Product name: Audio Note (UK) AN-J Spe Loudspeakers
Manufacturer: Audio Note (UK) - United Kingdom
Cost: 7500€ per pair (Currency conversion) - (YMMV)
Reviewer: Graeme Budd - TNT France
Published: March, 2022
Let me guess - you've looked at the photo above and you think we've gone back to the 1970s. I mean who puts speakers in corners nowadays? Who makes speakers that are wide and shallow rather than the currently popular deep and thin? The fact that my listening room doesn't have orange carpet should make you think twice and yes we are in fact in 2022 and there's no DeLorean in sight anywhere. So what's happened - has tnt-audio.com turned into vintage audio mart? Is this an episode of Storage Wars and I've bought a storage box untouched since before the disco era? It's neither of those frankly unpleasant options but Audio Note (UK) have never been ones for following fashion. Low power amps, turntables and valves - what are they thinking? So why not go the whole hog and be unfashionable throughout the entire system? In actual fact there are distinct and valid reasons for all of Audio Note's technology choices so enough 70s fashion and decoration gags and let's find out a bit more about them and what they can do.
Audio Note have a range of speakers that go from small floor standers to big stand mounts (yes that is the correct way round unlike what you'd expect from most manufacturers!). They all share the ethos of high efficiency and the possibility to be used in real world rooms. Remember all the hifi catalogues you've read - speakers tend to be shown in big lounges (bigger than most peoples ground floors) set 1 metre minimum from the back wall (and without cables!). Now I'm lucky enough to be able to accommodate such a setup as I have a dedicated room but for the vast majority of homeowners the speakers have to share space with bookcases, TVs, coffee tables, pot plants, and all the other paraphernalia that a typical living room comprises. So why not embrace the currently unconventional and develop speakers that work in corners? The whole concept is to use the walls to the advantage of the speakers rather than trying to get them away from and thus free from the influence of walls. The cabinets are designed to resonate in harmony with rather than fight the chosen drivers. All of this with the goal of the most even sound field between the speakers
Tech wise the AN-Js are quite simple. Two drivers, a essentially first order crossover and a large ported box 585mm high by 330mm wide and 235mm deep on bolt assembly steel stands. One point to note is that the box is not made of the usual MDF or veneered chipboard (this is not an attack against either of those materials by the way). Here we have Russian plywood as you can see in the photo below. Where things get a tad confusing is the sheer amount of variants on the basic theme that exist. There are 4 basic variants that can all be specified with either paper or hemp main drivers. As you go up the range the cabinets improve and the internal components and wiring also improve. The version I have is the AN-J Spe Hemp which has AN Spe internal wiring with copper inductors and the blue hemp drivers. Go up the range and you can get better wire, silver inductors and an improved AlNiCo magnet tweeter and main driver (which also has silver voice coils). There's also a large range of veneers available so you should be able to find something to go with your room (unless piano black or white is your thing in which case I can't do anything for you).
The speakers are designed to be bi-wired through rather nice AN(UK) Silver sockets and this proved a bit of a problem - my usual Hitachi speaker cables were too short to reach the corners! Now I could have gone down the DIY route with one of our very own tnt-audio.com designs but Audio Note came to the rescue with some bi wired lengths of their AN-Lexus cable. I made sure to run this first with some other speakers to check for differences and yes it's better than the Hitachi - in any case all comparisons with my usual speakers were also done with the AN-Lexus to keep variables to the strict minimum.
Amp wise I used either the Audio Note (UK) Oto SE or Canary Audio CA608LV. Sources were either the AN(UK) TT 2 Deluxe/Arm 2 (II)/Io 1 or my Linn Axis.AO Akito/Reson Etile for vinyl with my Naim CD5 doing CD duties.
The Js were installed in my system replacing the usual Living Voice IBX-RW3s and it was a bit of a shock if I'm honest. Gone is the LV's superb spaciousness and depth of field to be replaced by a wall of sound. Definitely not what I'm used to but I persevered and to be honest I'm glad I did. The AN-Js look at music from a different perspective where the whole is infinitely more important than individual parts or hifi aspects. Sit between them in the traditional hot spot and you'll enjoy them. Sit off axis (even quite a lot off axis is just fine) and you'll enjoy them just as much as you're not all of a sudden missing pinpoint (artificial?) imaging. Their design where they are supposed to go in corners gives them an impressive ability to drive the room meaning their bass performance is very impressive. At this point a bit of adjustment was necessary to avoid boom as the room was being driven a tad too much - a couple of centimetres into the room and everything was sorted.
So what do we get? As I mentioned earlier the in room bass performance is really rather impressive. You can feel them drive the air in the room especially if you play Noisia's Split the Atom album. This is some superbly produced electronic music with some extreme low end. Apart from buying a really big subwoofer you'd be hard pushed to increase the bass levels - oh and I was driving them with a 10 watt amp at about half volume.... This isn't the type of bass you get from certain ill matched systems at the Notting Hill Carnival. It's not flabby or slow or overblown. It doesn't swamp the other frequencies and preserves the individual quality of the instrument along with their associated speed and attack.
