PLAYBACK 22: Acoustic Energy Radiance 5.1-Channel Speaker System

PLAYBACK 22: Acoustic Energy Radiance 5.1-Channel Speaker System

Founded in 1987, the British firm Acoustic Energy was put on the map with the 1988 release of its AE1 studio monitor—a relatively compact stand-mount speaker targeted toward the professional audio community, but that quickly won the hearts, minds and ears of audiophiles. Early on, the AE1 earned a reputation for accuracy, effortless clarity, three-dimensional imaging, and for its ability to handle power, and the rest, as they say, is history. In fact, a version of the AE1, which has now evolved to become the AE1 MkIII SE, continues to be manufactured and sold today. Good though the AE1 was and still is in modern-day form, however, one catch is that it is a relatively expensive product and one that requires a fair amount of power to drive effectively—both being factors that make the AE1-series less than ideal for use in surround sound applications.

Over the years, Acoustic Energy has gone on to create more affordable ranges of speakers, such as its Aelite and Aegis-series models, but what plainly was needed was a range that at once combined many of the sonic virtues of the AE1 monitors, yet that was fairly easy to drive and more affordable to own. AE’s new Radiance lineup exactly fills that bill. As AE’s Radiance Web information puts it, “Designed as no-compromise, high-end loudspeaker range for both stereo and home-theatre applications, in creating the Radiance Series we have gone ‘back to our roots’.”

I got my first introduction to the Radiance range at the 2009 CES Expo and have been anticipating doing this review ever since. The test system we have assembled consists of a pair of Radiance 2 floorstanders ($2000/pair) as main speakers, a Radiance Centre center-channel speaker ($800), a pair of Radiance 1 stand-mount monitors as surround speakers ($1200/pair), and a 200-watt Radiance Subwoofer ($1200), for a manageable—though by no means cheap—system price of $5200. How does the Radiance system compare to other offerings in its price class? Read on.  


Consider this system if: you want a surround speaker system that is accurate (as in, neutrally voiced), highly articulate, and dynamically expressive. Consider this system, too, if you like the idea of a speaker system that sounds much bigger than it looks. Though not particularly flashy or ostentatious, the Radiance speakers are very well made, as a close and careful examination of their cabinetry will reveal.

Look elsewhere if: you absolutely, positively require a system that presents a surround sound image directly at ear level. Because the Radiance floorstanders are comparatively short in stature—just 36” tall—they tend to throw an image that falls slightly below ear level. On the other hand, compact enclosure dimensions are part of the Radiance system’s “big sounds from small boxes” appeal.

Ratings (relative to comparably-priced surround speaker systems)

  • Transparency and Focus: 9
  • Imaging and Soundstaging: 8
  • Tonal Balance: 9
  • Dynamics: 9
  • Bass Extension: 9
  • Bass Pitch Definition: 9
  • Bass Dynamics: 9
  • Value: 9


Acoustic Energy touts four signature technologies that set the Radiance models apart:

  • Curved-wall, acoustically braced cabinets with bass reflex loading (except for the subwoofer, which is a sealed cabinet/acoustic suspension design).
  • Aluminum low frequency and low frequency/midrange drives (driver technology similar to that used in the modern-day AE1 MkIII SE).
  • Ring-radiator tweeters (technology also used in the AE1 MkIII SE).
  • DXT lens—a distinctive, patented tweeter waveguide that uses multiple diffraction edge surfaces, each positioned a frequency-specific distance from the tweeter, to “match the way high frequencies are dispersed into the room environment to that of the mid/bass driver.” The result, says Acoustic Energy, is a “far more natural integration than has previously been possible in a conventional cone speaker, both between the drivers and in the listening room itself.”


One of the first and most lasting impressions created by the Radiance system is that it has a certain effortless and tightly focused way of presenting low-level transient and textural details—details that many other systems seem to gloze over, losing desirable bits and pieces of sonic information in the process. But what’s equally impressive is that the Radiance speakers retrieve and reproduce details without exaggerated etching, false “spotlighting,” or upturned treble response. True, the Radiance speakers did seem somewhat overly crisp straight out of the box, but as they accumulated playing time they smoothed out nicely and became, if anything, even more open sounding. Tonal balance is pleasingly neutral.

