Listening #199: Falcon & Graham LS3/5A Page 2

A few more details: The tweeter domes of my samples of the Graham LS3/5a's, each protected by a removable metal grille in the shape of a cappello saturno, appeared to be fabric rather than Mylar—a substitution Paul Graham later confirmed with the explanation that the original Mylar domes were "very inconsistent in response and sensitivity."

For their part, the Falcon LS3/5a's also have black-painted front baffles with full felt and Velcro; the enclosure's remaining surfaces, including the glued-in rear panels, are veneered. (As nicely finished as the two Graham speakers were, the yew veneer of my Falcon samples was the prettiest of the three.) The Falcons' midwoofer cones and fabric dustcaps had more coating than the Graham LS3/5's but less than that company's LS3/5a's, and very pliant surrounds. The tweeter domes are Mylar, protected by removable metal grilles that seem very slightly thinner than those used by Graham.

A final note: The two LS3/5a's were identical in their cabinet dimensions. The Graham LS3/5's, however, were a quarter-inch shorter and a quarter-inch narrower—although on the Graham website the two models are specified as having identical dimensions. Go figure.

After a few days of happily unregimented listening, during which I fine-tuned the speaker locations, I began my more focused listening with a 16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC file of "Things behind the Sun," a sonically simple (if emotionally very complex) voice-and-guitar number from Nick Drake's Pink Moon, streamed from Tidal. Through the Graham LS3/5a's, that fingerpicked steel-string guitar—interestingly, this is one of very few Drake songs played in standard tuning—came across with remarkably good physicality: Like Drake's voice, that instrument was right there, between the speakers, sounding for all the world like a Martin D-28 with strings that were perhaps less than new (footnote 3). Drake's voice was reproduced without apparent colorations, his characteristically drawn-out sibilants conveyed in a manner I've come to regard as correct—likewise the manner in which he holds back on his plosives. Drake's sustained vocal tones were appropriately rich and dark: Though tonally neutral, these LS3/5a's didn't stint on color.

The same album's "Parasite" sounded similarly good—intimate, engaging, almost hypnotic—although here it seemed that a different mike or perhaps EQ curve was used on Drake's voice. (I suppose it's up to the individual listener whether such revelations are blessings or curses of LS3/5a ownership.) As a bonus, the Grahams sounded good when listened to from an off-center seat: For whatever reason, Drake's guitar sounded no less substantial when heard that way.

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I then tried the same Nick Drake tracks with the Falcon LS3/5a's—and the sound was noticeably different. Through the Falcons the recorded sound as a whole was considerably more open; not only were the voice and guitar even more present, their textures more apparent, but the acoustic space around those elements was wider and taller, and altogether more audible, than through the Grahams. That the Falcons delivered more treble-range content was apparent after matching the system's loudness through the two different speakers: The 15-ohm Falcons played a little more quietly than the 11-ohm Grahams at the same volume-knob position.

Through the Falcons, Nick Drake's vocal sibilants were a little more prominent than through the Grahams—still within the range of believability/acceptability, if just—and the differences between the vocal sounds on "Things Behind the Sun" and "Parasite" were even more audible.

The first word that came to mind when listening to these Nick Drake tracks through the Graham LS3/5's was "smooth." There was still good musical flow and very good sonic presence, but there was now less emphasis on the attack components of notes: Vocal sibilants weren't as audible as through the Graham LS3/5a's. Listeners with ping-y or overbright rooms might benefit from that sort of presentation, but I admit to being less won over. For better or for worse, there was no doubting: The LS3/5's seemed less like monitors than the Graham LS3/5a's—and considerably less so than the Falcon LS3/5a's.

Do you need a vowel?
Hoping to hear what these very small speakers could do with very large music, I turned to the Georg Solti/London Symphony Orchestra recording of Mahler's Symphony 2 (FLAC, 16-bit/44.1kHz)—and was honestly shocked at how good it sounded through the Graham LS3/5a's. Dynamically, the cellos and double basses in the first movement were surprisingly strong, but that was nothing compared to the impact and apparent bass extension heard from the kettledrums that open the third movement: It seemed to me the Graham LS3/5a's were so cannily balanced in their top-to-bottom response that the illusion of bass depth held sway over all—but the sense of power I heard from this combination of the 18Wpc amp and 83dB-sensitive speakers was no illusion. Beyond that, the combination simply sang: musical flow and momentum were superb throughout—and, as happens all too rarely in this job, what started out to be a brief listening session for purposes of reviewing turned into one in which I was compelled to listen to this longish piece all the way through.

