Back in the late '80s, when I used to flog hi-fi (surround sound was just hitting the shelves and generally staying there), one of those products arrived on the scene that was an instant classic. The Acoustic Energy AE1 was a semi-pro mini monitor of diminutive size, sporting a home grown spun aluminium cone and a Monitor Audio derived alloy dome tweeter, all packed into a twin ported cabinet of satisfying density. It rocked. It thrived on watts and whilst deep bass was off the cards, it was an exciting listen that maintained the drama and drive of music and let you know if it was a bad mix. It was a true monitor and it's hard as nails good looks meant it sold well. The ingredients of AE speakers haven't strayed much from that path since (even though the company founder Phil Jones has moved on) and indeed the seminal AE1 (now suffixed 'Classic') was recently reinstated as a model alongside it's MkIII successor, acknowledging that whilst some of it's attributes (treble refinement for instance) have since been surpassed, it still gets so many things right, as a whole, that it's still a worthy contender.
Fast forward through to the present day and the range has broadened to occupy a wider range of niches with larger, smaller, less and more costly options for both traditional stereo and multichannel users. Manufacturing is now largely based in the Far East, to keep costs competitive, and it’s the latest revamp of a range from the cost-conscious end of the scale that is the subject here. The Aegis Neo V2 Series sits at the foot of the full sized speaker line up and, in the configuration tested here, is the first UK outing of the full 'phat' package incorporating the Neo 3 V2 floor-standers. I'm not even quite sure of the package RRP, as I write this, although I think it is about £1200 - £200 more than the pack based on the Neo 1 stand-mounts.
There are a few subtle visual clues to distinguish the V2s from the originals. The radius to the top and bottom edge of the cabinets have disappeared, the cast alloy driver frames and tweeter face plate are now picked out in a titanium type tone and the pin and cup grill fixings have been replaced with Neodymium magnets and sub veneer ferrous inserts. The resulting look is clean and crisp, with the grills on or off, and one that pleases the eye of this reviewer at least. They in no way look budget, even though the veneer is artificial and fit and finish is very tidy indeed – all drivers, ports and terminal trays are recessed flush in nice tight rebates, just how I like it.
Looking at the drivers reveals the origins of the Neo moniker, as all of the driver motors are based around Neodymium magnets – Not so unusual with tweeters but slightly more so with mid/bass drivers. For those not familiar, Neodymium is a very powerful and relatively expensive magnetic alloy and, as such, you can get away with using a lot less of it than the more normal ferrite alternative. So little in fact, that the entire magnet can fit inside the voice coil of the driver rather than surrounding it in a ring, so when you look at the rear of a Neo magnet driver, there's a slight “where'd my motor go?” experience. The benefit is that there's no flat expanse of magnet to reflect sound from the rear of the driver straight back out through the cone and that tweeters, in particular, can be made a lot smaller and gain from flexibility of mounting options. The downside is that large magnets are pretty good heat sinks and wick heat in the voice coil away thus maintaining dynamic headroom and sustained high listening levels. However, in this case the voice coil is attached to a metal cone (pressed, rather than spun these days) that is a rather good radiator of heat, as it is on the outside of the cabinet in fresh air. This benefit, and the fact that well engineered metal cones maintains a true pistonic motion to higher point in their pass band, is central to the ethos of why AE developed metal drivers in the first place – They play clean and stay clean even at consistently high SPLs due to their handling of heat.
Further interesting points in the construction of the 130mm mid/bass unit ,common to all of the Neo V2s, are very open and free flowing alloy baskets, pole piece venting beneath the suspension spider and a foam roll surround. Modern foam surrounds avoid the rotting issues of yesteryear, and is better material for the damping of the cones resonance when it finally does start to move into the frequencies where its pistonic behaviour starts to break down. This is one of the trade-offs with metal drivers – they're pistonic, when they do start to break up, they really do break up, but these being small drivers, and careful driver matching, means this area is well down in level compared to the tweeter that has long since taken over.
Talking of the tweeter, as with it's predecessor, the tweeter is outsourced and in this case is a variant of the Neo magnet Vifa XT25 ring radiator. This is by no means a cheap tweeter and, indeed can be found in considerably more expensive speakers and not just within AE's range. It's a renowned smooth performer, that responds flat to well over 20kHz with a nominal cut-off of 40kHz. No, you can't hear that high, but the fact that it's response is that extended, means any breakup nasties should happen well above the threshold of audibility.
