Aerial Model 20T loudspeaker Paeg 3

One criticism of ribbons and electrostatic designs is that their transparency lacks weight and solidity. That was not the case with the 20T's tweeter. On good recordings, female voices had an ethereal clarity and transparency, but they also had weight and solidity. Patricia Barber's Companion (SACD, Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2023) sounded positively spooky, so transparent was the presentation—Barber's voice floated pristinely in space, the sibilants resolving almost sweetly. Cymbals, which can sound more like hissing airbrakes when reproduced by ribbons, had plenty of brass, sizzle, and speed, but far less smear than from the best dome tweeters I've heard—including the titanium one Aerial uses in its other speakers.

Ironically, one of the most amazing demonstrations of this tweeter's resolving power was when I played a 180gm vinyl reissue of My Bloody Valentine's legendary and influential 1991 album, Loveless (Plain 105). It's not for everyone, and it's definitely not an "audiophile" recording, but this collection of mesmerizing, shimmering, guitar-driven tape loops and vocal washes concentrates much of its considerable energy in this tweeter's sweet spot. What sounds like two-dimensional glaze on most other speakers sprang to plasmatic life through the 20T, its ribbon easily separating out multiple musical strands that occupy the same frequency range and easily delineating the undulating high-speed effects, rendering them as liquid wave upon wave washing up on a three-dimensional shoreline. Yikes! Hearing that hypnotic record through the 20Ts was a revelation.

But enough about the tweeter, even though it's what will first snare your attention. The key to the Aerial 20T's success is, as Michael Kelly claimed, that midrange driver and its seamless blend with the tweeter. It does keep up, and that's the key to the 20T's sense of "body" on female voices, cymbals, strings, and percussion. I've not heard DCC Compact Classic's vinyl reissue of Nat Cole's Love Is the Thing (LPZ-2029), masterfully cut by Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman, sound so splendid, timbrally or spatially. The strings can sound a bit boxy, but they were positively silky and mellow through the 20Ts, and Cole's voice had a rich, creamy, articulate blend, the microphone's obvious HF peak not spreading beyond its narrow boundaries.

The 20Ts' performance on that record clinched for me the brilliance of this speaker's overall design and the effectiveness of its driver integration. Not only was the tonal balance nearly ideal, but the spatial delivery was positively dazzling: wall-to wall, three-dimensional, properly proportioned, and, of course, transparent. The tweeter's smooth lateral dispersion and frequency extension helped produce the most effective disappearing act I've heard in my room. Soundstaging, imaging, and resolution fanatics will fall in love with this speaker—live recordings such as Tony Bennett at Carnegie Hall (LP, Columbia C2S 823) or the Weavers' Reunion at Carnegie Hall 1963 (LP, Vanguard VSD 2150) sounded flat-out spectacular, and as vibrantly real as I've ever heard them. But remember: Many recordings are bright; through the 20T, a bright recording will sound bright.

What about dynamics and bass?
Dynamics? No problem. Aerial has always done a great job there, though the company's less efficient designs (usually 86dB), featuring low impedance (below 3 ohms in places) and sometimes relatively steep phase angles, require hefty amplifiers with lots of current drive, and don't really spring to life until they're played loud. Not so with the 20T, which is rated at 90dB efficiency and seemed to react well when driven by a 100Wpc tube amp. Driven by the powerful Musical Fidelity kW, the 20T's dynamic response at both ends of the scale was fast and flawless. Bring on the audiophile drum records—this speaker can put a real drum kit in your room as can only a few other speakers I've heard, all of them considerably larger.

While the 20T is supposed to be relatively flat to below 30Hz, and I could hear subjectively lower bass from it than from the WATT/Puppy 7, which doesn't really go all that low in my smallish room (15' by 20' by 8'), the 20T was not able to express itself fully. Nor was the Rockport Antares, for that matter. Nor did my room's 4-6dB suckout at 67Hz help; I suspect the 20T's LF response will measure as flat down there as advertised.

The result in my room was that the Aerials didn't sound as forceful and extended on bottom as I know they can be. I know, because when I heard them in the bigger space at CES, their bottom end compressed chest and room and was impressively articulate. The result in my room was not the speaker's fault, but if you're considering using a pair of 20Ts in a room with dimensions similar to mine, you might be paying for bass performance you won't be able to get.

That said, the bass delivered in my room by the 20Ts was very fast, clean, and articulate on the very bottom, with a slight warming trend in the midbass—but that could have been the room again, or it could have been a purposeful decision on Kelly's part to counter the tweeter's extension and presence in the overall picture. Kelly did tell me he wanted the very bottom to be fast and well-damped, in order to keep up with the tweeter.

Put all the pieces together and what you have is a solid piece of speaker design and engineering that, in the right circumstances, will deliver a full, top-to-bottom musical experience in every parameter you can think of. The Aerial 20T easily passed the $20,000 test.

The Aerial Model 20Ts were among the most convincing, tonally neutral speakers I've heard, revealing and unraveling heretofore hidden musical and/or spatial details in almost every recording I played through them. As with any of the truly great speakers out there, months of listening failed to reveal any of those annoying colorations that become impossible to ignore—though I'm sure there are some well-hidden ones, as there are in every good design.

That said, though the 20T was designed to be small and play big, I'd proceed with caution if your room is relatively small, as mine is. You might not get the bottom-end weight you want, and that the speaker is capable of delivering. That does diminish its sonic foundation somewhat and tip the balance toward the tweeter. Some listeners might wish the high end could be dropped down in relative level in such circumstances. Also, remember that there's no hiding from bright recordings (though the tweeter's lack of discernible peaks helps), and that, as with any speaker of limited vertical dispersion, music listened to while you're not seated on the optimal axis will sound muffled and less than satisfying.

When I returned to my reference Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7s, I welcomed the Wilsons' fullness and the ease of the overall listening experience, but I sorely missed the 20Ts' transparency, clarity, and resolution on top. In the two months the 20Ts spent in my system. I enjoyed every minute I spent with them, listening long into many nights and leaving my listening room refreshed and renewed.