AudioEngine A1 Speakers

The Little (Audio)Engine that Could

[Audioengine A2+ Bluetooth Speaker System]

Manufacturer: AudioEngine - USA
Product: AudioEngine A1 Home Music System with aptX
Price: $199 YMMV
Reviewer: David Hoehl - TNT USA
Reviewed: February, 2021
Published: March, 2021

Initial Musings

What a difference a year and a half can make! Back in August 2019, inspired by recollections of my father and the KLH compact stereo system he bought for our family when I was a child, I introduced to the world a hypothetical equipment buyer, "The Man Who Wants To Listen To Music." His debut was in a review of the AudioEngine A2+ powered Bluetooth speaker system, where he and his ilk were described as “real people who have real-life constraints but, without any interest in audio gear for its own sake, want something better built and sounding than the average piece of Crosley junk.” I concluded that for such a buyer, the A2+ speakers represented a good value, offering more than respectable performance in a compact package at a fiscally prudent price. I think they still do.

Time marches on, though, and we all know the sorry direction in which it began marching a few months after that review. Now The Man Who Wants To Listen To Music has become The Man Who Wants To Listen To Music And Can't Leave Home. Leaving aside the COVID-19 mortality rate, broad swaths of the world's population have found themselves locked down at home for long periods, all too often with moderately to severely restricted income. In these times, even those who have escaped direct economic consequences of the pandemic likely are watching their expenditures, just in case “Well, at least I still have my job” abruptly changes to “Oh, my God, I just lost my job.” Now what formerly was “a fiscally prudent price” may have become “more than would be responsible right now.” And yet, with all the lockdowns and travel restrictions and social distancing mandates and shuttering of mass entertainment venues--not to mention the enforced togetherness of whole families teleworking and teleschooling, often limiting access to big pre-COVID stereo rigs--the need for good home entertainment delivered via competent but compact, unobtrusive gear has never been greater.

So, with an eye on my earlier review, what if I were to tell you that by giving up some peripheral features, something equaling, or maybe even bettering, the A2+ in audio performance can be had at 80% of its price? Would you be interested? I'll bet The Man Who Wants To Listen To Music And Can't Leave Home would be, and AudioEngine has produced just that: the relatively new A1 Home Music System with aptX. I'm thinking in a world where sequestration is the meat of our days, the A1 might well be the perfect sauce.

“You just couldn't let that one pass, could you?” I hear someone grumble, eyes rolling.

“Nope!” is my saucy reply. Now, let's get cooking!

“Uggggggh!”

A Tale of Two Hands: On the One..., On the Other...

[A1 and A2+]

What is the A1, and how does it differ from the A2+? In a number of important ways, they are identical or nearly so. Both are powered minispeakers with Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity via a 16 bit CSR8670 receiver supporting aptX, AAC, and SBC codecs. Their front-ported cabinets are of identical size and, at least outwardly, nearly identical design, with the same port slots, proprietary .75 inch silk dome tweeters, and 2.75 inch aramid fiber woofers. Spurning the equipment equivalent of masks, neither offers a grille. In each, the volume control, power tap, and input jacks are all in the left speaker, to which the right (passive) speaker connects with a run of standard audio cable, either the supplied one in 16 gauge or another of your own choosing.

[A1 back panel]

The most obvious difference is in the cabinet finish and fittings. The A2+ is available in satin black or glossy red or white, and its front edges are smoothly rounded. The A1, by contrast, is available only in a dull, utilitarian grey with sharply square edges. From a functional standpoint, the two models' cabinets are the same, and the A1's finish is well executed for what it is, but the A2+ definitely looks more upscale. Turning to the back of the speakers, one finds the A2+ sports screw post terminals capable of taking bare wire, spades, or banana plugs, whereas the A1 has decent quality but modest spring clips for bare wire only. The posts are definitely a cut above, but in practice I'd wager the vast majority of buyers will connect the speakers with the included run of bare speaker wire (with tips thoughtfully soldered), rendering the posts' greater flexibility moot. The Man Who Wants To Listen To Music (whether he can leave home or not) probably isn't going to bother with banana plugs. Note that the A1, like the A2+, has speaker terminals solely for connecting the right and left speakers to each other. The A1 cannot be connected to the speaker outputs of a regular component amplifier; it is for line level or Bluetooth input only.

Closer inspection reveals the A1 omits the A2+'s USB input and RCA inputs, although both have a 3.5mm analogue input and RCA connections for a subwoofer. The A1 partly offsets the omission of RCA inputs by including a 3.5mm to RCA adapter. A photo of the A1 rear panel is to the left; see my A2+ review for a corresponding shot of that model.

