Using carbon-fibre drivers across the board offers the best chance of tonal matching throughout the frequency range. It also offers improved damping when compared to the ceramic aluminium drivers with which Acoustic Energy first built its reputation, while maintaining the former’s pistonic power.
Filling the front of a cabinet from top to bottom with drivers brings quite a few theoretical difficulties, of course. The opportunity for reflections from the floor, as well as from the ceiling, is increased, for example. Acoustic Energy has expended a lot of time and energy in optimising the AE520’s vertical directivity, and has deployed aluminium outriggers to provide rigid floor-coupling in an effort to reduce room-to-speaker interaction.
The cabinet itself (little of it is visible from the straight-ahead, admittedly, given that drivers dominate this plane) is flawlessly finished, with an agreeable – and acoustically crucial – little curve where the top surface becomes the rear panel. Other than the reflex slot, the rear panel features just a single pair of chunkily purposeful speaker binding posts. The cabinet is constructed from Acoustic Energy’s 18mm RSC (resonance suppression composite) material – its constrained layer arrangement reduces acoustic radiation from the cabinet, and in theory reduces sound colouration.
It’s easy enough to put all this theorising to the test, of course, by playing some music. The AE520s are wired to a Naim Uniti Star streamer/amp using QED XT400 speaker cable, and are served content from TIDAL Masters via an Android smartphone, vinyl from a Cambridge Audio Alva TT and compact disc using a Cyrus CDt.
Naturally, the AE520s need a little breathing space – not so much where distance from a rear wall is concerned, but certainly when considering how far from each other, and from your seated position, they prefer to be. They’re also partial to a slight toe-in in order to form the most convincing stereo image, too. But as long as you have a listening room sizable enough to pander to them, they’re far from the most demanding loudspeakers.
And despite their fearsomely over-drivered appearance, they’re far from the most oppressive listen. With a 180g reissue of Four Tet’s There is Love In You [Domino] spinning, what’s initially most impressive about the AE520 is not their out-and-out low-frequency presence (although that’s undoubtedly one of their stronger suits). It’s how deft and light on their feet they are.
Extension down to 30Hz is significant, certainly, though the Acoustic Energys do rather look like that’s the least they should be able to manage. And the bottom-end stuff they deliver punches (rather than shoves), is controlled with absolute authority and has nothing in the way of discernible overhang. It’s textured and detailed, and consequently makes the derivation of the sound explicit. Kieran Hebden’s recording methodology mostly involves laptops and headphones, and quite often his tunes are not ‘recorded’ so much as ‘digitally transferred’ – the AE520 are unequivocal when explaining this.
Switching to an original 1966 pressing of Ike & Tina Turner’s River Deep – Mountain High [London], produced in inimitable fashion by the late and partially lamented Phil Spector, allows the Acoustic Energys to showcase their midrange potency and powers of separation. The famed Wall of Sound is tall but narrow, not unlike the AE520s themselves – yet despite the music being delivered by what sounds like a couple of dozen musicians crammed into one room, these speakers have little trouble giving each performer a degree of space. Tina Turner’s extraordinarily hair-raising vocal performance, meanwhile, is potent and immediate, with every shred of detail handed over faithfully. The specifics of reverb (both natural and applied) are made plain, and there’s even a suggestion of stage layout – the majority of loudspeakers, at any price, tend to pile the instruments in this recording up on top of each other like a sonic wedding cake.
There’s a tremendous sense of purpose to the way the AE520s go about creating music, but they have sufficient poise to avoid sounding aggressive. They have the sort of deep-breathing dynamic range to let a CD-borne copy of The Flaming Lips’ She Don’t Use Jelly [Warner Bros] do its quiet/loud/quiet thing without alarms, they have the powers of harmonic expression to make the eccentricities of Thelonious Monk’s technique during Well, You Needn’t [Blue Note] explicit. If you want information about the variation in a drummer’s strike of a snare, or the variation in a pianist’s key releases, these speakers are unambiguous. When a pair of loudspeakers has a comfort zone as expansive as the AE520s do, it proves extremely tricky to goad them out of it.
In absolute terms the Acoustic Energys are, tonally, on the warm side of neutral, but it’s an unobtrusive heat they generate and is unlikely to become problematic unless they’re partnering some particularly toasty electronics. There’s just a tiny suggestion of richness to their tonality that makes every one of the pieces of music referred to above sound rather luxurious – but that’s meant entirely positively. There’s nothing cloying about the sound of the AE520s, and their powers of analysis aren’t blunted by their tonal emphasis in the slightest. They’re more than speedy enough to avoid getting bogged down – their management of rhythms and tempos is confident.
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