This is a review I have delayed writing for the simple reason that I did not want to return the product to the manufacturer because I was enjoying it so much. But that procrastination is preventing me from sharing news of how great a product Acoustic Energy have created in their AE500 two-way stand-mount loudspeaker. I was recommended to try these by a German dealer-friend after he read of my earlier enthusiasm for the larger, floorstanding model in the range, the AE509. I owe him a huge debt for directing me towards a well-built, skilfully engineered and incredible value loudspeaker which is a real delight to use and put a huge smile on my face from the first note to the last.
This model is part of the company’s flagship series and follows on from the AE100 and AE300, it features their new carbon fibre tweeter as well as a mid/bass driver using a cone of the same material. I have to confess that I was never a fan of the previous incarnation of ceramic aluminium drivers favoured by AE which, to my ears, always possessed a harsh brittleness which made the treble a little too unrealistic, notably on acoustic instruments and especially on speech material. That said, they were nonetheless highly thought of and received many awards, notably for the diminutive AE1, some thirty years ago now, which became an audio icon of its generation. In the new, larger variant we have a much more refined sound, not lacking that pistonic power for which the marque became renowned, but with a noticeable improvement in self-damping, resulting in an altogether smoother and more transparent sound which is much more to my taste.
A range of finishes is offered: piano gloss black, American walnut veneer and the review sample option of piano gloss white which provided a lovely match with my favoured Hegel H190 amp. AE say that the speakers may be placed on bookshelves or stands. They are weighty, at 8kg a piece, so those shelves would need to be both sturdy and well fixed. I opted for lightweight, open stands and achieved phenomenal results.
The AE500 has innovation at its heart, such as the use of a letterbox slot port on the rear baffle, rather than a conventional circular duct as part of the reflex design. This is a sensible and not merely a styling change: it affords a large overall area and prevents air rushing through and so causing audible artefacts. As the design team of Mat Spandl and James Luce explain, it means that the velocity of air exiting the cabinet is kept down. The idea also means that the boxes may be placed closer to the rear wall than would otherwise be possible. That said, I found the ideal placement to be further out into the room, some 1m from the wall for the most natural speech quality.
The boxes themselves are made from an 18mm sandwich of materials comprising 6mm of MDF, 3mm of bitumen and a further 9mm MDF. While we had concrete in those ageing AE1s, the introduction of bitumen is very successful at reducing cabinet resonance and hence coloration in the crucial audio band.
Those carbon fibre drive units are the beating heart of this speaker, though: a 125mm mid/bass driven by a decent 35mm voice coil, combined with a 25mm dome tweeter in an aluminium waveguide to aid dispersion. Such HF transducers are not common although several manufactures have admitted to testing them out in various configurations, if not actually bringing them to market. The material has the benefit of being light while also stiff and self-damping. The network ensures the 2.8kHz crossover frequency is achieved and is connected to some decently robust terminal connectors, above the quality expected at this price-point.
Placed on lightweight wooden stands and fed by a Hegel H95 integrated amp/DAC/streamer, the AE500s were happy from the off. The first notes were courtesy of the Bavarian Radio SO (via BBC Radio 3 and the EBU from an Astra satellite feed) with a 2021 Munich recording of Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary. At first I thought I had left my usual £3,700 monitors connected since I could not believe how authoritative the compact boxes sounded and how a large a sound they could generate, way beyond their physical size. They exhibited an immediate sense of openness with an effortless and cohesive sound. In many regards they are rather unlike the Acoustic Energy ‘house’ sound of old.
As with the larger, floorstanding version which I enjoyed so much last year, the bass response was notable for what it could achieve. The quoted -6dB figure of 45Hz is not only plausible but a response down to 50Hz is audibly achievable; and this from a cabinet standing just 31cm high. Incredible. Okay, they are not for bass junkies (not without the addition of a sub, anyway), but there was more than enough well-controlled low-frequency detail there to let the neighbours know that I was in reviewing mode again.
After one of those tedious Zoom calls (which have sadly replaced enjoyable face-to-face meetings over a coffee or something stronger), Radio 3 had moved on to a Telemann recital, his Overture (Suite) in E-Flat Major. The sheer vibrancy and lively sparkle gave an immediacy to the performance which was just captivating and I sat to absorb it all.
Now, I am not a fan of the current fashion for a forward-balance such as to put the performers in the listeners’ lap. It is, frankly, simply lazy on the part of the designer. While having the likes of Cindy Lauper pushed up close and personal might be acceptable, it is most unnatural to have the orchestra’s first violin that close, even sitting in the front stalls. AE have got the balance right here, to my mind: a feeling of neutrality and realism is preserved, without a tendency towards being over bright, and yet there is a forward projection of that all-important presence region (3-5kHz), something which came into its own while using the speakers either side of my widescreen TV as they drew out the narrative from analogue soundtracks (from The Sweeney, Minder and the like) which it’s all too easy to lose and can become a mere mumble.
If classical repertoire was reproduced well, then these boxes simply revelled in pop material. Oh, yes – they can bob away, revealing their rhythm and timing credentials. The intimacy of a string of female vocalists (including Tina Turner, Ricky Lee Jones and Jennifer Rush) came across in such a charismatic, energetic and involving manner as to have my feet tapping away. Male voices, too, from the likes of Phil Collins (Another Day in Paradise), James Blunt (Wiseman) and Nick Jonas (Close) were convincingly portrayed and brought the performance to the listening room in an homogenous way, without the drive units being noticeable. We are spared nasties, such as any hint of sibilance or nasality and, instead, presented with a clean, crisp, tuneful sound which is fast and engaging as those new carbon fibre units do their stuff with aplomb.
In the AE500 we have a very likeable, nimble and well-proportioned speaker with excellent sonic credentials. It has been competently engineered, is built to a high standard and creates no unpleasant audio anomalies. The overall package offers something of an audiophile bargain. Given its ability to improve TV, I would like to hear it in a 7.1 surround system.
Hats off to all at Acoustic Energy for creating such a gem, and to do so at a sub-£1,000 price is astonishing. This little box puts many other small speakers to shame: not only is it better made and sounds superior but comes in at a sensible price. There’s now no excuse for poor sounds, even in a modest set-up. While generally ‘uncoloured’, the sound balance is clearly aimed towards entertainment and enjoyment (which it does extremely well) rather than trying to emulate a monitor loudspeaker which dissects the material in order to allow an engineer to balance the mix. That said, the AE500 is able to communicate the nuances of different acoustics at various recording venues and live performance settings. Impressive stuff at this price. The bad news is, now that I’ve finally got round to committing my thoughts I will have to return these beauties. I shall miss them.