Elac Element EA101EQ-G integrated amplifier
“The Elac Element EA101EQ-G is a do-everything amp with a distinctively laid back sound.”
- Smooth, rich, full-bodied sound
- Warm, easy-going midrange and treble
- Good imaging and soundstaging capabilities
- Great aesthetics
- Feature rich
- Sonic details too smooth and obscured
- Treble lacks air and sparkle
- Sense of rhythm and timing needs work
Elac’s been making quite a few waves with its budget series of loudspeakers, and for good reason: Their combination of audiophile-level performance at real world prices makes them perennially recommendable favorites among the budget-conscious enthusiast crowd, as evidenced by the Uni-Fi UB5 bookshelf speaker we recently reviewed.
So when word broke that Elac had released its own integrated amplifier, the $699 Element EA101EQ-G, we knew we had to get our ears and eyes on it. Touting it as the natural partner for its Andrew Jones lines of speakers, the Element includes some unique features and aesthetic design touches not normally found among the competition and, according to its website, promises to be “the heart of a true audiophile system at an affordable price.” Read on to find out if the Element offers performance commensurate with Elac speakers.
Out of the box
Fresh out of its sturdy, well-packed box, the Elac Element impressed us with its refreshingly unique and attractive design aesthetic. Its clean lines, contoured edges and brushed metallic front and rear fascia shows the Elac crew wanted its customers to enjoy using this amp as much as listening to it. Its slimline shape is noticeably more compact than other integrated amps we’ve seen, and we appreciated how the Element’s diminutive size allowed us to tuck it into tight spaces or inconspicuous corners.
Other details help the Elac amp stand out from the pack. Nearly the entire top surface consists of a honeycomb-patterned sheet of rubber, and we found it quite practical as a no-slip grip pad for anything we placed on it. Touch-sensitive power and source controls on the front panel’s glass display window are also a nice break from the usual pushbutton type and help maintain a streamlined appearance, and the blue, organic electro-luminescence (OEL) display is a welcome departure from the ubiquitous segmented-character type. If smart visual design is a priority, you’ll appreciate the tastefully unique aesthetic.
Other items inside the box include a small remote control, a pair of AAA batteries, user manuals, and a detachable power cord.
Features and design
With its 5-pound weight and dimensions of 8.375 inches wide x 2.125 inches high x 11.625 inches deep, the Element is noticeably lighter and more compact than most integrated amps. This is largely due to its BASH amplifier, which combines a switch mode power supply with a class A/B output stage.
The Elac Element impressed us with its refreshingly unique and attractive design aesthetic.
The result is an amplifier section that produces far less heat than the full A/B types found in most amps. This eliminates the need for large and costly heatsinks, and shrinks the amp section’s internal footprint while still delivering enough power to drive most real world speakers. In the Element’s case, that’s specified as 40 watts per channel into 8 ohms or 80 into 4 ohms, both at a 1Khz center frequency instead of the more demanding, full-bandwidth rating of 20Hz to 20Khz.
Even with its compact size, the Element has enough inputs to accommodate a wide variety of sources, including two analog, three 24-bit/192Khz digital, and one 24-bit/192Khz, asynchronous USB-B type inputs. While Elac doesn’t specify compatible file formats for the Element’s D/A converter, we had no trouble playing all manner of MP3, WAV, and PCM files up to the specified resolutions, and it will even decode Dolby Digital signals; DSD files however were incompatible. Wireless streaming via Bluetooth 4.0 with aptX is also on tap. The supplied remote handset controls all major amp functions, such as volume and input selection; it also provides source playback controls for paired mobile devices.
A downloadable Android or iOS app offers more comprehensive adjustments, including tone, balance, and subwoofer level controls. Inputs can also be renamed, and the Elac’s room correction feature, called Auto Blend and Calibrate, or ABC can also be accessed through the mobile app. In a nutshell, ABC uses your mobile device’s microphone to flatten your system’s frequency response based on your room acoustics. Should you decide to hook up a subwoofer, it will also attempt to optimize its level and crossover frequency to your main speakers.
After reading the manual, making the requisite connections, and powering on the amp, we downloaded Elac’s iOS control app for our iPhone 5S. Unfortunately, we got mixed results when trying to use some of the app’s features, at least in our acoustically-treated listening room: playback controls worked fine, but ABC calibration made very little, if any, noticeable difference in equalizing or tuning the speakers to our listening space.
Since most calibration programs we’ve tested in our particular room have given similarly subtle or ineffective results, and we didn’t hook up a subwoofer, we left the ABC feature turned off and controlled the amp with the supplied remote for the duration of our listening sessions. As with all such calibration programs, note that your mileage may vary: If your room isn’t acoustically treated, as ours is, it’s might be worth giving the ABC feature a shot.
Some amplifiers try to wow the listener with hyped up frequency extremes or sonic pyrotechnics, but the Elac attempted no such slights of hand. Instead, the Elac Element EA101EQ-G delivered a generously warm, rich, and surprisingly powerful sound that was easy on the ears over the long haul. For example, Alisha Weilerstein’s cello, as heard on a high-res download of her Dvořák Cello Concerto album, sounded big, bold and appropriately woody. Likewise, strings and woodwinds came across with a lush smoothness, devoid of glare, hardness, and stridency.
The EA101EQ-G threw a surprisingly large and well-defined soundstage, with plenty of width and depth.
