The AE1 Story
Phil Jones, founder of Acoustic Energy, tells us in his own words how and why he got into loudspeaker design and dream’t up the legendary AE1 loudspeaker…
“I was always fascinated by music and sound, which is why I took up learning to play bass guitar. My father was a musician and played in big bands in London during the 1950s to 60s. He would take me along to the band rehearsals, so I got used to the dynamics of live music.
At the age of nine, I got into learning electronics and built my first AM radio.
By 15, I made a bass guitar carving the body and neck and winding the pickups on my dad’s record player from magnets I “borrowed” from school. By 16, I had learned some basic cabinet building skills and made my first speaker cabinet, a 4×12 with Baker loudspeakers.
It was then that I realised there was a lot more to speaker design. The cabinet was very inefficient and didn’t sound that great. So from then on, I got as many books on loudspeakers I could. My first was Wharfedale’s Gilbert Brigg’s book on loudspeakers, and that sent me down the path of my fascination with building speakers.
I left school with no qualifications because I was more interested in playing in bands and dating girls, but I scraped into working for then the GPO (British Telecom) getting an apprenticeship on being a telecom technician. I was then also going to college part-time, but my grades were so good the GPO put me through university. During this time I was out on a line repair and working in the offices of Westrex in Cardiff. It was there I met a Reginal Soloman who happened to be a cinema audio engineer and he told me the history of Western Electric. He became my mentor and friend, and he taught me about horn design, and I eventually got a 5-channel audio system (it came from the Capitol Theatre in Cardiff which was being demolished to make way for new shops). It had 10 x 15-inch drivers and five 15-cell horns on five massive bass horn cabinets. I took one pair home to put in my flat, running them with leak amplifiers. When my mother visited me, she called a psychiatrist the very next day because she thought I had gone nuts! I told her that Stanley Clarke sounded like he was in the room with me. So, I got used to the dynamics and immediacy of those speakers.
I left the GPO after graduating from Cardiff University and went to the Welsh College of Music. I wanted to learn bass guitar, but they told me that bass guitar wasn’t a proper instrument, so I studied classical double bass instead. I was financing my college by playing in bands at night and doing whatever recording sessions I could get, including a lot for BBC Wales. During this time I got to know Pino Palladino, and we became great friends. Pino went on to become one of the bests bass players in the world and plays for Paul Young, Don Henley, Elton John, Jeff Beck, Herbie Hancock, John Mayer, The Who, Eryka Badu, and many others). I can’t believe there was a time he asked me to cover for him if he couldn’t do the gig!!!
I decided that being a struggling musician was too hard a life without money, so I went back to working in electronics and took a job working for the Decca Navigator Company who, at the time, were leaders in marine navigation (pre GPS). This took me to Iran, where I lived and worked from 1978-80 during the civil revolution. After my two years in Iran, I came back to live in the UK.
Looking for work, I called the Vitavox Loudspeaker Company in Kingsbury. They told me they had no job vacancies, however, they invited me to visit them. The owners were so impressed by the passion I had; I immediately got a job with them and stayed with them for just under a year, I had learned so much from designing to manufacturing loudspeakers, David Young (Managing Director and son of the founder) became a friend and mentor.
I was still playing in bands, and I liked the idea of working for myself, so I started a PA rental business, but I wanted my PA to sound like hi-fi! I was the first in the UK to use subwoofers in sound reinforcement. In the early 80s power amps were not so powerful as today’s, so horn loading was the only way to get the SPL. I designed and built my own folded horn speakers which had a 17-foot horn on 2 x JBL k1541 eighteen-inch speakers.
The system grew to 32 kW.
In 1984 I bought a home in South London with a 24 track recording studio. I decided that not being on the road and not having to lug around heavy speakers was the better choice, so I sold the PA system and concentrated on the recording. I had a pair of JBL 4333 as my main speakers and everything that I recorded sounded great on them, but that wasn’t the case when played on a home or car stereo. I didn’t like the inaccuracy of near fields at the time, and I needed something that I could rely on as an accurate monitor.
I was always intrigued by using aluminum as a cone material and during this time I got to know Ted Jordan and Leslie Watts, who made the Jordan Watts 6 inch speaker. During this period, I had also got to know Martin Colloms, and he helped me a lot with understanding passive crossover design. In 1987 I had my prototype near field monitors with drivers I made myself. I also got to know Neville Barlow, the MD from the French company Audax, and he got me many components such as top plates, magnets, etc. Rogers loudspeakers were about two miles from my home, so when I had finished building the drivers, they would magnetise them for me. Leslie Watts put me in touch with a metal fabricator, Century Metal, who was able to make my cones. I also found a company in Kidderminster which was able to anodize the cone hard, and I worked with their technical director on how to make jigs that could clamp down hard on the cone without crushing them.
Originally, I wasn’t even aware that high-end audio existed, I was in the world of creating, playing and recording music. Neville Barlow of Audax suggested that I should visit a hi-fi store with the AE1s. We compared the AE1s to every small speaker in the store, starting from the very budget end and going up to the Celestion 700s. The store owner commented that nothing is his store could compare to the quality of the AE1s. That’s when the penny dropped for me as I knew more people owned stereos than recording studios! So, from then on the AE1 was marketed as a home audio speaker. The very first review was in Hi-Fi Answers in 1988, it got the front cover of the magazine as well.
With this success I then started planning a lower-cost generation of AE speakers using 6-inch drivers that became the AEGIS series. I had a very clear vision of AE, I wanted it to grow to become a world leader in audio. From making home audio to PA and car audio but to be very original with our own technology and design philosophy. I wanted to improve the quality of all sound for music because good music should not be played on “bad” speakers!”