Neo 3 V2 Floor-Stander - £399/pair
Looking at the Neo 3 floor-standers first, all of this driver tech is screwed into a 18mm thick MDF baffle with each driver having a foam gasket to ensure a good seal. The rest of the cabinet is 12mm MDF with horizontal braces to divide the cabinet into separate halves between the two mid/bass drivers and to form a small cavity at the bottom. A full height vertical window brace controls the resonance of the side panels. The top part of the cabinet houses the tweeter and top mid/bass driver that works much the same as the Neo 1 stand-mounter and is ported to the rear. The bottom half of the cabinet is also ported and houses the second bass driver that only rolls in for the lower octaves below the baffle step; This is another of the 2 and ½ way breed, rather than a true three way. The crossover is bolted to the rear of the cabinet and the largest of the three inductors is mounted separately on the horizontal brace away from the other two. This, and the fact that all occupy different orientations is nice detail, as is the chunky gauge of internal braided copper wiring. Beneath the single pair of speaker terminals on the rear of the cabinet is a 25mm diameter rubber plug. This allows you to mass load the small cavity with silver sand or whatever is fashionable these days. The benefit is a lower, more stable, centre of gravity and a more firmly anchored speaker that should help dynamic attack. It's a feature that's appeared on AE speakers down the years and I don't understand why more manufacturers don't do it, if it can be done in a speaker at this price level. Stability is further aided by a screw on plinth that modestly extends the footprint of the supplied spikes and looks nice into the bargain.
As mentioned, these were so new as to be completely unused, so disregarding whether speakers need to be run in or not, I gave them a good twenty hours of use before really sitting down to listen acutely. Positioning, after a bit of experimenting, was found to be best with a couple of feet of clear air between the cabinet and rear wall, with a small amount of toe in. This turned out to be exactly what AE recommend in their more than averagely useful manual which is loaded with sound advice. Worth reading.
Used as full range floor-standers, in traditional stereo music mode, I was pleased to hear a speaker of what some will call a mature voice and others might call free of boom and tizz. No one part of the frequency range is rammed down your throat to produce an immediately impressive, or artificially detailed sound, on a quick demo. Starting from the top, the refined treble delivered cymbals with a nice metallic ring, but without sounding splashy, and so it was easy to pick out not only the different types, but how they were being struck. Vocals retained a natural breathiness, only where they were meant to, and all without the tweeter spitting sibilance at you. This treble performance sits on top of a midrange that is equally smooth and refuses to get shouty even when pushed by strident female vocals. Harsh mixes stay just the right side of uncomfortable, whilst top quality recordings really shine – I even tried some overtly 'digital' recordings beloved of the mid '80s and came away without ringing ears. Bass performance was equally adept, bouncing along tunefully as long as care was taken with positioning. The reasonable bass extension could be made to sound excessive if pushed too close to a wall, with the bass thickening and becoming indistinct. With sufficient air around them, kick drums had a pleasing snap, avoiding the dull thud of excessively bassy speakers.
There are limitations to note. One would be that this isn't a big speaker, with big drivers, and the trade-off for the bass extension is a limitation in the ultimate volume levels on tap. Don't get me wrong, they'll go ASBO loud if you live in a mid-terrace, two up two down, but in my detached reality it was possible to find the limit where the large excursions being asked of the mid-bass drivers could result in a hardening of the midrange that made them start to sound a touch boxy. This is much less of an issue if used in the bass managed environment of multichannel receiver, or processor, where a subwoofer gets to do the heavy lifting, more of that later. I also noted that, much like my normal speakers (also metal coned), there's a definite volume level where they start to wake up, and I don't just mean warm up, because I've yet to hear a speaker that didn't sound better after at least a few minutes of playing. At low levels, the frequency extremes don't really project and the sound remains a touch box-bound, there being a point only a few clicks up the volume scale where they start to reveal their true nature, but as that point isn't exactly loud, some might consider this nit-picking. It's just a point worth noting if you listen a lot whilst the rest of the family is in bed. If they're awake, it's a non-issue.
