In this test we'll be offering two British-designed monitors pitted against French and Danish products in a highly-contested price band. Three of them have built-in brackets for wall hanging so obviously the cabinets are not too cumbersome, but the offering from AE is a bit too chunky for the average bookshelf or hanging on the wall. Mind you, a suitable wall bracket would do the trick to help them form part of an equally chunky club-style sound system.
The speakers were tested in an acoustically neutral, non-parallel, medium-sized room using a Plinius CD player and the superbly-transparent Canadian-manufactured Bryston amplification comprising of the BP 26 and MPS2 pre-amplifier and power supply (£2,750 the pair), and the 4B SST C Series power amplifier (£2,950). Speakers and equipment was linked with Atlas Mavros Cabling - www.atlascables.com. Three metre speaker cable (£1,355) and one metre Pseudo-balanced RCA interconnects were used (£750).
All speakers were given some pink noise to detect any room anomalies using an Audio Control spectrum analyser. Sounds used for the listening test included mono and stereo tracks of speech and music recorded by a one pair of microphones. Test CDs included Rebecca Pidgeon's The Raven, Tom Waits' Blue Valentine, The Sheffield/XLO Test & Burn-in CD, St Germain's Boulevard. The latter disc's first track in particular offers a thorough low-frequency work-out for any smallish monitor.
Price: £450 More info: Acoustic Energy Size: 250(h) x 350(w) x 300(d) mm Weight: 10kg Drivers: 1x 200mm mid-bass, 25mm tweeter Frequency response: 60Hz - 40kHz Impedance: 8 Ohms Power handling: 200 Watts peak Sensitivity: 87dB/Watt
Acoustic Energy AE22 Passive
I liked this monitor's design attitude but it won't be everybody's cup of tea with odd looks and configuration. The AE22 is constructed to sit on top of a mixing desk at ear level as a near-field monitor, hence the 'on its side' orientation.
In comparison with the rest of group, its purpose-built cabinet is very different. It has no porting but comes with a large 200mm mid-bass driver. It has an unusual 25mm 'ring radiator' tweeter which has a bullet-shaped extension of the central pole piece sticking out of the front - hence the 'ring' reference.
In keeping with its desk monitor credentials, it has conventional four millimetre binding posts and additional twist-to-lock Neutrik two-pole connector sockets.
The AE22 comes in a textured black and silver grey trim. There are no other choices but at least it's fairly neutral. The general finish and quality of the enclosure is good, with a mix of sharp and round edges and the neat tweeter trim plate which extends away from a raised edge around the tweeter forming a streamlined module on the top of the cabinet.
AE explains that the AE22s are a high power handling, medium sensitivity design which work best with high-powered solid-state amplifiers. A minimum power rating of 75 watts is recommended.
High inputs are shrugged off by the aluminium-coned driver which has an unusually large 50mm voice coil assembly. The voice coil has an 'underhung' design which features a short coil in a long gap. This is claimed to be inherently more stable and linear than the more usual longer coil in a shorter gap.
AE's main claim for these speakers is the quick response and they are definitely well-timed. Despite having a big driver with a tweeter which could mean a 'boom-tizz' type of speaker, happily it's not like that. The woofer delivers bass satisfactorily but the sealed enclosure does prevent it from dipping into trouser-flapping low frequency levels.
Input power does have an influence on spectral balance and they are at their happiest being worked hard. Upper frequency presentation is forward to the point where it loses some subtlety but it's not intrusive. Boisterous performance along with excellent focus is guaranteed to make an impression.
Refreshing design stance could be considered a basis for a cool system with PA and party leanings. Analytical in-yer-face sound capable of jolting the recipient into joyful listening Minus points
Quirky design and large enclosure not to everyone's taste. Mid frequencies slightly laid-back at low amplitudes
Price: £379 More info: B&W Size: 340(h) x 198(w) x 331(d) mm Weight: 7kg Drivers: 165mm Kevlar mid/bass, 25mm aluminium dome tweeter Frequency response: 49Hz - 22kHz Impedance: 8 Ohms Power handling: 100 Watts peak Sensitivity: 88dB/Watt
Bowers & Wilkins 685
It's a smart-looking monitor with a useful enclosure volume combined with a largish port to reach usefully into the lower frequencies. The 685 is available in Black Ash, Light Oak, Red Cherry and Wengé (dark wood) vinyl finishes with all the monitors having a black panel and a stylish trim plate around the aluminium dome tweeter. The tweeter uses Nautilus tube-loaded technology featuring a new surround material.
Typically, B&W uses Kevlar as cone material for its 165mm mid-bass driver which is fitted with a fixed phase-plug designed to increase coherence in the upper frequency range before the tweeter takes over. Here, B&W claims that the 685 has a minimalist crossover with high-grade components to reduce signal degradation. This, complete with front-mounted port with an interference pattern on the flare to reduce port noise, should all add up to a highly competent package.
The back panel reveals a substantial steel hanging bracket and it's the only unit in the group with bi-wiring terminals. These are of good quality and are fitted with bridging strips.
It's easily the most capable at delivering lower frequencies and it soon became obvious why B&W supplies two levels of sponge plug port attenuation to cope with room acoustics. It was possible to feel the occasional puff of air from the port which tended to prove its noise-free performance. Equally, at mid to high frequencies the sensitivity and openness of delivery was hard to fault. Excellent spectral balance was evident at all normal volume levels.
Beautiful low-distortion balanced sound with very capable delivery of lower frequencies. Good depth and width of staging. Smooth design will blend into most rooms Minus points
May need fine positional and porting adjustment to damp down exuberant bass delivery in some listening environments. Wood print not the prettiest