Ive never given much of a fig either way about
computer speakers. Oh, I know the gamers treasure a rumblin, tumblin,
stumblin sound system, all the better to capture the Birth of the Universe when
Gonthrax the Inevitable pounds the Sacred Hammer of Flangedoodle . . . sigh. Besides, real
gaming has moved on to consoles integrated into home-theater surround-sound systems, and
the humble compact stereo speaker has been relegated to the back seat of audiodom, where
it does the lightweight lifting required by the more modest PC-based games -- were
talking Pajama Sam and Freddi Fish here. Otherwise, you can cruise YouTube, or simply
enjoy the panoply of streamed music the net offers. Thats where the magic --
indeed, the sublime miracle -- of an excellent powered computer monitor like the
Audioengine A2 ($199 USD per pair) comes into play.
The A2s amplifier is a simple affair, putting out a
rated 15Wpc RMS -- decent output for this kind of application, especially when the typical
powered PC speaker puts out something like 3-5Wpc. The installation guide, however,
contains the sort of blue smoke and mirrors I thought had been long banished from audio,
boasting "60 watts of power" before you find out that thats the sum of peak
power potential for both channels. That aside, the real miracle is that the
A2s amplifier is crammed into the left speaker enclosure without compromising the
The A2 is a marvel of compact construction: 6"H x
4"W x 5.25"D. As with the legendary Optimus 7 or the Energy Take Classic (I
reviewed the latter for the January 2008 edition of our sister publication Home
Theater & Sound), it takes a modicum of genius and a generous dose of engineering
smarts to coax big sound from a small speaker. And, like the Optimus and Energy products,
the Audioengine A2 produces a big sound. Each cabinet of 18mm-thick MDF houses a
proprietary 20mm silk-dome tweeter and a 2.75" Kevlar woofer driver. Although the A2
can be used with a subwoofer (Audioengine offers the AS8 powered sub as a complement), the
box and slotted port are designed to deliver the maximum clean bass one can expect from a
2.75" driver. The A2 is distinguished by its onboard amplification. Whereas the
Optimus and Energy models are passive speakers designed to be driven by an outboard amp,
the A2 carves out room for the amplifier, with which it delivers as clean and uncolored
sound as either of those models.
The review samples were polished to an inviting black
sheen. The A2 also comes in white.
One huge caution: The drivers are not covered by grilles,
but are bare-ass out in the open. Wield with care and delicacy all pens, pencils,
scissors, and other office accoutrements -- one careless poke and youve ended the
life of a fine piece of audio equipment.
Audioengine: Find a way to protect the drivers from accidental abuse. Theyre not
sitting on some pedestal doing a nose-in-the-air audiophile job; theyre down on the
work surface, surrounded by a lot of other stuff in more or less constant use. Not
everyones cubicle has the luxury of an off-the-desk shelf on which to prop speakers.
Setting up the A2 couldnt be simpler. As in many
powered PC speakers, its amplifier and controls are embedded in one speaker, with a
speaker-level umbilical to the other. Audioengine has accomplished this neatly: All inputs
and controls are on the rear of the left speaker. You have a choice of inputs: a 1/8"
stereo mini-jack, the most common denominator for personal portable audio devices from
Discman to iPod; or a pair of L/R RCA jacks. This is the first significant difference
between the A2 and most PC speakers, which generally have a single one-way
"input": a 1/8" mini-jack hardwired to the control speaker that plugs into
the PCs soundcard. But the A2s inputs are just that: theres no hardwired
assumption about the sound source. This way, you can choose to connect the A2s to your PC,
your iPod, your Discman, whatever -- all of which use a 1/8" stereo mini-jack
Power is supplied by an AC/DC transformer via a DIN plug --
a power-feed configuration that Id not previously encountered. The real treat is how
the two speakers are connected. Each has a pair of sturdy, gold-plated binding posts that
can accommodate mini-banana plugs, spade lugs, or bare wire. Audioengine supplies a 2m
length of 16AWG speaker wire -- anything thicker would be overkill -- coded for +/-, and
whose leads have been tinned at the factory. Unscrew the posts, insert the leads, tighten,
and youre done.
Finally, the volume pot also serves as the On/Off switch.
Careful: the A2 is so sensitive that you dont have to turn the knob too much before
the room -- you heard me, the room -- is filled with sound. Because the A2s
amplifier has a delay protection circuit in the On/Off switch, its easy to set the
volume too high before the sound kicks in. The delay is only three seconds, but
youve been warned. Better to set the volume and forget about it. The A2 also has a
Sleep mode that essentially puts the amplifier on standby until it detects a signal, at
which point it comes to life and goes to work.
There are no tone controls, such as the bass and treble
equalizers typically found on powered speakers. Nor is there a headphone jack, another
typical feature. For the record, neither is a big loss. First, garden-variety PC speakers
use tone controls to compensate for plastic housings, small drivers, and lo-fi sources.
Second, even though there are many theoretical differences between line and headphone
outputs, in the PC domain theyve become blurred to sameness: on many PCs, the
"line out" and "headphone" connections are one and the same, and
indeed are considered interchangeable.
I used the 2m cable with dual-terminated 1/8" stereo
mini-jacks to connect the left speaker to the audio output (light green) on the rear of my
PC, an older Dell Optiplex running Windows XP at a modest 850MHz. Our Internet connection
is coaxial cable courtesy the local cable-TV operator, so net listening is via the
fastest broadband connection any site can offer.