Neo 1 V2 Stand-mount - £219/pair
A lot of what goes for the Neo 3 goes for its smaller sibling except, of course, the ultimate bass extension. It really is basically the top of the Neo 3 and perhaps because of my predilection for running an EQ'd subwoofer, or two, to cover the bottom two or three octaves, this was my personal favourite of the set. By itself, the Neo 1 offered all the refinement of the floor-stander, but obviously lacks the dynamic attack and bass extension that the bigger box and extra driver offer. By way of compensation, I found it offered a greater precision in the stereo sound stage, adding a touch of focus to the positions of performers and a slightly greater hint of depth. The Neo 1 was also a touch less coloured in the midrange, possibly due to less panel area to resonate. With the Neo Sub in tow, the dynamic and bass shortcomings were alleviated and indeed far greater bass extension, dynamic grunt and control than the floor-standers can manage is added. This was my favourite of the possible stereo combinations but, for those running resolutely stereo set-ups and no option to bass manage the speakers, the floor-standers would probably still stack up as the best option.
Neo Sub V2 - £399
As I've mentioned it, I'll devote some space to what in many ways was the biggest surprise of the package, mainly because it was the part I was expecting the least from. On paper, a 225mm driver powered by 200w probably isn't the stuff of committed bass head dreams’, but the figures don't tell the whole story apparently. Dealing with the details first, it's a straightforward, front firing sealed subwoofer with a robust looking pressed alloy framed driver, sporting a serious looking rubber roll surround. It comes with both 8mm spikes for people like me with carpets and concrete floors, but also some really chunky rubber feet for those with wooden floors or laminates. The plate amp has stereo in and outputs, plus a separate LFE input that bypasses the formers 40-120Hz low pass crossover, but is still subject to the gain and continuously sweepable 0-180deg phase control. No cheapo phase switch here, which is excellent. Also provided is a single band of parametric equalisation, or notch filter if you prefer. Using this, it is possible to match the exact frequency and width of your room's worst mode (room boom) and dial it out to deliver a much tighter, more even bass performance. I applaud this inclusion, because, whilst it's virtually impossible to implement 100% effectively by ear, and will therefore go unused by a great many people, for those who are willing to learn a new trick, it's possible to make a very large improvement to your sub-bass quality. Given the choice of this feature, or the dubious 'Movie' or 'Music' pre-sets you can see elsewhere, my money is on this effective function every time.
In use, I was genuinely surprised by the depths the Neo Sub plumbed, and at the levels it could be played at, before you really noticed it starting to struggle. Sure, more money would bring you an added texture and grip, but it didn't waffle and was well able to hold a tune without diluting the pace of the music. With movies, it offered surprising levels of punch with only the really big sustained effects tripping it up - Anything below 25Hz is pretty much off the cards. In the context of a £400 subwoofer, AE have made a few savvy technical choices, decided against attempting frequencies that are more about pub bragging rights, included some useful features and crucially delivered this all in a tidy little package, that is very much in keeping with the performance levels of the rest of the package – You won't find the Neo Sub struggling to keep up with the speakers, or visa versa.
The Whole Package
Well actually there's two packages tested here, as I used both the Neo 3s and 1s as the front left and right speakers although, in the case of the latter, I didn't use the 3s as rears, preferring to lean on my normal wall mounted surrounds, but the point was really to ring the changes and check the consistency of tonal matches possible. The match required is with the Neo Centre (£179), the lone centre channel choice in the range and indeed, is worthy of a close look in it's own right.
Centre speakers, or some of the fayre that bears the label, are a bit of a personal pique of mine and is an issue I sidestep by using identical speakers across the front. Most people are not be so lucky to have that sort of space and the horizontal centre is a necessity to fit above or below a screen and on, or even in a stand or rack. The centre speaker is thus required to operate in an entirely different set of circumstances to the stereo pair and, whilst it usually offers a cute visual match, all too frequently it falls down in actually sounding anything like the other speakers.
With this in mind, the driver line up of the Neo Centre is a 2 and ½ way like the Neo 3s, but as it will tend to suffer greater bass reinforcement due to closer proximity to the floor, wall or a stand, it forgoes the additional bass reinforcement of reflex port loading - The Neo Centre is a sealed design. As I can only really mount in free space on a stand, at the same level as the other speakers, I found that I needed to mount it a good six inches closer to the rear wall than the other speakers, to simulate the environment it is designed to expect.
