The Fifth Element #54 Page 2

Again, fortunately, you can get your feet, or at least your pinky-toe, wet for free, because ArkivMusic has put up sound samples not only of the Mahler, but of Accentus's recordings of works by Vivaldi, Debussy, and Barber as well. Barber transcribed his own Adagio for Strings as an "Agnus Dei" for mixed chorus; Accentus's version is painfully beautiful. The Vivaldi swerves perilously close to the precincts previously haunted by Ward Swingle and his minions, but it's all good clean fun.

So, this knocks me out, too. However, my recommendation is mostly directed toward choral enthusiasts and Mahler completists. Second, while the singing is amazing, the recording is good but not really world-class—the singing, the recording, or both can get a little congested on dynamic peaks. But if Mahler is your mania, Transcriptions is well worth checking out; if you decide I'm all wet, you can donate it to your public library.

Aerial Acoustics 5B loudspeaker
In October 2005's "The Fifth Element." I said of the Harbeth HL-3P-ES2, a descendant of the BBC LS3/5A, "Gloriosky, these little speakers are just great to listen to!" Later, in April 2007, John Atkinson endorsed that remark.

I feel exactly the same way about Aerial Acoustics' 5B (footnote 2): It's just great to listen to. Indeed, A-list New York City classical recording engineer Jerry Bruck used a pair of Aerial Model 5s to monitor Nathaniel Rosen's award-winning release of Bach's Cello Suites (2 CDs, John Marks JMR 6/7), and larger floorstanding Aerial speakers (the 7s, if I recall correctly), to monitor Rosen's recital disc of short pieces, Reverie (CD, John Marks JMR 10). Bruck was sufficiently impressed with Aerial to sign on as a dealer for the professional market (footnote 3).

The 5B is a stand-mounted two-way model with a 1" titanium-dome tweeter (protected by a grille) and a 7.1" woofer-midrange. In the Smooth Black finish, which is like the eggshell semigloss black finish often found on conservatory practice pianos, the 5B costs $2200/pair (footnote 4). (The dedicated stands cost $700/pair.) Black fabric grilles on MDF frames attach to the speaker with plastic pins; though these grilles are provided, I didn't use them. A recess in the rear panel holds two pairs of sturdy, non–EC-compliant hexagonal binding posts of brass, with brass jumpers installed for single-wiring.

Unusually, the baseplate of each 5B has five flush brass inserts threaded for machine screws (I believe the woodworking term is "rosalies," though I have no idea why). Three of them, two rear and one front are intended to hold optional spikes: the front spike about 1" high, the rear spikes shorter, to provide some tilt-back. The other two threaded inserts, about midway in length and at the one-thirds points in width of the baseplate, accommodate long bolts that are inserted up through holes in the top plate of the 5B's dedicated stand. Those bolts aren't meant to be snugged tight, but to prevent the speaker from being knocked off its stand. Bravo, is all I can say. I did the same using a handheld electric drill and inserting the rosalies freehand in my Fried C3/Ls, when my son was a toddler—at least 20 years ago. (Aerial does much neater work.) I didn't request the stands. Perhaps that was a mistake. Like everything from Aerial, they're engineered to a fare-thee-well. T-shaped, they're designed to work with one front and two rear spikes.

At $2200/pair, the 5B is obviously prime competition for Harbeth's HL-3P-ES2. The Aerial in Smooth Black looks more utilitarian than Harbeth's mirror-matched veneers, but I consider Aerial's build quality to be on the same level. The Harbeth's cabinet measures 12" high by 7.4" wide by 7.8" deep and displaces 692 cubic inches. The Aerial 5B measures 13" high by 7.9" wide by 10.8" deep and displaces 1109 cubic inches. So the Aerial's cabinet is about 60% larger. Perhaps more important, Aerial's 7.1" woofer-mid driver has just about twice the frontal area of Harbeth's 5" cone: 39.59 vs 19.63 square inches. (Of course, this does not translate into twice as much bass.) Harbeth claims low-frequency extension of 75Hz,–3dB; Aerial, 58Hz,–2dB. Disregarding the difference in claimed precision, that's about the difference between bass extending to E-flat in the piano's second full octave and bass extending to B-flat in the piano's first full octave, before each begins rolling off—a difference of two whole steps and one half step. So the Aerial gives you not quite half an octave more bass. Because, unusually, both speakers are not ported but sealed boxes (quick, name another sealed-box standmounted speaker still being made), I would expect their bass-rolloff curves to be more similar than different.

I began by comparing the 5B to the PSB Imagine B (see "The Fifth Element" in the April 2009 issue), first with Carat's I57 CD receiver. The supersmooth Aerials plus the smooth Carat plus the smooth Cardas Neutral Reference speaker cables (and interconnects for the Luxman combo) were, together, all too much from the same side of the menu, so I changed over to Nordost's Blue Heaven, my longtime Great Cheap Chardonnay in cables. That brought a little more sunshine and fleet-footedness to the sound.

The center image of Julie London's voice in "Cry Me a River," from her Time for Love: The Best of Julie London (CD, Rhino R2 70737, footnote 5), sharpened immediately—in space rather than in tone. The midrange was a tad fuller, but also more tactile, even cleaner, than the PSB's—which shouldn't be a painful surprise for anyone, given that the Aerial costs a little over twice as much. Through the Carat I57, which continues to impress me, the reverb tail at 0:30 ("Well, you can cry...") was apparent even with the loudspeakers playing at "conversational" listening levels. With "I Surrender, Dear," the small sounds of the guitar intro were better defined in comparison to the PSBs, and, in absolute terms, very, very well defined. The piano in the right channel was much more set free from the speaker box, to become more of a floating image. (There's a big mouth-unstick at 3:00, after the sax solo, by the way.) And the images in "I'm in the Mood for Love" were razor-sharp and rock-solid.

