Computer speakers are not my thing, and I’m a late convert to MP3s. For the longest time, neither seemed to sound good enough. The SqueezeBox3 converted me to digital audio files, and MP3s started slipping into my music collection. Now, Audioengine’s A2 powered speakers are bending my ears and semi-idiophiliac attitudes. Find out how.
May 29, 2008 by Mike Chin
Powered Desktop Speakers
Some people ask, “So what can you do with a silent computer?” The unstated clause is “…that you can’t do with an ordinary one?” Well, there are many things that can be done better with a silent computer than an ordinary noisy one, and the enjoyment of music is one of them. In a recent article, Devon Cooke discussed the Student AES in St. Louis where SPCR presented a silent computer as a prize for a student contest, and the benefits of such a computer for a recording studio. Playback of music with a silent computer can also be more satisfying because the PC can remain in the same room as the speakers without adding a haze of hum, buzz, screech or other non-musical noises.
Normally, we restrict reviews to products that have a direct impact on noise or its suppression in a PC, but there are products of interest outside this arena, and speakers are among them. Many readers already know that most of the people involved in SPCR have a strong interest in audio and music. It is our aural sensitivity and focus that led us to silencing computers. It’s natural that we would want to examine things like the Scythe Kama Bay Amp and the SqueezeBox. This time, we examine a pair of speakers designed specifically for use with a computer.
For most audiophiles (or people who just like to have good quality music reproduction), typical computer speakers are hopelessly inadequate except to make the bing, bong and brannnng sounds that operating systems like to chime. So when we heard a fellow music lover raving about Audioengine’s tiny amplified A2 speakers, it was time review a pair.
Audioengine A2 promo photo.
Audioengine is a US company formed in 2002 by three partners with extensive experience in the audio industry. The website blurb summary states:
“Audioengine designs and constructs hand-built speakers at factory-direct prices. All Audioengine products are based on custom designs with very few off-the-shelf parts. After years of building professional powered studio monitor speakers, the Audioengine team has taken their experience and created unique powered consumer speakers for your home and office which are specifically tuned for digital audio. Great sound, simple designs, high-quality materials, and truly useful features are what Audioengine is all about.”
The A2 is a very small stereo set of powered speakers measuring just 6”(H) x 4”(W) x 5.25”(D). It’s the archetypal size for a computer speaker, but that’s the only similarity between the Audioengine A2 and typical computer speakers. Note that these speakers are not meant for use singly; they come as a pair. The two speakers are tethered to each other by a cable, and there is a 15W/ch (RMS) stereo amplifier built into one of them. The two speaker together weigh over six pounds, which is significant for such a small pair. The enclosures are made of MDF (medium density fiberboard, 18mm thick), the material most commonly used for quality speaker cabinets, and painted a glossy white (or black). The resonant plastic that’s ubiquitous for small computer speakers is absent here.
Here are the technical specifications from the Audioengine website, on both the A2 and the larger A5:
I had an opportunity to speak with Brady Bargenquast, one of the founders of Audioengine, about the origins of this product and the way it was developed. Apparently, the people from SlimDevices, the company that created the SqueezeBox digital media box, came to Audioengine with a request for a tiny self-amplified computer speaker that could be connected directly to the SqueezeBox for a super-simple, inexpensive, high quality, digital music playback system. This was before SlimDevices was bought up by Logitech, and after Audioengine had already made a reputation for itself with the original, larger Audioengine A5. SlimDevices were interested in a joint venture with Audioengine to market the resulting product as an accessory for the SqueezeBox.
Brady said their first response was “No Way!”, it could not be done. The limitations of size, price, source input quality, and placement options seemed too contradictory to the whole concept of accurate sound reproduction. But Brady and his partners became drawn into the project by the SlimDevices folks, who were nearby neighbors, for the technical challenges and for the sake of maybe creating a pair of speakers they could stand to listen to with their own PCs. Over half a dozen iterations later, the A2 was finally deemed good enough. The purchase by Logitech eventually saw the departure of most of the original SlimDevices crew, and the A2 was launched as a stand-alone product on its own merits, not as a product specifically for use with the SqueezeBox.
OUR A2 SAMPLES
Audioengine products are sold through an extensive network of online and brick-and-mortar stores throughout most of the world. We received our sample directly from Audioengine. It was double-boxed, the external one being an ordinary plain brown carton, and the internal one being a bit more colorful.
The retail box features alarmingly corny graphics.
Things look more promising inside the box.
There were audio cables in one cloth pouch, an AC/DC adpter in the other.
