Aerial Acoustics CC3 center loudspeaker
Damn! I hate when that happens. I ran the laserdisc back and played it again, this time louder.
"MNN MMMM MNN NNRM MURRRMR," said Bogart.
When you think about it, the center channel is probably the most important channelif you don't believe this, watch a movie sometime with the dialog speaker turned off and see how compelling the experience is. I mean, I like explosions, rocket launches, and train wrecks as much as the next guy, but what I really want from a video sound system is the words.
However, most of the center-channel speakers that I've heard fall into what John Atkinson calls the "cheap and cheerful" category: squawky little boxes that obscure as much as they reveal. They rob films of their inherent mystery, drama, or humor simply because they aren't very good at what they're supposed to do. When you consider some of the elaborate video systems people usewith Avalon Osirises, Wilson X-1s, or B&W 801s as left- and right-channel speakersthe vast performance gulch between the front side channels and the center yawns even vaster. Wouldn't it make sense to produce a truly high-end dialog speaker?
Aerial Acoustics' Michael Kelly obviously thought so, because Aerial has introduced the $1200 CC3 center-channel speaker, designed to match the performance of their superb model 10T loudspeaker (which I reviewed in Vol.19 No.4). At HI-FI '96, I kept hearing about the great sound that Kelly was getting in the Aerial suite, so I hied me hence and was startled by how natural and dynamic the system sounded. I groveled, and Michael graciously consented to send me one of the first production samples. It has been an enlightening experience.
I am shocked, shocked...
The CC3 is not a small speaker. It's 24" wide and 11" deep, but only 9" tall. It's also one heavy mutha, weighing in at 41 lbsa result of its 1"-thick MDF front and rear walls and ¾" top, bottom, and sides. It's a three-way design, which is unusual for a center channel, where quasi-d'Appolito (Midrange/Tweeter/Midrange) two-way designs rule. Kelly explains: "We discovered that the horizontal off-axis response of a two-way system using 7" woofers was not good at all. When you got off axis, you began to see a lot of comb-filtering and notching effects, due to the midrange interference at the upper end of the two woofers, since they were horizontally spaced. Using 5½" woofers, you push that frequency up, but you also get a lot of midrange blur. To make a long story short, we decided to go with a three-way design, mostly to eliminate that left/right notch effect, but also to get cleaner, clearer midrange and increased power handling."
The CC3s are bi-wirable via high-quality solid brass binding posts and lugs, and feature an unusual amount of flexibility. They have two selector switches on the rear panel: the Environment switch provides midrange/treble adjustment to compensate for the speaker's placement, and the Program switch controls midrange response, ameliorating the shouty EQ of many soundtracks.
"Arghhh!" I snarled upon spotting them, "I hate controlsso many bad choices, so much A/Bing." But it turned out that these are unambiguously beneficial. The Environment switch has three settings: "0" for use when the speaker is placed atop the monitor (the speaker is optimized for this position); "+" boosts the tweeter and midrange levels, compensating for the bass boost when you flush-mount the speaker in a built-in installation; and "" backs off the treble and midrange a touch (to match the reduction of bass when the speakers have been stand-mounted, as when installed beneath a screen). The Program selector switches among flat and two levels of attenuationI found the middle position, slightly depressing the midrange, to be the most useful setting. Comments Kelly, "We assumed most soundtracks would benefit most from that positionalthough some certainly require deeper midrange depressionbut we thought it would be wrong to produce a speaker that could not return to flat response."
As in all Aerial speakers, the drivers, are proprietary designs developed by the company specifically for their intended use, and all three employ dual magnetsa large primary magnet and a smaller "bucker," designed to control the magnetic field. The midrange driver is designed to handle as much of the frequency range as possible, and features a huge primary magnet"It's essentially the size of the hole we mount the driver in," claims Kelly. The tweeter is a very close match to that of the 10T, differing only in its twin magnets, the shape of its rear chamber (its dual magnets didn't fit the cup used in the 10Ts), and the smaller diameter of its tweeter plate (which allows for a lower cabinet height). The long-throw woofers, also optimized for the cabinet, feature twin magnets and extra shielding. The cabinet has massive internal bracing, which also serves to isolate the midrange driver from the woofers.
