The Fifth Element #51
Stereophile reviewed the BBC's 1977 version of the LS3/5a in March of that year. The directory at the bottom of the webpage devoted to that review provides links to coverage of later self-proclaimed LS3/5a incarnations, but not to speakers such as Harbeth's HL-3PES-2, which, although designed as drop-in replacements for BBC-spec LS3/5as in professional use, significantly departed from the original design. Harbeth importer Walter Swanbon of Fidelis AV kindly lent me a broken-in pair of HL-3PES-2s ($1850/pair) for comparison with the Gini Systems minimonitor. (My take on the HL-3PES-2 can be read here, and John Atkinson's Follow-Up here.)
Gini System's LS3/5a homage comes at two very attractive prices: $490/pair in kit form, $560/pair assembled. It's obvious that a lot of hard work and care have gone into it; the vibe I get from this product is one of Gini's admiration for, even veneration of the LS3/5a. Rather than a cynical exploitation of the BBC's heritage, it seems to be a sincere attempt to make the LS3/5a's virtues available at lowest cost.
I requested that my evaluation pair come already assembled and broken in, but the speakers were nonetheless accompanied by a copy of the assembly instructions, which appear nearly foolproof. These instructions and the owner's manual are clearly written and well laid out. Those who buy the kit receive with it all necessary tools (no soldering required). The speakers come two in one box, in cloth bags, and securely packed in compliant, noncrumbly foam. Good show, as far as that stuff goes. However, all was not beer and skittles.
The cabinet is clad in high-gloss real walnut veneer on all sides except the front baffle, which is in the traditional BBC livery of black panel with tweeter surrounds of black felt. The brown fabric grille is a faithful copy of the original. The gold-plastic Gini logo, however, seems larger than most of the other LS3/5a badges I've seen. Binding posts are for single wiring, and are substantialómore so than on the original. The Gini design apparently departs from the BBC original by not including transformers in the crossover circuit, hence my placement of "LS3/5a" in scare quotes.
The good news is that, for remarkably little money, Gini's homage approximates the old LS3/5a sound. The so-so news is that, at least for my ears and listening environment, the Gini replicates the old speaker's vices as much as its virtuesand then some, perhaps. I don't think the Gini fares all that well in direct comparison with speakers made in the spirit of the LS3/5a but which have "moved on" regarding driver selection and crossover circuitry (and which, of course, cost far more).
I first heard LS3/5as in Nashville in 1979I believe they were the Chartwell version. I was bowled over by their incisive clarity and punchiness. However, there's a wonderful French expression: une fausse idée claire. A word-for-word translation does not do it justice, though "a deceptively clear idea" is a good try. Part of the original LS3/5a's projection of impressive clarity was the result of its lack of complete accuracy: it favored frequencies that convey "intelligibility" information over those frequencies that convey power and heft. While the various incarnations of the LS3/5a always had an arrestingly natural lower midrange, the upper midrange could be nasal, the treble a bit tizzy, and the upper bass had a designed-in boost: the "BBC hump." Ongoing design revisions authorized by the BBC helped put things back on track, to a degree. But some time ago, two of the original BBC licensees, Spendor and Harbeth, dropped the pretense of continuing to make "real" LS3/5as, and today offer substantially evolved, quite different-sounding designs as drop-in functional equivalents.
I did nearly all of my listening with Carat's class-leading I57 CD receiver ($1995) and Cardas Neutral Reference speaker cables, and with the Ginis' grilles installed. I began, as I usually do, with the electric-bass channel-ID and phasing tests found on tracks 1 and 2 of Stereophile's Test CD 2. On Richard Lehnert's spoken introductions, the Ginis showed a noticeable chest resonance and more than a bit of excess sibilance. It also appeared that one speaker's terminals were wired in reverse. At the time, I didn't think that very significant, given that the importer had assembled the kits as a courtesy to me. However, my mistake was in not investigating beyond the electric-bass channel-ID and phasing tests. I should have checked each speaker alone with pink noise, and then with the midrange and treble frequency sweeps. Mea culpa. Swapping the speaker cables from hot to cold corrected the woofer, but then put that speaker's tweeter in improper phase, as JA discovered when he measured the Ginis (see "Measurements" sidebar).
So the Gini LS3/5as had to come back for a relisten after John had snipped and swapped the internal leads from the crossover to the woofer. (JA had e-mailed me his graphs to show the woofer inversion, but I deliberately did not make a detailed study of the test results lest they influence my listening.) The biggest change I noticed on setting up the rewired Ginis was that the "BBC hump" was now more noticeablenot at all what I would have expected. Belatedly listening to pink noise through the Ginis, I found that the transition from woofer to tweeter was noticeable: there seemed to be separate sound sources for the higher and lower components of the pink noise.
The string bass on Time for Love: The Best of Julie London (CD, Rhino R2 70737) was a bit lumpy and bumpy compared with how it sounds through Eminent Technology's LFT-16>, whereas on Bill Berry and the Ellington All-Stars' For Duke (CD, M+K Realtime RT1001), the Gini's absence of deep-bass extension was obviousagain, compared with the LFT-16 (footnote 1). On Jim Hall's Concierto (SACD, CTI/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDSACD 2012) there was a decidedly uncomfortable emphasis of the cymbals on "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." (NB: The Carat I57 is the mellowest of the four CD receivers I have on hand at the moment, and the Cardas speaker cables are anything but tipped-up in the treble.) The Gini fared better with Donald Fagen's The Nightfly (CD, Warner Bros. 23696-2), with some, but not too much, of the "typical" small-monitor incisiveness. But the treble was still perceptible as such and, overall, borderline fatiguing to listen to, depending on the recording.
