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Acoustic Energy AE1 Active Loudspeakers: One of the Best Kept Secrets in Audio?

Build a complete audiophile-grade stereo system around the Acoustic Energy AE1 Active Bookshelf Loudspeakers for under $4,000.

Acoustic Energy AE1 Active Speaker on stand in walnut

Reading Hi-Fi forums is bad for your health. Both mental and physical. They are to be avoided like political rallies and 2-day old falafel in the West Village. It is where people who have never designed anything in their lives find the courage to tell engineers with decades of experience that their products can’t possibly work or that they don’t sound as good as the product they created in their basement. I’m 100% sure the people who designed the Acoustic Energy AE1 know what they’re doing more than Bob. 

It is where know-it-alls turn friendly discussions about “passive” loudspeakers vs “active” loudspeakers into long-winded political diatribes; eventually pivoting to comments about your obvious ignorance due to your genocidal Zionist upbringing.

That conversation still makes me laugh.

It is precisely that Yiddishe Kop that makes me both practical and able to accept change as it pertains to a lot of things — including new technology.

It is moments like those that make me turn off the computer and raise the volume on the AE1 active loudspeakers. If you’re looking for “powered” loudspeakers that will not be obsolete even in the world of smart and wireless loudspeakers, these really need to be on your audition list.

All active loudspeakers are “powered” by nature (some are even naughty ;-)) but not all powered loudspeaker are active. 

Acoustic Energy AE1 Active Speakers in walnut no grille

The Acoustic Energy AE1 ($1,590) are active loudspeakers because they feature separate power amplifiers inside each loudspeaker; both the tweeter and midrange driver/woofer have their own amplifiers, active crossovers, and do not require a connection to the other in order to work. 

The AE1 feature 4 x 50 watt/channel class AB power amplifiers and offer no form of DSP. 

You are tied to the sound of the power amplifiers but that’s a very good thing in this case. 

These are not wireless loudspeakers, but they will work quite effectively in the context of a wireless digital streaming system. 

Acoustic Energy AE1 Active Speakers in Black Front and Back

Each loudspeaker has its own volume control (there is no remote) on the real panel of each cabinet; the placement is somewhat awkward so just leave them turned all the way up and forget that they exist. 

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It’s fine. 

Each loudspeaker features both single-ended and balanced input jacks. I didn’t find the difference between them enormous but if you have a pre-amplifier, network streamer, or DAC with balanced outputs – try them both and see which one sounds better to your ears. 

Acoustic Energy AE1 Active Speakers Back Plate

You can also trim the treble/bass response by +/- 2dB with switches on the rear panel, which will matter if you decide to set them up on a credenza and close to the wall. 

Acoustic Energy have built a very solid enclosure that is extensively braced and weighs a hefty 20 pounds each. When you pull these from their packaging, you know that you just purchased very well-made loudspeakers. The 12”H x 7”W x 10”D cabinet is deceptively heavy and inert. 

Acoustic Energy offer the AE1 in Piano Black, Piano White, and Piano Walnut. The supplied pair came in Piano Walnut and they are one of the nicest looking loudspeakers I’ve tried in many years.

Acoustic Energy AE1 Active Speakers in walnut with grille

Sadly, a pair of the matching Piano Walnut stands were not available from the U.S. distributor, so I tried the AE1 on a pair of 24” GHA iron stands and IsoAcoustics loudspeaker Aperta loudspeaker stands on a 30” credenza. 

The 5-inch ceramic aluminum sandwich cone driver is a proprietary design and can handle being driven very hard – something I did quite often. 

I’m more of a soft-dome tweeter guy, but the 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter has excellent extension, detail retrieval, and never sounds too bright; there was zero excessive treble energy.

From a tonal perspective, the AE1 are definitely on the neutral side. Nobody will call them warm sounding. Some people may find them a tad cool for their tastes. 

Which is perfectly fine because you completely change how they sound based on your choice of pre-amp, source, or DAC. 

They are also very dynamic sounding loudspeakers that certainly like to reach out and touch you. 

Bass response is first-rate with these active loudspeakers. Bass is tight, articulate, and I am inclined to believe the quoted 42Hz – 28kHz (+/- 6dB) frequency response. In a very large room, you might want to add a subwoofer, but I was more than satisfied in my office (35’ x 13’ x 9’) listening space.

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The bass response in my den listening room (16’ x 13’ x 9’) was excellent with rock, electronica, and jazz recordings. 

We’re Putting the Band Back Together…

So, where things get interesting with the Acoustic Energy AE1 is when you start building a system around them. 

If you’re only interested in a single-source digital system where you will be streaming, there are a few options that make sense but I’m going to make it easy by telling you to buy a Bluesound NODE streamer and control the volume through the app on your phone, tablet, or laptop. 

Bluesound NODE White Front
Bluesound NODE Music Streamer

The tonal balance of the NODE will add a layer of warmth to the sound and it’s hard to beat the functionality of the NODE and access to almost every streaming service available.