An interesting benefit of restricting the midrange to one driver alone is that seating positions, off axis, tend to be better served than when the midrange duties are shared across two drivers. Both ways tend to work well when sitting dead centre, but as you move off axis, the distance between the two mid/bass drivers changes by differing amounts and this results in certain frequencies cancelling each other out, due to an effect called comb filtering. Okay, you will still get some discontinuities around the crossover region, but nothing like the issues across a wider region offered by a multi-driver two way. This is as good as you can hope for in this price range and demonstrates the Neo Centre to be a well considered speaker, rather than a range filler that will get bought anyway.
In use, all of the potential permutations of speakers worked well. The voicing of the speakers was as well matched as three very different sizes and orientations of cabinets can hope to be.
With the sub handling the bottom couple of octaves, all the permutations offered respectable movie volume levels although Dolby/THX reference level is asking a bit too much in my room at least. Kept within their limits, the naturally smooth performance meant hours of easy on the ear, non fatiguing viewing, with dialogue always rendered in a clear and intelligible manner. The consistent tonal matching allowed effects to slide smoothly between speakers, my personal opinion being that the Neo 1s held a slight edge over the larger 3s in this regard. The corollary to this is that the floor-standers added a touch more dynamic punch. Regardless, all delivered a pleasing bite to metallic and sharp sounding effects, without sounding overly aggressive in the way that more 'AV' balanced speakers can and folly effects like trees rustling in the breeze sounded clear and filled the surround sound scape nicely.
In an effort to hammer the system a bit, I spun my trusty reference of Kung-fu Panda, which has any number of telling moments surround and LFE moments and I remain impressed by the way such a modestly sized package despatched them. The savage blows inflicted during the prison escape had real impact, with only the room pulsing heart beats near the end of the same scene lacking quite the depth and scale the soundtrack asks. I haven't heard any subwoofer of this size, never mind price, pull this one off so it's more of a note than a black mark. The chopsticks/dumpling duel sounded fantastic, with a really believable ceramic scraping sound of the bowls and wooden clicking of the chopsticks showing the fine resolution and matching of the tweeters and midrange. Fast forward to the final fight between the villain of the film and the eponymous hero and I wasn't expecting too much from the truly historic bass moment that is “Skadoosh”. Not for the first time I was surprised at what a good punt the sub in particular made of what is a torturous effect. Again, the sensible balance AE have designed made it deliver the volume of the effect in a satisfying manner, whilst avoiding tying itself in knots trying to mange the room bending infrasonics that it couldn't hope to touch. I'd far rather this than the quacking of a clipping amp and stressed driver from a sub trying to work beyond its limits.
- Great Looks
- Attention to detail
- Balanced sound with music and movies
- Individual speakers that are well matched
- Needs some volume to gel, but not too much!
- Perhaps not as impressive as some with a short demo
Acoustic Energy Aegis Neo V2 Series Review
The V2 Neo's are an interesting and well thought out package. Warm it up, play it at sensible levels and you'll receive a sound that's as enjoyable at the end of a session as it promised at the beginning. Although they're revealing enough to deliver real insight, they manage not to make poor material sound unlistenable. Evenly balanced for music reproduction, they manage not to sound overly polite with action movies. They don't attempt sonic feats that are beyond their size and, as a result, deliver what they can in a confident and proficient manner. The consistency across the range means there's flexibility in the speakers chosen to fit most rooms, without the worry of upsetting the balance of the package and, indeed, the Neo 1s and 3s stand alone as products in their own rights for those looking for a stereo only solution. The Neo Sub went some way to reaffirming my failing faith in the high street's ability to deliver a decent budget sub – That it could add some grunt to movies was less surprising to me than it's genuine competence with music, in either a multichannel or stereo set-up just filling in below the mains.
In conclusion, despite it's relatively budget nature, this is a package with a well judged balance of strengths and in parts, some genuine star quality. It's faults are few and strengths plentiful and at the price being asked, it's hard not to like what Acoustic Energy are offering.
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