You love music. You listen to music all day. But you do it over computer speakers, from a wireless speaker, or from your earbuds. But you want to see what you've been missing in all your favorite songs. It's time to get a proper pair of speakers.
That's what Canadian audio outfit Fluance is offering with its Ai40 bookshelf speaker set. A way into high-end listening that offers multiple setup options and a great-looking system while trying hard to leave your wallet intact with a $199 pricetag.
I had a great time with these. Let's dive in and see what all the noise is about.
Build and Style
Until pretty recently, a lot of my experience with speakers had been in the form of computer speakers. There are some really powerful, great-sounding PC speakers out there, but they all look distinctly like computer speakers. Small and oblong, tall like obelisks, or like space aliens about to land in an invasion. The Fluance Ai40s, though, are real speaker-ass looking speakers, you guys.
The Ai40s are available in white, bamboo, and black. I ended up with the latter. They have a very classic look almost unobstructed by its modern bells and whistles. The exterior is painted black wood with visible but not obtrusive wood grain. If you want to really get into it, you could complain that the front of the speaker is plastic rather than the wood encasing the sides and back, but it ultimately doesn't change my opinion of how they look.
On the front, the cone of the five-inch woofer is left uncovered by a grill of any kind, which is helped by the carbon-fiber look of the woven-glass composite material. The one-inch tweeters above have a smoother look with a silk-soft dome. The only thing that looks at all out of place on the front is the small knob that controls volume and switches between the wired RCA audio and the Bluetooth audio. The Fluance logo lines the bottom of the speaker, identifying itself without, again, calling attention to itself. The back is equally simple, with binding posts on both speakers, and then the power and RCA cables on the right speaker.
If you're looking for something that will blend into your living room and pretend it isn't a speaker, these aren't it. But they don't call attention to themselves, either. They're speakers, and they look great.
Except for that eye-searing Bluetooth LED. Can we please find a blue LED that doesn't feel like it's carving out a hole in the back of my retina? At least you can fix that with the remote. Read on for more on that.
The Ai40s are equally simple with regard to setup, features, and use.
Setting the Ai40s up is as simple as connecting the included speaker wire to each speaker's binding posts on the back. Fluance included an 8-foot, 18-gauge speaker wire, but you can drop in any speaker wire you like if your setup asks for more than 8 feet of distance. The same goes for the 3.5-foot RCA to 3.5mm cable. You could swap that in for a longer cable or even a straight RCA cable. I appreciate the included cables, but the flexibility of using standard inputs is even better.
Once you have them hooked up, you can play over that wired connection from a TV, computer, or phone, or connect via Bluetooth. The Bluetooth connection can accept the aptX codec, so stuff like Spotify is going to sound as good as it can sound over it.
I do have one quibble about the Bluetooth connectivity, though. I've had a lot of Bluetooth devices come into my home in the last few years from companies like Logitech, Polk, JBL, Denon, and more. Right now I have no less than three Bluetooth devices in different rooms of my apartment. Most of these play nice with each other, but Fluance's Ai40s are a rare case. Once in a while, I'll get a Bluetooth device that, for reasons I don't yet understand, seems to think it's more important than other Bluetooth devices in the area. If it's active, the Fluance will force a connection with my phone, overriding whatever other audio source I have connected. And that doesn't always promise a clear connection, either. Sometimes it'll force a connection that is immediately skipping due to being transmitted through two or three walls.
This wasn't a problem for me for the most part, as my primary use had the speakers running through a DAC to my computer, and it won't be a problem if your house isn't packed to the gills with Bluetooth hardware, but if you have a few different Bluetooth devices, I'd recommend messing around with this before you get too deep into integrating the speakers into your setup.
Also accompanying the speakers is a straight-forward remote that does just about everything you'd want it to. You can power up, mute, set the volume, tweak the bass and treble settings independently, switch between Bluetooth and analog inputs, play and switch tracks over Bluetooth, and set the brightness of the tiny LED. It's just as complex as it needs to be. The remote has the same simple, black look as the speakers. The only comment I could really level at the remote is that it's pretty sluggish. That would be more of a problem with a device you spend more time actually manipulating, so I don't really see it as a reason to dock the set for this.
As a starting point for a home audio setup, though, the Ai40s offer great sound for their complexity level. Without fail, just about everything I listened to on them sounded great.
I ran Miles Davis' Kind of Blue on repeat for a full day and was still loving it hours later. The double bass comes through clearly, but it doesn't obscure the horns. At the default EQ settings, the bass isn't overwhelming, but the horns aren't overly bright, either. I did crank the bass up a little bit on this album to good effect, but that doesn't work for every album. When I switched over to Kyuss' song "Space Cadet," I had to turn the bass back to down 0 for it to sound right.
Switching over to the track "Making a Cross" from the Desert Sessions series highlights the instrument separation offered by these speakers. I can clearly hear the bass guitar, the harmonium and balalaika, where the speakers I usually use in the same room – this is my office and my PC gaming setup, so I use some Logitech gaming speakers that cost about the same price – bleed that stuff together and leave the song sounding a little empty. That's not the case with the Fluance speakers. They do a good job of handling vocals, too, delivering well on rough voices like Layne Stayley and Chuck Ragan.
Whether or not the Ai40s are going to be for you will depend a little bit on your situation. As a pair of music-focused bookshelf speakers, these are a great way to move from rocking a pair of good headphones to getting some real listening in at home. They have the hookups to be great Bluetooth speakers, or to plug into a computer. If you pick up a straight red-white RCA cable, they might even plug into a receiver.
But they are stand-alone and designed to be that way. I can't see these being used to expand a 5.1 setup or anything like that.
They are what they are. And what they are is great-sounding, good-looking speakers that are going to make your music sound good over wire and over air. At $199 they're not cheap (LINK https://www.amazon.com/Fluance-Bookshelf-Amplifier-Turntable-Bluetooth/dp/B07CLDGXX1/ref=sr_1_1_sspa?ie=UTF8&qid=1541014242&sr=8-1-spons&keywords=fluance+ai40&psc=1%29%2C&tag=hawk-future-20&ascsubtag=UUtbUdUnU71963 but speaker systems start climbing fast after that $200 mark. You could spend a lot more than this and get something only marginally better.
Disclaimer: We received the Ai40 speakers as a temporary review unit from the manufacturer.
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