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Speaker Asylum: REVIEW: Audio Note Kit 02-AN E/L Speakers by MikeRanfft

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REVIEW: Audio Note Kit 02-AN E/L Speakers

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Model: Kit 02-AN E/L
Category: Speakers
Suggested Retail Price: contact Audio Note Kits
Description: Kit version of AN E/L Speaker
Manufacturer URL: Audio Note
Manufacturer URL: Audio Note

Review by MikeRanfft ( A ) on August 27, 2004 at 14:12:55
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AN E/L –Kit 02 Review

I’ve had the AN E/L in the Kit 02 version for about 9 months now and felt like it’s time to render some kind of review for a very special speaker. I’ll try to give you my sense of the sonic signature of this speaker, also my thoughts on how the kit speaker compares to the production version.


First off, I feel it’s important to try to give the reader a sense of where I come from as an audiophile. Starting as I did in the late 80’s when Linn demo’s were de rigueur and the source was demonstrated as being primary, I settled on entry level speakers (Linn Index Plus with Linn Sara stands) and kept them- for a very long time. Different source components came and went (including many LP12 incarnations, an Oracle TT, my present AN/Voyd TT3 and Arcam ‘72T) as well as many different solid-state integrated and pre/power amps, up to my current tube integrated AN OTO SE Phono. To their credit, the two- way bookshelf Index Plus’s seemed to keep up with pretty much all the components I threw at them. They were never fatiguing, resolved adequately and in combination with great stands portrayed a bass that was lean in the best sense and yet informed. Overall, they were a simple design that preserved much of the musical message while doing no harm.

Of course I was tempted to change speakers, and listened to many that came through Terry’s stereo shop (Sound Hounds, here in Victoria, B.C.) However, a truly great speaker-like everything else in the audio chain-is not easy to find, or inexpensive. So I waited, almost bought a few times, and waited, all the time changing upstream components.


It was my move to low powered tube based amplification that finally pushed my long- held speaker status quo. It now seemed time to really assess where speakers had come in all these years and to try an acoustic window perhaps more synergistic to my Great New Chapter of Audio- that is, Low Powered Single-Ended, Class A Tube Amplification (a la Audio Note). I knew that a higher sensitivity design might give my analog playback more headroom- and I was never going to forsake analog, especially with my latest greatest TT3 rig- but what else, given the present-day speaker options, was I truly missing?

The guys at the shop were trying Audio Note amps including my OTO SE with various speakers, so I had a chance to hear how these might influence or interact with modern day low powered tube amplification.

Now, you can make all kinds of conjectures but you never know until you actually try. Surprisingly, a B&W floor standing speaker paired with my amp still portrayed the typical nautilus tweeter sound on the top end-thin and slightly etched for me. The 3A MM Reference speakers were musical but seemed slightly rolled off in both frequency extremes. Although I had not heard my amp with current model Linn speakers the feedback I received about trying this confirmed the same general sound palette of my venerable Index Plus’s, namely Linn’s somewhat polite but detailed and musical signature. I was starting to realize what I was only vaguely aware of previously-and what the Linn demos hadn’t quite told us-and that is, the extent to which speakers inherently order and uniquely translate all the information preceding them. Yes, a basic speaker could accommodate all kinds of source and amplification improvements, but how and the extent these were actually portrayed was uniquely speaker specific. (Probably this insight is a given for the readers who have lived with lots of speakers.) One surprising aspect worth mentioning regarding the pairing of my 10 watt OTO SE Class A amplifier with various speakers was that most of the time, the amp drove the speakers to adequate sound levels.

(And I’ll stop here and say that of course I have just made a lot of speaker brand generalizations-and these may not hold for specific models or amplifier interactions or for you- and are not meant to denigrate the speakers but to provide the reader a sense of how I personally processed the observations that led up to the Kit 02 E’s.)

When it came time to really assess Audio Note speakers I did not initially look at the AN /E’s. This was partly due to the increased cost over the smaller AN K’s and AN J’s, but also due to what I call my Big Speaker Reservations. To me, the (Flagship) Big Speakers in a given manufacturer’s line up are often fraught with problems. As our audio builder Lou Reda put it to me once, “big speakers have big problems.” The biggest problem of course is the challenge of reproducing a bass that goes down to seismic levels without veiling the midrange in the slightest. And that is a truly daunting task for a speaker.

Also, just because it is able to reproduce deep bass, can the speaker reproduce various kinds of bass? As far as I am concerned, nothing should be in the least homogenous in the sound reproduction-especially not in the bass, but also not in the midrange or treble for that matter.

