Review: Audio Note AN-K/SPe Compact Speaker – Reassuringly dramatic

Review: The Audio Note AN-K / SPe are a recommendation for people who are music lovers and simply like to listen to a lot of music.
3.6/5 - (36 votes)

There aren’t really many hi-fi manufacturers who have a quasi-religious status with their fan base. It is noticeable, however, that a relatively large number of these cult brands are based in the United Kingdom. Just like Audio Note: We invited the compact speakers Audio Note AN-K/SPe (5,249 euros).

After my youth fascination with such a British cult – namely the one from Glasgow – I completely put aside the marketing-induced image blinkers. Also thanks to the permanent and varied occupation as a hi-fi editor, because there just keeps coming in too much good for one to indulge in the illusion that the holy grail can be found with just one designer. But if a manufacturer has repeatedly penetrated my consciousness in the last few years in the form of enthusiastic reports from its loyal followers, then it is Audio Note. Unfortunately, I have not yet had the opportunity to understand “what the fuzz is all about” at first hand.

The Audio Note AN-K / SPe are available in 20 different veneer designs, our test copy is dressed in “Birch Burl”

Now, however, raise the curtain for the cute, compact “bookshelf speakers” Audio Note AN-K / SPe (5,249 euros – if you are familiar with the price structure of the British and are now wondering: The corona pandemic and Brexit recently led to a price increase across the entire range guided). In order to better classify this model, first of all a brief overview of the hierarchy of the British, which is expressed in “levels”. It starts with level 0 – here the typical audio note virtues are to be offered at an affordable mezzanine price. The penthouse in the six-storey apartment building marks level 5. Here you cannot avoid a six-figure sum for a chain that is ready to play – this can also be in the higher range, depending on the design of the loudspeakers and the cabling.

Cheerfully upside down

This is where things get a little complicated, but stay tuned. In addition to the entry-level models AZ and AX, Audio Note only builds three basic speaker designs: the aforementioned AN-K and the larger AN-J and AN-E. These three designs differ from each other in terms of their housing, but are all two-way loudspeakers. Now there are several “expansion stages” within each design group or housing type, which decide on the classification in the respective level. The spread is different: All designs start with a budget variant on level 1, which bears the suffix D. The AN-K hierarchy then extends to level 4, AN-J to level 5 and AN-E to level 6.

Like all Audio Note models, the AN-K / SPe are two-way speakers

Our Audio Note AN-K / SPe play in level 3 and, with their real wood veneer available in 20 versions, look no different from their siblings AN-K / LX (4,550 euros) and AN-K / SPX SE (13,978 euros). . In the test model, the Audio Note AN-SPE speaker cable, which is also available solo (2 x 3 meters in single-wiring version costs 4,458 euros), is used for the internal cabling, while the smaller AN-K / LX uses the Audio Note AN-Lexus LX (2 x 3 meters for 1,233 euros). The Audio Note AN-K / SPx SE runs the pure silver cable AN-SPx internally (10,959 euros for the 3-meter single wiring set), uses silver coils in the crossover and comes in a high-gloss housing.

The basic structure of the Audio Note AN-K / SPe

The basic structure of the loudspeakers is identical. As with all models of the AN-K design (except for the AN-K / D, which are made of plywood and MDF), the housing of the Audio Note AN-K / SPe is made of a special Russian birch plywood. According to company boss Peter Qvortrup, “a lot of research and development has taken place in this area. Over the years we have tried many different materials and combinations – a time-consuming endeavor that culminated in the current design. ”Incidentally, only minimal bracing and as little damping as possible are used inside the housing. The housing is therefore more part of the sound tuning than with many other manufacturers. The loudspeaker is also designed in such a way that it can (or should) be set up close to the wall, where the bass performance benefits from the additional amplification. And the unusual basic shape with the rather wide baffle would offer the drivers the operating conditions of an installation in a virtual wall. This will make for the widest and most even Radiation behavior that is possible with a housing, according to Qvortrup.

Lively hustle and bustle

The 19 millimeter dome tweeter of the Audio Note AN-K / SPe

With regard to the drivers mentioned, as with all AN-K models, it is a 20-centimeter bass-midrange driver and a 19-millimeter dome tweeter. The woofer has a stiff paper cone and is hung up quite hard, the rather small dome however, consists of an impregnated silk fabric. The woofers of the AN-J and AN-E can also be ordered with a hemp fiber membrane. Audio-Note boss Peter Qvortrup and chief developer Andy Grove take the position that all “fancy” membrane materials can shine in some areas – regardless of whether they are metrological or sonic – but always have a negative side, their “own distinctive sound signature”. It is more important that “the sound and characteristics of a single chassis match those of its partner, so that when an instrument is played by both chassis (which is almost always the case), the upper range does not sound separate from the lower range and the other way round. This made us good, To choose old-fashioned paper for the bass cone and impregnated silk for the dome tweeter. These materials, if they are properly matched to one another, seamlessly connect the low and high frequencies, ”says Audio Note boss Qvortrup.

