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Product Review - Energy Audissey A3+2 Loudspeakers - November, 1998

Paul Knutson

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Energy Audissey A3+2 Loudspeakers (Center Model in Photo)

Ported Enclosure - Two 1" Aluminum Dome Tweeters (One on Front and One on Rear), Three Carbon/Mica Polypropylene 5 1/2" Woofers (Two on Front and One on Rear): Bipolar Configuration (Front and Rear In-Phase)

Manufacturer's FR Specs: 30 Hz - 25 kHz ± 3 dB

Nominal Impedance: 6 Ohms

Power Handling: 30 - 225 Watts RMS

Size: 41" H x 7 1/2" W x 13" D

Weight: 48 Pounds Each

MSRP: $1,200/Pair USA

 

Audio Products International, 3641 McNicoll Avenue, Scarborough, Ontario, Canada M1X 1G5; Phone 416-321-1800; Fax 416-321-1500; E-Mail Jeff Percy; Web http://www.energy-speakers.com/

Remember the concept of how important it is to make a good first impression? Of course you do, especially if you have ever interviewed for a job.

The first impression rule is especially dangerous in audio because of the hit-or-miss proposition of equipment matching. My first impression of the Audissey A3+2s was formed while using my normal reference amplifier, which in this case wasn't nearly as good a match for these exciting new speakers as the next two amps that I used to power the A3+2s. In effect, the A3+2s had three chances to make a first impression on me, and each time the impression improved by one level, with the final speaker/amp combo being one giant step forward. I'm glad I took the time to find the proper match because as it turns out, these speakers really deserve it.

Tech Specs and Design

Energy's chief designer, John Tchilinguirian, has designed the Audissey A3+2s (and other members of the Audissey family of speakers) to utilize what is called "Asymmetrical Bipolar Radiation" (ABR) for imaging and soundstaging capabilities that that go beyond traditional forward-firing or symmetrical bipolar designs. ABR Theory 101 dictates that these speakers use front and rear drivers that radiate in-phase (cones move out of the enclosure at the same time) at different output levels (more output up front, less in back). It is the delicate balancing of these levels and the phase relationships between the various drivers in each speaker that is the heart of ABR technology. I should point out that asymmetrical bipolars are in contrast to symmetrical bipolars which radiate sound equally from the front and the rear.

The ABR technology also reduces what Energy refers to as the unwanted "wraparound effect" of many symmetrical bipolar speakers. To my ears, poorly designed bipolars create an overblown wall of sound that emanates the signal from everywhere it shouldn't. As a result, music simply makes less sense through them. This bad stuff is often exacerbated in typical bipolars if you place them anywhere but way out from room boundaries - not so with the Audissey A3+2. Another stated benefit of the ABR technology is that it allows the speakers to be placed nearer room boundaries without penalty. In a nutshell, the Audissey A3+2s are designed to ameliorate the negative traits associated with the "wraparound effect", while exhibiting the most positive traits of well-designed bipolars.Energy Audissey Speakers Cutaway

The A3+2s use an impressive 25mm (1") aluminum dome tweeter with cloth suspension in a typical tweeter location on the front baffle, as well as a second, identical tweeter on the rear baffle for the bipolar chores. This tweeter was derived from the upscale Veritas line of Energy speakers. Its good breeding is manifest by its performance. To "derive" one tweeter from another usually means to create a similar design, but with a less costly implementation. Derived or not, the Audissey tweeter is a delicate and refined sounding driver. Gosh, what must the Veritas tweeters sound like? (Maybe we should find out with a review!)

The mid-to-bass frequencies are handled by a pair of carbon/mica polypropylene 14cm (5.5") drivers on the front baffle aligned vertically near the middle of the cabinet below the tweeter, and a single driver of the same design on the rear for bipolar output. As impressive as the Audissey tweeters are, these woofer/mid-woofers are really something in their own right. The cutaway diagram on the right shows the larger brother of the 3+2s, with the side-firing subwoofer, but the basic layout is the same.

