These loudspeakers are UG-LEE! That was the impression many audiophiles made when visiting my home back in 1995 after purchasing the Audio Note Level 3 AN-J/SPx loudspeakers in black. Must admit they did look a bit out of place with the simple yet elegant home decor of the time. At that time the loudspeakers on hand were my beloved KEF 104/2 (bi-wire) and Royal Reference 3A (when they had real wood side panels). Like my father before me, the Rochlin family have always enjoyed a loudspeaker fetish. Altec Lansing, JBL, Tannoy, Stantorian, Wharfdale... Fact is my father currently has about 7 pairs of loudspeakers, perhaps 8. It is so hard to keep track of them all.
As a good son, and proof the apple does not fall far from the tree, it is almost impossible for me to keep track of the loudspeakers that are/have been here as of recent. Ugh, to list them all would be a chore so here is a brief list:
While the above list may seem long, it truly is a brief listing. Some people collect baseball cards while others enjoy vintage computer gear or video games. As a Rochlin it is my duty, no, make that a birthright to collect loudspeakers. Dad is ever so proud. And now on to the formal review...
Design And Testing
The Audio Note line of loudspeakers take a good portion of their design from loudspeaker pioneer Peter Snell. Back in the 1970's Peter Snell knew that the cabinet, not just the drivers, contributed to the overall sound production of his products. Gone are the super inert materials as found in products from Meridian, Wilson Audio and the like. To quote the Audio Note website, "The pedestrian looks of the Audio Note loudspeakers are well calculated. The front baffle dimensions and depth of the cabinet are an integral part of the wave launch support and controlled diffraction characteristics pioneered by Peter Snell in the 1970's. Smaller, narrow baffles, like those found in most of today's "fashion victim" designs currently masquerading as quality loudspeakers achieve nothing other than to compromise midrange frequency and tonal colorations." In fact the drivers employed within the Audio Note loudspeaker line hark back to the 1970's as well!
Either a 0.75-inch or 1-inch silk soft dome tweeter is mated to an 8-inch woofer. All their loudspeakers are simple, two-way designs whose main difference is internal parts quality and cabinet size. All of their loudspeakers are carefully matched within 0.2dB by hand with the aid of a proprietary computer program that received information from a multitude of microphones. Having personally seen this in action, a test tone is sent through the loudspeaker and the output is rear by various strategically-placed micro phones. The result is displayed on a computer screen and is compared to a known reference. Naturally the appropriate adjustments are made, if needed, which provides then end result of near perfection. This is all done within a real room condition and not the more commonly used anechoic close field condition.
Going through my literature from 1995, Audio Note was very adamant about nine key characteristics concerning loudspeakers. They are:
1. Close pair-matching over the entire bandwidth.
2. High output efficiency and flat impedance load characteristics.
3. Acoustical interference between drivers very nearly eliminated.
4. Uniformly flat acoustic power and frequency response over the speakers bandwidth throughout the listening environment.
5. Elimination of acoustic interference from the cabinet and nearby wall and floor surfaces.
6. Wide and even dispersion characteristics of all drivers.
7. Minimal signal loss or distortion of any kind through the crossover.
8. Controllable resonance characteristics in the cabinet design and materials.
9. Manufacturing techniques which would maintain consistency and the required tight tolerances.
Much of the above is good common sense as any company that does not carefully match their loudspeakers should not be called "high-end". Perhaps it took too many years for mainstream high-end audio, if there is such a thing, to realize the insanity of 86dB/W/m sensitivity designs with (improper) varying loading over the frequency range. It is wonderful that in 2003 we now have many choices in properly designed, high-sensitivity loudspeakers. While these designs need not be horns, my ears tell me that the higher the sensitivity of a loudspeaker the better it portrays dynamic nuances. Rounding things out, those loudspeaker who need highly complicated, parts-laden crossovers may want to go back to the initial design stage. A properly implemented passive loudspeaker crossover need not use more parts than found within a single-ended amplifier.