I had one problem: The A2s, even at a mere 4", are
slightly wider than the Altec-Lansing speakers Ive had since acquiring another Dell
some years back -- they wouldnt fit on the shelf along with the monitor, as the A-Ls
had. I could put the A2s on the desktop, but unlike most PC speakers, their faces
arent canted upward to compensate for most users inability to place them at
least shoulder high. So I repaired to the shop and quickly built two 4.5"-high stands
from scrap lumber. Problem solved.
Although placing the A-Ls to either side of the monitor
about 15" apart was OK, it was far too close together for the A2s -- even the
nearfield felt congested and constrained. I placed the A2s at either end of my desk, about
3.5 apart, which provided an unrestrained nearfield, and enough of a soundstage that
such a small installation could begin to emulate a high-end listening environment.
With few exceptions, the audio devices youll be
connecting to a pair of powered speakers with a 1/8" mini-jack are lo-fi: MP3
players, iPods, Internet radio over your computer. Yes, you can play CDs on your
computers DVD drive, or with a Discman or equivalent. But small speakers just
cant move enough air to do a full-range recording justice. Finally, with some
exceptions, most of the music sources you can muster for a PC application are decidedly
lo-fi. MP3s, by definition, toss out seven of every eight pieces of audio information.
iTunes AAC files arent any better. Yes, I understand acoustical masking, and
yes, I agree that the algorithms do a credible job of creating something listenable
despite the enormous loss of information (a whopping 87.5%). But its not high
fidelity -- not by a long shot. Its on the same tier as a good FM radio signal or HD
or satellite radio: a better signal, but not hi-fi.
That said, the A2s sound was, for want of a better
word, incredible. I habitually listen to Radio
Paradise -- simply the best radio station on the planet, broadcast or Internet, and
where I first learned about the A2. After having installed the Audioengines one Sunday
afternoon, I fired up RP and was greeted by Stephen Gadds alternately sublime and
frenetic drumming on the title track of Steely Dans Aja [MCA 811745]. I know
this recording well, and ordinarily will tolerate a less-than-hi-fi rendering only with
foot-tapping impatience. Not this time. Over the A2s, "Aja" sprang to life with
a palpable soundstage: a fair amount of height and not a lot of depth, but a precise
rendering of the delicate tick of Gadds drumstick on the bell of the ride cymbal.
Playing CDs through my PCs soundcard easily revealed
the A2s limitations, as well as a curious anomaly. It flawlessly captured the rich
midrange on Fastballs "The Way," from All the Pain Money Can Buy
[Hollywood HR-62130-2], a massive hit from a few summers back. However, although the bass
was respectable, it was not the thunderous rumbling of the CD when played over a high-end
rig. It couldnt be -- not with 2.75" drivers. The anomaly was a perceptible
veil drawn between me and the sound source, as if the music were coming from behind a very
thin wall. In fact, my immediate impression was that MP3s, especially over Radio Paradise,
sounded better than their original CD sources. "Whats better?"
you may rightfully ask. For me, it was stronger, more pronounced bass; cleaner highs;
virtually no loss of midrange energy; and no veil. Well, Id never heard a lossily
compressed audio file that sounded anywhere near as fully realized as a CD. Never. This
called for further examination.
To test what I was hearing, I borrowed my daughters
iPod Nano, on which shes burned a number of my CDs using iTunes AAC lossy
compression. This is not the forum to discuss the relative merits, or lack thereof, of
MP3s and AAC lossy compression. Suffice it to say that the outcomes are similar: In
creating a songs compact version, each tosses out 80-90% of the digital information.
I chose some familiar music: The Beatles 1 [Capitol CDP 5 29325 2] and the
Dandy Warhols Welcome to the Monkey House [Capitol CDP 5 84368 0]. The
greater differences were with the Beatles material. The AAC highs were slightly more
accentuated, and the bass was definitely more pronounced. Some songs, notably
"Eleanor Rigby," "Penny Lane," and "Hello Goodbye," were
cleaner, lifting the veil. However, they were also more brittle, acquiring a trebly edge
that was not evident on the CD through either the A2s or my reference audio system.
Similarly, where the CD accentuated Paul McCartneys bass, especially his
groundbreaking fretwork on "Penny Lane" and "Hello Goodbye," the AAC
version pushed it into prominence. The contrast between the CD and the AAC files of the
Warhols "We Used to Be Friends," "Plan A," and "The Last
High" was not as noticeable. Courtney Taylor-Taylor, the bands guitarist-leader
and the CDs producer, dialed in gobs of synth bass, so the differences were less
evident on the low end. However, as with the Beatles 1, the AAC versions of
these songs were slightly more strident in the treble region -- and, yes, the veil had
The Audioengine A2 is the best PC speaker Ive ever
heard. Its strength, far and away, is how it makes the most of lo-fi sound sources. While
the artifacts of lossily compressed files may or may not make up for all the missing
information, through the A2s they sounded marvelous, far better than the Altec-Lansing PC
speakers Id been using for some time. One could venture, though it could be a
stretch -- critical listening is never cut and dried, no matter what the Golden Ears may
allege -- that the A2 has been tuned to take advantage of how lossily compressed music
files accentuate the highs and lows to compensate for the loss of information. I tested
CDs against AAC files burned from the same CDs on the same computer, to minimize the
chance of my own digital bias creeping into the comparison, and I felt that, despite some
plainly apparent differences in sound, the A2 did an excellent, indeed superb, job. In
fact, had I not played the CDs, Im not sure that the differences would have been
that apparent, however audible.
As I finish this review, Im listening to Joe
Henrys "Parkers Mood," from Civilians [CD, Anti- 86890], on
Radio Paradise. The luscious, uncolored midrange is too wonderful. If you use your PC to
listen to any amount of music, get the Audioengine A2s. Do it now. Youll not find
. . . Kevin East
Price of equipment reviewed