I favorably reviewed the Epos ELS3 mini-monitor in TAS Issue 145 and that well-balanced speaker later went on to win TAS’ 2003 Budget Loudspeaker of the Year award. Though the ELS3s didn’t produce much bass below 65Hz, they possessed an undeniable magic that beckoned to neophyte audiophiles and veterans alike—magic that made you want to listen to music. But good though the ELS3s were, I couldn’t help wonder what would happen if Epos expanded the basic ELS3 design to create a larger floorstanding speaker, one that offered better dynamics and more extended bass response. The idea makes sense when you consider that mini-monitors and their requisite stands often require as much space, and can cost nearly as much, as more capable tower-type speakers would. Apparently, Epos designer Mike Creek (of Creek Electronics fame) has been thinking along the same lines, because Epos now offers the ELS303s, which are ELS3- derived, 2.5-way floorstanders priced at $695. Can the ELS303s stretch the ELS3s’ performance envelope while preserving their innate musicality? We’ll tackle that question in this review, but first let’s establish some ground rules.
Years ago a favorite professor cautioned me that critics are sometimes guilty of “murder by dissection,” meaning that in analyzing and critiquing individual parts of art objects, they occasionally miss—or worse, destroy—the elusive beauty of the whole. This precaution has a bearing on our discussion of the ELS303 because it is the sort of speaker that, if subjected to a checklist-type evaluation, could sound much less impressive on paper than it does in real life. Accordingly, I’ll focus primarily on the overall gestalt of the speakers and avoid getting sidetracked by performance minutiae.
Having lived with the ELS303s for quite a while, I’ve concluded they are designed to do two main things: first, to reproduce music in an engaging and inviting way; and second, to promote relaxation by encouraging listeners to suspend disbelief and become immersed in the music at hand. Note that I deliberately did not use the word “accuracy” in that last sentence, not because the ELS303s are inaccurate speakers (far from it), but because their greatest strengths involve getting the feel of the music right. Oh, we could run through the usual litany of audiophile performance criteria, and I would dutifully report that the 303s deliver better than decent results in most areas, but that’s not really the point. The point is that these speakers go right after the soul of the music in a way that is refreshingly direct and devoid of typical audiophile hype or hoopla. At trade shows, I’ve witnessed the effects of the Epos’ musical directness on listeners, and it can be profound. I’ve watched journalists stagger into the Epos demonstration room looking weary and wrung out, yet after a few minutes of exposure to the beguiling, unfussy sound of the ELS303s many lose the frayed look of men under stress and begin to unwind and enjoy the music. That, people, is Epos magic at work.
How do the ELS303s pull this off? They do it, I think, through the fine art of compromise. First, the speaker’s tonal balance is slightly on the warm side of neutral—an intelligent voicing choice that enables the speakers to exploit the strengths of modest electronics without rudely exposing their weaknesses. The 303s never impart any sort of artificial, saccharine sweetness to the sound, but rather use their warmth gently to highlight the inherent richness of instrumental and vocal timbres. On the familiar title track of Paul Winter and the Winter Consort’s Icarus [Epic, LP], the 303s shed new light on the lilting cello and melancholic saxophone voices that carry the song’s melodic theme, so that I felt almost as if I were hearing “Icarus” for the first time.
The Eposes also reveal plenty of sonic details and nuances, yet without pushing things to a point where they sound inappropriately hyper-detailed. The speakers’ resolving powers are at their peak in the critical midrange, with very gradual softening of focus toward the frequency extremes. Oddly enough, though, this characteristic doesn’t make the 303s sound soft or lacking in focus, but rather has the desirable effect of making them more forgiving of imperfect recordings. Most of us own a few good but flawed records, typically ones that have been too closely miked, whose sound creates approach/avoidance conflicts; we are drawn to them for their clarity, but repelled by their stridency and brittle sound. The great news is that the 303s can plane down the raw edges of those kinds of recordings just enough to make them enjoyable again, without yielding much ground in terms of clarity or definition.