marketplace because packaging it this way does give you the capability of getting a sound beyond the apparent size of the speaker. And I want this big sound out of a small package because a lot of people can’t accommodate big speakers, they can’t accommodate a complex system, and this is a much simpler way of achieving that.

Although it looks like its a powered Uni-Fi speaker, the B51 drivers are all new drivers, they’re not the actual Uni-Fi driver.

(Someone in the room asks if these are miniature TADs)

I always have in my mind what is possible, and in the days of TAD, when I was presenting on a year when I hadn’t actually got a new speaker, it was always “What can I do with the system to show you what’s possible with sound at any given price point?” That capability is so embedded that whenever I do affordable speakers, I like to think I’m trying to approach that image in my head of what the sound can be.

I think most people tend to say, when they hear the speakers… “Oh yeah, it’s one of his designs again.” Because there’s some character of what I think is important to achieve, and what balance I’m trying to achieve.

– Andrew Jones

And there you have it folks, from the mind and mouth of the designer. After those last words we launched into a satisfying demo session that reminded me that great 2-channel sound need not be overly expensive or difficult to obtain.

ELAC Argo towers are coming, too.

With the bookshelf model performing at such a high level, I can’t wait to hear what the towers will offer. Regardless, based on what I heard at the show, these ELAC Argo B51 speakers easily deserve an AVS Forum Best of CES 2018 award.

For the price and performance it offers, ELAC’s Argo B51 system gets an AVS Forum Best of CES 2018 award.