The second problem I feel Big Speakers are posed is in the challenge of providing a large, expansive acoustic window- but without sacrificing the element of intimacy that smaller speakers typically excel in. To me, there is a flatness of the sound of many Flagship Big Speakers. It’s as if in the effort to sound fully neutral and fully accurate and lifelike suddenly all the delicacy, subtlety and intimacy is thrown out. All the music gets straitjacketed onto a big black and white canvas that is supposed to resemble a sound studio. Micro-dynamics are sacrificed for macro dynamics. And forget tonal complexity- now there is only a bleached kind of neutrality that is supposed to pass as accuracy.

So it’s with these reservations that I happened to be listening to the AN/ E’s. Paired with AN turntables, the AN/ E’s created sound-scapes that amazingly resolved all the paradoxes I feel a Big Speaker should truly be capable of dealing with. The soundstage was large and gave the music breathing space yet captured nuances along with the instrumental layers. So the sound was still subtle. Dynamics were accurate, sensitive and preserved both micro as well as macro levels. Tonal shadings were complex from light to dark and the bass was tight and complex and reflected both the recording and quality of source. And with it’s increased sensitivity the AN/E was an obviously fabulous match for a turntable source with low powered amplification.

The AN/E Kit 02

A few months later, thinking I would only be able to afford an AN/K speaker-a great smaller Audio Note that comes from the same acoustic family- I happened on a built Kit 02 version of the AN/E. Not surprisingly, though barely broken in, I heard much of what I had enjoyed in the turntable demos with the production E’s a few months earlier. With the price so affordable in relation to the production E’s, I bought them.

My K02/E’s were wired with AN L level copper speaker wire internally. Small pieces of stiff bare silver wire provided the jumpers between the double pairs of speaker terminals to facilitate single wiring with my Linn speaker cable. The speaker was made with local materials: front and back were cut with Baltic birch ply and the sides and other parts were MDF. Chris, the woodworking audio craftsman that built these speakers for Sound Hounds, varnished them entirely but left them unfinished, that is to say, without veneers. They look fine, but the sides could probably use some handsome oak or maple veneers to show the speakers off best. For those of you quite unfamiliar with this speaker, the dimensions are 31.5”H x 14.1”W x 11”D and use a single 8” woofer and tweeter per speaker. They are a sealed enclosure except for the 2.5” port on the back and Dacron was used as a light damping material-and yes, Audio Note also uses Dacron. Just like the production E’s, the Kit 02’s have high speaker efficiency and are rated at close to 94 dB. The extra cabinet length over the smaller models is what AN says results in the extra lower octave of bass frequency (-6dB 17Hz). The wider baffle area is also specifically designed to render a timbre- accurate midrange as opposed to the thin compromised sound that AN says most modern slim baffle speakers produce.

As the reader may or may not be aware, a long history of R&D goes into this speaker. Peter Snell’s research for one, but so does the extensive work of audio engineer Leo Baranek many decades ago. Leo designed opera houses and sound installations- along with speakers-and is considered to be a pioneer in acoustics. Currently, Audio Note tests and calibrates their speakers and speaker kits, measuring differences of reflected sound in the order of 5 milliseconds. So, just in case you thought the design of the Kit 02 E’s is just quaintly different for no reason-nothing further could be from the truth.

An important corollary from this is that when building the Kit 02’s, the builder should take absolutely no shortcuts or deviations from the plans. For instance, there are ‘braces’ in the speaker, horizontal lengths of wood that do not go all the way to the side of the speaker. This is for a reason, as they are actually there to consolidate a frequency node, not to actually physically strengthen the speaker. The Kit ‘02’s are essentially specifically tuned acoustic instruments, and any liberties you might take will likely compromise their sound qualities.

Back to my actual speakers, Chris fabricated an interesting elegant looking inexpensive set of speaker stands one could start off with. Using pieces of MDF he built low, about 5 degree-angled shelves with a lip in the back to keep the speaker from sliding off. The shelf-stands are 2” high at the back and 2 7/8” in the front with the 3/4” shelf just smaller than the footprint of the speaker and resting on two rising 3/4” wide rails. For someone on a kit budget the low shelf stands look fine and point the tweeter to the optimal ear level. However, I later found another low cost solution (courtesy of Lou that I will later unveil) and I tend to think it better approximates the 10” or so steel stands that AN provides for the production E’s. Read on.

