I’ve been trying to listen to a pair of Audio Note UK AN-J/D loudspeakers for decades. Why? It’s a long, rambling story but I’ll tell it to you RIGHT NOW.
It starts in 1981, in Southern California, when I was a college student. After discovering something called “high-end audio,” I was determined to get out of my hi-fi rut of buying mainstream components from Pacific Stereo–I had finally maxx-ed out on their inventory when I purchased a set of SAE TWO separates. “That’s it for us, kid. As high as we go. Go be a real audiophile now.” But an audiophile high school friend and a new “high-end” stereo store in town and a pair of unobtrusive two-way monitors conspired to change the course of my life.
Words and Photos by Marc Phillips
Those two-way monitors were Snell Type Js, and I bought them and loved them for a decade until I accidentally blew them up one day thanks to a loose power cord. This was my first jump from Pacific Stereo mid-fi to high-end, and I was excited. Snell speakers were also a fave around the Stereophile offices, back when they were located in Santa Fe, and I was eventually discouraged by the fact that the SP staff reviewed every single Snell model except for the J. (The same tale reoccurs a few years later when I replaced the Js, still stinking of fried electrical wiring, with the Spendor S20s–which were also denied a full review by SP.)
What does this have to do with the Audio Note UK AN-J/D Hemps I’m currently reviewing? If you know your Audio Note trivia, and many of you apparently do, you’ll know that Peter Qvortrup of Audio Note UK took the basic design of Snell’s three two-way models with 8″ woofers and a 1″ dome tweeter and took them to the nth degree. That’s how the Snell Type E, Type J and Type K became the Audio Note AN-E, AN-J and AN-K.
To make things more confusing, each of these three Audio Note speaker models are available in many, many versions, with continual refinements as you move up the line. This is how the Snell Type E, which once retailed for $995/pr USD around 1983 or so, could wind-up being the $290,483/pr Audio AN-E Sogon–which still looks like the Snell Type E. (The Sogon models, by the way, contain many pounds of pure silver wire in each enclosure.)
I’ve heard the Audio Note UK AN-E Sogons play once, many years ago. You look at this modest two-way monitor, half-way between a bookshelf and a tower which vaguely reminds me of the Vandersteen 2C, and you think there’s no way this costs six figures. Once the music started playing, in an all-Audio Note system from the highest levels of their other componentry, I shut the heck up. I’ve obsessed about this experience ever since.
This is why I’ve wanted to hear the Audio Note UK AN-J for so long. Whenever I’ve mentioned it to people who seem experienced with Audio Note, I hear things like “the AN-J and the AN-K are great, but wait until you hear the AN-Es!” But I’ve heard the AN-Es many times. If you go to the Audio Note room at any given high-end audio show, there’s a high probability they’ll have a pair of AN-Es.
I want to hear the Audio Note AN-J because the Snell Type J was my first speaker that showed me what high-end sound was. That pair of Snells had an MSRP of $550/pr, and I bought mine for $495. The Audio Note AN-J/D Hemp, however, costs $4,915/pr USD in basic black ash, with dedicated stands costing $935/pr USD. Will they take me back to a wonderful period of my audio education while feeding my appetite for high-quality two-way bookshelf speakers? As the British audio reviewers like to say, let’s find out.
An Entire Audio Note System!
I’ve wandered into the realm of high-end audio reviewing where the manufacturer insists on using as much of their brand in the system as possible. That’s how it was with all the Audio Group Denmark gear, and to a lesser extent with the Burmester B18 speakers and 101 integrated amplifier. I really just asked for the Snell–I mean Audio Note–AN-Js. But my fascination with Audio Note UK is rooted more deeply than with the Snell connection. I’ve long admired the Audio Note UK TT-Two turntable for being a wolf in sheep’s clothing–this mild-mannered ‘table, also derived from the old Systemdek TTs, always sounds like a big boy turntable to me.
When all was said and done, I said yes to the following Audio Note UK components: the new Cobra integrated amplifier with a built-in DAC, the CDT-One/II digital transport and all of the necessary cabling–including four meters of the AN-LA Stereo Bi-Wired Speaker Cable ($1,733 for the set). An Audio Note UK analog rig, consisting of the TT-Two turntable, tonearm, cartridge and phono stage, will be arriving soon and will constitute the second round of Audio Note UK reviews.
Inside the Audio Note UK AN-J/D Hemp
Where does the Audio Note UK AN-J/D Hemp fall in the “J” speaker line? Toward the entry point. I thought about reviewing something toward the top just to say, “Look how far my li’l Snell Js have come!” But I think I’d rather listen to something that is closer to the originals, something that connects me directly to my audiophile past.
The Audio Note UK AN-J/D Hemp speakers are the entry level Js–the AN-J/Ds do come with a paper cone instead of the blue hemp cone and are priced slightly less. Both of the AN-J/Ds are available only in black ash. All those gorgeous and varied veneers offered by Audio Note UK are available in the higher models: AN-J/LX, AN-J/SPe, AN-J/SPe SE and the AN-J SE Silver. The top of the line AN-J SEC Silver offer high gloss finishes as standard. The choice of hemp or paper cones is available at each level except for the very top. As you move up the line, improvements are made in the wiring (copper to silver), magnets and voice coils.
