Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a loudspeaker

When all you've ever heard are wooden boxes that shout, it's difficult to recognize their highly accented "voice." Few of us actually notice how miserably distorted all loudspeakers are. Don't believe me? Try listening to a recording of your child's voice, the sounds of rattling keys, or an audience applauding.

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).

715falcon.testing.jpg

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.

715falcon.assembling.jpg

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.

Listening
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.



Footnote 1: See www.stereophile.com/content/praise-classic-bbc-ls35a and www.stereophile.com/standloudspeakers/361/index.html.

Footnote 2: H.D. Harwood, M.E. Whatton, and R.W. Mills, "The Design of the Miniature Monitoring Loudspeaker Type LS3/5A," BBC Research Department Report 1976/29 (October 1976).

Footnote 3: Trevor Butler, "The Little Legend," Hi-Fi News & Record Review, March 1990.

Footnote 4: See "The Unofficial LS3/5A Support Site."

Footnote 5: Ken Kessler, "The Hi-Fi News LS3/5A Shootout," Hi-Fi News, June 2001.

COMPANY INFO
Falcon Acoustics
US distributor: Big Ear Consulting
Ormond Beach, FL
(800) 752-4018
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
dalethorn's picture

I bought the ca. 1975 version after reading Holt's review. I particularly remember the phrase "minimum recommended power 25 watts". He noted that maximum power was also specified as 25 watts. I eventually traded them off, fearing I would blow the little drivers at some point. Not an irrational fear given that the pair the seller loaned me (until a new set came in) had a blown driver.

Edit: If I had the original pair today, I'd put them closer to the wall (maybe 12-15 inches) and EQ down the bass hump, which would lessen my anxiety about over-driving them. Once you hit that sweet spot with these little speakers, they'd be almost like the theoretical point-source, having a terrific soundstage.

LS35A's picture

than any other speaker, by far. Even today it's still a favorite.

If you'd told me in 1975 that in 40 years they'd still be being made I'd have said you were crazy.

But in a small room they are still a really nice speaker.

Venere 2's picture

The staples are a nice touch… Really ugly speaker! As good as they supposedly sound, they look like a 99$ DIY project.

RBrooks's picture

No boxes,No horns,No ribbons,No electrostatics,No distortion.
The author of this article thought rather highly of Siegfried Linkwitz Speakers.
As do Steve Guttenberg and Nelson Pass.
www.linkwitzlab.com

audiocaptain's picture

Just wanted to say a big thank you for doing this review. It is a classic and important piece of Audio History that every music lovers deserves to know about. Great writing - Thanks Again! BEC

dce22's picture

Quote : "They played enjoyably well with all—with one exception. Class-D made these hyper-responsive, 15-ohm speakers sound dry, slightly hard, and more generalized than I like. Class-D amps awoke that napping bass bump and turned the slightly rising treble into a distraction. The LS3/5a has always been an exceptionally amp-friendly speaker, not because it makes mediocre amps sound good, but for quite the opposite reason: The LS3/5a excels at letting you hear exactly what your amp really sounds like."

Translation : "I did not try class d amp on this speaker but this is what i think it will sound"

No class d amps were noted in the associated equipment section, message to Herb you need to tell people what kind of class d amp you were using if you were using one in the first place so people need to stay clear of it.

LS35A's picture

Yes, I also was taken with the implication of 'all class d amplifiers are the same' here. Obviously not true.

supamark's picture

Literally the first component listed under the integrated amps, the Hegel H160, is a class D amp. [flame deleted by John Atkinson]

John Atkinson's picture
supamark wrote:
the first component listed under the integrated amps, the Hegel H160, is a class D amp.

The Hegel doesn't use a class-D output stage. But Herb has been recently using the Rogue Sphinx, which does use Hypex class-D modules.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

jporter's picture

The Magnepan 1.7 is $200 less than this speaker. The Paradigm 15B is $600 less. The PSB Imagine B is $1200 less. Monitor audio has their silver series. All of these sound great and just look so much nicer than the Falcon. I have not heard the Falcon speaker, but those staples are just awful.

audiocaptain's picture

This speaker is made to be played with the grills on. The staples are there to hold the velcro firmly in place and work a great deal better than little plastic nipples or other securing methods. You never see these, ever, in normal use. The image is just to show the original T27 and the B110 drivers.
Although there are other lesser priced speakers they are not authentic classic LS3/5a's.

