Aerial Model 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.

609aerial1.jpgI feel exactly the same way about Aerial Acoustics' 5B: 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 1).

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 2). (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 3), 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.

Footnote 1: 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 V2s ($32,000/pair) would be on my short list.—John Marks

Footnote 2: 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. —John Marks

Footnote 3: Does anyone else remember, from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, the place sign that read "CRIMEA RIVER"?—John Marks

Aerial Acoustics
100 Research Drive
Wilmington, MA 01887
(978) 988-1600