A teaser article here set the scene for the three active speakers we’re currently enjoying. The Acoustic Energy AE1 Active, Triangle AIO Twin and PSB Alpha iQ all sport inbuilt amplifiers. To which the  Triangle and PSB add streaming smarts to give a complete system in two boxes. A refreshing change for my lounge at least.  

That does tie you into the specific streamer, DAC and pre-amplifier though. With just analogue inputs the £1,050 / US$1,799 / €1,300 AE1 Active gives you the freedom to choose the source you want (not forgetting the need for volume control). 

Come time to upgrade it’s easier too. Sure you can use the inputs on the AIO Twin and Alpha iQ to hook in external kit. That means parking the internal electronics you’ve already paid for though, something of a waste. No such problem with the AE1 Active, swap and change your source at will. Whilst retaining the key benefit of closely-matched power amplifiers and speaker drivers. It’s an attractive approach. 

Build / looks

The AE1 Active is aesthetically attractive too, the rounded edges giving it a sleek look that’s only accentuated by the gloss finish. The review pair was Piano Black, with Piano White is also available. Or pay £210 / US$300 / €200 more for Piano Walnut. Build quality is up there, you’d be happy with it on a £5k speaker. The only minor blip is both units needing power and input cables on the rear, undermining the looks slightly.

AE1 Active

What you get

Each AE1 Active contains two 50W / 4Ω amplifiers, one for the tweeter, one for the mid/bass driver. That’s not a lot of power per se (around 30W / 8Ω),  but there are four of them. And in practise, the speakers go plenty loud enough. The surprise is the amplifiers being Class A/B, not the newer/smaller/cooler Class D (A/B is generally better at this price level).  

The mid/bass driver is a 125mm unit made from spun aluminium, which makes it stiff and light and reduces break-up modes. A new 27mm in-house tweeter has a Wide Dispersion Technology (WDT) waveguide to improve imaging. Plus a metal cover to ward off prying fingers (yes, you Harriet!) 

Each speaker has a slotted port on its rear to enhance bass, helping it go lower. And boy can it move air, check out the boogying Dracaena! Rear ports generally mean you need to watch speaker positioning, close to the wall can mess with the sound. That wasn’t too much of an issue with the AE1 Active though. 

Choose from balanced (XLR) or single-ended (RCA) inputs – one or the other, they’re not switchable. Balanced sounded marginally better, there was a bit more air, a bit more zing to it. But, the differences weren’t huge, and my source equipment dictated single-ended for the review.

As noted, you need an input and power cable to each speaker. Unlike some actives (e.g. Triangle’s AIO Twin) you don’t need a cable between the AE1 Actives.

Round the back of each speaker are a power switch, master gain control and EQ settings. Gain is ‘set-once-and-forget’. Most people will max it out. If your source has a high output you may want to reduce gain slightly – useful flexibility. The EQ allows +/- 2dB variations in both bass and treble. Cutting bass was useful when using the AE1 Active closer to a wall. I left the treble flat at all times. Your preferences may vary

Missing is a subwoofer output. A shame, it would have been fun to try. If that’s important to you then pair the AE1 Actives with a pre-amp with subwoofer output. Something like Bluesound’s Node. 

Finally speaker grills are provided and look good. They undermine the sound though, play with them off. No problem, being magnetic its easy to attach them between sessions. 

That’s a lot of words for what are essentially straightforward devices – power amplifiers mated to good standmount speakers. Done well this approach can last for years. No surprise that the AE1 Active has remained unchanged in its 5 years (and counting) of production.

How to use the AE1 Active  

At it’s simplest your phone / laptop plus a dongle-DAC could complete the system. I got good results with an Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt and my phone (the latter handling volume). Even better with Audirvana software on a laptop feeding either the Dragonfly (Audirvana handling volume) or an iFi Zen DAC V2 (with its own volume knob).  

Alternatively hook a turntable into the AE1 Actives, not forgetting a phono stage and something to handle volume.

For the review I settled on NAD’s new CS1 streamer (£299, review coming). It has a DAC, so connected directly to the AE1 Active. It’s Roon Ready – my normal ride – so that handled volume. And the CS1 sounded pretty close to the PSB Alpha iQ’s inbuilt DAC & streamer, allowing meaningful comparison. Game on!

Positioning

The AE1 Active proved flexible on positioning. 10cm from the wall, with bass set to -2dB, the soundstage didn’t collapse as it often can. Bass was a little bloated but still good given the speaker’s position. Overall there was a thickening of the sound, things sounding a little congested. But, it still sounded good. 

That was with the speakers on Atacama NeXXus Essentials stands (review here). Moving the speakers to the coffee table between the speakers also worked far better than anticipated. 

On stands with the speakers 30cm from the wall, the sound opened up, the congestion disappeared, as did bass bloat (I kept the -2dB bass cut). An evening of listening like this had me thinking I could live with this room-friendly setup. 

Moving everything further out – 60cm from the wall – showed what the AE1 Active was truly capable of. When treated like an audiophile speaker (I used Isoacoustics Mini-Pucks as well) the AE1 Actives really delivered. That was how I listened for most of the review. 

So how do they sound? 

Maybe because of their size, I was expecting clarity at the expense of richness. A sound focused on extracting detail at the expense of other characteristics. Not how I prefer my bread buttered. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong; the sound was filled out to just the right degree, with lovely texture alongside a good level of detail. Indeed the AE1 Active put in a beautifully balanced performance overall, absolutely acing the do-no-harm maxim. 