Audio Note AN-K/SPe- More silver, more levels …

As you have probably already seen, the use of silver is a factor for the classification in all devices: the more silver, the higher the level. But it only gets really interesting where the mass production will never get there: with the individual adjustment of the crossover (1st order) to the drivers, which always have a certain series variance. Audio Note does not always provide its crossovers with exactly the same capacitance , inductance and the same ohmic resistance. Rather, one takes into account the technical and acoustic variance of the chassis itself. And according to Audio Note, even tiny differences at this point can lead to very significant differences in the sound. Audio Note therefore relies on a “dynamic matching process” which is intended to ensure that every loudspeaker in a stereo pair corresponds to a “master curve” and also to its partner with an accuracy of 0.4 dB ; namely with all speakers.

The mid-bass driver of the Audio Note AN-K / SPe comes with a hard-suspended paper membrane

It turns and turns …

In general, the components and electronic parts: Audio Note really builds everything itself that is somehow feasible. The attention to detail even goes so far that, in the absence of any silver pickup cable plugs available on the market, Peter Qvortrup simply bought a machine in order to be able to punch this mini component himself from the element Argentum. The competence of the British, especially when it comes to transformer and coil construction, is currently probably unbeatable worldwide, says Stefan Wörmer from Audio Note Germany. Replacing standard coils with experimental models from the pen of chief developer Andy Grove would have left more than a jaw dropping, according to Wörmer. The innovation wheel never stands still at Audio Note, and this fact, combined with a truly huge warehouse of NOS tubes, I guarantee many new products of the highest quality for a long time to come. In addition, Audio Note invests in a future-oriented and crisis-proof production, even in these – or precisely because of these – unsteady times. Depending on the level and type of device, after the British development work, the actual production takes place either on site in the United Kingdom (applies to almost all amplifiers and all level 5 and level 6 devices) or in Lithuania (this is where level 1 -5 as well as all level 0 devices installed) or in Austria (installation of turntables, tonearms and speakers).

Sound test and comparisons: Audio Note AN-K/SPe

Well positioned

Unlike most speakers that have been my guests in recent years, the Audio Note AN-K/SPe prefer to be installed close to the wall. And even closer than the Grandinote Mach 2R, which has just disappeared again(from 6,600 euros). In my room, they stand on the sand-filled stands called “AN-K Stands” – with their back about 50 centimeters away from the back wall. But that’s only because the loudspeaker baffles would otherwise be on the level behind the front of my rack. If possible, I would expect them to have only 30 centimeters or less of air in their backs, depending on the size of the room. In addition, they prefer only a very slight angle to the listening position, the sharpness of the edges of the image then gains minimally. But even a little too much of a good thing in the direction of “on the move” collapses the great panorama that the Audio Note AN-K/SPe are capable of.

Reinforced & wired

I heard with the Cambridge Edge M and Edge NQ86, which were my guests at the same time as the Audio Note, and my combination of Norma Audio SC-2 DAC and Norma Audio PA-150. The latter fits a tad better to the character of the British with its more subtle, silky gait, which is why the following sound descriptions are based on this chain. Initially, the Ortofon Reference SPK Black (bi-wire, 2 × 3 meters unassembled 780 euros, with Audioquest 500 Series Silver Bananas 1,140 euros) and the in-house Audio-Note speaker cable AN-Lexus LX also came in bi-wiring. Configuration (2 x 3 meters cost 2,400 euros). Here I prefer the in-house cable for the duration of the test.

The back of the Audio Note AN-K / SPe with the fiddly little bi-wiring terminal

A note: The cable available to me is equipped with fairly space-consuming fork shoes on both sides, and in view of the rather narrow terminals of the Audio Note AN-K / SPe, which are also deeply embedded in the rear wall of the housing, the connection becomes a dexterity exercise. Bananas are definitely the better choice here, especially since they avoid the risk of a short circuit. However, the audio AN-La speaker cable that was also provided (1,244 euros, 2x 3 meter bi-wiring), which is equipped with bananas, could not quite maintain the performance of the AN-Lexus LX.

