Gentlemen, start your engines
The Audio Engine A5+ ($399) is only sold in pairs, because the left speaker houses all the electronics and has the volume control; the right speaker is completely passive. That accounts for the weight differential of the two: the left speaker tilts the scales at 15.4 pounds, the right one 9.6 pounds. The speakers are 10.75 inches high, 7 wide, and 8 deep. Build quality feels substantial.
The A5+ has a 5-inch Kevlar woofer and a 20-mm silk dome tweeter, and the stereo Class AB amps in the left speaker are rated at 50 watts per channel and power both speakers. The all-metal speaker wire connectors accept banana plugs, spades, or bare wires. I went for the latter, and used the supplied 12 foot speaker cable to run between the two speakers. You also get two 6.5 foot interconnect cables, a 3.5 mm mini-jack to RCA cable, and a RCA to RCA cable. The left speaker has stereo RCA inputs and outputs. The A5+ is available in Satin Black, Gloss White, and my favorite, Carbonized Bamboo. The bamboo finish isn't veneer, the $70 upcharge buys a solid bamboo wood cabinet. The black and white finished A5+s have MDF cabinets.
Last but not least, the speaker sports a USB port the delivers 5V/500mA to charge iPods, iPhones, and most other USB "bus-powered" devices. The USB port is for charging, not for data transfer or music syncing. The speakers' bottom panels are padded, so they don't slide around or buzz against the surface they're sitting on.
The original A5 was hugely popular, so Audioengine didn't make any radical changes to the new design. The drivers are the same units, but the new speaker has a rear slotted port instead of a round one, and the amp design has been "cleaned up" and revised. I didn't have an A5 to reference against, but Audioengine claims the new speaker's port configuration is quieter and produces tighter bass. There's also a new remote control for volume and improved speaker binding posts.
The A5+ is sold with a 30-day, risk-free trial when purchased directly from Audioengine. Shipping is free in the lower 48 states, and Audioengine doesn't charge sales tax. That's nice, but Audioengine also has a few hundred dealers, so you might want to see if there's one in your area.
Close to the edge
For my listening tests I used my Mac Mini computer feeding a Schiit Audio Bifrost DAC via S/PDIF (I'll have a full review of the Bifrost here on Inner fidelity in a few weeks). I listened to the A5+ (mostly) in the nearfield, with the speakers about 20 inches from my ears. When I got up and listened from further away the sound held up nicely, but as with any speaker detail falls away with distance, mostly because you're hearing less and less direct sound, and more of the sound reflecting off the surfaces and objects in the room. So sure, the A5+ would be just dandy for use as stereo speakers, and beat the pants off most iPod speakers.
"Girl From The North Country" from Roseanne Cash's "The List" album sounded like the naked truth, the sheer intimacy of Cash's vocals made it easy to put aside audiophile jargon. She was there, between the A5+s, and I was a happy camper.
I next tried something a little more demanding, guitarist Larry Coryell's Traffic CD. It's a hard-hitting fusion record, with Victor Bailey on bass, and Lenny White on drums. I was present at the live-to-two-track recording session, so I have a good fix as to what the music really sounded like. "Door #3" starts with White laying down a solid groove, and while the A5+ handled the dynamics with aplomb, the bass definition on White's kick drum softened when I pushed the volume hard. Through it all Coryell's Stratocaster had tremendous presence and bite. The soundstage projected slightly forward, and extended a wee bit beyond the outer edges of the speakers.
Sticking with jazz I jumped to pianist Lafayette Gilchrist's funkified New Orleans tunes. His 3 album showcased the A5+'s smooth midrange, the piano tone was very decent. The A5+'s bass isn't pumped up or thickened, it sounds pretty accurate overall, and gets down to the high 40 Hertz range. That's hardly subwoofer territory, so if truly deep bass is what you're after, spring for a sub.
A shootout between the A5+ and the Emotiva Pro airmotiv4 powered monitors ($399/pair) revealed fairly dramatic differences in sound quality. That speaker uses a Heil air motion tweeter instead of a standard dome, and it was immediately obvious the A5+'s top end isn't in the same league as the airmotiv4's. It's nowhere as smooth or as resolved; cymbals' sparkle and shimmer are more natural on the airmotiv4. That speaker's treble has an open quality, closer to what I hear from electrostatic or planar magnetic speakers. The soundstage focus is better, and there was a greater sense of depth with the airmotiv4.
The A5+'s bass texture and definition are good, though not as taut as the airmotiv4's. But the A5+'s low-end was fuller, more dynamic and powerful. That makes it a better speaker for rock. So I like the A5+, but the airmotiv4 is a more transparent sounding speaker. Both speakers sell for $399 a pair.
Editor's Note: Thanks Steve. Looks like the wise thing to do is go read your article on the airmotiv4 on Head-Fi as well. Thanks for your thoughts!