Powered and active loudspeakers continue to grow in popularity. They offer an inexpensive way to set up a high-quality music system without having to assemble separates: a receiver, integrated amplifier, or preamp and power amp. Audioengine has had great success with its larger A2+ stereo speaker system ($269/pair, all prices USD). Now they hope to repeat that with the less expensive A1 ($199/pair).
In the box
The Audioengine A1s’ simple and attractive box contains Styrofoam inserts with compartments for everything: a powered left-channel speaker, a passive right-channel speaker, a power cord, 16AWG speaker cables, a 3.5mm mini-jack audio interconnect, a setup guide, and a 3.5mm-to-RCA stereo interconnect. The guide includes easy-to-follow instructions with clear illustrations, and spells out the conditions of Audioengine’s generous three-year warranty. The interconnects are of higher-than-expected quality, as is the speaker cable.
Each two-way A1 is a rectilinear box measuring 6”H x 4”W x 5.25”D, with gracefully rounded corners; the two speakers have a combined weight of 6.7 pounds. The finish is flat black, and there’s no grille. The exposed drivers are a 2.75” midrange-woofer with an aramid-fiber cone and a 0.75” silk-dome tweeter (the crossover frequency is not specified). Below the former, a bass-reflex slot port runs nearly the full width of the front baffle. Affixed to the A1’s underside is a pad of slightly softer material, to keep the speaker from “walking” away when reproducing bass-heavy music at high volume, or marring the surface it sits on.
The left speaker includes the stereo class-D amplifier for both speakers. On its rear panel are a two-pronged inlet for the power cord, a 3.5mm jack for non-Bluetooth input, a subwoofer output jack (RCA), a Power/Volume knob, a Bluetooth pairing button with status LED, and red and black clips for connecting the left speaker to the passive right speaker. On the rear panel of the right speaker is an identical pair of clips and nothing else.
Audioengine specifies the A1’s amplifier as able to produce 15Wpc RMS (30Wpc peak), the system’s frequency response as 65Hz-22kHz, ±2.0dB, and a maximum input sample rate of 48kHz. The Bluetooth version included, 5.0, supports the aptX, AAC, and SBC codecs.
I first set up the Audioengine A1s atop my desk, the speakers and me describing a 3’ equilateral triangle (see below). I plugged the power cord into the wall and the back of the left speaker, and secured the speaker cable to the clips on the backs of both speakers. Using the Power/Volume knob on the left speaker, I turned the A1s on, and the blue Bluetooth LED began to flash. I found the A1s on my Bluetooth device, then paired it with the A1s. When that process was completed, the LED stopped flashing and glowed steady blue. I was ready to play some music.
The A1s are designed to be used primarily as Bluetooth speakers, so that’s how I did most of my listening. But I did try the 3.5mm connection. It worked, and the A1s’ sound qualities via the two types of connection were virtually identical.
After I’d paired the A1s with my Bluetooth device, I just left the Audioengines powered up -- after a short time of receiving no signal, they go into standby. When I wanted to listen again -- even the next day -- my device paired immediately and the A1s were ready to go.
At first listen, the A1s overemphasized the midrange, which somewhat obscured the silky upper frequencies. Then I discovered how much the A1s’ sound depended on how they were positioned -- and on the volume level. I’d first set the speakers 3’ apart and the volume almost all the way up. To correct the midrange imbalance, I placed the speakers 4.5’ apart and reduced the volume two or three clicks from the maximum setting. This opened up the sound remarkably, and made for a better top-to-bottom tonal balance. There was still a slight emphasis of the midrange and upper bass, but now that was only slightly at the expense of the highs.
The volume level, too, was critical. The A1s could play loud enough without distortion, which tempted me to set the volume control at maximum, which resulted in ample output. But at that level the midrange really did outpace the tweeters’ efforts. When I backed off the volume, the balance was closer to ideal. As the A1s’ manual points out, the height of their tweeters is critical: lower than your ears, and the sound will be too soft and lack detail. If you don’t place these speakers on a bookshelf at ear level, consider buying stands, to raise the tweeters to the level of your ears. Audioengine provides several options: the DS1 desktop stands ($29/pair) tilt the speaker up to aim at your ears; and Audioengine sells steel stands from Sanus that raise the speakers 26” ($150/pair) or 34” ($160/pair) above the floor, and 30” wood stands for $110/pair.
Of course, the A1s’ little midrange-woofers go only so low, but you can compensate for this by adding a subwoofer. The subwoofer output is not low-pass filtered -- you’ll need to set the crossover frequency at the sub itself. That done, the A1s’ volume knob will then control speakers and sub. I got a nice balance with my Polk Audio DSW Pro 550 subwoofer -- that pairing provided a very decent-sounding system that could produce enough bass for most any music.
Back to the speakers alone: Ernest Ansermet and the Suisse Romande Orchestra’s early stereo recording of Borodin’s Symphony No.2 (16-bit/44.1kHz ALAC, Decca) has an overall mellow sound: Strings are lush and warm, brass burnished and slightly recessed, woodwinds chipper and at the center of the soundstage. The last movement features the bright sounds of triangle, tambourine, and cymbals, all of which should stand in relief against that overall warm sound. Listening through the A1s, I wished for more crispness and definition of the percussion. In short, there weren’t enough high frequencies.
The title track of the J. Geils Band’s Freeze-Frame (16/44.1 ALAC, EMI) was most promising. The shout of “Freeze-frame!” and the ensuing click of a camera shutter had good presence and crisp snap, but when the music began, the A1s’ overemphasized midrange and upper bass muted some of the HF sparkle that I know this hard-driving track actually has. This wasn’t a problem with other tracks on this album -- it depended on the balance of a given track’s midbass and upper bass. All in all, it was a pleasant listening experience, but I’ve heard better from other wireless speakers at or near this price. If you can afford $51 more, and have room for slightly bigger speakers, try Kanto Audio’s YU ($249.99/pair). Its larger drivers -- a 1” tweeter and a 4” midrange-woofer -- produce better, smoother integration with my subwoofer, and its superior highs result in better soundstage focus and more transparent highs.
The sound was much better with a leaner recording: Dave Brubeck’s masterpiece, Time Out (16/44.1 ALAC, Sony). The balance of highs, mids, and lows was just fine, and the percussion sparkled over solid, well-focused aural images of piano and double bass.
There’s lots to like about Audioengine’s A1 speakers. They’re small enough to fit almost anywhere, yet put out larger-than-expected sound. They easily pair with Bluetooth devices, or can play via a wired connection, and they have a subwoofer output for more bass than their small drivers can provide. They’re easy to use, and come with an attractively long warranty. The A1s would seem ideal for use as computer speakers in a desktop system -- but for any bigger sort of space or more balanced sound, Kanto Audio’s YU is probably a better choice.
. . . Rad Bennett
- Portable music players -- Apple iPod Touch (fifth generation), Benjie Rocker
- Subwoofer -- Polk Audio DSW Pro 550
Audioengine A1 Powered Bluetooth Loudspeakers
Price: $199 USD.
Warranty: Three years, limited.
6500 River Place Boulevard, Building 7, Suite 250
Austin, TX 78730
Phone: (855) 845-5525