That would happen all over again when I switched the Graham LS3/5a's for the Falcons. Here was more audible air/hall sound around the strings in the opening of the first movement and more audible texture in the sounds of those instruments. The sense of melodic flow in that movement wasn't quite as strong as I heard through the Graham LS3/5a's, which seemed slightly more compelling, but the kettledrums that open the scherzo were every bit as tactile through the Falcons—and likewise the many plucked notes from the strings. And the manner in which the drums' intensity builds slightly in the opening of the final movement was put across nicely by the Falcons, which continued to distinguish themselves as the more sonically insightful.

The Graham LS3/5's were every bit as dynamically accomplished as the other two minimonitors, although they didn't rise to the Falcons' ability to convey the taut, tactile qualities of timpani, or the attack and decay components of plucked notes. But the LS3/5's came across as the richest sounding of the three, sounding especially lovely on massed cellos, and lending good tonal foundation to the vocal soloists and choir in the last movement.

As my time with these loudspeakers stretched on, I made an effort to change up the order in which I auditioned them with various tracks—always a good idea when comparing the sounds of different products. Martha Argerich's performance of Ravel's "Jeux d'eau," from the Deutsche Grammophon album Debut Recital (FLAC. 16-bit/44.1kHz), is characterized by both a sense of wonder and an un-self-conscious virtuosity, and the Falcon LS3/5a's got that across handily—that and, again, a generous helping of the sound of the space in which the recording was made. That track also sounded lovely through both the Graham LS3/5's and LS3/5a's, neither of which sounded as open as the Falcons, yet both of which played the music with a more convincing sense of momentum, in spite of note attacks that sounded less crisp—and here the LS3/5's shone by delivering the richest timbral colors of all.

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And in spite of the Graham LS3/5a's having the most powerful-sounding bass on the Solti Mahler recording, it was the LS3/5's that made Ray Brown's double bass sound the most convincing on "I'm an Old Cow Hand" from Sonny Rollins's Way Out West (LP, Contemporary/OJC S7530). That instrument sounded taut and full, with exceptional pitch definition and no-less-exceptional momentum: Through the LS3/5's, it was easy to hear and feel Brown leaning into the notes.

That said, the spatial presence of the performers was more impressive through the Graham LS3/5a's—a challenge, in any event, given the shortage of center fill in this record's very odd stereo mix. More importantly, there was more swing here than through the LS3/5's—more rhythmic vitality in Sonny's sax lines as well as from the bass and drums. And somebody's grunting became apparent through the Graham LS3/5a's, whereas the LS3/5's buried it. The Falcon LS3/5a's also got the grunting—and turned in a lively, stirring, and musically compelling performance overall, although Ray Brown's bass sounded deeper through both of the Grahams.

Incidentally, before ending my time with the Grahams and the Falcons, I spent part of one afternoon carting my Shindo separates into the living room to see how well they'd perform with these electrically insensitive yet nonetheless drivable—in terms of their impedance characteristics—loudspeakers. Driven by my 20Wpc, feedback-free Shindo Haut-Brion power amplifier, the Falcon LS3/5a's sounded engagingly colorful but lacking in snap: music sounded good, but never magical.

In fact, my experiences using the Haut-Brion to drive the Graham LS3/5a's confounded my expectations: In spite of the Falcons' higher nominal impedance, the Grahams responded better to tubes—still not quite Heaven, but a step closer to it. And when driven by the Shindo electronics, the Grahams began to hint at the Falcons' abilities to reproduce air and ambience around instruments and voices.

At the end of the day, Graham Audio's Chartwell LS3/5a was my favorite of these three seriously good, BBC-designed minimonitors. As much as I admired the greater openness and air of the Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a, and as impressed as I was by the surprisingly rich, colorful bass of Graham's Chartwell LS3/5—not to mention the sheer coolosity of hearing, for the first time, a historically important BBC design that has languished in obscurity for over 40 years—it was the newest LS3/5a that gave me the most consistent listening pleasure. Indeed, I was all but shocked, not just by its considerable dynamic aplomb, but by this LS3/5a's ability to play music with natural momentum and flow, and to deliver natural, colorful, well-balanced sound—and by its compatibility (too mild a word!) with the Naim NAIT 2. (Surely there are other amps that can do the job as well; just as surely, there'll be at least one or two that won't break the bank.)