The irony of this is that I cheerfully admit that the things I'm being picky about now are probably the same things I'd be less than thrilled about if I had a 1979 pair of Chartwell LS3/5as here. Perhaps Gini Systems' mistake was in making too faithful a copy of the earliest original LS3/5a. I think it might be the result of the Gini's having been built to meet an unrealistically low price. It could be that increasing the retail price per pair by $100 or $200 would permit the use of a more refined tweeter.
When I switched from the Ginis to the Harbeth HL-3PES-2s, I immediately relaxed. This was really more like it: The Harbeth's treble was sweeter and smoother, its midrange both fuller and more detailed. Its bass was crisper and deeper. It was, overall, a more "composed" presentation, and so easier to listen to. But for more than three times the price, the Harbeth should be easier to listen to. (For what it's worth, the Harbeth weighs noticeably more than the Gini.)
During the forthing and backing arrived Arcam's Solo Mini, a half-rack-width, half-price, half-power ($999, 25Wpc) version of the category-establishing Arcam Solo Music CD receiver. I had a brief listen with the rewired Ginis; the sound was presentable and workmanlike, but with no hint of magic, no shock of recognition. I think the Solo Mini would work better with a speaker without the Gini's emphasis on intelligibility, and that the Gini needs somewhat euphonic electronics. I liked the Gini more after the wiring error had been corrected, not hugely, but enough to bump my overall estimation of it up at least a notch.
Despite my concerns about the GINI LS3/5a's somewhat hot treble and overemphasis in the "intelligibility" (or "presence") band, I found it capable of delivering an engaging, pleasant musical experience. Taking price into account, it's a huge bargainif its sound appeals to you. My recommendation, then, is a qualified one: If your system is more synergistic with the GINI LS3/5a's virtues than with its vices, and the vintage LS3/5a sound is what you're after, this speaker should make you quite happy. (GINI also offers, at $630/pair, a combination woofer-stand to make their or anyone's LS3/5a into a three-way speaker.)
The other half of my bottom line is a reconfirmation that, as much as I truly love what Harbeth's HL-3PES-2 does right, its lack of deep bass makes it a somewhat iffy proposition for fans of classical music with great dynamic range and bass (lute sounds heavenly, of course; as does chamber choir)or, for that matter, rock. Or jazz: the Harbeth's bass on For Duke lacked just enough weight to be a bit frustrating, and ultimately disappointing. But to get the HL-3PES-2's refined listenability plus greater dynamic and bass capability (eg, Harbeth's own Compact 7 ES-3, $3495/pair), you're moving outside the budget or bargain aisles. So the search must continue.
Fried's Compact 7 revisited
In my October column, I "non-recommended" Fried Products Corporation's Compact 7 loudspeaker ($1795/pair) because of an obvious hollow-clapping coloration in the pair the manufacturer submitted for evaluation. John Atkinson's measurements (October, pp.184185) confirmed what I had heard: the frequency-response graph of the original samples of the Compact 7 is the worst-looking I can remember in more than 30 years of reading Stereophile.
I expect that controversialists may have second-guessed my decision, once I heard that coloration, not to immediately halt the review process and contact Fried. (I write this before the October issue has been published and any reader comments received.) There were two reasons I went forward with the review. First, the two Compact 7s sounded (and measured) identically, so I ruled out shipping damage. Second, a statement on Fried's website"Loudspeaker design and performance has little to do with producing a flat frequency response"indicated to me that what I was hearing was intentional. The sound wasn't flat-out horrible, just sufficiently flawed to be uncompetitive. I also, later, thought that if the speaker were to be measured either from farther away or on a different axis, the midrange cancellation might not look so bad on a graph.
Fried Products responded to the preprint of my column by suggesting first that the woofer and tweeter were internally miswired with respect to each other, and then that the wrong crossover might have been used. Fried says they were changing over from a (yellow) woven-fiber woofer to a (black) treated-paper woofer, and an old pair of completed speakers from inventory had been retrofitted, but, as it turned out, with both woofers of the pair connected in incorrect polarity. The resultant acoustical cancellation in the crossover region caused the extensive midrange trough visible in the frequency-response graph.
JA agreed to measure another pair of Fried Compact 7s, and I agreed to listen to them. He and I thought it best that I not see the new measurementssee Follow-Up in this issueuntil I had filed my column. The new speakers were indeed new, not rebuilds of the first samples, and were clad in handsome bookmatched maple veneer with a clear gloss finish. (See my October column for a refresher on the nuts and bolts of the Compact 7.)
I started listening with Carat's I57 CD receiver, Cardas Neutral Reference speaker cables, and a GutWire B-16 power cord. The Compact 7s were positioned 28" above the floor, as recommended by Fried, with their grilles off.
Footnote 1: After all these years, I have finally been able to place the brief quotation beginning at 2:36 in "Take the 'A' Train": It's from "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered," and a very elegant job of molding the latter's melody to the former's rhythm it is!