Acoustic Energy (AE) is a British company that’s been designing and manufacturing speakers since it was founded in 1987. Its first product was the AE1, a studio monitor aimed at professional users. That’s a narrow market in which to play and so it’s no surprise that, like PMC and other companies that also came from pro monitoring beginnings, AE should have subsequently broadened its range of products to include speakers for the much larger entry- and mid-level domestic stereo and AV markets.
Within the walls of AE’s Cirencester headquarters though, there still beats the heart of a professional monitor company. Evidence of this is AE’s newly launched Reference Series of speakers. There are three models in the range; two standmounts and a floorstander. It is the floorstander, the Reference 3, that this review considers. Assembled and tested in the UK, the 3 and its two standmount siblings represent AE coming home to its roots. They are intended to be reference speakers with a small r, uncoloured and accurate transducers in the manner of studio monitors, yet not suffering from the hard-to-listen to presentation that so often once accompanied such accuracy. All three speakers aim to deliver these sonic qualities from within cabinets that are finished to an extremely high cosmetic standard and therefore worthy of discerning aesthetic approval.
The Reference 3s I tried were delivered by Paul Jeffery of the ‘wam’s own Purité North (http://puritenorth.co.uk). AE’s demo pair, they’d already done the rounds of a number of magazine reviewers. Paul was intrigued to hear how they worked when driven by my all-Audio Note (UK) CD system. AE claim 90 dB sensitivity and a nominal 6 Ohm impedence, but even so, Paul and I both were somewhat anxious to see whether his journey to my home had been in vain. AE says the 3s can handle up to 300 Watts. Would just 18 Watts of Audio Note Kegon SET power drive them? In the event, we were both nodding with relief after setting the first disc spinning: there was music and, my word, it sounded pretty good.
The Reference 3s are a three-way design, employing four drivers. The tweeter, Vifa’s 32 mm ring-radiator driver, is surrounded by an aluminium waveguide of AE’s own design. The remaining three drivers are designed and manufactured by AE, and all use aluminium cones and voice coils. The mid driver is 110 mm in diameter and the twin bass drivers 130 mm. A first order crossover is used between the bass and mid range while a third order is used between mid and tweeter. The cabinets are un-ported, constructed from a composite of rubber sandwiched between two sheets of MDF of different thickness, topped with the veneer/lacquer finish. They certainly sound inert when subjected to the rigorously scientific knuckle-rap test, suggesting that with its unusual lay-up, and the internal bracing employed, AE may have achieved a useful lack of cabinet-induced colouration in the 3s.
Visually, AE has achieved the second of its design goals. The Reference 3s are a work of some beauty, at least in the context of the narrow-fronted monolith style of most contemporary speakers. They are finished – exquisitely so – in a piano lacquered ebony veneer that will either go with listening room décor or not. There is no choice: buy any of the Reference Series and ebony is what you get.
The 3s stand just under a metre tall and 360 mm deep. The 260 mm wide front baffle is vertical – no effort has been made in the design to achieve time alignment by sloping the panel away from the listener. Speaker grilles attach to the front baffle by hidden magnets. If I owned the 3s, I’d opt to use them with the grilles in place; the visually bright aluminium of the tweeter waveguide and the equally reflective aluminium mid and bass speakers spoil for me what is otherwise an agreeably understated appearance. To my mind, the 3s look better with their blinkers on, but I guess that some buyers might appreciate the ‘look-at-me’ high-tech appearance of them with their grilles removed.
At 32 kg per speaker, the 3s are not exactly lightweights, but they proved easy to slide around on my listening room carpet until I felt I had achieved an optimum position. I then carefully upended them and screwed in the floor spikes supplied by AE.
I used the frequency ladder tones on a test CD, combined with the playing of various music CDs, to achieve the most even response in my 21 ft by 12.5 ft listening room, eventually settling on the speakers pretty much where Paul and I had originally placed them when he delivered them – 36” inches from the front wall and about 19” from the side walls. During the move-about stage of my listening, the 3s proved to be remarkably tolerant of position. In some locations it was possible to hear minor over-excitement of a room node, but the effect was nowhere near as unpleasant as it has been with other speakers in the same room. The process of trying the 3s in various positions was made very much easier than it would otherwise have been thanks to the 5m pair of Wychwood Audionics cables that Paul provided. Combining Van Damme linear crystal ultra pure oxygen free copper shotgun cable and Nakamichi banana plugs, these are made to order by Purite North.
AE claim a response of 33Hz – 40kHz +/- 3dB for the Reference 3s. My experimentation with the test CD supported this claim, at least at the bottom end of the audio spectrum where I hear well. At 20 and 25Hz there was no usefully audible energy, but by 35Hz the 3s were coming on increasingly strongly. Higher up the audio band, beyond 13.5 KHz, my hearing is compromised by classic age-related attenuation, so I am unable to offer any judgement.
