Near Field Nirvana – Three New LS3/5A Monitor Loudspeakers
Three New LS3/5A Monitor Loudspeakers
Falcon Gold and Silver Badge & Sound Artist
Focus of this Review
I find myself approaching this review as if I were interviewing historical figures of the 20th century and their descendants into the 21st century. Taking into account the history of the BBC with those manufacturers who produced the legendary LS3/5A’s. These designs are enshrined in the pantheon of some of the best loudspeakers of all time.
The new generation(s) of LS3/5A’s are still made in Britain, subscribing to the original BBC specifications along with employing existing and reimagined materials. The Falcon Gold and Silver Badge models. We have a case here of provenance with the British LS3/5A’s and a newcomer Sound Artist trying to establish itself as an inspired design LS3/5A.
There has been a plethora of tribal knowledge that has been passed down over the decades regarding the origins, lineage and history of the British LS3/5A’s. It is not my intention to conduct a three unit course with information that is readily available for study from the multitudes of past articles and historical data compiled on the speaker. I encourage you to investigate and learn more about the LS3/5A and its evolution into the professional and consumer marketplace. Waiting for the book and T shirt.
Concept of the Design and Application of the LS3/5A
The LS3/5A was designed for near-field listening applications for the BBC in the early 1970’s. Sound engineers would sit in close quarters in mobile recording vans with need to sit close in to monitor recordings and playback. The speaker would have to render authentic portrayal of vocals and program material with scale. A tall order for any good loudspeaker to accomplish those attributes. The LS3/5A had set the bench mark for future designs up to the present day. KEF had designed and built the legendary T 27 tweeter and B 110 mid/bass drivers for the BBC LS3/5A. The BBC had a close relationship with KEF since the early 1960’s.
There were several engineers involved with the design(s) that ultimately became the LS3/5A. A handful of licenses for the design were issued to British loudspeaker companies to produce the speaker for the commercial and consumer marketplace. I had personally owned a pair of Rogers LS3/5A’s made in their Swiss Tone factory circa mid 1980’s. Sold them about six years ago figuring the drivers and crossover parts likely needed upgrading and/or replacement, because of constant use and aging issues.
Well, since the departure of the Rogers, Falcon Loudspeakers was born in the UK. Call it the flight of the Phoenix or an anachronism of design? The Falcon team: historical figures in their own right, had the knowledge and resources to find existing original materials and to remanufacture needed parts to original specifications to bring the LS3/5A’s back to life. Not a Frankenstein by any means! Yes, it’s alive! I was able to hear ALL the various licensed iterations of the speaker through the ages, including the new/old versions at the RMAF show a couple of years ago. I attended a lecture conducted by Jerry Bloomfield, (the principal owner of Falcon) at the show recapping all the lengthy steps it took to accomplish this tremendous feat and endeavor. This team could have brought back Elvis to life!
Falcon Silver Badge
The Falcon Silver Badge speaker was/is now the first LS3/5A produced in 2015 and is currently still in production in the UK with a few interesting wood veneer finishes. Also, the MoFi editions, which are sold in the US market feature a utility black finish at a lesser price of $1995.00 per pair. The idea was to get more folks interested in the speaker with less wood finish options.
The Silver Badge infers there now must be a Gold Badge? Yes, will get to that version in this review. Hey, don’t forget there is the Sound Artist LS3/5A in the roundup.
Set-up and Listening
The Silver Badge speakers are ideal for my Near Field Nirvana set up. This speaker needs to be and must be positioned in close proximity to the listener. I placed them on good quality heavy 24 inch speaker stands. Approximately 8/1/2 feet wide apart and 6 feet from my listening chair. Slight toe-in of a few degrees. My chair sits low enough to get my ears to tweeter height. Sitting near-field minimizes sound room reflection arrival times. I used a few amplifiers to evaluate the speakers including the venerable original NAD 3020 integrated amp with great success.
I have to say this speaker prefers tube amplification as did the original LS3/5A’s. Tubes were used by the engineers to voice the loudspeaker, so it makes sense to use a tube amp in conjunction with the LS3/5A’s. I had the Manley Mahi EL 84 mono block tube amplifiers up for most of the listening sessions. My old Rogers versions were paired up with a Dynaco ST 70 EL 34 tube amp and I was able to get everything out of the loudspeaker then. The impedance of the speaker is 15 ohms. They prefer an amp that can deliver good voltage and current even at a lower power rating. At 82 dB sensitivity can be a misnomer of compatibility with the Falcon’s. 35 watts can be enough! Some versions of the LS3/5A’s were 11 ohms to account for driver and crossover parts changes.
