Gamers sometimes benefit from a lucky sort of overlap in the audio business. It turns out that speakers which have traditionally been used by audiophiles as studio monitors or bookshelf speakers are often sized (and priced) right for PCs and gamers as well. Sometimes this is intentional, sometimes it’s not.
In the case of the Fluance Ai40 Powered Bookshelf Speakers, I’m going to guess not; these are primarily designed as powered Bluetooth bookshelf speakers with an auxiliary audio input, and while Fluance won’t drive to your house and prevent you from using them as computer speakers, they seem aimed at music fans looking to step up to higher quality audio without spending a fortune. Even so, the temptation was too great to avoid trying: How well do they perform as PC gaming speakers?
Fluance Ai40 – Design and Features
The Ai40 sits at the lower end of the two self-powered bookshelf speakers in Fluance’s product line. While big-brother Ai60 packs a 100-watt integrated amp and a 6.5-inch driver, the Ai40 downsizes things a little to come in under the $200 price point. Under the hood, you’ll find a 70-watt amp (35 watts for each channel) driving a one-inch silk soft dome tweeter and a five-inch woven glass fiber driver.
The speakers use an acoustic suspension design, housed in completely sealed, port-free cabinets made from medium density fiberboard (MDF). Fiberboard is a bit cheaper than true hardwood, but it’s commonly used in bookshelf speakers. In my experience, you’d be hard-pressed to hear a difference, so it’s a reasonable compromise to make the package more affordable.
Visually, these speakers are stunningly elegant. I’ve become numb to the all-black aesthetic that virtually every audio product seems to have these days. Breaking that mold, the “lucky bamboo” model that Fluance shipped me has a gorgeous bamboo finish on the sides and a white face, nicely contrasting the black cones. My favorite part is that there’s no black fabric grill to interrupt the contrasty front – this may be a matter of personal taste, but I love the bare look of the speakers. If you are dead inside, you can choose from the two other finishes: walnut or black, both of which feature a black front.
The right speaker is the active one, equipped with the amp and controls. Tucked away in the lower right corner you’ll find just a single detented volume knob, which you push to toggle between the two inputs. A small status light communicates a half-dozen things depending on its color and whether it’s steady or flashing. That sounds like a lot to keep track of, but honestly, it takes all of about 10 minutes to get comfortable with what the speaker is trying to tell you. Blue means it’s in Bluetooth mode; yellow is the auxiliary input. Flashing blue means it’s pairing, while flashing red means it’s muted. There are a few others, but you get the idea. The right speaker also has an infrared sensor for the remote control, positioned in the lower left so it’s symmetric to the volume knob.
The other cabinet has just a bare face exposing the two cones. Around back, each cabinet has its own pair of gold-plated binding posts for connecting the speakers to each other, while the right speaker also has a power port, auxiliary input, and Bluetooth pairing button.
Depending upon where you plan to put these speakers into service, they might seem a little large. Measuring 6.5 x 8 x 11-inches, they’ll be right at home on a shelf or beside a television. But they’re conspicuously large on a computer desktop.
Fluance also includes an infrared remote that does it all – power and mute, source switching, status light brightness, and bass and treble control. A 5-position control wheel handles volume, track skip/back, and play/pause (though obviously, the wheel is most useful in Bluetooth mode; only the volume control does anything when the source is set to your PC).
Fluance Ai40 – Music and Gaming
Audio gear can sometimes be challenging to set up, but the Ai40 is barely harder to configure than a single Bluetooth speaker. The package comes with eight feet of speaker wire that you thread through the binding posts to connect the two speakers. I had zero trouble connecting the speakers to my iPhone for Bluetooth audio, and after playing with that for a while, I connected the auxiliary input to my PC’s audio output using the included Y-cable.
If you don’t plan to connect your phone to the speakers, you may not even need to mess with the audio cable – just connect the speakers to your PC via Bluetooth. Frankly that’s not the worst idea in the world, since I guarantee you that the three-foot audio cable included in the box is not going to be long enough, especially if your PC is on the left side of your desk. I had to substitute a longer cable to get up and running.
But then there’s the buzz. When I first started using the Ai40 while set to the auxiliary input, I heard a whiny buzz that’s loud enough you might wonder how this product ever got through quality assurance (this doesn’t happen in Bluetooth mode or when the speakers are muted). It fades into the background when audio is playing, but it’s annoying when nothing is playing, especially if you’re close to them, such as if you position them on a computer desk.
I quickly realized that the buzz scales with the speaker’s volume dial, and I had the speakers pretty well cranked. The obvious workaround was to ensure the volume in Windows was relatively high so I could minimize the speaker volume, at which point the buzz all but disappeared. That’s a generally good strategy for ensuring good audio quality anyway, but you shouldn’t have to watch your volume level this closely to avoid getting line noise (or whatever was causing the buzz).
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=This%20might%20sound%20a%20little%20crazy%2C%20but%20I%20didn%E2%80%99t%20miss%20a%20subwoofer%20at%20all”]
Even so, when I started listening to music, I could very nearly forgive Fluance for that glitch, because these are some mighty fine speakers. I ran them through a handful of my favorite songs and no matter what I threw at them, they were a joy to listen to. The acoustic suspension design clearly eliminates the unpleasant boominess you sometimes get from ported speakers, and even a bass-heavy song like Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love sounded tight, with a well-articulated low end that was punchy but controlled. Likewise, Quest for Fire’s The Greatest Hits by God has a wide aural range, from a throbbing kick drum to delicate strings and vocals, and these speakers did the song proud. This might sound a little crazy, but I didn’t miss a subwoofer at all when running these speakers through their paces.
And the lack of subwoofer certainly didn’t impede gameplay, either. Both Call of Duty: Black Ops and Wolfenstein II were a pleasure. Both delivered precise and visceral sound effects including throaty gunfire, a respectable low end rounding out explosions, and clear and distinct dialog. The same could be said for all the games I played, but I was particularly impressed with the way the Ai40 reproduced soundtracks. I fired up an old favorite – Homeworld Remastered – and found the Ai40 elevated the atmospheric background sounds and heavenly choruses.
As I mentioned earlier, the remote control has bass and treble controls, which I experimented with extensively in games and music. Both feature a range of ten positions – five above neutral and five below. I found that games like Wolfenstein and Call of Duty benefitted from pushing the bass close to the max, but more than even a single notch of bass made music a little too boomy for my tastes. Unfortunately, this is where you run into the Ai40’s biggest usability issue: There’s no way to know where you are in that audio EQ space except by cranking the bass or treble all the way up or down (at which point the status light on the right speaker flashes at you), and then counting your clicks back to the middle or wherever you want to be.