What Hi-Fi (UK)
Electrocompaniet ECI 80D
Dan Sung asks the experts who make the products we love
It’s been over a decade since we last reviewed anything from Norwegian company Electrocompaniet, so we aren’t quite sure what to expect from the ECI 80D integrated amplifier. As things turn out, it’s an impressively polished performer that’s brimming with useful features.
We can’t imagine too many occasions where the ECI 80D will be caught short in a price appropriate two-channel set-up. It has a good range of digital and analogue inputs, including a movingmagnet phono stage, multiple coaxials and opticals, as well as two-way Bluetooth in high-quality aptx HD form.
Those hardwired digital connections will accept up to 24-bit/192khz PCM files, though the lack of a USB input means there’s no option of playing DSD or PCM files of higher sampling rates.
As for outputs, there’s a basic set of multi-way speaker terminals, 6.3mm and 3.5mm headphone outputs and a dedicated preamp connection for those who need more muscle than the ECI 80D delivers. Electrocompaniet claims 80W per channel into an 8ohm load, with that output almost doubling to 150W per channel as the impedance halves.
The ECI 80D feels like a good example of a product from a small-scale specialist manufacturer. The build quality is solid but lacks a little slickness compared with the best at this level. We don’t feel so generous about the remote handset, though; while simple, it feels cheap.
In use, this is a wonderfully capable amplifier for the money. It majors on delivering an open and spacious sound brimming with subtleties. Give it a low-key album, such as Found Songs by Ólafur Arnalds, and it shines, rendering nuanced soundscapes that are populated by expressive instruments and sounds.
We are impressed by the resolution on offer and the way this amplifier organises all this information into a cohesive and musical whole.
No unwarranted hard edges
It has a refined presentation that’s free of any unwarranted hard edges, yet there’s enough in the way of bite when the music demands. We switch to Holst’s Mars and enjoy the Electrocompaniet’s stereo imaging, particularly the way it layers the sound and prevents instruments from jostling to be heard.
Larger-scale dynamic shifts are handled well, though if you switch to rivals such as the analogue Naim Nait XS 3, the ECI 80D doesn’t convey the same sense of muscularity and punch. Equally, the Electrocompaniet delivers a sense of insight and sophistication that the Naim struggles to generate, so it’s a case of horses for courses rather than one being notably better overall than the other.
Tonally, the ECI 80D sits on the slightly smooth and rich side of neutral – but not so much that it unduly affects the amplifier’s overall transparency or smothers the sonic characteristics of individual recordings.
Playing Watch The Throne by Jay Z and Kanyé West through the digital inputs proves that the Electrocompaniet’s cultured presentation doesn’t stop it from being an entertaining and enthusiastic listen. While lacking the Naim’s rhythmic drive and attack, it still has enough in the way of power and punch to keep us listening. We love the way it conveys voices and the way it communicates the passion and meaning behind the words so effectively. This DAC module is broadly as good as the better standalone choices that cost around a quarter of the amp’s price.
The built-in moving magnet phono stage is surprisingly capable too. Usually, such things sound like a box-ticking exercise rather than something to get excited about. But this phono module retains the clarity of the line stages and works well with everything from Marley’s Exodus to Orff’s Carmina Burana.
We’re similarly positive when we try the headphone outputs. The sonic character is just as engaging as through the speaker outputs – and that’s not as common as it should be.
The Bluetooth input gives more good news –it’s one of the best we’ve heard in a product like this. While the wired inputs are our go-to choice for absolute performance, the ECI 80D’s Bluetooth sound is impressively effective.
Electrocompaniet has done an excellent job here. The ECI 80D is a well-specified amplifier where all the key features work really well – and, in our experience, that’s a rare thing. Add to that sound quality that is comparable to the best of its rivals and it’s quite clear that this amplifier is an excellent buy.
It is said that if an optimist sees a glass is half full and a pessimist sees it as half empty, then an engineer will tell you that the glass is twice as large as it needs to be. We are reminded of this old adage when we asked some of the best engineers of the British hi-fi industry whether or not there is a distinctly British sound.
