Active speakers are rapidly gaining popularity. Besides their obvious clutter-free appeal, directly integrating the amplifier within the speaker can bring significant sonic advantages if well executed. Designers are able to tailor the amplification components and the crossovers to the specific cabinet and drivers, the latter often being handled digitally.
The Airpulse A80s are an active speaker suited to hi-fi listening but designed to fit a modern digital lifestyle and be accommodated in spaces where the size or aesthetic of a more traditional imposing speaker may not be ideal. They boast high-res certification and a plethora of inputs including analogue, digital, USB and Bluetooth 5.0 with AptX.
The A80s incorporate horn-loaded ribbon tweeters taken directly from the companies A100, it in turn a descendent of the unit found in the 7001 monitor. Unlike more common dome tweeters, where a dome is moved by a traditional coil and motor assembly, the ribbon tweeter suspends a tiny ribbon within a magnetic field. The ribbon is an ultra-thin metal diaphragm weighing less than a 10th of a dome, with no intrinsic stiffness of its own. Thus the ribbon is driven evenly across its surface, and can produce the smallest movements and thus reproduce the most minute musical detail. A good ribbon tweeter is however costly to produce and to find one in a. Speaker at this price is the exception rather than the norm. The ribbon tweeter is mounted to the rear of a horn, which acts as a waveguide to improve sound dispersion and minimise the effects of room reflections. Consequently, the A80s not only demonstrate impressive directivity but also excellent off-axis performance, even in height.
Mid and bass frequencies are handled by a 4.5-inch aluminium cone woofer with a 30 mm voice coil. The hard-anodised alloy cone is incredibly stiff, designed to resist cone breakup and refraction even at extremely high volume. It is suspended in a heavy, ultra-rigid cast magnesium alloy frame, with the 30 mm voice coil giving less power compression as it runs at a lower operating temperature when fed with the same power as a smaller coil. Sonically this gives a better dynamics performance and increased performance at high volume.
The cabinet is 18 mm MDF covered by a walnut veneer and internally lined with thick damping material. The speakers are rear-ported with an oval port tube to minimise wind noise. The dimensions are 140 x 250 x 220 mm.
Amplification is handled by a pair of TAS5754 class D chips from Texas Instruments. These chips support digital sampling rates of up to 192kHz, negating the need to downsample the input signal and thus mitigating any losses. The 768kHz PWM carrier frequency is almost double that of a typical class D amplifier, which is especially important given the sensitivity of the ribbon tweeter. The amplifiers are configured in a bi-amplified setup with one handling both woofers and the second running the tweeters.
The DSP is built around an XMOS XU216 16-core processor, which is responsible for the crossover, tone and volume control. The Bluetooth chipset is from Qualcomm and the class-compliant USB chipset from XMOS. Output power is rated at 50W per channel RMS (40W Woofer, 10W tweeter) and there is a subwoofer output via a mono RCA jack.
Frequency response is rated at 52Hz-40KHz. A-Weighted signal to noise ratio is rated at ≥90dB. No references are given for any of the measurements, but I found the A80s to be appreciably quiet in use with only the faintest hiss audible up close. Input sensitivity for the AUX and ‘PC’ RCA stereo inputs are 450±50mV and 550±50mV respectively.
The A80s are supplied with a generous complement of accessories including quality RCA and optical cables, a USB cable and a pair of foam isolation pads. The foam pads isolate the speaker from the surface on which it is placed and elevate the front of the speaker by 8 degrees to angle the tweeter up towards the listener. If you choose not to use the isolation pads, the speakers are fitted with large rubber feet which also do a fine job of isolation.
Also packed with the A80 is an infrared remote control. Its use of a coin-cel battery aside, it is a nicely made unit with tactile controls that have a pleasing click to them when pressed. The A80s dispense with DSP sound modes and consequently the remote is minimalistic, offering controls for power, volume/mute and input selection.
The speakers do offer bass and treble controls at the rear of the right-hand speaker, both with a central detent to indicate their neutral position. On the same panel are the two pairs of RCA inputs, optical and USB inputs, the C7 power connector for the internal power supply and a 5-pin DIN connector to link the left speaker.
Operation of the speakers is effortless, although I would rather the physical controls on the right-hand speaker were placed on the front. Nevertheless a short press of the volume control switches between inputs, and a long press powers the speaker on or switches it into standby. Rotating the control alters the volume in small steps. The bass and treble controls are analogue potentiometers though controlling the DSPs, and thus the signal path remains in the digital domain throughout. These controls give a useful degree of adjustment, though I left them both in their neutral positions for the duration of my listening.
Bluetooth pairing was faultless with an iPhone 12 running the latest version of iOS 14. The USB interface connected to a Mac running macOS11 without issue. I fed the AUX RCA inputs with the output of my Musical Fidelity M6s Vinyl phono stage to play some vinyl through the A80s, which worked flawlessly.
The sound was hugely enjoyable, richly detailed and dynamic, especially at high volumes. The A80s were well suited to low-level listening too however with detail through the mids and into the highs still well preserved. The level of bass from such small speakers is surprising, but it doesn’t sound artificially boosted in any way. More the product of excellent cabinet design and drivers and amplifiers working in harmony in a well-optimised system.
Despite being a primarily digital-focused product, I found the A80s particularly adept at vinyl playback. Though when I did switch to Bluetooth the quality remained high. AptX certainly helps here offering far better performance than the SPC codec of old. But Bluetooth must still be carefully implemented to avoid a noticeable dip in sound quality. While it can’t compete with a direct USB or analogue connection, here the Bluetooth implementation is excellent and produced results that were far beyond acceptable.
In summary. The A80s have been designed as an entry to serious hi-fi listening, targeted toward a younger audience with a strong focus towards digital listening in lifestyle systems. This they achieve, but they are equally at home in any space where a compact and versatile active speaker system with excellent performance is desired. their sound is dynamic, detailed and powerful yet neutral and uncoloured. They have plenty of inputs (though a coaxial S/PDIF input would have been welcome) and can accommodate a wide range of sources both digital and analogue. They are aesthetically pleasing, extremely well made and belie their modest price. In short, highly recommended.