During my listening trials of the Reference 3s I played a wide selection of both vinyl and CD, from full-scale symphonic orchestral, chamber music, and choral, to acoustic and electronic jazz of most genres, along with some solo vocal. I feel it would be unhelpful to compare their sonic abilities with the considerably more costly Audio Note AN-Es that normally live in my system. I will therefore offer my comments on the Reference 3s in the context of ProAc 3.8s and B&W 803s, both of which I have tried in my listening room. As Purité’s Paul points out though, the current models of these speakers are over £6,000 and £7,000 respectively, which actually puts the performance of the Reference 3s at just £4,000 in an even more favourable light.
My initial impression of the Reference 3s was of an overall presentation than tended towards the bright and the forward. As the test CD showed, the 3s get close to achieving full range, and indeed they render, for example, the lower octaves of acoustic and electric bass, and grand piano with a pleasing, if not ultimately totally convincing, sense of weight. I initially felt the bass tended towards being dry and rather one-note, but the aluminium cones warmed to their task after being left running for a couple of days, and eventually they offered substantially more texture and timbre than I had heard immediately after the speakers’ delivery. AE says it uses aluminium because of the resistance to cone break up and the potential for more consistent pistonic movement than other materials might offer, so I assume what I heard was simply the foam suspension becoming more compliant through use.
For many, there is something instantly appealing about three way speakers as compared to simpler two-way designs. It’s logical, isn’t it, that splitting the audio band up onto three sections should result in each driver operating more in its comfort zone and therefore providing better results? However, what pulls the sonic rug from under quite a few designs is a less than happy integration between the three sections. The Reference 3’s integration is successful. It’s the overall balance, and in particular the combination of mid range driver and tweeter, that unsettles me, just a little. Much as I noted the 3’s quite strikingly good ability to image – a result no doubt of the narrow front baffle and the forward presentation – and no matter that I admired the Vifa tweeter for the incisive and revealing way it handled its role, still I yearned for a little less brightness and a little more subtlety. Have Acoustic Energy deliberately set out to make the 3 characterful in this way, knowing that such a balance will appeal to many buyers who equate forwardness with detail?
With just 18 Watts driving the 3s, ultimate in-room volume during my listening tests was always going to be limited before the Kegons started to fold. Nonetheless, I was still able to play the system louder than I’d normally listen at, so while the 3s may not be an ideal match for such relatively low power SET amplification, their in-room performance demonstrated that they do indeed present a relatively benign load. AE says the 3s will do a maximum SPL of 116 dB – clearly this being with rather more than 18 Watts behind them. I imagine that with 200 Watts of quality solid state power – and yes, I know for many of us that’s a contradiction in terms – the 3s would really jump.
The Reference 3s satisfy my desire for a sense of rhythm, drive and musicality much more so than the B&W 803s. To my ears the 3s are not quite in the same irresistibly musical and foot-tapping league as the ProAcs, (but neither do they boom uncomfortably like the ProAc 3.8s did) and despite their monitor heritage they also avoid falling into the trap of delivering material in the po-faced ‘how dare you enjoy this’ manner of the B&Ws. Voices have a pleasing degree of organic presence. Brass crackles. Snare drums rattle. Timpani booms. Violas and bowed basses growl. Triangles have an almost reach-out-and-touch quality to them. That’s evidence of knowing and intelligent voicing by AE, and also a neat bit of product positioning. Coupled to the port-less and highly room-friendly design, these qualities will in my view make the 3s appeal to a lot of audiophiles.
As for their pairing with low powered but high-end SET amplification, the Reference 3s worked surprisingly well with my Audio Note Kegons, amplifiers which have a notably extended yet sweet top end. How comfortably the 3s would work with some solid state designs known for their unremittingly aggressive and etched outputs remains for others to discover, but I fancy that careful matching will pay dividends. A Parasound of my recent acquaintance would probably not make a happy marriage with the 3s. for example.
And the subject of matching brings me to this. We hear quite a bit on the ‘wam about dealers who really couldn’t give a fig about customers. They have a take-it-or-leave it attitude and simply aren’t interested in building long-term relationships. Purité North is not in that mold. I know, because I’ve seen others here witness to the same ethic as well as experiencing it myself, that Purité North cares passionately about how the stuff it sells works within the context of people’s rooms and their systems. Would-be buyers of Reference 3s could go to their nearest Richer Sounds, drop a wedge on the counter and simply hope that the 3s will sound glorious in their system. Or they could call Purité North and allow Paul to prove that all dealers are not the same, and that there is real added value to be had in buying through a retailer who understands that personal integrity, product knowledge, sound quality and long term relationships are what help build a successful business.
As for the Acoustic Energy Reference 3s, I think that buyers with compatible systems will be getting a lot of honest speaker for the money. The Reference 3s are thoughtfully designed, beautifully finished, and have some interesting design features that contribute to a distinctive sound which, in my view, makes them a very worthy contender at the price point.
Associated equipment –
Audio Note (UK) Kegon monblocks
Wychwood Audionics speaker cables
AN M5 pre-amplifier
AN 4.1 Balanced DAC
AN CDT Three transport
Discuss the review here