Acoustic Energy 301 Loudspeaker - Metal Master (Part 1)

4/27/2013 4:48:11 PM

Acoustic Energy’s 301 is a budget stand mount that unusually employs spun alloy cones. James Michael Hughes hears its genius…

Just over twenty years ago, Acoustic Energy launched its original AE-1 loudspeaker to considerable acclaim. It quickly earned a reputation as one of the best compact near-field monitors you could buy, establishing the credentials of the brand. The AE-1 continues to this day as the AE-1 Classic, but for those with less to spend AE offer their 3 Series.

This new range consists of the 305 floor stander, the 301 compact, plus 307 center speaker, and 308 subwoofer. Clearly the intention is to plant a foot in both purist hi-fi and home theatre camps. The 301 can be used as a compact high-fidelity speaker in its own right, or as a rear channel speaker (with 305s upfront) in a surround set-up.

Acoustic Energy 301 Loudspeaker

Acoustic Energy 301 Loudspeaker

The 301 is a classic two-way stand mount design that was penned in England but manufactured in China, and very high standards of build quality and finish come as standard. The cabinets are ported (albeit with an unusual wide frontal slot rather than a round hole) and made from 18mm-thick MDF.

It sports a rigid, internally-braced cabinet damped with (what looks like) white synthetic wool. The enclosure feels solid and is very well made. Single wiring (via gold-plated 4mm posts) is offered. A choice of black or white high-gloss lacquer finishes are offered, making the speakers look more expensive than their $660 price tag suggests.

With a quoted sensitivity of 87 dB, you’ll ideally need an amplifier with at least 50W output given a medium to large sized room. True to the brand’s tradition, a simple five-element crossover is employed. In use, the 301s are quite happy being driven with a big amp; AE suggest 150W maximum power handling. But despite medium sensitivity – they’re not too power - hungry. The impedance is nominally around 8 ohms and AE claims it does not fall to below 6 ohms. You’re never going to get flare-flapping levels from a small stand mount such as this, but they’re still go usefully loud!

The 301s are terrific speakers and the most competitive Acoustic Energy speakers we've heard in years

The 301s are terrific speakers and the most competitive Acoustic Energy speakers we've heard in years

Something that distinguished the original AE-1 front its peers was the use of a metal coned bass/mid driver. Most rivals choose paper (often doped), or plastics. Metal has the advantage of being stiffer than traditional materials, and is reasonably light too. But there are always pros and cons, regardless of the material used! The 301 features a 110mm spun aluminum metal coned bass/mid driver, partnered with a 28mm dia fabric-domed tweeter. As with most smallish speakers, deep bass performance is somewhat limited in terms of absolute depth. But the 301s offer clear, defined ‘lows’, I found.

Tonal balance is lucid and fast, the presentation detailed and focused with plenty of bite and attack

Sound quality

Tonal balance is lucid and fast, rather than warm and lush. The presentation is very detailed and focused, with plenty of bite and attack. It’s not an especially rich or beguiling sort of sound, but it is clear and nicely open. Clarity is excellent, with good separation and fast scrisp attack. The treble is incisive, but not overly forward.

Trying a quick blast of Tales from Topographical Oceans by Yes on vinyl, I was impressed with the complex synthesizer lines and heavily-layered voice and guitar parts. The sound was detailed and crisp, but avoided congestion when things got busy. Pitch definition of bass instruments was clear, but the speakers did not create a full bottom end. While this might disappoint some listeners, it’s arguably better to have a clear clean, if somewhat light bass, than something weightier that sounds thick, heavy, and ponderous. You can always add a subwoofer to increase bass depth or weight, of course…

301’s excellent transient attack and lack of congestion ensured that each note remained separate and clear – even in dense complex passages

301’s excellent transient attack and lack of congestion ensured that each note remained separate and clear – even in dense complex passages

Playing the recent Schubert symphonies set with Mark Minkowski on the Naïve label, the sound was lithe and nicely forward. On this recording, massed violins sounded very lucid maybe a touch bright in terms of tonal quality, but not unpleasantly so. The orchestra is placed at a medium/close distance, in a fairly dry acoustic, without much ambience. Most orchestras tend to deliver a leaner more incisive sound than they did (say) thirty years ago (a legacy of the Period Instrument revolution), and that’s what the 301s reflected. Has the lower frequencies been a touch deeper and fuller, the overall balance would have been better, but the end result was still very enjoyable.

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