I've been listening to Audioengine's new HD3 Wireless Speakers for several days now. I'm pleased to report they exceed all expectations. I'll cut straight to the chase: to my eyes, these appear to be attractive, desktop-size powered speakers but to my ears, this highly compact, complete music system changes the game in it's league. The traditional stereo system based on separate audio components seems obsolete compared to a speaker system like this. The HD3 is a perfect example of how the present digital sea change moves forward best in the audio industry by genuine innovation, not simply by cosmetic tweaks.
A couple weeks ago, I offered to review Audioengine's high-value product line here on the iHi-Fi blog. Brady Bargenquast sent me their new HD3 to start things off. To my ears, it's clear the HD3's musical performance lives up to Audioengine's marketing claim that it's "the ultimate mini music system." The music quality is astonishing, exceeding any music system I'm aware of at the $399 price point. Audioengine takes a stance as a soft-spoken but subversive market leader in the computer audio revolution and not only in words, but in their works. The HD3, and probably the HD6 as well, are taking the digital revolution right into the palace of high end music.
As an industrial designer, I'm partial to the HD3's visual presentation. The "retro-forward" treatment is carried off ever so precisely in manufacturing. The faultless build speaks quality all around. The Cherry-finished model they sent is much less red than it looks in a web browser. In the flesh, it's more a chocolaty brown with a strong red tint. This is likely to blend well with most décors. The black, magnetically-attached grill cloths impart a more neatly-finished look to HD models, as compared to the bare-chested motif of the previous A-model and P-type speakers from Audioengine. Also, the aspect ratio of the speaker enclosures is significantly taller than the onsite photos reveal, which lends a less squatty-looking and more stately impression.
Speakers-out looks cool and manly. By contrast, the HD models dress in a classier, more spouse-pleasing design. The small size, lack of any other external components, and minimal wiring will also look better with other furnishings. No separate system rack is needed though substantial speaker stands undoubtedly add to the performance quality. Right down to the deeply engraved brand on silvery metal, the visuals are spare and as handsome as George Clooney in a thousand-dollar business suit.
The HD3 is far more than a set of powered speakers. It's a complete, wireless, miniaturized and optimized, two-channel, desktop or room stereo system with power enough for a medium-sized room. It's a snap to set up given its generously versatile connectivity. The HD3 will accept the usual audio line-level input from any stereo gear you may already have but you don't need additional hardware beyond this speaker system and a computer.
I use the term "computer" loosely. Any USB device that streams music will connect, including an Android smartphone or tablet, or a USB turntable. Any analog device with a line output will also connect. So will a lowly earphone jack, in a pinch. But the big attraction is the built-in wireless over Bluetooth, and that's at aptX quality, if you have it. This system really will play music from just about any device you have. Any way you connect will sound uncommonly good but the aptX HD quality and convenience are especially seductive after the HD3 upsamples the bitstream to 24-bit/96KHz.
The aptX hookup is enabled by internal circuitry much like the Audioengine B1 Bluetooth Receiver. Conveniently, all inputs are active so you hear whatever is connected and playing. Your input of choice feeds a 24-bit, upsampling PCM 5102 DAC from circuits similar to Audioengine's D1 desktop standalone DAC. The resulting analog decode enters dual monoblock power amps. Just like in the architecture of those big-amp audiophile systems that look so sexy and sound so good, the Right and Left channels each have separate signal paths. This partly explains the HD3's extraordinary cost-to-fidelity ratio.
All this super-compact audio system functionality is housed in the left enclosure. It ultimately powers the highly articulate drivers in both stereo channel speakers. How they do all this for the posted asking price baffles me, even after a career in electro-mechanical design. This little system is an evolutionary leap in Hi-Fi gear, eliminating any other separate component but the source devices, which, in all probability, you already have. All system parts are tuned to play nice together. Other speakers may come with internal power amps, and maybe a DAC as well, but this is the first speaker setup I've seen with an entire, wireless audio system inside: wireless receiver, DAC, amps and all.
