In many ways I’m the worst possible person to review these speakers. My frame of reference is a bit skewed. I haven’t listened properly to a pair of box speakers for the best part of three years, and I haven’t critically listened to, or owned a pair of speakers that retail for 550 quid brand new for twenty years. Yep, if these have recently won a group test shoot-out in What Caravan? with 5 stars I’m not going to know about it. But let’s be positive! I don’t have any preconceptions about what I’m going to hear and I can judge these speakers without the usual prejudices.
In the world of amateur HiFi reviewers, you pays your money and takes your choice. Or in this case, you don’t pays your money and you take your chance!
Let’s talk aesthetics. These speakers look pretty handsome, and the compromises set by the budget have been well thought through. I had the walnut coloured ones to review. It’s a vinyl wrap rather than a veneer, but honestly unless your nose is six inches from the speaker, they look great and you’d never regret your choice. The magnetic grilles are neat, but the speakers look nicer with them off, because the drivers have an attractive and tasteful aluminium surround, which is set off nicely by the wood effect finish.
The cabinet itself has a tapering side profile, which lends the speakers a certain elegance, and thoughtfully AE have provided a few options for securing the speaker on the floor. Some decent spikes are supplied which I used, and some metal discs with a cut-out for the spike are also included for those not wanting to wreck their laminate or wooden flooring.
At the back, there is just one set of binding posts, and AE must be applauded here. Whether by budgetary constraint or by taking the bull by the horns and saying “You know what, bi-wire is just a waste of money” either way, they’ve done the right thing.
In my 16’x15′ room, layout dictated that I place these in free space but they are front ported so they should work also pretty well close to the rear walls. In the configuration I had them, they imaged really nicely. It was wide and extended well behind the speakers – quite surprisingly so. 7′ apart, bit of toe-in, job done thanks very much.
Straight away I can tell you that these speakers will go loud without having a hissy fit, sticking their tongue out and storming out of the party. What a crude measure of speaker competence, you may well say! Yeah, well suck it up. Whether you listen loud or quiet isn’t really the issue. If a pair of speakers is going to crap out at the first sign of trouble, I’m not really interested in the finer details.
What these speakers do is properly portray scale, in the way that £550 stand-mounts will struggle. The acid test is classical music and here I used Arvo Pärt’s Litany to evaluate how the massed choral climaxes on this brilliant ECM recording were handled. Beautifully, in this case. There’s a proper sense of occasion, and enough headroom to make the performance believable. A remarkable achievement from a modest box.
A lot of the goodness from this speaker is down to the tweeter, which consistently excelled with its easy-going approach. I imagine you would have to really get unlucky to find an amplifier that didn’t get along with these speakers, but I would be keen to hear from owners if that’s the case or not. What on earth has happened to AE speakers since the iconic little AE1 which had a reputation for being hyper-detailed if a little spiky unless very sympathetically matched with other equipment?
I also played the track Deli, from Rokia Traoré‘s Bowmboi album, which also highlights speakers that can do scale well. The 103s projected into the room brilliantly, almost as well as my horns!
They do have a bit of mid-bass bloom, but nothing serious and probably more room dependent than anything else. It would be easily cured with a bit of passive room treatment, or something like an Antimode DSP. It’s probably subjective anyway, as I’m sure a lot of listeners enjoy the impression of a bit of extra heft in this frequency region which disguises lack of proper extension down to 20hz. Which let’s face it, you’re not going to get on a speaker of this price. The spec sheet says -3dB at 40Hz and that’s fine especially as they are easy to drive (my 20W amp had no problems) and the rest of the speaker hangs together so well.
Here’s the crux of the matter: At £550, a lot of people gravitate towards stand mount speakers, perhaps thinking that floorstanders at this price point are too much of a compromise, like butter spread too thinly on your toast.
They have a general impression that stand-mounts image better (they don’t), they take up less space (they don’t) they’re more wife friendly (they’re not), or they’re somehow safer when you have a young family (they aren’t). Budget stand-mounts often need decent stands costing cash money to work well, and while they trundle along okay with pop/rock/jazz, they die on their arse when you ask them to approach realistic levels with large scale music.
Yes, I listened to the AE103s with a ridiculously expensive front end and amplifiers, and I appreciate that isn’t going to be the norm for most prospective owners. But I believe I heard enough to say that listening to the AE103 on more modest kit isn’t going to disappoint.
What we have is a great performing pair of loudspeakers that would be a huge upgrade for those people graduating from a £200 set of stand-mounts, or the budget conscious buyer looking to downsize a big system without giving up on sound quality. Proceed firmly, directly and with vigour to a friendly dealer for a demonstration!
More information and specification the AE103 can be found here.