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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Energy AS-180 Subwoofer: discovering (and reparing) a sleeping giant

I came across my pair of Energy AS-180 sub-woofers in October of 2009.  I bought them from a guy who was selling his whole system off.  When I arrived he still had his Paradigm Studio Monitors (PSMs), an NAD 917 surround/preamp, and the pair of AS-180s.  He sold it all to me for a song, and I definitely got a deal.  But the guy wasn't totally honest: he told me he bought everything new at a store in 2005.  But the PSMs are older than that, and I eventually discovered that the AS-180 was most likely made before 2000.  As it turned out, the AS-180 may be one of my best finds to date.

When I bought the As-180s, I turned the the gain and LF-pass knobs as part of my due diligence.  They made a loud crackling noise when I turned them.  I have seen this problem occur eventually with every powered speaker set I've owned, and most that I've used.  The culprit is corroded or dirty panoramic potentiometers (pan-pots).  The only time I have ever tossed a pair of speakers was because of pots that eventually crackled all the time, not just when i turned them.

I was told by the seller that the knobs only made noise when turned.  I didn't know anything about these subwoofers, but this guy's asking price for the whole lot was about what I'd pay for his PSMs alone, so I pulled the trigger and bought the lot.

I drove home with the 6-foot-tall PSMs sticking up in the air like passengers in my BMW 325i convertible (pictured right) - top down - one up front and one in the back, where my daughter usually sits.  The 4.5-cubic-foot AS-180s were in the trunk, which was held closed with a twisted coat-hanger I found in the layer of junk lining the trunk floor.  I had to chuckle when - with my daughter's booster seat, my leather coat, and my briefcase bounced from the trunk by the AS-180s, there was no room in my open-top 2-door for the NAD 917!

Unfortunately, when I got home and googled my new subs, nothing came up.  All I found was a recent 2009 article that said Energy was known for making "decent, mid-market subwoofers sold in 'big box' stores", but that it had made a recent "admirable entry" into the high-end market.  Bummer.  The subs that nearly punctured my femoral artery with their floor spikes were looking like Wal Mart bricks.

At least I still had the Paradigm Studio Monitors.  They were worth the money on their own.  I set up the PSMs and the AS-180s in my home theater - bumping out a gorgeous pair main speakers and my trusty SW1 & Slave subwoofer set -  and left to attend an afternoon alumni event.   

When I returned home, the power was off at the house.  Inside, my girlfriend and *our* four-year-old daughter were sitting on the couch, doing a puzzle together.  My heart was warmed.  But then both ladies lit up with frantic descriptions of loud, scary noises coming from the stereo.  Crackling, really loud, coming from the subwoofers, they thought.  When they tried to turn them off, the noise got louder and changed into a whine and crackling.  Eventually, my girlfriend threw the circuit breaker.

I began to rue my eagerness earlier in the day to pounce on an offer I couldn't believe.  My new subs were really starting to look like bricks.  I had scored only a mediocre deal, and spent money that I really didn't have to get it.

Still, in the spirit of taking this whole speaker repair thing seriously, I was resolved to see this through to the end: to not toss the AS-180s like I did my last pair of pan-potted speakers.  To find replacement pots, get out the soldering iron, fix them, and sell them.  I figured their size alone could get me $50 each for them, no matter how Mickey Mouse they were.

I opened the back of the two AS-180s and found the pan-pots inside the offending knobs.  Then I called Energy to try and order new ones.  I was transferred out of Energy to a tech guy at Klipsch.  He had never heard of the AS-180.  He told me that Energy, now owned by Klipsch, has started to make some really high-end stuff.  But until now, everything Energy made was outsourced to China and was of generally low quality and sound.  I was pretty deflated.

But then I looked down a the back panel of one of the subs, which was sitting in my lap as we spoke.  The panel said "made in Canada", not "made in China".  I said to the Klipsch guy: "Well, these say 'made in Canada' - not China.  What does that mean?"

Then I heard something that made me smile.

"Canada?!" he exclaimed.  "Well, then, you have something interesting."  He went on: "See, Energy was founded by some defectors from Paradigm up in Canada.  They wanted to target the audiophile market for subwoofers, so they made a few thousand subs - I don't know the model numbers - by hand in a factory in Canada.  But they couldn't get anybody to review their gear, and nobody bought it, so they sold the company to a private investment firm, which moved manufacturing to China and re-focused the company on the middle market.  Supposedly, the pre-China Energy's are really well made, but I haven't seen or heard any of them.  They're pretty rare because they only made a few thousand."

"I seeeeeeee..." I said.  Looking down at the panel again, I saw the serial number: 0241.  I was getting the jitters.  With the phone squeezed between my ear and shoulder, I walk-ran into the living room and got the other back panel off the table.  Serial number?  0242.  

I was ready to get off the phone.

"So, you guys don't have the pots for these, and don't have an equivalent one that will work?" I asked.


"Okay, then.  Thanks for the info - see ya!"  I pressed *end*, and with one panel under my arm I jumped in my ride and sped off to U Do It Electronics in Natick, MA.  Surely they would have the pots.

The store DID have the right pots, and that day I performed my first pan-pot replacement.  In spite of my clearly not understanding how solder behaves near a circuit board, I succeeded in eliminating all crackling noises from my AS-180s.  I now use them under my Paradigm Studio Monitors (as if the Paradigm's needed any more bass support :) - via the preamp-level ins/outs - and they are fabulous.

The construction rivals that of my CSW SW1 and Slave subs, and my McIntosh speakers, which is to say, excellent.  Once dialed-in (I cut them off at 120 Hz and send everything else to the PSMs, and have the gain set at 20% of full), they make even bass with fast enough response to get the low part of a slap bass or B3 organ keying.  they also transition seamlessly into the PSMs, and also with other speakers I've matched them with, including little guys like Bose 301s and Paradigm Monitor 3s.

You can probably find a pair cheap, given the fact that there's no info about them yet.  Expect the AS-180 and its little brother, the AS-90, to become more popular and valuable once word gets out.  I would like to find the AS-90, because I think subs are overpowered, and people should have 2-4 small subs instead of 1 big one.

Time will tell.  If you find an AS-180 for less than $400 per cabinet, you're getting something that will blow any new $400 sub outta tha watah!!  And oh yeah, the pan-pots are an easy fix ;-)

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