Acoustic Energy AE100 MKII: Review [Part One]

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Technology


Very few products that have come and gone over the past 24 months, have impressed me as much as the Acoustic Energy AE1 Active Loudspeakers; my review makes it rather clear that I consider these to be the class of the category below $2,000 and perhaps a legitimate challenger to those above it in the stand-mounted category. It offers zero wirelesses capabilities and is limited to one source device unless you connect either set of outputs to a pre-amplifier.

The passive Acoustic Energy AE100 MKII are not based on the current AE1 but a complete refresh of the previous generation and significantly less expensive bookshelf loudspeaker that does a lot of things really well.

One of the most striking aspects of the AE1 was the level of transparency; we toss around the “open window” analogy too much in hi-fi reviews but these loudspeakers do have that standing on the “top of a mountain in the Alps watching Julie Andrews below dance like some weirdo alone” thing go on in a big way.

Acoustic Energy AE1

You hear every last detail on the recording through the AE1 and they can play uncomfortably loud without breaking up with heavy metal, large symphonic works, electronic music, and classic rock.

I don’t listen that way anymore but when I raised the volume on my Schiit Audio pre-amplifier, the AE1 made it clear that they can shift into another gear and fully energize a room; my 33′ x 13′ x 9′ basement office didn’t even present them with a challenge.

Pulled out into the room almost 5 feet from the wall, they completely vanished recreating an enormous soundstage both in terms of depth and width if it existed on the selected tracks.

Acoustic Energy AE100 MKII Bookshelf Speakers in Walnut
The Acoustic Energy AE100 MKII comes in white, black or walnut.

The AE100 MKII doesn’t deliver their low end response or have the ability to play at the same volume levels without hearing the distortion, but they do just about everything else just as well. For a lot less money.

The Skinny

The new AE100 Series, available through selected authorized dealers across North America isn’t just an upgrade, it’s a completely new design from the ground up.

The design brief was to try and maintain the compact dimensions and sleek appearance of the previous 100 Series but offer a more mature, refined and bigger sound with greater bandwidth and power.

So, what’s changed?

First in line for an upgrade was the main drive unit; the 4” paper cone used for over a decade has performed quite well but Acoustic Energy realized that they could not squeeze any additional performance out of it.

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Therefore the decision was made to move up to a 5” driver – this time utilising a 4 layer voice coil with flux rings to enable the dynamics, headroom and clarity demanded from the series design engineers.

Acoustic Energy AE100 MKII Bookshelf Speakers in Black
Acoustic Energy AE100 MKII

This of course created a new problem of size and keeping those compact dimensions. Enter HDF (High Density Fibreboard). The engineers came to the conclusion they needed more internal volume to achieve maximum benefit from the new 5” driver. After much calculation and experimentation, the decision was made to move to HDF – which is not very common at this price-point and usually limited to more expensive loudspeakers.

HDF provides the option of using thinner cabinet walls with no loss in acoustic performance, the mass and stiffness of the 15mm HDF being the same as the previous 18mm MDF.

The result of this move is a small 15% increase in cabinet size but a 30% increase in internal volume gained over the previous 100 Series

The AE100 MKII has been designed with a view to achieving high sound pressure levels from a small enclosure. This is obtained principally through the use of a 130mm mid-bass drive unit built around an ultra-high force, long throw motor system. Bass performance is augmented by a slot shaped duct at the top of the back panel of the enclosure allowing for a considerable cross-sectional area while negating the issues of air turbulence.

A 25mm soft dome tweeter featuring Wide Dispersion Technology completes the driver compliment and is housed within a 15mm HDF cabinet. The AE100 MKII takes its design cues from the award-winning 500 Series and is finished in a choice of satin white, black or walnut vinyl veneer finishes.

The AE100 MKII’s quoted frequency response is 51Hz – 26kHz, with a sensitivity rating of 87dB (6 ohms); the speaker is actually harder to drive than the specifications would suggest.

