Audioengine may not yet be a household name, but the company has years of experience building professional studio monitor speakers designed primarily to reproduce the sound of original recordings. When the company decided to design a speaker system for consumers, it came out with the Audioengine A5, a 2-channel self-powered speaker system that has an understated design, but a dynamic, full-bodied sound that can match speakers twice its price.
The Audioengine A5 is something of a “tweener”—not quite small enough to qualify as a traditional “PC speaker,” yet not quite as big as most bookshelf speakers. However, the Audioengines may turn out to be that just right size in the middle, because they’re compact enough for bigger desktops and well suited to a variety of environments, from an office to a kitchen or living room (and the sound is certainly big enough to fill just about any room in the house). The speakers have a very clean, subtle design with thick high-resin MDF walls, rounded edges, and—in the case of our review samples— a satin black finish that’s a nice contrast to the glossy finishes found on many other speakers these days (though Audioenginedoes offer the A5 in gloss white and a striking bamboo finish as well).
Setting up the system is a snap and only requires wiring a speaker cable from one speaker to the other and then using a 3.5mm minijack cable to patch in your PC, iPod, or other audio source. The left speaker has a builtin amplifier and two 3.5mm input jacks, located on the top and rear of the left speaker. There is also a USB port up top to provide power to whatever USB device you plug in, and a small volume knob down at the base of the speaker. If you want to set up a wireless system, you can buy Audioengine’s add-on W1 Wireless Audio Adapter or use the auxiliary AC power outlet to plug in an Apple AirPort Express device and transmit the tunes from your PC or Mac.
With all the advanced technology built in to these speakers, I found it somewhat surprising to find there was no iPod dock, digital input, or remote control. Call me lazy, or even crazy, but I don’t like to get up and walk across the room just to turn down the volume or pause and advance tracks. However, these omissions aren’t problems at all if you use the A5s as Audioengine perhaps intended— namely, as the core of a killer desktop audio system.
Like many of the small monitor-grade speakers out there, the Audioengines don’t have speaker grills, a trend that I’m warming up to. Not only does this practice show off the driver designs, but it also seems to produce a more open, natural sound. Of course, in this case the big sound might have something more to do with the left speaker’s built-in stereo amp, which pumps out a healthy 50 watts per channel. I took this as a sign to queue up some of the heavier, thrashier albums on my iPod, and promptly put the A5s to work.
I’m normally gun shy about putting hard rock, metal, or industrial music on smaller speakers, but after tuning up the Audioengines with some Rolling Stones, I decided to give some industrial music a spin. On Ministry’s The Last Sucker [13th Planet/Megaforce], the title track starts off with some extra-crunchy and dense guitar and bass, while Al Jourgensen’s hoarse, powerful voice cuts through the mix. The sheer power of the song comes across convincingly on the Audioengines, and the bass response, from the bottom-end to the midrange is impressive for a speaker this size. The 5-inch woofers are made of Kevlar, and there are bass-reflex ports around back that I found could help intensify the bass if I moved the speakers closer to the back wall. When I cranked up the volume, I was pleasantly surprised at how loudly the A5s could play before producing any noticeable distortion.
So, the Audioengines passed the heavy rock test with flying colors, which naturally lead me to wonder how expressive they might be with more subtle acoustic music. To find out, I put on Duke Ellington and John Coltrane [Grp Records]. The track “Take the Coltrane” has a vintage Bird solo running through the song, and his sax had a wonderful texture, tone, and dynamics through the Audioengines. The acoustic bass solo midway through the song revealed the speakers’ tight and powerful midrange bass response, even at low volumes, and all of the instruments had a very “true” sound.
While the Audioengines aren’t designed to be true studio monitors, you can certainly hear the influence of the company’s background in this style of design. The Audioengine A5 system has a more transparent, realistic sound than many other PC/iPod speakers I’ve heard, without the overly warm or bright sound that is sometimes brought into play. Also, while most single-enclosure iPod sound systems have trouble creating a credible soundstage, Audioengine’s two-speaker design here does an excellent job of filling up a room, even when the speakers are spaced only 2–3 feet apart.