AudioNote AN-E/Lexus Speakers, the gateway drug?
One of the roads less traveled in quality audio is the world of vintage and vintage-based-technology equipment. Usually tube based, often very low power mated with high-efficiency loudspeaker designs, it generally makes the more mainstream audio community go right into grid current (a little tube joke for the ham operators out there).
It’s also characterized by a seeming disregard for technical measurements (by the retro-audiophiles and sometimes even the designers) and for decent, moral regard for the sacredness of accuracy and neutrality. These musically horny tarts are so depraved as to…oops, lapsed into a Monty Python bit. Sorry.
All seriousness aside, the retro-phile (as it were) prizes emotional response and musical satisfaction over the usual concerns about accuracy (to whatever one thinks playback should be accurate to, I guess). Dissecting music into pieces for analysis is anathema to them, akin to testing wines through chemical analysis. One thing I admire is their insistence on assessing audio gear without the reassuring recourse to measurements to back their opinions up. That’s a tightrope with no net and, for many audiophiles, really just to dangerous.
For the most part, this equipment is not seen that often in mainstream print audio (remember when they were called the “underground audio press”? Meet the new boss…), except for the past writings of Peter Breuninger for TAS and Stereophile and currently by Art Dudley of Stereophile, who have, I am sure, suffered slings and arrows from the establishment for their apostasy. But it WAS championed in print by “Sound Practices” and “Positive Feedback” back in the day and in print and later on line by the late Harvey Rosenberg, who the grim-faced arbiters of audio morality loved to hate. BTW, go check out Harvey’s legacy website http://www.meta-gizmo.net/. Now THERE was a dude who loved to write, especially about his beloved audio interests. And with a sense of humor, which was a big reason why “the grim-faced arbiters of audio morality” (is it OK to quote yourself, especially in the same paragraph?) were so outraged.
But once the seeds are sown, like forbidden fruit, this subculture beckons. Is it for you? Is it for me? I certainly don’t think it’s for everyone. But you’ll never know till you dip your toe in the water and find out for yourself. One way to ease into this is with Audio Note speakers. The AN-E/Lexus is not representative of the very latest or even the very best Audio Note has to offer, but it can give a healthy bite of the AN sound. And, although it has more in common with the audio hedonists rather than the traditionalists, it’s not too scary to the uninitiated as this speaker derives from the Snell E designed back in the early 1980’s by the late Peter Snell (who was firmly in the audio mainstream).
The AN-E/Lexus is a fairly large 2 way, designed to be elevated on a short stand. It’s also a bit unique, in that it is designed with corner placement as an option. In fact, corner placement is how Audio Note shows the speakers at audio shows and really, the design appears to be more optimum for this placement, the anechoic response starts to shelve down in the midbass and the reenforcement the corner placement provides brings the bass up closer to the midrange in level.
I tried the speaker both ways, in my den system, an approximately 12 X 14 foot room in the corners and out in the room in my main room which is larger, but has no realistic way to employ corner placement. I did prefer the corner placement as the tonal balance was indeed better this way, the midbass especially thinning out under these circumstances. But what I really liked was that, in a small room where speakers placed out in the room can seem physically (and sonically) in your face, the corner placement made the room look much less cluttered and created an expansive, if more distant than typical, soundfield. Maybe corner placement should come back into vogue a bit, for both sonic and esthetic considerations.
Overall, the tonal balance tends to the mid-centric and if your ideal is Harbeth/Spendor flatness of response, you won’t find it here. Not that it’s wildly bizarre, though. This is a sound that emphasizes a somewhat more “organic” sound at the cost of what some may consider accuracy. But in many ways, it does tend to bring an alluring sound to a great number of recordings, not requiring the best recordings for musical enjoyment and helping to ensure that relatively poor recordings are not heard at their worst, either.
To really hear all of what Audio Note can do would require exposure to their currently manufactured more costly designs which I have only heard at shows. You can spend anywhere from $6000 to $20,000 on what’s basically the same speaker with tweaks as you go up the line, the top models employ Alnico magnets, hemp cones, silver voice coils and external crossovers with higher quality components. The Audio Note show systems I have heard have sounded quite fine. I can’t tell you where the optimum cost/benefit line is, but I will say that if you don’t dig what you hear from the lower levels of this model, I doubt that going for the throat will make the difference. On the other hand, if you do like the basic design, I suspect that as you move up you do get more, Audio Note has stayed steadfast to this design over the years so they should have a pretty good idea what’s going on with it at this point.
Audio Note speakers make a persuasive argument that classic “neutrality” (whatever that really is) as aspired to by more mainstream designs may not be the only way to musical satisfaction. Certainly, this road can exist in parallel with the currently more established paradigms, I think.