Acoustic Energy Reference 1 (vs Dynaudio Special Forty) Review

DT79

Distinguished Member
I’ve always had a bit of an Acoustic Energy itch which began when my mate bought his AE1 Classics round to mine many years ago and we tried them on the end of my Naim Supernait. It was a ‘more than the sum of its parts’ combo and I remember being blown away by how punchy and clear they sounded for such a small speaker. They made my PMC TB2+s at the time sound like they were covered in duvets by comparison. Anyway I‘ve been through a few iterations of kit since then but my itch was reignited recently when I went round to my mate’s Dad’s place (same mate) and heard his AE1 Signatures.

I’ve been keeping an eye on ebay for the right pair of AEs for the right price just for a cheeky punt. AE1s and 2s generally go for far too much money considering how old most of them are now, but a mint looking pair of Reference 1s for £550? Yes please!

These were £1,500 in 2011 and got great reviews at the time, so it would be an interesting comparison. On paper the Dynaudios ought to walk it, but I’ve yet to hear a bad pair of AEs and the company really seem to know their onions.

I installed the Ref1s a couple of weeks before Christmas. Listening was predominantly done with RoomPerfect performed and crossed over to subs at 80hz in a direct like for like comparison to how I’ve been using my S40s. Before doing the RP/sub set-up I did a bit of listening to just the speakers on their own and formed the impression that they are in the same ballpark as the S40s. I deliberately held off on making any critical judgements but as I would henceforth not be judging their full solo bass capabilities I did pay particular attention to that. In short they have quite implausibly good and deep bass for their size. On a par with S40s for perceived depth but perhaps lacking a little detail and subtlety by comparison - still, very good and I could happily live with it if subs weren’t an option.

With RP run and subs crossed at 80hz in a direct like for like comparison to the S40s, things get interesting. In some important ways the Ref1s are clearly and unambiguously better. They have better treble. It’s brighter, clearer, airier but somehow never harsh or strident no matter how much provoked. This also gives them more (incredibly) precise imaging and makes them more engaging when listening at low levels. By comparison the S40s sound ever so slightly rolled off at the top end and they lack the last degree of treble detail. However when it comes to the midrange things flip around. When I first got the Ref1s playing I felt that they were lacking something in the midrange, but I couldn’t really put my finger on it. After a bit of time to acclimatise I stopped thinking that they lacked anything and just thought that they were brilliant. They are a truly cracking pair of speakers. Dynamic beyond all expectations, clear, detailed, engaging. They blend seamlessly with the subs and for their part the bass is powerful and articulate. A pair of speakers that I could very happily live with.

I swapped back to the S40s today and that has helped to crystallise my perception of their differences. Everything I felt about the treble and imaging of the Ref1s has been confirmed. Although I stress that in isolation there is nothing perceptibly ‘wrong’ or ‘lacking‘ from the S40s. However I have been able to grasp what it is that the S40s do better in the midrange, which is that they have a richer tone, a more layered soundstage with more detail (despite lacking a little pinpoint precision compared to the Ref1s), and every part of the frequency range seems more seamlessly integrated into a more cohesive whole, especially where the low mids transitions to upper bass and then hands off seamlessly to the subs - there’s just so much detail there and absolutely no perceptible transtion from speakers to subs. It’s another case of needing the comparison to tell that there was anything lacking though - I could never tell there was anything amiss from listening to the Ref1s, it’s just that switching back to the S40s, I can hear what else is there.

So where does that leave me? I think I’m erring towards the S40s, but I’m reluctant to call it. I have a lot of love for the Ref1s and I don’t know if I could part with them. I’ve been wracking my brains for a way to set up a second 2 channel system somewhere else in the house, but so far can’t think how to do it…

What I do know is that for £5-600 for a tidy second hand pair, the Ref1s are just an insane amount of speaker for your money and a really great match for a Lyngdorf 1120 or 2170 (As well as for many other amps no doubt; developed on the end of a Naim Supernait 2 apparently).

Anyway, thought that might be interesting to some.
 

Orobas

Well-known Member
Awesome post and interesting findings!

I have a similar sort of quandry here with my (much cheaper....) set up.. I currently use the Dynaudio DM2/6's .. but i also own a pair of Acoustic Energy Aegis Neo 1's (the very much improved revamp of the Evo one) ..
On my Roksan.. at lower volume the AE's are much more sparkly, peppy and have more bass (due to the 130mm midbass from the AE1 and a bigger cabinet to driver size) than my DM2/6's .. but at higher volume, my DM2/6's just simply outpower and outmanoeuvre the Neo's without breaking a sweat.

