To my knowledge there are not too many hi-fi companies based in the Cotswolds, but it was the market town of Cirencester that Acoustic Energy moved to in 1995 after being founded in London back in 1987. The brand launched with the standmount AE1 which garnered much praise at the time and sold exceptionally well. In the 1990s an overseas investor took a stake in the company and, in common with many other hi-fi brands, Acoustic Energy moved its manufacturing to China, and expanded its sales and marketing activities worldwide. More recently, the company has returned to British ownership and a plan is under development to return some manufacturing to Europe.
Today, Acoustic Energy has three main product ranges, the 100, 300 and 500 series, which one might think of as good, better and best. The AE320 under review is the largest of the 300 series, which comprises in addition a standmount, a smaller floorstander, a centre speaker and a subwoofer. All of these can be ordered in a real wood American walnut veneer finish, which graced the review pair, or in piano gloss black or white lacquer. The wood veneer commands a £100 premium over the black or white versions. The quality of fit and finish on the AE320s here was exemplary. They are supplied with a full length acoustically transparent grille which affixes to the cabinet magnetically.
Given that it houses a vertical array of three drivers starting with an aluminium tweeter below which sit three five inch drive units, which were developed specifically for the 300 series and boast a new ceramic aluminium cone, the cabinet is surprisingly slim and does not physically dominate the listening room. The tweeter has what AE call Wide Dispersion Technology waveguides to complement the woofers and offers a wider ‘sweet spot’ which makes room placement easier. On the rear is a slot shaped bass port, tuned to 42Hz and whose careful design was intended to minimise or even eliminate the dreaded chuffing that can mar the performance of less carefully considered implementations. At the bottom on the rear sit a single pair of good quality binding posts. The cabinet itself is made of 18mm MDF and there is substantial internal bracing and damping. It has four substantial spikes in the corners of the base and the loudspeaker seemed very stable once set in place. The AE320 stands a metre high and each one weighs 26kg. It is a hefty device and yet, thanks to its slim front, it has a simple elegance when viewed from the listening position.
Internally, the crossover has been very carefully designed to ensure that the impedance, nominally 8 Ohms, is kept at around 6-7 Ohms across most of the stated frequency range, which is an impressive 35Hz-30kHz. An impedance correction circuit keeps things well under control so that the lowest impedance drop (at 150Hz) is kept at 4.8 Ohms. Sensitivity is quoted at 90dB. All that tech speak means that the AE320 should work well with a wide variety of amplifiers in the 50-200 watt range.
Having been warned by Acoustic Energy that these were a brand new pair of 320s I set them up in what is usually the optimum speaker spot in my room, toed in towards the listening position and connected to my Lyngdorf TDAI3400 integrated amplifier using the excellent Audioquest Robin Hood cable. Sources used during the review were a Linn Sondek LP12 Klimax and a Leema Acoustics Sirius music server, both also here for review. I had ripped a lot of CDs to the Sirius., which also gave me direct access to Tidal, Qobuz and internet radio. Streaming from Qobuz I used several of their playlists to exercise the drive units and to allow things to run in and did try to stay out of the room while that process was under way, but of course curiosity got the better of me. Right from the outset it was clear that AE320 is an excellent musical communicator, even at the relatively modest volumes at which I started them. As we also use our two channel system for television sound we used the AE320s every night in that role, and right from the beginning they did an excellent job. Watching an action film it was very easy to hear dialogue but when explosions and gunfire occurred the room was reverberating nicely.
After about seven days I felt that things were beginning to open up and started to listen more carefully. As it was in the run up to Christmas I selected the FLAC file rip of my Coro CD of Handel’s Messiah, performed by the Sixteen under the direction of Harry Christophers. We were off to a galvanising start. The voices, both choral and solo, were beautifully presented and the instrumentalists were arrayed behind them in a highly credible soundstage. The dynamics of the piece were handled superbly by the AE320s, with all necessary subtlety and nuance that Mr Handel’s score demands.
In the days and weeks that followed I felt that the AE320s opened up even more, and a new purchaser should be prepared to give them time to really come on song. The reward for that patience will be a musical experience that will be hard to match by many loudspeakers near the AE320’s very modest retail price.
I played a huge variety of music through the AE320s during their time here, from the delicate mournfulness of Nick Drake, through the magnificent blues rock and boogie of ZZ Top to the orchestral majesty of a Beethoven symphony, and they gave me a truly musical experience in every case. In fact I did not find any genre in my library or online that was less than well served by these floor standers.
When I switched to vinyl replay, the AE320s continued to impress. In the real world it is unlikely that a typical Linn LP12 Klimax user would be listening to a loudspeaker that costs about one fifteenth of the price of his record player, but I did just that and the AE320s certainly held their own. The bass information which the Linn Ekstatik cartridge retrieved from every album I played was extraordinary and the AE320s triple driver array certainly reproduced it very well. I was never aware of the rear port either, which confirms that the designers’ goals for it have most certainly been met.
I turned the volume up to levels which I can only tolerate for short periods and the sound held together really well. Playing some hard rock from Iron Maiden’s The Book Of Souls it was clear that the AE320s are well suited to delivering volume without losing detail. This loudspeaker should be on any metal-head’s shortlist. However, loudness is not its only trick. Dial the volume down and the music stays coherent and involving.
All this listening was done with the Lyngdorf in its bypass mode. I then ran the Room Perfect software suite built in to the amplifier, which can help the focus and precision of a loudspeaker as it irons out room imperfections. However, I found that this processing had little discernible impact on the AE320s, which meant that they are indeed very well designed and should work in a variety of different environments.
There is much to like about the AE320 and very little to criticise. They perform exceptionally well with most genres of music, they seem to be very well made and in terms of value for money I cannot think of anything that betters them. The designers at Acoustic Energy have done an excellent job in creating a large loudspeaker that outperforms its pay grade. Based on my experience with the AE320s I can’t wait to hear one of the 500 series, with their much more expensive drive units. Nonetheless, a canny buyer will pair the AE320s with an appropriate amplifier and source and get very close to enjoying champagne sound on a beer budget. Make no mistake, the AE320 is an excellent loudspeaker and a bonafide hi-fi bargain. Very highly recommended.