The Fifth Element #12 Page 2

You will be shocked—shocked—to learn that the Monitor 40's dimensions are not likely to change soon—or ever, in fact. That is because Harbeth's Monitor 40 was engineered as a drop-in replacement for two horses' fannies.

Strike that.

The Monitor 40 was engineered as a drop-in replacement for the British Broadcasting Corporation-standard LS5/8 recording studio and broadcast monitor. "BBC-standard monitor" is a phrase that can make true believers stand up and begin singing "God Save the Queen." I understand why.

I still recall—almost as clearly as if it were yesterday—the first time I heard the BBC-designed LS3/5A, the shoebox-sized (12" by 7" by 7") smallest of the clan. It was at Nicholson's, in Nashville, Tennessee, in spring 1979. For the first time, I heard from a box loudspeaker the clarity and speed I had previously heard only from panels. The punchiness of the sound was a revelation as well. I even recall the first cut I heard: an RCA LP of a Fasch trumpet concerto played by Maurice André. McIntosh electronics, if I recall correctly.

The LS3/5A was then priced at $695/pair, at a time when the completely serviceable I.M. Fried Q was $250/pair. To put those figures in a wider perspective, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average was then hovering around 825. Seriously. The LS3/5A's 1979 price of $695/pair would be $1699 in today's dollars. Harbeth's current LS3/5A drop-in substitute is the Monitor 20. Its consumer version, the HL P3ES, is $1129/pair. Good show!

Back then, I had a bad case of acquisitive lust for a pair of LS3/5As, but could not afford them. In retrospect, perhaps if I'd bought them, I might have kept them instead of spending years on the "upgrade" merry-go-round. But probably not. Minimonitors that were developed to keep track of what news broadcasters were saying just can't do justice to Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem, let alone Janácek's Glagolitic Mass.

The BBC minimonitor came about almost by accident. The BBC's research department had for many years carried on a program of basic research in acoustical phenomena. One of their research tools (it continues to be used today) is the three-dimensional scale modeling of architectural spaces. Constructing a 1"-to-1' or even one-eighth-scale model of a room or performance space allows you to make "real" acoustical measurements—as distinct from computational predictions—of the influence of varying room dimensions, shapes, and surface materials.

But, of course, accurate scale-model acoustical simulation of a real space requires that the wavelengths of the sounds being generated and measured be scaled proportionally to the model. Shorter wavelengths mean higher frequencies. For example, using an inch-scale model to predict room behavior in response to middle C (about 262Hz) would require a highly accurate sound source at 3144Hz. Concert A (440Hz) requires accurate reproduction of 5280Hz, and so on.

By the mid-1970s, the BBC had developed a test loudspeaker small enough to fit inside an architectural scale model, and with frequency response accurate and extended enough to model far lower frequencies. I have always wondered whether, in the interest of complete accuracy, they peopled the architectural scale models with Weeble-sized figures, the women wearing furs and the men looking bored. (There do exist data and formulae with which to predict the acoustical effects of an audience's being present.)

As fate would have it, a curious soul wondered how the speaker might sound outside of the scale model, playing music rather than test tones. The results were sufficiently memorable that when the Outside Broadcast engineering department asked the Research Department to design a small nearfield monitor speaker to be used in remote radio and television broadcast vans when headphones might be impractical, "Ah-ha," if not "Eureka!," was in the air. The prototypes were ready within a week, and the rest is history. It has been estimated that more than 79,000 pairs of LS3/5As were built under official BBC license (production ended in 1998). Who can guess how many knockoffs, clones, and wannabes have been sold?

However, it also must be firmly borne in mind that the BBC intended production LS3/5As for broadcast-content quality control on speech, not as a music balance monitor (footnote 4). For music monitoring, the BBC developed the medium-sized (18" by 11" by 11") BBC LS5/9 and the large LS5/8. The Monitor 40 is Harbeth's LS5/8 for today (footnote 5).

A fascinating book could be written—I hope someone gets going on it soon—about the contributions the BBC made to audio engineering in general and home playback in particular. I have tremendous respect for the dedication and integrity with which those people carried out their tasks.

One remarkable aspect of the BBC's research program was that the BBC licensed out all speaker manufacturing to private companies. One such company, Harbeth, was founded in 1977 by former BBC engineer H.D. (Dudley) Harwood and his wife. Harwood, M.E. Whatton, and R.W. Mills share the credit for the finished design of the LS3/5A (BBC Research Department report number RD 1976/29, October 1976, available for download as a pdf).

Footnote 4: You can get the BBC World Service News on RealAudio through your Web browser.

Footnote 5: "LS" is the BBC's equipment designation for "loudspeaker." The number to the left of the slash designates intended use, "3" being Outside Broadcast and "5" being Studio. The number to the right of the slash designates the model (chronologically, and not by size), while the "A" designates a revision. [To confound typesetters, the "A" is in upper case but subscript—Ed.]