The speakers were also in soft cloth pouches.
The slot below the bass driver is a vent for the cabinet.
The speakers themselves are far more impressive than the cartons. The hefty weight, smooth contouring of the holes for the drivers, the look of the drivers themselves, and details of the back panel — they all speak of great attention to detail, of a product that’s been carefully designed and manufactured.
The bass driver’s woven kevlar fiber cone provides high stiffness
while the dome tweeter’s silk has long been a favored choice for natural damping.
The left speaker contains the amplifier electronics. The back panel sports both phono socket and 1/8″ mini stereo jack inputs, a volume knob with built in power switch, socket for DC power and 5-way binding post outputs for the right speaker. The right speaker back panel has only one set of 5-way binding post inputs. A thin, dense foam pad on the bottom keeps it from sliding around on the surface upon which the speaker is placed.
The auto-ranging input AC/DC adapter is rated to deliver up to 1.8A at 17.5V or 31.5W power. Power supplies in audio technology are considered far more critical than in computers. Chances are high that audiophiles could find better performing alternatives to improve the performance of these speakers — if they haven’t already.
The speakers all hooked up, plugged in and ready to go. The mini stereo plug is in use here, hooked up first to an Apple iPod with some 9,000 tunes to choose from.
First Audition: Music from an iPod
The proof of any audio product always comes down to the listening. The first listening session was at a friend’s home, in a wide open space of about 600~700 square feet, with the speakers set atop a counter that divided the living and dining areas. The speakers were set as far apart as the supplied cable allowed, about six feet. They did not have the bass-reinforcing benefit of a wall close behind them. The source was the headphone output of an iPod classic with a mini 80gb hard drive. The music varied: Vocals, jazz, pop, rock, and classical.
The overall impression was smooth and balanced, with none of the usual “computer speaker” failings of compressed dynamics, colored midrange, or nasty / absent bass. The good tonal balance was complemented by snappy transient response, resulting in an ability to present a lively, cohesive illusion of a music event between and around the two speakers. There was a spacious, wide open aspect to the sound that was quite appealing. There was no shortage of bass on most program material at comfortable listening volume. Driving deep bass was not expected, and it was not delivered, but a slightly raised midbass seemed apparent. It actually helped to compensate for the lack of deeper bass, imparting surprising weightiness when called for.
The speakers could only play to what I’d consider a moderately loud volume before clipping occurred. The loudness level reached in this large space was more than high enough for a party or other social gathering (where music is not the prime focus), amazing considering the diminutive size of the speakers. All in all, it was a most impressive first impression.
Second Listen: Speakers for a PC
This was the function for which the A2 was originally developed.
NOTE – Reviewer’s Disclosure: My assessment of the A2s as a speaker system for a PC was not helped by the fact that I have not had speakers connected to my PC for at least five years, possibly longer. I’ve lived with high quality music playback systems all my life, and at some point along the way, I decided not to subject myself to the painful limitation of computer speakers when there was a fabulously good sounding audio system in my living room. When I feel like listening to music while at my computer, I simply turn the stereo upstairs up to a fairly high level and keep my downstairs office doors open. The sound that flows downstairs is much better and more natural than I have got from any speakers ever hooked up directly to my computers. Hence, the A2s were up against my audiophile snobbery, my lack of exposure to other PC speakers, and my natural bias against speakers at my computer desk.
The A2s in original setup. They sounded good but…
Hooked up to the line output of the integrated sound card on my main PC with the speakers on either side of the 22″ monitor and no more than three feet from me seated at the desk, there was a bit too much noise from the sound card when the volume knob was set to maximum (without any music playing through the speakers). Since the speakers’ volume capacity was far higher than needed for listening at such close distance, the simple solution was to turn the knob down to the point where the noise was no longer audible, which happened to be at the 12 o’clock mark. You may fare better with the sound card in your system.
The sound was, as before, very detailed and musical without being clinical. The integration of the tweeter and woofer was very good, there being no sense of discontinuity between lows, mids and highs. In the end, despite the good quality sound, I found myself more comfortable with the sound off. Examining the reasons, I concluded that there were several main factors:
Habit: As mentioned earlier, I’m simply not used to listening to music while seated at my computer. It felt distracting to be writing this while listening to music I would have preferred to pay more attention to.
Desktop Resonances: Yes, these speakers have enough bass capability to excite the resonances in the hollow melamine-finished particle board top of my desk. I was aware of the coloration the desktop imparted to the bass, and over time, this effect proved to be fatiguing. Putting a block of soft open cell foam about 2″ thick under each speaker helped reduce this effect, but it was still evident.
