What is the AE1 Active?
The big deal for many of us is that they wear the AE1 badge. The title is one that has been used very infrequently and when it has, it’s been attached to some very significant products indeed. The original AE1 was one of the very first high-end standmount speakers and one that contributed hugely to the development of the concept as a whole. It was in many ways a flawed device but, despite that, it still returned to production over a decade after its initial run. It remains one of my all-time favourite speakers and means that anything that wears ‘AE1’ on it needs to be pretty special. So, we need to ask some questions about the specification and see whether it delivers on the heritage. After that, we can see if it is any good!
The drivers themselves are a mix of the traditional Acoustic Energy ethos and the brand’s more modern leanings. The mid-bass unit is a 127mm ceramic coated aluminium design that features the classic Acoustic Energy wide foam surround and pointed dust cap. It is partnered with a 25mm soft dome tweeter – a departure from the company’s original use of metal for both drivers. The tweeter is sunk into a shallow but noticeable wave guide. This is designed to help the tweeter disperse its energy in a more consistent and linear fashion than would be the case if it were simply beaming out from the front of the cabinet. The tweeter has a permanent protective mesh on the front which is present whether you use the grilles or not. Around the back, a narrow slot port helps the AE1 hit low notes whilst minimising the air velocity through the port to avoid audibility.
Depending on where you sit in the use of active speakers, the AE1 Active is either the answer to a prayer or absurdly minimalist. While many new arrivals to the category boast wireless connectivity, on board DACs and support for various streaming services, the AE1 takes a different approach. Connectivity starts (and ends) with a single XLR and RCA input per speaker. Essentially, the AE1 will do whatever a preamp tells it to. There is a trim control on the rear panel of both speakers but this would make a deeply unsatisfactory method of volume control and is instead designed to let you tweak the levels to avoid any imbalance from the speakers being a different distance from your listening position or avoid potential over driving from something with biblical gain. In essence, this is a speaker designed to work with existing electronics, not replace them.
The Actives are handsome and well-proportioned things. At 30 centimetres tall, they are pretty compact but they don’t feel squat thanks to the sensible placement of the drivers and general proportions. From the front, there are almost no clues at all that they AE1s are active – in fact the tiny white LED running light is a bit small for at a glance use. They do look like Acoustic Energy products though and there is enough sense of the brand identity there to make them recognisable as Acoustic Energy, whilst also managing to balance this with feeling clean and modern at the same time.
As a result of their design though, you are going to have to put a modicum of thought into using the AE1. They come supplied with a reasonably long mains lead but you will need to make sure that they are close enough to a power source. At the moment (July 2017), the AE1 Actives are only sold in pairs but Acoustic Energy is looking at the demands for single units which might be of interest to multichannel fans. Do feel free to let the company know (politely and by the normal channels!) if you are interested in such a thing.
How was the AE1 Active tested?
What do I mean by this? Listening to something like Fink’s Pretty Little Thing, the immediacy of the AE1 is genuinely invigorating. This is a simple track; vocals, guitar and some stripped back percussion and effects. The AE1 delivers them as beautifully defined separate points of information but tied together in a way that gives a genuine sensation of being present at the time. There’s no sense of embellishment to the material, instead it sounds outstandingly natural and this in turn feeds back to the general feeling of realism these speakers create.
Increase the complexity of the material and go for the absolutely bonkers Star Furnace by the apocalyptically name The Comet is Coming and the AE1s deliver the densely layered fury of the track while still trying to make sense of it. Fine details that can be lost in the mix when listening to the same track on the (admittedly rather more affordable) Steljes NS6 are clearly discernible but worked into the track as a whole. The effect is tonally even and cohesive meaning that you tend to take in the performance as a whole rather than focusing on the details, however artfully picked out they may be.
Judged for what it is – which is not a true £1,000 speaker but a £1,000 solution to part of your amplification and a loudspeaker – it is hard to be overly critical about what the AE1 active offers. There have been times when pushed hard that some other similarly priced amp and passive speaker combinations have sounded a little more energetic but there is also a sense that the performance that the Acoustic Energy is generating is probably the correct one. If you want your music to be delivered with a constant sense of get up and go, this might not be the correct choice as you’ll only get that effect from music that is supposed to have it. The other aspect of the AE1’s performance that needs to be pointed out but sort of goes without saying, is that you will need to have decent source equipment – not necessarily expensive but sufficiently capable so as not to pass on any obvious flaws to a pair of speakers that will happily make those flaws apparent.
Provided that you can do this though, the AE1s are extremely easy to live with. Nothing I’ve asked them to play in the time they’ve been here has unsettled them or left me regretting pressing play. Their effortless cohesion and even-handedness allows them to be as happy picking through Arvo Part as they are Jurassic5 and they’ll do a commendable job with both. It’s worth noting that the Oppo Sonica has impressive and very linear gain available from its volume control and this has suited the Acoustic Energy extremely well. I suspect that living with them at the end of a less linear volume control might prove to be frustrating but this is neither their fault nor something that would easily be avoided by the use of a different active design.
- Refined yet punchy and accurate sound
- Well made
- Fleixble in terms of partnering equipment
- Handsome and well made
- Won't flatter poor equipment and signals
- Wood finish a little orange
- Ultimate limits to headroom
Acoustic Energy AE1 Active Speaker Review
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