Second, the P4 delivers quite impressive purity of tonal colors and unusually robust dynamics for a speaker of its size and prize. Many compact speakers have—let’s be honest about this—a sound that seems thin and anemic, with dynamic capabilities that are underwhelming at best. Happily, the P4 has none of these problems (a trait it shares with other Audioengine speaker designs). Instead, it sounds vibrant, alive and engaging. The benefit is that you are able to listen through the P4 without constantly being reminded of its compact size—even on musical pieces that feature large-scale dynamic swells. In practice, this mean that the P4 is more than just a “desktop” speaker, though it of course fills that role quite nicely. Instead, the P4 makes a very serviceable “whole-room” speaker, provided that you listen in a small to perhaps mid-sized space. Naturally, when push comes to shove, there are limits to the absolute output capabilities of any speaker this size; it’s just that those limits seem noticeably less obtrusive in the P4 than in many speakers its size.
Third, the P4 offers surprisingly solid bass output down to a claimed lower frequency roll-off point of 58 Hz. 58 Hz may not sound like much to those who are used to the spectacular specifications of, say, high-performance headphones, but it is very respectable low-frequency extension for a speaker this size. What is more, the P4’s bass output above its low-frequency cutoff point is quite vigorous and punchy so that—for the most part—you typically don’t miss the really deep low-frequency information found in the bottom octave and a half (which, realistically, the P4 cannot reproduce). The P4’s bass voicing is artfully calculated to provide, I suspect, a touch of mid-to-upper bass lift—nothing overblown or boomy, but rather just a dab of emphasis that helps to create the illusion that the P4 can go lower than in fact it really does.
This, by the way, is a time-honored practice that designers of classic mini-monitors (think of the famous Rogers LS3/5A, for example) have been using to good effect for years. The art of the game, of course, lies in figuring out how to enable a small speaker to convey a sense of full-bodied foundational mid-bass (and upper bass), while still providing a presentation that generally sounds neutral and uncolored. Finding that desirable sweet spot in the middle is something the Audioengine team understands better than most, so that what you get with the P4 is a small monitor that offers a good measure of low frequency resolution and pitch definition, yet that sounds more full-bodied than many of its competitors do.
Imaging and Soundstaging: The P4’s imaging and soundstaging can be quite compelling subject, however, to two provisos. First, the speakers need a good 30+ hours or run-in time in order to achieve both optimal bass extension and treble smoothness. Second, the speakers should ideally be driven by very smooth-sounding electronics in order to give of their best. When powered by somewhat somewhat edgy, rough-sounding electronics, the speakers invariably report those rough edges, and imaging and soundstaging will suffer as a result. This doesn’t mean the P4 is finicky, but rather that it is revealing enough to accurately reflect the character of the components with which it is driven. Once these two requirements are met, however, the P4 can cast eerily compelling soundstages. Indeed, I found my brain struggled at times to process what I was both seeing and hearing from the P4’s; my eyes told me the speakers were positioned only about two feet from my desk chair, while my ears told me the soundstage I was enjoying stretched far, far beyond the back wall of my listening space. Pretty cool, no?
To hear the richness, tonal purity, and soundstaging of the P4 in action, try listening to the track “Tumbao No. 5 (Para Charlie Mingus)” from Cachaito [Nonesuch], the debut album from the Latin bassist Orlando Cachaito Lopez. The track captures much of the lively, rich, dark and resonant feel of a beautiful old recording studio in Cuba, so that as you listen to Cachaito and his sidemen play through the P4, you can help be feel yourself transported from your desktop environment to another time and place. In particular, the little P4’s do an amazingly good job with both the earthy yet articulate sound of Lopez’ bass, whose Mingus-like solo statement opens the song. But note what happens a few measures later on, as a Latin percussion ensemble joins the mix. Suddenly, the full depth and width of the soundstage becomes apparent as you hear the team of percussionist spread out in a wide arc, positioned well behind the bassist. Few small speakers can unlock the depth and width dimensions of recordings as effectively as this one can.