Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a loudspeaker
After you've spent a bunch of time with horns, electrostats, or ribbons, box speakers won't sound "boxy," as many reviewers claim; they'll just sound squawky and . . . peculiar. To my ears, the bigger and heavier a speaker cabinet, the more peculiar it sounds. In contrast, petite boxes, like that of Falcon Acoustics' new re-creation of the British Broadcasting Corporation's classic LS3/5a, have a way of sounding closer to solitary drivers hanging in thin air—ie, more open and invisible—than ultradamped, 250-lb, tower-monolith speakers, which, on a gray and humid day, can sound an awful lot like moaning, wheezing piles of wood.
This spanking-new incarnation of the BBC's LS3/5a (footnote 1) costs $2195/pair and is a highly artisanal labor of love and pride manufactured in Oxfordshire, England, under the technical supervision of KEF's first employee and Falcon Acoustics' retired founder, Malcolm Jones, and the inspired passion of Jones's old friend and Falcon's present owner, Jerry Bloomfield. When I asked Bloomfield how this entire what's-old-is-new-again-let's-do-it-right-this-time Falcon LS3/5a thing got started, he laughed. "Boardroom curries and lots of wine!"
After Jones's wife died, in 2008, he and Bloomfield began meeting at a local curry joint to have dinner, drink wine, and swap audio war stories. While at KEF, Jones had been the senior development engineer behind the B110, a 127mm Bextrene-cone woofer, and the T27, a 19mm Mylar-dome tweeter. Both units were used in the original BBC LS3/5a minimonitor in the mid-1970s. So it's no surprise that their conversations often touched on that legendary British classic and its many BBC-licensed incarnations. Way back in 1982, Jones and Falcon had applied to the BBC for a license to manufacture the LS3/5a, but lost out to Goodmans—who ended up using very tight-spec crossovers supplied by Falcon.
An LS3/5a Timeline
1974: The first pair of LS3/5a Grade II (limited low frequency) minimonitors was created by the BBC Research Department at Kingswood Warren in Surrey, south of London. Looking totally unprepossessing, each had on its rear panel a little strip of red plastic (from an embossing-type label maker) that said "LS3/5a 001" or "LS3/5a 002" (footnote 2). The BBC made 20 more pairs of these "prototypes" in-house, and put them in service in television broadcast vans. They then invited a group of outside manufacturers to apply for licenses to manufacture them.
The BBC issues no more than three manufacturing licenses for the LS3/5a at a time, but during the speaker's long life rights to manufacture it have been awarded to Audiomaster, Chartwell, Harbeth, KEF, Rogers, Spendor, Stirling Broadcast, and now Falcon Acoustics.
According to Trevor Butler, writing in the March 1990 issue of the British magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review (footnote 3), "The concept of this speaker was to suit those BBC environments where monitoring on headphones was not satisfactory and yet there wasn't sufficient room for a 'Grade I' [full-range] monitor. A Grade I monitor can be used for critical tonal balancing of programme material, setting of microphone positioning, etc. Current Grade I monitors are the LS5/8 and LS5/9. A grade II monitor may be used for checking the quality of programme, but balance and [mike] positioning are normally Grade I–checked unless there is no alternative."
British audiophiles immediately grasped the special virtues of this diminutive speaker, the first-ever "minimonitor" to take the bookshelf speaker off the bookshelf and set it on metal stands out in the room. According to Sound&Vision's Mike Trei, "This is when the term 'bookshelf speaker' began to lose its literal meaning." No speaker before it had ever imaged as well. The BBC LS3/5a became the gateway drug that started the whole soundstage/imaging audiophile revolution. It was the speaker that, along with a workforce of high-quality, low-powered British integrated amps, turned all those 250W Pioneer receivers into polished dinosaurs. Simultaneously, it helped precipitate the second coming of tube amps. Now, after 40 years of continuous production, the LS3/5a is established as a timeless classic, and an iconic worldwide cult obsession (footnote 4).
