Audioengine 2 powered loudspeaker
By Robert J. Reina December, 2007 In nearly 25 years, it's been rare that I've reviewed an exciting breakthrough product. The Audioengine 2 is such a productnot because it performs at an extraordinary level (though it does), and not because it's such an incredible value for money (though it is), but because it creates a new market, a new application for high-end audio, and a chance for audiophiles to enjoy music in ways they may have never considered before.
The Audioengine 2 is a powered bookshelf speakernot a new type of product per se for the California-based company, which for years has sold the Audioengine 5 ($350/pair), a powered bookshelf speaker designed for larger rooms. Audioengine founders Brady Bargenquast and Don Evans came up with the idea for the 2 after becoming frustrated with the low quality of many computer speakers in the market. What he's done to create the 2which is designed for use on desktops and in offices and bedroomsis put the 5's silk-dome tweeter and a smaller woofer in a much smaller cabinet, for $199/pair.
I look at the Audioengine 2's technical specifications and scratch my head. How can the company sell this speaker for $199/pair? All drivers, transformers, magnets, and wiring harnesses are custom-made to Audioengine's specsthey're not off-the-shelf parts. The 2 has a 20mm silk-dome tweeter with a neodymium magnet and a 2.75" woofer of Kevlar woven-glass aramid composite with a rubber surround. The 2 has a front port under the woofer and is shielded for video applications, and is rugged enough that Audioengine decided to dispense with a grille altogether.
The amplifier is a 15Wpc dual class-AB monolithic analog type, mounted vertically in the left speaker for maximum protection from mechanical shock. Audioengine claims that the amplifier's gapless-core toroidal transformer has a smaller radiated magnetic field, with the result being lower noise. The left speaker has dual RCA and miniplug inputs; each speaker has a pair of five-way binding posts for a single cable to connect the right speaker to the amp in the left.
The Audioengine 2 comes with accessoriestwo pairs of interconnects (miniplug) in lengths of 6.5' and 8", a 2m run of speaker cable, and an external power supplyall packaged in attractive cloth drawstring bags. The shipping box serves as a carrying case. The speaker is sold factory-direct, but also via a regular dealer network; it comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee if purchased on-line. The speakers are available in glossy black or white. I found the colors equally sexy; the black reminded me of an attractive Wilson Audio or NHT design, and the white was a perfect match for my Apple iPod.
I reviewed the Audioengine 2 as I do all bookshelf speakers, using my Celestion Si stands loaded with sand and lead shot, and comparing it with several entry-level bookshelf speakers. Rather than the included wires, I used a pair of Monster Interlink Reference A interconnects and a single run of MIT's MITerminator 5 speaker cable. In addition to my CD and analog front-ends, I used an 80GB iPod loaded with Apple Lossless versions of CDs from my collection. But I had even more fun experimenting with the many different ways I used the Audioengine 2 to create a high-end audio experience in places I hadn't thought it possible before.
What can you expect from a speaker costing $199/pair, including amplifier, that you can hold in the palm of your hand? I tried to forget the Audioengine 2's size and price and just listen to the music.
First, in my affordable reference system, with every tune I played, I heard no noticeable coloration throughout the speaker's entire range; it was as neutral-sounding as any under-$1000 speaker I've heard. The highs were extended and detailed, and the Audioengine 2 was able to recreate room ambience and low-level dynamic articulation at levels of quality I'm used to hearing from far more expensive speakers.
What shocked me most about the Audioengines was how LARGE they sounded. All vocal recordings were completely devoid of coloration, and vocal images were holographically projected at lifelike size with all low-level phrase articulations intact. Mighty Sam McClain's delicate, guttural growl on Give It Up to Love (CD, JVC JVCXR-0012-2) was reproduced with the requisite chestiness, richness, and vibrancy. On the female end of the vocal spectrum, Sequentia's disc of Hildegard von Bingen's Canticles of Ecstasy (CD, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 05472 77320 2) caused me to note: "glorious, shimmering vocals, holographic in space, wide and deep hall sound of the Kîln Cathedral."
