Review: Audioengine 5 Speakers - Macenstein

Review: Audioengine 5 Speakers

Posted by Lab Rat

As the computer industry becomes more and more competitive, companies have recently felt the need to branch out into new avenues of potential revenue. Companies like Dell and Gateway now sell giant flat screen TVs, PDAs, cameras, and (thanks to Apple) portable MP3 players. Apple has by far been the most successful at diversifying its product offerings with its iPod/iTunes combo. The iPod has become so popular that it has spawned an entire industry of accessories and devices touting iPod integration.

Oddly enough Apple itself held back from entering the iPod accessory market on a large scale until earlier this year when it released its iPod remote, FM tuner, leather case, and iPod Hi-Fi. The iPod Hi-Fi was perhaps Apple’s riskiest move. Until recently, Apple’s only entry into the “listening end� of the music scene was its generic white iPod earbuds (not exactly the pinnacle of hi-fidelity sound). The iPod Hi-Fi (read review) is certainly a worthy entry into the iPod speaker market, but Apple priced it about $100 above its performance level. At $350, the iPod Hi-Fi falls short of similarly priced offerings by companies who have been in the audio business far longer than Apple.

Audioengine’s Audioengine 5 (A5) speaker system is just such an offering. While not a portable system like Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi (and one could argue the iPod Hi-Fi isn’t really a portable system either), the A5 is priced the same as the Hi-Fi and delivers amazing sound that makes the iPod Hi-Fi suddenly sound “small�. There is an undeniable difference between listening to the iPod Hi-Fi’s simulated stereo separation and listening to the true stereo separation you can only get from two physically separate speakers placed about 10 feet apart from each other. Anyone considering buying the iPod Hi-Fi for use as a stationary bookshelf audio system (and I would guess that is what 90% of people would use it for) should first take a serious look at the A5.

Comparing the A5’s to the iPod Hi-Fi

The A5’s are roughly the same size as the iPod Hi-Fi, and about 5 pounds heavier (always a good sign with speakers). Both units are housed in predominantly white, acoustically tuned cabinets (although Audioengine says a black version of the A5’s will be released soon). Both systems also contain built-in subwoofers, but Audioengine’s show a level of design that can only come with experience. You don’t need to be a snobby audiophile to appreciate the difference in audio quality of the A5’s over the iPod Hi-Fi. With the A5’s positioned in my downstairs family room, I could not only hear the bass line of the White Stripe’s “Seven Nation Army� in every room in my house, I could FEEL it.

To me the most attractive thing about the iPod Hi-Fi is its seamless integration with the iPod. The Hi-Fi comes with a remote and a built-in dock, 2 things the A5’s do not. However, Audioengine bested Apple in another area that I would have thought Apple would have considered more carefully when designing the Hi-Fi. The A5’s have a built-in power outlet on the back specifically designed to accommodate an AirPort Express using AirTunes. While you can use an AirPort Express with the iPod Hi-Fi, you need to plug it into a wall outlet (if available), and then run an audio cable to the aux input on the back. I was extremely surprised Apple did not think to include some sort of built-in wireless component into their audio system given how hard they are pushing the streaming intiative.

While the A5 does not have a built-in dock, it does have a USB port for charging your iPod, and I actually feel this is a better way to go. Despite what we’d all like to think, there ARE other MP3 players out there, and the A5’s USB port is compatible with most of them (even the Shuffle can be charged, something Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi can’t do). Those people who really feel the need for a remote can go spend the extra $39 on an Apple Universal Dock.

The A5’s also have 2 audio-in ports, one on the top of the left speaker (by the USB port), and one on the back. The one on the back is placed so it can connect to an AirPort Express unit plugged into the extra AC outlet. I can’t tell you how useful I found this feature. Over Memorial Day we hosted a 60th birthday party for my wife’s mother, and using the AirPort Express I wirelessly streamed music from my old G4 tower (located in my basement) out to the A5’s which I had moved out onto the deck (yes, the A5’s CAN be moved around quite easily). It worked flawlessly, never skipping, and it sounded great. Several people remarked on how good the speakers sounded, and I wasted no time in proving myself a geek by explaining how the music was wirelessly be served from over 70 feet away. (One side note about the 2 line-in ports; they are treated equally by the speakers, meaning, if you have your iPod hooked to one, and your AirPort Express to the other, you can play both at the same time. Not that this is useful, it’s just something I accidentally noticed).

The A5’s AC port and extra audio-in port make hooking up an AirPort Express a snap.