The Audio Note UK AN-J speaker line does have much in common from bottom to top. They’re all quite sensitive at 93 dB with an impedance of 6 ohms. (That’s more than perfect for the 28wpc Audio Note UK Cobra integrated.) Frequency response is 25Hz-23kHz, +/-6 dB. That suggests placement is critical, which I’ll explain shortly. Audio Note UK recommends a minimum of 7 wpc and a maximum of 150, which means these AN-Js are ready and willing to take on most 300B amps.
Let’s go back to those black ash enclosures for a second. “All D models have cabinets with front and rear baffles made from balanced wood veneer (veneered on both surfaces, external and internal) High Density Chipboard,” Audio Note UK’s Adrian Ford-Crush told me. “The top, bottom and sides are made from wood veneered MDF. All the higher up models are birch ply.” If you do go up the J line, however, you’ll get a chance to see the lovely real wood veneers offered by Audio Note UK. I’ve logged onto the site numerous times over the years just to look at all the beautiful and exotic veneers that are offered: makassar, wenge, palisander, olive, yew, apple, madrone burl and many more. (I’ve always like the apple the best.) A slate finish is also available as an option. But with the D you get black ash, and a rather compelling bargain.
When it comes to the drivers (a 1″ silk dome tweeter and that choice between paper and hemp 8″ woofers) and cabinet, Audio Note keeps it simple:
“The design of the AN-J Loudspeaker, by contrast, follows an altogether different philosophy. It calls for a cabinet that complements the chosen drive units, rather than fighting against them. Instead of trying to kill the resonances, we tailor the cabinet to place them in frequency bands where they aid and enhance the operation of the drive units, culminating in a loudspeaker system that makes the most of the preceding amplifier’s output.”
The cabinet itself has minimal bracing to avoid a dead, lifeless sound–this is pretty common among British loudspeakers. It should be no surprise that the ol’ knuckle rap test reveals this approach–I could use the Js as a pair of cajons if I wanted. But I won’t.
Audio Note UK AN-J/D: THE Proper Positioning
When the Audio Note UK AN-J/D Hemp arrived, along with all the other pieces of the AN puzzle, I quickly built the rig and turned it on and started snapping photos. I shared some of the photos on social media, and I immediately received a message that said, “I hope you’re going to position those speakers as Peter Qvortrup intended.” Yes, yes I know.
Shortly afterward I received an email from Adrian Ford-Crush checking to see if all the gear arrived safely, ending with a gentle admonishment to place them in the right spots. I’ll tell ya, that Audio Note Army is organized.
But you probably know that Audio Note UK’s speakers are intended for placement near the side walls of the room, because that’s how they get that awesome bass. The AN-Es can go down to 18Hz with just that 8″ woofer, and that’s because room boundaries are part of the low frequency formula. My Snell Type Js went down to just 50Hz, but the Audio Note AN-J/D Hemp loudspeakers go down to just 23Hz–as long as you position them along the side walls. They also scoot up close to the back walls, but not so much that they look like corner-loaders. The toe-in is considerable as well, so all the action takes place between the speakers and creates a formidable sense of soundstage depth.
So yes, I tried the Audio Note UK AN-J/D Hemps in their specified Qvortrup positions, and what happened? I get a letter taped to my front door the next morning, an angry note from the apartment management. I’ve lived in this hovel for over two years, and I’ve had plenty of big speakers in here. Nope, it took the two-way bookshelf Audio Note UK AN-J/D Hemps to bring out the cops.
Actually, it wasn’t about a whole lotta bass assaulting a structurally porous building. I’ve had those pesky and recalcitrant bass nodes–soon to be a thing of the past–aroused by the tiniest of speakers when they weren’t in their proper place. The lowest frequencies of the Audio Note UK AN-J/D weren’t overbearing in the least–a Ray Brown pluck of an E-string, where fingertips bounced loudly off metal, was round and plummy and precisely focused in space. Ray Brown can sound bigger than life, but the AN-Js maintained steady and unerring control.
No, the order-of-magnitude improvements were mostly in physical space. Once in their side wall-loaded positions, the Audio Note UK AN-J/D Hemps kicked out the flimsy screens that were supposed to pass for walls in this complex and opened up the soundscape considerably. I was very surprised by that–usually I shy away from speakers that are designed to be set too close to the walls because soundstage is no longer as three-dimensional. This sound, coming from the fancy-pants descendants of my college speakers, was far more holographic in my listening room than in any other Audio Note UK system I’ve ever heard–either at a dealer or at a high-end audio show.
Of course I’m wondering if should have set all the systems up like this two-and-a-half years ago, when I first moved into this place. That, I assume, is what Peter Qvortrup’s been telling everyone all along.
Audio Note UK AN-J/D Sound
This is the part where I lament, predictably, about those old Snell Js from 1981 and how the sound compares to the Audio Note UK AN-J/D from 2023. I know, that would be so cool if I still had them. I’m not about to delve that deep into the memory banks for a mere relevant comment, but I do remember what I loved about those Snells. Those Js introduced an entire lexicon of terms to describe what I was hearing, terms like imaging and soundstaging.
