Near Field Nirvana — Component Review of Three Bookshelf Loudspeakers

by | Mar 28, 2019 | Component Reviews | 1 comment

Near Field Nirvana

Ric Mancuso Speed Dates Three Bookshelf Loudspeakers — Elac, Wharfedale, Dali

I had the opportunity this weekend to snag three competitively priced speakers to speed date.  Will I want to have another date with one?  Which one(s) will get the rose?  Will I fall in love or lust for another night of listening? Dating can be more fun than a long-term relationship in some ways. You get a quick take on good looks, personality and a flirtatious vibe.

Component Near Field Diagram

Component Near Field Listener


First of all, I’ll let you in on a great way to listen to speakers with minimal or no room reflections.  See that billiard/pool table above? Why is it pictured there? Visualize this analogy correlating to sounds coming from a loudspeaker, like billiard balls.  The table represents the room with the cushions as the walls.  When you hit the ball towards the cushion it rebounds towards other cushions and so forth.  Sound waves are like the balls all hitting the cushions at once drifting to the center and all points on the table. Sound waves do the same thing! They hit the walls and bounce (reflect) to the listening spot time delayed from the original sound source.  The result is a ball of confused sound (music) coming to your ears, interrupting the recordings spatial sonic cues.  The ears are hearing multiple reflections that are close enough in time, as to distort from the propagation of the direct sounds coming forward to the listener.

John Bau of Spica Loudspeakers illustrated this issue with the owner’s manuals that came with Spica speakers.  The idea is to put the loudspeakers in disproportionate proximities to walls, ceiling and floor distances. This is so that the room reflections arrive at different times that lag way behind the original sound wave launch.  The ear/brain will discard the lag-timed signals and accept the direct source. Yes, this is psycho-acoustic science.  I was fortunate to have worked along side of John Bau, demonstrating proper set up of Spica’s to dealers in the 1990’s.  Peter Moncrief was also a disciple of this technique and touted it in his publication, The Inner Ear. 

So, what is Near Field Nirvana?  It is the technique of listening to speakers without having to be mindful of the reflective elements in a sound space.  Setting monitor type speakers in an equal lateral triangle, is the first step. Let’s say about 6 to 7 feet wide and sitting back listening 6 to seven feet back centered.   

Component Near Field Layout

This way you are getting least amount of room reflections coming to your ears.  You have essentially taken the room out of the equation.  This is how recording engineers listen in their control rooms; they know a thing or two about sound. Recall the LS3/5A’s, which were developed for near field listening for remote recording monitor playback.  The LS3/5A is still in production and still one of the most revered high-end speakers of all time! Wish I still had mine! The Harbeth HPL-3ESR, the more contemporary version will make you melt in the near field configuration!!

Now, there are some considerations when doing near field. You will need less power from your amplifier; the inverse square power rule comes into effect. I’m not going to bludgeon you with the formulaic math.  The formula states basically, the further away you listen to your speakers, the power demand (watts) to achieve the same decibel level listening up close goes up logarithmically. Makes sense, the closer you get to a sound source, the louder it gets.

Secondly, it’s a one-person sweet spot, similar analogy to a camera lens being in focus. The aural experience is total immersion with near field listening.  Now some types of speakers do not lend themselves to being so close.  Planar’s, Electrostatic’s, Bi-Poles and Di-Poles, would be a challenge, along with large floor standing speakers.  My listening room is totally a near field sound space. I’m limited in speaker placement, because of the room space constraints, however, enjoyable beyond expectations.

Three Loudspeakers I Have Speed Dated this Weekend
ELAC UB 5 Concentric Bookshelf
DALI OBERON 1 Bookshelf Speakers
WHARFEDALE DENTON 85 Bookshelf Speakers


ELAC UB 5 Concentric Bookshelf $500.00 per pair:

This is Andrew Jones concentric designed speaker similar to the KEF LS 50’s.  The UB 5’s have been recently purchased and are one of my stable favorites to compare to other speakers. I won’t play favorites, but I have to admit, they are hard to beat even at double the price or more!  I played four music selections to test for the basic competency of each speaker’s sonic merits.  The UB5’s have been broken in, as with the other two for this review. All of the speakers were sourced independently of the manufacturer. A local dealer here in Portland, OR accommodated my request to review the speakers.  In fact, I purchased the ELAC’s from the dealer.

