Pro-active Studio Chic Exponent
AirPulse has a new, big-hitting mid-range active flagship. David Vivian takes a serious listen.
There are plenty of semi-pro, actively powered mini ‘mixing desktop’ monitors aimed at budding Ed Sheerans (Marvin Gayes, come to that) as well as budget-conscious home studio enthusiasts. Evidence of their multitudinous existence is usually to be found in the pages of publications aimed specifically at that burgeoning market sector.
But in 2022 (HFC 489) I reviewed the £600 AirPulse A80 from the house of Edifier, a name synonymous with the above activities. No harm in dipping a toe occasionally – not least to see if us audiophiles are missing a trick. But it wasn’t so much ‘studio envy’ that landed the review as the design involvement of one Phil Jones, the man who started Acoustic Energy and was personally responsible for the iconic AE-1 standmount. A hi-fi provenance, then, and it showed.
Performance and Design
Within its obviously limited ‘desktop/small room’ performance envelope, the little box really sang. Although no KEF LSX (HFC 456) killer, its canny mix of horn-loaded ribbon tweeter air and sparkle, midrange clarity and snappy timing made for a tidy, high-value package that meshed unexpectedly smoothly with audiophile sensibilities.
At the time of the review, there were four A-series models, A80, A100, A200 and A300. Now there’s a fifth, the A300Pro. Essentially a souped-up A300 to stand as range flagship, it’s rather more than a big brother to the baby A80 but, as with the entry level model, offers a lot of active tech and Phil Jones design expertise.
The unboxing experience would certainly be worthy of a YouTube vid, with top marks for the speaker-enveloping soft cloth drawstring bags and well-stocked accessory box containing the decently sized remote control and batteries, a clearly written user manual, the two mains power cords, USB and fibre optic cables and very reasonable quality RCA interconnects. Nicely done.
The main goods look and feel impressive, too – solidly made and well finished with a smartly functional aesthetic front and back softened by good-quality wood veneer panels. There aren’t any grilles so you get a good eyeful of the horn-loaded aluminium ribbon tweeter, which has a claimed bat-bothering frequency ceiling of 40kHz and the 165mm magnesium-aluminium coned mid/bass driver – said to reach down to 40Hz. The ribbon diaphragm’s horn loading is calculated to aid articulacy, dimensionality and the consistency and extent of the listening sweet spot while the mid/bass unit’s underhung magnetic circuit design, supported by a 50mm diameter voice coil and oversized magnet, targets dynamics and low-frequency extension with minimal distortion.
Behind the 25mm-thick baffles are Texas Instruments’ well-regarded Class D TPA3251 power amplifiers sending 120W to the mid/bass units and 10W to the sensitive horn-loaded ribbon tweeters. Initial source handling is performed by XMOS xCore200 multi-core processors and a Texas Instruments TLV320AIC3268 digital processor. The components draw on a 150W high-efficiency, low-ripple switching power supply and internal wiring is supplied by Transparent.
Connectivity and Features
Unlike the premium wireless speakers in the recent Group Test (HFC 502), the 300 Pro doesn’t do network wi-fi, but you can go wireless with its aptX HD Qualcomm QCC3031 5.0 Bluetooth chipset. In a neat touch, it uses a lossless wireless protocol to link the speakers called KleerNet if you’re using Bluetooth or one of the coaxial, optical or USB digital inputs. Alternatively, the speakers can be fed physically from a preamp via their RCA or balanced XLR analogue inputs. A little surprisingly, there’s no HDMI input. On the back panel of each enclosure are usefully subtle-acting tone controls and, on the right hand one, a small display to signify which input is being used.
Bluetooth? Pretty darn good – fine, smooth and full bodied enough for casual listening, if a little soft at the edges. But let’s get serious, that’s not what the A300Pro is about. The clue is in the name. Fronted by a Leema Acoustics Sirius (HFC 438) music library server connected to an ATC CA-2 preamp driving the A300Pro via long runs of terminated XLR balanced Nordost Blue Heaven interconnects, I anticipate a little incisiveness, insight and jump. I’m not disappointed.
All right, everything is a tad matter of fact and chilled. This isn’t a glow-up type of transducer. Romantic and cuddly through a rose-tinted filter it ain’t. But, like the A80, there’s a disarming honesty and directness about the way it goes about business that does a great job of avoiding artifice and manipulative flattery. In fact, it’s exactly what you might hope for given the A300Pro’s quasi studio image – an unvarnished and truthful presentation displaying fine basic transparency, plenty of cogent detail and capacity to go loud with some freedom of dynamic expression and low levels of distortion. There’s a well-nourished sense of scale and timbral colour, a taut, articulated bottom end with disciplined control and ample depth. And it serves all types of music well.
My standard test for a system’s ability to cut through low production crud and find some music lurking beneath is the pre-remastered version of Eric Clapton’s August, a guilty slice of Eighties pleasure from Eric’s corny hooks and rolled up jacket sleeves period that deserves to sound better than it does, especially the jaunty, uplifting Take A Chance. The AirPulse cuts to the chase and the track is all the better for it. With the rhythmic impetus and front-foot dynamics nailed, the music starts to shine through with greater depth and subtlety, sounding more rounded and polished, yet gifted greater precision, clarity, life and authority.
It isn’t just the A300Pro’s ability to rock out that impresses. The achingly gorgeous adagio movement from Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony is treated with due care and ‘soft hands’, if not quite the tonal warmth of, say, System Audio’s Legend 5.2 Silverback in its wired guise – winner of the wireless speaker Group Test. It is an engrossing listen nonetheless.
The A300Pro may not dissolve into the designer décor or have the wherewithal to be a wireless partner for a wi-fi network. It probably won’t immediately seduce you with its sound quality, either. Artfully warmed-up cosiness isn’t on the agenda and Bluetooth, even aptX HD, is only ever ‘so good’, borderline hi-fi at best. That said, neither can this bulky standmount get away from the natural advantages of its active tech or the design wisdom instilled by industry luminary Phil Jones. And that’s great news if what you really want is an affordable active speaker you can connect to a decent source with quality balanced interconnects and be able to hear right into a recording with no sonorous soft-soaping but musically balanced coherence and resolve that’s always soberingly honest and seldom less than enjoyable.