Acoustic Energy AE-29 Bluetooth speaker system
In the past couple of years, we've seen an increase in the number of Bluetooth-capable speaker systems designed to wirelessly receive audio streams from Bluetooth-capable music phones and audio players. One of the latest such products is the Acoustic Energy AE-29. The tabletop speaker system has been available in Europe for some time, but it's just now making its way to North America, where it sells for $220.
As a speaker system, the AE-29 is pretty straightforward. It's a three-part system: a narrow 20-watt amplifier in the center flanked by detachable speakers on the left and right. Each speaker has about 3 feet of wire that wraps into a recessed channel on its backside. You can leave the system locked together if space is tight (or when transporting it from room to room), but you'll want to unspool the speakers for maximum stereo separation. (The cables are hard-wired to the speakers and use proprietary plugs to connect to the base, so you can't really extend them beyond their default length.)
The speaker grilles are nonremovable, but their size indicates that the drivers are probably around 5 inches wide. Each speaker is 6 inches high by 6 inches wide by 5 inches deep; the central amp is the same height and depth, and just under 3 inches wide. The overall build quality of the AE-29 doesn't exactly live up to Acoustic Energy's hallowed tradition. The speakers feel cheap and plastic, and the whole unit only weighs 4.8 pounds.
The AE-29 has just two controls: a single volume knob that also toggles power, and a Bluetooth sync button. There is no remote--you're stuck using the onboard controls. The front panel also has a power LED that continuously blinks on and off when the unit is operating; I found it incredibly distracting, and would probably opt to cover it with electrical tape.
The Acoustic Energy speaker can stream audio from any A2DP-enabled (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile) Bluetooth source. That includes a wide variety of newer multimedia-friendly phones and portable media players. While neither the iPod nor the iPhone can be counted among that group, snap-on Bluetooth A2DP dongles are available. Alternately, you can opt to use the 3.5mm auxiliary line-in port on the rear of the AE-29, which accepts any standard stereo minijack. As such, you could have the AE-29s double as PC speakers (for instance), but just be aware that the presence of something plugged into the speaker input cuts off the Bluetooth source, so you'd have to plug and unplug accordingly. (A toggle switch would've been preferable.)
Pairing a Bluetooth audio source to the AE-29 is simple enough: Just hold down the front button for about 5 seconds, and it will begin blinking alternating red and green. Put your Bluetooth source into search mode, and once you find "AE 29-06," pair it with the code "8888."
We used a Sprint Mogul loaded up with some music to test the Acoustic Energy AE-29. Several trends were immediately apparent. Miles Davis sounded a bit strident and harsh, while Moby's "Extreme Ways" lacked any semblance of bass. The lack of low-end was further evident on the Rolling Stones' "Heart of Stone." Switching to U2's "I Will Follow" revealed the AE-29's volume limitations: cranking the dial anywhere above 40 percent or so resulted in distortion and breakup. On the bright side, the actual Bluetooth signal remained constant, with no dropouts, static, or dead spaces at all.
Sounds bad, right? Actually, most of that is par for the course for Bluetooth speakers. We dusted off the Parrot DS1120 Bluetooth models for comparison. The somewhat beefier Parrot speakers provided a bit more tangible bass, but otherwise the sound quality was extremely similar, with a harsh mid-to-upper range evident on certain tracks.
To further drive the point home, we patched an iPod with the same music directly into the AE-29's line-in connection, and the improvement was dramatic. Sound exhibited better clarity overall, and we could turn the volume up closer to 60 percent of maximum before it distorted. In other words, the AE-29 delivers better sound quality from wired versus Bluetooth wireless sources, and its Bluetooth performance--while below our standards for pleasant listening--is right in line with competing models we've heard.
And speaking of that competition: aside from the aforementioned Parrot DS1120, Bluetooth audio fans might check out iLuv's two Bluetooth-capable boomboxes. The iLuv's offerings have more features (iPod docks, CD players), but their unibody design means there's less stereo separation than you'd find in the Acoustic Energy.
In the final analysis, the Acoustic Energy AE-29 is a perfectly decent Bluetooth speaker system, but we're becoming more disenchanted with the quality limitations of the format as a whole. Ideally, the additional bandwidth offered by the forthcoming Bluetooth 2.2 standard will bring with it a corresponding improvement in sonics. In the meantime, the Acoustic Energy AE-29 is probably as good as you'll get in a Bluetooth speaker system; we just wish it cost closer to $150.