My initial impression of the only slightly broken in Kit 02’s confirmed the general signature of the production E’s in their resolution of the strands and layers of music. From the start, instrumental lines were now fully formed and more transparently clear. Vocals were also more lucid. You could tell that the openness, dynamics and frequency extension needed some break-in time to develop, but those qualities were there also. And for the first time I became aware of a fundamental characteristic I had not previously noted in the E’s but now was evident to me- and not heard in a long time in any speaker-and that was a greater accurate reproduction of instrumental timbres. Here I’m using fancy language to talk about a speaker’s ability to portray a sax as fundamentally different than a trumpet, or an alto from a tenor sax, or a jazz electric guitar from a rock guitar. Maybe this is indeed proof of AN’s theories about baffle design and midrange behaviour. In any case, I think this is big stuff here and I’ll return to this point later. But basically there was musical accuracy along with superb accuracy of reproduction of instrumental (and vocal) timbres-the very stuff of the musical fabric. And all naturally rather than analytically presented.

And then, the break-in really began. And continued and continued and continued. The official word is that the E’s take about 300 hours or so to break in, but I think subtle refinements continue long after. For most of you that have had a lot of speakers, the break-in might seem like old hat: the bass comes on strong, then the treble, then the midrange depth. But with the Kit ‘02s then the whole process occurs again and again on subtler levels, with the soundstage expanding and refining in a kind of yin and yang as each successive musical change builds on the previous one. At times the changes were so strong that I had to reposition the speakers. Ultimately the speakers projected more (their efficiency seeming to increase with the break-in also) and developed an increasingly sophisticated ‘vocabulary’, if you like. I put out for answers as to why the E’s had such a long self-refining break-in and David Cope (Audio Note U.S. distributor) felt that this was a result of the high quality parts and simple design of the crossover and speaker as a whole. Who knows, but it is pretty neat to hear a speaker just keep getting better and better.

At a certain point I thought about how the speakers were intended to be shown-level on their 10” or so high stands- and I decided to experiment with another low cost interim stand solution. Courtesy of Lou Reda’s ideas, I decided to try a pair of-believe it or not- black (!) plastic milk crates, purchased new from a plastics store and placed upside down under the speakers. Verdict: this was much better than an angled 2-3” high stand as the music now filled the listening room in a more expansive way. Contrary to what you may think, the sound on the plastic stands had a tight bass and a clear and focused midrange. As a veteran of spiked heavy steel stands I was quite shocked. It certainly lends weight to Lou’s thoughts about plastic as an inert non-resonant material being successfully applied in audio. I used squares of thin rubber to make certain the speaker was level and stable.

Positioning is also another significant aspect factor with this speaker. Audio Note recommends having the speakers close in the corners and close to the walls and ultimately this is where they gravitated to in my living room. I found that having the speakers further out could give you a more expansive sound but it became thin, with less focused images. Tonal colors were also compromised. Having the speakers close to the walls did increase the bass somewhat but paradoxically also controlled the bass, and made the elements of the midrange more fixed or ‘tangible’ as Peter Q. describes it. I also found that a liberal toe in also gave a more fleshed out midrange and a greater spread of the sound in the room, as Peter also suggested.

My current position for the speakers has them about 6 ft. apart (from the inside) on either side of my fireplace hearth and each toed-in at 2.5-4.5” away from the walls. They are 4” to either side of the hearth from the back of the speaker. The fireplace hearth comes out about 4” from the walls, is built 5.5” high off the floor and extends out 16”. So in essence the hearth of my fireplace (that I don’t actually use) becomes a mild barrier that creates two corners on either side for each speaker to get tucked into. My actual listening position varies from 6 to 12 feet away from the speakers. The Kit 02 E’s have no problem filling the entire living room-about 12X15 ft.-with appreciable sound levels. According to Peter Q. the E’s are versatile and will work in rooms from 18sq. meters to over 80 sq. meters and my impressions do confirm this. I have to finally mention though that the other person in Victoria that has a Kit 02 has not come to a similar position for his speakers-he has them placed further out in the room- so actual room acoustics and preferences figure largely. Also, I will point out that even a half-inch change in speaker positioning will affect the sound-they are truly that sensitive to positioning. And as mentioned before, I did adjust positioning as different break-in changes occurred. Believe it or not, another subtle increase in resolution just occurred in the last two weeks while writing this review, adding a half-inch adjustment that the described position includes.

So what do the speakers sound like, after most of the breaking in is done?