On the basis of only the above, and admittedly relying on recent memory of the HL-3P-ES2 rather than a side-by-side comparison, I think Aerial's 5B is a very valid alternative to the Harbeth descendant of BBC's original shoebox. The Aerial has incrementally but noticeably more bass—and wonderfully controlled bass at that—and, arguably, a more neutral midrange and treble, in comparison to the Harbeth's slight romantic sweetness and/or warmth. But the Aerial is by no stretch of the imagination cold—at all.

The one criticism I can imagine some listeners might make of the Aerial is that its treble did not at all call attention to itself. This was not a speaker that gave me big doses of analog tape hiss. That, in and of itself, might lead some people to characterize its sound as "warm," but I don't think its midrange sounded anything but very natural. Another nice aspect of the 5B was that there was no noticeable timbral change between standing and seated listening. Hand in hand with that, the midrange and treble were superbly well integrated.

A quick listen to Consortium Vocale Oslo's Exaudium Eum (SACD, 2L 43SACD), the chant SACD I raved about in December, this time through Luxman's category-killer combo of DU-50 disc player and L-505u integrated amplifier, showed a much deeper, somewhat wider and taller soundstage than did the Carat I57, with even better retrieval of low-level information. Mated to the Luxmen, the Aerials were the champs at "disappearing." The sound was smooth and natural, with first-class coherence. The music was just there. Of course, that laurel wreath must be shared with everyone who worked on that amazing SACD.

The Tallis Scholars' re-recording of Allegri's Miserere (CD, Gimell CDGIM 041) was startlingly clear and crisp through the Aerial-Luxman chain. There was no trace of the muddiness that can result from an overported enclosure, or from an excessively self-damping polypropylene driver. The 5Bs (with the expensive Luxman combo, but not with the affordable Carat) decoded the Miserere's distant semi-chorus and high soprano as well as has any pair of speakers I can remember hearing that track through, and better than most. Quick listens to Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony's recording of Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem (CD, Telarc CD-080092), and Otto Emanuel Olsson's Jul, from Oscar's Motet Choir's Cantate Domino (CD, Proprius CDP 6672), demonstrated excellent dynamics, and established that the 5B's bass, while not delivering anything near the full bottom octave, was at least past the point of "There's just not enough bass here."

David Gray's White Ladder (CD, RCA 69351-2), a perhaps underappreciated major-league pity party (while naming it one of my "Records To Die For" for 2006, I commented that it should come with a label warning that combining it with alcohol late at night might result in your drunk-dialing old girlfriends), sounded rich and full at moderate volumes, a trick many small speakers just don't seem capable of. The Aerial-Luxman combo excelled at delineating reverberation tails and other artifacts of production. I apologize that I haven't yet given the Luxman combo the space it deserves, but hear it if you can: Extremely careful listening suggests that the DU-50's switchable Fluency DAC (for PCM only, not DSD) does have a phase response different from its default Shannon DAC. That the Aerial 5B could let me get that deeply into things means that it honestly earns the designation "monitor."

Horses for courses: Aerial Acoustics' 5B is probably a more sensible all-around choice as a location monitoring speaker (by which I mean, not augmented by a subwoofer) than any descendant of the BBC LS3/5A I've heard—with the proviso, of course, that I have yet to hear Harbeth's forthcoming upgrade of the HL-3P-ES2, the HL-3P-ES3, and don't expect to until some time after this has been published. Which puts off any wrapping-up for at least one more column.

But, to sum up: Aerial Acoustics 5B: Just great to listen to. Aerial 5Bs plus Carat I57 blows my intended budget by about $500 but makes for a very respectable system. Staying within the budget nets you the Aerial 5Bs plus the Arcam Solo Mini CD receiver, which comprise a surprisingly decent-sounding system. Blow the budget big-time and get the dynamic duo from Luxman—for which my admiration only increases—and you get one heck of a system.

Beefs or tofus.



Footnote 2: Aerial Acoustics, 100 Research Drive, Wilmington, MA 01887. Tel: (978) 988-1600. Fax: (978) 988-1661. Web: www.aerialacoustics.com.

Footnote 3: For those who care about such matters: In 2004 I produced a multitrack one-off demonstration recording for Aerial Acoustics that, as far as I know, has been used once. I was paid for my efforts, as were the violinist and organist, and the crew from the recording studio that provided the hi-rez multitrack recording equipment and three pairs of microphones for the location recording. I have never had any financial interest in Aerial or its success, and Aerial has never had any financial interest in my record label, John Marks Records, or its success. Nor have I ever owned or had the long-term loan of an Aerial loudspeaker. But if I won the lottery, the 20T v.2s ($32,000/pair) would be on my short list.

Footnote 4: Although Aerial previously offered the 5B in optional finishes of paint or veneer, at the time of this writing it is available only in Smooth Black, largely because that's what about 95% of the pairs sold so far have been ordered in. The other finishes may again be available in the future.

Footnote 5: Does anyone else remember, from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, the place sign that read "CRIMEA RIVER"?

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