GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published July 1, 2008

 


GOODSOUND! GREAT BUY


Audioengine A2 Powered Loudspeakers

I’ve never given much of a fig either way about computer speakers. Oh, I know the gamers treasure a rumblin’, tumblin’, stumblin’ sound system, all the better to capture the Birth of the Universe when Gonthrax the Inevitable pounds the Sacred Hammer of Flangedoodle . . . sigh. Besides, real gaming has moved on to consoles integrated into home-theater surround-sound systems, and the humble compact stereo speaker has been relegated to the back seat of audiodom, where it does the lightweight lifting required by the more modest PC-based games -- we’re talking Pajama Sam and Freddi Fish here. Otherwise, you can cruise YouTube, or simply enjoy the panoply of streamed music the ’net offers. That’s where the magic -- indeed, the sublime miracle -- of an excellent powered computer monitor like the Audioengine A2 ($199 USD per pair) comes into play.

Attributes

The A2’s amplifier is a simple affair, putting out a rated 15Wpc RMS -- decent output for this kind of application, especially when the typical powered PC speaker puts out something like 3-5Wpc. The installation guide, however, contains the sort of blue smoke and mirrors I thought had been long banished from audio, boasting "60 watts of power" before you find out that that’s the sum of peak power potential for both channels. That aside, the real miracle is that the A2s’ amplifier is crammed into the left speaker enclosure without compromising the speaker’s sound.

The A2 is a marvel of compact construction: 6"H x 4"W x 5.25"D. As with the legendary Optimus 7 or the Energy Take Classic (I reviewed the latter for the January 2008 edition of our sister publication Home Theater & Sound), it takes a modicum of genius and a generous dose of engineering smarts to coax big sound from a small speaker. And, like the Optimus and Energy products, the Audioengine A2 produces a big sound. Each cabinet of 18mm-thick MDF houses a proprietary 20mm silk-dome tweeter and a 2.75" Kevlar woofer driver. Although the A2 can be used with a subwoofer (Audioengine offers the AS8 powered sub as a complement), the box and slotted port are designed to deliver the maximum clean bass one can expect from a 2.75" driver. The A2 is distinguished by its onboard amplification. Whereas the Optimus and Energy models are passive speakers designed to be driven by an outboard amp, the A2 carves out room for the amplifier, with which it delivers as clean and uncolored sound as either of those models.

The review samples were polished to an inviting black sheen. The A2 also comes in white.

One huge caution: The drivers are not covered by grilles, but are bare-ass out in the open. Wield with care and delicacy all pens, pencils, scissors, and other office accoutrements -- one careless poke and you’ve ended the life of a fine piece of audio equipment.

Suggestion for Audioengine: Find a way to protect the drivers from accidental abuse. They’re not sitting on some pedestal doing a nose-in-the-air audiophile job; they’re down on the work surface, surrounded by a lot of other stuff in more or less constant use. Not everyone’s cubicle has the luxury of an off-the-desk shelf on which to prop speakers.

Installation

Setting up the A2 couldn’t be simpler. As in many powered PC speakers, its amplifier and controls are embedded in one speaker, with a speaker-level umbilical to the other. Audioengine has accomplished this neatly: All inputs and controls are on the rear of the left speaker. You have a choice of inputs: a 1/8" stereo mini-jack, the most common denominator for personal portable audio devices from Discman to iPod; or a pair of L/R RCA jacks. This is the first significant difference between the A2 and most PC speakers, which generally have a single one-way "input": a 1/8" mini-jack hardwired to the control speaker that plugs into the PC’s soundcard. But the A2’s inputs are just that: there’s no hardwired assumption about the sound source. This way, you can choose to connect the A2s to your PC, your iPod, your Discman, whatever -- all of which use a 1/8" stereo mini-jack line-level output.

