Audioengine A2 Powered
Review By Steven R. Rochlin
In July of 2006 my review of Audioengine's A5 powered monitor caused quite a stir, as many discussion board members — after reading my review — bought a set and came away impressed. Fast-forwarding to about 2 months ago, Brady and Dave, yeah those two scheming weasely guys who sent me the A5s dropped another bomb in my lap. This time is was an even smaller A2 powered monitor.
When i say small i mean it was like the Hyperion Sound HPS-938 floorstanders made love and eventually squeezed out these little monitors that are a mere 6-inched high and 4-inches wide. With a small 22mm silk done tweeter and 2.75-inch Kevlar midrange/woofer... how is the hell does one expect to get anything near half decent sound from such a small package, let alone one that is priced at $199? Yes i know, a reviewer should never start a review process by holding on to any preconceived notions, but these babies are small and have never heard anything close to decent, let alone good sound quality from such a small package (with the exception of my circa 1980 APM driver battery powered loudspeakers, but can only produce a sound level satisfactory for background music in my opinion).
i recall a few years back someone was touting these over $2,000 small monitors with very small drivers. Incredibly overpriced rubbish if you ask me, plus these seemingly stupid-high priced units were super deep at over 12-inches. Sure they came in fancy boxes with audiophile aspirations, yet perhaps over time my sanity is being better kept in check and not falling for a sow's ear in a silk package? Who in the hell would buy... Anyway. The good news is that the Audioengine A2 are a mere 5.25-inches deep, come in a beautiful glossy 18mm thick MDF cabinet and avoid the snobby stuff for a proper value of $199. So my task at hand is to make believe i am Joe/Jane consumer, with some audiophile tastes thrown in, and use/abuse these things while coming to grips with whatever sound quality they might deliver. C'mon, what the hell does one expect from a mere 15 wpc (30 wpc peak) and such small drivers?
iPod, Zune, computer audio out or whatever you choose to use as source, the Audioengine A2 has you covered. There is the usual 1/8-inch stereo mini headphone input plus a normal stereo pair of RCA jacks. A pair of smallish loudspeaker posts on the left channel power module (pictured) feeds the passive right channel's loudspeaker binding posts. Of course all these are gold plated. At the upper right is a volume control while below that is the electrical power input. The power supply in not a wall wart, thank goodness, but a good-sized unit that outputs a generous 17.5 Volt, 1.8 Ampere. The good news is that electrical power is quite impressive, the bad news is that those who desire playing around with even more powerful electrical supplies are left in the cold due to a special S-Video-like jack.
As i already covered the 22mm silk done tweeter and 2.75-inch Kevlar midrange/woofer earlier in this article, and the size of the cabinets (4"W x 6"H x 5.25"D), the only other thing to discuss for now was how nicely packaged all parts are. They come in a velvet-like drawstring bags! Oh, forgot to mention the glossy paint covering the 18mm thick MDF cabinets are hand-finished and the loudspeakers are video shielded so you can place them near a TV/Video tube monitor without getting that super psychodelic green and red abbreviations.
Oh, Sorry, Excuse Me
Like any normal consumer i decided not to read the owner's manual. C'mon, who actually reads those things anyway when it comes to a $199 speaker? This is especially true from those know-it-all types who have setup more loudspeakers than people change tires on their car within their lifetime! So without a care in the world i unboxed the goodies. As the power supplies are neatly packed at the top, proceeded to plug in the electrical first. The moment i plugged in the left channel (powered) speaker it emitted a sound reminiscent of when one eats too many beans or other gaseous food for dinner. Hmmm... perhaps i should unplug the power supply, hook everything up, and then plug in the electric. No harm and no foul (pun intended).
Setup Part 1
Sure i could have substituted the stock, extremely basic 18-guage loudspeaker wire included that goes from the left channel powered unit to the passive right channel, but that would be cheating now wouldn't it? Does Joe/Jane consumer have Kimber Kable's super amazing silver wire in their arsenal of wire heaven? No, they most certainly do not! As such, the basic stock wire was put to use. Positioned the units as standard computer monitors, to the right and left of my computer and pointed them in slightly towards my ears. My source would be whatever lackluster sound card came in the Dell laptop computer. To say upon first listen i was under whelmed would be an understatement. Well, the good thing was that it was a hot day and with bass-oriented music quite a bit of air came from the bottom ports (vents) on the A2's. Call it a way of having a pair of miniature fans blowing air directly at me. It can be reported at this point the only good news was they worked, they kept me cool, and that is about it.
Brady and Dave informed me that this pair had been used by others, so that eliminated them being new and needing time to run in so the drivers could settle in. Could it be the lackluster stock cables, as i have some custom made silver Kimber male 1/8th to 1/8th goodies for other duties in my home. No, one must resist doing such things within a review. Tube rolling might be acceptable in audiophile circles (and rightly so), yet Joe/Jane Q. Public does not use anything but stock items with their $199 speakers. Hmmm...
