Looking for an inexpensive way to get into high-fidelity streaming stereo music listening? The new Ai40 powered aptX Bluetooth bookshelf speakers ($199.99) from Fluance are a nice 2-way option that cover the basics in terms of connectivity, while dispensing with unnecessary frivolities to keep the price low.
The 2-way bookshelf speakers in this system sport 1″soft-dome ferrofluid-cooled tweeters and 5″ woven glass-fiber composite mid/woofers. This is a sealed 2-way design, and each speaker gets 35 watts of class D power. The crossover is set at 2600 Hz and is phase-coherent, says Fluance. Overall, frequency response is spec’d at 40 Hz to 20 kHz.
In addition to aptX Bluetooth, this system comes equipped with a pair of analog RCA jacks. Just one, and that’s it. Unlike some pricier systems, there is no corded digital input, there is also no subwoofer output. Fundamentally, this is a Bluetooth speaker system that lets you hook up an external device using an analog connection, such as a PC, turntable (as long as it has its own preamp), Echo Dot or Chromecast Audio.
What it does have which is crucial, is a nice (infrared) remote that controls volume, source, bass and treble, and basic Bluetooth playback (pause/play/forward/back). thoughtfully, there is also a button on the remote explicitly to toggle the power light, so that you can have total darkness if you use this system with the TV or in a bedroom.
Fluance sent me a pair of Ai40 speakers to check out, they arrived yesterday afternoon. Rather than sit on the pair, I decided to unpack them right away and do a mini-review. Notably, since the system really is super simple, reviewing it was also extremely easy.
Fluance Ai40 2.0 Bluetooth Speaker System Review
As minimalist as the speakers are, the Fluance Ai40 has aptX for Bluetooth, which means that CD-quality wireless streaming is possible from compatible phones, tablets, or other Bluetooth-equipped, aptX-compatible devices. And even without aptX, you get regular Bluetooth quality that works fine for a system like this.
Fluance Ai40 2.0 aptX Bluetooth speaker system.
A super obvious application for the Bluetooth connection is pairing this speaker set with an Amazon Echo Dot. There are plenty of situations—kitchen, desktop, bedroom garage, flanking a TV, or even on a shelf in a living room, where this speaker pair is everything you need to get some enjoyable sound.
With cabinets measuring 10.9″ x 6.5″ x 7.6″, these are fairly compact speakers that fit on a desktop or bookshelf, but not as small as a wireless speaker like the Sonos Play:1. They are made of MDF, have a matte black woodgrain finish, rounded edges, little rubber feet, a tiny Canadian flag on the back, and in general are attractive and solidly built.
The package includes an external power supply, and RCA to 3.5 mm stereo minijack adapter cable, and an 8-foot speaker cable to connect the two speakers.
These speakers have metal binding posts to connect the active unit (right) speaker to the passive (left) speaker. You cannot swap which one is right or left. The posts can accommodate thick wire, whether it’s bare or terminated with banana plugs, etc. The 8 feet provided is enough if you run the cable behind a TV, but if you set these on stands you may want to use a longer run of 12-gauge or 14-gauge cable, if only for aesthetics. The good thing is you can.
You can also use the Ai40s in a traditional audiophile fashion, on top of speaker stands and positioned away from the wall. And surprise, surprise… these Fluance speakers fill that role quite well, considering their cost and size.
Listening and Measurements
Quick measurements show a fairly well-behaved speaker system that unsurprisingly gives it up when it comes to subwoofer-deep bass, but manages to dig deep enough to provide substance to basslines and kick drums in such.
Fluance says the two-way crossover in this system is phase-coherent. Combine that with compact cabinet dimensions, a sealed design, sufficient power for spirited casual listening, and decent drivers, and it should not come as a huge shocker that these speakers image quite well. How well? Like, speakers disappear and the soundstage has depth in addition to width that extends beyond the actual speakers. In other words, the real deal.
A quick tour of some well-recorded tunes turned into a fun listening session. We now live in the era of commodified high fidelity, judging by the sound of the system. I was amused at how well the speakers handled vocals such as Enya on her album Watermark or Robert Smith from The Cure on Disintegration (yeah, I took a little trip back to the 90s. The key quality? At reasonable volume levels, they were free of the congested sound I automatically associate with small, cheap speakers.