“Accurate, faithful and true,” says Nick Clarke, director of engineering at Arcam, when we ask him about a British sound. “I don’t associate it with a sound as such, the equipment should get out of the way of the music. If it doesn’t, it hasn’t been designed correctly,” he adds.
“Understated, genuine and faithful reproduction throughout the entire bandwidth,” says Craig Milnes, co-owner and design director of Wilson Benesch. “Precise, natural, accurately reproducing the original recording,” says Matt Bartlett, Chord Electronics’ managing director.
So, just as the job of the glass is to carry the water from the table to your lips – not to change the flavour or colour the liquid in any way – your hi-fi system should be true to its name and deliver the recording as faithfully as possible.
But, as noble as that aim is, does the glass of water analogy actually stand up? Compared to record players, amplifiers and loudspeakers, the glass is a simple device. There are no problems of leakage, mechanical loss, the infidelity of digital to analogue conversion, splitting of water into different frequencies or issues of unwanted resonance. The water ripples, maybe a little of it evaporates, but it still tastes exactly the same as it did when it left the tap.
However, when building a piece of hi-fi equipment, there are limitations and compromises to make. Creating kit that delivers the original recorded sound, truly untainted, is next to impossible.
“Sound is what turns out after the brief. You choose the best materials for each required element that’s affordable for each price point, then use that material to achieve the best performance,” says Roy Gandy, owner and co-founder of turntable manufacturer Rega.
“We take a disc which, when rotated, creates vibrations which are read by the cantilever and stylus. The job is to be faithful with as little augmentation as possible,” he adds.
“Some manufacturers might use a suspended sub-chassis to eliminate motor noise – however we don’t do that as we think it’s detrimental to performance. Doing that adds in the natural frequency of the suspension itself and the harmonics of that; it’s often a pleasant warmth. There are also materials in platters that add sound. People have become used to plastic platters and these can make a subtle church-like reverb.”
Maybe we’ve all become accustomed to some degree of additive in our audio listening, but that doesn’t mean there is no such thing as a British hi-fi sound. Just because none of these British audio engineers is doing it on purpose, that doesn’t mean that, from the outside, a distinctive sound doesn’t exist. The view from abroad seems to suggest it does.
Take Marantz – not a British hi-fi company, of course, but one that has engineered specific UK editions of some of its best-loved models. The Awardwinning PM6006 and CD6006 amplifier and CD player are the obvious examples. If there really is no identifiable British sound, why did Marantz bother?
“We did it partly because of the love for stereo in the UK,” says Roger Batchelor, product specialist at Sound United. “Compared with the rest of Europe or the USA, the percentage of multi-channel amplifiers sold in the UK is lower. Also, there’s a demand here for budget products with high performance and simple, straightforward design, where sound quality is the first and foremost priority.”
And what is that sound quality exactly? According to Bachelor and his
colleagues at Denon and Marantz, it’s a warm, natural overall balance; an accurate, clean bass; and wide stereo imaging with a good sense of depth and height. It’s musically fun to listen to with emotional involvement, rather than pure detailed resolution. A sound with a good sense of rhythm and dynamics that draws the listener in.
On the surface, it seems obvious – timing, dynamics, tonal balance, who wouldn’t want these things? However, some markets have traditionally demanded something slightly different, particularly when it comes to low frequency. Peter Comeau, director of acoustic design for IAG (which counts Wharfedale, Quad and Mission among its brands) says it wasn’t until he left the UK that he first conceived of how this kind of sound could be deemed to be typically British.
“I started hearing about hi-fi products coming out of the USA in the late 1960s with designs from Acoustic Research, Marantz and JBL appearing out of the Atlantic fog. US speakers had a different tonal balance to British designed speakers, with a fatter bass and a more prominent presence which exaggerated the upper harmonic range of vocals, string and wind instruments.
“At the time, I decided that this was to favour US pop music, a lot of which had a marginally larger-than-life, brighter, projection. However, as soon as a record of classical music hit the turntable, the departures from neutrality quickly let the side down.”
According to Comeau, there was a sound difference even among the US designs, with an east coast/west coast divide – in the east were brands such as Acoustic Research and in the west, JBL. Both competed with the more neutral and, Comeau ventures, ‘accurate’ British sound, though plenty of US commentators found the UK style rather warm and flat, not unlike a pint of bitter.