The sound coming out of the speaker in a near field set up is ideal for its intended application. The speakers become sonically invisible with the lights out. The cabinet is of a lossy construction and breathes, although it’s in a sealed enclosure. The enclosure is solid and made of Birch Ply and is internally cross braced. Pretty inert as cabinets go. No MDF is used!
Music selections played via CD’s and vinyl. I initially played vocalists ranging from most genres of music. Vocals were centered in the sound-field and were presented with a natural timbre with a sense of realism. These speakers render the human voice with superb authenticity. I had a pair of Quad 63’s for a while and can say the midrange attributes are very similar between both speakers. Getting the midrange perfect and VIOLA, the rest falls into place. There can be some congestion in the midrange if the speakers are pushed too hard. Amp pairing is crucial to get the synergy right. Most program material is well suited to play on the Falcon’s. Remember, if sitting in near field, the inverse power rule is in effect. You can play louder closer in! If you are trying to pressurize a large room, things fall apart quickly. Mini monitor as it is, will not cheat physics in delivering a tower speaker experience. However, the Falcons are not about brute force, they are just about how real music sounds through a smaller window. I’ll take real over a bar juke box with big dance floor sound any day.
Does the Silver Badge LS3/5a sound like a vintage LS3/5A?
Well in two words, yes and no! Speakers are not timeless pieces like violins. As the violin ages, it seems to get better sounding as the years go by, like a fine wine. Speaker materials do age and lose tolerances affecting playback accuracy. One may not readily notice the effects of speaker aging. Our ears and brain tend to get used to any repetitive stimuli over time. Then, a friend comes over and says, “Your speakers sound off?” We have all been there, especially with tube aging in electronics.
OK, in answer to the question, yes, they do sound like real genuine LS3/5A’s. My memory recall suggests that judgment. What I do hear differently, is they sound new and fresh. They have that New Car smell out of the box and the performance to go along with it. The bass sounds tighter, deeper and more defined. They seem to play louder with more dynamics than my old Rogers pair. The midrange goodness is still there in spades. There is less graininess and nasality compared to the older Rogers pair. The speakers will play as loud as I prefer to listen to them. They will portray Rock music to a certain extent, but not on the dance floor experience. Look to the Zu Omen MK II for that performance.
There is very nice clarity to the high frequencies. I would not call it airy. The entire speaker presentation is airy in the sense of spaciousness, not sparkle. The LS3/5A is a speaker that will lose in all departments in comparisons to various modern stand mount or tower speakers pertaining to individual driver merits. Comments such as, the bass is not deep enough, the tweeter does not produce any sparkle or air and the speaker does not play at high SPL’s. All this is true, but does it matter?
The Falcon Silver Badge LS3/5A is more than the sum of its parts. The design is woven together by people, who can hear and understand engineering of the highest degree. It’s not just the parts that make the design successful. It is the human ear that the speaker is intended to solicit.
The Silver Badge LS3/5A will satisfy former, current owners or new acquirers of the speaker. Jerry Bloomfield says, “Falcon is seeing a younger audience discovering the LS3/5A’s.” New applications of desk top listening dove tails perfectly with the original intent of the LS3/5A design for near field listening.
Forget using a subwoofer with the speaker. If you want to the speaker to carry a large room, then think about a tower speaker in its place. Funny thing, before I hooked up the speakers. I inadvertently forgot to switch the right channel LS3/5A from the Zu OMEN MK II’s sitting behind the speaker stand. I was listening and thought the tonal balance was fine and there was a little more bass on the right channel. And the overall volume was a little down. Then finally it dawned on me that I had not hooked up the speaker wire to the right speaker! What this told me is that the Zu speakers were very close in their sonic signatures to the Falcon’s. Both brands had virtually the same impedance levels too. Whack on the side of the head!