Two Of A Perfect Pair
The new AN-E/Lexus is Audio Note's most efficient design with their largest cabinet (31" x 14" x 10.5", HxWxD) and rated sensitivity of 94dB/W/m. With a frequency response is from 18Hz to 23kHz (-6dB), they appear to not need any band aids like a subwoofer. My circa 1997 pair of Audio Note AN-J/SPx, on the other hand, are a mere 93dB/W/m sensitive, use a smaller cabinet (23" x 13" x 10.5", HxWxD), and have a claimed frequency response from 25Hz to 23kHz (-6dB). Both units are rear ported and provide loudspeaker terminals for bi-wiring as seen below.
Both models have a 1-inch silk soft dome tweeter mated with an 8-inch midrange/woofer. The main difference being the cabinet size and construction followed by internal wire and crossover parts. The AN-E/Lexus is wired with Audio Note Lexus copper while the AN-J/SPx uses AN-SPx 99.99% pure silver. There are some subtle difference within the crossover pertaining to parts quality as well with the AN-J/SPx getting the better end of things. This is not to say the AN-E/Lexus employs rubbish -- far from it. Just that when ones plays on the Audio Note Game O' Parts, the sky (and price) is the limit. If you desire basic copper foil caps, they have it. On the other hand of you want handmade silver foil caps made on the naked thighs of vestal virgins only on nights with a full moon... Well, they have that as well. It all really comes down to how deep your pockets, or credit card(s) limit, provide. Right Peter? And speaking of Peter Qvortrup, i directly asked him for the difference between the new AN-E/Lexus and my AN-J/SPx loudspeakers and his reply was as follows:
There is an obvious difference in the overall build quality and aesthetics of the newer loudspeaker cabinet. Gone is the flat black ugly ducking (AN-J/SPx) for a more attractive wood finish. Seen above is a lighter staining version of the AN-E/Lexus to show how attractive they can be. Please pay special attention to the third point Peter Qvortrup made above. Please feel free to re-read once you are finished my review. The review samples were in their Makassa veneer and special Audio Note E Speaker Stands ($400) were provided to insure proper listening height. And now on to the music!
Virtually every audiophile who has purchased new loudspeakers knows there is a break in period. During this time the driver's cone settle in, the surrounds come into specification, etc. Most loudspeakers sound generally acceptable during this period that lasts approximately 50 hours or so and then become slightly better during the next 50 hours or so. Must warn you that this is not the case with the Audio Note AN-E/Lexus. With these loudspeakers the bass response seems very uneven. Midbass sounds a bit sucked out and the meshing of tweeter to midrange/woofer driver sounds awkward (at best). The highs sound quite nice, if lacking a bit of smoothness during break in. And forget the 50 hour or even 100 hours as previously mentioned. Try more like 200 hours... and then some. Peter Qvortrup of Audio Note warned me of this fact and fortunately was going away on a trip, so i was able to simply allow music to play through them nonstop for a few days. Upon my return, and a grand total of approximately 400 hours of music later, it was time to sit down and listen. Those who purchase these loudspeakers brand new should heed this 400 hour advice. Naturally my beloved eight years old AN-J/SPx already had thousands of hours on them so they were ready to go.
This first thing that grabbed me about the new Audio Note loudspeakers was their ability to image. Not only right to left or behind the loudspeakers, but also well into the room! At times it was eerie like one finds when listening to a Q Sound encoded recording (i.e. Roger Waters Amused To Death). In my 18-foot deep by 12-foot wide room, recordings that were up to snuff easily transformed my room 9acoustcially) in the venue. While this happens to good degree with better loudspeakers, the Audio Note AN-E/Lexus were able to truly energize the room with very solid three dimensional imaging. This may be attributed to the extremely close matching of not only the individual drivers, but the overall loudspeaker.
Tonally and harmonically, there were some differences worth noting between the AN-E/Lexus and the old AN-J/SPx. A few paragraphs ago i asked to pay special attention to the third point Audio Note head honcho Peter Qvortrup made. He mentions how the internal cable, copper for the new E/Lexus, silver for my old J/SPx, "will give you better structure of the harmonics." There is more, he goes on to say "...but much of the difference is simply that when you add about 2 octaves of bass, the detailing always appears to get lost a little". The larger cabinet size of the E/Lexus seems to provide deeper bass response. In fact one of the very few shortcomings of my old J/SPx is that deep pipe organ notes (and video explosions) really beg for the use of a subwoofer. The E/Lexus does not have this deficiency in my listening room. The bass is very deep indeed and usable down to about 35Hz in my room. More than deep enough for everyone except those who truly want to shake their house down. Yet there is something i would beg to differ with Mr. Peter Qvortrup.
