Aerial Acoustics Model 7T loudspeaker
It's hard to believe that it's been 20 years since Michael Kelly formed Aerial Acoustics, introduced the Model 10T loudspeaker, and I wandered into his demo room at a New York audio show and was smitten. That speaker did everything right and seemed to do nothing wrong. Disc after disc was played as I imposed my impression on the listening chair (I recall there being only one). At the time, the 10T was only a bit out of my price range, so for many years it was what I aspired to have. Kelly and I repeated this little play over the years as his speaker line grew, and he always was patient as he explained what he intended for each model and how he had gone about meeting his goals.
When I joined Stereophile in 1996just after Wes Phillips finally reviewed the 10T, dammit (April 1996, Vol.19 No.4)Kelly and I began to talk about my reviewing an Aerial Acoustics model. With all deliberate speed, this has finally happened. The Model 7T appealed to me from the moment I saw a pair of them at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Showthough to do this review I had to figuratively wrest them from the grasp of another Stereophile writer.
Here are what had me at "Hello": The 7T, with its dual woofers, is big enough to be a truly full-range speaker, yet occupies barely a square foot of floor space. Its proportions are attractive, neither squat nor slim, and its clean design is executed in a wood finish of striking beauty. Finally, the price is right, which for me means under $10,000/pair. A pair of 7Ts costs $9850.
Description & Setup
Michael Kelly delivered the speakers and helped me set them up in my living room. He also offered running commentary on their technology, which he illustrated with a kit of parts he carries for the purpose. The 7T's cabinet walls are formed from multiple thin layers of MDF, laid up wet with adhesive. These are curved under hydraulic pressure for 48 hours as the adhesive hardens. Kelly says that the result is so inert that internal bracing is not needed, although seven interlocking braces are added to divide the cabinet interior into two chambers and to further increase rigidity.
The grille has a sturdy open-honeycomb frame and adheres firmly to neodymium magnets embedded in the front baffle; removing the grille reveals that panel, which is smooth, curved, and bears only the drivers. The front panel has a subtly sparkling ceramic finish and is attached to the main cabinet with a tar-like glue that also isolates the main structure from driver vibrations. Kelly recommends removing the grille for critical listening; I concur, but the difference was very subtle and seemed to affect only the HF off-axis radiation.
The drive-units, made by Scan-Speak, include a classic 1" ring-radiator tweeter, a surprisingly hefty SB Acoustics 5.9" papyrusblend cone midrange unit, and two ScanSpeak 7.1" cast-magnesium-frame woofers whose magnets make them impressively weighty. While all of these are custom-made for the 7T, those of us in the habit of looking behind speaker grilles have seen similar drivers before, often in more expensive speakers, but all of these are custom-made for the 7T. The crossover is built on two separate boards and they provide 24dB/octave LinkwitzRiley divisions at 400 and 3000Hz, as well as independent terminal connections to permit bi-wiring or bi-amping.
Setup was relatively simple and unfussy, which augured well for what followed. We placed the 7Ts where most floorstanding speakers do best in my room, and had only to fiddle with toe-in and make sure they were equidistant from the main listening position. That was it, and that's where they stayed for the duration of my serious listening. Later, I experimented with moving them forward and/or farther apart; all of these adjustments widened the soundstage a bit, but at the expense of bass linearity. Otherwise, the 7Ts seemed very tolerant of changes in their positions, which could be ascribed to their smooth off-axis response. As long as I kept them away from large objects, which tended to skew the soundstage, I was happy.
Powered by the McIntosh MC-303 three-channel amplifier, the Aerial 7Ts were immediately ingratiating, presenting a stable soundstage and smooth spectral balance. Nothing seemed out of placeindeed, no single aspect of the sound called out to me. I wasn't struck by high-frequency detail or by pounding bass, and musicians were neither alarmingly thrust into my presence nor relegated to some remote part of the soundstage. It was nice to just listen to the music, but that's not enoughplenty of speakers that sell for a fraction of the 7T's price sound "nice." It was when I began to seriously challenge the Aerials that their true pedigree became apparent.
First, let's talk about voices and the midrange, where the significant issues are balance and clarity. The 7T was simply devastating in its ability to naturally present a voice or oboe without false resonance but replete with subtle plosives. I used the usual singing suspects: Sara K., Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Roy Orbison, etc. Each of these distinctive voices was, of course, instantly recognizable, but each was also definitively integrated as a single voice and source across its unique tonal range, though never isolated from the varied accompaniments. This, it seemed to me, was a consequence of the 7T's excellent driver integration and smooth spatial radiation, the latter something that depends on a lack of sharp cabinet edges and on profiled cabinet contours. If, indeed, music lives in the midrange, the 7T brought it to life.
Still, the sounds of musical instruments can span a wider range than the human voice. Bass from the 7T was not especially prominent with most music, but rather was provided in appropriate balance. I was even suspicious of the speaker's low frequencies having extension and power until I stressed the 7T with "Jazz Variants," from the O-Zone Percussion Group's La Bamba (CD, Klavier KD 771017). This begins with mid-level drums and percussion, but quickly advances to some really heart-thumping big drums that I know should sound deep, tight, and loud. To say that the 7Ts didn't disappoint would be an understatement: I was surprised by how deep, tight, and loud they could play, and how viscerally satisfied I was. This is not to say that the bass was as copious as from the $27,000/pair Sony SS-AR1s, but I could trade that for what, in my room, was the Aerial 7Ts' generally more neutral bass balance. Careful integration of a JL Audio Fathom f113 subwoofer for frequencies below 30Hz didn't change that, as it added impact that was mostly physical not audible.