The models differ in a couple of ways “under the hood” that may or may not matter to you. First, the A1 omits the built-in digital-to-analogue converter found in the A2+; hence, that omission of a USB port. Second, the A2+ incorporates a conventional class AB amplifier, the A1 a Class D. That design choice is something of a corporate about-face and came as a surprise to me, because in its literature about the A2+ the company was at pains to express preference for Class AB as “a more traditional speaker/amplifier configuration which provides excellent quality audio and greater flexibility.” That said, surprise doesn't translate into prejudice: I'm no Class D hater, and in fact my own main system amp has Tripath chips at its heart. Moreover, the choice of Class AB or Class D is a matter of debate in AudiophileLand but doubtless of exactly no interest to The Man Who.... According to the company, the A1's Class D amplifier “includes many of our historical analog designs” and has “No DSP, artificial bass enhancement, digital EQ, or hyperactive limiting.” The left speaker of the A1 houses a switching power supply, in contrast to the A2+, which relies on a typical box-in-the-middle-of-the-power-cord type. Worth noting is that although differing in technology, the A1 and A2+ amps have identical specifications: 60 watts “peak power” (a wildly optimistic fudge, as detailed in the A2+ review, but one by no means uncommon these days) from 65 Hz to 22 kHz +/- 2 dB.

[what's in the box]

One other area that bears brief mention is packaging. The A2+'s is a bit plushier than that of the A1, although nothing is the least inadequate or compromised about the latter. Primarily, although definitely a cut above average for an economical product, the A1's packaging omits the nice fabric bags that enshroud each A2+ to protect the pretty finish. AudioEngine does, however, include a full array of the needed cables and accessories to get everything going. I liked the little touch of luxury offered by the A2+, but I'm glad the company wisely chose to focus on preserving audio equivalence over presentation when cutting out costs for the more budget-minded consumer, just as, in my dad's day, KLH offered a portable system with the same turntable, cartridge, and electronics as its higher models but clad in brown vinyl instead of walnut. Preserve performance while economizing on cosmetics: a time-honored formula for creating a budget model the right way.

Teething Issues

I set up the test pair of A1s side by side with the A2+ pair that I tested in the earlier review, with each A1 speaker a couple of inches to the right of its A2+ counterpart. Connecting the left and right speakers of both sets were the speaker cables supplied with them. In my first session, immediately after unboxing, the Bluetooth connection was to the same computer via the same Avantree Leaf USB adapter, and I called up some of the same test tracks as before, although only for fairly casual listening, as the A1s were fresh out of the box, not broken in at all (AudioEngine recommends some extensive break-in time). The goal was simply to determine that everything was working. Even allowing for that, I was concerned that on casual acquaintance the A1s simply did not impress me as up to the A2+s. Fairly quickly, though, I discovered the reason, and it was nothing to do with the speakers: for some cause unknown, the Avantree was connecting to the A2+ set in aptX but to the A1s only in SBC.

A brief digression for those not familiar with Bluetooth codecs (as I wasn't before this incident): All Bluetooth audio involves at least some degree of compression, and the Bluetooth universe offers several codecs, or modes of compressing, transmitting, and interpreting audio data. SBC is the lowest common denominator system, the one every Bluetooth device must recognize. It is also the lowest quality system, like a low bitrate .mp3 file. AptX is a higher resolution system. Accordingly, connecting one set of speakers with aptX and the other with SBC was an inherently unfair test, with the latter set doomed to sound inferior regardless of its innate qualities because its input simply was not up to snuff. Or, as our computer friends say, GIGO (“garbage in, garbage out”).

I contacted AudioEngine for support. The response was prompt, friendly, and helpful, but before we could explore further the problem resolved itself as mysteriously as it had appeared. I still don't know why it happened, but I do draw a lesson from it: if you are connecting A1s to your source via Bluetooth, be sure they are in aptX mode. SBC will prevent them from showing their true merits.

I Think I Can! I Think I Can! Er, Then Again, Maybe Not...

I've lived with the A1s for three months or so, gradually accumulating a reasonable fraction of those recommended break-in hours. Now the time has come to put them through their paces and compare with the A2+. Making direct comparisons with more rigor than I had tried earlier actually proved a bit more challenging than one might think. My office computer/Avantree arrangement can pair with only one Bluetooth device at a time. Accordingly, switching between sets entailed turning one off, turning the other on, and then pairing with my computer. Given my room arrangement, that process meant a lengthy, distracted delay at each switchover and plenty of up-and-down running around the room. Worse, it made matching volume nearly impossible, and as most of you probably know, if one speaker is louder than another, at least up to a point it will tend to sound better.

As a workaround, I tried firing up a second Lenovo laptop computer--my “on the road” machine, a model X220, which although elderly has built-in Bluetooth capability--to connect to the A2+ set while my regular "in office" machine, with the Avantree Bluetooth adapter, connected to the A1s. I recognize that solution also is far from ideal; I have no idea how good the second computer's Bluetooth equipment is or whether it supports aptX, and even if equivalent it introduces extra variables that could easily bias the test one way or the other. Nonetheless, it was a place to start, and at least it made possible getting the volume settings roughly equivalent.

Alas, the experiment was not a success for comparing the speakers in absolute terms, but it did confirm what I'd observed when first connecting the A1s: the results obtainable from a Bluetooth speaker setup depend heavily on the quality of the Bluetooth connection and the associated gear. Upon direct comparison, when connected via the Avantree the A2+ set yielded noticeably better results than what they gave me from the X220's onboard arrangement. I suspect the latter may have been SBC; in all events, it did not measure up, and after a few trials I reluctantly gave up on it and just alternated connecting speaker sets with the Avantree, fussy as that process might be. Please take time lag and level variance into account in all that follows.

