AudioEngine makes some darn fine powered loudspeakers. Brady Bargenquast, AudioEngine’s director and chief of marketing, is a heck of a nice guy, and has always been very accommodating in terms of any assistance necessary to complete a review. Brady insists that review products be passed along to music lovers in need, and I’ve gifted review pairs to individuals who were often between a rock and a hard place, but desperately needed to be able to hear some tunes over a decent system. AudioEngine powered loudspeakers are known for their remarkably good fit-and-finish, performance that’s near the top of the class at their price points, and not least for their impressive connectivity options. Their current Bluetooth technology utilizes Bluetooth 5.0, which allows for a glitch-free wireless connection with the loudspeaker from up to 1,000 feet away from the source device. With PCs, Macs, Android, or iDevices, my experience with AudioEngine's Bluetooth implementation is about as seamless and effortless as it comes. I recently received their newest offering, the HD4 powered loudspeakers, which at $449 USD for the pair are positioned about midway in the AudioEngine product lineup.
I’ve been fortunate enough for the last couple of decades to have a dedicated listening room in all of my homes. And when I moved into the new house my wife and I built just over four years ago, I was able to step up to one that is substantially larger, has almost perfect Cardas Golden Ratio dimensions, and also has dedicated electrical wiring. I had a bit of a slap-echo problem early on, but I’ve since overcome that issue with additional and more well-placed acoustical treatments. I've finally arrived with a room that’s both supremely quiet and has exceptional acoustics. My wife wanted a gourmet kitchen and a larger space for her wool and dye setup (she’s a textile artist), and I wanted a bigger, better listening/AV room. We both got what we wanted in the new house.
One of the last reviews I did prior to moving out of the old house was for the AudioEngine HD6 powered loudspeakers ($699 USD), which are still the company’s top-of-the-line in terms of both pricing and performance (you can read that review here). My bottom line takeaway from that review was that, if the situation dictated that I had to downsize from my big rig to only a pair of powered loudspeakers, HD6s were so incredibly good that I could easily do it with no regrets. I’m not joking – the HD6s are extremely well-made and good-sounding loudspeakers that have power to spare and imaged like nothing I’d ever heard at the price point. Think about it – with a great-sounding pair of powered loudspeakers, you really only need a good digital source component. Perhaps one that’s compatible with most high resolution file formats, and having access to either Tidal or Qobuz would be nice as well. Having a “library-on-the-fly” provided by a good streaming source would pretty much eliminate the need to manage multiple terabytes of digital storage.
While I have definitely pondered life without the big stereo rig, at the point when the review was over, it never seemed even remotely possible or probable. And I promptly gifted the HD6s to a young couple with a new baby who’d just moved into their first home. I’ve been kicking myself in recent months, because now that I’m approaching retirement (in 18 months) I’m getting all these overtures about possibly moving again. We’ll either: 1) ditch all our belongings, buy a Winnebago, and see the USA before we kick out, or, 2) follow our daughter to wherever on the Northeast seaboard they end up (very likely Providence, RI), where we’ll likely be in a very small house or apartment with no place for a listening room. This new set of circumstances has been slowly evolving for about a year now.
I’m basically an old-school audio guy, whose ideal setup always revolved around having a dedicated listening room. At the old house, there was a high-res projector and a 9-foot screen in the room, so it did double-duty for dedicated listening and home theater. Simply raising the screen revealed all my on-wall room acoustical treatments, so even an audio-only setup worked really well in that environment. When we decided to sell and build the new house, our real estate agent wasn’t too keen on the home theater, and encouraged us to empty it and let the next buyer use their imagination for the space. But we were worried that the house might not sell at the price point we wanted, and decided to leave the home theater setup, with jacked-up 7.1 home theater receiver, projector and 7.1 loudspeakers and subs as part of the deal. Not to mention a pair of Italian leather high-end home theater chairs. The house sold in three days for $30k over the asking price, with the new buyer citing the presence of the home theater setup as what sealed the deal!
