Its February 2010. I’m sat in a hotel room at an exhibition in Bristol in front of some boxes. It might it raining outside, and I think there’s some other people in the room. However on both counts I can’t be sure. I haven’t really got any space in my brain for anything other than the wonderful sound that’s filling the room. It has my complete attention.
The hotel was the Marriott, the exhibition was the Bristol hifi show and the boxes were Audio Notes AN-e loudspeakers. My first experience of their products and, quite frankly, a total game changer for me. The sound is so much richer, so much more natural and so much more right than anything else I’d heard before. I had to have them.
Or at least a version of them. Audionotes product line features several different spec versions of the same full range design. The version that have left me awestruck were the AN-e SPe Signature and at £11,500 a little (cough) outside of my budget. Three months of eager/obsessive online searching and now two large cardboard boxes are sat in the middle of my sitting room. Would this lower cost version of the E make the same impression on me?
There’s plenty of information online about the history, construction and ethos of both Peter Snells original vision and these subsequent interpretations, but to recap, or in case you’ve been living in a HIFi legend proof bunker for the last twenty years, here’s the low down. Peter Snell produces a range of speakers that are designed to work with the vibrations of the drivers rather than brace against them. The resulting models K, J and E are a success and are produced by the company until Peter Snell sadly passes away in 1984. Snell hire a Canadian designer, a certain Kevin Voecks to fill the void. His designs radically alter Snells product, leaving Peter Qvortrup’s Audio Note to buy out the original design. This ‘thin wall’ cabinet transducer, of which the E is the largest, become a major part of the brands valve centric line up, with the 90+ db sensitive speakers proving to be a perfect foil for the tube amp revival.
Lovely girl is out with friends, there’s a vat of chilli on the stove and some like minded mates are on the way over with a few beers for a good listen. A frantic unboxing sesh and they’re out, sat next to a pair of ATC SCM 40s that I call reference. First impressions – they’re big. Almost as high as the ’40s without the essential stands and twice as wide.The premium Birch burl finish is beautiful. They have the air of antique furniture.
The assembled cast are all pretty familiar with the Quad 909/Quad CDP 2 and the John Shearne phase 2 integrated electronics I switch between. A bunch of certified music nuts .. we like to think our ‘music nights’ are a bit of an institution. We run with the ATCs for a few tracks to get up to temperature and then switch.
It’s a very different sound. No surprises there I guess. But it’s duller and darker. More diffused. The bright lights studio pedigree laser pen signature of Aston Downs finest has been replaced by something a little more austere, a little less focused. A few nervous glances. We were expecting different but also better … not much is being said. Lets listen on.
A few tracks from Little Dragons wicked ‘Machine Dreams’ LP. ‘Runabout’ is playing and the energy and enthusiasm we know well is there, but its a new experience. All the detail, all the musical flavor is intact but it’s different; a full bodied Rioja to the ATCs lively Pino Grigio. ‘Swimming’ maybe doesn’t have all the slam and hit from the last time we sat together but its bigger and richer. In fact the sound is generally bigger, with the midrange and the treble less forward. Its beautifully balanced. On to Feists ‘The Reminder’ for some real instruments and a test. Leslie Feists wonderful voice has a tendency to top out a bit and can shriek on the wrong system. Again, the sound is huge and ‘So Sorry’ is more poignant and heart felt than ever before. The scale and sense of drama is wonderful. Not a sign of the harshness we’ve heard before – It all sounds so right and I’m back in that hotel room in Bristol. Instruments sound like instruments, with tone of the reproduction totally believable. The piano sounds like the noise I hear in my head when I remember seeing her play live. Some Emiliana Torrini next, and ‘Sunny Road’ has us looking at each other in disbelief. She’s about ten foot up in the air and shes singing down at us. Insert cliches about the artist being in the room about here. The level of detail is insane – You can hear the notes starting and finishing in her throat, which is less unpleasant than it sounds.
We listened into the early hours. Switching back to the ’40s bought gains in precision, low end snap and imaging but it’s too late – we’re hooked on that velvet midrange and enveloping sound. They should use these speakers in the Galaxy adverts.
Two years on and they’re still here – I’ve had no inclination to change. I’m listening to them as I write this. They’re now perfectly paired with the stablemate Oto Se integrated amplifier (more to follow) and it’s only served to accentuate those initial findings. A wonderfully rich, believable big rendition that excels with vocal, strings and piano. Smooth but wonderfully detailed and in no way soft, they can do whispering delicate or party time.
So you should buy some now, bringing to a close your quest for speaker perfection. Right? Maybe .. or maybe not. There is, of course, a closing argument for the prosecution to consider. They’re big, and on the must use stands they’re even bigger. Some might call them ugly and, in my experience, some do. Repeatedly. They aren’t the last word in imaging and if I’m being totally honest they don’t slam or punch like any number of other speakers I’ve had. The low end is there, present and correct, but it doesn’t attack you like it might. Think dub rumblings rather than a percussive assault. They’re also expensive, The entry model now costs nearly £4,000, with the range topping silver wired, silver voice coil, externally housed silver wired crossover AN-e SOGON monsters retailing at £126,500. Ouch.
All valid points for consideration, but I’m trying to think of a conventional box speaker that involves me in the way the Audio Note An-e does. I’ve heard a lot of speakers in the last two years and I can’t. Highly recommended – A must hear.