Close Positioning: The close position, often just a couple feet from each speaker when leaning over the keyboard, exacerbated the slight bass warmth alluded to earlier and made the desktop resonances more audible. Simply walking away from the desktop and standing some six feet away made the sound far more pleasant to me.
During our phone chat, Brady Bargenquast of Audioengine suggested angling the speakers inward so that their central axes intersect in front of me. This would mean that both speakers would be laterally off axis. It is the same basic setup that I use for the front speakers in my home theater room, as it provides a sound stage that’s stable as one moves laterally (very handy for at position on the sofa across the room). It was certainly worth a try. Brady also suggested angling the speakers up towards me. A pair of large soft rubber feet from QuietPC did the trick — never mind that their softness will upset the long established ethos of the spike every speaker audiophiles. Perhaps the softness of the rubber would inhibit the transmission of vibration into the desk and reduce the resonant effects I thought I was hearing.
Angled up and in, the A2s sounded mysteriously better.
This setup did improve the sound quite a lot. I’d bet there’s nothing clearly measurable here, but it was certainly audible. There was a slight softening of edginess that might have been there on-axis, and the overall presention was more natural than before.
It also became very clear with further listening that the A2 speakers have enough resolving power for me to clearly hear differences in the recordings themselves. The source material determines the listening experience as much as the speakers. A better sound card than the one integrated in my 2+ years old socket 939 motherboard would surely effect improvements in the sound as well.
Third Listen: “Mini” Home Theater
The speakers were connected to the headphone outputs of a 2-year old Sony Bravia 40″ LCD TV in a lightly furnished, 12′ x 12′ den. The sound quality of the TV’s audio circuits and speakers is decent for a television, but not great for musical programs. One can only assume that the headphone output of this TV is neutral, meant for use with any headphones, and does not contain any frequency compensation tailored to the TV’s own internal speakers. The mini stereo plug cable was used again, with the speaker power/volume knob turned to maximum gain so that the TV’s remote control could be used to set the volume. Each speaker was set right next to the TV at the same plane as the screen, about a meter apart, and a foot fom the back wall. The listening/watching position was just under 2m directly opposite the TV.
The sound that emerged from the Audioengine 2 was considerably more defined than that of the TV’s built-in speakers, with a much finer delineation of all kinds of sounds. Almost every aspect of sound reproduction was improved, whether music or more general TV programming. In HD tennis match broadcasts, for example, the sound of the racquets striking the ball became much more distinctive, and details such as the degree of spin imparted or the sheer force of each stroke became easier to distinguish. Dynamics also improved, with the weight of bass sound effects and instruments delivered with greater punch and authority.
The only weakness came occasionally in the dialog of drama programming that features music with substantial bass content. The slight bass warmth that makes the speakers sound so surprisingly big tends to obscure the dialog at times. The solution was not to turn up the volume but to turn down the bass tone control a notch or two in the TV’s audio controls.
With music in this small room, there was plenty of dynamics even with programming at quite high volume. Musical peaks of about 90 dB SPL were reached at the listening position 2m away from the center of the two speakers. This is very loud for a tiny pair of speakers.
Final Test: In a High End Home Stereo
It was fairly high end 15 years ago… It’s probably nowhere near high end today, but it still sounds great. The source is mostly uncompressed digital audio files from the network fed via a SqueezeBox 3, then converted to analog by a MSB Technology LINK DAC-III 24/192 outboard D/A converter. Amplification is a Linn Kairn preamp and Linn AV5105 power amp. The speakers are NHT 2.9, a 4-way stereo pair one step down from the brand’s then-top 3.3 model — now long discontinued like all the equipment I’ve described. In my review of the SqueezeBox 3, I wrote about my audio system:
“The overall sound is affected far more by the recordings and the music than any signature the system imparts. Most listeners describe the sound as very lively, clear, dynamic, detailed; smooth and soft when the music is smooth and soft, and raucous and loud when the music is raucous and loud. A notable quality for me is that when a good recording of a smallish band (say under 5~6 instruments plus a vocalist) is played fairly loudly, sitting in the kitchen through the open doorway at the far end of the house, it is not hard to imagine that the performers are actually there playing, albeit more softly than in a lounge bar. It also sounds very good at very low volume, detailed and clear.”
A number of components have changed since then, and the system now is capable of deeper bass and greater dynamics, but the overall effect remains similar. The room is quite large and lively, 30′ x 13′ x 8′; it’s a living room that continues into the dining area.
