Hardware Reviews

AE1 Active blows us away

Acoustic Energy AE1 Active review https://the-ear.net

Acoustic Energy AE1 Active

Since I got involved with this reviewing malarkey some years ago now, I have been privileged to host some very fine components in my system. Included in that list are at least two pairs of Acoustic Energy floorstanding loudspeakers. I thoroughly enjoyed them and wrote about them with enthusiasm. Thus when one of the directors of the company asked me if I would like to hear their standmount AE1 Active and write about them, even though they have been around for several years now, I was delighted to accept his offer. Those of you who have been around this hobby for a few decades will recall what an impression the original AE1s made when they were launched in 1987 by the fledgeling company Acoustic Energy, which was based in Cirencester, Gloucestershire. I lived there at the time and took some weird vicarious pride that these guys had put my hometown on the audio map. They have since moved down the road to Tetbury where all the design, sales and admin teams reside.

My previous experience with active loudspeakers had left me a tad underwhelmed for the most part, and I now think that was because in addition to amplification they had also been fitted with Bluetooth receivers and were designed to be connected to a ‘smart’ handheld device. All that crammed into a compact cabinet and priced at the lower end of a crowded loudspeaker sector meant that aurally they were certainly adequate but not outstanding. The Acoustic Energy approach is different. They incorporate a 50 watt class A/B amplifier module into each cabinet with a linear power supply and an active 4th order minimum phase crossover.

Acoustic Energy AE1 Active review https://the-ear.net

User adjustable +/- 2dB treble and bass controls are included, as is individual volume control. As an active design there is of course no need for speaker cable binding posts, instead there are inputs for XLR and RCA interconnects from a suitable preamplifier. The busy back panel is completed with an IEC mains socket with an associated on/off rocker switch.

Unboxing the AE1 Active

When I unboxed the AE1 Actives I was stuck by the immaculate quality of the fit and finish of the enclosures. The corners of the 30cm high cabinets are nicely rounded, and the veneer was flawless. The matching stands were not available but I have a pair of HiFi Racks stands for use with my own small loudspeakers and these proved to be an excellent fit for the AE1 Actives. The two drive units are incredibly well integrated and are both the progeny of Acoustic Energy’s design studio.

Acoustic Energy AE1 Active review https://the-ear.net

The AE1 Active tweeter is an aluminium dome optimised for wide bandwidth and low distortion while the main unit is a five inch ceramic hard-anodised spun aluminium design. The purpose of this is to avoid cone-flex and break up at certain frequencies that can be an issue with paper or plastic cone designs, according to Acoustic Energy. Included in the price of the loudspeakers is a pair of acoustically transparent black grilles, which attach magnetically to the veneered front baffle. During the review I tried the loudspeakers with the grilles both on and off and for aesthetic rather than sonic reasons kept them off for the most part, as to my eyes at least (and Mrs K, a civilian, agreed) the drive units are very handsome and seeing them somehow added to their appeal. The stands and loudspeakers were placed with enough toe-in for their axis to cross just behind the listening position.

This review coincided with the visit of an integrated amplifier with a pair of RCA pre-outs, which allowed me to run a suitable length pair of cables to the AE1 Actives and still retain my usual sources, which are my modified Linn Sondek LP12 with my Gold Note PH10/PSU phono stage and my venerable Yamaha CD-S3000 SACD/CD player, into whose DAC are plugged my television and my Auralic Aries Mini streamer. The power cables supplied with the AE1s were connected and the rocker switches turned to the on position. I started with the volume set in the middle of its range and the bass and treble at their zero point.