Expect to be wowed shortly after unboxing if your smartphone has aptX Bluetooth and a TIDAL app with the Hi-Fi quality option, or another 16-bit stream, or a collection of 16-bit (or higher resolution) local files. Although 16 bits may go into the system, 24 bits always get decoded. The resampling may not be fully equivalent to native 24-bit recordings but it sounds much better than a 16-bit original. Non-aptX Bluetooth also works but personally, I'm interested in the highest available fidelity. This means natural-sounding, noise-free audio much like live performances, when your selections have been well-recorded and skillfully mixed. That's what I'm hearing from the HD3 while running through my favorite playlists: realistic, natural-sounding, articulate music with all the details and ambience that make music sound wonderful.
As I play a wide variety of genres, the HD3 handles every task with grace. It's beautiful to look at, easy on the bank account, and best of all, it delivers the musical goods: accurate, delightfully dynamic, detailed audio. My TIDAL Hi-Fi playlists have never sounded better. The same is true for 24-bit/96Khz, upsampled albums that I ripped from CDs. Once again, I'm hearing new things that I never heard before in music that I've listened to analytically a lot, with new delight in each discovery. I'm like, "Oh. So that's what this piece of music really sounds like." My daily workhorse music system is an Audioengine A5+N. If the goal was to exceed the previous star's performance, well done. My guess is the last 5% of excellence comes harder than the rest.
Audioengine is clearly on a mission to bring high end music to the consumer audio markets. Right now, the Russian State Choir is giving me chills and raising some body hair. When I close my eyes, I'm transported to a cathedral near the Kremlin. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Characteristic instrumental timbres remain separate and distinct rather than mushing together. Each instrument and voice occupies its own sonic space, with right-sounding signature and credible apparent position in an immense, holographic soundstage. I hear no particular coloration unless it's on the recording. As typical with computer audio systems, media-specific artifacts like clicks, pops, ticks, wow, flutter, stutter, timing error, and the rest, are all absent unless present in the source data. Nor do I detect any digital artifacts. The background remains clean and black, a void.
Despite the HD3's smallish speaker driver size (2.75 inch woofers) the bass drive has good presence, considering a 65Hz lower rolloff. I do prefer to include my S8 subwoofer, though. So I switch the bass cut feature on to let the S8 do its stuff from 100Hz down to 27 Hz. This markedly improves very low bass in music that has it, but I might not miss a sub in music that lacks bass, like chamber music. If you're a perfectionist about music, I do recommend a powered sub that allows you to tailor the response like the Audioengine S8 does. This also frees up the HD3 from some heavy lifting so its drivers can dance better to the midrange and highs.
The 60W total peak power is surprising in a package this small. It easily provides enough acoustic drive to fill my 18 X 12 X 8 foot (1728 cubic ft.,) softer listening room. I can't stand to peg the volume for long with Creedence, Buddy Holly, or Little Feat. However, you might want more power in a larger, or softer room. For harder-to-drive rooms, Audioengine has the HD6 waiting in the wings. I can't wait to hear this big brother render my test playlists but the HD3 has power enough for my room, which is fully carpeted and has some cushy furniture, so it's a bit soft in spite of 30% glass surface area on the front wall.
I didn't start this HD3 listening binge by connecting via Bluetooth. Although these speakers are billed as a desktop show, I set them up as wired, room speakers, eight feet apart, driven by an Audioengine D2, because I never work sitting at a desk. Then I got attuned to hearing this initial setup using the audio line input and I was wowed, as stated above. I also routinely add polymeric vibration isolators under each speaker that help the best performance emerge. See Herbie's Audio Lab for the kind you need. They work and are worth the cost.
I was so prejudiced against Bluetooth as a wireless audio link that I have assumed I would always connect via wire or equivalent-sounding wireless, using Wi-Fi-like protocols, through the Audioengine W3 or D2 wireless DACs. Of course, being Mister Curious, I had to try aptX with the HD3. So I looked into out how to acquire aptX HERE.
Having never bothered to check into aptX previously, I got a Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphone last September. Just now, I discovered this phone came with aptX Bluetooth, as do a lot of other Android devices these days. With the arrival of the HD3, I was finally enabled to check out this somewhat mysterious, proprietary CODEC for myself. I only discovered its excellence by dumb luck after the HD3 arrived.