Falcon Gold Badge
The Gold Badge LS3/5A is all what you read above about the Silver Badge versions and more. The Gold Badge is the latest iteration of Falcon’s refinement of the design with new/old found materials, which were being used to develop the next generation of the BBC LS3/5A. This was happening at an engineering work shop at the BBC Kingswood Warren facility in the UK. At Kingswood Warren there were a small number of units being tested with higher quality inductors and film capacitors in the crossover. Also, there was experimentation with different thicknesses of ply birch material in the cabinetry. A small number of units were made and sold employing the modifications. We are talking about a handful of those speakers sold compared to the thousands of what we know of as the BBC standard of mix and match units. The Silver Badge Falcon speakers are the reincarnate of the manufactured versions we all know as the original LS3/5A.
Falcon now has secured a vendor to make the film capacitors instead of the polycarbonate components used in the standard versions. About 90 % as good as the originals says Jerry Bloomfield.
Gold Badge LS3/5A Sound
Upon listening to the Gold Badge speakers there was a distinct difference with its presentation compared to the Silver. There was more vertical height in the soundstage and the same panoramic width as the Silver’s. Same placement and stands. The overall tonality of the speaker was correct and smoother than its predecessor. It seemed it needed a little more power from the amplifier to jump. Main impression was it played bigger. I had just finished reviewing the ELAC Reference speaker and the Gold sounded close in scale to the ELAC. The Reference is a much larger design and plays louder. My wife who has golden ears and works in the music industry, listened and commented she had preferred the Silver’s. She said that liveliness and involving LS3/5A sound was missing. I guess we all are accustomed to what the original speaker is and was concerning our familiarity of the LS3/5A? Expectations are measured by memories, experiences and performance from original products?
Now, is the Gold Badge better speaker than the Silver Badge, or the original? Is Coke in a bottle with cane sugar better than the Coke made with fructose in a can? Is the taste the same? No, it is not. It is slightly different. And that’s the same perception I have with the two models of Falcon’s. I think both are truly outstanding and if the Gold’s had existed in the beginning, we would be making comparisons now to the new Platinum Badge LS3/5A’s.
The Gold Badge LS3/5A’s are basically $1.000 more than the Silver & Mofi models. Many die hard in the wool audiophiles are on both sides of the fence concerning the recent Falcon addition of the Gold’s. Only your ears can decide what is the right speaker for your tastes. Or maybe it could be the Sound Artist LS3/5A’s?
Sound Artist LS3/5A
The Sound Artist LS3/5A comes from China from a company that distributes an entire array of home audio electronics along with Sound Artist speakers. My interpretation is that the Sound Artist LS3/5A speakers are manufactured for China-HiFi to sell. It is no secret that many companies from China have attempted to knock off the legendary British LS3/5A design over the years. This particular model is interesting, because it is more of an inspired and reimagined version of the classic speaker. Yes, Sound Artist alludes the speaker is almost a licensed BBC design. I don’t believe there are any legal issues revolving around its claims or advertising.
I’m just going to evaluate the speaker’s sonic merits as a loudspeaker submitted for consideration and review. Well, of course, comparisons will be made to the Falcon speakers in that they have chosen the designation LS3/5A. I was tempted to review the Sound Artist as a stand-alone product. However, after initially auditioning the speaker, I decided it was worthy of inclusion into the review round-up.
Construction & Materials
The Sound Artist LS3/5A cabinet is made MDF and is very solid in nature. Passed the knuckle rap test. The cabinet has a very attractive wood finish. This pair has the Rosewood finish. I smelled the cabinet and there seems to be a wood finish aroma. If indeed, it’s a vinyl wrap, then it’s the best I’ve seen. The grill has this nice retro look, reminiscent of vintage tube musical instrument cloth coverings. The rear of the cabinet sports nice 5 way binding post and a classy gold foil badge.
Upon the grill’s removal, one sees what appears to be the baffle of the classic LS3/5A. The dimensions of the Sound Artist are not exact to the size of the British version. So, this is part of the reimagined, but familiar look of the LS3/5A. I don’t think Sound Artist wanted to go for a copy-cat version. It would have cost close to what the British versions would ultimately be, And what’s the point anyway? They wanted to produce a version that would sell in quantity and at a great price.
The drivers of the Sound Artist speakers look identical to the Brit KEF T27 tweeter and B100 mid/bass driver.