I am typically a fan of smaller, monitor type speakers. Accordingly, I appreciate what 5.5" drivers do that 10" drivers generally cannot. Likewise, I also understand that a 10" driver can move air that a 5.5" driver can only dream of. I suspect that is why you will find not one, but a pair of these 5.5" drivers on the front panel of the Audissey A3+2. Together, this pair of drivers plus the one on the rear have effective surface area bass radiating capability that is almost that of a single 10" woofer, with the associated benefits of smaller, lighter driver mass (tighter control). That's smart. This whole speaker design strikes me as really smart.

The Audissey A3+2 is rated at 30 Hz to 25 kHz (but no ± dB provided) at a suggested input power of 30 to 225 watts rms. The rated sensitivity is 91 dB (which I think may be a bit generous, although I don't have the equipment to measure it). Impedance is 6 Ohms nominal and 4 Ohms minimum.

Here's Looking at You

There is a sense of style, elegance, and intrigue that the color black imparts that has always appealed to me. The moment I pulled the all-black Audissey A3+2 speakers from their well-packed boxes, I knew I would have no trouble staring at these babies for hours on end. This is a good-looking speaker. Unfortunately, my listening room has an early-American motif going (complete with an abundance of tube audio gear), so the high-tech look of the Audissey was a little out of place. Nonetheless, the speaker is visually appealing, and better to have the black than a clashing color to our other furniture.

The speakers are floor-standing, but not in an imposing sort of way. They take up just over one square foot of floor space (the "footprint") and stand about 40" tall. The speaker has a black base and is covered by a thin, acoustically transparent black "sock" that pulls up over the outside of the speaker and ties with strings at the top. Undoubtedly, this design technique saves money over having to finish all sides of the speaker, but rest assured it doesn't look cheap at all. It's well known that the most expensive aspect of any quality speaker design is the cabinetry, and I applaud Energy's visual design compromises in this area because it allowed them to use excellent tweeter and woofer drivers while maintaining a very affordable price tag. After the "sock" is pulled taught and tied at the top, a gloss-black cap is snapped firmly into place to give the speaker its classy, finished look. The whole process takes about 45 seconds once you pull the speakers out of the box.

Setup and Connections

A pair of gold-plated, 5-way, bi-wire binding posts are found on the back of each speaker. They are of nice quality. I used the bi-wire hookup option during all my listening. I didn't use spikes under the speakers but rather a sorbothane pad between them and my hardwood floors. I don't think this compromised the bass performance in any way (I doubt it), but that was the setup. My listening room is a smallish 10' x 12' with almost 10 foot ceilings and an assortment of modest acoustic treatments.

I played with the setup of these speakers during my audition, and you should too if you want to extract the best performance. Ultimately, I placed them about two feet from the back wall and angled slightly inward a couple degrees. I found the distance from the back wall to have a more significant impact on performance than toe-in angle. The tonal balance was not acutely affected by greater or lesser amounts of toe-in, which indicates good on-axis and off-axis response characteristics.

Before I get to my listening impressions, I just have to make a general statement that the quality of the drivers, other components, construction and overall design is astonishing at this speaker's $1,200 retail price. I wrote this down a couple times in my listening notes.

Matchmaker

As mentioned at the beginning of this review, it took a few tries to match these speakers to an amplifier that extracted the performance of which they are capable. Don't misinterpret that statement and assume the Audissey are a difficult load to drive and finicky to match to an amplifier - they are not, yet if you want the best performance from any component you should always, if possible, try it with various combinations of gear. That's easier to do when you are a reviewer and have a lot of gear to play with, but my advice remains to experiment with different combinations of gear when you can.

Rather than state a long winded list of my findings with the A3+2 speakers using the three different amplifiers I have, I am going to focus my review on the sound of the speakers with the amp that I thought was its best match - the Pass Aleph 3. Before I get to that, however, I'll briefly run through the other amps that I used and why I don't think they were as good a match.