He also says, concerning the larger cabinet, "this has to do with the fact that the added energy "stretches" the envelope and distributes the detail more evenly, so what you in fact get with the wider response is a truer representation of the overall harmonics with less focus on the higher harmonics." Here is where my opinion diverges from Peter's. The main differences, to my ears within my listening room and system, is that the newer AN-E/Lexus lacks the incredible midrange coherency in both frequency response smoothness and harmonic integrity versus the older AN-J/SPx. In fact this is one of the main, extremely critical regions that if not reproduced to a high degree then nothing else matters in my book. Most of the energy within acoustic music is within this midrange region (nearly 70% in general).
The J/SPx also appears to get the midbass a touch more "right" than the E/Lexus in my room. Naturally i tried different loudspeaker positioning as room boundaries and reflections thereof can have a profound affect in this region. Keep in mind i did say "a tad" better with the older design. Where the E/Lexus firmly plants superiority is below 55Hz. The E/Lexus easily produces very deep bass notes where the older J/SPx might only hint at. If you are a fan of such bands as Kraftwerk, Prodigy, or pipe organ, the E/Lexus would be a natural choice over the J/SPx... unless you decided to add a subwoofer to your arsenal.
As for the uppermost frequencies, it is nearly the same in some ways and quite different in others. While i feel the J/SPx has smoother highs, the E/Lexus sounds "faster" and a small touch more extended. Could this be due to using silver wire internally (J/SPx) versus the new copper Lexus cable (E/Lexus)? Surely there may be more, perhaps crossover parts, that also have to be accounted for. Overall tonality is virtually the same, they are simply faster with the E/Lexus and more extended with the J/SPx. Fortunately neither model has irritating, ear piercing, sound. Both are very smooth, clean, and dynamic.
Speaking of dynamics, both models offer impressive dynamics both large and small. My eight watt Wavelength Audio Cardinal X-1 with mesh plate Sophia Electric 300B was more than enough for sane listening levels. In fact the E/Lexus had no problem energizing my room with pipe organ music down to the deepest notes! Most impressive given this non-horn design.
As for fit and finish, the newer E/Lexus easily wins over the older J/SPx. While both are very well assembled, the E/Lexus' veneer is leagues better than the flat black of the older J/SPx. Not even a contest in this regard. Both loudspeaker's cabinets are solid and strong, as mentioned earlier they will have a tone when taking the knuckle test. This goes without saying as Audio Note follows the old Snell design of the cabinet's sound being parts of the overall loudspeaker design.
Win, Lose Or Draw?
Both models will have their following. Those desiring deep bass will easily choose the E/Lexus over the old J/SPx, yet the J/SPx has plenty of bass for everyone but those most die-hard addict in my humble opinion. In some ways this comparison is not purely equal as the internal wiring and crossover part alone could bring the E/Lexus to achieve the best of midrange and highs over the J/SPx. It makes me wonder if Peter would send me the AN/E-SPx to hear how much one is missing by purchasing the copper wired version versus the silver wire alternative. Another factor is that i wonder if another 400 hours on the E/Lexus will provide more improvements? Goodness knows the 1997 J/SPx have thousands of hours of use over the E/Lexus.
The common bond here is that both units are "all day" listenable and provide great resolution. They both naturally portray instruments in a unpretentious way. The music simply is. No whiz-bang fireworks or magician-like tricks. There is simply a "rightness", as found in virtually all Audio Note products, that can not simply be ignored. This is especially true with acoustic guitar, cello, wooden drums, piano, and violins. Of course in the end what really matters is that you...
Type: Two-way, rear ported
Tweeter: 1-inch silk soft dome
Midrange/Woofer: 8-inch paper cone with foam surround
Binding Posts: Silver, bi-wire capable
Frequency Response: 18Hz to 23kHz (-6dB)
Dimensions: 31 x 14 x 10.5 (HxWxD in inches)
Price: $4,350 per pair in Makassa veneer as reviewed
AN-E/Lexus Stands: $400
Audio Note UK Ltd.
United States Distributor