“You owe it to your­self to track down a pair”

Clear, bal­anced, de­tailed; rhyth­mic skill; dy­namic sub­tlety Noth­ing of note

What Hi-Fi (UK) - - First Tests -

We like tra­di­tion. It’s what puts sprouts on our plate ev­ery Christ­mas. Year af­ter year we shuf­fle them to­ward the edge of the plate at­tempt­ing to lo­cate the mouth of some glut­tonous house pet. Then at some point they be­come the high­light of the day.

It’s the rule that our par­ents must make atro­cious jokes that end up in­cluded in our reper­toire much ear­lier than they should. Tra­di­tion also states that ev­ery four years there must be some blind hope, faint as it may be, in or­der for us to revel in the mis­ery of ex­it­ing the World Cup with a whim­per.

In hi-fi, tra­di­tion can mean a lot of boxes and a lot of clut­ter; but it can also mean finely tuned sys­tem-match­ing and broad­ened hori­zons for up­grad­ing. It means ver­sa­til­ity, of­ten a bet­ter over­all per­for­mance and, frankly, it keeps peo­ple like us in a job.

Ac­tive speak­ers are hardly a gar­gan­tuan step from tra­di­tion, but it’s rare to find a pair at this price that leave us strug­gling to come up with sep­a­rates that would match their tal­ents.

Nice and easy

Acous­tic En­ergy’s AE1 Ac­tives are rel­a­tively ba­sic in terms of their set-up and func­tion. Con­nect them to your source via ei­ther their RCA or bal­anced XLR in­puts and you’re ready to go. There’s no Blue­tooth built-in, but at­tach­ing a sep­a­rate mod­ule would be far more cost ef­fec­tive than for AE to have in­te­grated the tech­nol­ogy it­self, and de­cent pre-amps and stream­ers with wire­less ca­pa­bil­ity are far from hard to find.

While in­tu­itive, the AE1S’ method is scarcely rewrit­ing the rule­book, ei­ther. Each drive unit is driven by a ded­i­cated 50W class A/B power am­pli­fier mod­ule, while di­als at the back of the cab­i­nets al­low for tre­ble ad­just­ment and bass cut up or down by 2db.

The driv­ers them­selves are likely to be fa­mil­iar to any­one al­ready ac­quainted with Acous­tic En­ergy speak­ers. The mid/bass driv­ers are prod­ucts of the com­pany’s pure pis­ton ce­ramic alu­minium cone tech­nol­ogy, the use of metal for its rigid­ity tar­get­ing a more con­sis­tent out­put, while the alu­minium dome tweet­ers ben­e­fit from AE’S Wide Dis­per­sion Tech­nol­ogy wave­guide for en­hanced room in­te­gra­tion.

And it’s all wrapped up in a charm­ingly unas­sum­ing box. Avail­able in Pi­ano Black, Pi­ano White or Pi­ano Cherry real wood ve­neer fin­ishes, the AE1S’ faces are bare but for the driv­ers footed by the brand name – and at only 30cm tall won’t be dom­i­nat­ing the land­scape of your liv­ing room. The sonic land­scape, how­ever, is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter.

We test the AE1S pri­mar­ily us­ing the bal­anced XLR con­nec­tion to our ref­er­ence Ga­mut pre-amp and Naim NDS/555PS streamer, but the con­sis­tency of their char­ac­ter ir­re­spec­tive of source (as long as it's good) is worth cel­e­brat­ing from the off.

We end up with the speak­ers slightly toed in, around a 1.5m from each wall, but those bass and tre­ble con­trols mean you’re free to tweak their re­sponse in syn­ergy with their place­ment if space is at a pre­mium.

The AE1S de­serve de­cent, hefty speaker stands. Their pre­sen­ta­tion is for­ward, but that’s not to say they lack sub­tlety or di­men­sion, just that they’re en­dear­ingly ex­citable. They never cross a line even with our lighter speaker stands, but the stur­dier the bet­ter, and they’re con­sum­mately wor­thy of more than an MDF book­shelf.

Va­ri­ety with qual­ity

Tes­ta­ment to their tal­ent is the range of mu­sic we end up play­ing while test­ing, and the time we spend lis­ten­ing, un­able to tear our­selves away. We get through a hefty chunk of our li­brary over a cou­ple of days, and with each al­bum the AE1S’ re­sponse is an ab­so­lute de­light.

We play Soul­wax’s From Dee­wee, and these speak­ers’ char­ac­ter re­veals it­self al­most from the out­set. The ris­ing syn­the­sizer phrases of Pre­set Tense ring with clar­ity and climb with vigour; there is gran­u­lar de­tail to their wave­forms and an ir­re­press­ible sense of an­tic­i­pa­tion.

With Master­planned, we get a sense of the AE1S’ fine in­te­gra­tion and bal­ance. The synth hook stabs away at the low end, com­ple­mented by sub­stan­tial body in the midrange to show­case the vo­cal melody and con­trol over po­ten­tially coarse per­cus­sion in the tre­ble.

We’re also treated to these speak­ers’ punch and drive. Rhythms jab as much as time, able to con­trast of­ten quite ghostly vo­cal lines with the verve and swag­ger of their synth-led polyrhyth­mic ac­com­pa­ni­ments.

That this record is so de­pen­dent on the de­liv­ery of its rhyth­mic per­son­al­ity is tes­ta­ment to how well the AE1S are able to con­vey it. Tim­ing is spot on, of course, but equally the dy­namic ex­pres­sion is sub­tle enough to spot­light dif­fer­ing in­ten­si­ties of beats that tex­tu­rally can be clut­tered.

Fast-for­ward to Is It Al­ways Bi­nary, for ex­am­ple, an un­abashed al­bum high­light. Here, re­ly­ing on tim­ing or the tim­bre of the drums alone to dif­fer­en­ti­ate rhyth­mic strands is not enough; the AE1S al­low the 4/4 to pulse while busier strands lead each bar into the next.

Punch­ing above

Sim­ply, these AE1S do ev­ery­thing down to a tee. Not only for what they are, but to the stan­dards we could ex­pect from any amp and speaker com­bi­na­tion. So, yes, we love tra­di­tion, and we love hi-fi sep­a­rates. But it would be a much more ex­pen­sive pair of com­po­nents that would see a marked im­prove­ment on these Acous­tic En­ergy ac­tive speak­ers. You owe it to your­self to track down a pair to find that out.

“We get through a heŠy chunk of our li­brary over a cou­ple of days, and with each al­bum the AE1S’ re­sponse is an ab­so­lute de­light”

Each driver in the AES has its own, ded­i­cated amp

At just 30cm high, the AES make few de­mands on space

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