So we get to the new house; the AV room is much bigger, with much more room to comfortably set up seating, equipment, etc. – but it’s in the basement, and my wife decided that she no longer wanted to do stairs every night just to watch TV or a movie. The home theater was out, and surprisingly, I was totally okay with it – I was actually pumped that I was going to have a dedicated listening environment, where the stereo wouldn’t be competing with the home theater rig, and where I wouldn’t have to worry about my wife’s wool and textile projects constantly lying around all over the room. And especially, the presence of wool dust everywhere, which is a particularly vexing problem when you’re trying to spin the occasional LP while also hoping to maintain something approaching a “clean room” environment. Overall, I couldn’t have been happier.
A couple of years ago, a lot of social media conversations began regarding women and their involvement in high-end audio, encompassing those involved professionally in the high-end audio business, as well as how women were engaged with in-home audio environments. Suddenly, it was no longer completely cool for the guy to waltz off to the dedicated listening room and immerse himself in complete musical nirvana, while ditching any type of engagement with anyone else who might happen to be present in the home. I feel like I’m fairly connected with whatever might be happening around the house, and I can honestly say that my wife Beth is nowhere nearly as obsessed with audio as I am. But I was still observing some pushback over the segregation of the audio system away from everyone else in the new house. It definitely made me pause and reflect on my personal vision for how high-end audio should exist in the home environment, and how my equipment could be reconfigured to provide greater accessibility. And at the same time, not drastically degrade my perception of the level of fidelity presented by my audio system. Nothing has happened as of yet, but I’m definitely thinking a lot about how I need to alter my audio setup in some possible new (and not too distant) reality.
AudioEngine HD4 Powered Loudspeakers
The HD4 is essentially a scaled-down version of the HD6 that I so fell in love with five years ago. The HD4 employs a 4-inch aramid fiber woofer and .75-inch silk dome tweeter, compared to the 6-inch woofer and 1-inch tweeter used by the larger HD6. It's available in a choice of real walnut veneer or satin-black furniture-grade cabinets with magnetic detachable grills, and the fit and finish is absolutely beautiful. As with all AudioEngine powered loudspeaker designs, the amplifiers and internal DAC are placed in the left loudspeaker cabinet, and the passive right loudspeaker is connected via a speaker-level umbilical cord, which is around 8 feet in length. This gives you plenty of room to space them out for good imaging; I’ve used them on stands and also on bookshelves on an entertainment unit, and have gotten good results from both. The HD4 is only flat to 60 Hz, while the slightly larger HD6 takes the bass down almost another half-octave to 50 Hz. And while both incorporate really high-quality Class AB amplifiers, the HD4 maxes out at only 120 watts of peak power (60 watts per channel peak) compared to 150 watts of peak power (75 wpc peak) for the HD6.
You only need access to one electrical outlet to power them, and if you use the available Bluetooth connectivity with your computer, Android, or iDevice, you won't have to clutter your room with additional cords. As I mentioned in my review of the HD6, the Bluetooth sound quality is cutting edge and supremely musical. But in my day-to-day listening, I play a lot of DSD and high-resolution PCM digital files, along with spinning the occasional LP. A direct connection of any of my input sources to the HD4's stereo mini-jack or RCA jacks always offered sound that was more musically transparent and viscerally satisfying. It's perfect if your source equipment is entirely analog (like a turntable), and you can easily "roll your own" flavor of digital-to-analog converter with one that's slightly more capable than the HD4's internal DAC. Speaking of which, the internal DAC is a high quality Texas Instruments PCM5102 that maxes out at 24-bit/48 kHz. It's perfect for connection to your phone or tablet via the back panel USB jack, and will provide a serious uptick in sound quality when streaming from portable devices.
The back panel also features a pair of variable level, line-out RCA jacks, whose output is managed by the front panel volume control. They're perfect for connecting a powered subwoofer to the HD4's. In a smaller room – a dorm, or an office, for example – the HD4's are more than capable of providing satisfying bass performance. But in a larger room, with a sub properly set up and dialed in, I felt that the overall flow of the music was greatly enhanced by the sub's added bass octaves. The front panel of the HD4 is fairly spartan, featuring only the volume control and a mini-headphone jack, and no remote is included. AudioEngine provides a surprising selection of cords of just about every make to help with virtually any connection possibility you could encounter.
