If you’ve been following you’ll know we’ve just finished three active speaker reviews. First the Acoustic Energy AE1 Active, followed by the PSB Alpha iQ and then the Triangle AIO Twin. All three are great speakers. Doing the reviews back to back teased out their relative strengths, which we thought worth summarising. We also managed to borrow the Q Acoustics M20 HD again to add a fourth data point.
The key finding? There’s no overall winner, the best speaker depends on your needs. So let’s go through the main factors that differentiate them, helping you choose the right one for you.
The group handily divides into two main price brackets centred around £600 and £1,300 (for a complete system). So one is roughly double the other.
- Pairing the Q Acoustics M20 HD with a Wiim Mini streamer will cost you £500. The Triangle AIO Twin comes as a complete package for £700.
- Similarly the PSB Alpha iQ is a complete solution for £1,300. Or use the analogue output of a NAD CS1 into the AE1 Active for a total price of £1,350.
You can of course pair the M20 HD and AE1 Active with better sources. The AE1 Active lapped up my Pro-ject Stream Box S2 Ultra & Mytek Liberty II. At more sensible prices – circa £700 – the Bluesound Node X or the FiiO R7 look tempting (Darko reviews here and here). The WiiM and NAD make an excellent starting point though.
Complete system or BYO source?
All of which highlights another key difference. The Triangle and PSB speakers are all-in-ones, with everything you need built into the two speakers. The approach is more convenient, a phrase normally involving a degree of compromise on sound quality. Not so here, the Alpha iQ and AIO Twin’s streaming platforms (BluOS and Linkplay) are excellent.
The AE1 Active and M20 HD require a source. One with a DAC in the case of the AE1 Active, which only has analogue inputs. This ‘separates’ approach might be more flexible in the long run, you’re not tied to the internal streamer. Just swap the source over. Although you could of course add an external source to the all-in-ones if you don’t mind parking their internal electronics (whoever said this was straightforward?!)
Both the Alpha iQ and AIO Twin have Moving Magnet phono inputs for hooking up a turntable. The AIO Twin’s sounded great, giving little if anything to the digital side of the system. With the Alpha iQ its digital quality was a little better than the phono side.
Hooking up an external phono stage to the M20 HD is eminently feasible.
Ditto the AE1 Active, but the phono stage would need volume control and that’s not common at any price. The alternative being a fully-fledged pre-amplifier (with phono stage) to drive the speakers. Fine sonically, the AE1 Active is good enough to front better electronics. It would probably bust the HiFi Starters’ £2,000 system limit though.
Only the PSB Alpha iQ has e-ARC HDMI input, the best way of connecting your TV. The AIO Twin & M20 HD do have opticals input that will work. With the AE1 Active any TV connection would have to come from the source you’re using with it.
This one’s simple. If you need a diminutive speaker go for the Alpha iQ, it’s notably smaller than the others. Which opens up possibilities. Size-wise it’s perfect for the desktop, if slightly hampered by the lack of a (computer) USB input. Turn both speakers on their sides for a soundbar replacement. Or sit the Alpha iQ on bookshelves, where they fit much better than the others. Bedroom / student systems are also a natural habitat.
As a main system the Alpha iQ is also less obtrusive, particularly if used close to a wall (which the flexible equalisation of BluOS facilitates).
If your sole metric is sound quality then the batting order is: –
- Acoustic Energy AE1 Active (with NAD CS1 streamer)
- PSB Alpha iQ
- Q Acoustics M20 HD (with WiiM Mini)
- Triangle AIO Twin
The PSB Alpha iQ is only a little behind the AE1 Active, so other factors such as size may well prevail. And whilst the gap between the M20 HD and AIO Twin is bigger it’s still not huge. All four speakers deliver a level of sound quality that should delight the HiFi Starter.
As a BluOS noob I was impressed with the streaming platform; it lived up to high expectations. The Linkplay streaming platform was also excellent, confirming what I found when reviewing the WiiM streamers (Linkplay’s in-house brand).
Subwoofers may not be absolutely necessary with small active speakers but playing them with the REL was like Stormzy gatecrashing your already-banging party; wicked. Nor was the TZero III just a mini bass-monster, it’s ability to open up the soundstage as impressive (& surprising) as ever (the REL review should surface in early July).
And that’s about it on the key differences. All four speakers look good; no doubt personal preferences will come into play. They’re all well built too, I can’t see anyone having complaints at either of the two price levels.
All have a useful degree of equalisation built in to help with positioning. And all sound genuinely great. As a HiFi Starter all those years ago I’d love to have had this level of sound quality and functionality available to me. ”You’ve never had it so good” as British Prime Minister Harold McMillan once famously said about HiFi. With more active speakers coming to the market by the month it seems consumers agree. We’ll keep abreast of developments and try to review ones of interest to the Hi Fi Starter.