The Audioengine's rich midrange capabilities induced me to mine my jazz-piano recordings. Tord Gustavsen's introspective, space-filled piano phrasings in The Ground (CD, ECM 1892) were as woody, rich, articulate, and involving as I've heard from any budget speaker. The 2s' retrieval of midrange ambience was amazing. I set my iPod to Shuffle Play and heard some crowd sounds in a familiar space. Without cheating, I accurately guessed that it was the beginning of "I'm So Glad," from Cream's Royal Albert Hall: London May 2-3-5-6 2005 (CD, Reprise 49416-2)the very concert I'd attended in London.
How deep could the bass from such a small speaker possibly go? With the Audioengines on the Celestion Si standsie, not cheating by getting a little subjective midbass bump from placing the speakers on a desk or coffee tableI spent a good bit of time listening to solo acoustic jazz bass. There was not a thing missing, even in the instrument's middle-lower registers. I was riveted by bassist Peter Warren's infectious opening riff in my favorite Jack DeJohnette tune, "Zoot Suite," from Special Edition (CD, ECM 1892); the lower notes of that riff had slam, dynamics, and didn't lose a bit of power. Ditto for Ray Brown's solo in "I'm an Old Cowhand," from Sonny Rollins' Way Out West (CD, JVC VICJ-60088).
I wouldn't expect high-level blasts of bombastic bass from the Audioengines, however. My normal subjective criterion for a speaker that's not bass-shy is that it produce a convincing 55Hz with normal program material. I'll wager John Atkinson's measurements will reveal that the Audioengines miss that mark, but I never felt I needed a subwoofer to enjoy music through the 2s. Transient articulations shone: I analyzed in detail the interplay of bassist Chris Jones and drummer Mark Flynn on my jazz quartet Attention Screen's Live at Merkin Hall (CD, Stereophile STPH018-2). Flynn's bass drum and snare technique was very easy to follow, and Jones' mid-bass rumbles thundered when required.
I also wondered how well the Audioengines could soundstage. They're not exactly matched, are they? One cabinet has a stereo amplifier in it, the other doesn't. One cabinet is internally hardwired, the other via a cable from the first speaker. That said, they reproduced without a hitch the soundstage width and depth, the image specificity, and the hall sound of Antal Dorati and the London Symphony's recording of Stravinsky's The Firebird (CD, Mercury Living Presence SR 90226).
Now for the fun part
I took the wife and kids on our first long-distance car vacation, to visit family and friends in upstate New York and Canada and to check out Niagara Falls. Without her knowledge, I stuck the Audioengine 2s into my National Public Radio tote bag, where they fit very nicely among all my iPod connectors, Monster Interlink Reference A interconnects, and MITerminator 5 speaker wire. I shoved the bag in the car, and my wife never knew I'd packed it till she heard me playing it the next day.
After breakfast, I unpacked the speakers, spread them out on a coffee table in the hotel room, and listened to Stravinsky's The Song of the Nightingale, with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (CD, RCA B0006PVJVC), while viewing the Falls in the background. Here was the speaker's greatest strength: It was possible for me to travel and take my stereo with me wherever, previously, I thought I'd be restricted to headphones.
Next stop was a visit with my cousin Phil, who's retired to the Thousand Islands, in Canada. Phil is a bit of a home-entertainment nut. He has a 5.1-channel surround system in his living room, with in-wall speakers and a projection screen, as well as outdoor speakers and a subwoofer in a shed, to provide music to his boat dock on the river. Even his Kubota diesel pickup truck (sort of a Hummer golf cart) has a CD sound system. However, we spent most of the time listening to music from my iPod through the Audioengine 2s, which sat atop his wet bar in the living room. Phil looked concerned. "How much do these cost? How can I get a pair?"
This summer I hosted a barbeque the night before my Century ride with my bike-fanatic friends. My wife's nephew also attended (actually, he cooked). Instead of my usual procedure of setting up, in my son's bedroom window, a pair of NHT or Nola bookshelf speakersconnected to the Speaker B output of my Creek Destiny integrated amp via a 50' run of Black Orpheus speaker cableand blasting them out into the yard of my 1/3-acre property, I plunked the Audioengine 2s and iPod on a folding table about 20' from the picnic table. One classical-music-loving friend said, "I can't believe how many crappy outdoor speakers and boom boxes I've been forced to listen to at barbecues." His teenage daughter will be getting a pair of Audioengines for her birthday.
