Acoustic Energy AE1 Active Loudspeakers Review
Michael Evans thinks this old school active mini monitor offers timeless value for money…
AE1 Active Standmount Speakers
£999 (Piano Black, Piano White), £1,199 (Piano Walnut Veneer)
Next year, Acoustic Energy will celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of its iconic AE1 standmount loudspeaker. To those of us old enough to remember, this baby box was a highly influential product that helped start the nineteen-eighties fashion for small, two-way speakers. It set the bar for getting a big sound from a small cabinet. Few designs have stood the test of time in the same way, so it deserves its place in the hi-fi hall of fame.
In 2006, nineteen years after the speaker first hit dealers' shelves, Acoustic Energy decided to re-release the original design and faithfully recreate – with forensic accuracy – the original 1987 specification speaker, proving the age-old adage that, “if it ain't broke, don't fix it”. Then, in 2017, the company took the brave step of radically reinventing it by squeezing in two high-quality Class AB amplifiers into their small cabinets, taking them active. The result is the design you see here.
First, let's be clear about what the AE1 Active actually is. It's a true active design that takes a line-level input and uses an electronic crossover to divide up the frequencies, then feeds the signal to one individual power amplifier per driver. True actives are not to be confused with powered loudspeakers, which amplify the signal and then put it into a passive crossover which then powers the drivers; a cheaper and less performance-oriented way of doing things.
The funny thing about active speakers is that they seem to fall in and out of fashion over the decades. When Acoustic Energy launched this product a few years back, the guys running the company were unsure whether it would sell at all, but it's now going great guns – such is the need for a simple, minimalist music-making system that sounds the part despite having a small cabinet.
Over the decades, we've seen all sorts of actives, with Meridian being an innovator with the M1, M2 and M3 of the late seventies and early eighties. The tiny Wharfedale Active Diamonds then took up the mantle, and by the late eighties, Meridian was doing super-sophisticated actives with built-in digital signal processing. More recently, a host of manufacturers have joined in the fun.
It was very clear to the Acoustic Energy team what it wanted the AE1 Active to be from the start. It had to be a true active built around purist principles and without any built-in DACs or digital signal processing. So it has deliberately avoided the latest technology. To explain its thinking, we need to travel back to 1987. In the mid-eighties, Meridian came up with groundbreaking ideas about signal processing and used its digital expertise to force a big, bassy sound from a smallish cabinet in its early DSP range. This worked well until the technology used was superseded, and the speakers quickly became outdated. Acoustic Energy didn't want to repeat this and thus avoided any digital functionality. I'd say that it has already been proven correct.
As an example, take a look at the advances in Bluetooth over the last four years – we now have better codecs with superior sound. Had AE adopted a Bluetooth input four years ago at the launch of this speaker, it would already be obsolete. The same can be said for Wi-Fi connectivity, network connections and software-based solutions. These all come and go, and the platforms change, yet the AE1 Active is future-proofed by not embracing any such 'here today, gone tomorrow' tech. In fact, all the connectivity you have is via either an unbalanced RCA phono socket or a balanced XLR input – and it's all many will ever need.
This means the owner should never worry about their pair of AE1 Actives being superseded because they can update their DAC and/or digital preamp whenever they so wish. For example, much of my listening was via the superb Metrum Acoustics Ambre DAC, a Roon endpoint with notable sound quality. However, I also used a pair – yes, a pair – of Chromecast Audio devices which are tiny and can be grouped to play in perfectly timed stereo. It wasn't as impressive as the Metrum DAC solution, but they provide a very simple and elegant solution for a few pounds from eBay.
I also plugged in my old Sony 770ES analogue tuner – or any vintage or modern piece of hi-fi via the phono inputs – using the volume controls on the rear of the AE1s when I wasn't using an analogue preamp. My favourite set up, and the option I used the most, was to simply plug in a Chord Electronics' Mojo/Poly streamer and DAC into the AE1 phono inputs. This proved a seriously sleek and minimalist solution, especially when running on the Chord's internal batteries. I even tried using a cheap Bluetooth decoder with AptX HD from Amazon, which provided more-than acceptable results. It wasn't as good as the Poly and was way off the Ambre, but still seemed pretty decent. Because the AE1 package already has amplifiers, cables and volume control built-in, you can get a great sound without breaking the bank.
Setting my review pair of AE1 Actives this way let me either use TIDAL or Qobuz via the Roon app on my phone, or stream hi-res content directly from my server. At the risk of losing some sound quality, I chose to fix the volume level to maximum on the AE1 package and use the DSP volume on the phone, but it saved an additional preamp stage. All I needed to get going was one power cable to each speaker and a signal lead; these were hidden away neatly down the back of each stand, making for an apparently wire-free solution.
For me, this is the strength of the AE1 Active over several other rival speakers. The company has focused on absolute sound quality rather than sacrificing it for wider connectivity. This then means the user can worry about how he or she wants to use the speaker while being liberated from the speed of technological change. Acoustic Energy has used its conventional speaker design best practice to design a no-compromise audiophile product, yet it also offers the convenience benefits of active operation.
