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Audio Note AN-E SE Speaker Review

What a pair of $8,000 Audio Note AN-E SE loudspeakers does for Jack Roberts

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Audio Note E SE3 speaker

There are a lot of speakers I have liked and owned: Advent, Altec, Celestion, Gershman, Infinity, KEF, Klipsch, Spender, Spica, and Vandersteen. There were many others that came home with me for evaluation, but there’s only one that I wish I had never gotten rid of, the QUAD 57s.

I spent a lot of time trying to find a speaker with the strengths of the QUADs and Klipsch, but without their shortcomings. I got off course for a few years and wandered into the land of soundstage and pinpoint imaging, but my love of music brought me back to the original pursuit. It was in that pursuit that the Audio Note E speakers entered my life.

The Audio Note Es that sit in the corners of my room are there to stay; I hope. If I ever get rid of them, I’m sure I’ll regret it even more than the QUADs. At least with the QUADs there was a reason to think you should try something else because of the lack of deep bass, rolled off highs, and the fact that they couldn’t play loud. As we’ll see in this review, none of these apply to the AN/Es.

Speaker Description

Part of the uniqueness with any Audio Note product is that Peter makes several versions of each model. My AN-E SEs are a couple of years old, they are not of the current model. At the time I got them, the Es came in $2,500, $4,000, $8,000, $12,000, and $20,000 (SEC Silver) versions; with varying amounts of copper, silver, and Black Gates. Now there are versions at $40,000 (SEC Signature) and over $100,000 (Sogon). All of them are 2-way in rear-ported enclosures with an 1″ tweeter and an 8″ bass driver. The AN/E SEs were at the time right about in the middle of the line at $8,000 (2 1//2 years ago). I thought they were best bang for the buck, having had plenty of time to listen to the SEC Silvers, which I could not afford, and the Ls that I wanted to step up from.

The SEs are 94.5dB efficient with Audio Note AN-SPx silver speaker cable, Audio Note solid silver wired inductors with Black Gate capacitors and Audio Note copper foil adjusters in an a Russian birch plywood cabinet. My pair has the optional piano black finish.

Review System Setup

The speakers were set on two 10-inch Sistrum stands. Look at the capsule review of the Sistrums below. The stands elevated the speaker to the point where my ears were parallel to the tweeter. As Peter recommends, the speakers were place in the corners about 3 inches from the rear wall. They sound great out in the room, (and even my publisher uses his beautiful AN/E SEC Silvers that way) but to get the full glory from them, I think they need to be in the corners.

If you are like me and have spent all your audio life listening to speakers several feet out into the room, then at first this is a hard change. Good news though it’s psychological. The truth is, the music is in the same place in my room, the speakers just simply moved. Now I can’t imagine why anyone would want speakers sticking out in the room when it’s not necessary for a lifelike soundstage. When visitors have a really hard time with this, I get some speaker stands out, set the stands 5 feet from the front wall and three feet from the sidewalls. I turn on the music and ask them to imagine speakers being on the stands. Then I ask them about the sound stage. Then it seems to click, it’s wide, it’s deep and it’s big when it needs to be, and small and precise as it is right now as I sit here and listen to Mary Lou Lord sing and play her guitar.

Review Equipment

* Audio Ideas Guide Imagers II circular neoprene ring on AN-E SE’s tweeters
* WAVAC MD 300B SET Amp 10 Watts per channel, transformer coupled, with Western Electric
tubes, Genesis Integrated 60
* Shindo Aurieges Preamp
* Sony 777es SACD player modified by Kern with Super clock II and power supply, blackgate caps
and vashay resistors and the VSEI 4.5 mod
* The Amp and the CD players sit on Sistrum stands
* All cable and power cords Audience AU 24 and one of JC Audio’s ISO on each piece of equipment

The Sound

Nothing in the last 30 years prepared me for the sound of these speakers. They look mundane, even in the beautiful finishes that Peter offers. They are so traditional, a two way ported box. The cabinets are wide and shallow, and they aren’t especially heavy, and the drivers look quite ordinary. Then there is the break-in. WARNING: THEY SOUND BAD RIGHT OUT OF THE BOX, better after 100 hours, good after 200, unbelievable after 400, and they keep getting better for months.

The sound that comes out of a well broken in, well setup pair of these is beyond my words. It stirs my emotions and it is easy on the ears. How do they sound? In reviewing the $2500 AN-E Ls, they sounded more like live music than any speaker I had ever heard. If positioned correctly and mounted right, a pair of AN/Es loads a room better than a Rel subwoofer. After breaking in the AN/E SEs with my VSEI and Kern-modified Sony 777 SACD, or with records, the AN’s sounded more like my Quad 57s than any other speaker I have ever owned at any price. They have the clearest, most transparent, most coherent and most beautiful midrange I have ever heard. Vocals and instruments are just there with all there dynamics and with unbelievable tonal accurateness. The bass is quick, dynamic, and so deep it will blow your mind from such mundane looking speakers. The top end is just beautiful like real music is. Most importantly, these speakers let you emotionally into the pace and rhythm of the music. They are one of the few speakers that are dynamic enough for orchestral or big band music, and refined enough for a small jazz quartet or a string trio.

Most often when people say speakers disappear, they are referring to imaging. And that could also be said here; but these speakers disappear in a totally different way. They aren’t just part of the music. It is beyond what I have come to think of as transparency and clarity.

