Aerial Acoustics LR5, CC5, LR3, SW12 surround speaker system

Never mind that the cabinets are made in Denmark and the driver technology is German and Danish—Aerial's latest speaker system is American in its size, scope, and reach-for-the-stars performance. It's meant to fill a big space with big sound.

There's nothing delicate, dainty, or even stylish about these boxes—compared to most home-theater speakers, they're pickup-truck sized and about as elegant. If you're looking for a sleek, sexy-looking, sculpturally curvaceous speaker system to show off, this isn't it. It's a set of strictly utilitarian boxes meant for installation partly or completely in walls, or mounted on stands beside or behind screens.

Thanks to the SW12 subwoofer's extended bottom-end performance and the nearly full-range capabilities of the LR5 main and CC5 center, this system can literally shake your home's foundation. I can't imagine a system with that kind of low-end performance in an apartment building. Physically and sonically, such an assemblage would overwhelm the smaller living spaces in which most people in most other countries live.

However, the Aerial line is available in a wide range of spectacular-looking, mirror-imaged veneers. And, as designer Michael Kelly points out, a pair of LR5s or LR3s makes an outstanding choice for a 2-channel system, though I focused strictly on the surround applications.

Big Guns Up Front
Weighing 105 pounds and costing $7000/pair, the LR5 main speaker represents a substantial upgrade in build and performance from the Aerial 7B, which was the front L/R in the previous Aerial system I reviewed, in the May 2000 Guide. The sealed-box design sports twin 9-inch woofers, a 6-inch midrange, and a 1-inch, titanium-dome tweeter. Michael Kelly's idea was to build a speaker capable of moving large amounts of air without sacrificing speed and accuracy.

Kelly has a degree in physics and a long history in design that includes working 12 years at a/d/s/, before quitting to get his MBA from MIT, and founding Aerial in 1991. So the drivers in the new Aerials are anything but "off the shelf." For example, he designed cast-frame woofers featuring massive magnet assemblies and 2-inch diameter, 1-inch-plus, long-throw voice-coils. In Germany, Dr. Kurt Mueller, who also supplies the spiders and driver surrounds, builds to Aerial's specifications the light but stiff, multilayered, damped fiber cones for the woofer and midrange drivers. The high-temperature voice-coils, are wound by Aton in Thailand, while the baskets are cast in Germany or Denmark, and the magnets are made in Denmark. The drivers are assembled at Danish Sound Technology, owner of Vifa and Scan-Speak.

The LR5's crossover is a fourth-order, in-phase network that takes up the entire inside rear of the cabinet. It crosses the woofers over to the midrange driver at 360Hz, and although the midrange is said to be linear to beyond 7kHz, it hands off the signal to the tweeter at 2.8kHz. The tweeter, which has a large surround, is built to Aerial's specs in Germany and is claimed to be linear to 22kHz.

Because the LR5 is designed to be used in three types of placement—freestanding (stand-mounted), against a wall, or in a wall—Aerial includes two three-position switches: one to adjust the network for these different acoustic boundary conditions, one for treble level.

The LR5's MDF cabinet is built to Aerial's specs at the Hornslet factory in Denmark, which supplies custom cabinets for many well-known speaker brands, such as Audio Physic, Naim, Linn, and DALI as well as Aerial Acoustics. This one has thick walls, a complex interlocking system of internal braces, and an extraordinarily high level of fit'n'finish. Give this box the traditional knuckle-rap test and you risk injury.

Center, Surround, Sub
Weighing a whopping 97 pounds, the CC5 center-channel speaker ($3500) is essentially an LR5 turned on its side, with the appropriate modifications made in its crossover network. While it's not exactly designed to be placed atop a rear-projection TV, that placement is possible in some situations if you take certain precautions to guard against too much weight bowing the screen.

Two switches on the rear, labeled Environment and Treble Level, enable a wide variety of response options designed to compensate for placement, personal taste, and matching with speakers from other manufacturers. The Environment control provides boundary compensation, while the treble switch provides three slope settings.

The LR3 ($3200/pair) is essentially a smaller LR5, with two 7.1-inch woofers, a 5-inch midrange, the same tweeter, and a different front baffle. Still, at two feet tall, and just over a foot deep, and weighing 50 pounds, the LR3 isn't exactly small.

