Audioengine A2 Desktop Speaker System

      Date posted: March 25, 2008

AudioEngine A2 Desktop Speaker System (black)Internet Direct
US $199

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.
AudioEngine A2 Desktop Speaker System (white)
From a design standpoint it’s the cabinets that are the real selling point for the A2’s. Made from 18mm thick MDF they’re finished in a shiny and lustrous piano black lacquer befitting a much more expensive speaker (like the A5’s they’re available in white as well). To improve diffraction characteristics all the edges are all rounded, which certainly doesn’t do any harm in the looks department either. Stylishly minimalist, with those high-tech looking drive units, the A2’s look right at home alongside the most cutting edge computer hardware. My review pair received more than a few compliments when I brought them in to work for a few weeks. Cosmetically these speakers are a far cry from the nasty little plastic boxes lined up at your local Best Buy.

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.

Family Resemblance

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.
AudioEngine A2 Desktop Speaker System (rear)
Billie Holiday, singing April in Paris, came through the A2’s with her strength and presence largely intact (if, perhaps, a little smaller than life), her voice locked precisely between and in front of the speakers in this mono recording. The A2’s were very responsive to dynamic changes in her singing too, giving a sense of speed and naturalness to the presentation. This is the kind of speaker where the sound jumps out of the drivers with little overhang or smear, making for quick, clean sound and suggesting careful baffle and cabinet design. Not quite the equal of the Dynaudio MC-15’s in this regard, but, for the price, very impressive. This made for involving listening to piano music as well, Keith Jarrett’s La Scala, for instance, was conveyed with impressively natural tone and speed, even if the A2’s couldn’t quite conjure up the dynamics and scale of a Steinway concert grand. Like with the Billie Holiday, the sound was miniaturized to some degree, but, thankfully, not mangled.

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.
AudioEngine A2 Desktop Speaker System (cables)
What I did have on hand, however, was the little EP0 Subwoofer which arrived to fortify the Axiom Audiobytes (review forthcoming). Although tailored specifically for the Audiobytes, and, as such, lacking a variable crossover control to help tune it to the A2’s, this sub helped the overall balance of the system to a great degree. Although once again on a miniaturized scale, drums, basses and the big, fat synths of Jutice’s Cross, to name one very specific and effective example, were suddenly present and accounted for. If electronica of this ilk is your thing, you should not consider a subwoofer optional.

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.

Aaron Marshall

AudioEngine A2 Desktop Speaker System Measurements

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.

Andrew Marshall

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7 Responses to “Audioengine A2 Desktop Speaker System”

  1. john matthews c-gb Says:

    I’m finding the Audioengines boomy and plodding

    perhaps I’m spoilt by years of proacs or something but currently I can’t make them sound listenable on most music although some ballet & chamber music is ok , classical guitar sounds ok , all pop & rock sounds leaden and overbearing.

    I’m about 6″ from the back wall, tried raising them off the desktop, no improvement

    disappointed. perhaps other desktop speakers are just mucj much worse than these ? don’t believe people calling this ‘audiophile’ from what I’ve heard. If you think this is audiophile I have to wonder what you’re comparing them with.

    It’s not the bass extension I have issues with , it’s the quality and articulation of the bass there is.

    just my 2pen’th

  2. Brady c-us Says:

    Might want to give them more break-in time. At least 40-50 hrs should smooth out the low end if you’re not happy with the A2’s. Also try angling them in a bit and see if that makes any difference. It’s possible that you may have a defective pair (?).

    Hope this info helps.

  3. Ray c-ca Says:

    I guess it’s all relative. These are fantastic little speakers for their price and size, but they are coloured as the graphs do show, which show the chestiness you are hearing is really due to the EQ which boosts the mid-bass to lower midrange. They aren’t the most detailed speakers, but still sound articulate, and the bass, although emphasized is still pretty clean and surprisingly full for anything close to this size. And these manage to project a usable soundstage at the same time compared many other multimedia speakers. For the same price as these, you can get computer speakers from Logitech, Creative, Altec, Bose, which will sound either completely boomy, muddy, or harsh (or all of the above). These Audioengines are better than those and are a good choice for people that are looking for something better than the other mass market speakers

    Of course, you can’t even compare these to Proacs, or even a good $200 bookshelf speaker driven by an outboard amp, but that’s not the purpose of these speakers. These are meant for nearfield listening for very space constricted desks, and are a good companion to a laptop, transportable iPod system, just an upgrade from the built in speakers of a TV.

  4. John c-gb Says:

    I think Ray’s comments are very fair and reflect my own findings. I am using these daily , and despite the overblown bass , things are indeed relative.

    Is there anything better for the price ? I doubt it.
    I just felt people using words like ‘audiophile’ etc is going too far ! I was disappointed with the sound in comparison with what I had read , and therefore wanted to add a voice of moderation.

    They are lovely little speakers for a desktop, very attractive , very well made , great value bring me good music where I previously had music that was barely there at all.

    For me though , until I can introduce some kind of equalisation to cut the midbass back , they don’t sound as good as I’d hoped. As they are aimed at ipods & laptops etc which often won’t have any EQ , and as they are meant to be a plug-and-go ‘tidy’ product , that’s a shame.

  5. Ray c-ca Says:

    Yah, I think anybody who labelled these as “audiophile speakers” is going too far. I think that I would label these as “speakers that an audiophile could live with taking into account that they are small, all-in-one solution that’s inexpensive”. Most of the other computer speakers in this price range are made to look cool first, usually are just made out of plastic with cheap generic drivers, and have a frequency response as uneven as the Rocky mountain range. These are different in that the everything about it was designed with decent sound in mind first, they offer a sound that is still refined, but avoid most of the grave mistakes of other multimedia speakers. Sure these have a EQ’ed midbass hump but that’s only to make sure they still sound balanced in the absence of the ability of these to produce any real bass below 120Hz. It’s a common “trick” to do this, and even other hi-end speaker brands do this with their compact-mini-monitors to some extent to make up for true bass extension.

    So all-in-all. I really like these speakers, I doubt there is anything better in its class for the price. However, the caveat is: if you are after the best sound for the price, you can certainly do better by buying say, a PSB Alpha + some integrated desktop amp for slightly more which will be a far more accurate and come a lot closer to an “audiophile” desktop system.

  6. Gary c-us Says:

    I agree that out of the box they are a bit heavy in the mid-range, but coupled with a Sansom S-Equalzer they do anything I want them to. With the equalizer (an extra fifty-dollars) they become wonderful little speakers and worth every dime.

  7. Sune c-unknown Says:

    Hi Guys,

    These speakers do not sound great sitting flat on a desk, in a bookshelf or on a windowsill :)

    To avoid the overblown bass when you use them on the desktop, you really need something like the Audioengine angled desktop stands. Then make sure they are not placed too close to the wall and then angle the drivers towards your ears.

    But I find that you should really treat these speakers like “miniature” hifi speakers! So pair them with decent quality source (Like the sweet and cheap Nuforce uDac), cables and floor stands. Then place them in room and play with wall proximity, toe in etc. I also found that these puppies change quite a bit during break in.

    When I first got these speakers I was kind pretty disappointed, but since they broke in and I found out how to use/place them, I’m now in the “Amazing vaule” and “Very cheap system that the audiophile can live with” camp.

    I work abroad and use this system in my “second” home. My “at home” reference is B&W Nautilus 805’s with a Sugden frontend.

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