The NODE is not as warm sounding as the discontinued Node 2i but it’s one of the best network streamers currently available and you can read more about how it performed in our recent review. Needless to say, the Bluesound NODE will become a permanent part of my AE1 system in January.

Another solid option would be the new Cambridge Audio CXN100 or MXN10; the CXN100 might actually be ideal for those only living in the digital streaming world and whom require a high-end source that will not be obsolete for years to come. The warmer tonal balance and ability to control the volume through the Cambridge streaming app make this a rathe ideal option.

Cambridge Audio CXN100 Network Player Front Angle Detail
Cambridge Audio CXN100 Network Player

Either wireless streamer gets connected to the AE1 with one pair of interconnects (one cable to each loudspeaker so remember to think about distance from your equipment rack or credenza) and you’re done. 

If you follow the links to the other Audiophile System Builder articles in the series, you can find some other streamers or streamer/DAC combinations that I’ve already tried with the AE1 that work very well. 

If you have more than one source; streaming, CDs, turntable – you will need to invest in a pre-amplifier. 

I have to spend more money? 

WTF Reviewer Guy.

Look at it this way. The AE1 already include 4 excellent sounding solid-state class AB amplifiers so there is a cost savings there. You also don’t require loudspeaker cables. 

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You don’t need to go crazy on the pre-amplifier side; I can confidently recommend the Schiit Audio Saga+, Freya+ or even something slightly over the top like the Pro-Ject Pre Box RS2 Digital Preamp w/ DAC & Headphone Amp — which will run you almost $3,000 for a fully balanced tube pre-amplifier/DAC that includes support for up to 32-bit/768kHz files in PCM and DSD formats (up to DSD512) via USB.

Another option would be to find a used vintage McIntosh preamplifier with an internal phono preamp and go that route.

If you are thinking about using only a turntable as a source, the EAR Yoshino PhonoBox (ordered with the preamp option) would be a smart option because it’s a fantastic phono preamp and the warm tonal balance will work perfectly with the AE1 loudspeakers.

The Pro-Ject Debut PRO or Rega Planar 3 turntables would be excellent choices for this type of system, or you could use your existing table if you already have one.

Pro-ject Debut Pro Turntable Front
Pro-ject Debut Pro Turntable

I’m one with the Force. The Force is with me. 

The AE1 connects you to the music. I think that is their greatest strength. 

The first time I played Kraftwerk and Daft Punk through the AE1, I knew that they would not be leaving. They can sound effortless in the manner they present music depending on the recording. 

Pacing is a definite strength; music flows out of these relatively small 2-way loudspeakers with real drama. Drama is probably the wrong word for it – they have presence.

I’m more focused on tone, clarity, and pacing, but I think a lot of listeners will be impressed by their composure as you increase the volume.

The AE1 sound perfectly fine at lower listening levels, and never lose control or sound congested if you raise the volume too high. A lot of high-end loudspeakers in their price range stumble if you drive them hard and with demanding tracks – the AE1 don’t even flinch. 

They won’t rattle the room, but you really feel your heart start to race when the music commands it. 

Do not expect an enormous sounding soundstage, but everything is pretty solid in-between the loudspeakers and vocals can make you sit up and think that you’re not alone in your space. 

Vocals can also be slightly cool sounding if your DAC or pre-amp lean that way; detail might be phenomenal in this scenario, but I wouldn’t trade greater tonal color for it. 

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The more I listen to them – the more I feel that I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of their capabilities and that makes them the basis for a fantastic sounding system for the long haul. 

I’m not sure I would throw $5,000 pre-amplifiers and sources at them, but it’s rather evident that they would never be embarrassed in such a scenario. 

There are a number of DACs with their own volume control that could help simplify putting a system together with the Acoustic Energy AE1; Mytek, AudioQuest, NAD, iFi and Pro-Ject Audio Systems all offer components that would work well here. 

Acoustic Energy has done a masterful job with these loudspeakers that have flown under the radar for far too long.

Expect to hear a lot about them because they are becoming a permanent part of my living room system.  

Pint with pickled eggs

The Pint and Pickled Egg

Acoustic Energy AE1 Active Loudspeakers ($1,590/pair at Sound Seller)

Bluesound NODE Streamer ($499 at Amazon)

Schiit Audio Saga+ ($399 at SchiitAudio.com)

Pro-Ject Audio Systems Debut PRO Turntable ($999 at Crutchfield)

Rega Planar 3 Turntable ($1,395 at Turntable Lab)

Total System Price: $3,487 or $3,883

Related Reading: The $2,500 Audiophile System Builder

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8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Bob Rapoport

    January 18, 2021 at 3:23 pm

    Thanks to ecoustic for the insightful review, Ian has done a great job of explaining the virtues of the AE1 Active. If you’re in the market for them, Essence For Hi Res Audio is the dealer to call or write to in the USA (727-580-4393) or send an email to bob@essenceelectrostatic.com. The AE1 Actives are on sale now at $1390 a pair in Piano Black or White, $1590 in Piano Walnut shown in the review. Learn more about them here: https://www.essenceelectrostatic.com/product/acoustic-energy-ae1-active-black-pr/

    Thanks,
    Bob Rapoport, CEO
    Essence For Hi Res Audio

  2. jeffrey henning

    December 27, 2021 at 9:39 pm

    Hey, the vast majority of the recording and mastering studios in the world can’t be wrong. Active speakers offer better performance than passives and always will.