Venere 2's picture

Authentic, a word that is so elastic that it can be stretched to encapsulate everything that is good and worthy of owning. Even when it is not true.

I did not need to be told the speakers were meant to be played with their grills on, and that the grills would hide the staples. I believe most people picked up on that as well.

And yes, there are lesser priced imitators that claim the lineage of the LS3, and are not truly "classic" and oh so authentic LS3s. But remember, there are also numerous other designs from a myriad number of speaker builders in this price range. Maybe they can't claim the authenticity of nostalgia and the good ole days, but they offer much better build quality, aesthetics, and most importantly great sound.

supamark's picture

[flame deleted by John Atkinson]

This speaker is aimed at a specific, small, market segment (not you obviously, but nothing in Stereophile is). As to build quality, from the photos at least, it looks both exceptional and faithful to the original speaker.

WM's picture

Falcon should be commended for their effort; its one of those rare designs which isn't expensive but has huge 'cred' appeal.. it could easily be in the pages of Wallpaper magazine, if it isn't already

jimsusky's picture

This review arouses no small bit of nostalgia in me. Shimeks Audio (in Anchorage) claimed to have sold more Rogers LS3/5a loudspeakers than anyone else in the world for several years running (so advised, they said, by Rogers). This was undoubtedly a function of the Trans-Alaska-Pipeline construction boom that had started about 1973 (startup was ca. summer 1977). But it was also a function of first-class setup and salesmanship. Terry Shimek could sell the legendary “freezers to Eskimos” (which was not a slur in those much thicker-skinned days).

Shimeks extracted $650 from me as a college student in the Summer of 1978,
which I later discovered was $50-$100 more than stateside retail. Invoking CPI-U we get a 2015/1978 ratio of 3.7 and a current value of $2400 I also dropped $200 (actual retail this time) for the kit version of the Hafler DH100 preamp.

(the SSA informs me I made $1900 that summer – thanks be to Mom who amply subsidized my education, room, board, beer, and audio that year).

By 1978 Shimeks was actively pushing moving coil phono replay with direct-drive turntables, both with stock tonearms and retrofitted with Grace tonearms along with decent solid state electronics (Audio Research and Mark Levinson came a bit later) – their demos with the Rogers monitor were ridiculously compelling – with 3D soundstages that extended well beyond the loudspeakers.

They had a trick which became de rigueur for me – stands with back-tilt. The LS3/5a always imaged well sitting straight up-and-down – but with a 25-degree tilt a good soundstage became cavernous with unparalleled instrumental focus. I was so intoxicated by that effect that I suspect I ignored the tonal-balance tradeoff.

(still I suggest that Herb Reichert give this a try and report back in a Follow Up)

That midrange! Lady singers never sounded so sweet in your living room. That definition! Acoustic guitars were transparently rendered – one could readily hear fingers, picks, nylon, and wound steel. We readily learned microphone techniques – and soon had disdain for mediocre and indifferent production.

Several years later I was lent a fellow student’s uncle’s Bryston 3B and Audio Research SP-3 for only a few hours of alchemical magic with my BBC’s. Rickie Lee Jones was playing when my roommate walked in. He was stunned, stopped dead in his tracks and listened. With astonishment he said “it sounds like she’s in the room!” (thus independent, unsolicited confirmation of electronic wizardry).

Reichert is right – big speakers mostly get in their own way – few of them make that kind of holographic magic.

jimsusky's picture

I always liked the look of the speakers undressed - and dogmatically believed that the grills could not improve the sound.

MGM's picture

I built a pair of these Falcon LS3/5as and would broadly agree with the findings.
They are definitely brighter than my own, but one quickly adjusts to this
characteristic.
The friend I built them for for is extremely happy with them.

Casmar's picture

I have had mine for the past twenty eight years. With all their idiosyncrasies, they were the only constant units in my Hifi for all these years. The most fascinating aspect is how they sing in one room and pale by comparison in another.