One last note first: The Audio Note AN-K / SPe take time to show what they can do. Much time. They held back with me for a good two and a half weeks until the knot literally burst on a beautiful Thursday evening. And more about that now.

Oh behave!

The fact that no unearthly bass miracles can be expected with this compact and closed loudspeaker is obvious despite the relatively large woofer and midrange driver. The rather tightly clamped paper cone and the closed housing principle obviously strive for maximum precision and optimal control rather than full force and extreme depth. That doesn’t mean that the deep bass in Nicolas Jaar’s “Colomb” (album: Space Is Only Noise ) is no longer audible or that the bass drum in The Weeknd’s mega number “Blinding Lights”  wouldn’t have a kick. The former just doesn’t roll from below through the floor into the sofa and the extended back of the person sitting on it, but materializes as a purely acoustic representation between the speakers. And the kick drum kick is a bit more reserved compared to the also closed ATC SCM19 (2,980 euros) and materializes a step further behind the loudspeaker level.

Dad body?

The Audio Note AN-K / SPe cannot completely hide a tiny emphasis on the upper bass and fundamental , depending on the piece of music, sometimes more, sometimes less, and with the Ortofon Reference SPK Black a little more clearly than with the in-house Audio Note speaker cable – with one reason for using it in the hearing test. This light melodious belly is not reflected in an over-everything impression of tonal warmth, but rather skilfully balances the fantastically open and finely nuanced mid-tone of the female voices like those of Jacintha or Agnes Obelportrayed as transparently and articulated as possible. Without this shot of substance, I could imagine that the AN-K / SPe could appear a little too ethereal depending on the installation situation. He also gives the electric guitars in Katatonia’s “July” from the album The Great Cold Distance  a charming boost. Here the Grandinote Mach 2R revealed quite relentlessly that the production of this album was, let’s say, suboptimal, especially in the presence area – with the Audio Note AN-K / SPe that doesn’t bother me, because I follow above all the positive side of the song: the composition. Hi-fi tester boom, you say? Maybe, but here I stand by it.

Air is transparent


Be that as it may, I feel clearly reminded of the compact ATC SCM19 in view of the transparency in the mids and high frequencies. I also enjoy listening to audio notes with compatriots, and above all because they have an exemplary open, unadorned and natural voice reproduction in the price range of up to 5,000 euros. The audio notes AN-K / SPe easily pull the same here, phrasing the voice of Dominique Fils-Aimé in “Birds” with their own, fortunately not over-smoothed texture and leaving the overtones of the piano playing in Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” just as present swing.

In Porcupine Trees’ “The Sound of Muzak” the audio note can play out two clear advantages in the middle: The snare drum is even more concentrated and focused than with the ATC (and that means something!), And the impression of liveliness and airiness of the acoustic guitars succeeds the AN-K / SPe even more shimmering. Okay, maybe they don’t do it as lightning-lively and brilliantly and not as sharply defined as the exceptional Grandinote Mach 2R (from 6,600 euros), but they have to have impulse and transient reproduction projected so seamlessly and precisely into the room you will first find yourself in this upper class of the AN-K / SPe.

Audio Note AN-K / SPe and Grandinote Mach 2R

Harmonists in the men’s group?

In view of the construction principle, it is less surprising that excessive, coarse dynamic force was certainly not at the top of the developer’s specifications. The Audio Note AN-K / SPe simply don’t want that. And it doesn’t even catch your ear that much. At least not after just a few tracks, once you’ve got used to the homogeneity, cohesion and, I can’t put it another way, enchantingly balanced harmony of these speakers. Every instrument, whether played acoustically, electrically amplified or electronically generated, appears complete, coherent and genuine.

The instinctive sense of the audio note AN-K / SPe for rhythmic details and musical flow also fits – when the drum demigod Mike Portnoy makes small syncopations in Transatlantic’s “Higher than the Morning” (album: The Absolute Universe: The Breath of Life ) and incorporates almost imperceptible delays and the rest of the Prog Supergroup follows them with a precision that only absolute professional veterans can do, then I can’t help but smile with satisfaction. The unobtrusive, subtle, enjoyable character of the Audio Note AN-K / SPe, which is absolutely precisely timed, also fits in with the fact that you can hear extremely quietly with them – the membranes come out of the quark from just below the nighttime conversation volume.