The midrange warmth heard with instruments carried over to vocals as well. On Kings of Convenience’s Riot on an Empty Street, for example, Erlend Øye’s warm baritone vocals sounded soothingly rich and well-textured without becoming too thick or syrupy. Female vocals also sounded smooth and full-bodied. On Alison Krauss’ album, New Favorite, high notes projected with fine presence and clarity without sounding harsh or sibilant. If anything, the Elac’s midrange could be a bit too mellow at times, but with partnering speakers that are a bit emphasized or shouty in this region, the Element EA101EQ-G will sound natural and well balanced.
Moving up the frequency range, we could hear that the Elac’s treble possessed the same smooth, easy-going character as its midrange. Cymbals, high hats, and the whole treble spectrum on Alexandre Côté’s Portraits d’ici album, for example, was delivered with clean sustain and transient decay, even if the initial attack components lost a shade of their crispness and impact.
Unfortunately, the Elac’s easy-going demeanor is achieved at the expense of detail reproduction. quick-moving bow strokes during the spiccato passage of the Dvořák Cello Concerto missed some of their articulation, resulting in Weilerstein’s playing sounding less precise than we’re used to hearing. Treble details, such as the various percussion bells, and triangles heard on Kruder and Dorfmeister’s The K&D Sessions, lost some of their atmospheric sparkle and airy presence.
The Elac’s mellow character didn’t do any favors for its sense of timing, either. At its best, the tune Surrey with a Fringe On Top from Joshua Redman’s album, Back East, swings as all get out, with a thoroughly propulsive verve and toe-tapping synchronicity that comes through clearly and effortlessly with the best amps. Heard through the Element, however, the initial attack components of snare drum hits and cymbal strikes sounded less sharply delineated and less explosive than they should have. The musicians seemed to play with less momentum and rhythmic insistence overall, making for a sound that was too laid-back for our tastes.
We’re sure however that more than a few prospective users might enjoy this type of presentation, especially if you prefer a pipe n’ slippers kind of sound and mostly relaxing to your music. And given the choice between the Element’s warm, listenable disposition or the aggressively-forward, and fatiguing presentation heard from some other amps, we’d take the Elac every time. As always, let your own ears be the judge.
Unfortunately, the Elac’s easy-going demeanor is achieved at the expense of detail reproduction.
Thankfully, the Element’s mildly diminished detail didn’t affect its imaging qualities. The EA101EQ-G threw a surprisingly large and well-defined soundstage, with plenty of width and depth. Instrumental outlines on Portraits d’ici were cleanly and sharply rendered without being overly so, and the lateral layering of instruments as heard on The K&D made for an expansive, wall to wall soundfield that kept us immersed in the music. If imaging is an important consideration, you’ll find much to like in the way the Elac amp does it.
Equally surprising were the Elac’s headroom and dynamic capabilities. Real-world power delivery is where we’ve heard more than a few diminutive amplifiers come up short, but the Elac Element capably drove every loudspeaker we tried. Large scale orchestral works, such as Jean Yves Thibaudet’s recording of Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Night on Bald Mountain were delivered with healthy doses of dynamic expressiveness and visceral power.
That dynamic headroom also paid dividends when it came to bass performance. Listening to some of our favorite bass heavy albums at high SPLs, such as Majid Jordan’s A Place Like This, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., and James Blake’s Overgrown, the Elac always kept control of the lowest octaves, delivering fulsome, resonant bass with good punch and satisfying weight. Only when it’s partnered with low sensitivity or power hungry speakers does the Element reach its limit, but with most loudspeakers of average or higher sensitivity, the Elac Element should have no trouble cranking out distortion-free SPLs when called for.
A quick word needs to be said about the Element’s front panel OEL display: While it certainly looks cool up close, the alphanumeric characters are so small and so closely spaced together that it’s completely unreadable at average distances. We measured ours to seven feet away, and other, decidedly non-scientifically controlled visitors and test subjects reported the same lack of readability at similar distances. Of course, the quality of your eyesight will be the final arbiter as to the exact non-readability distance in your own space, but be prepared for an ultimately useless display if you’re keen on the Elac amp.
The Elac EA101EQ-G comes with a one-year limited warranty for defects in materials and workmanship.
The Elac Element EA101EQ-G might not win everyone over, but it stands as a worthy option in the compact integrated amplifier category, and would make an excellent antidote to overly forward or aggressive-sounding speakers.
Is there a better alternative?
At $200 less, the PS Audio Sprout is a great alternative to the Elac and a more enthusiastic recommendation at the significantly lower price. Sound quality is noticeably livelier, punchier, and more rhythmically propulsive, and its built-in phono stage is surprisingly good, to boot. However, the Elac includes Dolby Digital processing, ABC room correction, and a more powerful amp section into lower impedance loads.
If size isn’t a factor, the Cambridge Audio CXA60 sonically outclasses both the Elac and the Sprout in every meaningful parameter. Its 60 WPC rated power output into 8 ohms makes it nearly twice as powerful as the smaller amps, and its plethora of analog inputs are a boon to those still straddling both analog and digital worlds. More than a few quality options exist within the two-channel amplifier category, so you’re sure to find something that fits your needs if the Elac doesn’t.
How long will it last?
Elac has a long track record when it comes to reliable audio products, and the EA101EQ-G shows no signs of betraying that legacy, so we’re guessing this amplifier will last a lifetime or more.
Should you buy it?
If you’re looking for a smooth-sounding amplifier to balance some hyper detailed or aggressive-sounding speakers, and size is an issue, the Elac Element EA101EQ-G deserves a considered audition. Otherwise, we’d recommend investigating other options — similarly priced alternatives will provide livelier, more neutral sound quality and may prove to be a better match overall.
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