When the folks at Audioengine offered to send me their new A2 powered speaker system for review I have to admit that I hesitated for a couple of days in saying yes. In photos the A2’s looked very similar to the company’s larger, more expensive speaker system, the A5, which I had already reviewed (and ended up buying). How different were they going to be?
Well, when a box not much bigger than a shoebox arrived it became pretty clear that they were very different indeed. The photos of these little guys are deceptive. At 6” high, 4” wide and 5.25” deep these are very, very small speakers, only one third the size of their bigger brothers, and clearly designed to compete for space on cluttered desks that might be overwhelmed by a pair of A5’s.
Luckily, however, the A2’s share a great deal with their bigger brothers. The same 20mm silk dome tweeter is employed in both speakers, as is a carbon fiber woofer, which is scaled down to 2.75” in the A2 from the 5” model in the A5. As in the A5 there is an amplifier in the left speaker (rated at 15 watts continuous and 30 watts peak) which feeds the right speaker via traditional speaker cable and gold plated five-way binding posts. On the rear of the left speaker are two inputs, one 1.8” mini jack for iPods and computer outputs as well as a pair of RCA input jacks. There is an outboard power supply with a cable long enough to allow it to be placed on the floor and Audioengine is considerate enough to supply not only speaker cable, but 1/8” mini to mini cables, RCA cables and even little velvet bags for each speaker. In other words, everything you need to get going is in the box.
With a nod to close boundary placement the A2’s are ported at front via a slim, mail-slot sized opening at the bottom of the cabinet, allowing them to be positioned very close to a wall with less chance of sounding boomy (since less bass energy is radiated out the rear of the speakers). As you’ll read below, with these little guys you might very well want to get them close to the wall to maximize their bass performance.
I listened to the A2’s both at work and at home using my laptop based system (Apple Powerbook G4, Echo Indigo Sound Card, Headroom Total Bithead USB Dac/Headphone Amp, and the Audioengine A5’s). Source files included MP3s, and uncompressed WAVs and AIFFs. All critical listening was done with uncompressed source files.
So what does the A5’s little brother sound like? Well, while it can’t do everything that its larger sibling does, the A2 manages to share the A5’s relatively neutral tonal balance, sounding just a little bit thinner with a hint less body. Like the A5’s the A2 is also quite forgiving on top (as can be seen in the measurements) sacrificing a little top end detail and sparkle for overall smoothness and long term listenability. With speakers meant to be used in the extreme nearfield like these, this can be a smart strategic choice. Like the A5’s, the A2’s are impressively neutral and clean in the midrange for such inexpensive speakers, delivering quick, very tactile sound with a bold, upfront presentation. These qualities serve the A2’s very well on classical music and, especially chamber music. The Kronos Quartet recording of Phillip Glass’ score for Dracula, for example, sounded excellent through the A2’s. Not only was the string sound natural and extremely clean and well defined, the ambient signature of the recording space was very well conveyed. I didn’t find them quite as airy and open as the A5’s on this music, but I think the A2’s had a slight edge in image precision and they were even easier to make disappear. In other words, these little guys soundstage like crazy, their tiny, well braced cabinets giving almost no hint of the physical location of the speakers with eyes closed. The stereo spread in between the speakers is seamless and convincing and the imaging solid, stable and precise.
What didn’t emerge from the Billie Holiday record completely intact was the upright bass. While the A2’s do an admirable job of hinting at what’s happening below say 80hz, and mercifully eschew any attempt at artificially eq’ing or otherwise cheating us into thinking they’re more capable in this regard than they really are (which is how the mass-marketed plastic computer speakers do it), a hint of the bottom octaves is about all you get. If your desk is up against a wall, and you can move the A2’s to within a few inches of that wall, matters will improve and you’ll hear a little more weight out of the little guys, but the physics at work here are incontrovertible: any pair of speakers that you could conceivable juggle in one hand is simply not going to move very much air. If chamber and classical are your main musical interests and/or you’re forced to keep levels very low at your workstation, this might not represent much of a compromise. With any other music, however, you’ll only be getting a whiff of what’s happening on the bottom. That is, of course, unless you augment the system with a subwoofer, something Audioengine themselves would be happy to help you do with their US $399 AS8. Sadly I did not have one for review and Audioengine was backordered on them at the time.
So, all this being said, it’s hard not consider the A2’s a great success. Pretty, petite, polite and, with the right sub, potent. If you can afford the space and the extra hundred and fifty bucks, the A5’s offer slightly better sound and a bigger bottom. For the space, style and price conscious audiophile, however, the A2’s seem to have few, if any, peers.
Andrew Marshall comments on the Measurements:
The top trace, the squiggly one, is the on-axis Pink Noise Sweep, overlaid with the smoothed Summed Axial response. They are very similar, indicating good dispersion and little driver lobing, which we’d expect with small drivers close together on a tiny baffle.
The bottom measurements are the 0, 15, and 30 degree off axis curves, with a slight slope at 30 in the top end, but overall good frequency extension over a quite broad horizontal plane. They are height averaged, and show again the excellent driver performance, and also a quite large mid-bass presence at the 1-metre standard measuring distance.
Because of this, and the fact that this is a nearfield active monitor, I did another on-axis sweep at .5-(or-half-)metre distance, and this may better reflect the actual acoustic signature of the Engine in use: the big bump centred around 150 Hz is less notable, and the midrange and treble even smoother, though the speaker is still up 8 dB at 150 Hz relative to 1 kHz ,and down 3 dB at 10 kHz, but only 5 dB down at 20 kHz.
All in all, this should be an uncommonly good nearfield monitor or computer speaker, though perhaps a little chesty. Deeper bass may, however, be effectively reinforced by table mounting.
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