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Ascend Acoustics ELX (updated line) - an ID company that deserves more attention (1 Viewer)

Carlo_M

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This ended up being very long, so here's the TL;DR. While speaker preference is subjective that I don't believe there is a "universal best speaker at this price point" I have come to believe the Ascend Acoustics ELX should be on anyone's short list for ~$5K/pair speakers, if the listener prizes accuracy over a "colored" sound.

Background: this summer I decided to build a 2.0 system only in my bedroom. I was adamant it be "full range for music" the majority of which doesn't contain much information below 30hz (unless you're a pipe organ fan). The lowest bass note on an electric bass guitar in standard tuning is 41hz, kick drums can be as low as 50hz. If you're into house/trance (I'm not) 808s and other types of beats machines go down as low as 30hz but rarely below it. I don't have space for a subwoofer and I only plan on listening to 2 channel music, so if I found a pair of tower speakers where the F6 (meaning the -6dB from the average) was in the ~35hz range anechoic, typical room gain would make up for a few lost dBs and give me respectable bass performance down to 30hz. At that point in my mind, the speaker would qualify as "full range for music"--at least the music that I listen to (modern, classic and prog rock, punk, folk, pop, metal, rap, classical, jazz, funk). Also I wanted to stay around the $4K range (I ended up exceeding it obviously).

I'll greatly abbreviate this part, but I spent several weekends driving around to local Magnolias and smaller A/V specialty shops around SoCal. I brought with me lossless files of specific tracks across all genres that I was intimately familiar with to play through speakers. Some specific notes and passages I knew were around the 35-45hz range. I auditioned many models between $2K - $5K by Kef, Def Tech (I own the Demand line for my home theater), Martin Logan, Revel, B&W, Focal, others I can't recall. Most A/V shops and one Magnolia were kind enough to reposition speakers to form a halfway decent listening environment, though all would ultimately have benefited from being in my room. But I wasn't about to buy $50K worth of speakers to take home and audition, only to return $45K+. While in the various listening rooms, none of those models I tested played those very low passages back to my satisfaction.

Meanwhile I had been posting actively on AVS and many people were recommending two brands as "great bang for buck" in the $4K-$5K range. The only problem is that they were internet direct companies, so no dealer auditions were possible. They were the Philharmonic BMR and Ascend Acoustics ELX.

As luck would have it, Dennis Murphy (the speaker designer and owner of Philharmonic) had a pair of his new model BMR HT towers (which were geared for home theater as opposed to his original BMR towers which gave up a little headroom for deeper bass extension) out for review at Audioholics. He offered to ship them to me to audition as the first leg of a West Coast audition tour, which I gratefully took him up on. Ascend Acoustics fortunately is located about a 70 minute drive from my home. Dave Fabrikant (owner and speaker designer of Ascend) was kind enough to offer me an extended audition at his small factory. I was so impressed by what I heard (I had never heard RAAL 70-20 ribbon tweeters before, and now I don't think I can ever go back to dome tweeters for music) that I splurged the extra $700 for them (he let me direct A/B with identical ELX towers with Titan dome tweeters) and took a pair home that day, knowing that he had a full 30-day refund guarantee, and that the BMR HTs were inbound and would allow me to have these two highly respected tower models in my home. I can say with 95%+ certainty I was likely the first and only person at the time to have these two in my home at the same time (the ELXs were only a couple months old and the BMR HTs were just entering production).

IMG_4738.JPG
Pic.1 The Philharmonic Audio BMR HT on the left in gorgeous gloss ebony finish, the Ascend Acoustics ELX tower on the right in Espresso finish.

I can provide detailed notes later for those interested, but over the course of 5 days I put them both through their paces. It was an agonizingly close decision at the end. There was just something about the RAAL tweeter, and the extra 2-3hz lower that the ELX was tuned, which made me keep the ELX. If I had to give them a comparison grade, and set the ELX at 100, the BMR HT would have scored 97. It was that close. And on some songs, I preferred the BMR HTs. Interestingly, the BMR HTs uses an AMT vs. a RAAL ribbon tweeter, and Dennis knowingly tuned it higher than the original BMR tower, which digs a few hz lower and uses a RAAL 64-10 tweeter. I think if I had the original BMRs to compare, it might have been 100 to 99. Or a tie.

Over those five days I did a combo of A/B (doing my best to level match) and extended listening to each as standalone pairs in the main listening position. Both are, in my opinion "near end-game speakers at the $4500-5200 price range). I haven't auditioned speakers in the $10K range, but some of the Kef, B&W, Focal and Revels I listened to were between $5K - $7K and I would take either the ELX or the BMR HT over anything I was able to audition from those brands.