    Passive crossovers can no longer be improved up. Analog active crossovers offer better performance as well as greater stability over their lifetime.

    When you forgo the passive crossover, it pays several dividends:
    • higher output
    • the amp matches better to the speaker since it’s simpler load
    • THD & IM distortion in the amps is reduced since they have less of an audio range to cover
    • You can EQ the speakers to be flat in their operating range by default
    • EQ controls can be added to the speakers
    • If the speaker is DSP’d, the speaker’s temporal response can be made as perfect as its frequency response

    This seems like a very high value product.

    • Ian White

      December 27, 2021 at 10:28 pm

      Jeffrey,

      It’s becoming a permanent part of my system. I was floored by how good it was.

      One of the most underrated products I’ve tried in years.

      I do wish it had more than one input (the single ended and balanced are the same input), hence the reason for the preamplifier.

      Ian White

  3. ORT

    January 25, 2022 at 12:13 pm

    Well written indeed! I cannot express just how much I enjoyed this write up. It is excellente’! So much so that if I were not on a seasoned citizen’s budget I would have gone this route instead of the el cheap one I just took for a small 2.1 set up in one of the rooms of the Casa de Sapo! This one looks sweeeeeeeeeeeet!!

    Thank you so very much for the writing. Again, it was wonderfully worded and I very much appreciate the humor that was in there!

    ORT

    • Ian White

      January 25, 2022 at 2:12 pm

      ORT,

      Humor is a must. Especially when writing about audio.

      The AE1 are one of the most underrated speakers available. I was listening to some electronic music through them one evening and I decided to raise the volume considerably. They didn’t even flinch and the soundstage didn’t collapse and the visceral impact was quite surprising considering their size and the set-up position.

      Acoustic Energy makes really good speakers. They need better distribution here.

      Ian White

  4. Taiki

    October 3, 2022 at 10:31 pm

    Hi Ian, thank you for the very insightful & fun review. I am upgrading the speakers in my analog system(Marantz TT-15S>Darlington labs MP-7>Cambridge audio CXA60>Dali Oberon3), but thought can’t ignore active speaker option behind as I read this review…

    I love Oberon’s transparency but it tends to be really forward especially upper-mid and higher frequency ranges in my system, then that makes my ears fatigued within 30mins!!! Don’t you find that sort of hint out of AE1? Since I already own some decent piece, I also consider passive AE500. Can you tell me your opinion if you have listened to it? Thanks, Taiki

    • Ian White

      October 4, 2022 at 12:12 am

      Taiki,

      Thank you for reading that review.

      The AE1 is definitely forward in the upper midrange but it rolls off somewhat in the treble. It is not a polite sounding loudspeaker.

      The way to tame it is with the preamp or sources. It really changes a lot if the preamp is warmer or darker sounding. It has very strong sense of drive.

      I have yet to hear that model from AE so I can’t comment.

      Best,
      Ian White

    • ORT

      April 15, 2024 at 5:18 am

      Still as loverly as ever…Were I to buy a pair I would be likely to choose Piano Black and match that with the Pro-Ject in flat (or if available, Piano) black.

      And for the second source? A Marantz CD 50n. In silver/gold. Because back goes well with most any other colour but it does best with silver and gold.

      According to me.

      At the moment I am listening to “Ultimate Manilow” via HEOS and an XDA-2 through a Douk T-8 (in Hi…YO Silver!) into a THX Headphone Amp and out the balanced inputs to my HS+D6XX Sennheiser ‘phones.

      I have always enjoyed Manilow. He is in a way, a Sinatra man and that is the highest praise I can give him as Sinatra is Numero Uno.

      If ever I do another ‘table setup here in this…this “Fortress of Manditude” I shall give serious consideration to these Acoustic Energy AE1 is the walnut finish. They do look very nice and I don’t have to buy another turntable as my Pro-Ject X2 is already-ready-Teddy in “Satin Walnut”.

      But that is the future. I just have to make it there. If I could go back in time I would so right now and save Joni Mitchell from “Crosby, Stills, Nash and Dung”. Yuck. And more. Alas that the only way I have found to go back is to put on a record. Regardless of what we do, we are all constantly going forward.

      Look at your past to recall and remind yourself of what you did right and what you got wrong. Then face your future with that in mind and do your bestest to give said future a life worthy of looking back on.

      “Mandy” is playing.

      ORT

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