Power is supplied by an AC/DC transformer via a DIN plug -- a power-feed configuration that I’d not previously encountered. The real treat is how the two speakers are connected. Each has a pair of sturdy, gold-plated binding posts that can accommodate mini-banana plugs, spade lugs, or bare wire. Audioengine supplies a 2m length of 16AWG speaker wire -- anything thicker would be overkill -- coded for +/-, and whose leads have been tinned at the factory. Unscrew the posts, insert the leads, tighten, and you’re done.

Finally, the volume pot also serves as the On/Off switch. Careful: the A2 is so sensitive that you don’t have to turn the knob too much before the room -- you heard me, the room -- is filled with sound. Because the A2’s amplifier has a delay protection circuit in the On/Off switch, it’s easy to set the volume too high before the sound kicks in. The delay is only three seconds, but you’ve been warned. Better to set the volume and forget about it. The A2 also has a Sleep mode that essentially puts the amplifier on standby until it detects a signal, at which point it comes to life and goes to work.

There are no tone controls, such as the bass and treble equalizers typically found on powered speakers. Nor is there a headphone jack, another typical feature. For the record, neither is a big loss. First, garden-variety PC speakers use tone controls to compensate for plastic housings, small drivers, and lo-fi sources. Second, even though there are many theoretical differences between line and headphone outputs, in the PC domain they’ve become blurred to sameness: on many PCs, the "line out" and "headphone" connections are one and the same, and indeed are considered interchangeable.

I used the 2m cable with dual-terminated 1/8" stereo mini-jacks to connect the left speaker to the audio output (light green) on the rear of my PC, an older Dell Optiplex running Windows XP at a modest 850MHz. Our Internet connection is coaxial cable courtesy the local cable-TV operator, so ’net listening is via the fastest broadband connection any site can offer.

I had one problem: The A2s, even at a mere 4", are slightly wider than the Altec-Lansing speakers I’ve had since acquiring another Dell some years back -- they wouldn’t fit on the shelf along with the monitor, as the A-Ls had. I could put the A2s on the desktop, but unlike most PC speakers, their faces aren’t canted upward to compensate for most users’ inability to place them at least shoulder high. So I repaired to the shop and quickly built two 4.5"-high stands from scrap lumber. Problem solved.

Although placing the A-Ls to either side of the monitor about 15" apart was OK, it was far too close together for the A2s -- even the nearfield felt congested and constrained. I placed the A2s at either end of my desk, about 3.5’ apart, which provided an unrestrained nearfield, and enough of a soundstage that such a small installation could begin to emulate a high-end listening environment.

Listening

With few exceptions, the audio devices you’ll be connecting to a pair of powered speakers with a 1/8" mini-jack are lo-fi: MP3 players, iPods, Internet radio over your computer. Yes, you can play CDs on your computer’s DVD drive, or with a Discman or equivalent. But small speakers just can’t move enough air to do a full-range recording justice. Finally, with some exceptions, most of the music sources you can muster for a PC application are decidedly lo-fi. MP3s, by definition, toss out seven of every eight pieces of audio information. iTunes’ AAC files aren’t any better. Yes, I understand acoustical masking, and yes, I agree that the algorithms do a credible job of creating something listenable despite the enormous loss of information (a whopping 87.5%). But it’s not high fidelity -- not by a long shot. It’s on the same tier as a good FM radio signal or HD or satellite radio: a better signal, but not hi-fi.

That said, the A2’s sound was, for want of a better word, incredible. I habitually listen to Radio Paradise -- simply the best radio station on the planet, broadcast or Internet, and where I first learned about the A2. After having installed the Audioengines one Sunday afternoon, I fired up RP and was greeted by Stephen Gadd’s alternately sublime and frenetic drumming on the title track of Steely Dan’s Aja [MCA 811745]. I know this recording well, and ordinarily will tolerate a less-than-hi-fi rendering only with foot-tapping impatience. Not this time. Over the A2s, "Aja" sprang to life with a palpable soundstage: a fair amount of height and not a lot of depth, but a precise rendering of the delicate tick of Gadd’s drumstick on the bell of the ride cymbal.

