With the release of Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi, we have a better notion of what Apple considers to be a reasonable price for a higher-end portable powered music system — $350. Priced higher than other speaker systems such as the Bose Sounddock ($300) and Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM7 ($250), the iPod Hi-Fi pumps out richer (and louder) sound than these products. But what can you get for the same price as the iPod Hi-Fi?
One answer is Audioengine’s $349 Audioengine 5, a pair of white, powered bookshelf speakers that lack some of the Hi-Fi’s niceties but offer rich sound and room-filling volume similar to Apple’s portable stereo.
Inside and out
Each speaker is about the size of a three-slice toaster: 10 inches tall, 7 inches wide, and 7.8 inches deep. The left speaker (which contains the amplifier) weighs 14 lbs. while the right is lighter at 9 lbs. Inside the left speaker is a dual Class AB monolithic amplifier rated at 45W RMS/70W peak per channel. Each cabinet holds a 20mm silk dome tweeter with neodymium magnets and a 5” Kevlar woofer and has a rated frequency response of 60Hz-22kHz +/-1.5dB. Both speakers are shielded so they can be used next to a CRT display (a computer monitor or television) without fear that the display will impersonate a 60s light show due to magnetic interference.
On the top and back of the left speaker you find the Audioengine’s various switches, inputs, and outputs. Specifically, the top bears a 1/8” (minijack) stereo input and a USB port. The USB port provides power to whatever is plugged into it; however, it can’t be used for direct playback of music. (In other words, you can’t plug your iPod shuffle into it and expect the shuffle to play through the speakers; you need to also string an audio cable from the top of the shuffle to the speaker’s audio input jack.)
The front of the speaker sports a power LED and a volume knob, while the back hosts an additional miniplug audio input, bare-wire output ports for connecting the right speaker, a voltage selection switch (for switching between 115 and 230 volts), the power switch, the power connector, and an auxiliary AC outlet. As with the iPod Hi-Fi, the Audioengine 5 has an internal power supply, so it doesn’t require a power cord with a brick attachment. The right speaker simply holds the bare-wire speaker connectors.
Bundled in the box are a generous supply of cables including a 1/8” audio cable (2 meters long), two 1/8” audio cables (8 inches long), one 1/8” to RCA “Y” cable, a USB power extender cable (1 meter), 16AWG Speaker wire (3.75 meters long), and a drawstring bag to hold the cables.
All of which add up to mean:
- Although you could use the Audioengine 5s as computer speakers, they’re going to look a little big on your desk. When Audioengine describes these things as bookshelf speakers, they’re not kidding (though you could certainly place them next to your TV on speaker stands).
- Adding to their sense of size is the speakers’ construction. They’re solid as a rock and well crafted from medium density fiberboard coated with multi-layer, multi-buffed polyurethane paint, with a primer base. The rounded sides reflect some of the iPod’s design sensibilities, as does the exterior’s white color.
- There’s no dock connector. The one obvious feature missing is an iPod dock. Representatives from Audioengine explained that many customers already have some variety of iPod dock so its inclusion on these speakers is unnecessary. Customers could power their iPod via the USB power connector on the top of the left speaker and complete the audio connection by stringing a cable from the dock or iPod’s audio port to the speaker’s top input port.
- Apple’s Made for iPod program had some influence on the design. Manufacturers who include Apple’s proprietary dock connector on their products must pay Apple a fee-per-unit for doing so (allegedly as much as 10% of the product’s wholesale price). This fee is passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices and it seems that Audioengine is conscious of what the market will bear in regard to portable speakers. I may be wrong, but I can’t help but believe that the dock connector was sacrificed to maintain the $350 price point. I think it’s too bad because this is a product that screams out for a dock.
- That extra power connector is very handy. Why would the left speaker include auxiliary power and audio connectors on the back? For your AirPort Express, of course. Plug that AirPort Express into the back of the unit, string the included audio cable between the AirPort Express and the aux input jack, fire up iTunes, and you’re streaming music from one end of your home to the other. And now that iTunes supports simultaneous streaming to up to three AirPort Expresses, you’ve got a good-sounding multi-room audio system for a reasonable price.
- The speakers are loud, clean, and reasonably well-balanced. You can crank the Audioengine 5s to a level that many would find uncomfortable—not because they sound poor or distorted at high volume, but because it’s hard to hear yourself think at that volume. If you want to rock, these speakers are up to the task (though they don’t offer the gut-rattling thump you get from a system with a large subwoofer).
At the same time, the sound they offer is impressive. While I find the iPod Hi-Fi’s sound too mid-heavy, the Audioengine 5s are more balanced to my ears. The bass is pronounced without the thump, the low-to-mid range is a touch heavier than I like but the application of a little iTunes/iPod EQ clears that up (the speakers include no tone controls of their own), and there’s enough high end to lend a nice sheen to my classical and jazz recordings. And, of course, because you can separate the speakers, you can create the kind of soundstage that the iPod Hi-Fi can only dream of. The speakers’ sound quality is no match for my living room’s B&W speakers, but those speakers are unpowered, larger, and significantly more expensive. Compare them instead to powered speakers priced under $500 that are intended for the portable music market and you’ll feel the way I do—nothing can touch them.
To my ears the Audioengine 5s provide solid sound from the devices it was designed for—computers, portable music players, and AV media centers. If, based on sound quality alone, I had to choose between the iPod Hi-Fi and these speakers, I’d opt for the Audioengine 5s for their more-balanced sound and their ability to be separated. Although I’d prefer to see the kind of dock connector found on the iPod Hi-Fi, I can get by with one of the docks I own. And, short of building an AirPort Express directly into the speakers, I couldn’t be more pleased that Audioengine’s engineers figured the existence of streaming music devices into their design. All in all, the Audioengine 5 is a very worthy set of powered speakers that will serve you well in a bedroom, office, living room, or, with iTunes’ AirPlay streaming feature, all three.
Updated 3/20/06 to detail the speaker’s coating.