Like any system, garbage in equals garbage out. So out went using the Dell laptop computer's audio out and in came my Microsoft Zune. Apple vs. Microsoft debates aside, the Zune does have a quite good audio out and had ripped well over a thousands discs personally. Over three thousand actually, but that is not the point. What matters is that the sound quality difference between the laptop audio and Zune was not subtle. So the review will mainly be by using the Zune, with a few brief moments of my fave vintage Sony D25 portable CD player, because all current portable CD players i have heard sound like utter rubbish.
Setup Part 2.
Ok, so now we have the Zune portable media player firmly entrenched versus the computer's soundcard, the sound quality greatly improved. This is promising, as it was now obvious that the Audioengine A2 had the quality to show differences between different source units. While the A2s were only 32.5-inched from my ears, the best sound and imaging was accomplished with them aimed at 43 degree angles away from my listening position with the space between the tweeter and woofer at ear level. For a visual sense of this, the left channel's front right corer is almost a straight line visually with the rear left (and visa versa for the right channel). See photo below. As for height, set them up too low and the harmonic balance went on the upper frequency side (but never bright) while imaging suffered. You could go with your ear's position at or a bit below the midrange/woofer driver level and still maintain good imaging, and therefore also shifting the tonality to the lower frequency spectrum.
Speeding up the amplifier and driver settling in, i find that techno, house, and bass heavy music always does the trick. Classical music (usually) does not have the constant sharp-edged and extremely dynamic electrical signal to get things moving and shaking. As i just purchased and ripped the Beastie Boys' Solid Gold Hits CD [EMI 0946 3-44049 2 1], this would make a good run in and torture disc. Would the Audioengine A2 monitors handle the deep bass or bottom out and produce driver-bottoming-out flatulence? This type of torture reminds me of when at a Los Angeles show they had a $250k+ system with monstrously large flat panel loudspeakers being driven by approximately 1.21 Giga-Watts of tube power. That system basically went into the equivalent of an uncontrolled seizure with Prodigy's Fat Of The Land [Maverick/Warner 9 46606-2]. With the Audioengine A2s, only at full volume on all settings was there some driver breakup, yet turning down the Zune from full 20 volume level to 19 produced a relatively undistorted sound. Add to that, on the Beastie Boys ""Fight For Your Right" my sexy partner came into my office asking me to turn it up!
Speaking of Wife Acceptance Factor (WAF), when she saw me unboxing the Audioengine A2 she commented on how cute they looked. Now, with music playing, she began dancing around my office! She said she wanted a pair, in a manner that men should understand that the word "want" equals "demand." Her dancing continued around me in my office to the Beastie Boys and we eventually... So while enjoying a... well, eh hem, post workout smoke my lovely partner once again asked for a pair of the Audioengine A2 speakers. i said to her this pair is probably destined for my race car enclosed trailer (see my Enjoy the Track.com site by clicking here). Looks like i'll be buying another set of these puppies, and at only $199 i am getting off... cheaply.
Speaking of going outside my office for a smoke, the A2s passed the out of room sound quality test. They sound quite good not just when sitting in front of them, but also when outside the room and listening in. Some loudspeakers have this 'cone of perfection,' a super small area where everything sounds good, yet the moment you move away from this small 'cone' location the sound goes to crap in a hurry. The Audioengine does not fit into that, fortunately, ever-dwindling category of loudspeakers.
Changing gears to the excellent Orff: Carmina Burana as performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra [Telarc SACD-60575], and turning down the volume to more sane levels, i was astounded with the well-rounded harmonic balance of these little jewels. The good news, dynamics are surprisingly delightful for loudspeakers this size. Usually such small units also squash the dynamics. While i would not say it was the most dynamic rending of any system, the results even on a no-holds-barred scale was acceptable. Small dynamic shades, also called microdynamics, were rendered to some degree. As this disc is quite dynamic, with a lot going on at the same time, what amazed me was how it could produce many very complicated passages as a large variety of instruments and choir came into play.
Anyone who has watched Formula 1 on television, or knows of incredibly majestic classical music, will surely know of the O Fortuna movement (listen to RealAudio audio passage by clicking here). This very dynamic and full-on orchestra plus choir movement is extremely demanding on any sound system. You have a mix of, as the kids would call it, crazy mad massive sounds plus the punctuating bass drum hits. What amazed me is that not only did the A2s handle everything well at quite high volume levels, the bass drum's head snap upon being hit with a mallet and the head/shell's resonant tone came through impressively. This all happened without the problem of taking away so much amplifier power reserve or causing driver breakup. In other words, while this huge bass drum whack sounded defined it did not happen at the expense of causing other instruments to 'disappear' or cause the midrange/woofer driver to produce highly distorted sound.
My partner just asked me to turn down the volume, perhaps playing O Fortuna four times to be sure of my findings was a bit much? Then again i am upstairs in my office and my life partner is downstairs. So yes, these little baby powered monitors can produce nice sound levels. Of course they will not fill a major dance venue with sound, yet obviously more than enough for loud levels as office monitors and certainly more than a mere 30 wpc peak and 2.75-inch midrange/woofer drivers would suggest on paper.