Of course, the 800-lb gorilla in the room is the fact that none of these three speakers are 800-lb gorillas. None delivered the easy impact of a real brush on a real snare drum, or the hard-to-describe physicality of plucked notes from a dozen or more violins. And none came close to reproducing fundamentals lower than 70 or 80Hz. From speakers this small (and relatively affordable), such things simply can't be had—and 35 years of writing about audio tells me we're all better off when people don't even try. It seems to me that what Graham Audio and Falcon Acoustics have done is to bring perfection to what can be accomplished by very small monitors—enough that, for much of the time, I don't miss the things that can't.

I enjoyed my time with all three speakers, but if push came to shove, the Graham Chartwell LS3/5a is something I could live with.


Footnote 3: Contrary to popular belief, Drake never owned a Guild guitar, as suggested by the cover photo on Bryter Later: That guitar was owned by the photographer, used as a prop.
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
wellington12's picture

Great review of the 3 newest examples of the old
BBC monitors. I would like to know if you have any experience
with the Harbeth 3pers and how they compare to these three.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Oddly enough, my thought as I opened up the Stereophile website---"they're gonna review the LS3/5a again, I'll bet."

Had a pair for a moment in the late 1980's. One of the nicest systems I've heard had vintage 3/5a's driven by the Dynaco Pas 3/Dyna 70 combo with an AR XA as a source. Owned by a lute player. They know how to tune things.

doug beechwood's picture

Is there a problem with captioning (and crediting) photos in these articles?
This article was a slog with the slight variations in models numbers and the different manufacturers.
Take the opening photo...please. What are we looking at?

Ortofan's picture

... listening to music in a typical small college dorm room today as they were a few decades ago. Back then, an Advent receiver was an excellent match.
https://www.stereophile.com/content/advent-300-receiver

It seems unlikely that most college students shopping for an audio system would end up using these speakers partnered by an obsolete amplifier and a half-century old turntable equipped with a tonearm of obscure origin fitted with a $2K moving-coil cartridge.

AD's review might have had a bit more relevance if he had evaluated the speakers with more contemporary and readily available equipment - for example, an NAD C316BEE V2 integrated amp and (to maintain a vintage aesthetic) a Pro-Ject Classic turntable.
https://nadelectronics.com/product/c-316bee-v2-stereo-integrated-amplifier/
https://www.project-audio.com/en/product/the-classic/

Bogolu Haranath's picture

AD has Hegel CD player ......... May be AD could review the Hegel Reference H590 integrated amp/DAC? :-) ........

AD mentioned about it in one of his show reports :-) ..........

Indydan's picture

I believe you mean Hegel.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Thanks ........ I made the correction :-) ........

RH's picture

I enjoyed Art's review of another LS3/5 variant. And it's a very timely read for me, as I've recently been enjoying my Spendor S-3/5s.

I bought the Spendors in 2002 to flank our TV screen as TV speakers (Plasmas in those days were just monitors). I had other big speakers in my main 2 channel system. The Spendors always amazed me in how natural they sounded with voices, how smooth, and they imaged so well that no matter where we sat the phantom image seemed centered right on the TV screen - no need for a center channel!

Occasionally over the years I've taken them out and put them in the "big rig" to check out and they amazed me every time. It had been many years since I did this and got around to it again a couple weeks ago. I have them well out in the room on stands, about 6-7 feet from the listening sofa. Once again...holy cow! It's just unbelievable how these little speakers weave together so many attributes in one pair of speakers: so warm, so rich, organic, incredibly spacious yet precise in imaging with dense, weighty (though smallish) instrument/voice images. And the tone just seems so "right" for voices, acoustic guitars, snare drums, woodwinds...hell just about everything.

But of all things...voices! The way they recreate the softness and richness of a human being singing, and the sense of projection. Beyond obvious single-singer vocal tracks, even in tons of tracks with backing vocals I've heard a million times I keep getting surprised by the sense of "people" suddenly showing up in the mix, singing to me. How these things dig the human element out of even some artificial mixes is a happy mystery.