Stereo wise the Js are a bit like a concert in that there's no obvious forward and back information. Voices and instruments are firmly locked in left to right space but even if you play something that has exaggerated forward/backward info (think anything recorded in Q sound (Madonna's Immaculate collection is a good example)) the image is going to stop at the outer edge of the speakers. The sound doesn't extend several feet forward as I get with my LVs and appears locked between the speakers rather than spreading out beyond them. That said as the Js are in the corner you've effectively got wall to wall imaging and even at low levels there is no hole in the middle effect - the wall of sound remains indicating some decent pair matching to preserve the coherent sound field. A quick look on the AN(UK) website points to a stringent driver matching process amongst the technical explanations so I can but think that they aren't wasting their time with what must be a time consuming and hence expensive operation.
So why have I jumped from bass performance to imaging? - well the reason is I feel it's important for prospective purchasers to not be put off by the lack of 3D spatial information and pay attention on the musical information. In a similar way to some of the other AN(UK) products I've tested it's not an individual performance aspect that sticks in your mind but just that you enjoyed that record and you wonder what others will sound like so you dig something else out and before you know it you've spent a load of time and you've missed the latest episode of the Mandalorian or the Olympic skiing or whatever else you'd planned that evening.
But I have to be critical so.... moving up the frequency band the Js are still impressive and succeed in getting the message through. Sticking with the aforementioned Noisia album the Js are capable of following the rapid synth lines and drum machines with just enough extension in the top end to avoid harshness - I rarely found myself reaching for the volume knob (apart from to turn them up). In absolute terms the top end performance can be improved however with the judicious use of some better feet than the supplied spikes on the stands. I got superb results with the Lehmann Audio 3S feet which improved instrumental tone and detail and freed the sound upwards and outwards from the speakers. Hardly expensive at 200€ for four (so about 5% of the price of the Js) they further increased the dynamics and in no way were the original spikes better on my tiled floor. Definitely a worthwhile add on for those of you who have the currently fashionable wood or tiled floors.Of course your mileage may vary but the experiment was worthwhile in my case
Amp wise the Js definitely preferred the Oto SE from their maker to my Canary Audio CA608 LV. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with the sound from the Canary - it just appeared to be a tad bombastic with the Js. The extra oomph the Canary provides when compared to the Oto SE (that works fabulously with my LVs) made the Js just a bit too much for my tastes and the musical flow they are capable of providing tended to disappear to be replaced by a much less subtle delivery. The Oto SE is definitely a better match in this case (as you'd expect/hope from a product from the same designers if I'm honest) although the Canary gets its own back with my IBX RW3s though. As often is the case in hifi the synergy is important and getting it right is highly rewarding and worth spending time on.
During the review period I talked with my local AN(UK) dealer in Toulouse and he mentioned that he has difficulty selling the design because they're "exclusive". I can see where he's coming from as the Js are completely different from pretty much every other speaker I've heard and yet I'd actually describe them as universal as long as you're willing to listen to what's on the record and forego some of the hi-fi aspects we all get so excited about. And that is where the challenge occurs - certainly from a dealer's point of view as he has to persuade his or her customers to think out of the box a bit. We all have a tendency to follow fashion and shy away from a different approach. And this is maybe where we all go wrong and miss out on viable (and maybe even preferable) alternatives to the mainstream.
Another thing that occurred while the Js were in the listening room is that Mrs Budd came up with the following question "Why, when you've spent the last 20 odd years telling me speakers need to avoid walls and corners, is there a pair of speakers in the corners of the room?" An excellent question. Fortunately there's enough info on the Audio Note website to explain in detail but by the time I'd finished I'd realized this was one of those cases where "quit while you're behind" is definitely the best strategy!
The Js have been an interesting product to test as they forced me to reassess my priorities in terms of what I want from a hifi system. The obvious question is am I going to be giving up my IBX-RW3s? Not quite yet - they have a wonderful insight that the version of the Js I have doesn't quite manage - maybe due to the LVs being 30% more expensive so we're not totally comparing like for like and I expect a higher version of the AN-J would further increase the resolution to give the LVs a run for their money. However if I was starting from scratch with a budget similar to the Js than I'd seriously consider them. They are easy enough to site, very easy to drive and have a communicative quality that remains constant wherever you listen to them. In the same way that everyone should hear an LP12 at some point in their life (even if only to be sure you don't like it), as a hifi enthusiast I would suggest you hear a set of these. They won't be for everyone but if they coincide with what you think a hifi system should do then you may find nothing else will do.
Oh and by the way the shock when you take them out of your system is much bigger than when you put them in!
© Copyright 2022 Graeme Budd - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com