Sugg. Retail: $349 pr (US)
(An AIG Online Exclusive)
Right out of the box the Audioengine 5 powered speaker system has a huge and very simple advantage over almost all the iPod “dock” type systems breeding like a shiny white fungus out there in the audio mainstream. It has two independent speakers. Real speakers. And, like any mini-monitor, they can be placed in such a way as to generate an actual stereo image and soundstage, whereas most iPod docks amount to little more than well-marketed clock radios.
One could argue, I suppose, that the Audioengines lack the sleekness and tiny footprint of the iPod docks from the likes of Bose or JBL, but when compared to Apple’s own product in this segment, the Apple iPod Hi-Fi, the Audioengine 5’s are similar in size and look but with stereo speakers which can be spaced apart to suit the application. In what I’m sure is no coincidence, the Apple and Audioengine speakers are both priced exactly the same at US $349.
While they might not win any design awards, the Audioengines are clean and stylish looking speakers. Their glossy white or black cabinets with smooth, rounded edges leave no doubt who they’re marketing to. Thankfully, for those of us hoping for something more listenable than a clock radio, those cabinets are very solidly constructed with one inch thick MDF and with what Audioengine describes as “extensive internal bracing”. For a $350 pair of speakers, let alone powered ones, these boxes are remarkably well damped and inert. They’re magnetically shielded too, so placement next to monitors, computers etc. should pose no interference problems. They are, however, ported at the rear, which could make placement very close to rear walls or in bookshelves less than ideal.
Audioengine says they design and manufacture their own drivers, and with the 5 they’ve used a 5 inch Kevlar woofer and a 20mm silk dome tweeter which is mounted in a slightly horn-loaded sub-enclosure. The left speaker of the pair houses all the electronics and controls as well as a pair of binding posts for cabling to power the right speaker. On the rear of the left speaker you’ll also find an AC outlet (for powering an Apple Airport Express), a 1/8″ mini input jack, a power switch, and a pair of RCA subwoofer out jacks. On top is another 1/8″ mini input jack as well as a USB port (The USB connection is for powering a portable player only, not or any kind of data transfer). The front mounted volume control is a hugely handy feature, especially with the speakers on sitting on a desk. A pair of RCA inputs would be a nice touch and would make the Engines a little more versatile, but the supplied 1/8″ cables of various lengths certainly make connecting to an ipod or computer easy (Audioengine does provide an RCA to 1/8″ adaptor with the speakers). A 45 watt per channel, class A/B stereo amp also lives inside the left speaker.
Use and Listening
I used the Audioengines at work over a period of several months, driving them from my 17″ Mac Powerbook via an Echo Indigo sound card or a Headroom Total Bithead headphone amp/DAC. I was able to compare them directly to a pair of active studio monitors used on my Avid editing workstation, a pair of KRK Rockit 5’s, which retail for around US $600 a pair. The KRK’s are almost exactly the same size but feature individual amps in each speaker and professional XLR inputs. Each speaker has a volume control on the rear but they’re really meant to be used in conjunction with a preamp or mixer.
After lots of break in with casual listening while I worked I did several serious listening sessions with the 5’s, comparing them directly with the KRK’s. My overall impression is of a very clean sounding speaker biased a little on the lean and cool side of neutrality. The quality of the cabinet construction is easy to hear, or, more precisely, not hear. Because the cabinets are so inert and well braced transients leap off this speaker in a way more befitting a much more expensive speaker. For the same reasons they also disappear very well, with few cabinet resonances to betray their physical positions (unless you play them too loud, mind you). All this leads to high levels of transparency with clean, crisp top end and generally snappy and involving sound.
Audioengine promises big bass for small speakers, but happily they haven’t tried to make the 5’s stand out on a showroom floor with bloated and/or thumpy bottom end. While not possessed of exceptional bass for a small speaker, the bottom end on offer here is tuneful, with punchy mid-bass and reasonable extension for the size of the enclosures. If you really want to play this system loud, however, or you just expect floorstander sound, you’re going to need a subwoofer and at least twice as much money.
The 5’s held their own very well against the KRK’s, which had a warmer tonal colour and slightly better bass extension (although neither speaker can produce much in the way of depth or authority). The Audioengines, while cooler and leaner, sounded quicker and cleaner with better soundstaging and imaging. Ironically, the 5’s sound more like pro monitors than the pro monitors I compared them to, their transparency making them quite revealing of source material.
While some will undoubtedly find them a little too “cold” sounding, for the money it’s hard to quibble with the quality of sound these things and an Ipod can produce. As the cornerstone of a high quality, inexpensive and unobtrusive desktop audio system the Audioengines are pretty much ideal. Comparing them sonically with the mass-marked ipod “dock” systems out there, many of which cost around the same amount, isn’t even fair.