Fluance Ai81 Active Tower Stereo Speaker System Review Page 2

Setting up the Fluance Ai81 speakers is a straightforward process. I placed the speakers on either side of my TV console in the media room. I connected the power cord to the right speaker and used the binding post connections to run the speaker wire from the right speaker to the left. Additionally, I connected to the optical output from my Vizio TV, ensuring that it was set to PCM mode and not sending out Dolby or DTS signals.

I connected my Victrola turntable to one of the pairs of RCA inputs, reserving the other for an Alexa source. After powering up the speakers, I switched the input to Bluetooth, which automatically entered pairing mode. I quickly located the speakers on the Bluetooth screen on my phone and paired them, as confirmed by the speakers playing a brief tom-tom drum riff.

Since I had just paired the system, I started out by listening to the Bluetooth input. Fluance recommends breaking in the speakers for at least 10 hours. So in the name of being thorough, I set up a “Sound Machine” app and played assorted white, pink, and brown noise streams for two days. My boyfriend was not happy about that, but I wanted to honor the manufacturer's wishes and make sure the Ai81 system was ready to be reviewed.

Following the break-in period, I switched to Spotify and played "The Way We Were (featuring Plested)" by Kygo, which is a personal favorite of mine. The acoustic piano had a natural and uncolored sound, while the pulsing synth resonated beautifully in my mid-sized room. Although the muted kick drum was solid, it was somewhat soft. The vocals were stacked in the second verse, revealing that the speakers are very bright, with an exaggerated high-end, particularly when the treble percussion is added into the mix. But despite being bright, the sound never crossed into harshness.

Compared to the abundant highs, the midrange felt somewhat pulled back, with a slightly veiled quality. The lower octaves of the bass were not as prominent in this heavy dance beat, and even the tom fills felt slightly held back. To achieve a more balanced sound, I would definitely suggest utilizing the subwoofer output and adding an external sub.

I’ve been reviewing a lot of soundbars recently, so the imaging from these real stereo speakers was alarmingly refreshing. In fact, the phasing synths were almost too intense leading into the full instrumental sections. I clearly need to get off my lazy bottom and switch to my real stereo speakers more frequently!

Next on my favorites list was "Born Again" by Rihanna, from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. This powerful ballad features background vocals by South African singer-songwriter Gqulu Busiswa, James Fauntleroy, and The-Dream. The brighter sound of the speakers worked pleasantly with the acoustic piano and gave clarity to the reverb on all of the vocalists, while the chanting soared above the harsh synthesizer track. It was at this point where the speaker's brightness became more pronounced, which is why I preferred the sound I attained by turning down the treble two clicks.

Could the Fluance Ai81 speakers replace my soundbar? I was pretty confident I already knew the answer, but I decided to switch to the optical input and played the movie JUNG_E on Netflix to find out. As I am attempting to learn Korean, I welcomed any chance to familiarize myself with the pronunciations. Similar to music playback, I was instantly impressed with the true, realistic stereo imaging. There was no surround processing, just precise stereo placement. The sounds accompanying the graphics at the very beginning moved dramatically from the left to the right speaker without leaving a dead space in the middle.

The movie had much more bass than I expected, and for the most part, the system proved to be adequate at handling it. The deep and ominous drone was sufficiently loud, but the overall performance would have been greatly enhanced with the addition of a subwoofer. For instance, the heavy robotic fighters had deeply resonant footsteps, and a descending synth drone stayed strong as the note bent into the lower frequencies, but using a sub would have added more depth and substance to the sound. As the movie transitioned into more dialogue-driven scenes, there was a slight lack of center-channel focus. Voices weren’t cemented to the middle of the TV screen, as they would have been with either a soundbar or dedicated center-channel speaker. This lack of precision was compounded by the reverberant setting of the movie, which takes place in a futuristic lab.

As a follow-up, I switched to a more dialogue-driven film, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. Once again, the voices had a wider, less localized sound in the center. However, this movie makes the most of it with a fun panning and movement of the voices as characters are on split-screen zoom calls, including a cameo by Yo-Yo Ma. In this case, the placement of the voices within the soundstage and the accuracy of the stereo image was spot-on, adding another implied dimension to the sound design. The tonal balance of the speakers, with their brighter sound, made the dialogue stand out from the vibrant soundtrack, and the lack of midrange substance was less objectionable. So many little tossed-away lines of dialogue were clearly audible.

I don’t want to come out and admit that I’m an audio snob, but I had my concerns when I saw the price of the Fluance Ai81 speakers. Could a sub-$500 speaker pair be a viable option for a good media room? The answer is a resounding yes.

While not offering a true audiophile experience, the speakers give a pleasing stereo music performance that outweighs their limitations. They have a subwoofer output which could help with the lack of deep bass. For many listeners, the lack of dialogue focus might not be a problem. The brightness of dialogue adds clarity that helps with the imaging issue and improved intelligibility. An option to add a center channel would be interesting. I also wish that the volume controls weren’t in series; I ended up leaving the volume control on the speaker cabinet at its maximum setting so I didn’t have to get up to control it. Again, I need to work on my laziness issues.

Is the model name a bit misleading? Perhaps — with the “81” in the name, I assumed it had 8-inch drivers, or better yet, an 8-inch subwoofer. But then the price would certainly have gone up, along with the size of the speaker cabinets. At about 30 pounds each, the speakers are still easy to move around and carry up to my home theater. I do wish they shipped with a slightly longer speaker cable to run between the active right and passive left speakers, but most of us have a collection of extra wire to use if needed, and at least the connection is not proprietary. What I really needed was a longer optical cable; I had to dig deep into my cable drawers for a 6-foot one that still isn’t long enough for a permanent, tidy installation.

Ultimately, the Fluance Ai81 floorstanding tower speakers are great for a budget-friendly music-only listening space. These days, more and more people combine movie and music listening and sacrifice stereo imaging for the convenience of a soundbar. Adding these speakers strictly for music and switching to a soundbar for movies is an option, but I think many users will find the Ai81 speakers can satisfy all listening needs.