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REVIEW: Audio Note AN-K Spe Speakers

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Model: AN-K Spe
Category: Speakers
Suggested Retail Price: $1950.00
Description: 2-way stand mount
Manufacturer URL: Audio Note
Manufacturer URL: Audio Note

Review by RGA ( A ) on December 27, 2003 at 19:55:27
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for the AN-K Spe

It has been four years of intermittent browsing trying to find the right speakers to replace my flawed but enjoyable floor-standing Wharfedale Vanguards. A little on the Vanguards is helpful here. The speaker is a 3-way design using a horn tweeter a 5 inch fibre woven mid driver and 10 inch fibre-woven woofer with massive ceramic magnets. They weighed in at 90lbs each and rated 40hz to 23khz, 95db sensitive and 175Watts power handling. A very powerful set of speakers primarily geared for rock

The dilemma over this period has always been that I didn’t care much for the sound of new floor-standing speakers under 3-4k. While some were improvements they were not significant enough to spend the money. Few had any real advantages across the board and in fact many were worse – especially dynamically and in the highs (a kind of etched or tizzy sound from a great many of them).

The Two-way stand-mounts of course had a number of advantages over the Wharfedales in the mid band, but lacked life-like dynamic presence and bass response was often anaemic. The stand-mounts that had bass that would satisfy me, either had a zingy high frequency response – metal tweeters, or sounded overly restrained or polite.

Most speakers that I have heard, which obviously is not all of them so please don’t get on my case, using metal tweeters, whether the fault of the tweeter or crossover or whatever, simply never did it for me and though I like a number of them they never made me want to replace what I had. They had sparkle but were also rather biting or fatiguing over longer sessions. Some of the manufacturers overcompensate and make them sound laid back…either way it didn’t work for me.

Well I had gotten very close with the Reference 3a MM De Capo. A fuller bodied Stand-mount with an impressive amount of scale, smooth highs. The De Capo mostly has an un-boxy sound and huge depth to the soundstage. I have been touting these speakers for 2 year now as maybe one of the best speakers available for the money (of what I had heard).

I had tried electrostats in this price range and they never quite did it for me. The ML Aerius i had a weird low bass handoff to the panel that doesn’t quite gel right to my ear. Though they had a great un-boxy sound (no box after all) in the midrange on up, the integration of the bass just seemed unnatural. They were not wholly dynamically realistic either. The bigger stats are better but a lot more money.

The De Capo was my leader in the stand-mount department (or any speaker) until I went in to listen to this unknown company, to me anyway, Audio Note.

The Audio Note is hardly a pretty speaker, looking like an old design, which in a way it is. The AN K Spe has no bevelled edges; it is not a deep speaker like slim line design speakers. From a design appearance it looks like it goes against the current thinking of speaker design…and again I suppose in many ways it does. Everything I have read from many magazines is that you want curved edges a slim design…deeper than wider etc.

Frankly, I didn’t really want to listen to them. I was there to listen to the De Capo the B&W CDM 1 NT the N805 and Paradigm’s Studio 40. The dealer told me I really ought to give the AN K Spe a go and not to judge them on appearance. I respect this dealer because he does not try and up-sell you. He finds out what you’re looking for and makes some suggestions with the information you provide. Still, I agreed to listen basically to appease the dealer and because I enjoy trying gear – it’s fun to browse. I listened with Audio Refinement’s “Complete” package (Complete Integrated and Complete CD player) and the speaker’s sat on Skylan 20 inch high mass stands. The sound was indeed impressive, more on this later.

I don’t want to specifically single out the other speakers as comparisons to sound unless requested because many of the other speakers I listened to I very much like and don’t want to put them in a light which makes it appear that I’m knocking them. The other speakers I mention are not a complete list and so far I have liked all the other speakers mentioned thus-far for differing reasons. Personal taste is of course the ultimate deciding factor and my preference was the AN K.

I obviously wanted a speaker that didn’t have, what I have complained about for years, etched highs, a boxy sound, and anaemic bass and dynamics. There is nothing more annoying than to play CD after CD, LP after LP only to have that high frequency sound harsh and unnatural and then for that sound to be called accurate is ridiculous.