These Audio Note UK AN-J/D speakers also do a fantastic job of imaging and soundstaging. It’s rare when I hear a pair of quality two-way monitors that doesn’t excel in these two areas. Compared to the J, the AN-J/D does a far better job of recreating the original space, with all of its spatial cues.
What really surprised me about the imaging was related to center-fill. The Audio Note UK AN-J/Ds, in their spots along the side walls, were very far apart. In fact, I can’t think of a time when I spaced the loudspeakers this far apart in any of my systems, and I’ve had a couple of large rooms over the years. The AN-Js did such a superb job of creating a huge sonic landscape, but I started to think about the info coming from the middle. I’ve had center-fill issues with speakers placed much, much closer than these. I know what some of you audiophiles are thinking–“can you put on some female voice?” And for once, I’ll acquiesce.
Sharon Sable and Joe Holt’s Once Upon a Summertime: the Music of Blossom Dearie is a great way to test the solidity of the center image. Holt’s piano sounds huge and splashes all around the room, setting up virtual homing beacons in every nook and cranny of my now-much-larger listening room. But Sable’s sweet and expressive voice is anchored perfectly in space throughout the album, focused and intimate and ever so human. Based on this CD alone, I’ll guess that a majority of the Audio Note UK faithful are big fans of the female voice. I’ll reluctantly concur, but I still ain’t buying any Diana Krall LPs.
I pulled out Julian Gerstin’s superb percussion album, Littoral Zone, just to evaluate the center fill of the Audio Note UK AN-J/D Hemps. This is a recording with a large ensemble of exotic instruments, spread out evenly from side to side, and I knew it would be an effective test as to whether the considerable distance between the speakers was totally legit or not. In a nutshell, center fill was amazingly even and vivid from one side wall to the other. Doubts vanquished.
Radiohead’s Kid A turned out to be the Audio Note UK AN-J/D Hemp’s spirit animal. This is my favorite Radiohead album based on sheer sonics, but AN-Js seemed to get so much vital information from the performance with a perfect balance that left nothing out. I’m thinking first and foremost of the odd and beautiful title track, how deep the synthesizer bass pulses near the beginning, and how the synthesized strings bloom and expand into space toward the end. The Audio Notes supplied that immense space, and every note and sound finds its exact place and gets heard in full. If you’re looking for a real string orchestra to repeat that same effect, stick around for the next track, “How to Disappear Completely” and how gently the orchestra comes undone–one of my favorite single moments in the Radiohead canon.
Have I heard Kid A sound better? I’m thinking the answer might be no since I’ve never been this entertained by an album that I’ve listened to steadily for the last 23 years. This was the point where I took stock of what I was listening, the Audio Note UK AN-J/D Hemp loudspeakers and the Cobra integrated/DAC and the CDT One-II transport and a few Audio Note UK cables, which tend to be in the three-figure range for each run, and I realized I had assembled an incredible, enduring and satisfying system for significantly less than $20K, complete. Have you ever considered Audio Note UK as a high-value proposition? I haven’t before this, but now I say yes. I would love this system for many years–maybe taking the money I saved and putting it toward an analog rig for the ages.
Considering I still have an Audio Note UK turntable, phono stage and cartridge on the way…who knows. It’s evident that Audio Note systems are far more than the sum of the parts.
From the beginning, I sensed the reason and purpose behind the Audio Note AN-J/D Hemp loudspeakers–especially regarding their relationship with the original Snell designs. I delivered my summary to Adrian: “So basically, Peter Qvortrup listened to the Snell E, J and K loudspeakers, noted their unusual proportions in terms of width and depth, and suspected that they could become extraordinary when placed along the side walls, and he was right. After that, he refined the design with more silver wiring, better magnets and more, and he created a line of speakers that occupy their own specialized niche.” Adrian agreed, more or less.
This reminds of an audiophile I used to know who swore up and down that Bose 901s were spectacular speakers, but that they require unusual placement–in this case, he threw out everything Amar Bose stated about the design. I knew perfectly reasonable audiophiles who went to this guy’s house and ultimately agreed that they weren’t bad at all.
The Audio Note AN-J/D Hemps are slightly different than that. First of all, they sound perfectly lovely with more conventional placement with plenty of energy and excitement and a tonality that concentrated on “sounding just like real musical instruments.” You could buy a pair of these Audio Notes and stick them anywhere and I suspect you’ll enjoy them as much as I enjoyed my Snell Type Js all through the ’80s.
Do things the Audio Note UK way. Listen to Peter Qvortrup and the Audio Note UK faithful. Once I acquiesced, the AN-J/D Hemps started sounding like far more than a pair of 8″ two-way monitors that retail for less than $5,000/pr. As I added the various pieces of the Audio Note UK puzzle, such as the Audio Note UK Cobra integrated amplifier and the CDT One-II transport and everything else, it became very clear that this seemingly unusual and iconoclastic brand is truly up my alley.
I get it, and I highly recommend it.
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