Acoustic Energy AE1 Active review https://the-ear.net

Listening to the AE1 Actives

To get my first session with the AE1 Actives going I cued up one of my favourite albums, Dave Alvin’s Eleven Eleven, which was reissued as a double album by YepRoc Records last year. The opening track is Harlan County Line and from the quiet opening it builds into a wonderful piece of Americana with Alvin’s gruff baritone telling a tale of love and loss in rural Kentucky. The imaging from the AE1s was exceptional, with a wide, deep and tall soundstage from which Alvin and his band sounded as if I was in some beery juke joint with them. This was not a facsimile of a band, this was the band and by the end of that first track I was hooked, to the extent that I played all four sides of the album, pausing only to get up and turn it over. The sound of Alvin’s battered Stratocaster cut through wonderfully well without ever threatening to overwhelm the drive units even after I had turned the volume knob to get a sound level that approached that of a live event.

From there I ran through my usual selection of music, stating with the Paul Chambers Quartet Bass On Top, which has become another firm favourite whether I am listening critically for review purposes or not. The band leader was at the time of the recording a member of Miles Davis’ group but on a rare day off got three friends together and went to Rudy van Gelder’s studio in Hackensack New Jersey and laid down six tracks. The Blue Note Tone Poet reissue from 2020 does full justice to the music, with Chambers’ double bass sounding incredibly realistic through the diminutive AE1 Actives.

Acoustic Energy AE1 Active review https://the-ear.net

Another long time favourite here, although I do not often mention them in reviews, is Shpongle. This is a collaboration between Simon Ponsford and Raja Ram. The latter was the flautist in Quintessence way back in 1970, in this late phase of his career he and his partner have delivered a series of albums which combine electronics and acoustic instruments, primarily Raja Ram’s flute, in absolutely absorbing but complex soundscapes. On this occasion I was playing the 2021 reissue by Twisted Records of Ineffable Mysteries From Shpongeland and it was totally engrossing. The AE1 Actives took it all in their stride and never sounded flustered or overwhelmed. In fact I heard micro details that had passed me by on previous occasions. In fact that was another surprise sprung upon me by these compact speakers. Time and again, playing music I think that I know pretty well, hearing details of which I had not been particularly aware before. A brushed cymbal here, an overdubbed second voice there – these things all added to the musical enjoyment.

There are inevitably some limitations to what a 125mm driver can accomplish, but the published frequency response of 40Hz-25kHz seems extremely plausible, and even playing some hard rock loud I was very impressed by the tuneful low frequencies emanating from the AE1s. I did experiment with the bass and treble adjustment, the effect of which is much more subtle than, for example, the loudness button on amplifiers from previous decades. In the end I left them as they had arrived, at the 0 position. In my room at least they sounded just fine like that.

Acoustic Energy AE1 Active review https://the-ear.net

AE1 Active conclusion

I approached this review with an open mind, knowing from my time with their larger siblings that Acoustic Energy produce loudspeakers whose sound I really enjoy. Even so, I really wasn’t prepared to be as blown away as I was by the AE1 Actives. By any measure, these are very good indeed. Given that they contain a well-chosen amplification system, the degree of tunability available and above all the excellent sound quality and you have a genuine audio bargain. When you consider how much some brands charge for similar products with wireless operation this impression is further reinforced, and while wireless sounds of the moment even those models require a power cable. To paraphrase the late George Michael, audition without prejudice. If you do, you may start seeing different colours in the kaleidoscope of audio choice.

Specifications:

Type: active standmount loudspeaker
Amplifier power: 50W Class A/B
Drive units:
Mid/bass: 125mm ceramic aluminium sandwich cone
Tweeter: 25mm aluminium dome
Crossover frequency: 3.5kHz 4th Order Linkwitz-Riley
Frequency response: 42Hz – 28kHz
Wired connections: RCA, XLR
Wireless inputs: none
Dimensions HxWxD: 300 x 185 x 250mm
Weight:9kg
Finishes: piano black, piano white and piano walnut real wood veneer
Warranty: 3 years

Price when tested:
£1,050
Manufacturer Details:

Acoustic Energy Loudspeakers
T 01285 654432
http://www.acoustic-energy.co.uk

Type:

active loudspeakers

Author:

Chris Kelly

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