The only thing i found with the Neo's that my DM2/6's didnt suffer with is a much more pronouced lift on the treble which is rather coarse to say the least.

it's ironic that a pair of neo's (circa £220) at lower volumes is able to butt heads with a iconic special edition Dynaudio DM2/6 (circa £535) (the DM2/6 was from dynaudio's special models section, not main stream model like the Excite/Focus they were released with)

What peaks my interest with the Dynaudio DM2/6 is their crossover... they run a more unusual 1.8kHz as opposed to a 3kHz which gives more load to the treble as opposed to the midbass... this is why a lot of the earlier models needed to be pummelled into submission with monster watts .. or shunted a blast furnace class A into them to grab the bass.

With Dynaudio .. you really have to get the music genre right to hear them at their best.. where AE i find at lower volumes is alot more open to almost all genres provided you can get past that treble....

The Special 40 .. also drops it's crossover down to 2kHz.. but it is far more refined and tolerant at low levels if..... "IF" you feed it quality watts from a more neutral to bass forward amp than most rivals

The AE ref 1 is a typical 2 way more or less at the usual 3kHz crossover point which does give a bit of a lift.... :)
 

DT79

Distinguished Member
I have to say I never found the Ref1 treble harsh or overcooked. It was more prominent and brighter, but I just found that served to illuminate things more. I wish I could put the Ref1s treble into the S40s, then that would really be something.
 

Kapkirk

Active Member
Really love the sound of the newer Acoustic Energy's, even the cheaper models (not heard the Ref1's tho but would love to) they seem to have a great integration between woofer and tweeter, the model I heard recently (AE 500 I think) had a superb midrange without being harsh on the treble which is not always the case with many speakers lately.
 

MaryWhitehouse

Well-known Member
Drat that’s Ref1 prices going up 😉. Thanks for the review.
 

dogfonos

Well-known Member
AE1s and 2s generally go for far too much money considering how old most of them are now, but a mint looking pair of Reference 1s for £550? Yes please!

Are the surrounds on the mid/bass driver foam rubber? If so, how are they holding up?
 

DT79

Distinguished Member
Are the surrounds on the mid/bass driver foam rubber? If so, how are they holding up?
They’re boxed now, but yes I’m pretty sure it is foam rubber and they looked perfect.
 

MaryWhitehouse

Well-known Member
So where does that leave me? I think I’m erring towards the S40s, but I’m reluctant to call it. I have a lot of love for the Ref1s and I don’t know if I could part with them.

If you send both pairs up here I can let you have a considered opinion after, say, 12 months intensive thought?
 

DT79

Distinguished Member
If you send both pairs up here I can let you have a considered opinion after, say, 12 months intensive thought?
Thanks. Let me give your proposal 12 months intensive thought :D

Seriously though, the more I listen to them again, the more I think the Dynaudios are winning this and try as I might I cannot think of any way to utilise the AEs elsewhere, so you never know I may put them up on the classifieds eventually.
 

DT79

Distinguished Member
It’s taken me a far shorter period of time to stop hearing what the S40s lack in comparison to the Ref1s (i.e. the more extended treble) than it did for me to stop feeling like something was missing through the midrange when had the Ref1s in situ, compared to the S40s.

When I tried my mate’s AE1s all those years ago I ended up deciding that I couldn’t live without the PMCs’ deeper bass and the AE1s’ better everything else, so I ended up getting some new speakers with the aim of trying to capture the best of both worlds. I got some Neat Momentum 3i. They were good. Better in all ways than the PMCs and had many of the qualities of the AE1s. I was never in love with them, but they did the job pretty well for a while.

I was afraid something similar was going to happen this time and I’d end up not being happy with either the S40s or the Ref1s after establishing their respective strengths/weaknesses. However I’m pleased to say that the more I listen to the S40s again, the less I feel like that is going to be the case. The Ref1s do have better treble and run them close in all other respects, but the S40s just sound cohesively ‘right’ in a way that only one other pair of speakers I’ve ever heard has managed. Those were the AVI ADM40 actives that I had between the Supernait/Momentums and the TDAI-2170/S40s I have now. Although not really a like for like comparison I’d say on balance they were as good as the S40s, albeit rather different.
 

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