Page 3 - Subjective Audio Analysis
The Audioengine HD3 sits on top my HD6 for testing.
Reviewing audio devices require extensively trained ears and lots of experience. Even for audiophiles, it may prove challenging at times to obtain an accurate evaluation of a product without a thoroughly familiar product to use as a simultaneous reference. While I am not going to even try to claim that I am the only trustworthy or best reviewer for sound, it is fact that most computer review sites have editors who are insufficiently trained in reviewing audio equipment. Give them practically anything and all you will read about goes along the line of "good bass, nice midrange, awesome treble, really clear sound, 10/10". While there are many knowledgeable audio reviewers at various respected online media outlets, they are by far the minority.
As I have mentioned in my past audio reviews, there are really no true objective measurements for speaker sound quality. As the reviewer, however, I will put it through a series of subjective tests to try to come up with the most objective rating possible (Yes, it is quite a paradox haha). Since the Audioengine HD3 features an excellent Texas Instruments PCM5102 digital to analog converter inside, primary tests were conducted over USB connected to my Apple MacBook Pro. For Bluetooth wireless tests, I mainly used an Apple iPhone 6.
After over 50 hours of break-in time -- well above typically required period -- we put the Audioengine HD3 to the tests. All tracks were uncompressed CDs, FLAC, or LAME encoded MP3s at 192kbps or higher.
On the input side of things, the Texas Instruments PCM5102 DAC works its magic inside the Audioengine HD3 over any digital connection. If you hook up your speakers directly to your source via a USB cable, rest be assured you are not missing out much -- if at all -- compared to having a premium sound card in your computer. Even if you are going over Bluetooth, my Apple iPhone 6 streamed music with excellent quality without wires. You would be hard pressed to tell the difference, and even though there definitely is compared to a wired connection I had to really listen carefully to tell. All in all, the Audioengine HD3's entire digital subsystem is excellent; whether you are connecting with or without wires.
Starting with the "big three", let me first clarify on some expectations. The fact is, featuring 2.75" Kevlar woven glass aramid composite woofers with rubber surrounds, the Audioengine HD3 cannot move a whole lot of air. When in use, even though enough air moves through the bass reflex port opening slits to dry your hands, these are still 2.75" drivers. If you want to completely fill the low end, you will need much big drivers to move lots of air. There is no way around physics. That said, I did a frequency sweep on these speakers, and there is almost flat response down to 90Hz. It drops off quickly past this point even with bass reduction disabled, but you can still hear things reasonably clearly down to 65Hz -- exactly what its specifications suggest. I do not believe it is unreasonable to expect owners of the HD3 to buy their own subwoofer, which is exactly what I have done. A low pass filter set at around 100Hz with the reduced bass setting on is probably a good idea, and there are many great high quality subwoofers in the market that will go well Audioengine's desktop speakers. I personally run a BIC F12 with the HD3 in my room.
When it comes to the bass, as I have just said, there is no way around physics, and I am very happy with the way Audioengine's engineers tuned the HD3. Sometimes, for speaker manufacturers to try to hide limitations of their design, they will overdrive certain frequencies, resulting in disastrous effects. Audioengine did not attempt make those 2.75" woofers work harder than it should at low frequencies, which is excellent. The result is light bass. I dare say it -- it is weak. Even if it was there, it lacks punch. At no point did I mistake my subwoofer being on when it was not, but for the amount of bass you do get, it is solid, smooth, defined, round and fairly articulate. It is neither deep nor punchy, so in order to fill your room, you will definitely want a subwoofer. For a small room, $200 will get you something pretty amazing nowadays, and since you are paying $400 for these speakers anyway, what is another $200 to burn? I would definitely pair it with a subwoofer, even if you do not buy anything particularly high end.
The Audioengine HD3's real story comes through in its midrange and treble performance, which is what they are really designed to do. It is interesting how the HD3 is tuned compared to the HD6 or even the A2+. The HD6 is tuned for studio monitor-like performance for a perfectly flat midrange and treble, while the A2+ has a slightly recessed midrange and darker treble for a warmer tone. The HD3 takes a different approach. One of the chief complaints about the A2+ was its slightly recessed midrange and darker treble, so Audioengine went the other way and boosted both the midrange and the treble on the HD3. In turn, the HD3 is much brighter than both the A2+ and HD6. It lacks the lower midrange the HD6 has, but the increased upper midrange and accentuated treble creates much higher clarity in this range -- especially the vocals -- at the expense of the naturally pleasant and warm characteristics of the referenced speakers in question. It is still thick, rich, and saturated intrinsically, but the changes in frequency distribution makes the physical limitations of its 2.75" woofers much more noticeable than before. For its treble, its brighter output carries almost all the characteristics of what makes good treble sound good, and that is sharp, distinct, and wet. The treble is almost immediate and high with demonstrated smoothness across the range.
Once you start listening for the auxiliary details, you can definitely hear the way the Audioengine HD3 is tuned as a pair from the factory. The sound is imaged precisely to the center. If you close your eyes while firing up the music, a ghost center speaker will appear. Now, this is not an entirely realistic reproduction, but this center image does not come at the expense of soundstaging, making the experience very enjoyable. Deriving from my assertions regarding the treble performance and imaging characteristics of the Audioengine HD3, I think you can probably make a very good educated guess regarding the soundstaging properties of the Audioengine HD3. Close your eyes, and you will imagine something much bigger playing in front of you. The soundstage is relatively wide for its size. Soundscaping is also impressive for a pair of stereo speakers; it carries a surprisingly reasonable amount of depth and direction to the music playing.
I am extremely impressed by amount of precision and detail the Audioengine HD3 is able to reproduce. The layering comes in at a very detailed resolution, yet each frequency layer is distinct and extremely well separated. If there is a better word for "clean" that roughly carries the meaning of "super-duper clean", I would use that word. At the same time, the transition between each layer is smooth and cohesive, making everything sound very harmonized and immersive to the listener. There is no missing detail with the HD3 -- not a single one. Its clarity is simply flawless.
In the most un-audiophile way possible, let me close off with the power of these speakers. I am not the kind of guy who goes like, "These speakers are loud! They must be good!" but at times I feel like the Audioengine HD3 lacks power. It produces quality sound, and being small desktop speakers where you will sit and listen at a proximity of no more than three feet typically, the volume itself is not a big issue. Instead, I compare the HD3 to driving a car powered by a small I4 engine going up an incline. Sure, any modern car can go uphill at 100km/h at partial throttle, but it is just not the same as going up the same incline in a car powered by a V8. At higher volumes, the built-in amplifier quickly runs out of steam to push out sound in a consistent, distortion-free manner. Things just do not sound as solid as it should, although it is hard to point out the specific details. A more powerful internal amplifier can make all the difference.
1. Introduction, Packaging, Specifications
2. Physical Look - Hardware
3. Subjective Audio Analysis