Unlike the relentless pace of change we experience with TV’s and AV electronics, the rate that new loudspeaker designs hit the market is fairly relaxed. Even the most determined of brands will generally only update every two years or so and many brands are quite content to let their products go for rather longer than that. Within this business model there are some more extraordinary examples of longevity. Acoustic Energy will happily sell you a pair of AE1 Classic speakers if you want and although this was out of production for a few years and has evolved into newer models, it effectively dates back to the 1980’s. Neither is it sold for sentimental reasons - if you like what the AE1 does, very little else will do.
What you see here is a brand new range of speakers from Acoustic Energy which is sufficiently unusual an event to be celebrated anyway but reading through the release information that was supplied with them, the design influences of the venerable AE1 are apparently present and correct in these all-new models. Given that Acoustic Energy has a strong track record in making some great affordable multichannel packages, it was only sensible that they were checked out. How does going back to the future work in loudspeaker design?
The 3 Series range is a standard grouping of standmount (301), floorstander (305), Centre (307) and Subwoofer (308). The system supplied for review used 301’s front and back with centre and sub completing the set. Pricing is very competitive with the 301 costing £425 a pair which pitches it right at a competitive area for stereo standmounts and with the centre costing another £349, five speakers can be had for £1,200 which is a pretty solid value proposition. The £800 asking price for the 308 sub looks a little more bullish but the spec of the 308 is sufficiently good to go some way to justifying it - more of which later.
The biggest visual clue to the 3 Series being an Acoustic Energy product is the main driver used in the 301 and 307. This is a 110mm spun, hard-anodised aluminium cone in keeping with Acoustic Energy tradition and with the pointed dust cap and burly surround it means that the 3 series speakers look like traditional members of the AE clan. Aluminium is used by a number of speaker brands with varying degrees of success but with thirty years of relevant experience, AE are as likely as anyone to achieve good results with it.
Where the 3 Series differs from AE designs of old (although not the highly regarded Compact that formed the basis of the last AE system we tested here) is the use of a soft dome tweeter to partner the main driver. This is a 28mm unit and as you might expect it is used in the 301, 305 and 307 for a suitably consistent tonal balance. The other part of the design that all the passive speakers make use of is a front mounted slot port instead of the more common circular design. This has two benefits. A properly engineered slot port should avoid whooshing or any other form of audibility even when the speaker is being driven hard and placing it at the front should limit the interaction between the speaker and the wall even if placed quite close to it. The 307 centre rather unusually is the same in terms of porting and cabinet dimensions as the 301 so make sure that you have the space for it if you are sharing a shelf with something else.
The 308 is by far the most expensive of the models in the range but looking at it, this begins to make a bit more sense. The 308 is a big lad - 12 inch downward firing doped paper driver in a box that is 36cm cubed. It’s no SB13 Ultra but you are unlikely to lose it either. Power comes courtesy of a 500 watt amplifier and AE claims useable output until the mid 20’s in terms of Hz. One interesting feature that I think other manufacturers might do well to emulate is that the 308 ships with feet in place which means at no stage do you risk parking a downward firing subwoofer on the very expensive driver while you hunt around in the box for the other bits. This is a very good idea only slightly undone by shipping the sub on its side in the packaging for reasons I couldn’t entirely fathom. Inputs and outputs are exclusively RCA in type but you can loop through and look at external EQ’s if you need to which is always appreciated.
Perhaps the best piece of news with the 3 series as a whole is that in styling terms AE have built some of the best looking speakers in the price bracket and by some margin. The styling is clean and free of gimmicks but has enough details - like the thin chrome trim rings around the drivers - to avoid looking too sober and dull. The cabinets are immaculately finished and are completely free of imperfections. The review set were supplied in gloss black but for those of you that think crocs are cool, white is also available.
Criticisms of the design are slight by contrast. The grilles are fixed by a magnetic tab system which avoids the need for unsightly holes for lugs but the front panel is slightly recessed from the rest of the cabinet which could be a slight dust trap over time. The 301 is also only a single wired design which shouldn’t be a huge problem but anyone desperate to use the bi-amp feature on their AV Receiver might find this disappointing. The fairly hefty price of the 308 opens it up to more competition from dedicated subwoofer manufacturers but it is hardly a ‘me too’ product.
The 3 Series was used with a Cambridge Audio 551R and 751BD player for the bulk of critical review and this was supplanted with Sky HD and a PS3 for some additional testing. Music was supplied courtesy of a Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6 and NAD DAC1 wireless DAC allowing for audio from a computer to be streamed directly to the rest of the equipment.
Test material was mainly Blu-ray but as with everything that is run in the lounge, the AE’s were used all the time so technically test material included such dynamic surprises as Countryfile and other niceties. Installation proved to be simplicity itself and none of the speakers proved a problem to get up and running. The sub was sufficiently large that I found it only really worked in the side position slightly in front of the front speakers but it seemed happy enough in this position.