Spaceship SPe

Isn’t doing without the two lowest octaves the ideal solution in the end? Sure, their absence can help in a majority of real listening rooms to prevent problems such as annoying droning and the accompanying obscuration of fine room information in the first place. It may just be because the Audio Note AN-K / SPe are capable of perhaps the most pleasant spatial reproduction that I have been able to hear at home in recent years – with the exception of the Grandinote Mach 2R, which is hardly beatable in this regard. As clearly defined and separated from each other as the Italians, the audio notes do not project individual sound events, voices and instruments onto the virtual stage.

But the sheer expansion of the same to the left and right and up and down is enormous and, above all, appears surprisingly weightless and free. In contrast to the more aggressive Grandinote, the positioning of the entire stage takes place on and a little behind the loudspeaker level and does not involve the listener as actively.

In contrast, the Audio Note AN-K/SPe succeeds in completely disappearing the loudspeakers as sound sources from the musical panorama even better than the Mach 2R. In combination with the fixed impulse reproduction and the airy overall impression, the bottom line is that it simply sounds very relaxed, easy-going and unreserved, without these character traits having to serve as euphemisms for whitewashing tonal errors or other inadequacies. And now 5 euros into the phrase pig: the technology and the thought of hi-fi really take a back seat here for a change – I haven’t heard so much music in a long time .

The Audio Note AN-K/SPe are a recommendation for people who simply miss out on glitz and technology and who simply like to listen to a lot of music. Or for real hi-fi nerds, for whom forest-and-meadow-all-world hi-fi is all about … Well, you know. The AN-K / SPe fit perfectly into small to medium-sized rooms, especially when installation close to a wall is required or possible. Electrically, they are quite undemanding and – assuming the clearly arranged rooms mentioned – should be able to cope with small pentode or properly made SET amplifiers. In terms of sound, they are all the more demanding and prefer comparatively strong, silky and elegantly flowing electronics to overly strict teachers of neutrality and dynamics.

One of the reasons for this is that the Audio Note AN-K/SPe tend to hold back a little when it comes to timbre, which also applies to the lower bass range. Here they are balanced from dry to slim and do not go down too deep. The overall tonality of the Audio Note AN-K / SPe is largely neutral with a very slight residual heat from the upper bass to the lower midrange, which gives the sound image a pleasant substance despite the factual timbre reproduction.

The Audio Note Audio Note AN-K/SPe are ideal speakers for the unadorned, realistic and coherent reproduction of acoustic music in general and smaller acoustic, classical and jazz ensembles as well as demanding electronic music in particular. Then they enchant with a seemingly endless broadband panorama and a relaxed airiness with maximum homogeneity. Rummsdrauflos techno, on the other hand, is not their thing, and wall-of-sound heavy metal fans and hip-hop fans shouldn’t be fooled by the 20-centimeter woofer.

If you enjoy music holistically and do not value the very last bit of depth, you should risk an ear and take your time, because the Audio Note AN-K / SPe are not blenders. They want to be discovered – and ample reward for intensive care.

The Audio Note AN-K / SPe …

  • deliver a true broadband panorama that also adequately takes the depth of the room into account and comes up with a realistic, sharp-edged, if not extremely physical image on and slightly behind the loudspeaker level.
  • play exceptionally homogeneous, a break between the frequency paths cannot be made out at all.
  • dissolve very well according to their price range, sound surprisingly free, airy and find the perfect character balance between silky delicacy and the necessary “edge”.
  • are tonally located on the dry and not too colorful side with a cheeky-fresh high tone, which in no way brings coolness or even sterility with it, because …
  • … there is a hint of an emphasis on the area between the upper bass and lower mids, which gives the sound image the necessary substance.
  • reach with their dry and crisp bass down to around 50 Hz without actually achieving a physically noticeable slam. Coarse dynamics was not the primary goal of the developers.
  • are at the forefront of their class with fine dynamics.
  • play optimally in small to medium-sized rooms (depending on the individual circumstances between about 10 and 30 square meters).
  • can and should be set up close to the wall on good, heavy stands.
  • are very good-natured electrically and can also handle smaller tube amps.
  • can be upgraded further.

Audio Note AN-K/SPe Facts:

  • Model: Audio Note AN-K / SPe
  • Concept: 2-way compact loudspeaker, closed
  • Price: 5,249 euros
  • Dimensions (W x H x D) and weight: 470 x 275 x 190 mm, 11 kg / piece
  • Efficiency: 90 dB / W / m
  • Nominal impedance: 6 ohms
  • Connections: bi-wiring terminals
  • Versions: different veneers, RAL palette, some for an extra charge
  • Guarantee: 2 years