The Four Selections as Follows:
Miles Davis CD
Kind of Blue
Recorded 1959

Melody Gardot CD
My One and Only Thrill
2009 Release

Menotti Barber CD
Concertos for Violin and Orchestra
Reference Recordings
Release 1992

The Doobie Brothers CD
Best of the Doobies
Warner Brothers/DCC /Compact Classics

First up played a couple of Miles Davis cuts at moderate volume.  Everything was in focus and the music flowed and was well integrated.  This speaker likes power and I was already half way up on the volume knob on my Rogue Audio Pharaoh integrated amp. I could hear to the back of the recording space at Columbia studios in NYC. This is one of the best albums of any genre, any time, anywhere on the planet. Reeds on the saxophones were palpable and Miles’s trumpet distinctively placed in the sound field.  The UB 5’s were directly pointed and toed in to my listening position. These speakers demand that you focus them like a laser pointer to your head.

Next up was Reference Recordings Menotti Barber Orchestral piece. I wanted to test the ultimate dynamics of the UB 5.  One always has to be careful with Keith Johnson’s recordings, because of the tremendous dynamic range. You could be soiling your pants and scaring all your pets to death. The recording is in a performance space that yields amazing sound at a high-school auditorium!

I was able to hear in an almost 3D perspective with the ELAC UB 5’s.  Dynamics were not compressed.  This speaker can handle dynamics. It’s a 4-ohm load and drained every ounce of the 375 watts from the Rogue Audio Pharaoh integrated amp.

I played some Rock music from the Doobie Brothers Best of CD.  Bass was well defined, extended and punchy.  I cranked it up Minute by Minute.  Then I played some delicate vocal material from Melody Gardot with a reward of hearing a good rendering of the human voice on the UB 5’s All in all, a very good speaker for the money.


WHARFEDALE DENTON 85 Bookshelf Speakers $899.00 pair:

This loudspeaker is nearly double the price of the ELAC UB 5, but I feel would compete with the ELAC at $500.00 per pair.  This is Wharfedale’s DENTON 85 model from their heritage line of speakers.  About the same size as the UB 5’s in a nicely finished wood cabinet. They look, feel and smell (Ah the aroma of wood varnish) like a premium speaker. Brit speakers always have the pedigree of quality and excellent build quality, reminiscent of the nicely made speakers 1970’s. These are a two-way speaker, unlike the UB 5’s, which are three-way concentric. Denton’s are designed in the UK and made in China.

These speakers play big, they are on 24′ heavy stands and present like floor standing speakers.  Upon playing Miles Davis cuts, it became quickly apparent that the instrument timbre was spot on.  I could hear the spit and wetness of the reeds on the saxophones and the fullness with weight of the other instruments.  My wife walked by the sound room and peaked her head in and commented that the Wharfedale’s sounded real!  On the violins on the Mennoti Barber, again hearing the truest timbre of the instrument. They can play loud and boogie too.  Transparency was good and scale was believable.  The tubes in the front end of the Pharaoh really gave a nice quickness to the romantic sound of the speaker.

Now, remember this a speed date.  I’m inclined to ask her out again for more than a cup of coffee!  Vocals on this speaker are truthful and have rightness to them.  British speakers like Harbeth, ProAc and Spendor can do this act, however, for a lot more $$$. My expectations were low in the beginning, but changed to a bit of panting in the end of this quick review.


DALI OBERON 1 Bookshelf Speakers $549.00 pair:

Here we have a Danish small bookshelf speaker from DALI that can be placed virtually anywhere to achieve a predictably even sound.  You can put them on a pile of folded laundry, hang them on the wall, or put them on a bookshelf.  The OBERON’s would truly be noted as a textbook bookshelf loudspeaker.  They are in a vinyl wrap cabinet, like the ELAC’s.

Compared to the other two speed dated speakers, these would be considered bantam weight  challengers to larger welter weight contenders featured in this review.  Smaller speakers have their advantages of being more point source and have the ability to disappear in a room.  I heard this phenomenon in the showroom hooked up to modest NAD gear.

In my sound space with the Pharaoh, the tweeter exhibited some harshness and a peaked response.  Bass was adequate and useable.  The speaker did not handle dynamic material well, however, with moderate volumes, the speaker sounded more comfortable in its skin.

The DALI’s IMO are really meant for casual listening paired up with electronics with a softer sound palette.

Well, it seems that a rose has been tossed to the ELAC UB 5’s and the Wharfedale DENTON 85’s.  One is the girl next door with charm and cleans up well, where the other is a woman that is a bit more sophisticated, polished and perhaps, one could you live with, if you can put up with her British accent?

Associated Equipment:
Rogue Audio Pharaoh Integrated Amplifier
Cambridge CXC Transport
Rega Planar 3 Turntable with Ortofon MC Quintet Cartridge
Chord Company Speaker Cables
Monster Cable Sigma Interconnects
Nordost Digital Co-Ax


—  Ric Mancuso



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