The speakers sounded much bigger than they looked. In part because bass went lower than expected, helping create a large and deep soundstage. One where well recorded music sounded realistic, the sense of being there was strong. Which for me is what characterises a good system.  

Take the first track from Open Spaces by Garth Knox & The Ragazze Quartet. Avantgarde string quartet music that won’t be to everyone’s taste. The realism of the performance is striking though, the AE1 Actives putting the performers right in front of me to a degree they had no right to. I genuinely did a mental double-take, was it really the AE1 Actives playing?

The dynamics were good too. Not as quick as, say, horn speakers, which excel in this area. But the AE1 Active still managed to deliver large swings very effectively. Surprising given its size. 

Bass seemed deeper than the -6dB at 42Hz spec suggested. It was taught. Also expansive on large scale organ works or acoustic double bass. And ambient music such as Secret Life from Fred Again & Brian Eno fared well, the bass swirling around my feet like a fog. Oh and heft was impressive too, Grace Jones’ “This Is” (Hurricane) hitting hard, as it should. No doubt a subwoofer would add to the party. The lack of one didn’t leave me wanting.

The level of detail the AE1 Active presented was good. On my go-to torture track (“Great Gig In The Sky”, David Gilmour, Live in Pompeii) the three vocalists were differentiated really well. Although that other stalwart – “Enter Sandman” from Metallica – sounded more comfortable, less bright, than it normally does. Hinting that maybe the AE1 Active’s treble is rolled off slightly (it was certainly kind to poor recordings). Audiophile’s may sniff, I didn’t.  

Overall the performance of the AE1 Active belied both its price and its size. Its sonic character is similar to my main system. Were I to downsize I’d be sorely tempted by the AE1 Active. 

With vinyl

Playing a good mid-range turntable through the AE1 Active worked really well. I used a Pro-ject Debut Carbon EVO turntable with Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge. Phono stage was Pro-ject’s Phono Box S2 Ultra, with a Schiit Jotunheim acting as a pre-amp (a shame few phono stages have volume control). 

“Katrina” by Hans Theessink (from Slow Train) laments the impact of the hurricane on New Orleans. It’s a great recording and my pressing is a good one (Pro-ject’s 180g version). Compared to the CS1 (also played through the Schiit) the analogue sound filled out slightly more, there was marginally better detail retrieval. It had greater presence too, the musicians sounding more lifelike. 

The differences weren’t huge, both analogue and digital sounded great. And plugging the CS1 directly into the AE1 Actives brought it’s performance up. Vinyl fans might want to take a listen to the AE1 Actives though.

Comparison: Q Acoustics M20 HD (£399)

The M20 HD and AE1 Active take the same sonic approach, initially sounding similar. Closer listening showed the AE1 Active to be a distinct step up though. Treble in particular was better, leading to an airier sound with more detail. That manifested itself in the acoustic space the AE1 Active created, which was more believable. Bass was deeper and more taut than the M20 HD. Midrange clarity benefited too, the M20 HD sounding slightly thicker in comparison. 

Think of the two speakers as 8 and 10 year old siblings, both excelling at sport, the 10 year old performing even better thanks to the extra 2 years. Both should be celebrated, as it is with these two speakers. You might ask if the AE1 Active is worth well over twice the cost of the M20 HD. For me it is. 

Comparison: PSB Alpha iQ (£1,299)

A full review of the PSB active speakers will follow shortly. At this stage I’ll just say that a) the Alpha iQ and AE1 Actives sound rather similar to each other and b) that size counts (the Alpha iQ is tiny). So yes the AE1 Active bests its smaller friend with a bigger, more dynamic sound. It’s not night and day though; choosing between them may well be driven by functionality rather than sound quality.  

Comparison: HiFi separates

Enter a Marantz PM6006 amplifier and Elac Debut B6.2 speakers, two-thirds the price of the AE1 Active. The streamer was the same NAD CS1, but tonally things were very different. The separates focused on the mid and upper frequencies, a trait of the amplifier. The AE1 Actives sounded more balanced across the spectrum. Each approach is valid, it’s down to preferences.

Allowing for all of that, the AE1 Actives put in a far more assured performance. They focused me on the music. Through the separates I was distracted by the sound at times. The AE1 Actives presented a notably bigger soundstage. Bass depth and tautness was similar but the actives had more upper bass, which rounded the sound out more. Mid and treble performance was more refined through the AE1 Actives as well. Basically, game set and match to them. 

Swapping the amplifier to a £1,700 Gold Note PA-10 reversed that finding – the separates triumphed (at twice the price of the AE1 Active).

Could you assemble separates that sound as good as the AE1 Active for the same price? Possibly, although I don’t think it would be easy. A challenge some audiophiles would relish. Those of us more focused on the end result will welcome the elegance and simplicity of the AE1 Actives though.

Conclusions

The AE1 Actives left me wanting for nothing. True, if you spend more (wisely) you can get even better sound quality. But, the little Acoustic Energy speaker delivered a big slug of my expensive system’s sound quality for a tenth of its cost. 

Add in the convenience factors – flexible positioning, fewer boxes, potential longevity – and you have a very tempting proposition indeed. 

£1,050 is hardly beer money. Speakers make the most difference in a system though, so splashing out on them is eminently sensible. And if budget is tight just use cost-effective digital source components for a super sounding system.

In assessing the AE1 Actives I threw the audiophile test book at them (witness this review’s length). They came through singing, leaving this listener both impressed and rather attached to them. Hence them receiving our very first HiFi Starter Editor’s Choice award, reserved for the very best of beginner HiFi. Thoroughly deserved!