The cult surrounding the LS3/5a—the “little legend,” as it’s sometimes called—is among the longest lived components in all audio and in many respects one of the strangest. The British Broadcasting Corporation designed the speaker in the mid-Seventies to answer a need for a diminutive monitor for vans, control rooms, and other small spaces that couldn’t accommodate full-range monitors and where headphones wouldn’t do. Thus was born what became the first subcompact monitor. (It is always risky to pronounce something the “first”; suffice to say it was the LS3/5a that put the genre on the map.) A two-way with a drive complement consisting of KEF’s 0.75" T27 tweeter and 4.5" B110 bass/midrange, it had cabinet dimensions hardly anyone could take seriously: 7.5" x 12" x 6.25". Nowadays when speakers this small can cost tens of thousands of dollars, that would hardly raise an eyebrow, but back then attention was paid. Against all odds and to the surprise of no one more than the designers themselves, the speaker caught the attention of a few audio reviewers, most famously perhaps J. Gordon Holt, whose original rave in Stereophile introduced the speaker to American audiophiles. A cult—indeed, an icon—was born.
The LS3/5a had a remarkable run of more than two decades before KEF stopped producing the drivers in the early aughts, effectively putting an end to new product. Such was the demand of its enthusiasts, however, that manufacturers searched far and wide, grabbing up remaining supplies of drivers. LS3/5a’s of various provenance continued to be produced for a few years, though in ever dwindling numbers. Soon enough, supplies of new drivers and other components dried up for good. Then in 2008, Stirling Broadcast, a British manufacturer specializing in new versions of classic BBC speakers, commissioned Derek Hughes—son of the near-legendary Spencer Hughes (the BBC designer who founded Spendor) and a very gifted designer in his own right—to engineer a speaker that would mimic the sound of the original LS3/5a, including its tonal balance, bass limitations, and colorations. Despite having to use SEAS and Scan-Speak drivers, Hughes realized the brief so brilliantly that Stirling, already an LS3/5a licensee, was permitted to use the nomenclature (though with a V2 added to indicate that it was not literally the original). Stirling’s was not the first “imitation” LS3/5a, but it remains the only one to have any sort of legitimacy. (I wonder what was going through Hughes’ mind while engaged on this decidedly quixotic project. Surely he must have been amused to be required in effect to dumb down the substantially superior speaker he could have made had he been given free rein to call upon his own knowledge and experience.)
I reviewed the Stirling version in TAS 166. Although over a decade and a half had passed since I last owned LS3/5a’s, I was long familiar with their sound because I used them daily for several years in my cutting rooms as a monitor. Right off, what I heard certainly tallied with my recollections. Here is my description of the LS3/5a sound from that very favorable review: “First and foremost is a midrange of quite extraordinary richness and presence, with an almost palpable thereness, particularly on voices and acoustic instruments. Second is its sheer openness. At the time of its introduction in 1975, only speakers without enclosures (Quads, KLH Nines, Magneplanars) exhibited greater freedom from boxiness. Third is superb imaging and soundstaging. And fourth, rarely remarked upon but noticeable: a subjectively ‘bigger’ presentation than that of most mini-monitors or, to put it another way, less of the miniaturization effect. Soloists, instrumentalists, jazz trios, string quartets, and so forth are projected with a realism that is still rather startling.”
Preparing for the arrival of the Falcons, I re-read that Stirling review—shaking my head, I must confess, with each passing paragraph. I seem to recall that at the time I decided to put and keep myself in a nostalgic frame of mind so as to suggest something of the enthusiasm and even sense of wonder that greeted the original, and why it has enjoyed such high esteem and affection far longer than it had any right to on the basis of its intrinsic performance. So I did what most audio critics who write about the LS3/5a do: state or, to be frank, overstate its virtues and minimize, if hardly mention its deficiencies, which are more numerous and serious. Best to fill in some background.
I bought a pair of LS3/5a’s in 1978 or ’79, mostly encouraged by Holt’s review, and enjoyed them for several years, though rarely as my primary speakers except for short periods when I was between primary speakers (which is rare, as I purchase my speakers very carefully and tend to keep them for a long time—I’m over twenty years with Quad’s ESL-63/988/2805 series and I still own and enjoy fully restored 57s). During all that time, I was never unaware of the LS3/5a’s shortcomings, but its strengths—mostly its midrange, its openness (especially in those still-box-ridden days), and the sheer amazement factor of its Lilliputian size—tended to overcome my objections; overcome, but never entirely silence.
The truth is that from its inception the LS3/5a was always a problematic speaker. The BBC never conceived it as a Grade I monitor—it was always and only ever Grade II, that is, suitable for monitoring programs but not for engineering them. The reasons are several. Its diminutive size doesn’t allow for much dynamic range and its bass response is at best mediocre and at worst nonexistent. Despite the storied strictness of the BBC’s specs and standards, the worst-kept secret in the world is that many LS3/5a’s did not meet spec or maintain their performance over time. (Alan Shaw of Harbeth discovered original BBC frequency-response graphs taken from many LS3/5a’s that show decisively how variable the performance of the speaker really was, especially in the presence region. This video is accessible through the Harbeth users group website.) There were so many issues with respect to parts, materials, and construction that from one point of view the history of the design could be seen as a succession of Band-Aids applied to solutions insufficiently thought through, anticipated, or addressed in the first place.
Complicating all this further was the matter of implementing the design and manufacturing it. Because KEF made the drivers and handled many other aspects of the physical realization, the LS3/5a was in effect a joint effort by the BBC and KEF. Yet KEF, the practical partner, had the very devil of a time dealing with the BBC, the theoretical partner. In what must be the funniest understatement in the history of the speaker, one of the KEF people remarked, “The LS3/5a suffered a bit from the ‘not invented here’ syndrome” (quoted in Ken Kessler’s KEF: 50 Years of Innovation of Sound, which tells the story of the development of the speaker from KEF’s point of view in great and sometimes risible detail). By 1979, KEF had become so frustrated with the BBC that it introduced its own subcompact, the KEF Reference Monitor 101, which remained in production for seven years. Though it never had the benefit of cult support, KEF regarded it as more accurate over its usable range and far more reliable.
For its side, the BBC focused primarily on research as opposed to product development and left manufacturing to commercial companies under license (curiously, KEF not among them). What with the BBC’s vagaries about several aspects of the design, including the crossover and the cabinet, and the inconsistencies of the B110, it was inevitable that there were subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, differences from one licensee’s LS3/5a to another’s. Gather a bunch of LS3/5a enthusiasts together and you’ll soon find yourself in the middle of a lively argument as to whose is the best sounding: Rogers, Chartwell, Audiomaster, Spendor, RAM, Goodmans, Harbeth, and, more recently, Stirling Broadcast and now Falcon. Back in the late Seventies, the two licensees available in America were the Rogers and the Chartwell, and the arguments as to which was better could get quite—well, let’s say spirited. (Mine were from Rogers.)