Consider three of my rules for monitor speakers. Rule One – brightness is an unforgivable sin, extra top end energy will fatigue the listener and in the end a tiring speaker is not one you want to listen to. Rule Two – many smaller ported loudspeakers gain low end extension at the expense of bass waffle. And third class D amps – be careful there – are they really ready for the main event?
All of which brings me neatly to the Airpulse A200s. The creation of Phil Jones – famed for his Acoustic Energy AE1 design – Mr. Jones is a man who has a track record in ground breaking loudspeaker design – and the A200 threaten to break all my rules in one glorious splash. The A200s are a classic two drive unit ported active system. Classic for studio monitors that is, most hifi speaker designers have long since turned their back on active systems. But without giving anything away – things might be about to change – more of that another day. The A200s are powered by class D amps and feature internal DSP using a Texas Instruments miniDSP to handle cross over and other signal processing. One rather unusual design decision is that like a computer speaker all the amps and processing are in one of the speakers which handles all the inputs, controls and requires mains power. The audio goodness is carried to the second speaker down a substantial five meter umbilical which for added nostalgia value features five pin din plugs. I might have preferred nice locking XLR5s but there you go.
The external finish of the A200s is of a very high standard sporting a cherry veneer – certainly not a problem to put a pair of these in the your living room. Both the drivers are worthy of comment. The tweeter is a horn loaded ribbon, nice to see more ribbons around these days and the one in the A200s has a major impact on the sound. The five and a half inch mid bass unit features an aluminium cone and a magnesium cast alloy frame that promises ultra rigidity and low levels of distortion and colouration. The rear panel has an unusual oval port designed to smooth the air flow for better performance.
Ok now to rule one – the A200 is a bright loudspeaker, it might even be hard edged at times. There I’ve said it. So does that mean we consign the A200 to the interesting but disappointing pile? No, far from it. The top end has a magical level of detail to the point of revelation. I don’t know to what extent the two factors are entwined but there is something addictive about the sheer amount of information pouring out of the A200’s ribbons. It feels like a veil is lifted from percussion – when you hit something musical all the harmonics seem to be presented for listener enjoyment and analysis. One of my favourite aspects is tambourines – so often obscured in the mix – the A200s allow them to shimmer, however quietly, and retain all their definition. And the same goes for delicate cymbal work. There is simply a huge amount of detail and information on offer from the Airpulse A200s.
The on board DSP offers plus or minus three dB on the hf and lf – so if you want to tweak the curve you can. I should also mention the inputs – balanced analogue on xlr, unbalanced on phonos, digital (up to 192kHz) on spdif coax and toslink and an AptX bluetooth option. And as an active system they rejoice in a remote control – so you don’t have to fumble round the back to change the input or adjust the volume.
Back to the rules – I was so struck by the top end of the A200s that at first I didn’t notice the bottom end – but when I shipped them down to Audio T to give them a whirl in their dem room – then the weight and authority of the A200s were clearly in evidence and without the sloppy boom of so many ported speakers. Phil Jones is a clever clogs. Vocals are often clearly defined on the A200s to the point where you are asking yourself – have I heard that timbre before? There’s a real clarity that offers some surprising insights into your music collection or indeed your mix.
And finally the Class D amps – and here is where we are entering the world of the imponderable or very nearly. With active speakers you don’t really a chance to critique the amps separately – that’s part of the deal. Having said that we might speculate based on what we know of the Airpulse family. There is a ‘bigger brother’ to the A200 the passive 7001.
Now you have to take specs with a pinch of salt but.. How come the A200s frequency response is quoted as 46 Hz to 20 kHz (no figure for deviation available) while the 7001 rejoices in 49 Hz to 40 kHz plus or minus 3db? I’m not sure but both speakers share substantially the same ribbon tweeter. How does the 7001 manage an extra 20 k of top end extension. When I started this review I stuck a big play list on and it so happens I have just reached an Elton John masterpiece ‘Your Song’ – and I stopped writing as I listened to the vocal – the A200s presentation of Elton’s voice just stopped me in my tracks. Wondering what year ‘Your Song’ was released (1970) I hopped on to Wikkipedia – and stumbled on this John Lennon quote about ‘Your Song’.
‘Great, that’s the first new thing that’s happened since we happened.’ It was a step forward. There was something about his vocal that was an improvement on all of the English vocals until then. I was pleased with it.’
Me too. The A200s let you hear what John Lennon hears!
Summing up, in some ways I’m not sure what to make of the Airpulse A200s – they are an intriguing mix of cutting edge technology and sound quality along with a few elements that you need to think carefully about. First audition the top end and make sure the balance is one you can live with. The active format with umbilical cable is an unusual configuration – does it work in your set up? It is always good when a product arrives that shakes up expectations – and the A200s are a breath of fresh air in monitor speakers, loaded with facilities, beautifully finished and with some outstanding audio strengths. And for the level of performance they are not at all expensive, isn’t that the definition of a bargain?