The amazing thing with Ascend is that David purchased a Klippel Near Field Scanner ($100K) to accurately measure the anechoic performance of his speakers without need for an anechoic chamber and he publishes the results to show the results. He's used it to redesign and improve his speakers and the ELX line is the first tower line that was designed specifically with the Klippel NFS (his previous towers were designed prior to his acquisition of the NFS). He changed out his mid and woofer drivers (kept the RAAL 70-20 which is a brilliant tweeter IMO) and designed a completely new crossover which is a beefy mo-fo.

IMG_4695.JPG
Pic. 2: The new ELX crossover, David was kind enough to let me to take this pic while at their facility
This post is already longer than I had hoped. What's the nutshell summary of how they sound?

The ELX and BMR HTs were more similar than different. They both measure fairly flat and don't color the sound in any noticeable way. They both dig down as low as 99% of music that isn't the deepest note of a pipe organ will need. In my unscientific listening impressions the ELX went just a few hz lower and had a little bit less of a dropoff at those frequencies than the BMR HTs. Not to say the BMRs were lacking, if you only heard those you'd consider them full range as well. But the ELX just gave a small but still noticeable bit more oomph in the 30-35hz range. But the overall bass performance was punchy, energetic, while still being accurate, and not boomy (unless it's what was actually recorded). These were the first towers I've heard where for music, I never thought "hmm, I should probably add a sub".

It's the RAAL 70-20 vs Mundorf AMT where I think the difference was made for me. While I preferred the RAAL, let me be the first to say the Mundorf AMT is quite the performer. I wasn't sure how I'd feel about the AMT since I was unimpressed with Martin Logan's AMT implementation. The Mundorf AMT, coupled with Dennis's design and use of the Balanced Mode Radiators above and below it (and his crossover design) is miles ahead of what I heard with ML (even their newest line). Both the RAAL and Dennis's implementation of the AMT+BMRs will likely have me never going back to standard dome tweeters (yes I know companies are now using Beryllium and other exotic materials now at greatly increased price points, I'm just talking about standard soft dome, aluminum and titanium tweeters). Both provide an increased level of detail, accuracy and precision that I found were very pleasing to my ears. It's hard to describe the difference between the AMT and RAAL, sadly, it's one best experienced in person and personal tastes will come into play. To show how close it was, the person to whom the BMR HTs were going to after me came over (he lives in SoCal as well). He and I listened to both in my living room over several hours and he loved both of them...but he ended up buying the BMR HTs (he is using them for both music and movies).

IMG_4704.JPG
Pic. 3: the ELX beside my Def Tech Demand D17 tower (I have the D5c center and D9s for the remaining 4 bed layers in the Atmos-enabled living room)

IMG_4735.JPG
Pic. 4: a close up look at the Mundorf AMT with Balanced Mode Radiators above and below and Purifi woofers it on the BMR HT (left) and the RAAL 70-20xr ribbon tweeter and SEAS Curv midrange above it, and SEAS LX woofers below (right)


One thing to mention. I'm going to get these figures incorrect as I'm paraphrasing from memory. But certain review sites like Audioholics' James Larsen, Erin's Audio Corner, etc. have said that Dennis likely doesn't make much money on the speakers based on driver cost. The same goes for David when you look up how much the SEAS and RAALs cost. Both brands' cost of drivers make up a much higher percentage of the speaker's selling cost than the larger brands they compete against. In addition they both use higher quality components on their crossovers. Their cabinets are also very high quality (rumor is that the supplier for Dennis also supplies cabinets for one of the high end makers which is why his stuff looks directly comparable to them). And David uses a 3-ply layered bamboo cabinet (not cheaper MDF or HDF) which is environmentally friendlier, and has better resonance dampening while keeping weight lower than MDF/HDF.

While I ultimately bought the ELX, I also must convey how amazing I felt the BMR HT was. In fact I have one more room left in which I can place speakers for music...and I'm seriously considering either another ELX pair, or perhaps adding the original BMR tower which goes that little extra bit deeper than the BMR HT and also uses a RAAL 64-10x tweeter in place of the Mundorf AMT. It's not that I think the original BMRs would be better than ELXs, it's more of a "variety is the spice of life" type of thing. Like do I go with two Ferraris, or a Ferrari and a Lamborghini? That said, I also wouldn't be surprised if I updated this post later with "I purchased a second ELX pair".:rolling-smiley:

If anyone is looking at speakers in this price range, I highly recommend both of these speaker brands and models. Oh and if you are interested in the ELX but want to save money, I auditioned the ELX with Titan Dome tweeter in Ascend's listening room and it gets you 95% of the way to the RAAL, it's a great tweeter, and saves $900 from the cost. There is one benefit to the dome tweeter: if you are listening at more than 20° off-axis vertically the dome tweeter has better vertical dispersion than the ribbon (which in turn has better horizontal dispersion). Make the best decision for your room and listening position.