The following week, at a barbecue at my nephew's house, I listened to his iPod on his docking-station stereo, marketed by a large, well-publicized audio manufacturer who shall remain nameless. I looked at the source of the sound, then at my nephew. His face told me he wasn't enjoying the sound nearly as much as he'd enjoyed the Audioengines the week before. "How much did this thing cost?" I asked? "$300!" he said, and angrily stomped away.
I bring my own music and wine to any family event whose host I can't trust to provide good varieties of both. This lets me play the part of the selfish antisocial bastard quite nicely. At a recent in-laws function (I love my wife's family, but don't have much in common with a large subset of them), I grabbed my bottle of dry Lambrusco red, set up the Audioengine 2s and the iPod on a folding table behind me, and reveled in Giles and George Martin's mixing capabilities on the Beatles' Love (CD, Apple 3 79808 2), smiling and nodding to my wife's relatives as I ignored everything they said. I was awakened from my stupor when one of them handed me her credit card. "No, I'm not a dealer for these speakers; you'll have to go to their website."
Of course, I got the best results at home, with a high-quality line-level input. However, during my road trip, I visited a friend who's a fan of Attention Screen. I wanted to play him an experimental recording JA had made of the quartet plus two saxophonists, but my friend had recently moved, and his CD player was still packed away. We plugged his Sony Discman into the Audioengine via the Sony's headphone outputnot the purest approach, but with judicious setting of the two volume controls, I was able to precisely discern JA's microphone placements.
Although the Audioengine 2 is designed for small rooms and desktops, I had no problem getting dramatic, room-filling sound in my regular listening roomand even a reasonable volume outdoors. Audioengine does caution, however, that the 2s aren't designed to be blasted into large spaces, and that doing so can compromise their performance and cause distortion. I tell you this because I listened to three samples of the Audioengine 2. I tested the upper volume limit of the first pair by playing some aggressive big-band recordings outdoors. The next day, when I resumed listening indoors, I noted that the bass was distorting at fairly low volume levels, which it hadn't done before. JA and I postulated that I'd damaged the woofers the day before. Audioengine said this was impossible, as the speakers are stress-tested to withstand considerable abuse. I sent the 2s back to Audioengine, who then reported that they were working fine. All were confused.
The second pair I listened to worked fine the first day. On the second, I got no music out of either speaker; just a regular, continuous popping sound. This pair, too, went back to Audioengine; and the company also reported that they could find nothing defective with the speaker.
The third pair worked flawlessly; these are the ones JA measured.
When working properly, the three review pairs produced identical sound. Given Audioengine's liberal return policy and three-year warranty, my experiences with the 2s don't make me hesitate a bit in recommending them to you.
I compared the Audioengine 2 ($199/pair) to the Infinity Primus 150 ($198/pair) and the Paradigm Atom v.3 ($189/pair).1 The latter two speakers, now discontinued, are both more expensive than the Audioengine 2 in that neither includes an amplifier, but they were the least expensive designs I had on hand.
The Infinity Primus 150 had more extended and detailed high frequencies than the Audioengine 2, and a somewhat richer lower-midrange balance. The Infinity's bass extended deeper than the Audioengine's, and its high-level dynamic performance was superior. However, the volume of the Infinity's cabinet is nearly five times that of the Audioengine's. All in all, the performance gap between the speakers was less than I'd anticipated.
The Paradigm Atom v.3 had a much richer midrange than the Audioengine 2, and its high-frequency extension and resolution of detail were superior to the Audioengine's, but not the Infinity's. The Paradigm's high frequencies also had a bit sweeter balance on top. I found the Atom v.3's bass extension and high-level balance somewhere between the those of the Audioengine and the Infinity.
I have never been more impressed with or more stunned by a component I've reviewed for Stereophile than I was with the Audioengine 2. The level of sound quality produced by this uncolored, detailed, articulate, and dynamic speaker, in all situations, was beyond reproach, and its ratio of value to cost borders on the criminal. It extended my enjoyment of music into a new realm of portability that I hadn't before thought possible. I can't think of a single reason why every reader of this magazine should not go out right now and buy a pair of Audioengine 2s. I couldn't decide which finish I liked better, the white or the black. I bought a pair of each.
That's a pretty good review from stereophile.