I have a story to tell. So if you have a few minutes, sit down, crack open your favorite beverage, and read along. I'm enjoying a Sam Adams blackberry witbier while writing this post - and listening to some tunes through my new speakers. Cheers to good music and hi-fi sound!
My fiancé and I have been at our new home for about a year now. It's a small place, nothing special, just a humble 2-bedroom starter home. The living room is about 15 x 20 ft, hardwood flooring, couch, table, tv, not much else. We do most of our "living" there. We also watch a few movies every week, but our entertainment system is lacking. Until today, it consisted of a tube TV, a DVD player, and a DTV box w/ bunny ears. That's it. It's gotten us by so far.
I've always been a music and film nut. I try to see at least 10 concerts per year, and probably go to twice as many movies (hey, I save money not having cable). I don't watch much TV, but we use the set-up described above for watching DVDs. For private music listening, I've always resorted to my car. This lets me turn up the volume and really enjoy the sound. In the house, I have an $80 Tivoli Audio single speaker radio from Target on the table in the kitchen. It sounds amazingly good for what it is.
About a month ago, I got this idea that I would install some kind of "home theater system" in the living room. The objective was to have the best sound possible for the least about of money - what an original idea! But seriously, like the Tivoli radio, I liked the prospect of having a simple set-up that delivered the goods, so thought I'd do some research and see what my options were. I knew one thing, whatever it was had to be small. My fiancé wouldn't permit a stack of components and floor-standing speakers. How do I explain it - she's a clean freak, and likes to have as little of everything
So I made a decision: my home theater system would be "Dolby 2.0" or basic 2-channel stereo, and this fact alone should keep the cost down. I knew from experience that you can have great sound quality from just a pair of good speakers and a modest amplifier. Take headphones, for example, and car stereos. No, it's not Dolby Digital 7._ THX certified Pro Logic, whatever... nope, a simple pair of stereo speakers can sound very, very good. And so the search was on.
I started Googling bookshelf speakers, and eventually migrated into Logitech and Klipsch desktop speakers for the PC. Since I use a set of Boston Acoustics PC speakers at work that sound pretty good, I looked into this area as a very real possibility. No fancy bells and whistles, just a set of left and rights, maybe a small subwoofer. The best part was, most of these PC speakers had the amplifier built in, so that meant no external components. Also, I know the gamers like to blast their sound effects pretty loudly, so maybe a good set of PC speakers could take a beating and sound good doing it?
Not sure how or when I made the discovery, but I think it was sorting by price at some on-line electronics dealer like newegg or J&R. The cut-off was $200. Yes, I had made the decision to buy an entire home theater system for under $200. I figured a set of desktop PC speakers for $200 might actually be a good starting point. At least I could take notes, then visit a local store and test a few out.
The "discovery" was a pair of speakers called the Audioengine 2. I had never heard of this company, but after reading a few reviews and consumer postings, I became very interested. Basically, here was a pair of stereo 2-way speakers, about 6" tall, employing Kevlar woofers & silk dome tweets - with 30Wrms of built in amplification, for $199. The idea was to connect your computer or iPod, but with RCA and 1/8" phono inputs, anything is possible. The big audio magazines like Stereophile were eating this up, saying some damn good things about this product.
Here's a photo of the system:
Yep, that's it. Two speakers. Sure, there's a power supply, and a single 6 ft long piece of speaker wire, and a cord to plug in your iPod, but really, that's it. As far as looks go, I think they're pretty elegant, using the traditional piano gloss black, or if you want them in white, there is that option. One reviewer said he couldn't decide which color to get, so he bought a pair of both!
Other comments I read slowly convinced me that for $200, this was a sweet deal. Probably the single thing that made up my mind was this quote from the cnet review:"I moved the Audioengine 2 out from the desktop and played them in my bedroom hooked up to a CD player. Wow, with more breathing room the sound was even better and stereo imaging stretched way beyond the actual locations of the speakers."
So at least one reviewer thought the Audioengines were well-suited for more than desktop use. I was ready to buy.
Trying to find these speakers new for under $199 is near impossible. It's like trying to find a new Lotus Elise for under $50k - you just can't. Everyone in the market knows they are worth the price. But I wanted to see if a better deal was out there, so searched Amazon for a couple weeks and finally found my deal: used, "like-new" for $169. Done. (I would have paid the $199 eventually).
A week later, I received the Audioengine 2s in the mail. The box they came in is minuscule, appearing only big enough for one speaker, not two. But then I opened it, and the fun began. The packaging people must have been given an unlimited budget for this project:
Yes, they put everything in its own velvet bag:
And here is everything. I doubt it's ever been used. Looks new, anyway:
And here is what the back sides look like. Note the volume knob placement:
Here is my less-than-$200 home theater after the 10 minute installation. All I had to do was hook up three wires:
How does it sound? Well, as the Stereophile reviewer put it:"With every tune I played, I heard no noticeable coloration throughout the speaker's entire range; it was as neutral-sounding as any under-$1000 speaker I've heard. The highs were extended and detailed, and the Audioengine 2 was able to recreate room ambience and low-level dynamic articulation at levels of quality I'm used to hearing from far more expensive speakers."
I agree, even though I don't know very well what a pair of $1000 speakers sounds like, I would say with 100% confidence, if I paid a professional $1000 to install an "audiophile" quality stereo system, and it sounded as good as these two little 6" cubes, I'd be quite happy. That's all I can really say. They sound flawless.
First test: DVD copy of the classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, recorded in stereo in 1967, and still one of my favorite movies. I watched the first few scenes, and was stunned at how loudly and accurate these little monsters slammed out the kettle drums of the opening theme. Also, they played Strauss's Blue Danube Waltz with such grace that I really haven't heard before, even during a theater playing of the film in 70 mm I saw last year. Listening through the film, there are all of the background effects, sound of the space craft, and that unmistakable voice of HAL - all perfect.
Next, a modern action flick - The Bourne Ultimatum was the first one I found. Wow, again. These little speakers really can perform like much larger models. I even felt the floor shake at times, and we're talking about 2.75" woofers here! Voices, music, foley affects, it was all in there. Simply amazing. Forget the fact that there's no surround sound. I didn't care, because the front channels sounded so friggin' good!
Now I had to connect my iPod and play some music. Pachelbel's Canon in D was first - flawless (and loud). Then some Ben Lee followed by Death Cab. I'd been to see both of these artists within the past 6 months, and the Audioengines impressed me with their tonal accuracy. Finally some Radiohead and Aphex Twin to test the bass range. Incredible, almost hard to believe these little woofers can move so much air. I tried to turn them up and distort, but it was pretty hard to do. The only noise I could create was from air turbulence blowing out of the slot vents. The speakers and cabinets were dead silent except for the music coming from them. Even with the air noise, the bass sounded very good from a few feet away. Not distorted at all. I can definitely use these without a sub.
Finally, to wrap up, I just want to say (if you can't already tell I'm excited about these speakers) I'm excited about these speakers! I'm excited about the low price, the fact they are heavy and made from wood, and that they look like something the average person wants to see sitting in their living room. It's truly great that a couple of dudes in California can set up shop and design a new product that blows away competition costing 5 or 10 times the price. Sure, these little speakers have limits - they aren't 2000W Marshall Stacks - but otherwise they sound great, and it helps that they have the story and the looks to seal the deal. One of the best products I've come across in a long while, maybe since I bought my Riviera.