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Audio Note AN-E SE Signature Speaker Review

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Audio Note E SE Signature SpeakerReaders of Dagogo are undoubtedly familiar with Audio Note speakers, as five models have been previously reviewed in these pages: AN-E/D, AN-E SE (2003), AN-E SPe-HE, AN-E SEC Silver, AN-E SEC Signature. After having heard – and been enormously impressed with – a top-of-the-line Audio Note system at the Vacuum Tube Valley Expo held last spring, I began to feel a bit left out. After some pleading and cajoling on my part, our ever-gracious editor Constantine was able to procure for me a pair of the $26,995, AN/E SE Signatures, the subject of this review.

Like all Audio Note speakers, the AN/E SE Signatures are a two-way design based on Snell speakers of days past. Audio Note proprietor Peter Qvortrup is adamant in his belief that it is enormously difficult to get two drivers to work harmoniously, and virtually impossible to do so with a larger number of drivers. The cabinet of the AN/E SE Signatures is of the same dimensions as that of all speakers in the AN/E line, measuring 31” in height, 14” in width and 18.75” in depth. I used them with the Audio Note speaker stands which – per instructions – I filled with a mixture of sand and shot. So situated, the tweeter is approximately 40” high. The cabinets themselves have excellent fit’n’finish. A wide variety of finishes are available; my review pair was a stunning Alder Veneer.

As noted earlier, all AN/E speakers share common design elements. The AN/E Signatures uses a 1” tweeter and 8” bass driver, and have a stated sensitivity of 98 dB. Their distinguishing characteristics include the following: AN-SPx silver cable made from three braided strands, 99.99% silver-wired voice coils and inductors, and copper foil signal capacitors. The speakers are now being shipped with Hemp woofers, which were not in the review speakers. I hope to get a pair with hemp drivers and write a follow-up. Each cross-over is hand adjusted and contained in a separate, non-magnetic copper chassis. The speakers have two dedicated speaker cables for the high- and low-frequency drivers, which attach via banana plugs into clearly labeled sockets on the cross-over box. The cross-over box also has two sets of input jacks for receiving signal from one’s amplifier.

For a part of my time with the speakers, they were biwired with AN-SPx, while at other times I used a single run of copper-based speaker wire from Auditorium 23, the later necessitating the use of jumpers on the cross-overs. While the Auditorium 23 is excellent wire, the AN/E speakers sounded best with the silver cable.

I was fortunate enough to be able to pair the speakers with a variety of electronic equipment. Preamps included a Kondo M77, an Audio Note M8 and a Shindo Giscours; amplifiers were an Audio Note 300B-based Kegon monoblocks, a Shindo F2A-based Cortese stereo amp, and the Tube Distinctions Soul monoblocks, the latter a hybrid design using two KT88 output tubes in a parallel single-ended arrangement. My sincerest thanks to Robert Lighton for generously providing the M8, Kegon’s and wire.

When audio equipment is provided for review, there typically is no set time frame. Rather, there is a tacit understanding that the reviewer will spend enough time with the equipment to enable a fair and informative review, yet be cognizant of the fact that the manufacturer or distributor may need the equipment for other purposes. By any sense of fair play, I undoubtedly exceeded my allotted time with the AN/E SE Signatures, and for this I extend my sincere apologies to Peter and Constantine, and similarly thank them for their extraordinary patience.

Why did this review take so long? There are actually a number of reasons. First, during the course of the review, I changed my reference amp and preamp to models from Shindo (reviews to follow). I, thus, had to substitute for some time my reference Horning Agathon Ultimate speakers, so as to get a good handle on the sonic qualities of the Shindo gear. Second, while it was wonderful opportunity to be able to pair SE Signatures with the Audio Note electronics, I had to spend some time distinguishing the sonic attributes of the electronics from those of the speakers. Third, during the course of the review I made some alteration in my room treatments, which again required some acclimation time.

The last reason is more difficult to explain, but arguably the most important. Simply put, I had a difficult time getting a handle on the AN/E Signature’s sonic…signature. Let me explain. Whenever I evaluate a new speaker, or any piece of gear, actually, I try to focus-in on its distinguishing strong points. (Weak points make themselves known soon enough.) With horn speakers, that usually means vanishingly low dynamic compression; with ‘stats or magnetic-planars, it means transparency and inner detail; with single driver speaker, it is coherence, etc.

Yet, no matter how hard I listened to the SE Signatures, I could not identify any particular property that stuck out. I agonized over this until it finally dawned on me: My inability to pick out a strong point was because no one part stuck out from the rest; that is, the speakers were extremely well balanced. Aha, maybe I was on to something!

