BBC LS3/5a loudspeaker 1984 Spendor version
The speakers in this survey range in price from $300 to $500 per pair which makes them less than extremely budget (eg, the Boston Acoustics A40 at $150/pair). It has been my experience that $400 or thereabouts is about the least one can pay for a pair of speakers with the expectation of audiophile-calibre sound.
Design constraints are quite serious in this price range. Cabinet size is kept modest so that lumber and finishing costs are kept to a minimum. Driver quality and crossover complexity must be juggled so that no one design parameter is favored over the others. All of the speakers reviewed here use two drivers because two good drivers are better and usually cheaper than three mediocre ones—not to mention the simpler crossover required.
Unsurprisinglv, none of the contestants in this sonic sweepstakes comes close to state-of-the-art. To begin with, it is a given that no small speaker will produce deep bass. No one has yet found a way of circumventing that law of physics that says "To move lots of air, one needs a large radiating surface or extremely large cone excursions." Neither has anyone found a way of getting no-holds-barred sound from high-cost-barred drivers. "Budget" always involves significant compromise, beyond the compromises imposed by the laws of physics.
These cautions notwithstanding, several of these systems represent unusually well-advised sets of performance tradeoffs which add up to uncommonly good performance for the price; I can recommend my two top choices without hesitation to audiophiles on a tight budget.
Listening tests were carried out in my 14' by 20' living room. The soundsource was primarily analog records played on my Pink Triangle turntable, and the cartridge was a Sao Win strain-gauge model fed directly to the power amplifers. I have found this cartridge to be tonally neutral—in fact, one of the most neutral I've heard—as well as very fast, but lacking the somewhat "zingy" top end of many moving-coils. I used a variety of power amplifiers to audition the speakers, all of them likely candidates (from a cost standpoint) to be used with $300-$500 speakers: the PS Audio 2C-Plus, the VSP Labs 150, a Futterman 0TL, and the B&K ST-140.
The now-classic BBC-licensed LS3/5a has been produced by more different manufacturers through the past 10 years than any other system in the history of audio. It is now being made under license by Spendor, Rogers and Goodmans, all English firms. To my knowledge, only the Rogers and Spendor versions are being imported into the US.
Although the generic LS3/5a has been reviewed many times in many places, I included it in this report to ascertain how, 10 years after its introduction, it stacked up with current designs. It stacks up quite well.
The imaging is still exceptional, with excellent focus across a wide soundstage. Midrange transparency and clarity are still very good by today's standards, and the speaker really excels on vocals. The KEF T27 tweeter does show its age, being somewhat rough and harsh above 5kHz. And the speaker's midbass is still messy—tubby and underdamped. Power handling is very limited; material with heavy bass content cannot be reproduced at above moderate level without bottoming-out the woofers. Many solid-state amps, I have noticed, have a tough time driving these speakers, presumably because of the difficult impedance presented by the complex crossover. Tubes are usually the better choice.
My feeling is that the LS3/5as still badly need a woofer, and are best used as satellites in a biamped system. The problem is that the exaggerated upper bass of the design makes impossible to mate with a subwoofer—unless it were one specifically designed for this speaker.
Used within the limitations noted above, though, these can still be recommended for their middle-range neutrality, clarity and imaging—but they no longer have the field to themselves.