One of the reasons why the AE1 Classic has lasted as long as it has is because what it does well is still very hard to better elsewhere. There are very few other speakers that can match it for agility and excitement. The good news is that there is recognisably some of this DNA in the 3 Series and what is even better news is that some of the less amenable aspects of the older speakers seem to have been dealt with as well.
The overriding impression that the 3 Series present as a set is one of effortless cohesion. With the same drivers in all the speakers it should not be too surprising that the handover from speaker to speaker is extremely good but with two different materials being used in the drivers in each speaker, the other piece of good news is the handover between driver and tweeter is seamless and really well handled. This gives a front soundstage that is spacious and convincing.
Detail retrieval is extremely impressive too. The claustrophobic soundtrack of The Raid is packed with incidental sounds that add to the experience of the film and the AE’s manage to bring a huge amount of it to your attention without losing the overall balance of sound. The dispersion seems pretty wide as well so even though there is no dedicated rear speaker for the range, I never felt the spread of information at the rear was limited or being beamed at a specific spot on the sofa. That said, it would be interesting to see what AE could have done with an effects speaker and it is an area where some of the competition at the same price have the 3 Series at a disadvantage.
What very few of these rival speakers can do as well as the AE’s can is match their speed and the resulting ‘clean’ performance. The 301’s and 307 start and stop with little or no overhang or bass bloom and while this is pretty handy for film, it really comes into its own with music. The 301 shows almost as little cabinet coloration as the exceptionally talented Q Acoustics Concept 20 but with the added bonus that the 301 manages an extra 19Hz in the bass before bottoming out which is fairly appreciable in practice. This speed and agility is what Acoustic Energy has been about for nearly thirty years and it is good to see that the 3 Series still has it.
Impressively, the 308 sub has more than a little of this too. For a big driver, there is impressive get up and go to the performance and it does a commendable job of integrating with the speakers to handover in a seamless and believable way - which at 55Hz made for usefully omnidirectional bass even from a slightly offset position. Where the 308 is slightly less convincing is that this speed seems to have been bought at the expense of a bit of low-end slam. When something explodes on screen, the 308 gives a slightly polite rendition. As someone who has never been a huge fan of using subs for music, I realise that the 308 is pretty talented in this regard but this has been bought at the expense of some of the absolute bottom end and this means that at the asking price there are some subs I’d probably prefer to make my films go with a bang. On a more specific note to the review equipment, I found that to get the auto on/off on the 308 working properly, I had to increase the output from the amp and back the volume off on the sub to get it to function properly.
This slight restraint is present on the passive speakers as well but it is nowhere near as pronounced. Every now and again I listened to something and wanted the 301’s to be slightly more ballistic in their presentation but effectively this almost always comes at the cost of harshness or brightness with poorly recorded material and AE has decided - correctly - to avoid this. The last spark of excitement might be missing from them but these are unfailingly able speakers and nothing from Spotify or internet radio could provoke them. This is a range of speakers that manages to walk a very neat line between clarity, liveliness and civility that means you should find yourself using them all the time and not simply for film nights.
As a last, very welcome feature, the 301 is a very effective stereo speaker. It goes low enough to be more than listenable without a subwoofer and the qualities that give them such ability with film soundtracks is replicated with stereo. If you have an AV receiver that has any ability with music at all (and the 551R for all of its simplicity is a very musical piece of equipment), you will most likely find yourself listening to music in stereo where you might not have bothered with a sub sat package.
- Superb sound with detail, control and excellent soundstage
- Very handsome design
- Excellent build quality
- Slightly polite at times
- Single wire terminals only
Acoustic Energy 3 Series 5.1 System Review
When you are a relatively small company as Acoustic Energy is, a complete new range of speakers represents a significant investment and striking the balance between keeping your existing customers happy while winning new fans of the brand is a tricky balancing act. With the 3 Series, Acoustic Energy has done a mighty impressive job of walking this design tightrope. These speakers could only be Acoustic Energy to look at but at the same time they have a design aesthetic which is unlikely to offend anyone. For the asking price, this is a well finished, handsome and flexible set of speakers.
Sonically, they strike a similar welcome balance. The 3 Series should be able to work with a huge variety of AV amps and cope with almost everything you could throw at them. They also manage to sound clean, fast and enjoyable while they do so. I feel that the speakers are better value than the sub but the price for these components is a combined price and not a package one so if you choose, you could talk to a dealer about some of the alternatives - or you could choose what is a very civilised and capable performer. There is plenty of competition (and the prospect of Q Acoustics deciding to go multichannel with their Concept 20 could add another one) but Acoustic Energy has built themselves a great new range of speakers that needs to be on your shortlist.
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