Undoubtedly, the influence of British pop music in the 1960s and 70s did much to influence the flavour of hi-fi of that time and the notion of a British sound. “If you played Beatles records, the squawky upper-mids were too much to bear when using JBLS,” says Comeau.
In all likelihood, the roots of a British sound go back even further than the 60s and to an era at the BBC a decade earlier. The BBC created its own research and development facility for television and radio technology, from which arose advancements such as Nicam stereo, digital audio and monitor loudspeakers.
“The BBC was the first to research loudspeakers in a holistic way, including drive units, cabinet resonancesuppression and crossover phase linearity,” says Lee Taylor, an EX-BBC sound engineer and founder of Leema Acoustics. “The resulting devices, such as the BBC LS3/5A loudspeaker, are still unsurpassed in many ways. I publicly apologise for blowing up quite so many in my time at the BBC.”
When pressed to name a product that best typifies a possible British sound, several of our interviewees list the LS3/5A. These small studio monitors were developed for outside broadcast vans to ensure a good quality of broadcast sound. “A polite, smooth, pleasant, non-controversial sound; a loudspeaker with flat frequency response,” is how Rega’s Roy Gandy describes their audio.
Through licensing to produce these speakers under brands such as Rogers and Spendor, that balanced, neutral sound became the standard. British loudspeaker companies spun out of this research, with the LS3/5A something of a common ancestor. But while these speakers were hugely influential in their own right, it was ultimately the expression of those who built them – their spirit and their methods – that was the DNA of the inherited British sound.
“For me, British hi-fi is adventurous. Those pioneers led the world in the development of high-fidelity sound,” says Peter Thomas, founder and chairman of PMC. “One of the main things that differentiated them was a willingness to use objective and subjective testing. They trusted their ears when it came to designing equipment as well as measurements. And we still produce some of the best cutting-edge designs in the world – we’re not frightened to try new ideas.”
Those pioneers include names such as Gilbert Briggs and Peter Walker, who started Wharfedale and Quad respectively in the 30s, and who passed down the baton to the likes of Stan Kelly and Arthur Radford, inventors of the Kelly ribbon tweeter and of lowdistortion amplifiers. It was their passion for innovation and quality that showed the way for the next generation.
“Products built using hand-selected components, crafted with care, pride and respect” is their legacy, according to Jason Gould, brand ambassador for Naim. The long-term effect was to create a British hi-fi industry with brands such as B&W, Linn, Mission, KEF, Arcam, Rega, Naim and others all trying to outperform each other in terms of innovative engineering.
The British entrepreneurial spirit also contributed too, inspiring the likes of 17-year-old Rob Lawley, who would later become managing director of Sevenoaks Sound and Vision, as first started by Paul Lee-kemp in 1972. “The result was that the consumer was spoiled for choice and great sounding kit, and much of this was driven by individuals with a real vision for better sound, rather than just commercial gain,” Lawley says.
Times change, of course, and whether British-owned or otherwise, these audio companies still exist 50 years on. With different commercial pressures and influences, the methods and ideals of British hi-fi’s heyday have been diluted for some – as, indeed, has that familiar sound they promoted.
But if a British sound isn’t the driving force behind the people who make hi-fi in the UK, perhaps it doesn’t matter. While British audio brands may not be trying to sell a British sound, there are certainly people who are looking to buy it. The label of British hi-fi still carries some meaning for AV enthusiasts across the world.
“Our products are given an immediate elevation in status when you introduce them, even in the great audio producing countries such as the USA or Japan,” says Alex Munro, Q Acoustics’ brand director.
And at the end of the day, it’s really all about what the customer wants. “The feedback generated by our customers should not be underestimated,” says Ben Lily, technical sales manager at ATC. “This is a large part of what British hi-fi means to us and a huge reason why there are a large number of hi-fi companies per capita in the UK. We are lucky to have so many enthusiasts on our doorstep.”
”In all likelihood, the roots of a British sound go back to when the BBC created its own research and development facility for television and radio technology”