At 290mm x 165mm x 250mm (WxHxD), the AE100 MKII are not huge but that doesn’t even remotely tell the story. Each loudspeaker is 10 pounds and feels very inert in your hands.

The walnut vinyl veneer finish is very well applied without any visible seams and there are a single pair of binding posts.

Acoustic Energy AE100 2 Bookshlef Speakers Rear in Black and Walnut
Acoustic Energy AE100 MK2

Sound

A quick look at the sensitivity rating and impedance would suggest that the AE100 MKII can be driven by almost anything and I immediately reached for my NAD C316BEE V2 Integrated Amplifier because 40 watts had to be more than sufficient for these small bookshelf loudspeakers.

Wrong. The NAD didn’t sound bad but it ran out of gas when I pushed down rather hard on the gas; bass response was lean and well defined but there wasn’t enough meat on the ribs to satisfy with Tool, Metallica, or Holst.

The Rotel A12MKII was on its way back to the folks in Japan but I did manage to spend 3 days listening to this combination; the NAD and Rotel are similar amplifiers but the additional 20 watts and grip on the bottom made a considerable difference.

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The AE100 MKII sound more balanced than their predecessor with excellent resolution across the board and a very punchy midrange. I also prefer this new tweeter which is more detailed, and very open sounding; it’s also slightly hard sounding if you don’t get the amplifier correct.

Because I’m a sadist, I connected the AE100 MKIIs to my Cambridge Edge A Integrated Amplifier and while nobody is driving these affordable bookshelf loudspeakers with a $6,500 amplifier — the experience illuminated a few things about its performance that I plan on delving further into over the next month or so.

Acoustic Energy AE100 MKII Bookshelf Speakers in White
Acoustic Energy AE100 MKII

The AE100 MKII strikes a really good balance in the bass; Acoustic Energy have wisely chosen to focus on speed and definition.

The midrange is definitely on the lively side and you can hear it with every vocal track; Amy Winehouse, Ella Fitzgerald, P.J. Harvey, and Sarah Vaughan all come across with a lot of energy and some bite.

The treble presentation changes quite a bit with proper positioning; I preferred their top end performance and overall tonal balance with the speaker pointed almost straight ahead into the room.

The imaging and soundstage performance is surprising at the price point; soundstage width is excellent and I found the imaging to be quite precise. The AE100 MKIIs do rather well in the near field but resist the urge to angle them inward at your listening position; the treble will almost immediately draw attention to itself and take away from its otherwise open and clean sounding presentation.

The AE100 MKII are engaging to say the least but you need to follow a few rules with them; neutral to warm sounding amplifier, very little or zero toe-in, and placement slightly closer to the wall to help augment the low end which benefits from some boundary reinforcement.

I look forward to trying some $1,000 integrated amplifiers with them in August to help create another installment of the “Audiophile System Builder” with a total system price of under $3,000 which will include a turntable and network streamer.

The Acoustic Energy AE100 MKII need some careful system matching but they are very strong performers at the price and an excellent option for a den or office if you need to place loudspeakers on a wall unit or bookshelf.

Specifications

  • Drive Unit: 130mm (5.1″) paper cone
  • Tweeter: 25mm (1″) fabric dome
  • Frequency Range: 51Hz – 26kHz
  • Sensitivity: 87dB
  • Peak SPL: 112dB
  • Power Handling: 120w
  • Crossover Frequency: 2.9kHz
  • Impedance: 6ohms
  • Design: 2-way
  • Grilles: Slim, cloth magnetic fit
  • Dimensions: 290 x 165 x 250 (HxWxD)
  • Weight: 9.2kg (pair)
  • Finishes: Satin Black, Satin White and Walnut vinyl veneer

Where to buy: $399/pair at Essence

Related reading: Acoustic Energy AE109 MK2 and AE120 MK2 Floorstanding Loudspeakers

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