This is a review written by Terry Ellis March 2022
For my video review please see my YouTube Channel link here
I have said this before, there has never been a better time to get into HiFi and become an audiophile. This is because in 2022 you really don’t need to spend crazy amounts of money to get some very good sounding speakers.
I have been looking at the brand-new entry level speakers from Acoustic Energy, a long-established English speaker manufacturer. The entry and affordable end of the speaker market is insanely competitive and, as a result, manufacturers are really pushing the boundaries of what they can offer. I have been compared three of what you might call champion speakers to see if the new AE1002 – squared or mk 2, I think I prefer mk2, are the best compact entry level stand mount speaker available right now.
This is the third Acoustic Energy standmount speaker I have reviewed. Every time I am, without fail, impressed with their speakers’ aesthetics, build and sound quality. The AE100 mk2 is no exception. They are extremely compact, with nice curved edges and a high-quality fit and finish all excellent for their £259 price. My review pair were finished in walnut with a nice blend of modern and classic styling. If you buy a pair, don’t forget to remove the plastic cover over the Acoustic Energy badge because it does make all the difference.
My previous experience with Acoustic Energy speakers, based on my reviews of their AE300 and AE500, are that their sound is normally very even handed and well managed. The balance is always pleasant but, perhaps, maybe a little on the safe side, not going to far one way or the other trying to impress the listener, but the positive being they are without any obvious negatives and I cannot really argue with that approach to a speakers design because it makes for very enjoyable speakers that are easy to listen to.
The Tale of Two Boxes
Naturally, I was expecting the same kind of sound from the new AE100 mk2. They are a 2 way speaker using a 25mm fabric dome tweeter that sits in a wave guide and uses Acoustic Energy’s wide dispersion technology. This is supported by a 130mm, or just over 5” paper mid-bass driver, crossing over at 2.9khz. The speakers are rated to 120 watts with 6 ohms impedance and they have a sensitivity of 87db all pretty standard. What is not standard is the cabinet. Acoustic Energy have been very clever here, knowing their customers liked the very aesthetically pleasing compact form factor of the original, they wanted to generate more bass without increasing the size of the speaker. In order to achieve more internal cabinet volume required to generate more bass, the cabinet is made from HDF rather than MDF, allowing them to use thinner panels. This keeps the speaker the same size, retains the same level of cabinet rigidity but most importantly, increased the internal volume. I am sure this was not by a huge amount but, when you are creating a very compact speaker such as the AE100, every mm counts.
Placing For Perfection
Setting them up was fairly straight-forward and it was not hard for me to find a good position and toe-in angle for them in my room. A quick point on toe in. I found the AE100 did not need much toe-in to sound optimal. I often setup speakers with a reasonable amount of toe-in but with the AE100 Mk2s I found the vocal treble presence region to be a bit too hot and I was hearing some sibilance. I am quite sensitive to this and found reducing the toe-in helped to balance the speakers sound better and take away the sibilance.
One of my main priorities when setting up speakers in my room is to achieve a soundstage with as much depth width and height as I can get. I placed the AE100 mk2 about a metre from the front wall allowing them to image well, in fact their imaging turned out to be a significant strength. The soundstage they create is huge for a small speaker; it is very wide, at times deep, and can also be quite tall, which was a nice surprise. I would describe the presentation as being very open. The soundstage reminded me of much more expensive speakers in terms of how open and precise the speakers could deliver it. There was more higher frequency energy than I was expecting which helped to create a sense of ambience and space which was very pleasing with live albums, where there is a crowd. I think this may be a psychoacoustics thing, but it is something readily audible and a big positive for the speakers, they created a great feels like you were there effect. The tweeter must be a big part of this for how it was presenting the higher ‘air’ frequencies. Some of this must also be the speakers cabinet; small so minimal panel vibrations and, I am guessing, the HDF might be helping the overall transparency of the speaker by making it have less vibration and less of its own sounds.
The AE100 mk2 bass delivery benefits from the new speaker cabinet as well. Play the right music and they deliver really quite a punchy bass. Acoustic Energy have succeeded in squeezing as much bass as they can from the very compact speaker size. Bass extension and outright output is still limited by the very compact speaker and I found then to have a leaner sound overall ion my room, but I am sure this helped to create their sense space and openness to the soundstage. I possibly could have moved them closer to my front front wall for more room bass reinforcement but, I decided not to as IO was enjoying their soundstage set as they were.
In the main, so long as I didn’t go crazy with the volume, the AE100 mk2 delivered a clean and very enjoyable sound with vocals nicely carved out in the centre, very good levels of detail, good musicality and a punchy bass all exceeding my expectations for a £259 speaker pair.
Bring On the Competition
I decided it was time to pull out other entry level speaker champions to see how good the new AE100 mk2 really are. I was determined not to make it easy for them.