Another important aspect of the system is that, above and beyond what the individual speakers’ sensitivity ratings might suggest, the Radiance speakers are quite easy to drive, so that they consistently yield vigorous and expressive (yet not overblown) dynamics, and without overtaxing amplifiers or receivers. While the Radiance speakers are certainly refined enough to reveal subtle qualitative differences between associated components, they are by no means “fussy” about the amplifiers or AVRs used to drive them. For example, I used Rotel’s RSX-1550 75wpc A/V receiver (see my Playback issue 21 review by clicking on this link:—a sweet sounding but not terribly powerful unit—during my Radiance system tests, and the combination gave excellent results.

Finally, I found the Radiance sub an unexpected delight. It combines three virtues I’m not used to hearing—at least not in such a refined form—from subs in this price class. Those virtues include the ability to go low, to play loudly when the situation requires, and, most importantly, to deliver an extremely taut and well-defined sound. Bass pitch definition is astonishingly good. When you first unpack the Radiance Sub it seems well made yet almost self-effacing in its appearance. But looks, here, are deceiving; within a few minutes of firing up the Radiance Sub, you realize that its performance is very special indeed. The real glory of this sub is that it produces a hearty yet not “bass heavy” sound that is unexpectedly rich in nuance and that is capable of impressive transient speed. I attribute these qualities, in part, to Acoustic Energy’s decision to use a sealed-box, rather than a reflex-loaded, subwoofer enclosure.

I noted only a small handful of drawbacks with the system, and they are minors ones. First, there can be moments—usually experienced on hard, sharp transient sounds—where the tweeter/DXT lens assemblies momentarily tug at your ears, disrupting the system’s ordinarily smooth and coherent imaging. Second, because the Radiance main speakers main speakers are short in stature (just 36” tall), they tend to throw an image that falls somewhat below ear level. But frankly, neither of these small flaws does much to undercut the system’s many positive qualities.


Sonic clarity, at its best, shouldn’t be a quality that draws attention to itself; rather, clarity should simply be present in a natural and unforced way, which is what happens when we hear richly textured sounds in real life. So it is with the Radiance system. To hear what is so right about this system, just try listening to the “Protecting Interests” chapter from Inside Man, where well-connected power broker Madeleine White (Jodie Foster) gets permission to enter an active crime scene to conduct a private negotiation with an ostensible bank robber, Dalton Russell (Clive Owen). White and Russell conduct their conversation at night in the darkened main lobby of the old-school downtown bank that Russell is robbing—a space with high, vaulted ceilings, marble floors, and paneled walls. The Radiance system renders White and Russell’s conversation, which is conducted in soft tones of voice just barely above a whisper level, with pitch-perfect clarity and dialogue intelligibility. But what’s even more impressive is the way the Radiance system captures the very soft and subtle reverberations of the actor’s voices echoing within the lobby. An interesting experiment I tried was to listen to the scene with my eyes closed. When I did, I found myself picturing a space almost exactly the size of the lobby shown, and one that has hard, acoustically reflective surfaces just as the lobby does. In short, the Radiance system helps myriad small sonic details coalesce to produce superior realism.

But this system can also sound extremely full-bodied and dynamically authoritative when the situation warrants. Drawing another example from Inside Man, listen to the film score’s boisterous opening song, a variation on the Indian-themed “Chaiyya Chaiyya”, unfold during the opening chapter “Who, What, Where, When, Why.” The song juxtaposes high-pitched Indian percussion, wind, and string instruments against both male and female vocals, with prodigiously loud and intensely modulated rhythmic pulses from bass synthesizers underpinning the entire mix. The Radiance system not only renders this complicated song with great clarity, but also presents it with an exuberant kind of dynamic swagger few systems this size or price can match.  


Acoustic Energy describes its Radiance speakers as being equally well suited for playing music as for reproducing movie soundtracks—something that, in my experience, is easier said than done. But happily the Radiance system not only “talks the talk,” but also “walks the walk.” To give the system a thorough workout, I tried it first on some revealing 2-channel material and then on good multichannel recordings.