Construction-wise, both units are solidly built, but again the nod here goes to Audioengine. The A5’s housings are “hand-built and tuned with high-gloss furniture-grade finish�, while the iPod Hi-Fi seems to be made of the same easy-to-scratch white plastic the iPod itself is made of. I also took issue with the iPod Hi-Fi’s flimsy black speaker mesh grill. Just because the iPod Hi-Fi has handles and can run off batteries, doesn’t mean it was designed to be portable. At 15 pounds, and far from rugged, I feel the iPod Hi-Fi is essentially a bookshelf speaker system not really suited to be lugged about on camping trips and thrown in the back of SUV’s. Perhaps Apple will design a $200 leather case to keep the Hi-Fi from getting scratched.

As a final note of comparison, Audioengine did something that I always appreciate. They include a wealth of cables with the A5’s, including: 3 audio cables (one 6.5’ cable, and two 8â€?), a 1/8″ to RCA “Y” cable, a USB extender cable, 12 feet of speaker cable, and a drawstring bag to put them all in. Apple on the other hand includes only the power cable and some different-sized iPod sleeves with the iPod Hi-Fi.

Using the A5

Using the A5 is very simple; just connect the speakers together via the included speaker cables, turn on the power, and plug something into one of the audio ports. Audioengine based the A5’s design on its professional-grade line of studio monitors, and they sound great without the need for tweaking EQ settings. Whereas I felt with the iPod Hi-Fi I almost had to switch the EQ settings on my iPod on a per-song basis, leaving my iPod set to “loudness� worked across the board on just about every song with the A5’s.

I have a good, but not great, Sony surround system in my living room (about $600). Ever since receiving our review set of A5’s I have been using them as my primary “home theater� speakers instead. Yes, they are stereo and not delivering a true 5.1 surround experience, but the sound is so much cleaner than my current system that for most programs I really haven’t minded. If you turn the A5’s up high enough, you are enveloped in a wall of sound that rattles your insides in a way my surround system doesn’t. In fact I have grown so accustomed to the A5’s clarity that my Sony system now sounds muffled to me, like a small pillow is covering each speaker. This is also something I noticed with the iPod Hi-Fi as well. If we had not received both units almost simultaneously for review, I would likely have rated the iPod Hi-Fi much higher. However, being able to do a side-by-side comparison with the same songs, same sources, same EQ settings etc., worked against the iPod Hi-Fi.


Audioengine claims its A5 speakers are “the best sounding and most versatile powered speakers at any price� and I am hard pressed to argue the point. This is one of the rare reviews where not only am I not going to complain about the A5’s price, but I actually think we may be getting a bargain here. There is an overall feeling of quality in the fit and finish of the Audioengine 5’s that is truly unique in the “white plastic wasteland� that dominates the iPod speaker market. The clarity of sound the A5’s deliver is amazing, and you will find yourself hearing instruments you never before noticed in songs you’ve heard a dozen times. If you have heard Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi and been impressed by its sound, you owe it to yourself to try out the A5’s before making a purchase. You may give up a handle and a remote with the A5, but you will be finally hearing the music you love the way the musicians intended.

Audioengine 5 (A5) speakers by Audioengine

Price: $349

Pros: The highest quality sound you can get from your iPod, works great with AirPort Express/AirTunes, solidly built, all cables included, black version coming soon

Cons: If you want a remote you’ll need to fork out another $40 for a Universal Dock.

3 Responses to “Review: Audioengine 5 Speakers”
  1. Jeff says:

    I have a pair of these. They really DO kick ass. I actually bought an Airport Express specifically to use with the A5’s and I love it! I sort of bought it blindly though, as I couldn’t find anywhere to actually hear them before I bought them, but I am certainly impressed! Anyone living near the greater Tampa area who wants to listen to them first, come on over!

  2. dave says:

    How are these as nearfield computer speakers?
    How are they compared to the Swans m200 or s200a’s?

  3. Romanesq says:

    Just to provide some a current review in 2008, I’ve had these things for a couple of months and they are excellent. For the money they provide a very good value.

    I’ve had full blown systems with B&W 803 Nautilus (5K) and currently the NHT Xd system but for the money these are an excellent value.

    I’m running them with just an intel mac mini, external 500 GB hard drive with all my music and have tested both direct and with Apple’s Airport Express.

    In my den, these things provide very very good sound not unlike my Paradigm Reference 20s but then again those were wired with a one of a kind McCormack DNA-2 Deluxe Rev. A amp (7K+).

    So that’s saying something. Near field these things are excellent. Really, that you can hook up all your music with these is just an excellent value.

    Highest recommendation.

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