NUTS AND BOLTS
The reflex-loaded cabinet is made from 18mm thick MDF and sports proper bracing with internal damping panels; it's as well made as most passive designs at its price, despite each box containing a two-channel power amplifier and a linear power supply. That explains why the speaker is heavier than you might expect for something measuring 300x185x250mm (HxWxD), at a surprising 9kg. There's a choice of piano black or piano white painted and lacquered finishes, or real walnut wood veneer for a bit of extra cash. I've seen all three, and the quality is superb - way better than you'd expect at the price and something that would amaze your average speaker buyer of 1987 when the original model came out. Slim, magnetically affixed grilles complete the picture.
The AE1 Active has a 25mm aluminium dome tweeter, working with a 125mm ceramic aluminium sandwich cone bass unit; the signal is split electronically at 3.5kHz by a 4th order Linkwitz-Riley crossover. Motive force is supplied by twin 50W RMS per channel Class AB power amps per speaker; Acoustic Energy designer Matt Spandl and company Managing Director says that his team tried Class D amps, switching power supplies and all sorts of DSP, but couldn't get anywhere close to the sound quality delivered by this traditional pure active set-up. “It's proudly all-analogue”, he proclaims.
The result is a small loudspeaker with a wide bandwidth; the company claims a frequency response of 42Hz–28kHz (+/-6dB), which is very impressive for the AE1's diminutive dimensions. Input sensitivity is rated at 104dB for 1VRMS @ 1kHz, maximum SPL is said to be 105dB with a peak level of 115dB.
The speaker proved easy to set up in my listening room. I used the solidly constructed Acoustic Energy reference stands, which put the tweeter(s) at ear height when sitting down, and moved my review pair around until they ended up a couple of feet away from my rear boundary wall. Any closer and the bass was a little strong in my room. There are two handy six-position adjusters on the speaker's rear panel, which provide minor tweaks to the treble and bass should you so wish; I set them to lower the bottom end a fraction and boost the treble slightly.
How then does this baby all-analogue true active sound? To my ears, considering the price, the result is stunning. The AE1 Active offers superb clarity, excellent and surprising dynamics, and a bass performance that belies the size of the box. Then there's the stereo imaging, which needs to be heard to be believed. Actually, this will come as no surprise to anyone who knows about active speakers, as this is what any well-designed pair does. Active operation is a kind of force multiplier, where you get more than the sum of the parts; with passives, you can often get less.
Listening to recordings that have been lavishly produced can be the easiest way to trip up small speakers, but not the AE1 Active. In fact, it seemed to relish any challenge I could throw at it, apparently wanting to show off to everyone in the room. Songs like Hold On From Yes's 90125 album can sound thin, hollow and lost, but the Acoustic Energy made a big and impressive noise with a deep bass guitar line and super-impactful snare drum.
Despite the sonic fireworks, it was never bright and screechy, as with some other bookshelf offerings I've heard at the price. Ditto Happiness is Easy from Talk Talk's The Colour of Spring, which produced a thundering rhythmic beat, as did Green Shirt from Elvis Costello's Armed Forces. Its combined bass guitar and drum kick nearly made me jump from my seat when I cranked the volume up. Again, these sort of firecracker dynamics are typical of well done active speakers – albeit not at this modest price.
Yet the AE1 Active isn't just a baby headbanger – it actually does smooth and subtle too. Moving to slower, simpler tunes provided fantastic results as well. Snowflake from Kate Bush's beautiful 50 Words for Snow was melodic and haunting, with a gorgeous full bass undercurrent. Nor were there any nasties when listening to Blue from the Joni Mitchell album of the same name. The speaker's inherent quality meant that it never sounded tinny or sibilant; instead, I just heard a smooth and pure top end from the AE1 Active, one that I never tired of listening to.
This recording also showed the speaker's superlative stereo imaging. Especially when mounted on the optional matching stand, it was true 'out of the box' stuff. Some speakers can sound like the sound is struggling to get out of the cabinet, but the Acoustic Energy was the polar opposite. It had me wondering why recordings that had seemed a little shut-in were coming out to dance around the room. At the same time, though, this was never accompanied by shrillness in the upper midband, which can give an impression of forwardness and scale. As well as left to right, the speaker displayed impressive stage depth, too – and instruments in the mix were tightly positioned within the recorded acoustic.
The Acoustic Energy AE1 Active is a baby powerhouse that provides a seriously grown-up sound for far less money than you would expect. Indeed I'd say it's astonishing value for money, as you're removing the need to buy a potentially costly power amp too – plus the speaker cabling that goes with it. Not only that, it is good looking and very well made too.
Because it's a purist, old-school active design, you've saved yourself from the forward march of technology, which will deliver similarly priced 'digital' powered speakers an early death, when some 'must have' new format comes out a few years from now. Yet there's nothing old fashioned here; this speaker has timeless quality and should give decades of musical enjoyment – rather like its namesake from 1987, in fact.
A music junkie who served his apprenticeship in UK hi-fi retail in the 1990s, Mike loves the simplicity of analogue and the complexity of digital. With an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject, he’s been on a life-long quest for great sound at a sensible price – and is still loving the journey…
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