Suffice it to say I chose the AN K Spe. This is despite the fact that I can find no reviews on them…which always makes one a little nervous. So hey maybe I’m the first. My first listening session impressed me more than any other stand-mount I have heard in the areas of bass and dynamics and no etched highs. They didn’t sound at all like your typical small speaker. There was bass, deep enough, but what was more impressive was that it seemed not to disappear when the volume went up. Many stand-mounts seem to have bass that runs and hides like George Costanza’s “Mr. Happy” in a cold shower. These speakers seemed to provide some serious kick with many of the amplified music pop/rock disc’s I brought along.

Since purchasing them I thought I’d wait a month or two to really try them out and get an assessment on strengths and weaknesses etc. Plus, if there is any credence to burn in periods then I figure I may as well cover that base regardless of my preconceived view of break-in.

Sound: Well I guess you need to know the system. I’m running a valve like Sugden A48B ~65Watt integrated amp (Completely DC coupled high bias in class A, class A/B amp), Cambridge Audio CD 6, and Sony CDP355 300 disc mega changer, NAD 533 turntable with Shure M97xe cart. Tara Labs Prism 11 cables – Stands 20 inch high mass Skylans. By no means would this be ultra high end but it is musical. And just a note that the AN K’s sounded superior in the all AN set-up than my system, but that is and should be expected since AN designs all their components as a unit.

The AN K Spe is the baby of the larger Audio Note J and E stand-mounts both in size and price. The Speaker is silver wired internally with very nice silver speaker connections (with bi-wiring capability). Wood finish selections are numerous to help out the rather plain design but they are attractive once you get listening. Indeed, the more I listen the better looking they become. Funny isn’t it, how that works?

Positioning did prove to be much more sensitive a process than my Wharfedales which pretty much seemed happy anywhere. I tried the AN K Spe about 1 inch from the wall with no toe in and the bass was considerably boomy…yikes. So, I toed them in so that that the tweeters on a line would hit about 3 feet in front of me…too much because the sound was muddy, but the boom went away. Pulled them out to a normal distance, 2 feet, with the tweeters pointed at my head - much better but light in the loafers bass. I also tried the speakers in the corners but this went about 11 feet apart. I was about 9feet back and the sound was quite good but I prefer a bit of sacrifice in the stage and bass for a more involving sound. I now have them about 10inches from the back wall about 7 feet apart with a toe in. My listening chair is moveable so I can move myself forward and back (makes things easier). Positioning, unlike my Wharfedales or B&W’s, is critical.

Shut up and tell me how it sounds:
Okay, I have used several recordings, the good the bad and the ugly. It has been and still is my belief that a speaker should be able to play all kinds of music well. And preferably not enhance or exaggerate sound. I find a lot of pretty average recordings are un-listenable on some speakers. I think an average recording should sound average. Average is listenable. For instance if there is a slight upper frequency tizz then it should be slight not a high pitch SSSSSSSSSS sound. Those of you who go bats listening to poor cymbals or upper piano notes probably don’t want that little bit of extra oomph on those notes that many so-called high resolution speakers put out. Don’t get me wrong the AN will tell you those notes are not right because the cymbal and upper piano on such recordings sound poor. The difference is that those notes are not shouted out at you above everything else.

I have heard far too many systems that sound nice for classical and suffer badly for rock, and listen to the salesman try and justify that the speaker is merely so accurate that it is telling you the faults of the rock recordings. And vice versa that a speaker is geared for rock and emphasizes the mid bass or some such drivel so that classical can sound far too aggressive. I always think of Jazz which seems to have elements of both – then what?

My taste runs a fairly wide gambit but I’ll start with the cello. Here’s a nice acoustic stringed instrument that goes pretty low but also runs up in the higher midrange and treble region. Yo-Yo Ma’ Classic Yo-Yo first track continues to amaze me in ways where so many other speakers miss the boat. The actual cello can be heard. Yes the string but the cello’s box, the instrument is cohesive top to bottom, there is no blip, no handoff from one driver to another that is audibly noticeable – it’s rather remarkable that even at higher volumes the speakers doesn’t become shut-in or become hard. I have listened to a lot of floorstanders and standmounts from big conglomerates and not to generalize but most of the ones I have heard manage the “Pluck” of a guitar and the detail of the guitar “pluck” but the sound of the guitar box or cello box is not completely there. Indeed, it is almost as though when you make a photocopy of a colour photo where you get the dark images fine, but anything that had a lighter shading, say yellow, disappears or converts to white.

