We’ve all heard the saying: If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is. We’ve seen this truth evidenced countless times as we’ve reviewed products that seemed amazing on paper, but fell flat under real-world use.
At first glance, that saying might come to mind when browsing the website of Canadian-based speaker company, Fluance. For example: the company sells a seven piece surround-sound speaker system –with floor-standing speakers for the front left and right channels, no less — shipped to your door for $330. That’s not a typo, folks, it’s just the sort of disproportionately low price that might get anyone thinking the deal is simply too good to be true. And yet, Fluance is still here fifteen years after its launch in 1997. The company must be doing something right…right?
We reviewed Fluance’s FiSDK500 iPod dock earlier this year, but we didn’t feel as if that piece gave us a feel for what the company was really capable of; so, when we were offered the ESHTB system for review, we gladly accepted. While the system we were sent is meant to be a higher performance system and comes in at a heftier price of $1,044.98, it has given us a chance both to evaluate Fluance’s approach to design and to get familiar with the company’s signature sound. Read on to see what we thought.
Out of the box
All six speakers in the ESHTB 5.1 system came double boxed with more-than-adequate foam padding. It would take shipping abuse of monumental proportions to damage these speakers in transit; not that such a thing is impossible, it’s just unlikely.
The speakers in the ESHTB system, with the exception of the subwoofer, are unlike any other product Fluance makes in that it is the only series that is made with forged aluminum cabinets as opposed to MDF (medium density fiberboard — a staple in the speaker-building business). That being the case, we suspected the long, tall cabinets might be fairly light in comparison to those built entirely of wood, but we were surprised at their 31 lb. heft. This may be because the front baffle that the speaker drivers are mounted onto is made of MDF, as are the top and bottom “caps” that finish the speakerThe front left and right speakers are especially tall, even for floor-standing speakers. Their height comes in at just under 52 inches, but the slender 5.75-inch width and shallow 5.33-inch depth (as measured without the base) keep the speakers from dominating the room.
The center channel and surround speakers share the same dimensions, though the center channel is horizontally oriented. The center channel and surrounds measure 5.7 x 17.3 x 6.2 inches (H x W x D) and 17.3 x 5.7 Xx 6.2 inches respectively. Each speaker weighs 10.5 lbs. The 10-inch subwoofer measures 18-1/2 x 12-5/16 x 16-1/2 inches and weighs just shy of 40 lbs.
We like the modern appeal of the aluminum cabinets, but we think that the speakers might suit a broader spectrum of interior decor were the aluminum to be in another neutral color –even a darker silver or grey would work. As is, the speakers do have a pleasant finish, but the color seems a little raw to us. As for the subwoofer, the black wood-grain vinyl finish on the MDF cabinet is attractive enough, but it doesn’t mock a real-wood finish very effectively.
Features and design
The ES1 floor-standing speakers, which serve as the front left and right speakers, feature a total of four 5-inch fiberglass drivers and one 1-inch tweeter with a fairly sizeable ring radiator. The ES1’s rated frequency response is 72Hz to 20kHz with a 90db sensitivity. The ES1 can be bi-amped or bi-wired if so desired. Interestingly enough, Fluance has designed this speaker so that one channel of amplification drives the tweeter only, while the other channel drives all four 5-inch speakers. We checked with Fluance and confirmed that this speaker is a two-way design. That is, all four 5-inch speakers produce the same sound (from 3500Hz down, as it happens) while the tweeter covers everything up from there. We don’t see anything wrong with this design, but the more popular approach with a speaker that has this driver arrangement seems to be using two of the 5-inch drivers to cover bass frequencies, while the other two cover midrange. Of course, that would require a more complex crossover design, which usually translates into more moolah. Based on these specs, we were interested to hear how the ES1 would perform in a bi-amped configuration.
The center and surround speaker each use a single 1-inch tweeter and dual 5-inch mid/bass drivers. The cabinets are sealed in an acoustic suspension design, so there is no porthole to consider. Each of the speakers provides two keyhole-style mounting “nubs,” which protrude from the rear of the cabinet, thus adding almost a full inch to the mounting depth.The subwoofer features a 10-inch driver with a seriously large and robust-looking butyl rubber surround. We pushed on the driver and found it to have a pretty stiff suspension. The sub uses a 150-watt amplifier with LFE input, stereo-rca line inputs and speaker level inputs. The amp also offers a phase switch, variable crossover and volume controls. We gave the subwoofer’s cabinet a quick rap and found the cabinet to be fairly dead-sounding –the mark of a well-constructed sub enclosure.
We connected the ES1 floor-standing speakers first to an Anthem Integrated 225 integrated amp — on their own in a stereo setup — then, later, to a Marantz SR6005 A/V receiver as part of a surround system utilizing all of the provided speakers. Content was served up by an Oppo BDP-95 Blu-ray player and an iPhone routed through NuForce’s iDO DAC. For reference, we also had Aperion Audio’s Bravus 8A subwoofer on hand.
Once connected to the Marantz receiver, we ran Audyssey’s MultEQ setup, which set speaker distance, speaker level and EQ for all speakers in the system. Of course, we also performed our own calibration and defeated the EQ settings as an alternate setup.
Each speaker in the system was given about 40 hours of break-in time before evaluation.
