In July of 2006 my review of Audioengine's A5 powered monitors ($349 per pair) caused quite a stir, as many discussion board members — after reading my review — bought a set and came away impressed. Fast-forwarding to about two 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 ($199 per pair).
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" high and 4" wide. With a small 22mm silk done tweeter and 2.75" 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).
As i already covered the 22mm silk done tweeter and 2.75" 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 psychedelic green and red abbreviations.
Oh, Sorry, Excuse Me
Setup Part 1
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
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" 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 hundreds 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?
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!
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!