The AN/Es let you hear all the glory of what it is that so excites people about SET amps. They have rhythm and timing that is uncanny in how lifelike they let music come into your room. I have listened to AN/Es now with Audio Note, Genesis, Goldmund, Kora, Shindo, and WAVAC amps. The Goldmund gives you world-class bass, the Shindo Cortese with the F2A tubes, and to a lesser extent, the Kora Cosmos Reference, can take control of the bass and take it really deep while still giving you the nuances and transparency of a Class A tube amp. Yet, it is with the Audio Note and WAVAC amps that you truly hear the transparency and shear realism of these speakers.

The bass may not be what you would get from a column of woofers with an active, built-in 1000 watt amp, but it is unlikely that the column can also be as quick, nimble, and tuneful as the AN-E’s woofer. Can that column blend with the midrange to produce a truly coherent sound? Just listen to some Ray Brown, and you will know the glory of the bottom-end of this speaker. Then, listen to your favorite bass show-off piece. You won’t be disappointed either time.

Conclusion

I know the review may be a little hard to follow as to which AN/E speaker I am referring to. I make no apology for that, because the truth is that most of what I said can be said about any of the AN/E speakers. So pick the one you can afford (every once in a blue moon a used pair comes up) and let the joy of music wash over you.

They have that old magic of the QUADs, the dynamics of the Klipsch and all the bass you want down to below 30Hz in my room. Just pair them with a great SET and they bring a miracle into your room. I asked Peter how did he get a pair of Snell Es to energize a room like a pair of large stats or horns, and he reminded me that only the dimensions of the cabinet are the same as the Snells. Well, all I can say is they don’t look like much for the money but they sound like everything I’ve been looking for, for 30 years, and they don’t have to stick out six feet into the room.

One word about their mundane looks, Peter does try to overcome it with as beautiful cabinetwork and finish I have ever seen.

A Little Extra: The Sistrum Speaker and Equipment Stands

A couple of years ago a friend of mine was going on vacation for a week, and had just gotten a pair of custom made Sistrum speaker stands and wanted to know if I wanted to try them until he got back. We both have Audio Note AN/E speakers, although he has the SEC Silvers and I have the SEs. Well, as it happened, I had just been on the phone with Jim Ricketts, then-importer of my WAVAC 300B amp. He had just told me that he used the Sistrum platforms for all his equipment. So, I told my friend sure, “I’ll give them a try.”

First, I put one under the left speaker. Then, I played some mono recordings and listen to each speaker separately. Well, there was no doubt that the Sistrum stand tightened up the bass. It also seemed that it somehow let the speaker play louder, and it was much more dynamic.

So then I put the other stand into the system and my jaw dropped. If you think I’m exaggerating, Monday morning came and I ordered the speaker stands and two of the equipment platforms, one for the WAVAC and one for the Sony 777 SACD player. While ordering these I learned from Robert at Star Sound (the Sistrum and Audiopoints people) some more about how to set up the stands. I set up everything like he said and just couldn’t believe the sound.

It is just amazing, and what did they do for the sound of my system? First let me describe the stands and equipment platforms.

Descriptions:

I had the speakers originally on Audio Note’s 4 legged, mass-loaded steel stands. They were filled with a lead and sand mixture as described by Audio Note. The equipment had been sitting on DH Cones and Squares.

The Sistrum stands have three steel legs that are filled with “MicroBearing Steel” fill that they make and sell. The three legs attach to a rounded, triangular-shaped steel plate that has a musical note in the center. Audiopoints are screwed into them through a slot in the bass. Then, there are steel spikes that screw into the top of each leg.

The Systrum equipment platforms are similar. In fact, the one under the WAVAC amp uses the same plate and has Audiopoints that screw into each other to create three points going down into whatever you are sitting them on, and three that point up which the equipment sits on. The one under the SACD player has a larger bass and larger points but is basically of the same concept.

The Sound

First, it is not subtle. My first reaction was, “where did that come from?” It’s much more like getting new speakers than new stands.

Efficiency: You can go to www.audiopoints.com and get a more technical explanation, but let me just say they play louder at the same place at the same volume setting then they did before.

Dynamics: In the review above I said the Audio Note AN/E speakers are the best of both worlds between horns and stats, but on the Systrum stands they are nearly as dynamic as any horn. They will play much louder than any single driver horn loaded speaker or stat that I have heard. A few years ago, people used to talk about a speaker’s “startle factor”, and that about sums up the sound of this combination. I had to turn down the volume control several times as I learned that you can’t turn up the quiet passages to the level I was used to.

Information, transparency, detail: These audiophile terms mean different things to different people but let me say there is simply a whole lot more information you can hear now. It’s not so much that the grunge or noise is gone, it’s more like there’s just more to hear. You can more clearly hear the mics, the space, the phrasing, the subtle changes in pitch and tone. The soundstage becomes more believable. I don’t mean in some “phasey”, deep, deep, and wide, wide way. I mean in a way where instruments and people have their own space and where you can more easily hear each of them. The Audio Notes AN/Es were already the least boxy sounding box speaker I had ever heard and would not have believed that could have been improved very much, but I was wrong.

Bass: This was the only area I was actually looking to improve when I said I would try the Sistrum. As amazing as the bass was out of these two ways, I had hoped that maybe they could be just a little quicker. Well, boy was I right. I have never heard bass like this before. I can now hear subtleties in the bass I did not know were on the recordings. I just wanted a little tighter and quicker bass, but what I got was all that, and a lot more quality in the bass. It is now so easy to hear the differences in drums as they are being played. The notes on a string bass are so articulate. It’s just a whole new world for the bass.

The biggest differences between what I had before and after with the Sistrum products came with the speaker stands. I’m not going to try to explain in detail the difference the equipment platforms made. Let’s just say the platforms completed what the stands started.

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