First up was the Q Acoustics 3030i, which originally retailed for £369 so nearly fifty percent more expensive, although now you can buy them for a much more comparable £269. The 3030i are significantly larger and deeper and they feature a larger 6.5-inch mid-bass driver with a same size, but decoupled, soft dome tweeter. I think both speakers look modern however I find the overall form factor of the Acoustic Energy more pleasing than the elongated aspect of the 3030i.
As expected, listening to the 3003i, they sound much more substantial in their bass extension and the impact of the deeper notes. This aspect I particularly like about them and it is their main strength; the full bass helps to warm and solidify their overall sound and, male vocals in particular, sound more masculine and natural. This was easy to hear when listening to Gregory Porter’s Hey Laura. The extra bass extension helps the music to sound larger, as though you are listening to small floorstanding speakers. The 3030i’s treble possibly has slightly snappier resolution compared to the AE100, as though it starts and stops a little quicker which is a positive. Overall, the treble of the 3030i is much more reserved in extension and sounds less exciting.
In comparison with the AE100 mk2 I found the 3030i to sound to quite disjointed and there was no real defined soundstage across the width of my room, no real sense of depth and it was like the speakers’ timing and balance was not as composed. The AE100 didn’t dig anywhere near as deep, but their bass was tighter and, to my surprise, punchier with some music and putting them back in the system brought back that sense of higher frequency ‘air’ ambience information. There were definite pros and cons here between the speakers and some audiophiles may prefer the 3030i. For me, the new AE100 mk 2 was the better speaker and the one I preferred listening to. This is a pretty big win for the Acoustic Energy, considering the original price of the 3030i.
The next contender
The next competitor was going to be much tougher, when you think of top performing entry level speakers one designer and manufacturer instantly spring to mind and that is Andrew Jones and Elac. Their Debut 2 DB5.2 were a perfect speaker for a comparison because they also cost £259. They feature a slightly over five inch Aramid fibre mid-bass driver coupled with a 1 inch silk dome tweeter that has a wave guide. There are big differences in design, with the Elac being front ported with a nostalgia approved rectangle shape and old fashioned push fit front grills, rather than magnetic. Visually, to me, the AE100 are nicer looking but I am sure some will prefer the old-school-nostalgia look of the Elac.
One other big difference is the size, the Elac are larger, noticeably taller and on paper dig a little deeper in the bass 46hz compared to 51hz with the AE100. This doesn’t sound like a lot but that little bit more extension from the 50 ish region to the 40 ish often does make a difference and it did here. The Elac seem to split the difference in bass between the Q Acoustics and Acoustic Energy. The bass is tighter and smoother than the Q Acoustics, but there is not as much of it, although it does sound more extended and a bit smoother than the AE100. However, again the AE100 sound punchier with some music. Comparing Gregory Porter again his voice sounded a little more convincing on the Elac due to that bit of extra bass extension. As a contrast, listening to Runners by Soichi Terada, the bass is more fun with the Acoustic Energy.
When listening to a wide variety of music the Elac speakers sound the more composed, tightly focused and evenly balanced of the two speakers; they really are very impressive in that regard. The Elac soundstage is not as open and wide as the Acoustic Energy, but they are still impressive in this regard. The Elac sound the warmer of the two because they are a little more tonally saturated because there is more bass but also a fair bit less treble.
To extend this comparison into a musical context the Melody Gardot, Live in Europe album illustrated very clearly some major differences. The introduction to the song Wayfaring Stranger, there is the crowd cheering followed by, I think, a double bass solo. Both the speakers were able to render the instrument with depth perceived as being played behind the speakers with a good level of detail and fairly three dimensionally which is extremely impressive for speakers at this kind of money. The extra fullness and tone of the Elac meant that the double bass was more convincing as a big-bodied wood instrument. Melody’s voice, which follows the solo, was a touch more focused and again fuller on the Elac and more convincing. But starting the track again the beginning of the song, where the crowd are cheering, the AE100 renders the sense of being there much better because there is the extra ambient high frequency information present which is not audible with the Elac, that sensation is missing with the Elac.
Rooms, Systems and Ears
I could go on and describe a similar difference across other music, but to keep it simple the Elac sound technically very good. Their sound is very tight, precise and focused, with excellent soundstage and a little more bass extension and tonality. Combined with a more rolled off treble makes them sound warmer very pleasing across a wide variety of music. The AE100 Mk2 are more exciting speakers to listen to, they deliver a more on the edge-of-your-seat type of listening experience, with a much better sense of ambience when there is supposed to be and they are close to the Elac in the other areas,. In some music the extra high frequency information in the AE100s really is a big positive but in other tracks such as some from the Madonna Immaculate Collection they can be quite shrill.
Reviewing these new Acoustic Energy speakers has been enjoyable and they have delivered some nice surprises. The AE100 mk2 are a lively and an exciting speaker which definitely pushes the boundary for a speaker at this price point for their looks and build and sound.
There has never been a better time to become an audiophile.
An Essential Audition Award is granted in recognition of a products high performance but with a certain uniqueness that makes auditioning even more essential.