Hardware Reviews

Acoustic Energy Reference 1

Acoustic Energy Reference 1

Most audio enthusiasts are aware that Acoustic Energy made its name with the AE1 in 1988 but fewer are aware that this classic speaker has been transformed into a luxury model with high gloss ebony wood panels. Changes have also been made inside the box and therefore time has come to see what the AE1 spin off Acoustic Energy Reference 1 is capable of.
If you come across the Reference 1 don’t fool yourself into thinking that this shiny model cannot be as good as the classic AE1. The finish is there merely to make it more likely that regular folk will want to accommodate them in their homes. On the inside AE has done some remarkable things to ensure that the Reference 1 lives up to the standards of its forebears. For instance the panels are not just medium density fibre, they are a layered construction of 7mm MDF, 3mm rubber and 5mm MDF, glued together to damp all resonances in the material. The speaker makes use of a modified Vifa ring-dome tweeter in a specially made faceplate that acts as a short horn, this part also optimises dispersion for a more even soundstage in a variety of situations. A second order filter encourages a woofer with a very large magnet to take over and in true AE tradition this driver has a metal cone and double wound voice coil for increased power handling. The nominal impedance is a friendly six Ohms, but the efficiency is rather low at 87dB. An amplifier with grip should be used for best results. The relatively compact size of the box limits the bandwidth in the lower registers to 45 Hz, the tweeter is specified to goes up to 40kHz, which seems high enough. An optional matching stand is also available. The Reference 1 is part of the Reference family consisting of the Reference 2 with two woofers and the floor standing Reference 3. The AE1 Classic is also considered part of the same family.
I started playing the Reference 1 in a small room, using a Naim UnitiQute and NAP 100 as source and power amplifier, but soon found that the bass was rather overwhelming, due to the room dimensions and the port frequency of the speaker. Even a tight Dutch made Pink Faun class D amplifier with a damping factor of over 600 did not help. Foam plugs did work of course, however the Reference 1 sounded better overall without these plugs. So I moved the speakers into a far larger room to drive them with an Audia Flight class A power amp in combination with my regular sources. They were placed on heavy, sand filled stands seven feet apart with the front baffle two feet from the back wall and over three feet from the side walls. I toed the speakers in by less than 15 degrees for an optimum stereo image. It must be said that every visitor liked the looks of the Reference 1 and none would have objected to having them at home. Good looks however are not enough for a loudspeaker, it should bring you enjoyment when playing your favourite music, so let us move on to what I think this speaker’s strengths and weaknesses are and how it deals with a wide selection of music styles.

Too Darn Hot
Every now and then I like to spin my records, which include several by Stacey Kent. Some time ago I got her album The Boy Next Door from the editor and like the tracks Say It Isn’t So and Too Darn Hot. What strikes me with the Reference 1 is the scale of soundstage it produces, even the height sounds right. There is a good distance between the soundstage and the listener with every piece I played, with CD or any other medium, this makes listening very relaxed because the music is never thrown in your face. The distance between the speakers and my seat is about three meters (10 feet) and it feels like I’m sitting the front row of a concert. But the music is not kept between the speakers, there is plenty of depth and the music carries on either side of the speakers on a virtual stage.  The nice thing with Stacey is her voice, which sounds very natural while her husband plays the saxophone with ease, either in a solo or in the background. Of all the music I played on these speakers there’s just one instrument that could have been better reproduced and that is piano. What I missed is the size of a piano, the body of this substantial instrument tends to sound rather small and lacks the harmonic richness of the real thing. However this is not just the case with Reference 1, most monitor speakers are not equal to the power a grand piano produces. So you either need a bigger speaker or a subwoofer. Deep bass, on the other hand, is just fine; nicely detailed and tight enough with good impact. The way the Reference 1 handles the lower registers in my larger room shows that a decent compact monitor is able to sonically transcend its physical limitations.
Stacey was singing very pleasantly but it was time to turn to a male voice and leave the lady in her sleeve. From time to time the small Dutch label STS Digital releases albums on vinyl and Ingram Washington pops up. His warm, deep voice can become a little boring after too many tracks, but the way it’s recorded is more than fine. The Reference 1 balances silky smooth tones with the bite of a voice or instrument. The speaker never sounds aggressive or over the top, but it also never gets too relaxed. This means that even if you listen for a long time you stay involved with each and every note. I believe this quality is a trademark of the better British brands. Being acquainted with other UK designs, I sometimes find them old fashioned and weak in this sense, after a while I just don’t listen to the music anymore. Many German and French speakers are tuned to be enthusiastic in a way that tires the listener, so the balance that AE has produced is just what the doctor ordered.


