AudioEngine A2: Little Big Speakers

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Third Listen: "Mini" Home Theater

The speakers were connected to the headphone outputs of a 2-year old Sony Bravia 40" LCD TV in a lightly furnished, 12' x 12' den. The sound quality of the TV's audio circuits and speakers is decent for a television, but not great for musical programs. One can only assume that the headphone output of this TV is neutral, meant for use with any headphones, and does not contain any frequency compensation tailored to the TV's own internal speakers. The mini stereo plug cable was used again, with the speaker power/volume knob turned to maximum gain so that the TV's remote control could be used to set the volume. Each speaker was set right next to the TV at the same plane as the screen, about a meter apart, and a foot fom the back wall. The listening/watching position was just under 2m directly opposite the TV.

The Audioengine 2 speakers were perched on either side of the Sony Bravia 40" LCD TV. The towers on the extreme edges are high-end transmission line speakers connected to a mid-range Denon home theater receiver.

The sound that emerged from the Audioengine 2 was considerably more defined than that of the TV's built-in speakers, with a much finer delineation of all kinds of sounds. Almost every aspect of sound reproduction was improved, whether music or more general TV programming. In HD tennis match broadcasts, for example, the sound of the racquets striking the ball became much more distinctive, and details such as the degree of spin imparted or the sheer force of each stroke became easier to distinguish. Dynamics also improved, with the weight of bass sound effects and instruments delivered with greater punch and authority.

The only weakness came occasionally in the dialog of drama programming that features music with substantial bass content. The slight bass warmth that makes the speakers sound so surprisingly big tends to obscure the dialog at times. The solution was not to turn up the volume but to turn down the bass tone control a notch or two in the TV's audio controls.

With music in this small room, there was plenty of dynamics even with programming at quite high volume. Musical peaks of about 90 dB SPL were reached at the listening position 2m away from the center of the two speakers. This is very loud for a tiny pair of speakers.

Final Test: In a High End Home Stereo

It was fairly high end 15 years ago... It's probably nowhere near high end today, but it still sounds great. The source is mostly uncompressed digital audio files from the network fed via a SqueezeBox 3, then converted to analog by a MSB Technology LINK DAC-III 24/192 outboard D/A converter. Amplification is a Linn Kairn preamp and Linn AV5105 power amp. The speakers are NHT 2.9, a 4-way stereo pair one step down from the brand's then-top 3.3 model — now long discontinued like all the equipment I've described. In my review of the SqueezeBox 3, I wrote about my audio system:

"The overall sound is affected far more by the recordings and the music than any signature the system imparts. Most listeners describe the sound as very lively, clear, dynamic, detailed; smooth and soft when the music is smooth and soft, and raucous and loud when the music is raucous and loud. A notable quality for me is that when a good recording of a smallish band (say under 5~6 instruments plus a vocalist) is played fairly loudly, sitting in the kitchen through the open doorway at the far end of the house, it is not hard to imagine that the performers are actually there playing, albeit more softly than in a lounge bar. It also sounds very good at very low volume, detailed and clear."

A number of components have changed since then, and the system now is capable of deeper bass and greater dynamics, but the overall effect remains similar. The room is quite large and lively, 30' x 13' x 8'; it's a living room that continues into the dining area.

The Audioengine A2s were perched atop the NHT 2.9 speakers and connected directly via phono cables to the outputs of the MSB Technology D/A outboard converter. Only the SqueezeBox was used for sound sources. As the photo below suggests, it is an absurd David-Goliath comparison.

An absurd comparison: The two midrange drivers in the NHT 2.9 are larger than the bass driver in the Audioengine A2. The larger speaker also has a 10" woofer on the side panel.

The sound that emerged from the A2s in this setup was very good. If the A2s were somehow made invisible, it would not be difficult at lower volume to believe that the music was coming from the big NHT speakers. Of course, the bass was lacking real depth and weight, there was some artificiality in the midband on some music, and the system could be heard straining as volume reached upwards of 85 dB from 3 meters away in this large room. But up to what I'd consider moderately loud volume (say up to ~80 dB peaks at 3 meters), with a wide range of music, the A2s gave an astonishingly credible account of themselves. The window to the music was not huge but it was clear, unblemished and eminently listenable. When you consider that the $199 price tage includes both speakers and a stereo amp, you can't help but clap your hands for the engineering achievement the A2s represent. I think it's safe to say the the original Slim Devices folks who initiated this project should be quite pleased.

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