Playing CDs through my PC’s soundcard easily revealed the A2’s limitations, as well as a curious anomaly. It flawlessly captured the rich midrange on Fastball’s "The Way," from All the Pain Money Can Buy [Hollywood HR-62130-2], a massive hit from a few summers back. However, although the bass was respectable, it was not the thunderous rumbling of the CD when played over a high-end rig. It couldn’t be -- not with 2.75" drivers. The anomaly was a perceptible veil drawn between me and the sound source, as if the music were coming from behind a very thin wall. In fact, my immediate impression was that MP3s, especially over Radio Paradise, sounded better than their original CD sources. "What’s better?" you may rightfully ask. For me, it was stronger, more pronounced bass; cleaner highs; virtually no loss of midrange energy; and no veil. Well, I’d never heard a lossily compressed audio file that sounded anywhere near as fully realized as a CD. Never. This called for further examination.

To test what I was hearing, I borrowed my daughter’s iPod Nano, on which she’s burned a number of my CDs using iTunes’ AAC lossy compression. This is not the forum to discuss the relative merits, or lack thereof, of MP3s and AAC lossy compression. Suffice it to say that the outcomes are similar: In creating a song’s compact version, each tosses out 80-90% of the digital information. I chose some familiar music: The Beatles’ 1 [Capitol CDP 5 29325 2] and the Dandy Warhols’ Welcome to the Monkey House [Capitol CDP 5 84368 0]. The greater differences were with the Beatles material. The AAC highs were slightly more accentuated, and the bass was definitely more pronounced. Some songs, notably "Eleanor Rigby," "Penny Lane," and "Hello Goodbye," were cleaner, lifting the veil. However, they were also more brittle, acquiring a trebly edge that was not evident on the CD through either the A2s or my reference audio system. Similarly, where the CD accentuated Paul McCartney’s bass, especially his groundbreaking fretwork on "Penny Lane" and "Hello Goodbye," the AAC version pushed it into prominence. The contrast between the CD and the AAC files of the Warhols’ "We Used to Be Friends," "Plan A," and "The Last High" was not as noticeable. Courtney Taylor-Taylor, the band’s guitarist-leader and the CD’s producer, dialed in gobs of synth bass, so the differences were less evident on the low end. However, as with the Beatles’ 1, the AAC versions of these songs were slightly more strident in the treble region -- and, yes, the veil had been lifted.

Summary

The Audioengine A2 is the best PC speaker I’ve ever heard. Its strength, far and away, is how it makes the most of lo-fi sound sources. While the artifacts of lossily compressed files may or may not make up for all the missing information, through the A2s they sounded marvelous, far better than the Altec-Lansing PC speakers I’d been using for some time. One could venture, though it could be a stretch -- critical listening is never cut and dried, no matter what the Golden Ears may allege -- that the A2 has been tuned to take advantage of how lossily compressed music files accentuate the highs and lows to compensate for the loss of information. I tested CDs against AAC files burned from the same CDs on the same computer, to minimize the chance of my own digital bias creeping into the comparison, and I felt that, despite some plainly apparent differences in sound, the A2 did an excellent, indeed superb, job. In fact, had I not played the CDs, I’m not sure that the differences would have been that apparent, however audible.

As I finish this review, I’m listening to Joe Henry’s "Parker’s Mood," from Civilians [CD, Anti- 86890], on Radio Paradise. The luscious, uncolored midrange is too wonderful. If you use your PC to listen to any amount of music, get the Audioengine A2s. Do it now. You’ll not find better.

. . . Kevin East

Price of equipment reviewed


GOODSOUND!All Contents Copyright 2008
Schneider Publishing Inc., All Rights Reserved.
Any reproduction of content on
this site without permission is strictly forbidden.