I don’t think I’ve ever used “the world’s most cliché demo album” i.e. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of the Moon, in a speaker review before, although I’ve certainly demoed many a system with it. And regardless, this was the first time I’ve ever said the words “Alexa, play ‘Money’ from dark side of the moon.” Anyhow, I have heard better renditions of the track, but not from a system that’s this affordable.
The jaw-dropper of this review is how these speakers handled Jon Kennedy’s Corporeal, with crispness and heft that implead performance above this price point and speaker size.
My vinyl collection is limited but I did play Rising Down by The Roots, Bush by Snoop Dogg, In Decay by Com Truise, and Metallic Spheres by The Orb and David Gilmour. The $250 Monoprice record player I used is a dead ringer for the $250 record player Fluance sells, so my guess is the sound is similar too. And for $450 retail, the package looks good, sounds good, and fulfills both digital and analog playback rolls with enthusiasm. You will need a turntable with a built-in preamp to use it with these speakers.
But the star of the show is the aptX Bluetooth. If you have a compatible source, and quite a few phones plus tablets support aptX, then you are good to go for $199 flat. Cynics won’t find much to criticize if they listen to the Fluance Ai40s with an open ear.
Measurements revealed a speaker that delivers on its promised frequency response, and has enough power to push the drivers to their physical limits without diving up. As with many active speaker systems, the amp is well matched to the capabilities of the speaker. I also found you could use the tone controls with reckless abandon to get the sound you want, with the bass control being useful to get the right balance depending on speaker position. I saw no reason to fiddle with the balance in my listening.
So what’s the catch? Basically, physics. There’s only so much air a woofer in a compact sealed cabinet can move. These speakers let you push all the air the woofer will allow, but in the end it’s limited and there’s no accomodation for a sub. But that’s sort of the point, these speakers do what they do, well, without trying to be something more, and they are good at it.
When I measured the response of the Ai40 system from 1 meter away, I saw that the bass response was down 10 dB at 40 Hz, which is consistent with the specs (no +/- range was specified). It rises to -3 dB at 46 Hz and from there response is very flat until 4000 Hz where it starts to rise, ultimately peaking at +6 dB.
This rise starts at the exact point where the treble tone control takes effect and can be adjusted, I found taking treble down three notches brought a near-flat response. Of course you see this treble hump in tons of pricey speaker designs (B&W and GoldenEar come to mind but many others). Moreover, with tone controls zeroed out, the speakers measured nicely from my main listening position, absorption reduced thee treble bump to near-flat and room gain gave the bass a nice boost, with -10 dB found at 34 Hz (instead of 40). Good stuff for a system of this size and price.
Anyhow, I have no complaints about the Ai40s. I understand what they are and found that Fluance’s execution is tight. These speakers do not sound cheap, look cheap… the only thing about them that’s “cheap” is the price itself.
I’m a big fan of affordable audio and am brand agnostic. For my reviews, I try to find gear that has appeal, regardless of the price point. That being said, it always pleases me tremendously when I find a product that’s a good performer at an entry-level price point, like the Fluance Ai40.
Ultimately, the absence of a subwoofer output didn’t really bother me, because with a $199 price point, I see this system appealing to people for whom that is the entire system budget. Whether that’s because it’s a garage system, used as a gaming system, or a college dorm system, or a bedroom stereo, or even as an upgrade to a TV’s sound, it’s a system I;d suggest getting instead of a $200 soundbar—this kit will certainly beat in terms of overall fidelity.
Long story short here is that while there is nothing mind blowing about the Fluance Ai40 system, it is both competent and budget-conscious. When the budget for a sound system is $199 bucks, or between $235 to $250 when including a string player such as Chromecast Audio or Amazon Echo Dot ($49.99), this is the option at puts the money into the actual speakers, instead of trying to be “smart” about it.
If you need something more flexible, spend a little more. Otherwise, say hello to the $199 competent Bluetooth stereo… the Ai40 from Fluance. Recommended.