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.
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.