The AN K Spe manages to play everything very well and this amazes me because there are just two drivers. How can a two way two driver boxed speaker create pretty deep (~36hz depending on positioning) bass at loud levels and still be able to keep track of dense music without sounding compressed or distorted? No other stand-mount I’ve ever heard manages such a scale and un-congested presentation. Jesse Cook’s Tempest guitar instrumental album has the same sense of hearing the entire guitar rather than just the pick/pluck and a hint of the rest of the guitar. The K captures the instrument cohesively. Comparing it to a live guitar the other day and the speakers are spooky in their realism. I can’t think of higher praise for a sub 2kUS speaker.

Moving to the very well recorded 15th anniversary of NAXOS, 1987-2002, track 13 Barber’s Adagio for strings, OP.11 (better known as the theme from Platoon), is a solid workout for the treble region. Halfway through the piece the strings rise in pitch and volume higher and higher and louder and louder. The AN handled the high frequency extension and volume better than some of the competitors using metal tweeters with more extended specs. Not that it really matters because most speakers are beyond my range of hearing at roughly 16khz. Nevertheless, I found it strange that a soft dome speaker in the AN K went way up and didn’t ring or become spitty or grainy like some of the others. I can’t stress the satisfaction of a treble that sounds holographic without drawing your ear to the fact that it’s a tweeter. The AN K Spe manages to make sound that seems free and easy and lifelike.

Moving to another extreme, I put on Madonna’s “Die Another Day.” This track is a pretty heavy bass rich dance track heavy, presumably, with synthesizers. At volume the K’s produce a real belting performance able to keep the sound focussed clear and a real dynamic punch. Once again dynamics are important here because many other stand-mounts become flustered and sound hard or tizzy when the volume goes up. Deep bass often disappears with higher volume. The AN K can get up there in volume and still belt it out. You can actually feel the bass response and you will get complaints from close neighbors(I live in an apartment so maybe I’d get complaints with a clock radio).

Think about that…this is a stand-mount. I used several other dance tracks including Madonna’s Vogue and Justify My Love, Cher’s Believe, Celine Dion’s Unison, Mariah Carey’s “All in Your Mind” and the Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night.” Sarah Mclachlan’s Silence on her remixed album is amazing. Heavy bass, brilliant highs and at loud levels I don’t feel the need to turn it down because of the usual eye twitching listener’s fatigue.

Shifting to CBC Radio Two’s jazz compilation, Dianna Krall’ I Don’t Know Enough About You, Dianna is there with you (whether that’s good I guess depends if you like Miss Krall). Moving to Deodato’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” is a Jazz bent on the 2001 soundtrack (Richard Strauss) – a busy 9 minute piece of brass, drums, piano, cymbals etc everything well defined and separated across a reasonably wide stage (note that from reviews of my Sugden, a gigantic soundstage width is not my amplifier’s forte, so your mileage here may vary.

Moving back to classical works - Isaac Stern’s work on the Schindler’s List sound track is haunting and beautiful as was the film. More of an emotional track that while subjective emotionally moves me. Moving to the lesser recorded Outfield “Play Deep” album I was startled to find how enjoyable these old 80s songs are and more importantly how highly listenable the CD and LP are(I have both). Nice tight drum kicks.

Moving to another average recording Aerosmith’s “Pump” album “Love in an Elevator” just screams at you. I like it. Here’s a song that is meant to shout at you and here it is shouting at me. The beginning of the track has our one and only Steven Tyler and band in an elevator “Going Down” says a presumably gorgeous woman and then we get the belting guitar and throaty sounding Tyler belt it out. While you will of course find speakers better suited to this sort of music (ie; a speaker that can play at astonishingly deafening levels) the AN K still manages to keep this sort of music highly entertaining and knows a thing or two about being able to rock; Ditto, for my equally old favourite “Kickstart My Heart” by Motley Crue. Sorry, I can’t say if it is better at reproducing the instrument the Crue likes called the Motorcycle but it does roar. Another album that I always thought was terribly thin and bright is Roxette’s Look Sharp. Oh not so as it would seem. Sleeping Single has a nice accompaniment and while my taste has moved on I still remember enjoying this CD in my teens. It has never sounded better..