Reference1 Rear V

Reference1 V


Classical style
Given its high standard of build and finish this speaker will appeal to those with a classical taste in interior design. Probably those with a preference for classical music too, don’t get me wrong, the Reference 1 can rock, but a nice classical record does sound just the way it should. Franz Joseph Haydn’s Music for England played by the Academy Of Ancient Music and conducted by Christopher Hogwood (Decca) was my first choice. This album was released around the time CD came on the market, and it still it sounds as fresh as any good recording today. Played on authentic instruments from the time when Haydn lived (1732-1809), the Reference 1 makes the character of these instruments abundantly clear. Harpsichord is one of my favourite instruments and its light tones never get lost in the orchestra, even a tiny triangle is always there where you expect it. The voices on this record, soprano and tenor, are also excellent. They add weight and strength to this otherwise delicate record. Violins are lifelike, basses always in place but the cellos could use some extra power. They are just like a piano, they need a bit extra to make them shine within the orchestra. Moving from a subtle piece to a large orchestra directed by Herbert von Karajan, Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite (Peer Gynt Suites 1 & 2 / Sigurd Jorsalfar, Deutsche Grammophon) starts with The Morning Mood and ends with In The Hall of the Mountain King. Due to the wide dynamic range on this I have to turn up the volume at the start and when the orchestra reaches a crescendo the room is completely filled with music. This is no problem for the Reference 1, it just follows the lead provided by the amplifier. A larger speaker, like the Reference 3, will play in a more convincing way because of the increased volume of that box, but this AE is man enough for the job.

You look good to me
I also played a little jazz for those who love small combos with just a bass, trumpet, drums and piano. I think such bands are the reason why so many small speakers are made the way they are, jazz needs to be fast, accurate, clear sounding and real. Small speakers often have a speed advantage over large woofers and oversized boxes, but many small boxes add too much bass weight to make them bigger on the ear. The Reference 1 is a bit different to that recipe, yes it does have the bass you expect although it is never too much. Listen to Chet Baker and you will agree. This speaker is a grown up example of natural sound. Drums are clear, bass notes keep their timbre and whenever Chet plays you are drawn into the music. The stereo image is perfect and sounds just like the way recordings where made in those days; left, right, middle and nothing in between. One of my most precious recordings is You Look Good To Me by Oscar Peterson, I own an original pressing and am proud to have it. Play this on the Reference 1 and you will hear why Oscar is such a hero on piano. OK, it might be done better on more expensive systems, but the AE gives you that special feeling that Peterson recorded way back in the sixties.
Acoustic Energy is amongst the few companies that can get a big, genuinely high resolution sound from a small loudspeaker. Maybe because its roots can be traced to the recording and mastering studios where AE once started. The luxury appeal of the Reference 1 is a bonus. This system could easily be mistaken for a beauty without brains with the way it looks, but that would be so wrong, the Reference 1 is able to reproduce music in such a way that you forget you’re listening to a compact monitor. This is serious kit, not perfect, not my first choice if grand piano were my favourite instrument, but otherwise it fully lives up to expectations for the price. It does so many things well and you cannot have it all. For me the Reference 1 is a fine example of the capabilities of the British loudspeaker industry, an industry that has dominated the audio business in the Netherlands for as long as I can remember. Its stylish looks should be considered in a serious audio system because of what it can do for your music collection.


Bass/Mid Driver: 110mm aluminium cone, underhung magnet, twin voice coil assembly
Tweeter: 32mm Ring-radiator with DXT Waveguide
Crossover:  2nd order, crossover at 2khz
Frequency response: 45Hz – 40kHz @ +/-3dB
Power handling: amplifiers rated up to 200 Watts/8 Ohms
Sensitivity: 87db for 2.83V at 1m
Nominal impedance: 6 Ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD):     310 x 190 x 280mm
Weight: 10.5kg

Price when tested:
stand £299
Manufacturer Details:

Acoustic Energy
T: +44 (0)1285 654432




René van Es

Distributor Details:

Netherlands / Belgium /Luxembourg
Viertron b.v.


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