First up was the lovely track “Senia’s Lament” from Jerry Douglas’ Lookout for Hope [Sugar Hill, SACD]. Over time I’ve come to regard this track as a bellwether recording of sorts, because it can sound rich, warm, and gloriously full-bodied when reproduced properly, but thin, edgy, and a little shrill on equipment that doesn’t make the grade. Fortunately, the Radiance system did a great job with Douglas’ solo dobro, showing how the instrument, which is played with a slide, carves swooping, soaring, incisive lines with the precision of a scalpel. Yet the Radiance speakers never fell into the sonic trap that ensnares so many speaker systems on this cut; namely, the tendency to make the dobro sound overly “jangly,” glassy or hard-edged. Frankly, getting this track to sound right—and it certainly did sound right through the Radiance system—requires speakers that can deliver a full measure of detail, yet without overemphasizing or etching the edges of notes. What also helped the overall presentation was the rich, sumptuous sound the system revealed in Viktor Krauss’s acoustic bass accompaniment and in Larry Atamanuik’s tasteful percussion work and judiciously placed kick drum accents. On very good systems, “Senia’s Lament” can take on an intensely evocative and almost larger-than-life sound, which is exactly what I heard through the Radiance system.

Next, I played a track many listeners regard as an old favorite: Rebecca Pidgeon’s rendition of the Phil Spector classic “Spanish Harlem,” from Pidgeon’s The Raven [Chesky, multichannel SACD]. At its best, this track should be rendered with a delicate, lilting, almost “liquid” quality that allows Pidgeon’s voice to break free from the speakers and to float, as if on a pillow of air, at the center of the stage. Here, I felt, the Acoustic Energy tweeter/DXT lens system really demonstrated its worth; the Radiance main speakers let me hear the treble textures and subtle inflections in Pidgeon’s voice, as well as the elusive, reverberant cushion of air surrounding the voice—all without ever sounding excessively bright or in any way overwrought. What is more, the system did a fine job of capturing the deep yet tautly defined sound of David Finck’s gently syncopated acoustic bass lines—lines that in a very real sense give the song its rhythmic foundation and pulse. My past experience has been that some systems are able to get the depth and weight of the bass right, but that they smear its textures just enough to make it sound a bit muddy. But not so the Radiance Sub; it showed the power of the bass while at the same time letting me hear the higher register textures and sonic details that help define the instrument’s deep, complex, woody voice. 


The Acoustic Energy Radiance system earned our respect, partly because of the many things it does well, but also because of the sonic pitfalls it manages to avoid. Strengths include the ability to deliver good measures of detail and textural nuance, articulate mids, and potent yet well-defined bass, while also serving up expressive dynamics. At the same time, the system consistently avoids sounding edgy, overwrought, or boomy and overblown. Together, these qualities add up to a sound that is clear and rich, with fine natural warmth and well-focused imaging. The Radiance system offers good value for money and produces a “big” sound from mid-sized speakers that, while certainly attractive and well made, are compact enough that they tend not to draw too much attention to themselves.


Acoustic Energy Radiance 2 2.5-way reflex-loaded floorstander

Driver complement: One 1.5-inch Neodymium Ring Radiator tweeter with DXT lens, one 5.12-inch pressed aluminum alloy mid/bass driver, one 5.12-inch pressed aluminum alloy bass driver
Frequency response: 45Hz–45kHz, ± 3dB
Sensitivity: 89 dB

Impedance: 8 ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD): 36” x 7.3” x 9.8”
Weight: 35.27 lb/each
Warranty: 5 years on passive components
Price: $2000/pair

Acoustic Energy Radiance Centre 2,5-way reflex-loaded center channel speaker

Driver complement: As for Radiance 2, above
Frequency response: 55Hz–45kHz, ± 3dB
Sensitivity: 88 dB
Impedance: 8 ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD): 7.3” x 17.7” x 11.7”
Weight: 17.64 lb/each
Warranty: 5 years on passive components
Price: $800/each

Acoustic Energy Radiance 1 2-way reflex-loaded stand-mount monitor

Driver complement: One 1.5-Inch Neodymium Ring Radiator tweeter with DXT lens, one 5.12-inch pressed aluminum alloy mid/bass driver
Frequency response: 50Hz–45kHz, ± 3dB
Sensitivity: 88 dB

Impedance: 8 ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD): 12.6” x 7.3” x 9.8”
Weight: 17.64 lb/each
Warranty: 5 years on passive components
Price: $1200/pair

Acoustic Energy Radiance powered subwoofer

Driver complement: 8.66-inch pulp cone long-throw woofer with 1.89-inch thermally bonded voice coil
Integrated amplifier power: 200W
Dimensions (HxWxD): 14.69” x 16.25” x 17.5”
Weight: 37.48 lbs./each
Warranty: 5 years on passive components, 1 year on amplifier
Price: $1200/each

Total System Price: $5200


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