Using a handy Naim Uniti Star as both amplification and streaming source, and with additional source options offered by both a Clearaudio Concept turntable via Leema Elements phono stage and a Cyrus CDt, the Vela FS 408 joined the system via QED XT25 biwire speaker cable. And from there, with a delay of just a few short hours to allow for borderline-obsessive fiddling with room position – eventually the FS 408 end up roughly 35cm from a rear wall and toed in just slightly towards the listening position – it’s game on.
The most immediately impressive aspect of the way the ELACs go about their business is their beautifully even, unified tonality. That most unlikely of early examples of sampling, The Jungle Line from Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns [Asylum], sounds as if it’s derived from a single piece of material, despite being a fairly coarse collision between The Royal Drummers of Burundi, Joni’s inimitable vocal and some grainy Moog keyboard.
The JET5 tweeter, certainly, delivers on its reputation from the off. There’s genuine substance and body to treble sounds, yet they’re airy and spacious at the same time. Momentum is never an issue, and the combination of clarity, space and polite attack makes the top of the frequency range smoothly convincing. At this sort of money there are more determined and forceful speakers around where treble is concerned, certainly – Bowers & Wilkins’ driver-heavy 702 Signature floorstanders come to mind – but without exception they’re made to sound slightly ham-fisted by the clean, agile top end of the Vela FS 408.
There’s a similarly high-gloss, good-taste aspect to the way the ELACs treat the midrange. Detail levels are impressively high, and consequently there’s a sense of immediacy to the vocal – the purity of Joni’s tone comes across vividly, despite the fact that she sounds like she’s mic’d from mere nanometres away. There’s a hint of warmth in the 408 midrange, just enough to offer a touch of muscularity but not so much that timing is affected – the ELACs sound like they’re up on the balls of their feet almost as much as they look it.
The handover between drivers is seamlessly achieved – the crossover between JET5 tweeter and AS-XR midrange driver is imperceptible, and that between midrange and bass drivers is unobtrusive too. And down at the bottom of the frequency range the Vela FS 408 prove just as sprightly and focused as elsewhere. Wilton Fender’s peerless Aria bass guitar playing on ‘Edith and the Kingpin’ is impressively shaped, alive with the finest details of texture and string-gauge, and absolutely straight-edged when describing the attack and decay of individual notes. Despite significant extension and body, there’s nothing muscle-bound or congested about the way the ELAC bottom end sounds. Those AS-XR drivers may relish large signals and enjoy long travel, but they’re a deal more sophisticated in their attitude than those characteristics might suggest.
The commonality of purpose demonstrated by these three drivers contributes no end to a very pleasant facility with timing. The soundstage the ELACs generate is by no means the most expansive – in the context of the size of the cabinets it’s probably slightly disappointing, although their rather fussy shape eats into their internal volume somewhat – but it’s well defined and coherent. Combine this with the clarity, rapidity and square-edged attack of the sonic signature overall, and the entire frequency range hangs together like a well-made suit.
This deft ability to unify a recording into an entity with convincing singularity of purpose and execution makes the ELACs almost instantly likeable. And you know what they say about first impressions, right? So welcoming and so instinctively ‘correct’ do the Vela FS 408 sound in this respect, it’s hard to imagine ever taking issue with any other aspect of their reproduction.
But switching to the considerably more rough-around-the-edges Mark’s Keyboard Repair by Money Mark [Mo’ Wax] shifts the ELACs out of their comfort zone just a little. Thanks to those impressive detail levels, the analogue squelch and grind of massed analogue keyboards is delivered in its entirety – and they have no problem revealing the hesitancy and approximate pitching of Mark Ramos-Nishita’s voice. The treble response remains a paradigm of transparency and spaciousness, too. But where broad-strokes dynamics are concerned, there’s a rather hesitant quality to the FS 408 – they value control and expression above pretty much everything else, and consequently don’t quite give the big dynamic variances in this recording quite the emphasis they require.
That’s not to say they won’t dig deep and/or hit hard. Autechre’s Montreal [Warp] wants for nothing where low-frequency extension is concerned, and despite the tune’s best intentions the bass information never gets out of hand. It’s properly controlled and is always on the front foot – but, again, the ELACs don’t have the sort of explosive dynamic potency that the bald numbers (of driver count and size, of cabinet displacement, of retail price) suggest they might. So if it’s sonic fireworks you’re after, you’ll need to think long and hard about whether the ELAC Vela FS 408 fit your particular bill.
Oh, be in no doubt that their talents outweigh their shortcomings to an almost laughable degree – as well as the stuff around tonal consistency, adept timing and expressive midrange reproduction, they’re also very accomplished when it comes to describing a recording environment. Once through Erroll Garner’s Concert by the Sea [Columbia] makes the size and shape of the Sunset Center Assembly Hall explicit – and from there the ELACs make any number of pertinent observations about the number of attendees, the distance and reflectivity of hard surfaces and so on. It seems unlikely you’ll get a fuller or more vivid picture from any price-comparable alternative.