The fact that the AN/E SE Signatures were sonically balanced unquestionably lead to what I would have to say is their most notable quality, namely that they consistently provided a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience. Evening after evening I looked forward to listening sessions with the AN/E SE Signatures more than with many other speakers that have graced my listening room, and such sessions often extended longer than they should have, for which I paid the piper when I had to get up early the next day for work. (Difficult as it may be to believe, Dagogo writers do hold jobs!) I attribute this to not just to their balance but to the easy way in which they present the music, never inducing any sort of listener fatigue.

Having already given what is in essence the end of the review, let me back-track and describe in somewhat greater detail the actual sound. For no reason in particular, let’s start with the bass. All Audio Note speakers are rear-ported and are intended to be placed in corners, so as to increase the bass response. Unfortunately – and not unlike what others have experienced – corner placement on the short wall of my listening room resulted in boomy bass. I thus pulled them out from the corner a little at a time until I finally settled on a position 20” from the side wall and 29” from the wall behind the speakers, in which both measurements are from the face of the tweeter. (I preferred the speakers toed-in so as to be aimed approximately at my shoulders.)

This position represented an acceptable compromise between bass extension and bass quality and not surprisingly, increased soundstage depth. The bass did not plumb the depths (my guess is that it did not extend much below 40 Hz), nor did have smack-you-in-the-chest impact. No matter how clever a designer might be, there is only so much bass one can get from an 8” driver in a modestly sized cabinet. That said, the bass was tight and tuneful and quite satisfying. But then again, I do not listen to electronica, nor to pipe organ music. Those who favor such music will either need to add a subwoofer, or look to other types of speakers. I personally never found myself wishing for more bass.

Though I mentioned earlier that no particular attribute of the AN/E SE Signatures stood out head and shoulders from the rest, the midrange is probably their strongest point. I am a firm believer that music lives in the midrange. I have heard the arguments that bass provides the roots upon which music is built, and have certainly experienced the awe of deep and powerful bass. On the flip side, a fine tweeter is a joy to listen to, providing not just the high notes but the “air” and sparkle that add an ethereal quality to music. But the proof of the pudding for me, is that some of the best systems I have heard have had limited extension on both sides of the frequency spectrum but a killer midrange; conversely, no matter how good the bass and trebles, if the midrange isn’t up to snuff, the system invariably leaves me unsatisfied.

The midrange on the AN/E SE Signature is a delightful blend of warmth and detail, excelling especially with vocals and strings. While the tweeter does not have the limitless extension of say, the ion tweeter of the Acapella Violin speakers, it never sounded harsh or brittle, and blended beautifully with the midrange (a tribute to the well-designed cross-over), a factor which undoubtedly contributed to the ease of listening, lack of fatigue, and sense of balance.

The AN/E SE Signatures present a benign load to an amplifier, and are easily driven by as few as 10 Watts. I am, however, a bit puzzled by their claimed sensitivity. For any given volume setting, they were noticeably less loud than my Horning Agathons, which have a similar sensitivity rating. Moreover, the AN/E SE Signatures seemingly had more dynamic compression than other speakers of similar ratings. As I lack the electronic equipment necessary to measure sensitivity, I cannot make any definitive claims; I can only describe what I heard. This is not to imply that the AN/E SE Signatures were bland or lacking in dynamics, as they were neither. They had plenty of get-up-and-boogie energy and spirit, albeit not at the level of horn speakers.

I would be remiss if I neglected to say something about the price of these speakers. For $27,000, one can buy a fully-loaded Honda Accord, or any one of many excellent speakers. Compared to similarly priced speakers, the AN/E SE Signatures are unusual in having only two drivers, being relatively small, and lacking something “exotic”, such as a field coil compression driver. (Though the speakers and external cross-overs do contain very high quality parts.)

But of course, the ultimate determinant of an audio component is its performance. While the AN/E SE Signature speakers lack what some may deem boom and sizzle or bells and whistles, they provided me with consistently enjoyable listening sessions, and served as a wonderful gateway to the emotional content of the music. The latter is, in my opinion, the true goal of high-end audio and is, I daresay, Peter Qvortrup’s raison d’etre. Anyone with the available funds, and especially those who enjoy SET amps and the purity of simpler systems, should audition the AN/E SE Signatures. For those attuned to their approach to musical presentation, these speakers can be seductive, intoxicating and very satisfying.

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