My impression is that the Kit 02 E’s share the same essence of sonic signature as the production E’s I initially listened to. I was unable to do a solid A/B comparison between the two, but I think that differences would be partly clouded by different break-in periods for each speaker set. The parts level used in the production E’s would of course also account for some very appreciable differences. My Kit 02’s were internally wired with L level speaker copper wiring, whereas one pair of production E’s at Terry’s shop were wired with higher Lexus copper. The Silver level production E’s I also heard included upgraded silver parts as well as silver wiring. The latter in the right system would especially of course bring about a whole higher level of refinement and detail.

For musical observations, I’ll now share a few recent listening sessions:

I was listening to Wes Montgomery’s first (1959) album, “The Wes Montgomery Trio” on vinyl and had to remark on how subtle, refined and yet expansive his guitar sounded, dreamy but energetic. It’s just a timeless recording still.

Then I shifted to one of the most ironic modern jazz singers, Ben Sidran, and his 70’s album “The Doctor Is In”. Talk about a different sound. The Kit 02’s (and TT3) made it clear Ben has zero in the dreaminess department, as the entire recording is super-punchy and hip; fast, focused and tight. Ben hits notes on his piano that are like jabs, and his bass player keeps the action hard and movin’. Only his singing has that extra bit of give-and only when he sighs and chooses. It really surprised me the extent to which the Kit 02’s delivered two very different recording signatures.

Next I revisited a recording of very jazz-inflected spirituals, “Goin’ Home” by Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan. This is one album that really made me remark on the speaker’s ability to render the difference between specific instrumental timbres. Here Shepp shifts between tenor and soprano sax-with Parlan accompanying on piano- and believe me when he’s playing soprano, you really know it. However, the delivery is refined across the frequency band, and easily communicates shifts from melancholic to urgent to upbeat moods.

And if you’re worried about my talk about the Kit 02’s baffle area and wonder whether that would dilute hard rock I can confirm that Jimi Hendrix still basically blisters his way through my living room with electric guitars and a band that sounds more like a war machine than a bunch of musicians. Jimi was as straight ahead as it gets-even on vinyl- and the speakers let you know it. In terms of high frequencies Hendrix proves they will certainly reach right up there, and not roll off anything for the sake of euphonic sound.

I’ll shift to some CD comparisons now, just in case the reader wonders how my budget player works with the Kit 02.

Remember how I said I felt a great speaker would reproduce different kinds of bass? Let me give a few examples here using my Arcam ‘72T:

Lucinda Williams “World Without Tears” is Lucinda’s latest grittiest album of some of the most honest and compelling songwriting out there, at least in country rock, and the speakers demonstrate how her band showcases some consistently deep, dry and tuneful electric bass to drive her compositions.

In contrast, having heard the Cowboy Junkies in concert I know they use a very full and huge sounding electric bass- perhaps as a counterpoint to Margo Timmins’ ethereal singing. In their cover of Lightfoot’s “The Way I Feel”, (from “Beautiful, A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot”) that’s exactly how they do it and how the Kit 02 portrays it. Their huge bass sound just basically wraps around your solar plexus again and again the whole song. It feels visceral.

Differently, Daniel Lanois in his recent hazy techno-rock album “Shine” uses an extremely deep bass that seems to vibrate along the floor and in the air in front of you. It’s like a drug- experience, which fits with the soft and pulsing nature of his dreamy songs.

Lastly as a non-amplified stand-up bass example, there’s the confident and tuneful, jazz bass playing of Chuck Israel on “The Chuck Israels Quartet: The Bellingham Sessions, Volume 1”. His playing through the Kit 02’s is warm, melodic, subtle and just deep enough to equally partner the other players.

So basically I have described four different kinds of bass signatures that the Kit 02’s portray and describe well. My sense is that this bass complexity is also echoed further up in the frequency range. When the midrange qualities of the previous four recording are also fundamentally different-which it seems to me- you know the speaker is doing something special. It is likely rendering subtle dynamic shifts and tonal colors and harmonics in the ways that cause these artists to sound fundamentally unique.

Summary and Concluding Remarks

I could go on and on, but I think it is time to summarize an already long review. Basically, the Kit 02’s like the production E’s, have a number of stellar qualities. They have superb resolution without being etched, portray instrumental timbres and harmonics without being euphonic, and image in layers without being vague or ‘hard’ sounding.

They have a refined and honest midrange but also integrate and describe a wide range of high and low frequency information. They reproduce music in a fascinating range of light to dark tonal colors, excel at both micro and macro dynamics and as a result seem to have the ability to act as an acoustic window to a range of recording qualities. Blending refinement with power and frequency extension, they become emotive and informative, intimate as well as expansive.

