Aerial Acoustics Model 8 loudspeaker Thomas J. Norton November 1998
When the Aerial Acoustics Model 8 loudspeakers reviewed by Michael Fremer (Stereophile, January '98) arrived in Santa Fe, I had them delivered to my listening room for an audition immediately after John Atkinson had finished measuring them. My room is considerably larger than MF's, and less sensitive to the sometimes difficult-to-accommodate bass of big loudspeakers, if not exactly immune to it—for a long time I favored room-diagonal positioning for many loudspeakers. But the addition of several SWALS acoustic panels from System Analysis (Tempe, Arizona), which are large and deep enough to have effective absorption down into the bass (claimed effectiveness to 40Hz, unlike most panels, pillows, etc.), have made it possible for me to place loudspeakers in other, more conventional locations.
The Aerials were initially set up across the short dimension of my 18' by 26' by 11' listening room, approximately 8' out from the front wall and 4-5' out from the side walls. They stayed there, with only minor fine-tuning of position, far longer than I had expected, interrupted only by other loudspeakers coming through for review. (See my review of the Wilson Audio CUBs in the April 1998 Stereophile for additional reference to the Aerials.) The Aerial's bass was certainly not lean and mean in this room, but neither was it overly rich and ripe. Bass extension was impressive. If you don't really like bass, then you may well have trouble warming up to this loudspeaker.
Furthermore, the Aerial definitely demanded a power amplifier with good control—there are more solid-state amplifiers that fit this description than tube designs. But if your room is big enough, both in overall volume and in placement flexibility, then the Aerial 8's bottom end as I first heard it is unlikely to disappoint.
The mid and top end were even more impressive. Nothing jumped out as out of place or exaggerated. The midrange was awesomely good—uncolored and simply there. The top end was detailed and pristine. I found that it worked better with the slightly softer top end of the Kinergetics KBA-280 than with the crisper treble of the Aragon 8008ST—the two amplifiers that spent the most time in the system—with the latter combining with the Aerial tweeter to produce just a little too much of a dry, metallic quality. But I would have been happy to listen long-term to the Aerials with either amplifier.
Overall, in fact, I have to say that I preferred the sound of the first generation of the Aerial 8 to the more expensive Aerial 10T. A caution, however—I was comparing the 8 to my recollection of the 10T, as I did not have the latter in-house for immediate comparison. When I did hear the 10Ts in my listening room some time ago, I was impressed by their performance, but bothered by one quality: a small but audible "bite" or edge somewhere in the low to mid-treble region. This gave the mids an undeniable liveness, but could become an irritation with some program material. I attribute this quality to the upper range of the 10T's Kevlar midrange driver, not to its tweeter. I heard nothing of the sort from the Aerial 8 (which has an entirely different, larger midrange driver of coated, multi-fiber paper).
In light of this experience, when Michael Kelly of Aerial Acoustics informed me that an update to the Aerial 8 was available and he was anxious to install it in our review samples, I was intrigued but not ecstatic. Why mess with a good thing? But for those with more trouble-prone spaces, the change might just be worthwhile, and the ticket to unlocking the Aerial 8's best qualities.
The alterations—which involve changes to the bass crossover network (I got to see the impressive workmanship in this crossover for the first time while the changes were being made) and readjustment of the enclosure's internal damping—are incorporated into current production. Owners of the original version who wish an update ($500/pair plus shipping) must return their loudspeakers to the factory. They shouldn't be gone for long; the modifications to our pair, performed on-site, took about two hours.
How did it turn out?
My first impression on sitting down to listen to the new 8s, using the same associated equipment I had used most often with the Aerials in the past (including the Kinergetics amplifier), was that the top end had receded a bit. This puzzled me, as there was no obvious reason for the change—the alterations are designed to fine-tune the bass. But then I remembered: When Michael Kelly and David Marshall of Aerial finished making the changes here in Santa Fe, they set up the loudspeakers in the same locations as before, but with a less extreme toe-in—by about 10 degrees. Would this make all that much of a difference?
It can, and did. When I returned the 8s to my preferred positions—with the main axes aimed directly at the listener—the sparkle returned to the treble.
Aerial claims a slight increase in openness (a typical subjective impression when bass balance is improved), but I didn't find that the modifications had any effect on the Aerial's midrange performance. But no change was required or even desired. The Aerial's midrange, as noted above, was already competitive with the best in its class.
But it is at the bottom end that the modifications are aimed, and there the "new" Aerial did not disappoint me—but then, it had not done so before. I played all of my usual bass-reference CDs: the old reliable Däfos on Reference Recordings, Jean Guillou's organ transcription of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition on Dorian, every percussion-ensemble piece I could locate, jazz with kickdrum, even weird stuff like Béla Fleck's Flight of the Cosmic Hippo. I won't claim that everything I played was foot-tappingly tight, but it all sounded satisfyingly real.
I was also more than a little surprised to find that my amplifier preference for these loudspeakers now switched completely, with the Aragon 8008ST pulling ahead of the Kinergetics. The latter now sounded just a shade too rich with the Aerial. The 8008ST, on the other hand, provided just the right combination of warmth and detail. The imaging and soundstage were also more well defined with the Aragon.
The bottom line on the Aerial 8's bottom end is that I feel it is tightened up a bit by the modification, but in my room the change was not in any way dramatic. And whether or not it will be enough to satisfy listeners who previously found the Aerial 8 too rich is another question. The more extended the bass response, the more significant the room/position/loudspeaker equation becomes. Some audiophiles simply have a problem with powerful deep bass—a problem stemming either from difficult rooms or from an innate dislike of extended low-frequency performance formed by years of listening to small, bass-limited loudspeakers.
Yes, I have heard tighter bass than I got from the Aerial 8, though in the audiophile lexicon, "tight" bass often is a euphemism for rolled-off bass. And yes, I have heard deeper bass—largely from separate subwoofers or full-range systems with built-in, powered subs. (The latter concept is a genuine advance in that, if done properly, it gives the designer and user options that a "passive" system cannot.)
But in my room at least, I found the bass from the latest version of the Aerial 8 both compelling and properly proportioned. It wasn't the very best I've heard in this room from a full-range loudspeaker driven by a single amplifier—the Energy Veritas v2.8 still goes a little deeper (though with its own slightly full quality), and the NHT 3.3 may have more sheer low-end power (though it's been a while since I've listened to the NHT in my room). But the Aerial needn't apologize to anything else I have heard in its price range, or even to a lot of loudspeakers selling for considerably more—neither in the bass nor in any other area.
If you have an older pair of 8s and are happy with them, you probably don't need the mod. If you have a pair and are not entirely happy with their bass performance, and have done your homework on positioning them in an otherwise respectable room, but you otherwise love them, the mod may well be worth your consideration. And if you considered owning a pair before but were put off by their bass characteristics, now may just be the time for another listen.—Thomas J. Norton