Acoustic Energy AE1 loudspeaker Page 3

The sound
Acoustic Energy recommends that 24" stands be used with the AE1s; as matching stands were not available (they will be by the time this is printed), I used 24" Celestion SL700 stands, each AE1 sitting on the three upturned cones on the base's top plate. Chicago Speaker Stands' Hercules model would also be a good match. (Use of lower stands is not recommended, the sound of the AE1s from above being too nasal.) The AE1s were used off and on over a period of four months: in my old room driven first by a pair of Mark Levinson No.20s, then by a Krell KSA-50; in my video system driven by the Linn electronics; and in my new room driven by the Krell.

Often the designer of a small speaker, the Linn Kan, for instance, will optimize the design for positioning close to the rear wall to boost the midbass. Alvin, for example, last month said that a spacing of 10" was necessary for the AE1. I have to disagree, however, finding that the AE1 works best out in free space, a spacing of between 18" and 48" from the rear wall working well, with at least 3' clearance from the side walls necessary. Less than that and the upper bass takes on too much of a bloom, I feel, to the detriment of the speaker's transparency.

The first aspect of the sound to strike the listener is the lack of deep bass. The second, to borrow a phrase from the Audio Cheapskate, is the palpable presence of reproduced instruments and voices. From then on, you tussle with the fact that this is one of the most transparent dynamic speakers ever produced—from 200Hz up—and would it really be worth giving up low frequencies for ever?

Actually, it does have relatively good subjective extension for such a small box, only the lowest notes of the double bass and the lowest register of the piano being reduced in level to the point where it interferes with the music. And even then, that was not always the case. "Texas Woman Blues" on Taj Mahal's great—I use the term advisedly—Recycling the Blues album sets a walking double bass line against the Pointer Sisters' vocals, a bass line that the AE1s delivered in full measure, apart from when the bassist (Taj himself) drops down to his open E string. But such is the lower midrange clarity of the AE1s that you have no trouble telling that his last note is a stopped note, not the open A string.

It was this ability to present low-level details within the sound without their being obscured by high-level information that set the AE1s apart from the pack. One of Martin Colloms's "acid-test" music tracks is the beginning of the last movement of Rachmaninov's Symphony 1 (the Concertgebouw/Ashkenazy recording on London, 411 657-2), where the "big" tune stresses just about every aspect of the reproduction chain. The level is high, the scoring complex, yet on speakers like the AE1s, every detail remains clear, and the wide, deep soundstage is not affected by the tremendous dynamic contrasts. Even with instruments with competing spectra played loud (the gong clash at the end of the tune's statement, for example, which by rights would be expected to obscure the tonic-dominant timpani beats), the AE1s still let everything be heard.

And higher up the band, the AE1s had one of the best string tones I have experienced from a conventional moving-coil box speaker. No wiriness, no excess acidity; no false smoothness, no "mellow" tone; just the correct mix of sweetness and astringency. Voices, too, were natural, having an even tonality throughout the various registers, with no undue emphasis in any particular region. The high treble, however, was perhaps a little too sweet for some tastes.

The AE1s' ability to float a stable stereo soundstage completely detached from the loudspeaker positions was on a level with the SL600s'. Instruments and voices just hung in space, with the appropriate depth perceptible according to the amount of recorded ambience associated with each. And, as Bill Taylor wrote in his notes, whereas the speakers disappeared regarding the images corresponding to musical information, surface noise and tape hiss locked into the speaker positions, allowing them to be separated from the music and thus ignored. Bass instruments, however, were a little bit recessed, presumably due to the speakers' inability to present low bass fundamentals with sufficient weight.

Faults were few. Bill Taylor noted a slight nasality at high levels; I felt there to be a slight honk in the lower treble also at high levels, which could be due to the cone finally being excited enough to go off. Though the quality of the upper bass was excellent for a reflex design, male voices having normal-sized chests, it occasionally went a little "fluffy," particularly when simultaneously hit with very high levels of low bass. Overall levels of coloration, however, were low.

Acoustic Energy's AE1 was apparently originally intended for use as a nearfield monitor in recording studios. It is a great shame, however, that it has not been widely adopted for that use, as it would tell recording engineers rather more about the success or failure of their efforts than the ubiquitous Yamaha NS10 (footnote 2).

I have to say that the AE1 is one of the finest, most transparent cone speakers I have heard. Its ability to float a stable, deep, well-defined soundstage, only rivaled in the world of box loudspeakers by the Celestions SL600 and SL700, is awesome, which, coupled with its ability to play without strain, immerses the listener in the music. Less colored in the midband than the similarly priced, similarly balanced Monitor Audio R952/MD, it only loses out to that speaker in the extension and the ultimate quality of its low frequencies. If you have a small room, or value midrange transparency and the ability to make the ends of your listening room disappear above bass extension (footnote 3), then the Acoustic Energy AE1 should be on your short list of speakers to audition. As far as I'm concerned, it redefines the art of miniature speaker design.

Overall Conclusion
What a month's reviewing! First to hear the Acoustic Energy speakers and be bowled over by them, then to hear the Celestion SL700s perform as well as the smaller speaker in most areas and better in some, and to have a better defined, more extended bass. I then visited Gordon's listening room and was exposed to the $10,000 Infinity IRS Betas—an awesome experience indeed, particularly when listening to my own tapes! I was immersed in both the sound and the performance in a manner that I rarely have been before from reproduced music.

But, thinking rationally about the experience, as much as I was impressed by the Betas' neutrality, LF extension, and dynamics, and the way they added to the musical experience, this is not relevant to my own listening environment. My 19½' x 16' room is just not big enough to accommodate the IRS Beta's four towers and allow me to sit the requisite 10' or so back. Its 20Hz bass extension might also prove to be a problem in that it would excite room resonances to a greater extent than would a smaller speaker. For those of us with relatively small rooms, therefore, I suggest that a well-balanced minimonitor, driven by high-quality electronics, is the best choice. Of the speakers in this report, the Acoustic Energy and the Celestion can be recommended as being sufficiently good in nearly all other areas of performance that their absolute lack of bass can (almost) be ignored.

Footnote 2: Is it the fact that I have turned 40, or are we in the biggest slump in popular recording quality ever? With very few exceptions, the highest technology ever available to the professional engineer is used to turn out dreck that doesn't sound as clear, as undistorted, even as exciting, as the recordings Buddy Holly made with Norman Petty 30 years ago!—John Atkinson

Footnote 2: Is it the fact that I have turned 40, or are we in the biggest slump in popular recording quality ever? With very few exceptions, the highest technology ever available to the professional engineer is used to turn out dreck that doesn't sound as clear, as undistorted, even as exciting, as the recordings Buddy Holly made with Norman Petty 30 years ago!—John Atkinson

Acoustic Energy
8709 Castle Park Drive
Indianapolis, IN 46526
(317) 849-5880