Thirteen years after the LS3/5a was first licensed, its problems of uniformity, consistency, and reliability had so worsened that in 1988 the BBC undertook a major overhaul. Among other things, special attention was paid to the obstreperous B110 midrange/woofer and the crossover. At one point, the BBC evidently considered whether it wouldn’t be wiser just to redesign the whole thing from scratch, but this was nixed because there were so many LS3/5a’s in the field that a decision was made to stay with an obviously colored, flawed, not quite stable design, albeit one with characteristics the engineers already knew how to adjust for, than to go with something new and more accurate. (See sidebar.)
One result of this redesign was the reduction of the nominal impedance from 15 ohms to 11, which if nothing else, made it easier to distinguish LS3/5a’s on either side of the divide. What happened next was predictable: For true believers, the 11-ohm version could and would never be allowed to sound as good as the 15-ohm, and in turn none of the 15-ohm versions could ever sound as good as the original pair (numbered BBC No. 1 and BBC No. 2), which have acquired almost Arc-of-the-Covenant status among the faithful. Yet in 2001, when Ken Kessler, as righteous a keeper of the flame as anyone, arranged a listening comparison of LS3/5a’s drawn from every conceivable vintage and manufacturer, and the one that emerged victorious was from Harbeth, both a late licensee and an 11-ohmer.
Knowing what an exacting designer Harbeth’s Alan Shaw is—he worked at the BBC before he purchased Harbeth from Dudley Harwood—I wasn’t surprised because the best LS3/5a ever made is the Harbeth HLP-3, originally introduced in 1991 and now in its third and best iteration, the P3ESR (see my 2009 review in TAS of its immediate predecessor, the P3ES2). This is because, dissatisfied with the deficiencies of the LS3/5a, even those from his own company, Shaw did what the BBC should have done back in the late Eighties: return to first principles, use what was valuable in the original design and research, then do the job right and make a speaker that is vastly more uniform, reliable, and accurate, as well as able to maintain its performance without material degradation over the long run. The HLP-3 so glaringly exposed the flaws and shortcomings of the LS3/5a that I immediately sold mine and bought Harbeths for my cutting rooms. Perhaps needless to say, they were much more satisfying for listening to music as well.
Myth and Reality
The biggest myth about the LS3/5a is that except for the missing deep bass and the nearly missing midbass, the speaker is otherwise very accurate. This is demonstrably untrue. Forget about listening evaluations for a moment and just look at any competently taken set of measurements and you will see that, however pleasing its sound may be as sound, it is quite incapable of reproducing an accurate acoustical analog to the electrical signal it’s presented with. Let’s start at the bottom, anyhow. All who write about the speaker, myself included, resort to a shameless number of euphemistic qualifiers to describe the bass: “surprisingly good,” “unexpectedly deep,” “lower than you might think,” etc. In other words, as with Dr. Johnson’s famous dancing dog, it’s not that the dance is good, it’s that a dog is doing it. The speaker has zero response in the bottom octave, severely compromised response in the 40–80Hz range, and at best problematic response in the 80–120Hz range. This owes in part to what is often affectionately referred to as the “hump,” a substantial rise in the vicinity of 125Hz to give the impression there’s more bass than there is. This is partially successful for casual listening and/or listening at lowish levels, but any really critical listening reveals bass that is rather glutinous, sluggish, and lacking in real definition, especially as regards pitch. Put on timpani and drum in thickly scored passages—Act IV of my trusty Bernstein Carmen on DG—and it’s not unusual to find that it’s difficult to distinguish both pitch and strength of attack. And because the hump is a hump—as opposed, say, to a broad rise with a smooth roll-off—it not only can’t be ameliorated with careful tone-control correction, but any such attempt often makes things worse because the small woofer, already stressed, is strained even further, so in sonic terms the bass unravels even more, becoming loose and wooly. The hump also makes the addition of a subwoofer difficult: Bring it in too low, and you still have a lot of missing midbass; bring it in higher, and it makes the hump even worse (a rising tide raises all humps!).
The lower midrange is plainly the glory of the speaker: It really is rich, seductive, and yes even a little “magical.” But this comes at a price. The response actually begins to slope after the hump as it enters the midrange proper (i.e., 300–500Hz) before it begins a gradual rise to 1000Hz, where there is a large peak that actually winds up being nearly an octave in length. Put on Sinatra and you hear the effects of this immediately: The lower range of his voice is accentuated. In other words, there’s a little too much baritone in his baritone. Meanwhile, though that peak at 1kHz helps project the sound out of the box, it also makes him sound more nasal than he does. (With female singers, the voices are generally too light.) From 1kHz to around 12kHz the response is most charitably described as a series of peaks and troughs of varying amplitude that is anything but flat, which makes this part of the range sound unrefined and even a little coarse. As the overall trend is rising, the presentation becomes bright. The response drops as it goes out to 20kHz.
How could the BBC, of all institutions, countenance such a speaker for two decades? Well, one answer that immediately presents itself is that the speaker was never intended for very critical listening. The monitoring uses to which it was put on the job were more than likely pretty basic, such as making sure a broadcast was sounding at all, that it wasn’t distorted or interfered with by extraneous noises, etc. Then, too, the LS3/5a has always struck me as being designed more for voice than for music as such, more for checking the quality of the broadcaster. (As a film editor, I deal mostly with production dialogue, which is one reason the LS3/5a worked so well in my cutting rooms.) To be sure, the bass limitations and the deviations from flat are not so gross that the speaker can’t be used to check if the overall tonal balance on music or other programs is in the ballpark, but we do well remember that despite the seemingly endless fixes the LS3/5a required over the decades, it was never, ever elevated to Grade I status.
Despite all these problems, the LS3/5a, when not pushed too hard, can still be a captivating speaker, notably on voice and undemanding acoustic instruments—even also an impressive one, especially in view of its history. But “history” is the operative word here: The LS3/5a was in its own way and for its time a groundbreaking, even innovative design worthy of most of the attention, respect, and affection it has received. But recognition of its historical importance should not deafen us to its considerable limitations, weaknesses, and, there’s no sense using lesser words, flaws and defects. (I think it important here to point out that there were several other small speakers that followed—Braun, ADS, Celestion, the aforementioned KEF 101, to name just four that come to mind—that qualified people considered competitive and arguably more accurate, but such was the hegemony of the LS3/5a and its cult that they go unacknowledged, if they’re even remembered. As I recall, a small Braun model with subwoofer occupied a place on Harry Pearson’s recommended list for a while.) Yet not long ago I read a review of the Falcon LS3/5a that asserts, “The LS3/5a excels at letting you hear exactly what your amp really sounds like.” This is crazy. Not only does the LS3/5a not excel at any such thing, but owing to its frequency response anomalies, its inadequacies as a bass reproducer, its limted power handling, and its at best adequate dynamic range, it is literally incapable of any such thing. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that if you find an amplifier that results in an impression of tonal neutrality driving an LS3/5a, then buy it, because you’ve lucked into one of those audio synergies where complementary defects yield a desirable outcome. (This last comment is for effect only—in fact, it’s unlikely any amplifiers out there, even the most weirdly colored SETs, deviate so far from flat as to be able to make this speaker sound neutral.)