Crossover & Drivers from the Sound Artist LS3/5A
The crossover of the Sound Artist looks to be composed of quality parts. I don’t know what’s going in there, but it’s obviously essential with integrating the two drivers. Without a schematic, I can’t tell if it’s the same circuitry as the British versions. I imagined they designed the crossover to match the drivers they had replicated to look and perform like the original KEF drivers.
What do they sound like?
Before the Falcon’s had arrived, I played the Sound Artist LS3/5A’s on my solid four pillared 24 inch speakers stands. Placement same as the Falcon’s noted above. I had the Manley Mahi EL 84 tube amps along with the Rogue Audio Pharaoh and original NAD 3020 integrated amp.
I started with the Rogue Audio Pharaoh tube hybrid class D amp. Its rated at 180 watts into 8 ohms and 400 into 4 ohms. The Sound Artist speakers sucked the power out of the amp! I never had a speaker respond in that way with the Rogue. The speaker is rated at 11 ohms and that certainly would mean being inefficient at 83 dB sensitivity. The speaker really seemed to like tubes. The Manley’s drove them to sufficient SPL levels. The sleeper in the mix was the original NAD 3020, a SS amp that sounds similar to tubes. They loved that integrated amp. Subsequently, as I write I have just received the Carver Crimson tube amp, and that is a good pairing too.
Soundstage was as wide as an LS3/5A should sound. Speakers were in the near field orientation. Vocals were dead center as they should. Depth was nice and deep.
Tonality was very good. Instruments were individually recognizable and vocal reproduction was very good. Now, the difference here between the British LS3/5a’s and the Sound Artists is that of nuance and voicing. You could not mix and match these speakers with a British pair or single speaker. The sonic attributes are different, but satisfying in their own right. When the Eagles replaced the late Glenn Frey with Vince Gill, the band still sounded like the Eagles, but different. This is what we have here with the Sound Artist speaker compared to the Falcon’s. I’d would still pay money to see the Eagles.
The Sound Artists have a good dynamic presentation. They have a little less of that V Curve LS3/5A HF and bass contour (Bump). Bass was fuller and if I might say a little more accurate than the British versions. The speaker has a lively component to its sound. Instruments seemed to jump out of the speaker without being shouty. The vintage NAD 3020 was a terrific match. The NAD is good down to one ohm and showed off its grip on the Sound Artist. The tweeter seemed to be a little more incisive with a little more light than the British LS3/5A’s.
There is a little bit of grain concerning the midrange vocals. Much of this is amp dependent IMO. If you are an LS3/5A purist, then here is the big difference of comparison and taste. If you compare the Sound Artist to other speakers, like ELAC, then you would be quite comfortable with the sound in that HF spectral region.
So, what do we have here?
There is a lot of goodness with Sound Artist LS3/5A design and sound. Comparing it to the legendary British LS3/5A speakers is almost an absurd exercise using the premise of technological gene splicing to replicate a design. If you consider the British Falcon LS3/5A’s direct descendants of parentage, then the Sound Artists, would be 2nd cousins.
Now let’s consider the value proposition at $599 per pair they are without any peers for their performance. I’m in for a pair. They are fun and an involving speaker.
Summing Up the Trilogy
Ok, so I purchased the Falcon Silver Badge LS3/5A’s to replace my older and gone Rogers pair. The Falcon’s as described above are special and should last me my second life time. I opted for the walnut wood finish. A speaker that goes with me to the desert island. A brilliant job of reanimating a classic that is new again and timeless.
Will the real LS3/5A Stand Up?
I see the contestants alternating from standing to sitting down repeatedly before disclosing their title of being the true and only LS3/5A, only to see that ultimately all three would be standing up in unison. What, a three way tie?
All three contestants believe they have a rightful title to claim being the one and only LS3/5A design. In fact, all three share the name. However, you the viewer/ listener will be the judge of the result. If this game show is revisited in 20 years, who’s to say what the outcome will be, or who will be the contestants?
As purists go, I believe the Silver Badge LS3/5A would be the winner. The Gold Badge is now the ascendant of the LS3/5A title according to the Falcon camp. The Sound Artist camp will ride the tails of the Falcon offerings and offer different flavors of the originals at significantly lower prices.
Website for Sound Artists LS3/5A
Website for Falcon Speakers
Near Field Nirvana – Three New LS3/5A Monitor Loudspeakers