So how are the Audioengine A2 powered loudspeakers with vocals? Well, since i have to turn down the music, on went Billie Holiday singling "How Deep Is The Ocean?", Nat King Cole with "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66", Mel Torme swooning "Blue Moon" and Ella + Satchmo performing "Cheek To Cheek." Yes these are all monophonic recordings yet also showed me that, tonally, everything was extremely close to what much larger loudspeakers could produce. The one constant was a roll off in the uppermost frequency range. The highs never, ever, almost no matter what i tried, became aggressive and irritating. This is a good thing when you have speakers only inches away from your ears plus, i would bet, Joe/Jane Q. Public probably would use some less than high quality source. Not saying a Microsoft Zune is the cat's meow, yet it is a usable source unit as appropriate in a review such as this. On the other side of things, this also means instruments such as orchestral with triangle and concert bells would place these instruments deeper (less prominent) within the aural landscape.
This diminished upper frequency really shows itself as to the outcome in such songs as Kraftwerk's "Home Computer" on The Mix [Elektra 9 60869-0] where the very high-pitched synth sounds also help to set a very expansive into the room soundscape. Same comments for the song "Radioactivity." It almost made me want to add a muRata supertweeter.
Then again keep in mind i am a reviewer, an audiophile for decades who has had many tens of thousands of dollars in loudspeakers pass through his home. About 10 pair are still laying about with a set over here plus another pair there, and another set in the room next door, and then there is the pair of legendary floorstanders in the basement bathroom (don't ask). So what the hell do i expect from a $199 set of loudspeakers smaller than a few paperback books? It is my job to seek perfection, so it matters not if the device under test is a $199 or $19,999.
Soundscape & PRAT?
When it comes to soundscape, how instruments are placed within a concert hall and the hall's sound itself as it envelopes you, the right to left staging was quite good. While depth suffered, and with more experimentation i might be able to squeeze a bit more depth at the cost of single instrument imaging, am guessing the amazing sound envelopment in front of the speakers and around my ears was due to Audioengine's close driver matching plus the way i have the A2 loudspeakers angled outward at 43 degrees.
As for PRAT (pace, rhythm and timing) the speakers can swing. Look, these are really small speakers and a designer would probably have to really screw something up very badly to mess up PRAT. Am not saying it can't be done of course, as over the years as a review attending nearly 100 shows worldwide have heard some incredibly nightmarish sounding very small systems (am looking at you Meridian F80) where PRAT did not matters as the sound <cough> quality </cough> was severely lacking.
And yes, my fave Q-Sound effect recording of Roger Waters Amused To Death [Columbia CK 53196] had all those 3D sounds, albeit the front stage sounds being a bit flattened while the side surround and rear effect being quite well rendered. The far right side and left side sounds having especially precise placement. Of note is the piano on "Perfect Sense Pt. 2" had a very balanced and full stage sound. Impressive!
After many hours of playing around with the Audioengine A2 powered speakers, i can wholeheartedly recommend them for audiophiles who desire a great powered loudspeaker in a small package. Many people use their computer's sound card to drive such devices, and please allow me here and now to warn you that the A2 self-powered loudspeaker system has enough resolution to tell you if your computer's internal sound card is good or lackluster. This is precisely why there are many outboard DAC units on the market today. Mated with an excellent sound source, the Audioengine A2 loudspeakers should produce many hours of musical pleasures without the pitfalls of sounding like the usual mainstream small plastic junk or apparent distortion boxes on the shelf at from your local electronics store. My amazing woman is still trying to pry this review pair away from my office! While i love her dearly (and yes she reads my articles), her chances of getting my review pair are the same as us throwing snowballs at each other during our upcoming vacation in Hawaii.
Umm, maybe i should not have called Brady and Dave of Audioengine scheming weasely guys at the beginning of my article, as now i have to call them up to buy the review pair plus another pair. Yes dear, am talking to Dave now on the phone and ordering another pair of A2 loudspeakers for you.
Forget the usual reviewer comment of "highly recommended," am buying the review pair and another set for my woman to keep her hands off mine!
Type: two-way powered minimonitors
Drivers: 20mm silk dome tweeter and 2.75-inch Kevlar midrange/woofer
Frequency Response : 65Hz to 22kHz ( ±2.0dB)
Power: 15 wpc RMS/ 30 wpc peak
Amplifier Type: Dual Class AB monolithic
SNR: >95db (typical A-weighted)
THD: <0.05% at all power settings
Inputs: Stereo 1/8-inch mini-jack and pair of RCA
Input Impedance: 10K ohms unbalanced
Voltage: 110-240V 50/60Hz auto-switching
Dimensions: 4 x 6 x 5.25 (WxHxD in inches)
Weight: 1.8 Kg/ 4 lbs (left), 1.4Kg/ 3lbs (right)