Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Although the brand has largely been forgotten by today’s Hi-Fi enthusiasts, there are few names in vintage Hi-Fi that make the audiophile heart grow fonder than that of Epicure. The company’s focus in loudspeaker design was on providing natural tonality and imaging, and it often went to great lengths in the pursuit of this aim. Its founder, Winslow Burhoe (a former apprentice at Audio Research), had originally set out from a 2-way speaker design, which he named ‘the module’, and designed a whole range of loudspeakers around this. The Epicure 'Model 20', for instance, used two sets of 'the module', which were positioned invertedly to form a dipole and resemble live-stage characteristics. The idea was to incorporate the listening room’s front wall for acoustics effect. A similar design was also used in the EPI 'M 201' loudspeakers. These early specimen were well-received by the audio world and aimed at the higher end of the market.
The EPI 500 were among the first Epicure loudspeakers to break with the traditional module design. Instead of being based on Epicure’s tested 2-way principle, the EPI 500 were a classic 3-way tower speaker featuring specialist drivers to cover: the high notes, the critical midrange, and the bass frequencies. While essentially being of a closed-cabinet design, the EPI 500 extended their cabinet volume with the help two passive radiators, one placed on each of the speakers' side walls. These served to absorb the woofer’s inward energy and also supported it in the area of low-frequency extension. (Passive ratiators have again become attractive in modern times, in the sense that they provide considerable bass extension to Bluetooth convenience gadgets made by JBL, Bose, etc.) The Epicure's top-end was based on their signature inverted-dome gold ring tweeter. Where other high frequency drivers would have their domes facing outwards, Winslow Burhoe had made a name for himself using an inverted face-plate design, which gave the tweeter some horn-like compression characteristics. The tweeter on our specimen was of the second generation air-cushioned, oil-dampened design, a fact that would have placed the most likely construction year of our pair in the mid to late 1970s.
I purchased our EPI 500s from a private vendor in Nürnberg, who had in turn bought them a few years earlier in order to listen to his extensive vinyl collection. Having had troubles with the engine of our car on the way to Nurnberg, I arrived there in some disarray, kept wondering about my risky journey home, and therefore found it rather difficult to focus on the music. We listened to two or three songs, I held my ear on the drivers to check for potential noises that should not have been there, and concluded that they worked just fine. I did notice that one of the midrange drivers showed a slight smell of burnt coil-resin, but since I could not detect any scraping sounds emanating from it, I decided to trust the seller’s own verdict that he had not noticed any faults with the speakers himself. Epicure speakers were well known to stand the test of time, unless they had been over-driven for extended periods. The 40-something-year-old woofers looked as though they had been re-coned, and I was relieved to see that the work had been done with care.
While heaving them into the car for my ride back to Frankfurt, I noticed that—despite their modest size for tower speakers—they were surprisingly heavy, and I was grateful for the helping hand offered by their previous owner. 250 kilometres distance could seem long when seen from the perspective of a broken car that was blowing black diesel fumes out its back. As one might imagine, I made good use of my time going through different scenarios of having the car and speakers towed home that day. Luckily enough, I managed to make the journey back with the engine in its last twitches and unloaded the speakers before finally taking our vehicle to be serviced. This was commitment to the cause all the way through, of course. But then again, I was confident that the Epicures deserved no less.
When I finally returned home to further investigate the EPI 500, I noticed that they had one additional feature that I had noticed in the very beginning of my research and then somehow forgotten about: There was a wooden base screwed in place that formed a closed acoustic frame underneath the cabinet. This raised each speaker off the ground by about 8.6 cm. The base was needed to elevate the tweeter to ear-level, but it also prevented the speaker terminals from touching the ground. There may have been a number of reasons for positioning the terminals underneath the loudspeaker, e.g.: to make the back of the speakers look cleaner; to allow for the attachment of invisible sub-floor cabling; or simply to make unobstructed use of the cabinet's resonances. Holding my hand to the side and rear walls of the EPI 500, I could feel that this cabinet had been designed to naturally incorporate resonances with its sound signature, instead of bracing against internal and external vibrations in the way modern speaker designs would.
Understanding how the EPI 500 dealt with inherent resonances would be vital to finding the correct placement and integration in the room. However, with the whole cabinet and passive radiators set in motion at once, I also saw that success would not come easy. I would have to put myself in the position of the designers and imagine the most probable environment that they had envisaged for their speakers to perform in. This, of course, was likely to have looked and sounded differently from our sleek office with white high-gloss furniture and scant carpeting. Luckily, the underlying architecture of our building itself was not all too different from the typical American home of the 1970s and 80s, in the sense that our room was located under the roof of the building and of poorly insulated wooden beams that were planked with gypsum and plywood boards. This would most likely help to absorb some of the excess bass energy, if needed. I also discussed the matter with my audiophile friend Luigi who reminded me that the base had probably been designed with American highfloor carpets in mind.