For anyone living in Southern California, give David a call/email and do yourself a favor and listen to his speakers in person before you put down your hard earned money on the big brand speakers. He and Dina are class acts and will make you feel at home, and David is happy to share his knowledge gained over decades of speaker design. Dennis Murphy is also wonderful but sadly is on the east coast so I have not had the pleasure of meeting him in person, but his willingness to send the BMR HTs on an audition tour to several members of an audio forum shows his confidence (justifiably so) in his products.

For those curious about my music signal chain:
Apple Music Lossless from Mac (16/44.1 to 24/192 depending on the track) > USB C > Topping E70 DAC > Mogami XLR > Buckeye Purifi 2 channel amp (amazing amp btw) > Blue Jeans. Cable Ten White speaker cables with banana terminals > ELX
 

ManW_TheUncool

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Wish I could give those babies a chance in my setting, but a las... I just don't have the space anymore to do anything like that justice (nor probably the budget for them at this point... maybe later if I actually come out of my early semi-retirement?)... so I just did the opposite and took the plunge on some very cheap-a$$, supposedly extremely high value (especially given their clearance-like sale pricing), Monoprice speakers for my tiny "home office" space, LOL -- never thought/expected to spend so little ever again on speakers after college (in the late-80's to very early-90's), LOL, especially consideration inflation since then (making things cost >=3x at face value... and more like 6-10x for somethings like NYC metro real estate), haha...

Of course, not expecting those very cheap-a$$ Monoprice Encore T5s to be as good as my ELAC UniFi 2.0s in my HT setup, but hopefully, they'll satisfy enough in my tiny "home office" space (that probably can't really fit anything bigger)... so I don't always have to don some cans or something for stereo (or better) audio at my PC, where I spend a whole lot of most days, nor blast music all the way from my HT and excessively bother neighbors, haha -- I do actually enjoy blasting music from the HT down the small hallway from my tiny "home office" space even though there's no sound staging and imaging w/ that, but in some ways, also sound quite naturally "alive" w/ the way music can sound traveling thru that small hallway (yes, w/ reasonably nice, nearly 10-yo solid pine flooring... though the HT space itself has a good size somewhat thick pile, wool area rug plus higher-than-avg ceiling)...

It's kinda weird though that those Monoprice speakers are rated a rather low 4 ohms. Probably no big deal even driven by my very old, budget-minded Yammy AVR (that's actually never driven any speakers at all before) given the tiny space in which I'm using them as I won't need to drive them much at all -- I may still need to add a very cheap-a$$ Monoprice sub to go w/ them though, LOL...

Anyhoo, LOL, congrats much on your new acquisition! And have a blast w/ them! Looking forward to "experiencing" them (and some good music) vicariously thru your anecdotes here! ;):cool:

:cheers:

_Man_
 

Carlo_M

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Joined
Oct 31, 1997
Messages
13,400
Thanks Man, I don't know what else to say other than to sing their praises from the rooftops. It's hard to quantify what I'm hearing, especially from the RAAL. It's ribbon has so much less of a moving mass compared to standard tweeters, it "starts and stops" measurably faster in milliseconds (according to those with instruments who can actually measure that kind of thing). And it's horizontal dispersion allows for very satisfactory off-axis listening. It's not so wide that one loses soundstage and directionality, but it's wide enough that if you're 40° or so off axis from the pair, it sounds almost as good as being in the sweet spot, and in my bedroom, where I can be working at the computer which is close to that angle off axis, I don't hear much of a sonic compromise.

I can't say enough "generic audiophile positives" about them. And to be fair, about the BMR HTs that I demoed as well. Bass is punchy and can go deep enough for just about all music, retaining a feeling of accuracy and no hint of boominess. Frequency response is pretty even to the point where I wouldn't say any particular frequency is noticeably spiked or dipped. Instrument separation is superior to anything I've owned before.

It's cliché to say "I hear things on the ELX that I've never heard before". Unless your previous speakers were awful (or defective), chances are those sounds were there in those speakers as well. But it's the presentation, soundstage, and instrument separation (and avoidance of any significant peaks and dips) of the ELX (and BMR) that made those sounds more "readily apparent" to your ears in a way that perhaps your previous speakers didn't.

That's what I'm experiencing with the ELX.
 

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