Audioengine is known for its audiophile-centric approach to affordable speakers for computers and the rest of your home, but less so for portable Bluetooth models. And unlike the rest of its product lineup, the $169 Audioengine 512 employs digital signal processing (DSP), which is almost a given for a portable Bluetooth speaker this size, but still uncharted territory for the Austin-based audio company. Luckily, the DSP doesn’t squash the dynamics, and there’s a genuine sense of bass richness, balanced with excellent clarity in the highs. Keep in mind the 512 isn’t water resistant, a choice the Audioengine says is based on a sonics-first approach to the design. So this isn’t necessarily the speaker to take on a hike or sit by the pool with, but it’s perhaps the closest audiophiles will get to a sub-$200 portable Bluetooth model.
Measuring 3.0 by 7.8 by 3.0 inches (HWD) and weighing in at 2.5 pounds, the pill-shaped 512 is available in black or military green models. The front face is all curved speaker grille, with dual 2-inch drivers beneath it, driven by a class-D amplifier for a combined 20-watt output. The drivers, which have a frequency range of 60Hz to 20kHz, are aided by a 3.0-by-1.8-inch passive radiator that projects out the rear grille of equal size.
Across the top panel, there are controls for play/pause, aux input, volume down/up, Bluetooth pairing, and power. Battery status LEDs are located to the left of the power button. A covered port on the left side of the speaker houses a 3.5mm input and a micro USB port. Audioengine includes a micro USB charging cable of generous length, but no cable for the aux input. And despite the covered ports, the 512 has no IP rating and isn’t water resistant. On the lower panel, four rubber feet keep the speaker from moving around on tabletops.
What’s missing? There’s no speakerphone functionality, which is usually more or less a given in this price range and category. And there’s a lanyard loop on the right panel, but no included lanyard.
Audioengine estimates the 512‘s battery life to be roughly 12 hours, but your results will vary with your mix of wired and wireless playback, as well as your volume levels.
The 512‘s DSP is notably light, meaning it isn’t going to squash the dynamics of tracks at top volumes. The trade-off here is that, at maximum volumes on tracks with intense sub-bass content, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” there’s going to be some minor distortion. At more moderate volume levels, the distortion disappears, but if most of your music has seriously deep bass in it, the 512‘s DSP takes a hands-off approach that may not suit your needs.
Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” a track with far less deep bass in the mix, gives us a better sense of the 512’s general sound signature. The drums on this track sound fantastic—full, round, and with some heft to them without ever sounding overly boosted in the lows. Callahan’s rich baritone vocals get plenty of low-mid presence, but the mix also receives an ideal high-mid and high-frequency presence—things are bright detailed and anchored by the solid bass depth. This is a balanced sound signature, and the 512‘s DSP is almost unnoticeable here—the track sounds full and dynamic.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the kick drum loop receives an ideal high-mid presence, allowing its attack to retain its punchiness. The sub-bass synth hits that punctuate the beat are delivered with a solid bass depth, but nothing like you’d hear if there were powerful, active woofers or subwoofers in play. Generally speaking, the drum loop seems to get the most bass presence, while the vocal performances are delivered cleanly and clearly, with no real added sibilance.
Orchestral tracks, like the opening scene from John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary, sound excellent through the 512. The DSP seems to almost take a rest, and the richness in the lows graces the lower-register instrumentation with some subtle, extra presence, but nothing that sounds even remotely unnatural. The spotlight still belongs to the higher register brass, strings, and vocals—again, the sound signature is about balance and detail.
If you’re looking for booming bass, the Audioengine 512 is not for you. Instead, this is the portable Bluetooth speaker for those seeking a solid balance between lows and highs, and—more than anything else—clarity. The EQ sculpting is not as obvious here as it is with much of the competition, nor is the dynamic compression and limiting that kicks in at higher volumes—this is the thinking listener’s DSP.
That said, the 512 isn’t without some minor issues—there’s some distortion on deep bass tracks at top volumes (the trade-off of hands-off DSP), and the lack of water resistance is bound to give some potential buyers pause. The Audioengine 512 isn’t perfect, but it’s a solid debut for Audioengine in heretofore uncharted territory.
Read the full review here.