We like tradition. It’s what puts sprouts on our plate every Christmas.
(Year after year we shuffled them toward the edge of the plate, attempting to locate the mouth of some gluttonous house pet. Then, at some point, they became the highlight of the day.)
Tradition also states that, every four years, there must be some blind, faint hope that our team will not exit the World Cup with a whimper.
In hi-fi, tradition can mean a lot of boxes and a lot of clutter - but it can also mean finely tuned system-matching and plenty of scope for upgrading. It means versatility and, often, better overall performance.
Active speakers are hardly a gargantuan deviation from tradition, but it’s rare to find a pair at this price that leave us struggling to come up with alternative separates that can match their talents.
Build and compatibility
Acoustic Energy’s AE1 Actives are relatively basic in terms of set-up and function. Connect them to your source via either their RCA or balanced XLR inputs and you’re ready to go.
There’s no Bluetooth - but attaching a separate module post-purchase would be far more cost-effective than for AE to have integrated the technology itself, and decent pre-amps and streamers with wireless capability are far from hard to find.
While not common, the AE1s’ method is scarcely rewriting the rulebook either. Each drive unit is driven by a dedicated 50W class A/B power amplifier module, while dials at the back of each cabinet allow for treble adjustment and bass cut up or down by 2dB.
The drivers themselves are likely to be familiar to anyone already acquainted with Acoustic Energy speakers.
The mid/bass drivers are products of the company’s pure piston ceramic aluminium cone technology, the use of metal for its rigidity targeting a more consistent output; the aluminium dome tweeters benefit from AE’s Wide Dispersion Technology waveguide for enhanced room integration.
And they're all wrapped up in a charmingly unassuming box. Available in Piano Black, Piano White or Piano Cherry real wood veneer finishes, the AE1s’ faces are bare but for the drivers underlined by the brand name – and at only 30cm tall they won’t dominate the landscape of your living room. The sonic landscape, however, is a different matter.
More after the break
We test the AE1s primarily using the balanced XLR connection to our reference Gamut pre-amp and Naim NDS/555 PS streamer, but the consistency of their character, irrespective of source or means of attachment, is worth celebrating right from the off.
We end up with them slightly toed in, around 1.5m from boundary walls - but those bass and treble controls mean you’re free to tweak their response in synergy with their placement if space is at a premium.
The AE1s deserve decent, hefty speaker stands. They never cross a line with our lighter speaker stands, but the sturdier the better - and they’re worthy of more than an MDF bookshelf.
Their presentation is forward, but that’s not to say they lack subtlety or dimension, just that they’re endearingly excitable.
The range of music we play while testing - and the time spent listening, unable to tear ourselves away - is testament to their talent.
We get through a hefty chunk of our library over a number of days, and with each album the AE1s’ response is absolutely a delight.
Play Soulwax’s FROM DEEWEE and the speakers’ character reveals itself almost from the outset. The rising synthesizer phrases of Present Tense ring with clarity and vigour - there is granular detail to their waveforms and an climbing sense of anticipation.
With Masterplanned we get a sense of the AE1s’ fine integration and balance. The synth hook stabs away at the low end, with substantial body in the midrange to showcase the vocal melody, and control over potentially coarse percussion in the treble.
We’re also treated to these speakers’ punch and drive. Rhythms jab as much as time, able to contrast often quite ghostly vocal lines with the verve and swagger of their synth-led polyrhythmic accompaniments.
MORE: Best hi-fi speakers 2018
This record is so dependent on the delivery of its rhythmic personality, and the AE1s convey it brilliantly.
Timing is spot on, of course, but equally the dynamic range is subtle and extensive enough to spotlight differing intensities of beats that can, texturally, be cluttered.
Fast-forward to Is It Always Binary, for example, an unabashed album highlight. Relying on timing or timbre of the drums alone to differentiate rhythmic strands is not enough - the AE1s allow the 4/4 to pulse while busier strands lead each bar into the next.
Simply, these AE1s do everything they do with a flourish. And that's not only by the standards of directly competing active speaker alternatives, but also by what we've been able to achieve in any price-comparable amp/speakers combination.
So yes, we love tradition, and we love hi-fi separates. But it’s a much more expensive pair of components that will offer a marked improvement on these Acoustic Energy active speakers - and you owe it to yourself to track down a pair to discover that for yourself.
See all our Acoustic Energy reviews