I'm astounded by how good aptX Bluetooth sounds. Jalan Jalan is wonderful to hear across this wireless connection. Indonesian gamelan performances, on both albums they have on TIDAL, bring rich and exotic timbres across treble and midrange with occasional excursions into bass. I also recommend all three albums Green Isac has on TIDAL for the feast of timbral richness and good workout it provides. Praful on The Silent Side of Satie brings wonderful harp and flutes with a sense of being at the recital. I also listened to Dustin O'Halloran's two Piano Solo albums yet again and Adam Hurst's Festivale album. If piano sounds that great on a setup, usually everything else does, also. Now we can have our Bluetooth aptX convenience cake and eat the richness too, of natural-sounding music.
My TIDAL playlists have jumped to a new level that sounds uniformly better than pre-HD3 and yes, equal to a wired hookup, as Qualcomm claims. I'm eating a little crow now about Bluetooth audio quality but cut me some slack because aptX has finally become practical, given how many HD consumer devices are available with it now. When I was dismayed with Bluetooth, there were very few ways to actually implement aptX in high end home listening. This CODEC is the fruit of some clever work. How the heck do they get music to sound this good coming through that skinny a pipe?
After a few days of listening, it's clear I can forget about needing a high-end portable music player because I already have one: my Samsung S7 with aptX also has interchangeable SD cards. Think infinite collection. It's not unthinkable to haul along the little HD3 System on trips when I have more than one suitcase. I don't even need a portable laptop DAC except in very constrained situations where I can't set up the HD3. If I want to play music loud, or late into the night, the HD3 also includes a built-in high fidelity headphone amp. As stated, it is a complete audio system.
At $399, I'd say the musical performance and superb usability that preserves music quality are worth more than the cost for these HD3 Wireless Speakers. Given they come with dual stereo channel amps and a headphone amp is built in, plus the functionality of Audioengine's B1 Bluetooth receiver ($189 separately) and their D1 desktop DAC ($169 separately,) the total capability of the HD3 clearly exceeds the selling price of equivalent, separate components. The HD3 Speakers' price/performance makes this system a no-brainer best buy. If you listen at a desk you may reclaim some desktop work space as you acquire a music upgrade.
My remaining defensible prejudice is this: to derive the best experience, a music listener must know well how to listen critically and make honest, accurate evaluations. In the end, there's only one valid way to answer your audio-lovin' curiosity: first, become skilled enough in critical listening to rely on your own judgment rather than wishing some outer authority could settle all your burning questions. Then, listen for yourself. A straightforward, rough guide to listening for beginners is available HERE.
In addition to the suggestions above, I also offer the following recordings on TIDAL to hear the HD3 shine when you audition one:
Bass Dreams by Mo Foster
My Green Isac playlist on TIDAL-- HERE
Anything recorded by Adam Hurst, maybe The Secret
Something recent from Leonard Cohen
Anything by Norah Jones
My Eko Archive playlist on TIDAL, HERE -- for dance-able happy-music
Consider this: with 16-bit streaming and an upsampling Burr-Brown DAC, the need to collect 24-bit files may be over unless you are into rare recordings you can't find otherwise. If you're new to Hi-Fi listening or thinking of a major system upgrade, the good news is, you can have HD quality music by the system-in-a-speaker approach and control it all with a smartphone, wirelessly. My phone manages the HD3 easily from any room in this spacious home. Once you find the courage to make the technology leap, you may even be able to sell your older gear and break even or make a profit. More about that in my next blog post.
The age of revolutionary high fidelity at consumer pricing is upon us. Make the most of your opportunities if you love listening to great-sounding music. How does a 30-day HD3 audition sound, along with a 90-day free trial of TIDAL? I would be glad to help you make it happen right here on iHi-Fi.
iHi-Fi offers the HD3 with a 30-day audition and money-back, satisfaction guarantee HERE. And you get the TIDAL trial subscription free with any Audioengine component purchase on iHi-Fi. Then you can check out all the titles I suggested above and of course, lots of music you already love, and much more you will come to love, in TIDAL's humongous catalog. And rumor has it that Spotify may also go Hi-Fi soon.
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