I tend to dislike the question about ‘pace, rhythm and timing’, as it suggests a measured kind of quality to me. However, if it means the ability to convey different time signatures and rhythmic qualities, then I would say the Kit 02 speaker has the ability to convey this dimension superbly. From relaxing syncopated latin jazz to frenzied driven rock and roll and everything in between, this speaker delivers all the different timing nuances.

Obviously, at the cost of the Kit speakers over the production E’s, the 02’s are an exceptional value for the low power tube-amp enthusiast. I give credit to Peter Qvotrup and Audio Note for making this great speaker (and the Flagship of the line at that!) available to a cross-section of enthusiasts who might not otherwise experience this possibility.

As a post-script, I’ll make a few final remarks here before I end this review:

First, you might be wondering how the Kit 02 compares with the production E’s in terms of responsiveness to upstream components. I like to think of this as a kind of transparency double-check.

I can easily say that the speakers faithfully portrayed the minutest change in everything preceding them. The slightest leveling adjustment of my turntable was heard, moving the amp to different shelves produced small differences and of course, changing core components such as speaker wire produced big changes in sound. In fact, a demo of AN Lexus (external) speaker wire produced such a change that when the wire lengths went back to the store I had to scramble recruiting an off-duty power cord back into action to recapture at least an approximation of what the Lexus wires had produced. Thankfully, the changes I made-connecting a very long Wireworld Stratus power cord to the OTO, and then using the OTO power cord for the Arcam ’72T, brought back a bit of the body that the demo Lexus speaker wire had pushed into the system.

Another demo-trying a 3.1 integrated AN CD Player in place of my Arcam ‘72T-brought a level of refinement and detail to CD play that was truly compelling. It was also saddening, as Audio Note is having trouble getting the transport for this player and may have to shelve such a great component.

I guess what I am saying is that the Kit 02 E’s-just like the production E’s-will give a faithful rendering of any upstream component changes you might make.

Second, there are some new changes in Audio Note Speaker Kits that warrant some mention. Of course there is the new higher sensitivity woofer (98db) that is available in the Kit 03. I can’t comment on this speaker but perhaps Yves in France who has this ’03 Kit will comment on my ’02 review with his observations on his own for all of us.

Also, more germane to prospective Kit 02 owners is the new option of having your speakers pre-cut in all-birch ply by Audio Note Kits. Yes, all birch! Though I have not previously addressed this, Audio Note had found that using real wood-not MDF -for the critical speaker sides (front and back) had a profound effect on the accurate reproduction of sound. Apparently, the resonant properties of real wood (and Russian/baltic birch ply especially) seem to work with the acoustic actions of drivers in a more complementary way. So all AN speakers used the birch in front and back pieces. But about two years ago, Audio Note found a way to fabricate the difficult cutting of the additional speaker sides in a birch ply as well, and according to Peter Q. an all-birch ply speaker sounds better. Exactly how, I cant’ say, but I’m sure the difference is significant. So I guess I would probably advise-if the budget allows-ordering the actual speaker pieces pre-cut from Audio Note Kits here in North America. You’ll get the best wood, and the cuts are not the easiest either. The word I got about the production E’s-if I got it right- is that they have had the all-birch cabinets for the last two years, if you are worried about your expensive production models.

Finally, I have been advised that all Kit 02’s are now supplied with Lexus level copper internal wiring. And yes, this is a better level than what is in my speakers. So someone could build or commission the building of a Kit 02 that right off the bat will out perform my great set of speakers.

Would I change my Kit 02’s to all birch speakers with Lexus wiring? If I had the money, I definitely would. But would my finances be better spent snapping up one of the remaining 3.1 AN CD players at his point?

Back to the source VS speaker question I started this review off with…

Product Weakness: none
Product Strengths: superb rendering of wide range of music, affordable, exceptional for low powered tube amps

Associated Equipment for this Review:
Amplifier: AN OTO SE PHONO
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): none
Sources (CDP/Turntable): AN/Voyd TT3
Speakers: Kit 02 AN/L
Cables/Interconnects: Linn Spkr, ANv interconnects
Music Used (Genre/Selections): Jazz, Rock
Room Size (LxWxH): 15' x 12' x 9'
Time Period/Length of Audition: 10 months
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner

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Topic - REVIEW: Audio Note Kit 02-AN E/L Speakers - MikeRanfft 14:12:55 08/27/04 ( 19)