AudioEngine A2: Little Big Speakers

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First Audition: Music from an iPod

The proof of any audio product always comes down to the listening. The first listening session was at a friend's home, in a wide open space of about 600~700 square feet, with the speakers set atop a counter that divided the living and dining areas. The speakers were set as far apart as the supplied cable allowed, about six feet. They did not have the bass-reinforcing benefit of a wall close behind them. The source was the headphone output of an iPod classic with a mini 80gb hard drive. The music varied: Vocals, jazz, pop, rock, and classical.

The overall impression was smooth and balanced, with none of the usual "computer speaker" failings of compressed dynamics, colored midrange, or nasty / absent bass. The good tonal balance was complemented by snappy transient response, resulting in an ability to present a lively, cohesive illusion of a music event between and around the two speakers. There was a spacious, wide open aspect to the sound that was quite appealing. There was no shortage of bass on most program material at comfortable listening volume. Driving deep bass was not expected, and it was not delivered, but a slightly raised midbass seemed apparent. It actually helped to compensate for the lack of deeper bass, imparting surprising weightiness when called for.

The speakers could only play to what I'd consider a moderately loud volume before clipping occurred. The loudness level reached in this large space was more than high enough for a party or other social gathering (where music is not the prime focus), amazing considering the diminutive size of the speakers. All in all, it was a most impressive first impression.

Second Listen: Speakers for a PC

This was the function for which the A2 was originally developed.

NOTE - Reviewer's Disclosure: My assessment of the A2s as a speaker system for a PC was not helped by the fact that I have not had speakers connected to my PC for at least five years, possibly longer. I've lived with high quality music playback systems all my life, and at some point along the way, I decided not to subject myself to the painful limitation of computer speakers when there was a fabulously good sounding audio system in my living room. When I feel like listening to music while at my computer, I simply turn the stereo upstairs up to a fairly high level and keep my downstairs office doors open. The sound that flows downstairs is much better and more natural than I have got from any speakers ever hooked up directly to my computers. Hence, the A2s were up against my audiophile snobbery, my lack of exposure to other PC speakers, and my natural bias against speakers at my computer desk.

The A2s in original setup. They sounded good but...

Hooked up to the line output of the integrated sound card on my main PC with the speakers on either side of the 22" monitor and no more than three feet from me seated at the desk, there was a bit too much noise from the sound card when the volume knob was set to maximum (without any music playing through the speakers). Since the speakers' volume capacity was far higher than needed for listening at such close distance, the simple solution was to turn the knob down to the point where the noise was no longer audible, which happened to be at the 12 o'clock mark. You may fare better with the sound card in your system.

The sound was, as before, very detailed and musical without being clinical. The integration of the tweeter and woofer was very good, there being no sense of discontinuity between lows, mids and highs. In the end, despite the good quality sound, I found myself more comfortable with the sound off. Examining the reasons, I concluded that there were several main factors:

Habit: As mentioned earlier, I'm simply not used to listening to music while seated at my computer. It felt distracting to be writing this while listening to music I would have preferred to pay more attention to.

Desktop Resonances: Yes, these speakers have enough bass capability to excite the resonances in the hollow melamine-finished particle board top of my desk. I was aware of the coloration the desktop imparted to the bass, and over time, this effect proved to be fatiguing. Putting a block of soft open cell foam about 2" thick under each speaker helped reduce this effect, but it was still evident.

Close Positioning: The close position, often just a couple feet from each speaker when leaning over the keyboard, exacerbated the slight bass warmth alluded to earlier and made the desktop resonances more audible. Simply walking away from the desktop and standing some six feet away made the sound far more pleasant to me.

During our phone chat, Brady Bargenquast of Audioengine suggested angling the speakers inward so that their central axes intersect in front of me. This would mean that both speakers would be laterally off axis. It is the same basic setup that I use for the front speakers in my home theater room, as it provides a sound stage that's stable as one moves laterally (very handy for at position on the sofa across the room). It was certainly worth a try. Brady also suggested angling the speakers up towards me. A pair of large soft rubber feet from QuietPC did the trick — never mind that their softness will upset the long established ethos of the spike every speaker audiophiles. Perhaps the softness of the rubber would inhibit the transmission of vibration into the desk and reduce the resonant effects I thought I was hearing.

Angled up and in, the A2s sounded mysteriously better.

This setup did improve the sound quite a lot. I'd bet there's nothing clearly measurable here, but it was certainly audible. There was a slight softening of edginess that might have been there on-axis, and the overall presention was more natural than before.

It also became very clear with further listening that the A2 speakers have enough resolving power for me to clearly hear differences in the recordings themselves. The source material determines the listening experience as much as the speakers. A better sound card than the one integrated in my 2+ years old socket 939 motherboard would surely effect improvements in the sound as well.

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