Before assessing the new Estelon YB floorstanding speakers ($21,900 per pair) I had to position them optimally in the room. Making this more difficult than usual was the organic shape with no corners, no sharp edges, not much to grip onto. But then again, I didn't have to do this on my own. The Estelon distributor, Jay Rein of Bluebird Music, took care of it for me, a process which involved close to an hour of small adjustments. This is a large speaker, and I can only call it the baby of the family in terms of price. Each speaker weighs 88 pounds and stands some 51" tall. We're talking a full bandwidth three-way design here. Some baby!
The rest of the family? Estelon offers the XC ($26,100), a stand-mounted speaker (108 lbs each with stand), the XB ($31,900), a floorstander weighing 152 pounds, the XA ($39,900), a floorstander weighing 187 pounds, the X Diamond ($59,900) at 190 pounds, the Extreme, which weighs 550 pounds. and will soon offer a wireless active speaker, the LYNX, weighing in at 143 pounds.
The Y range, of which the Estelon YB is the first member, is an attempt to bring most of the performance of the no compromise X range to market at a more affordable price point ($21,900) using different drivers and cabinet material. The founder of Estelon, Alfred Vassilkov, is the designer of both ranges and has very specific design objectives for his speakers. He believes in the maxim Form Follows Function, which accounts for the unusual profile. The X range speakers are cast with a patented marble-based composite, shaped to avoid any hard edges and to support each driver at its ideal height – at ear level for the tweeter, above the tweeter for the mid woofer and closer to the ground for the bass, each in its own separate compartment within a sealed cabinet. The finest components are specified, such as Kubala Sosna internal wiring, Teflon hybrid capacitors, fully enclosed crossovers and ultra-expensive Accuton ceramic drivers. The latest releases in the X series feature a new diamond tweeter and have been completely reworked to take advantage of the extended range and other characteristics of this special tweeter. I have only heard Estelon X speakers at shows, never in my own home, so I can't really give you a side by side comparison between X and Y ranges. So I'll judge the new YB on its own merits, and see how it compares to my reference speakers.
Design Of The YB
Alfred has selected high end drivers from SEAS (the 8" side mounted aluminum cone woofers), and Scan Speak (the 5.25" sliced-paper cone midrange and a 1" beryllium tweeter) in a sealed cabinet. For those unfamiliar with Scan Speak sliced paper cones, slicing the cones allows the introduction of damping glue into the very lightweight cone material, greatly increasing rigidity and reducing break up modes. Beryllium is a very lightweight but strong material, particularly well-suited for drivers, but also very expensive and enormously difficult and even dangerous to work with, so it is not often used in speaker drivers. The crossover is hand calibrated and the drivers carefully pair matched, like in my old Spendor BC1s. The woofers are located on the side of the unit rather than the front, to minimize interaction with the walls in smaller rooms.
Elegant magnetically attached covers are provided for each driver. As with many loudspeakers, for all critical listening I left the covers off. The stainless-steel feet are brilliantly designed and executed, and I hope other manufacturers will take notice. Inside each foot there is an inverted cone, so the whole weight of the speaker hangs on one point in each foot, keeping it fully isolated. You get the full benefit of a precision spike but that sharp spike never touches the floor. Brilliant! You will find four magnificent binding posts, all lined up in a row at the base of the speakers. The attention to detail is remarkable.
Estelon offer three finishes – white gloss, black gloss and black matte, using automotive paints and lacquers applied over a period of up to four weeks for a finish that should stand the test of time. If you prefer, a special edition YB is available in a champagne gold finish. Fit and finish are exemplary. The speakers look stunning.