First up was my normal reference amp, a single-ended, triode-connected amplifier based on the venerable EL-34 pentode output tube. I built this amp about six months ago, and it has been my reference ever since. It produces 13 wpc of tube bliss, and I am addicted to its clear, dynamic, and delicately defined sound - but the Audissey A3+2s were not nearly as happy with it. The problem, I suspect, was a mismatch between the 4-6 Ohm impedance of the A3+2s and the current delivery capabilities of my triode amp. The rated sensitivity of the A3+2s is not the problem at 91 dB/w/m, but the lowish impedance isn't what my little single ended amp was designed to handle. In general, tube amp performance excels at speaker load impedances between 8 and 16 ohms (or higher!). The sound of the speakers with this amp was easy to listen to, but it lacked the vital, dynamic, alive quality that I know my amp can deliver and I now know the speaker is capable of reproducing. The mismatch was more prevalent at higher volumes than during soft listening, but the bottom line was that this wasn't the right match for the Audissey A3+2s and I knew it.

Next up, and I will keep this short, was an HCA 2200 Mk II from Parasound. Maybe my ears and brain are conditioned to the sound of single-ended amps, but after an initial sense of excitement, this combination ultimately didn't do it for me. In many ways this fine amp was a better overall match for the Audissey A3+2, providing current delivery and bass drive in a whole different league, but at the same time I felt like a little of the soundstaging magic was lost with the Parasound. Also, the midrange lost some of the wholeness that I associate with life-like reproduction. I liked this combination, but I knew once again that there was more potential with the speakers than I was getting.

Hey, if at first you don't succeed . . . . It just so happened that a buddy of mine with a Pass Aleph 3 offered to make his amp available to me for a short while to try with the Audissey A3+2 speakers. The Pass Aleph 3 is a solid-state, single ended amp with 30 wpc and good current delivery. It's received a lot of press in recent years, and many of you may already be familiar with the amp from reading about it elsewhere or owning one.

I'm persistent so I took up my friend's offer to listen to the Aleph 3. The result -- voila! A match made in heaven. This combo really clicked for me. I felt like I was getting a near ideal balance between the single-ended triode "sound" that my heart adores and the bass drive and neutrality that my mind says is closer to accurate.

My listening notes from here forward are from my experience with the Audissey A3+2/Pass Aleph 3 combo exclusively. Caveat alert: this combo is what worked for me, but there are many variables in system setup, and I can't guarantee that this combination will work perfectly for anyone else. But you knew that already, so let's move on to why I liked these speakers.

An Asymmetrical Bipolar Soundstage

In contrast to other speakers I have heard in the $1,200 price range, I found the Audissey A3+2s a soundstaging champ. This particular strength must be a function of the ABR technology, which to my ears does what Energy designed it to do. The soundstage is incredibly wide and deep, as wide and deep as the recording allows, with the images within the stage being distinct and discernable. I could have listened all day, and night, to Diana Krall doing "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" from the Nat King Cole tribute album All for You (Impulse IMPD-182). The Audissey A3+2s presented her sultry voice above and beyond the rear plane of the speakers, with the subtle drumwork and bass guitar each taking their place on the outer edges of the stage - I found this whole album intoxicating through the A3+2s. Throughout this and other listening sessions there was a true lack of the annoying, bloated "wraparound effect" that I referred to earlier that emerges with inferior bipolar designs. In its place was a real sense of space . . . lots of space.

With that said, bipolars of any design present sound subjectively "different" than front-firing only speakers. Interestingly, at times I thought there was maybe too much sound emanating from the rear drivers in relation to the sound coming from the front-firing drivers. This impression seemed to change, however, depending on the music being played, and I was never particularly bothered by it. Acoustic music emphasized the effect, and electronic, multi-tracked recordings minimized the effect. Again, it wasn't at all troublesome, just different. Maybe bipolar sound is an acquired taste, like single-malt scotch. Truthfully, fine speakers are a heck of a lot easier to become accustomed to than fine sippin' liquor.

