The results I’ve reported here were obtained with several amplifiers, including Son of Ampzilla II, Quad 909, Magtech, and the latest version of McIntosh’s classic MC275 (review forthcoming). There were the usual subtle differences among the amplifiers, but nothing that was revelatory or transformative. Many staunch 3/5a enthusiasts insist that only with tube amplification does the speaker sound its best. The MC275 is of course one of the great classics among vintage tube gear, renowned for its neutrality and low distortion, and it even has 16-ohm speaker outputs, a theoretically ideal match for the Falcon’s 15-ohms. I settled on the McIntosh for most of the listening since it is in keeping with the retro aspect of the whole endeavor.
Though I realize that Falcon’s purpose with this speaker is to revive, rather than improve the original, I still find it hard to assess its position as a product in the current marketplace. Its appeals to nostalgia and tradition are obvious and understandable enough. As the old peasant in The Wild Bunch says, “We all long to be a child again,” or at least to reclaim our lost youth. This being impossible, the next best thing is sometimes to surround ourselves with the objects of our youthful enthusiasms and passions, whether classic automobiles, grandfather clocks, or vintage audio gear. This granted, is it fair to evaluate the speaker in terms of present-day standards?
I believe it is. For one thing, the LS3/5a was for the better part of a quarter-century widely regarded as the best minimonitor in the world, the one against which all others must be measured, and the cachet of its BBC provenance is prominently featured in all the promotional literature. For another, a recurring refrain among fans of this speaker, whether audiophiles or reviewers, is how well it has stood the test of time, especially by comparison to others of its genre. For a third, there is no indication in the marketing of this speaker, its sales, or its reception that it is intended only as an exercise in nostalgia. And, finally, the reviews I’ve seen by the most intemperate LS3/5a enthusiasts gloss over its limitations and betray no suggestion, let alone awareness that there are many other speakers of similar size that may transcend those limitations.
At $2200 a pair, both this new Falcon and the Stirling Broadcast LS3/5a’s cost about the same as Harbeth’s P3ESR ($2300/pair), yet in my view the Harbeth is demonstrably more accurate, with greater bass extension and dynamic range, flatter frequency response, and superior resolution. I can’t pronounce it the most accurate subcompact monitor ever made because I haven’t heard them all, but it’s unquestionably the most accurate I’ve ever heard, save only for the new Sony SS-NA5ES, which costs $6000 a pair (reviewed in the previous issue by REG). The P3ESR still has the hump at around 125Hz, but because it’s better engineered, thus much better behaved, the bass, though still down in amplitude, is cleaner, better defined, and more articulate and it responds more favorably to judicious tonal boost to provide more legitimate warmth and foundation (it’s also more amenable to subwoofers). The overall midrange gives up some of the lower midrange richness in favor of being very flat and thus more truthful from the bottom of the midrange through the lower highs, except for a pretty mild (and far from gross) rise around 1kHz necessary to give the reproduction some projection (despite having less projection as such than the LS3/5a, the P3ESR actually sounds more open). The highs are very smooth, extended yet unaggressive, and, as is not the case with the LS3/5a, rather better integrated with the response from below. The overall flatness makes for a minimonitor of excellent refinement and resolution yet with considerably wider dynamic range and higher transparency, easily up to the standards we expect from quality contemporary loudspeakers. It’s little wonder that one reviewer, a longtime card-carrying member of the LS3/5a club, pronounced the P3ESR “the best iteration yet from any manufacturer of the BBC LS3/5a minimonitor concept.”
But a minimonitor is still a minimonitor, even Harbeth’s, with the all the attendant limitations of the breed. Setting aside nostalgia, the hang-up some audiophiles seem to have with very small speakers, and the weakness many seem to have for the charms of the LS3/5a, I can’t for the life of me understand why anybody would pay the prices asked for products this dated or this limited when it comes to assembling a home sound-system for the primary purpose of playing music in what Leonard Bernstein has called its “infinite variety.” Page through our most recent Editors’ Choice Awards (Issue 261) and you’ll find any number of speakers by the likes of MartinLogan, PSB, Paradigm, KEF, B&W, Revel, and Magnepan that boast much wider frequency response and dynamic range, and distortion, transparency, and neutrality that either beat or are competitive with many expensive minis. You may protest that some of these speakers are larger than minis and others are floorstanders. True enough, but a few are also not larger, most are considerably less expensive, and whether subcompact or compact, their footprints are effectively about the same as for a floorstander, given that stand-mounting away from walls is required for optimal performance.
In the end, for all the appeal of the LS3/5a, its brethren, and its descendants, size really does matter, as does technology. I still require bass response and dynamic range adequate to a piano, a jazz ensemble with string bass and drum set, chamber music so that cellos may sound forth with proper warmth and body, my occasional wanderings into rock ’n’ roll with some kick and force, to say nothing of the symphony orchestra as it evolved from the eighteenth century into the peerlessly glorious instrument of late nineteenth and early twentieth.
This review has been in many respects fraught with frustration. Bloomfield and Jones have lavished fanatical care, commitment, dedication, expense, and nearly Herculean effort making an original LS3/5a in all its past glory. To a remarkable degree, they appear to have succeeded, even though their success consists in a beautifully realized reincarnation of a design that is manifestly limited, flawed, and certainly dated. Yet it also possesses a personality that has survived into in what, this year, marks the dawn of its fifth decade, its spell over older listeners unbroken even as it attracts new ones. So if it’s an LS3/5a that you want, then inasmuch as there are virtually no vintage pairs from any period in the design’s history that meet specification and perform as they’re supposed to, Falcon’s is likely to offer a closer approach to the original sound than anything else out there. However quixotic the quest, Bloomfield and Jones have seen it through with love and honored its heritage. For many that will be enough. Live and be well.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Two-way, sealed-enclosure mini-monitor
Driver complement: 0.75" dome tweeter, 5" midrange/woofer
Frequency response: 70Hz–20kHz
Nominal impedance: 15 ohms
Dimensions: 7.4" x 11.9" x 6.4"
Weight: 11.8 lbs.