Shifting to The YellowJackets “Wild Life,” I just love the whole cohesiveness and presentation of Sax, Percussion and Voices. The sound is often intense and at the same time is light and feathery. My old Wharfedales liked this track too but seemed to project the sax much closer. Patricia Barber’s Café Blue of course found its way in as it’s a staple of speaker testing. I used the second track “Morning Grace” though it does seem to be a vocal exercise. Nevertheless, it remains an impressive disc though I think it’s been surpassed by many in my collection. Interestingly this is the first speaker I have used that actually differentiates the cymbals enough to make me realize that this in fact is not the perfect recording I thought it was. The speakers tell you the recordings faults without being obnoxious about it. The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Time Out” should be in everyone’s collection and the separation here is exceptional. I was treated to The Quartet in my living space, never a hint of a boxy sound. For a largely un-damped box I am impressed that if you knock on the top or sides you get no reverb or ring or hollow sound.

Brass on well recorded music never seems hard or edgy. The notes go way up and sound like the live brass I have been accustomed to up at the music department at my University. Once again dynamics are critical going from soft to loud but the speaker doesn’t become shouty or hard.

I’m big on female vocals and Loreena Mckennitt, Linda Rondstadt, Sarah Mclachlan, SADE, Enya, Jewel etc. Suffice it to say I roundly enjoy every performance. Nothing is muddled voices project clearly but are not shoved into your face or pushed way back. Differing discs reveal differing stages as it should be. Loreena has a brilliant wetness to her voice, and Sarah, man I can almost feel her breath blowing into my face. I don’t feel so bad for turning down front row tickets to her concert a few years ago. (Actually I still feel bad but this is some consolation).

Without going through all my discs, which is what the speakers beg me to do as a kind of challenge “I dare you to find an un-listenable track,” suffice it to say this is one of the best all-rounders around. But that term all-rounder implies you lose a bit here and a bit there. The speakers reproduce acoustic instruments as well as any speaker I have heard in this sub 5k region. It belts amplified rock certainly as well as any standmount you’re going to find, except maybe the higher Audio Note series. Hey, that is after all why I bought them.

If this is all sounding a bit lopsidedly gushy then for some balance I’ll go into a bit of the down side. Stand-mounts of course don’t offer up that ultimate bottom octave or octave and a half. As a result many stand-mounts lose the low frequency dimension that imprints itself on the overall presentation. Good bass costs significant money, so often many stand-mounts simply axe bass response completely but the result is a thinner sound, punchy but often hollow, thin or bright. I believe bass rounds out the sound and makes the entire experience whole. Though the response is suggested as being between 36hz and 50hz depending on placement, the AN K seems to load the room in a grander fuller scale giving you the impression as though the lower note of the instrument is not just hacked off but gives a sense of fullness not typical of stand-mounts. Nevertheless, for pedal organ lovers – well you would not be looking at these stand-mounts.

Another issue is that the speaker is going to need a stand with a big top plate so it doesn’t look stupid. Plain looks may not be acceptable if you want art from your speaker box. New models have no grill cloths. I prefer that some may not.

Finding further faults is tough because what does one call a fault? Speakers are a series of compromises. The AN K has a slightly less defined soundstage perhaps than some other comparable speakers. Positioning is a key of course. The depth of the soundstage may not quite go as deep, but then on Loreena McKennitt’s “Dicken’s Dublin” the sound comes from a great distance beyond the back wall and slowly makes it’s way forward, so this kind of depth capability is indeed there.

The speaker has a solid cohesive sound and a non fatiguing quality rare for this budget. They effortlessly handle dense classical works and dance trance dynamics with aplomb. So there may be a downside I’m not hearing with my owner’s rose coloured glasses on, but if you’re in this price range get a good long listen in a well set-up system and these may bring you a very high level of enjoyment, as they do for me, out of all of your recordings. And if down the road you want to upgrade, Audio Note has a level system so that you can upgrade almost all of their products. Superior drivers or crossovers etc.

Product Weakness: Plain looks, no grill cloths on new models, no exotic drivers.
Product Strengths: Cohesive integration from top to bottom. Excellent bass and dynamics and a smooth fatigue free detailed top end.

Associated Equipment for this Review:
Amplifier: Sugden A48b Integrated ~65watts
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): none
Sources (CDP/Turntable): Cambridge Audio CD 6/NAD 533
Speakers: Audio Note AN K Spe
Cables/Interconnects: Tara Labs Interconnects, Reference Audiophile speaker cable with Linn Connectors
Music Used (Genre/Selections): Variety
Room Comments/Treatments: Carpeting, drapes behind speakers
Time Period/Length of Audition: over 2 months
Other (Power Conditioner etc.): none
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner

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Topic - REVIEW: Audio Note AN-K Spe Speakers - RGA 19:55:27 12/27/03 ( 9)