The base of the EPI 500 had a small hole describing a semicircle towards the floor through which one was to run the speaker cable. To keep the base from touching the ground, some previous owners had glued small rubber pads of 1mm thickness and 20mm width into all four corners. I did not know if this had been found a good idea and decided to listen to the speakers in this condition first. Our testing system consisted of the Restek V1 preamplifier with upgraded Kassel power supply and the B&K ST-140 power amplifier. As sources, I used our Technics 1310 turntable and Marantz CD-17 player paired with Cambridge DAC. The interconnects were of solid core silver, and the speaker cable was our affordable but effective Belden 9497. This was a Hi-Fi setup that I could trust in terms of sonic integrity, having listened to each of the components in many different constellations. Naturally, I was intrigued to learn what the EPI 500 would add to or take away from the balance of sound.
Perched on the hardwood floor with the 1mm thick rubber plates in place, the speakers sounded dull and lifeless. I felt compelled to visually inspect the tweeters just to see if they had perhaps been damaged during transport. They looked fine. I also noticed that the ground in our office was not perfectly even so that the base did not manage to press down firmly enough on all sides. As I had expected, the smallish pads could neither offer a defined coupling nor decoupling from the ground. They somehow did both, and this confusion was audible. To learn more about the situation, I scraped off the pads and placed the speakers directly on the floor. With wood piled ontop of wood, the whole floor was turned into a resonator, and the resulting sound was overly wooden and muddy. To experiment with the opposite direction, I then placed our ultra-hard metal ball Aucharm absorbers underneath the base. This did serve to accentuate treble, but, consequently, the EPI 500 now sounded overly analytical and were lacking bass.
At this stage, I could already hear that the speakers had some potential, and that the optimum solution would need to provide the right mixture of dampening and stability. To make this possible, I lined the bottom of the base with felt towards the floor. This improved tonality, but I still had problems with imaging, possibly resulting from the slightly uneven floor. Thinking about how to address this issue, I added three 5mm-thick and 40mm-wide felt cushions: two on each side at the front, and one in the back. The hole for the speaker cable got in the way here, but I decided that a few centimetres off axis would not matter to the rear support. I then sat down to listen and was relieved to find that both soundstage and tonality had much improved. The EPI 500 produced a full and open sound that was also tonally rich. The double-bass on Diana Krall’s album “Turn up the quiet” now had lots of zest and dimension. I was not yet happy with the depiction of Diana's voice which was represented softer and less assertive than I was otherwise used to. Placing a second felt cushion on the other side of the speaker cable hole in the back went some way of solving issue. Possibly, the enhanced sound could be attributed to the improved balance in the support between the speaker's front and back.
In positioning the speakers, I found them to work well with the mouth of their drivers at 109cm distance to the front wall of the listening room. This was a placement that should also be possible to achieve in most listening scenarios. The speakers were placed just under two meters apart, measured from axis to axis, and my listening position was similarly at around two meters distance measured in diagonal. I found the tweeters and midrange to work best with the tweeter’s output axis crossing at least one third behind the listening position, instead of being pointed directly towards the listener. I have found this to be the most enjoyable setup with many speakers, but this might just have to do with my own listening tastes.
In this setup, I found the EPI 500 to offer a highly natural and informative mid-band. Their ability to reveal lots of nuance and layering in this tonal segment would have made them an instant darling with audiophile listeners. More generally speaking, the Epicure’s ability to incorporate their cabinet's resonances and passive radiators into the music output made them an excellent companion for natural instruments as found in Jazz, Folk, Country Music, etc. However, I found that the obvious strengths of the mid-band did not automatically translate into an outstanding depiction of voices. From my own perspective, our more modern Tannoy XT8F managed to offer the tiniest bit more in terms of believability in the midrange. I would have had to run further tests to learn if voices could be improved by adding solid steel plates inbetween the base structure and the felt pads in order to increase stability. I had a strong feeling that structural instability towards the ground might have been the culprit here.
Going through forums, I had read that some people suffering from tinitus were complaining about listening fatigue in connection with Epicure speakers. This phenomenon may have had to do with faulty coupling to the ground, with high feequency infiltration, but also with the shape of the inverted-dome tweeter itself. I noticed that this could produce a slight compression effect and thereby make the music seem quite dense in the treble. I also noticed that I tended to listen to music louder than I would have done with our other speakers. It was easy to get carried away while listening to these speakers, as I found out when putting on our 2009 pressing of Fleetwood Mac's 1977 album "Rumours". I simply enjoyed listening to the intense tonal richness that I had sometimes missed before.
In comparison to my first experiments with the EPI 500, bass performance had trippled, thus providing me with the realistically full sound and satisfying punch of an excellent tower speaker. Imaging was excellent, with a naturally wide and unconstrained center image. The music was well-spaced: from front to back and from left to right. Voices were still a touch on the sweet and soft side, but we would need to see about this aspect in the long run. From my experience, the EPI 500 should be easy to drive from a 20 watts tube amp, as well as a beefy solid state amp. They took some time in setting up properly, but the additional effort was well-worth it. Perhaps the aspect that I enjoyed most about them was their ability to provide a Jazz club atmosphere with freely breathing natural bass—but without the smell of cold cigarettes and stale beer.