We started our listening session with the ES1 floor-standing speakers set up on their own, powered by the Anthem integrated, with no subwoofer to assist with bass response. We’ve found that the Anthem receiver, with its wealth of reserve power, manages to bring the best from any speaker as it sounds exceptionally clean and has a knack for drawing out the maximum bass performance of even the most difficult-to-drive speaker. With that in mind, we expected the eight combined 5-inch drivers between the two ES1 speakers would produce some satisfactory, if not tremendously deep, low end.
We ran through several recordings during this stage of our testing, including Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing on SACD, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on SACD and The Crystal Method’s “Name of the Game” from the album, Tweekend.We were pretty taken aback at how little bass the ES1 speakers produced for us, especially in relation to their hearty midrange and treble capabilities. We ended up double checking a few connections, playing with speaker placement and, ultimately, running a descending bass test pattern to double-check the ES1’s bass performance. As it turns out, the ES1 just don’t produce much bass or mid-bass information. Fluance claims they play down to 72Hz, but they rolled off far earlier than that in our tests. In fact, when we ran Audyssey and let it decide where the crossover point should be for these speakers, it chose 150Hz, which is particularly high.
The ES1 can, however, produce some tremendously “big’ sound. The amount of midrange and high frequency energy produced by these speakers gave us the impression we were listening to line-array speakers with several more drivers and tweeters. We were quite impressed with the ES1’s ability to produce mostly uncolored vocals and instrumentation, and were very pleasantly surprised at how clean and articulate the tweeter sounded without overstepping its bounds. We did note an upper midrange bump in the mix that got a little tiresome after long listening sessions involving lots of bright and crunchy guitar effects, but the highly exposed detail and well-articulated transients were almost enough to make up for the anomalies.
When sitting in the “sweet spot,” we were treated to an extremely wide sound stage, with instruments filling every nook and cranny between and beyond the speakers’ edges. However, once we moved from that sweet spot, we noticed that imaging took a big hit. There seemed to be these nodes around the room where the phase of the speakers just didn’t jive. While the sound remained large and room-filling in general, the refined “wall-to-wall” sound impression was considerably diminished as we moved out of the central listening area.
Bottom line: These speakers will please those that demand a big, lush sound, but we strongly recommend they be operated alongside a subwoofer, lest they sound anemic.
Naturally, the ES1’s lack of balanced bass response had us turning our attention to the subwoofer. At this point, we connected the ES1 speakers to our Marantz A/V receiver, tied in the DB150 subwoofer and ran through the same tracks we had just listened to minutes earlier.
The subwoofer certainly added some much needed weight to the sound and was able to round things out a bit, but we were pretty disappointed with the DB150’s performance in general. We found the DB150 to be seriously short on tone and depth of play. Our bass testing pattern revealed that the sub’s performance actually degraded as it was asked to play lower into the bass region. The sub made sound, but it lacked the resonance and tonality. As such it was neither musical, nor muscular.
We don’t want to beat up on the sub too much here, but we have to say that we wondered if we might not have gotten a defective unit. We contacted Fluance with our concerns and they graciously sent a replacement unit. We held on to the original sub and placed it side by side with the replacement to allow a direct comparison between the two. We also had a separate high-performance, budget-oriented sub on hand as a reference. What we found was that the DB150 sounds good down to about 65Hz, but output volume drops steeply after that. Ouput below 60Hz is output at a fraction of the volume of those frequencies above 70Hz.
Since the system is available without the DB150 subwoofer –and we wanted to give the rest of the system the best possible testing conditions– we brought in several other subwoofers to replace the DB150 while listening to multi-channel music and watching movie content.
Before we dug into multi-channel content, we thought we’d give the ES1S surround speakers a shot at playing the role of the front left and right speakers in combination with a subwoofer. We really enjoyed what we heard. These speakers could fill the role of mains in a smaller speaker system without a wince. At $225 for the pair, these are quite capable and pleasantly musical. They don’t bring much bass to the party, of course, but they sounded balanced and open and, again, we really enjoyed the high frequency response from the tweeter while noting that the upper midrange bump we heard from the ES1 towers was not present.
As a home theater system, the ESHTB was pretty dazzling. The ES1S were more than capable of taking on the role of surround speaker and the ES1 floor-standing speakers’ massive energy movement brought movie effects right up to our face. Our only critique here would be of the center channel, which didn’t produce dialog quite as clearly as we’re used to, though it is still on par with more expensive center channels of similar design.
While the ESHTB wouldn’t be our top pick for a music-listening rig, it is plenty capable of delivering clean, detailed and rich sound. Those with a jones for wall-to-wall, in-your-face action will love the massive amount of energy the ES1 floor-standing speakers deliver and will benefit from a well-integrated system of surround and center speakers for an immersive movie-watching experience. The system’s Achilles’ heel lies with the DB150 subwoofer, should it be included in the mix. Because the speaker system produces very little bass on its own, a capable subwoofer is essential for a solid-sounding system. We highly recommend considering another budget-friendly, high-performance subwoofer to take on the low end for this system. Otherwise, the ESHTB stands as a pretty solid value with sonic performance that ranks just a bit above average.
- Huge sound from main speakers
- Excellent sounding surrounds
- Refined treble performance
- Natural and open midrange
- Little to no bass performance from mains
- Poor subwoofer performance
- Dialog clarity could use a boost