The Audioengine A2s were perched atop the NHT 2.9 speakers and connected directly via phono cables to the outputs of the MSB Technology D/A outboard converter. Only the SqueezeBox was used for sound sources. As the photo below suggests, it is an absurd David-Goliath comparison.
The sound that emerged from the A2s in this setup was very good. If the A2s were somehow made invisible, it would not be difficult at lower volume to believe that the music was coming from the big NHT speakers. Of course, the bass was lacking real depth and weight, there was some artificiality in the midband on some music, and the system could be heard straining as volume reached upwards of 85 dB from 3 meters away in this large room. But up to what I’d consider moderately loud volume (say up to ~80 dB peaks at 3 meters), with a wide range of music, the A2s gave an astonishingly credible account of themselves. The window to the music was not huge but it was clear, unblemished and eminently listenable. When you consider that the $199 price tage includes both speakers and a stereo amp, you can’t help but clap your hands for the engineering achievement the A2s represent. I think it’s safe to say the the original Slim Devices folks who initiated this project should be quite pleased.
Here are some random notes I could not easily integrate elsewhere in the review:
1) Even though my wife and I find the A2s perfectly suitable for TV speakers, Brady Bargenquast says they’re not so popular in home theater setups. He does not like them much for speech reproduction. YMMV.
2) The A2s do not feature any kind of compression circuitry. It’s part of what makes them sound so open and dynamic. This is unlike many similar speakers made for use with a PC. If you overload them, they will distort, and this is audible. If you hear the distortion, just back off on the volume. You’ll damage the speakers if you keep playing them at distorted levels.
3) The volume control / power switch is on the back because there was simply no room in the front.
4) A little peak-warning LED might be a useful addition, especially for users who are ham-fisted with the volume control or less sensitive to the sound of distortion. This might actually reduce claims for warranty service, which is good for Audioengine… and it could be considered a user benefit as well.
5) Audioengine recognizes the limitations of the audio listening environment at the computer desktop. They’re going to offer a new stand that will raise the A2s off the desk and allow them to be positioned and angled more ideally.
6) Some SPL and AC power measurements were made. Our old B&K 2203 SLM and a Seasonic Power Angel AC meter were used. The power factor was a low 0.4 under any load. It’s possible that a better power supply could improve performance… and I’m sure the mod-itchy audiophiles have already experimented.
AC Power & SPL Measurements
|Turned off but plugged into the AC outlet.||
|Turned on, volume control at any setting, nothing playing||
|Playing music at desktop, modest volume||
|Playing TV programming sound, moderately loud||
|Playing music in large living room, just below overload||
There’s little doubt that the Audioengine A2 is a gem. Its tiny size, appealing simple looks and operation, and well-thought out details exude an impressive level of quality. The real reward is when they’re plugged in and the music turned on. It’s hard to believe so much good sounding music can come from such wee speakers.
It’s difficult for me to assign a value or relative rank for the A2, mostly because I have not heard its contemporaries. Sub-$100/pr speaker models for computers appear to number in the hundreds, if not thousands. When you exclude the speakers under $100 as being impossible to be any good, the number shrinks considerably, and some other models look like they could be good. But I simply have not heard many of them, let alone scrutinize them for a review. So call mine a somewhat limited perspective. But I do know sound and music reproduction very well.
What I can say is this: The A2 have not yet convinced me that they or any other speakers belong on my desk. But if I had to have a pair of speakers on my desk connected to my PC, or if I was shopping for speakers to use in a small apartment, a holiday cabin, or for members of the generation that’s grown up with MP3s, the A2 is a no-brainer choice. I risk repeating myself here, but building a no-holds barred speaker system for $20,000 and making them sound good is not that hard; making speakers with the size limitaion and the $200 price tag of the A2 is a real engineering feat that requires the canniest of choices all through the concept, design and manufacturing stages. Kudos to Brady Bargenquast and his partners.
* Great sound
* Built-in amps
* Supplied speaker wire a bit short
*The “cons” are tongue in cheek; they’re hardly serious criticisms. The comment “not wireless” applies to 99.9% of speakers anyway… and it’s a good segue to the AW1 Wireless Audio Adapter, a kit that Audioengine is selling to… “Transfer music wirelessly from any audio device or computer to your Audioengine powered speakers, surround receiver, or powered subwoofer. CD-quality stereo sound with no reduction in audio quality.” Yes, we’ll be getting a test sample soon. 🙂
Our thanks to Audioengine
for the review sample.
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