Acoustic Energy AE1 Mk.III Reference Special Edition loudspeaker Page 2

But my experience of the original AE1 persuaded me that there was more to the Mk.III than was reaching my ear. First, I experimented with positioning, and ended up with the speakers about 30" from the sidewalls. Second, I changed the toe-in angle so that I could see the inside edges of the speakers; ie, their axes now crossed well behind my listening position. Third, while I'm not a strong believer in loudspeaker "break-in," it was inarguable that, as the weeks progressed, the Acoustic Energy's overbright balance became more listenable. It was still a speaker with generous high-frequency delivery, but the AE1 Mk.III's treble balance over time sounded much more in the correct proportion to its midrange and bass.

And fourth, I found I had to observe a strict sound-pressure limit of 95dB for the pair in my room, measured at the listening seat with the SPL Meter application for the iPhone and iPod Touch from Studio Six Digital. (I calibrated the Meter's C-weighted sensitivity against that of the AudioControl SA3050A spectrum analyzer.) Ninety-five dB is pretty loud, but any higher and the AE1's balance progressively became too bright, and closely miked voices played too loud could still acquire a slight hardness. At or below 95dB, such overcooked recordings as Lyle Lovett's Live in Texas (CD, Curb MCAD-11964) still sounded bright—but not to the point of unacceptability, and compensated for by a great sense of "being there."

The AE1 Mk.III SE's treble was admirably free from grain, sounding open and airy. In my review of the Mk.I, I commented that the AE1 had one of the best string tones I had experienced at that time from a conventional moving-coil box: "No wiriness, no excess acidity; no false smoothness, no 'mellow' tone; just the correct mix of sweetness and astringency." Twenty years later, even though great string tone has become routine with high-performance moving-coil speakers, the current AE1 is still outstanding in this respect. I had had to place my microphones rather closer to the string quartet than I had wished on my 1998 recording of Elgar's Piano Quintet for Bravo! (CD, Stereophile STPH014-2, footnote 2), but the violins still sounded natural in the highs through the Acoustic Energys. And again there was that sense of "being there," in that the piano sounded more reverberant, more set back in the soundstage, than I'm used to.

Such excellent soundstage depth was not what I was expecting from the speaker's rather forward treble balance. I put this down to the AE1 Mk.III SE's high frequencies being superbly transparent and its midrange uncolored. Such subtleties of recorded ambience, like the differing acoustics of the piano, strings, and acoustic guitars on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl (CD, Listen to the Lion 93423), contributed to the sense of realism. The AE1s' stereo imaging was superbly well defined and stable.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Acoustic Energy will never be a speaker for bass heads. Listening to the toneburst track on Editor's Choice, which starts at 32Hz and moves up in half-steps (semitones), I heard the speaker's output steadily weaken below 63Hz, with nothing much audible below 40Hz. The speaker's woofer tuning is a little underdamped in absolute terms, which I suspect is deliberate both to better balance the generous treble and to give the illusion of more bass than there actually is (the old "LS3/5A trick"). The kick drum on Attention Screen's Live at Otto's Shrunken Head (CD, Stereophile STPH020-2) was little too fruity, and the double bass on Astral Weeks sounded both light in weight and a touch gruff.

But not so much so that music was obscured. The first track on Daniel Lanois's wonderful 2003 album, Shine (CD, Anti- 86661-2)—"I Love You," a duet with Emmylou Harris—begins with a deep synth note, a low D, that then jumps up an octave. The subsequent bass line toggles between octave Ds and Gs; the Acoustic Energy's bass had sufficient clarity that the octaves could still be readily resolved.

As I mentioned in my review of the Spendor SA1 in August, I've been using the Imagine B ($1000/pair), from Canadian company PSB, as my stand-mounted reference speaker. The PSB is not perfect, its midrange having a little more character than I would wish— piano recordings sound a little more clangy than through the Spendor, for example—but it's superb value for money: for a fairly small "bookshelf" speaker, the Imagine B offers a good balance between bass extension and low-frequency definition.

In direct comparisons with the PSB Imagine B, the Acoustic Energy AE1 Mk.III SE had a more refined sound, with a less colored midrange, and though there seemed to be more top-octave energy present, it was smooth and free of grain. The AE1s' soundstage was also significantly deeper. In the bass, the two speakers were pretty much equivalent in terms of low-frequency extension and upper-bass clarity, though the Canadian speaker seemed a little more sensitive than the English one.

The Spendor SA1 is rather smaller than the Acoustic Energy AE1, with a plastic-cone woofer of similar size, but at $2195/pair is less than half the AE1 Mk.III's price. I had very much liked the sound of the SA1, particularly its palpable imaging and superbly natural midrange, but found its balance a bit lacking at the frequency extremes, both in top-octave air and in upper-bass grunt. The latter was particularly noticeable with the Daniel Lanois track, where the low synth notes were more hinted at than fully realized. The Spendor spoke more clearly in the upper bass than the Acoustic Energy, however, and while it definitely sounded mellow compared with the AE1, it was more forgiving of recordings that were overcooked in the highs. Whereas male speaking voices sounded more sibilant through the AE1, the SA1 was more natural in the highs, even when toed-in to the listening position. However, the Spendor's midrange sounded very slightly too warm in direct comparison with the Acoustic Energy's.

Elsewhere in this issue I write about the current version of Totem Acoustic's venerable, stand-mounted Mani-2 loudspeaker, which costs about the same as the AE1 Mk.III SE. The two speakers sounded very similar in the treble, though the Canadian speaker was less fussy about setup than the British. The AE1 Mk.III SE had the more transparent, more detailed, less-colored midrange, with a smoother transition between its two drive-units, but the Mani-2 offered two more octaves of low-frequency extension. There was no competition on Daniel Lanois's "I Love You"—while the AE1 Mk.III presented a miniature of the sound of the synth bass line, the Mani-2 rocked at low frequencies, and rocked hard.

Summing up
After my first few days with the Acoustic Energy AE1 Mk.III SE, I was sure I was going to have a write a review complaining that the speaker's overall performance was less than the sum of its excellent-performing parts. But the AE1 responded to care and attention paid to setup, and ultimately I was able to appreciate the speaker's clean, uncolored midrange, its grain-free highs, and its always-stunning soundstage width and depth. The designer has struck a good compromise between apparent low-frequency extension and upper-bass clarity, and provided the listener doesn't want head-banging sound levels—this is a small speaker, after all— it will work well in rooms of small to medium size.

But I can't avoid the elephant in the room: its price. Yes, the AE1 Mk.III SE is beautifully constructed and finished, and its midrange and soundstaging are both world-class. But $4000/pair is a lot to pay for a small speaker. Whether the AE1 Mk.III Special Edition is worth its asking price will have to remain an individual decision.

Footnote 2: This all-star quintet comprised Jaime Laredo and Daniel Phillips, violins; Robert Rinehart, viola; Sharon Robinson, cello; and Joseph Kalichstein, piano.
Acoustic Energy Ltd.
US distributor: Acoustic Energy North America Inc.
675 VFW Parkway #102
Chestnut Hill, MA 02467
(508) 695-8090