The $7999-per-pair Graham Audio LS5/9f is essentially a floorstanding version of Graham Audio’s LS5/9, which is itself a contemporary embodiment of the medium-sized monitor released by the BBC in 1983. As is typical with the BBC, production of the original LS5/9 design was licensed to commercial manufacturers. And while it uses modern drivers, the quite recently issued Graham LS5/9 is close enough to the original’s specifications to qualify for an official BBC license, all these many years later.
The LS5/9 is thus a BBC speaker in the literal sense, while the LS5/9f is not. BBC monitor designs did not come in floorstanding versions. But the LS5/9f shares the drivers of the Graham LS5/9. And it shares the designer, too: Both were designed by Derek Hughes. Hughes has a deep connection with the BBC tradition. His father Spencer Hughes was the co-founder, with his wife Dorothy, of Spendor Audio, which produced the Spendor BC1 in 1968, a speaker that deserves to be called legendary if ever a speaker has so deserved. And the Spendor BC1 became the BBC LS3/6, another BBC speaker reissued in contemporary form in a design by Derek Hughes, this one for Stirling Broadcast. We are very much in the design presence of the BBC tradition with the LS5/9f.
Long-time TAS readers will have inevitably become aware that I have taken a strong interest in speakers of the BBC ilk for decades. And I still do; I reviewed the Graham LS5/9s with enthusiasm in Issue 270. And the interested reader can find reviews of other Hughes family designs at regonaudio.com, going way back. But there is more to my interest in these speakers than just my respect for tradition and the power of long exposure to the general type of sound they produce.
The BBC and its associated designers and engineers were part of a unique development in audio. Never before, and I rather suppose never again, were so many capable and creative engineers offered the opportunity to work on speaker design with almost unlimited resources and, most of all, with an ongoing opportunity to compare on an almost daily basis their work with live sound, and especially with live orchestral sound.
Of course, any serious speaker designer pursuing the goal of reproducing music as music actually is will compare the results of designs with the memory of live sound and perhaps with the literal sound of individual instruments and voices. But the chance to compare at will the sound of the speaker designs with a literally present orchestra is simply not available to ordinary commercial enterprises.
Others have run live-versus-reproduced demonstrations. Acoustic Research had their live-versus-canned public demos in the early days of stereo. And John Dunlavy played Blumlein-miked recordings of concerts on his speakers right after the concerts for the interested public. But these were occasional matters, not an actual part of the ongoing design work. The BBC work comparing their designs with live music all happened decades ago. But there has not been anything like it since. Today, people design by theory and listening in the abstract. No company today that I am aware of hires in an orchestra on a regular basis to check how they are doing. The expense would be prohibitive for a private company.
One might ask how much this mattered, this constant comparison to live orchestral sound. I believe it mattered a lot. Most speaker companies, then and now, design on the basis of models of speaker behavior and of theoretical ideals. They really have very little detailed information on how well their designs will do in reproducing real sound and what is crucial in a recording/playback paradigm. And “research” in the subject of speakers tends nowadays to be based on preference testing and/or agreement with unverified theories of how speakers ought to work. Unverified, and really unverifiable in the context that no comparisons can be arranged.
The results speak for themselves All you have to do is go around an audio show with a single recording to see how much variation there is among the speakers and how little match there all too often is with anything like live sound. A BBC-school designer (not Derek Hughes) said to me not many years ago that all one had to do to hear that there was a lot wrong with most speakers was to play a single recorded piano note and then play the same note on a real piano. This had to my mind an almost terrifying ring of truth. If a speaker cannot reproduce single piano notes, what hope for a full orchestra?
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