EXT Aria Shock
EXT has been building high-end motorsports suspension since 1986. They make trick dampers for everything from from F1 to WRC rally cars, ATVs, quads, motos and more. In 2014, EXT got into making mountain bike suspension, and all EXT forks and rear shocks are made by hand, in Italy.
EXT makes a number of coil-sprung Storia dampers, but the shock being tested here is the air sprung Aria. The Aria uses the same LOK 2.0 damper as the Storia shock, but instead of a coil spring, the Aria has a unique AS3 dual positive chamber air spring.
EXT Aria Notes:
- AS3 technology: the dual positive air chambers +/++ (low/high) with endless adjustment potential via 2 separate air valves to fine tune the spring characteristics.
- Unique air seals design that EXT claim are based on aerospace technology.
- Adjustable High Speed Compression (HSC), Low Speed Compression (LSC), Rebound (R) and Hydraulic Bottom-Out Circuit (HBC).
- Measured weight 666 grams (205 x 62.5 mm Trunnion Mount).
- Available in all usual Standard and Metric Trunnion sizes.
- Limited 2 year warranty.
- Price; 1,500 CAD or 1,150 USD.
- Available in Canada through Alba, or one of the dealers on their website.
Setup of the Aria was relatively easy. The shock comes with a good guide to set the two positive pressures to achieve an equivalent coil spring rate. So if you know the rough spring rate you like on your bike, getting the air pressures in the ball park is easy. The guide also comes with a suggested position for all the adjusters. The fit and finish of the shock is excellent, so installation on the Transition Spire was easy too.
Once the Aria was on the Spire, I went for a pedal around the driveway. This isn't a shock that feels amazing in the parking lot. It doesn't feel bad either; it just doesn't feel special or different in the parking lot test. There is clearly a lot of oil moving around, making the Aria a bit vocal as it cycles through its stroke. There is also a perceptible knee in the air curve (I think happens as the + chamber reaches the ++ chamber pressure), which feels a bit odd on flat pavement, but I never noticed it while riding on the trail.
My first ride impressions of the Aria were excellent. The recommended air pressure and damper settings felt pretty much spot on. Before the next ride I noticed the bike felt a bit softer. I checked the ++ Chamber first, and while pumping the chamber back up, the hose blew off the end of the pump. F! I was at Transition HQ in Bellingham and was luckily able to borrow a high pressure pump to get the ++ Chamber back up to 480 psi. EXT replaced the faulty pump, which failed in the same way on its second use. It's likely a bad batch of pumps, and EXT is aware of the issue, so hopefully this doesn't happen to any future customers. Luckily I have a hydraulic crimper at work, and I was able to repair the pumps and I haven't had any issues since.
More on the Trail
On the trail the EXT Aria felt fantastic. The Pedal Mode lever is easy to reach and actuate. In Pedal Mode the Aria is firm, and provides an excellent platform. While firm in the Pedal Mode, the Aria is not locked out, and still generates decent climbing traction.
Once out of the Pedal Mode, and aimed downhill, the Aria continued to impress. The shock has great low speed compression, giving a supportive feel, but seems to open up effectively in rough terrain. The result is good pop off jumps, and a lively ride feel, but also suppleness over rough terrain, and good traction over square bumps. The rebound tune felt perfect, recovering from deep in the travel quickly without feeling unsettled.
Settings and Adjustments
The hydraulic bottom out circuit works really well, so well that I was seeking out every huck to flat I could find. I played around with each of the damper adjustments, but settled on a setup that is very close to those recommended. The air curve with the recommended + and ++ pressures felt nicely progressive in the latter stages of travel, while feeling linear and supportive through the initial portion of the stroke.
Final Settings on the Transition Spire:
Air Pressures; + 260 psi, ++ 500 psi
Low Speed Compression; 6 clicks out
High Speed Compression; 8 clicks out
Hydraulic Bottom Out; 0 clicks out
Rebound; 5 clicks out
Unfortunately, as the review period progressed, it was clear the Aria was losing pressure from the + Chamber, and needed to be pumped back up after sitting for a few days. Maybe this is a design feature from EXT that forces you to check and set your pressure before each ride? Or maybe it's intended to replicate the charm of owning a manually wound watch, where you have to breathe life into it before each use? Either way I determined it was the Schrader Valve that was leaking. EXT sent me a replacement, and this fixed the issue ... for a couple weeks until it started leaking again. For some strange reason the part holding the Schrader Valve had started leaking. I was able to pull that part out, regrease the o-ring and put it back together. Now the shock has held air without issue for a month or so. Fingers crossed.
So, conclusions time then: how was the EXT Aria? Well, simply put, it's the best performing air shock I've ridden. The air spring feels great, I like the tunability of the air spring curve without needing to rebuild it, and the damper on this Aria is fantastic. I like the Pedal Mode too, with the Aria providing a firm pedaling platform. All that performance does come with a minor weight penalty, the Aria coming in 184 grams heavier than the Rock Shox Super Deluxe it replaced. Then there's the price of $1,500 CDN, which is a lot. When spending that much on a high-end piece of kit, I'm expecting a flawless user experience. I'm a bit disappointed to have had issues with two shock pumps, a leaking Schrader Valve, and a leaking Valve Housing. I was able to rectify all the problems, but it feels a bit like owning an Italian supercar; flashy, fancy, fast and loud, but you're probably going to need to fix it. And maybe that's part of the charm. I almost feel more emotionally attached to the EXT Aria because I've put effort into pumping this shock up every ride and fixing its leaks.
I'm conflicted on recommending the EXT Aria. Performance has been excellent but it's had some issues along the way. With the weight being somewhere between a Rock Shox Super Deluxe and a coil Fox DHX2, I'd be personally inclined to go with a premium coil shock, and spend the $500 left over on whisky. But then the damper really is excellent on the Aria, so maybe the coil version, the EXT Storia LOK V3, is the answer?
More on the EXT Aria Rear Shock