Finally, the 303s focus on getting the important things right without striving for unrealistically broad frequency response or large-scale dynamic capabilities. For example, the 303s make no attempt to produce truly low bass (their low-frequency response extends to a respectable but not overly deep claimed roll-off point of just 48Hz), yet the bass they do produce almost always sounds articulate, hearty, and appropriately weighted—never thin. Similarly, the 303s do not reach for treble response that extends beyond audibility, yet their highs for the most part sound smooth, silvery, and clear. Finally, though the speakers cannot play extremely loudly, they can beautifully reveal even quite subtle dynamic contrasts at moderate volume levels, so there’s no need to crank them up to enjoy lively sound. In short, the ELS303s do a lot of things well, and the things they can’t do well are, by design, left undone. This is a much smarter approach than trying to force edge-of-the-envelope performance in a half-baked way.
The 303s encourage listeners to set aside the cares of the day and to lose themselves in the music, and they so by promoting suspension of disbelief through unusually good imaging and soundstaging. Like masters of sonic prestidigitation, the 303s use realistic tone colors and spatial cues to create vivid illusions of real musicians performing in real acoustic spaces, yet they conceal their own roles in the magic act by eliminating edge diffraction and other discontinuities wherever possible. The speakers’ dual 5" bass and mid/bass drivers are small enough in diameter to disperse very well, while the 303s narrow cabinet-faces and flush-mounted drive units help minimize diffraction effects. Note, though, that the speakers’ grilles must be removed to achieve optimal sound. Heard at their best, on well-engineered, three-dimensional recordings such as Marta Gómez’s Entre Cada Palabra [Chesky], the 303s remove themselves from the playback equation in an altogether self-effacing way, leaving listeners face-to-face with the performers and the music. Entre Cada Palabra showcases not only Gómez’s vocals but a vibrant Brazilian jazz ensemble, and through the ELS303s I heard that ensem ble spread in a broad semi-circle before me, with Gómez standing near the center, all within the intimate setting of a reverberant mid-sized room. At certain moments, the ELS303s in the foreground seemed not even to be playing, though of course they were.
Despite their strengths, the Eposes naturally cannot be all things to all people, and owing to inherent output limits I would say they are not the best choice for listeners who enjoy rock music played at high volumes, or who favor a steady diet of large-scale orchestral works. Similarly, the 303 might not fully satisfy listeners seeking high levels of resolution and detail and for them a better solution might be Usher Audio’s articulate S-520 mini-monitors. In turn, those who require more deeply extended bass might prefer near-full-range offerings from Paradigm (the Studio 20 V3 monitors) or from PSB (the Image B25 monitors or T45 towers).
But for the elusive combination of sophisticated midrange magic, dynamite imaging, and substantial though not quite full-range bass, the 303s are tough to beat at their price. I won’t tell you the ELS303s are state-of-the-art speakers (nothing in this price range is), but they offer a satisfying subset of the broader range of things that great loudspeakers do well. For this reason I think they would make superb starter speakers—ones that consistently connect listeners with their music.