Back in May 2000 I reviewed Aerial's SR3, an ultra-versatile, 5-driver dipole/bipole surround speaker. But with the introduction of the DVD-Audio and SACD formats, plus changing ideas about the desirability of using dipole rears with Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks, this time I decided on direct-radiating surrounds. My listening space could have accommodated another pair of LR5s to serve as surrounds, but I opted for LR3s. Another option would have been to use four LR3s front and back, but I decided to go for the biggest blast possible. That's also why I opted for two SW12 subwoofers, though one would have surely sufficed.

The SW12 subwoofer ($4500 each) has a 12-inch aluminum cone, a 30-pound magnet structure, and a 400W, high-current amplifier. At 130 pounds and just over two square feet, the SW12 is claimed to give a flat response to well below 20Hz, and I have no doubt that it can. As I wrote in my May 2000 review, "The 12's configuration flexibility is easily the most accommodating and ambitious I've ever encountered, with a rear panel that more closely resembles the cockpit of a commercial jetliner than a subwoofer connection panel."

Because I've already reviewed this product, I won't do it again here. I'll just say that I bought an SW12 back then, and I've yet to hear a better sub, musically or explosively. Most of the systems I review include their own subs, so my SW12 spends most of its time in my 2-channel system, where it definitely works and plays well with others.

Aerial provided five optional steel stands, custom-built for these speakers by Sound Anchors. At $800/pair (LR5), $500/pair (LR3), and $700 each (CC5), they add $2000 to the cost, for a grand system total of $24,700 in standard black finishes. (The SW12 has an optional base of its own, for $400, though one wasn't supplied.) Placing the CC5 atop my Hitachi 65XWX20B RPTV was an option, but that would have required getting a thick shelf of tempered glass for the top of the set. The shelf would have been supported by four corner-mounted feet, to shift the CC5's considerable weight to the sturdiest part of the TV and away from the screen, which can sag and bow under such strain. Instead, the CC5 sat on its stand in front of the set, in the middle of my living room. My wife was thrilled.

The LR5's stand raises it to mid-screen height; given the Hitachi's depth of 28 inches, that wasn't at all intrusive. However, to raise the LR3 surrounds to a satisfactory height, Aerial brought along a pair of very tall stands that they use mainly at trade shows. Between the towering aliens hulking over either end of the couch, the big CC5 blocking traffic, and a big SW12 sub at the side of each LR5, my living room looked like a showroom floor.

The Amplifier Problem
All of these speakers are relatively inefficient (86dB/2.83V/m), and they drop as low as 3ohms (their nominal impedance is 4ohms), but they're not particularly difficult to drive because none of them presents a large phase angle. They do thrive on power, however, so a high-current amplifier was required—which meant my reference Integra DTR 9.1 receiver was out.

But anyone spending $25k on a surround speaker system won't be shy about spending money on good amps. When I asked Theta Digital if could borrow three of their stunning-looking Citadel monoblocks for the front, they added a Dreadnaught II 7-channel amp for the surround and rear channels. (I had a pair of M&K CS-29 Tripoles behind the couch for the rear-surround channels.) The Citadel is a fully balanced, zero-feedback design that features a big, dual-choke-filtered power supply and an amplifier section capable of outputting at least 650W into 4ohms. Three Citadels across the front? Thanks! The Dreadnaught II is rated at 450W into 4ohms, times as many channels as you want to add, up to 10.

Shake That Foundation!
With all due respect to every other fine home-theater speaker system I've reviewed over the years, none could approach the Aerials in any category important to home theater. Starting at the very bottom, the combination of the two SW12 subs and the LR5's 40Hz response (Aerial's ratings are conservative) produced low frequencies in my home—my living room could hardly contain them—that were literally frightening when they were meant to be. At times, my house shook and shuddered at such a low frequency that I almost worried about its structural integrity—it felt as if the frame was about to slide off the foundation.

During the mine sequence in Finding Nemo, so deep and dynamic were the explosions that waves of nausea set in among my guests. True, they'd just eaten dinner—but I'm a good cook! At first, a few thought something had actually exploded somewhere in the house, so visceral and real were the shockwaves produced by the Aerials.

Revisiting some of the SACD and DVD-Audio discs I covered in my "Multichannel Sound-Go-Round!" (SGHT, November 2003) revealed a foundation that was as harmonically nimble and musically subtle as it was muscular and explosive. The bass harmonica on the 5.1-channel remix of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds DVD-A goes incredibly low, yet it never set off a symphony of one-note resonances that a thump-box sub might, and it was reproduced with the airy lightness you'd expect from a harmonica—even one that can go down to EE, the lowest note on a bass guitar.