1988: As time passed, more and more B110 (SP1003 version) Bextrene woofers began falling off spec, which prompted KEF to redesign the entire speaker using a new B110 mid/woofer, the SP1228. This change required a redesign of the crossover and, suddenly, in 1988, a new, 11-ohm version of the LS3/5a appeared.
2000: KEF stopped manufacturing the T27 and B110 drive-units used in the LS3/5a. In order to continue making licensed LS3/5a's, Stirling Broadcast began using drivers sourced from SEAS and Scan-Speak. Stirling's new mid/woofers were made of damped polypropylene, not Bextrene, and the original T27 Mylar tweeter was replaced by a fabric dome. These radical changes made it necessary for Derek Hughes to develop a crossover that would allow the new drivers to "mimic" the response of the original KEF LS3/5a.
2013: Besides wine and curry, Jones and Bloomfield's post-retirement dinner sessions included discussions of how all the later incarnations of the LS3/5a, while still falling within the BBC's specs, had drifted far from the original materials and construction practices. The new versions may measure the same, but to the ears of Jones and Bloomfield (and me), they don't sound at all the same. (I can see all you double-blind-listening dudes punching in codes and scrambling your F-16s.)
But stop! I need to interrupt this story to tell you that, according to a 2001 listening panel conducted by Ken Kessler and Steve Harris, who published the results in Hi-Fi News, NONE of the mass-produced versions of the LS3/5a has come even close to the sonic perfection of the original, red-tape–labeled prototypes (footnote 5).
So . . . after some extra-good curry and more than enough wine, Jones and Bloomfield decided to see if a couple of "old farts" (Bloomfield's description) could hunker down "in a shed" (ditto) and re-create that lost red-label perfection. "We wanted to recapture the original sound character as well as the soul of the BBC-labeled prototype," Bloomfield told me. Unlike other LS3/5a manufacturers, theirs was not only a quantitative approach of matching the original specs, but also a qualitative approach. Jones and Bloomfield wanted to make a locally handcrafted loudspeaker that was better controlled for quality, and closer to the materials used in the original BBC prototypes, than any of the 60,000 or so LS3/5a's that had been manufactured to date.
They began with the B110 woofer, and went to tedious lengths to get the doped Bextrene to produce spectral-analysis results identical to the original's. Then they tried to make a precise facsimile of the first T27 Mylar tweeter. When, in 2013, they applied to the Beeb for their current license, BBC execs stared in astonishment at the "new" drivers and said, "We haven't seen any like these in 40 years!" Duplicating the original crossover, inductors, wooden cabinet, and damping were smaller challenges—Falcon Acoustics has been manufacturing these items to high specs since 1982.
How deep does the low-end response of the Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a ($2195/pair) actually go? And how accurate are these new Grade II monitors?
Wanting to get all such reviewer questions out of the way with the very first record, I figured my best chance was to play Charlie Haden/Jim Hall, recorded live at the 1990 Montreal Jazz Festival, in which the late bassist provides the late guitarist with Bach-like counterpoint (CD, Impulse! 002176502). The theme of this astonishing album is Avant-Garde Bass Meets Mainstream Jazz Guitar—it's a twisting, turning, surprise-filled masterpiece that features Haden's bowed, gut-strung bass, Hall's reverberant D'Aquisto archtop, and lots of applause. By the end of Ornette Coleman's "Turnaround," I knew: The famous LS3/5a "bass bump" was either missing in action, or chose to sleep through this stupefying recording. For better or worse, the LS3/5a's equally famous 1kHz "rise" was present. Bass notes and guitar reverb were rich and hyperdetailed, and reached low enough to be completely satisfying. Most speakers make applause sound like rain on a roof. Through the Falcons, the applause in Montreal sounded as much like the smacking together of hands made of actual bones and flesh as I have ever heard from a pair of speakers. My Falcon LS3/5a journey was off to an auspicious start.
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