You played it for her, you can play it for me
The Aerial CC3 is the best argument for a quality center-channel speaker that I've ever heard. Dialog was well-articulatedexcept in Pacino and Stallone movies, but I can't blame that on the speakersand aural cues never changed tonality as they crossed from right to center to left. The CC3 is the first video speaker I've heard that's high-end in the ways that high-end speakers are.
I seemed to be undergoing uncontrollable mood swings while watching films, and I began to wonder if I needed to seek counseling during my audition of these speakersbut no, I was merely responding to the emotional gestalt of each movie in a much more intensified fashion. Of course, that could be a mixed blessing.
Watching the director's cut of Aliens, I found the suspense physically discomfiting, and the CC3s are such a dynamic speaker that the crashes, laser bolts, and explosions hit me like hammers. (I know I said that I wasn't that much into explosions, but I meant explosions in and of themselves.) Much of Aliens takes place in incredibly noisy environments, and all of that comes through the center channelwith the Aerials, it matched what was coming through the left and right channels as well.
Films such as Robert Altman's The Player, which depend upon dialogmuch of it looped on top of itselfbecame much easier to follow with the CC3s. We don't even give a thought to unraveling multiple strands of conversation in the real world (we do it every time we enter a room full of people); with the Aerials, I could decipher the most densely packed party scene on the screen as well.
And they shone brightly with music. The Aerial CC3 integrated seamlessly with the 10Ts; I was much less conscious of that nasty "center-clumping" that lesser dialog speakers impart to the lateral spread. Did I say "much less conscious"? I meant to say that this tendency was conspicuous by its absence. I found the CC3 a powerful persuader when it came to multichannel music presentations.
Of course, the CC3's vertical dispersion and lack of lobing do contribute to this, but no one is ever going to praise a speaker solely because of these factors. When you come right down to it, any speakerno matter where you're supposed to put itsucceeds or fails due to its sound. So how does the CC3 sound? Remarkably like an Aerial 10T. (In fact, Michael Kelly tells me that customers are purchasing three CC3s to use as LCR speakers.)
To begin with, it's dynamic as all get out. That's only natural, as the center channel for video systems has to handle a lot of ordinance. Lest we forget, music reproduction requires the ability to delineate delicacies as well as bombast, and the CC3 proved awfully adept at that as well. Listening to the Bernstein/NYPO Mahler Symphony 3 (DG 427 328-2) in a five-channel system, I found the perspective startling, but oddly familiar. During the Langsam, Ruhevoll, Empfunden progression, it came to me: I used to get tickets to NYPO performances from a friend in the orchestra, generally on the day of performance and, always, in odd locations within Avery Fisher Hall. More than once I ended up in the box that hangs all but directly over the double basses. The sound was magnificently directheck, I was practically on the stagebut looming behind me was a truly overwhelming amount of space. Listening to five-channel sound, I felt that the music in front of me was just as palpable and startlingly present as in those performancesand the hall behind me was just as substantial.
Naturally, the CC3 sounds clean and ungimmicked through the midrangehow else could it prove so articulate and communicative on dialog? Actually, dialog can be a telling test for a speaker. Many will make your favorite macho star sound even more manly, adding a chesty coloration to his voice. The CC3 kept everybody's testosterone in check.
Returning to my beloved Mahler, the Aerial delineated the sound of the second movement's minuet/scherzo with refined precision. The oboe danced cockily in front of the pizzicato stringsas did the violins, clarinet, and other woodwinds to follow. When it comes to timbre, the CC3 will never leave you playing What's My Line?
I was surprised and pleased by the Aerial's bass-handling characteristics too. It's remarkably full-bodied, but not ponderous. In fact, it's quite agile down below, possibly due to its lack of a port. At any rate, it'll boogie all night, if your record collection is up to it.
I stick my neck out for nobody
The Aerial CC3 is the first center-channel speaker I've heard that rivals top-quality music-only loudspeakers. B&W and MartinLogan both offer designs that have lofty high-end aspirations, but I haven't heard them. I'm sure there will be even more. For the moment, the CC3 stands alone in my experience as the best, pure and simple. I'm going to find some way to fit it into my home-theater budget. You'd be well advised to do the same, especially if you still value film as a communications medium.
Bogie and Bergman may always have Paris, but for the CC3 and me, this is definitely the start of a beautiful friendship.