The Sound of Music

My little mind being ridden by that famous hobgoblin, I've stuck to some of the same test tracks as in the A2+ review. As detailed there, Beethoven's Choral Fantasy is probably my favorite for the purpose, and the A1s presented it with full success, possibly even greater success than I had with the A2+ set.

To elaborate, I consider one sterling virtue of Class D amplification what I call its definition, the ability of good implementations to let each instrument or voice in an ensemble stand out in fluoroscopic relief if you care to listen for it specifically. Tripath amplifiers like my main system's Bel Canto eVo2i Gen II are particularly strong in this area--indeed, it was what immediately struck me upon first hearing one of the original T-Amps all the way back in 2007 (where does the time go?). I'm thinking the A1, with its Class D amplification, has a touch of that magic as well. Please permit me to focus on one passage about five minutes into the piece, brief but telling, maybe a couple of seconds long. Leading into a nice solo turn for the flute, Beethoven gives us a passage for solo piano over a foundation of horns. With the A2+ speakers, those horns were certainly audible, but with the A1 they snapped into noticeably sharper focus. In a similar way, some piano noodling under the initial passages for voice came through with the A2+s but more clearly with the A1s. The later segments for full chorus likewise seemed less like a homogenized mass of sound and more like a large group of individuals singing together when heard through the A1s.

Shifting genres and turning to Alan Walker's "Faded," a song that was my daughter's favorite 18 months ago but now has, well, you get the idea, once again that Class D definition was on display. In the A2+ review, I remarked on how those speakers excel in conveying song lyrics. They still do, but I felt in this case the A1s did even better. In the deliberately garbled 10-second passage beginning at 2:20, the A1s more clearly and sharply conveyed the breaks in the sonic line, and with the A1s the line, "Where are you now? Atlantis. Under the sea, under the sea," which can get buried in the mix, was noticeably easier to understand.

I had similar feelings about a 78 RPM recording of Lumbye's "Drommbilder" and the final movement of Ruy Coelho's second violin sonata. In each, the A2+ set offered a fine "traditional" sound, the A1 some of the "high definition" sort that I have come to expect from a Class D amplifier.

Conclusion

In my opinion, the AudioEngine A1 is a bargain. I'm not going to include a “Complaints” heading, as our editor is wont to do in his reviews, because I really don't have any, but if I did, the one point I'd mention is that industrial grey finish, which I just don't find terribly attractive; I'm old school enough to prefer the wood veneer of KLH and other vintage models or, that failing, at least a high quality painted finish like that of the A2+. On the other hand, the A1 in grey suffers mainly in comparison to its higher-priced companion; relative to the broader run of components and speakers on the market, it's no worse than the nearly universal boring black, and the A1s are small enough that they won't stand out wherever they are installed, so let's keep things in perspective. What's more important is not a complaint but a caution: the A1, like the A2+, will penalize you for low-quality Bluetooth. Or, put the other way, these speakers noticeably benefit from good quality input. Don't skimp on your transmitter!

Sonically, for my taste, at its lower price point the A1 manages to equal or better the excellent A2+, itself a good value. If you don't need that onboard DAC, I recommend the A1 without hesitation, assuming you are willing to keep an open mind about the slightly different sonic signature of its Class D amplification. I hasten to add, what I've said here on that subject probably overemphasizes it; the two sets do sound quite similar in broad terms, and I suspect The Man Who Wants to Listen to Music would not notice the differences, at least not consciously. That said, if you prefer a more blended sound, you'll probably do better to look to the A2+. I don't think you could go wrong with either choice, but the less expensive A1 would be mine were I debating between the two. Like the famous Little Engine in the old children's story, it may not look like the stronger contender, but the A1 delivers when it counts.

Classical music chosen for the evaluation

  • Hans Christian Lumbye: Drommebilleder. Det Kongelige Kapel, Georg Hoeberg, cond. Polyphon Z60129 (from 78 RPM, rec. 10-1946)
  • Ruy Coelho: Violin Sonata no. 2 (1927). Vasco Barbosa, violinist; Grazi Barbosa, pianist. PortugalSon PS5012
  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Choral Fantasy, op. 80. Rudolf Serkin, pianist; Morlboro Festival Orchestra and Chorus, Peter Serkin, cond. Sony SM2K 89200 (8-9-1981)

Other music chosen for the evaluation

  • Alan Walker: "Faded." From YouTube; released only online.

Gear List

  • AudioEngine A1 powered speakers
  • AudioEngine A2+ powered speakers
  • Avantree Leaf USB audio Bluetooth adapter
  • Lenovo Thinkpad T510 laptop computer
  • Lenovo Thinkpad X220 laptop compter
  • Buffalo Linkstation LS210D network attached storage drive
  • MediaPlayerLite and VideoLan VLC media player software software playing music files in Monkey's Audio lossless format


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Copyright © 2021 David Hoehl - drh@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com