Using my ATI sound pressure meter, I established the in-room sensitivity of the EstelonYB to be exactly the same as the reference YG Carmel 2, despite a small difference in the spec sheet (86dB into 6 Ohms for the Estelon versus 87dB into 4 Ohms for the YG). I set out to audition the speakers over a set of ten widely different recordings. The EstelonYB is considerably larger than the slightly more expensive two driver Carmel 2 ($24,300), and combining that with a three-way design you might suppose they can produce a greater maximum volume of sound, and go considerably deeper. There is certainly some truth to this, but remember the YG is no ordinary two way, and is capable of moving considerable volumes of air. It claims almost the same frequency bandwidth (30 Hz to 40 kHz for the Estelon, 32 Hz to 40 kHz+ for the YG). The Estelon produces more output in the deep bass, although that bass is less well controlled than the YG, which can start and stop on a dime at all frequencies. The Estelon seems rather more sensitive than the Carmel 2 to its exact positioning in the room, just as the Carmel 2 is more position critical than the original Carmel which you could set down almost anywhere. Happily, the YB seemed quite at home along the longer wall of my 22' x 12' listening room and being a sealed box design, like the YG, it is much less fussy than many ported competitors.
For a speaker of this quality, you need to feed it well. The latest spec EMM Labs XDS1 CD/SACD player and companion Pre 2 preamplifier are as transparent and revealing as you can get, and the big Modwright KWA 150 SE power amp proved an able partner. At this elevated level, you need superb cabling to allow the other components to perform at their best. A complete loom of Nordost Valhalla 2 cables fits this bill admirably, so high resolution and absolute neutrality is assured. What would the YB deliver?
The dynamics on this recording are extreme, the recoding quality and the performance off the charts, and of course the piano is one of the toughest tests for any speaker. With the Estelon I was immediately immersed into the depths of the music, noting a sweet tone and a very wide bandwidth. The piano had real weight, although it did become a bit sparkly at times in the high registers. The layering of the image was natural, and instruments were firmly located in space, with the speakers themselves disappearing. I found it very easy to listen for long periods. I noticed a slight recession in the mid treble, even with the speakers angled in towards the listener.
I must make special mention of the Shchedrin piano concerto, because it sounds a bit like the Shostakovich on steroids. Hamelin's playing is simply stupendous. At some points the symphony orchestra gives way unexpectedly to a small jazz combo. I love it! The Estelon is big boned and despite the challenging extremes of dynamics, it never shows the slightest strain. The piano is very articulate across its full range, and I enjoyed the clear attack of the full orchestra which sounds suitably weighty and realistic.
I tried Rubinstein's 1959 recording of The Chopin Scherzos [XRCD24 JMXR24009]. Nowhere near as clean a recording as the Hamelin, it is worth listening to just to hear the unique sonority this Russian master could extract from a piano. I count myself fortunate to have attended a number of his concerts in my youth. Even his wrong notes were beautiful. The Estelon brings enormous clarity and presence to this music, but I found it a bit hard and lean in the upper registers, which made me unwilling to listen to all 4 scherzos in one sitting. Is this the Estelon or is this something in the recording? The reference YG Carmel 2 speakers also struggled a little with this recording, revealing some cup-hand distortion, but at the same time it sounded fuller, maintaining an edge in clarity, color and power.
My last classical piano recording is of music from a much earlier era – Scarlatti Piano Sonatas [BIS 1508]. Originally written for harpsichord, it sounds quite at home on the modern day piano of Yevgeny Sudbin. I'm glad I tried this disc, since it reveals the warmth and expressiveness of the bass. My notes read "delicious, intimate, real power in the bass, sweet up high."
Time for something completely different. Taj Mahal and ToumaniDiabate combine on a fine Afro Blues crossover album – Kulanjan [Hannibal HNCD 1444]. This brings out top notch imaging from the Estelon – deep, wide and precise. The strings are strong, the sound rich, the voices both lovely and open. This is the CD where I most noticed the effect of the driver covers – Taj Mahal's voice is slightly boxed in with them in place but completely open without. I was most impressed with the coherence of the presentation. This is the complete package, and turning up the volume made it louder but still completely without strain or any change in tone quality. The Carmel 2 is faster here, showing more of the guitar harmonics and the leading edge of notes, but I would have to call this one a draw. Both outstanding – the Estelon more relaxed, the Carmel 2 more exciting.Yin and Yang. If you get the chance, pick up this album, and try to see Taj Mahal live if you can – then call out for the "Fishin' Blues".