All the AudioEngine powered loudspeakers work great in a desktop environment, and as I mentioned in my HD6 review, setup and placement isn’t particularly critical. But you’ll get the very best overall sound and improved imaging if the speaker height can be placed with the tweeters close to ear level. And while they sound great on a bookshelf, I found that placing them on stands a few feet out into the room enhanced their sound quality immeasurably. My listening room has approximately 3,800 cubic feet, and the HD4 pair was able to portray music as loudly as I cared to listen, and were especially effective with a sub attached. In that environment, I was mightily impressed by the HD4s, and felt that their imaging and power were definitely on par with the larger HD6.
But most of my listening was done on the main floor of my home (part of the whole atmosphere of inclusiveness I’m working towards embracing), and it’s a cavernous, open environment that incorporates the kitchen, dining room, and living room. With a 9-foot ceiling that rises to over 12 feet along the center ridge of the room; that’s over 9,000 cubic feet of space! Not unsurprisingly, the HD4 loudspeakers weren’t able to reach the kind of effortless peaks they easily pumped out in my listening room. But with a sub, they were able to portray music that was both musically satisfying and generally quite powerful. In that environment, I also found it was challenging (mostly from a visually acceptable standpoint) to get the tweeter levels elevated enough such that they effectively communicated the high frequencies clearly throughout the room. The treble response seemed a tad rolled off, to say the least, but I was able to overcome this to a certain degree by using 1/2 inch thick rubber feet underneath the bottom front edge of each speaker cabinet to angle the dispersion pattern upward. AudioEngine sells angled speaker stands designed to assist with that exact problem; they're obviously a much more elegant solution than the one I engineered on the fly! The taller and much more powerful HD6s would probably have done a more effective job in that environment, but if I end up downsizing as appears likely, using powered loudspeakers in an oversized room will quickly become a non-issue. Of course, this environment is definitely a torture test for a pair of modestly-powered loudspeakers that will most likely be used in a desktop setup by the average user. Obviously, the room boundaries of such a large space do a poor job of reinforcing any of the bass and mid frequencies that are so important to good overall sound.
I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I do know that with the HD4, superb, moderately-priced gear exists that’s capable of shockingly satisfying levels of performance. It’s easy to surmise that most people considering the purchase of a pair of powered loudspeakers probably aren’t concerned with perfect in-room acoustics or pinpoint imaging. As a certified audio nutcase, I am, and I therefore am also greatly concerned with a powered loudspeaker’s internal amplifier quality and ability to portray music with power and finesse. The AudioEngine HD4s – along with every AudioEngine powered loudspeaker I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience – delivers all of the above: they pretty much punch effortlessly above their class!
One of the things that I love about AudioEngine's designs is that the internal amplifiers are engineered to mate perfectly with the drivers and enclosures, and they never distort the sound at any volume level. In a more modestly-proportioned room where they’d logically be employed, I sincerely doubt they’d ever run out of gas. And the ability to easily add lower bass octaves with a sub (AudioEngine makes some really nice and affordable ones) enhances their appeal exponentially. And when I used the footers to elevate the speaker cabinets to improve the treble dispersion, I was shocked at how much better they sounded across the entire musical spectrum, even in the very large room. And I know I've talked a lot about adding a sub, but I don't want to create the impression that the HD4's are bass-shy, they're not at all. I just happen to prefer them with a sub, and they have the connectivity to make it very easy for you!
AudioEngine really pushes the Bluetooth aspect of their powered loudspeakers, and I can appreciate that; the whole world is moving in the wireless direction. When I built the new house, I had it hard-wired for internet throughout, and when I talked about that in advance with the builder, he looked at me like I was from another planet. "Why in the world would you want to do that?" he asked – I get it, I'm just very old-school, and love a good hard-wired connection. In the current world we live in, half the people buying a pair of these speakers will never hear them at their very best, which is connected to a wired external source. The difference isn't subtle, and at their very best, the HD4's are incredibly great sounding little loudspeakers whose diminutive size might fool you into believing they aren't capable of producing really big sound. They totally are! At their price point you’d be hard pressed to find a better performer that’s anywhere nearly as well constructed – the AudioEngine HD4 comes very highly recommended.
AudioEngine HD4: $449.00 MSRP, www.audioengineusa.com
All images courtesy of AudioEngine and the author.