Acoustic Energy AE22 Passive Monitor (Hi-Fi+)

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Acoustic Energy AE22
Acoustic Energy AE22 Passive Monitor (Hi-Fi+)

Of the two longest standing jokes in the music/professional recording industry, one definitely involves variations on a theme regarding drummers. The other could well be the one that concerns the Yamaha NS10 loudspeaker; rarely has a product achieved the iconic status of ‘industry standard’ in quite the fashion that this little black box has. Often derided for its brash and headache inducing sound quality – part of the aforementioned joke involves the use of toilet paper to cover the tweeter – it has still managed to become the most common loudspeaker in recording studios the world over. The reason comes down to the fact that as a tool for monitoring it provides an incisive and unflattering window on a mix that is ruthlessly revealing of problems, while still managing to provide a framework or balance that translates well to other systems; once that is you have compensated for the acerbic top end delivery. From a technical viewpoint, its only fairly recently that the secret to the Yamaha’s success has been revealed; compared to most other near-field monitors in its class it has exceptionally low distortion together with a very well behaved time domain response, which goes a long way towards explaining its popularity within the professional recording industry. Interestingly, the NS10 was originally introduced some thirty years ago – as a hi-fi loudspeaker! It was from the opposite end of the range topped by the spectacular NS1000. And you thought Beryllium drive units were new?

With the NS10 no longer in production, the market for near-field monitors (and I use the term loosely) is saturated with products from an enormous number of manufacturers. But what sets the AE22 apart from the competition is that it would appear to be the only one that has set out to analyse and expand on the attributes that made the Yamaha so successful. Whereas most products seem intent on producing as much bass as possible and hang the quality, designer Phil Ward has engineered the 22 for low distortion, together with a clean time decay response – rather than generating huge amounts of flabby and under-damped bottom end. To that end, the AE22 is a medium sized, infinite baffle box, specifically engineered to work on top of the meter bridge of a mixing desk. The two-way design employs a version of the Vifa ring radiator tweeter (with a heat-sinked, rare-earth magnet) coupled to an impressively engineered custom 8” bass-mid unit. This metal coned driver employs a cast chassis with a short voice-coil, long gap motor system – more expensive than the conventional arrangement but with considerable benefits in terms of distortion. Finished in a textured black, the cabinet features a moulding around the tweeter that is both distinctive and adds an air of individuality to the aesthetics. Sensitivity is quoted at 87 dB. Acoustic Energy suggests amplification of 70 Watts or more, which figures when you are dealing with uncompressed signal straight from the mixing desk.

The AE22 has already achieved a certain amount of success within the pro industry, where a number of major recording studios have adopted it over and above the in-house NS10’s; they have also proved a success with a number of big name engineers. They tend toward a lively, bright presentation. No real surprise as they have been engineered with a mild lift between 300 Hz and 3 kHz. Bass is undoubtedly dry, but very even with a gentle roll off. Positioned on top of a mixing desk they sound considerably less muddy at the bottom-end than most other similarly sized monitors that I have tried. It is this overall sense of ‘cleanliness’ that epitomises the sound of the AEs, which combined with the forward character produces a very direct sound with real speed and snap when it comes to dynamics; this is all the more noticeable due to the lack of overhang and confusion at lower frequencies. They can, and frequently do lay a mix right open, with the result that it is easy to hear subtle differences between for example, types of reverb. While editing say, a vocal track, the sheer lucid clarity is a real help when it comes to fine adjustments. Unfortunately the open and revealing nature will work both ways, as they are discerning of the amplification used to drive them, sometimes a difficult concept to get across in the recording studio. While the power requirement is not usually an issue in such environments, quality often is and I have heard the 22s squealing like a pair of stuck pigs on the end of one of the many ‘budget’ pro amps that are available. But driven by something which possesses a degree of refinement (the Bryston SST series and the Naim NAP 250 Pro have been great successes) the AE22s manage to really hit the mark, providing an extremely detailed yet listenable view of work in progress.

Impressive though they are, these attributes do not necessarily make for an easy listening hi-fi loudspeaker. Out of the studio, their forwardness might prove a little too much, but placing them hard against the wall redresses their balance quite effectively, and having used them extensively for work projects I thought it would be interesting to try them in my listening room. Clearly, you should steer clear of bright source components or amplification, or the result will be too relentless for comfortable listening. But a recent requirement to reassess some vintage valve amplification led to some interesting results. A refurbished Radford STA25 working particularly well, producing a well-balanced sound that was articulate, very detailed and extremely fast.

The AE22 was never intended as a domestic loudspeaker, but for certain applications, where for example the speakers have to be positioned close against a wall, they provide a lively and very dynamic performance that can offer an interesting alternative to some of the more popular options when it comes to hi-fi loudspeakers. In engineering terms they represent really good value for money and they certainly have a striking appearance. Just don’t ask for them in a wood veneer…

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