Now for an album that brings out the best in every speaker - Keb' Mo' [UDSACD 2054]. Here is another musician I've heard live on multiple occasions, and I can recommend the experience. I've seen him seamlessly switch to a completely different instrument in mid song when a string snapped – consummate artistry. "Every Morning" has a strong beat that I could feel as much as hear. It's as fast and tight as it should be. There's a lot of harmonics on the guitar, and Kevin's voice is bold and forward in the mix. "Tell Everybody I Know" builds out the scale of the music, and loads the room with bass while staying wonderfully tuneful. I was impressed here by the speed of the transients, something I did not always observe through this speaker. On this bass-rich music the Estelon is every bit the equal of the reference speaker and I cannot fault it.
I keep coming back to the Beatles Love album on Capitol because it stretches any audio component. Do the voices merge together? Does it sound over-driven? Can I hear all the way in to the mix when the boys throw everything in but the kitchen sink? How does the guitar sound on "Blackbird", the strings on "Eleanor Rigby"? What about the birds flitting around – do they go outside the span of the speakers? The Estelon clearly cannot match the extraordinary resolution of the Carmel 2 (show me a speaker that can!) so I do hear some melding of voices in "Because" that the Carmel 2 clarifies, and the flightpath of the bird is less easy to follow. But boy is the sound beautiful! "Get Back" shows this speaker can rock with the best of them. There's real kick and drive on display. The sound is forgiving, warm and rich, although slightly recessed in the upper midrange. You'll be very happy with "Eleanor Rigby". It sounds so easy yet so alive, and the strings have real body. The only track that left me wanting more was "Blackbird/Yesterday", where Paul sounds slightly nasal and his guitar sounds less than fully resonant. By the way, I never saw the Beatles live, more's the pity, but I have caught a Paul McCartney show.
Listening To More Jazz
Another Jazz recording, equally thrilling musically if not so well recorded, is Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane [Jazzland JZSA-946-6]. I enjoyed a rounded piano tone and soft full bass that lent warmth to this sometimes astringent pair, but I also missed an open soundscape and felt that Trane should have more presence in the mix.
For my last classical recording, we have Haydn Trois Quatuors [Astree E8786]. I haven't heard the Mosaiques Quartet live, but by this time next year, I will have. They are coming to the St Lawrence Centre in Toronto. The Estelon does a fine job with this difficult disc. It is so easy for this original instrument group to sound harsh and thin, strident even, on lesser components. But here we have a rich, strong string tone with good attack in a lovely acoustic space – deep, wide, accurate, open and coherent. I enjoyed this a lot, but I have also heard speedier transients, higher resolution and more sustained harmonics that can elevate this performance to new levels.
Finally, another SACD of demonstration quality, The Well from Jennifer Warnes [Cisco SCD 2034]. Jennifer is certainly in the room for track 4, "Too Late Loves Comes". Although her voice is slightly hard, it is also very present and rendered with lots of detail. The deep bass is tuneful and plentiful, if a bit loose. Pulling the speakers into the room changed the relative level of the bass, but not its nature. Again, the upper frequencies are not as revealing as I would like, leading to a small lack of intimacy that I know is possible here.
The EstelonYB may be just what you are looking for. If my audio memory serves, the YB offers a very large chunk of the no-compromise Estelon X series sound at a more affordable price point, just what Alfred Vassilkov set out to achieve. My advice if you are in the market for a speaker in this price range: find an Estelon dealer, book an appointment and listen carefully. If you like what you hear - and I think you will - then ask for a home trial.