The Musical Message Delivered

There wasn't any type of music that sounded "bad" through the Audissey's - in fact, pretty much all of it sounded darn good. My day-to-day speakers, the Spica TC-60, certainly favor the midrange. Much of the vocal and jazz music I listen to through them absolutely entrances me (of course a glass of wine helps that process). However, throw some raucous blues or even hard rock music (gasp!) at them and they tend to get ornery. This isn't the case with the Audissey A3+2s. When mated with the Pass Aleph 3, I was able to coax equally high levels of performance on albums as disparate as Cake's quirky, funky, rollicking Fashion Nugget (Capricorn P2 32867) and the haunting, sweeping beauty of Charlie Haden and Chris Anderson with their album of bass and piano duets on None but the Lonely Heart (NaimCD 022). Speaking of that Cake album, if you want to hear one of my favorite song re-makes of all time, check out their version of the 70's disco classic "I will Survive", cut #7 on Fashion Nugget - a riot.

With music having well-recorded bass, but particularly with respect to Charlie Haden's bass on None but the Lonely Heart, the Audissey A3+2s reproduced notes deeply and powerfully, with good thump and impact where necessary. There was a slight tendency toward the warm, rich side of neutral, but nothing to get too excited over. I found this slight ripeness appealing on most of the music that I listened to. Luckily, the frequency where the extra warmth emerged in my room, I'm guessing around 80-90 Hz, was not a problem and did not interact badly with any room resonance modes. Rather, it simply added some body to the music and typically added to my enjoyment of these speakers as music makers. Unless you are a real sub-terranian bass freak, the A3+2s should handle that part of your music listening adequately.

I mentioned my Spica TC-60s earlier. They are exceptional little speakers that have stood the test of time for me - four years in fact. When I switched back and forth between them and the Audissey A3+2s, I was often surprised at how similar they sound given their radically different designs. The tonality of the Spica is warmer, with a more whole and rounded midrange, but with slightly reticent highs and less-defined bass than the A3+2s. The attention paid to time and phase alignment of the drivers in the TC-60 allow them to hold their own with regard to imaging compared to the Audisseys. The A3+2s definitely played louder and were less prone to congestion at higher volume levels; however, I rarely have the desire or ability (in my apartment) to listen at those volume levels, but when I do - look out! Real toe-tappin', air-drummin' music like "Can't Let Go" from the magnificent Lucinda Williams' album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was just plain fun through the Audissey A3+2s. If I were throwing a wild party, I'd definitely want the Audissey A3+2s pounding out the tunes.

Reality Check

Let's remember that these speakers retail for only $1,200 the pair, and no matter how much engineering expertise went into the design, compromises must be made. This isn't unique to Energy or any other manufacturer, it is the economics of bringing a product to market. The trick is to make smart, cost-saving compromises that don't sacrifice the music. Energy clearly understands this. Fortunately for us, the largest expense compromise was in the finish of the cabinet (through the use of the "sock"), not the rigidity of the cabinet or the drivers within. Good choice, Energy.

I don't have to tell you that I have heard more expensive speakers that do everything "better" than the Energy Audissey A3+2. Big surprise. There are even other speakers in the Energy line that are designed to a higher price and performance point than the A3+2. So if you have more money, please spend it as you wish and get exactly what you want. Keep in mind, however, that fine overall performance is available at $1,200.

Summary

Once I found an amp that I thought was a particularly great match, the Audissey A3+2 speakers really hit their stride. I said it earlier, and I will say it again, these speakers are not overly hard to drive, nor do they need any special coddling to sound good. Part of my reviewing responsibility, however, was to find an amp that brought out the best in them, and I believe I did.

If you have between $1,000 to $2,000 to spend, there are a host of floor-standing and mini-monitor speakers that you will want to investigate - Meadowlark, Totem, Paradigm and others come quickly to mind. I'd venture a guess that in direct comparison to any of them, the Energy Audissey A3+2 will hold its own admirably. It depends on the priorities you place on your speaker system. If you value excellent soundstaging, good tonal balance and an attractive visual package, the Energy Audissey A3+2 may very well move to the top of your list.

Paul Knutson


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