I'm completely beguiled by these things and they haven't left my big system since I set them up!

(Powered by CJ Premier 12s/CJ Premier 16LS2 preamp, running vinyl and streaming digital FWIW...)

I totally get why this speaker design is a mythical as it is.

I've never heard any of the other variants of the LS3/5 save, very briefly, the Harbeth version (which was excellent). I hope to encounter others! Art did a really nice job getting across the sonic differences in his comparison.

SpinMark3313's picture

SE's in my living room set up driven by a restored Mac 240. Lovely.
Bought them years ago, lost them to a runaway Adcom 555, then a very gracious dealer sold me a pair at cost when he saw how crestfallen I was at having totaled pair 1.
Lovely speaker though my curiosity for a purebred LS3/5a pair is hard to fight off - especially with all the recent press from Herb, Art, and others.

heath_robert's picture

I can't believe the reviewer forgot the JR-149. One of the LS3/5a's
BBC developers named Jim Rogers went on to create a new version with the original drivers, but housed in an aluminum cylinder. This speaker's heyday was in the late 70s, imported into the U.S by Paul Heath Audio (Dad) in Rochester, N.Y. Many listeners thought the JR had better bass and imaging among other qualities on direct A-B comparison with the original. Just thought I'd throw this into the mix.

saxman73's picture

The JR-149 are my main speakers. I think they are pretty great for something this size. I use them for critical assessment when recording. I use a Townshend Allegri passive preamp and a Citation II.

Jerome Sabbagh

PAR's picture

..yes the JR-149 was a nice speaker. I have a friend with a pair but I would imagine that the elapse of time has wrought the same decline to all pieces where the reticulated foam grilles have fallen apart due to their sensitivity to UV light. So any 149 found now is likely just to have the metal grille that was originally the support for the foam.

Jim Rogers was not a BBC employee and not, AFAIK, involved in the development of the LS3/5. At the time of its development by the BBC Research Department JR had been running his independent audio company, Rogers, for years. He (or, rather, his company) was, however, one of the earliest manufacturers of the model in quantity for implementation at the BBC and was, therefore, one of the first licensees of the design.

By the time of the JR-149 Jim Rogers was no longer associated with the company bearing his name.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Almost all of the BBC type of monitors have nicely engineered 'BBC dip' in the presence region ....... So, less irritation :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Search for 'BBC dip' ........ PS Audio has a video posted online explaining 'BBC dip' :-) ..........

tnargs's picture

Bogolu Haranath's picture

I posted my comments in response to tnargs' comments couple of days ago ..... Somehow, my comments disappeared ........ So, I will try to post them again :-) ...........

If the midrange driver cone diameter is 5" or less, a smaller diameter voice coil can be used ....... In that case, the driver cone break-up doesn't start to happen till about 4 to 6 KHz ....... Most of the modern cones are designed that way ........ In that case, the tweeters can be crossed over at around 2 to 3 KHz ........
There may not be a need for the 'BBC dip' :-) .........

Vandersteen Audio has a video posted on their website about cone break-up :-) ..........

BBC monitors of the 70's probably had larger diameter voice coils for the mid/woofers ......... So, they were advocating for the 'BBC dip' in the presence region :-) ..........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Some speakers use a 'filler driver' between the midrange and the tweeter to avoid the cone break-up problems ..... Some examples are Revel Ultima Salon2, Vandersteen models and Vivid Audio models ........ Vivid Audio uses a larger diameter dome between the midrange and the tweeter as a 'filler driver' ......... Stereophile has reviewed and measured several of the above models :-) ..........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Some speakers still use the 'BBC dip' ......... For example ....... Look at the frequency response measurements of DeVore GibbonX, in Stereophile ........ Also, look at the frequency response measurements of the recently reviewed Wilson Audio Sasha DAW and Dali Callisto 6-C. in Hi-Fi News :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Some speakers like the KEF, Elac, TAD etc. use co-axial drivers ....... The midrange cones in these co-axial drivers are 4 or 5 inches, or less in diameter ........ So, theoretically these cones should not have problems with cone break-up when crossed over with the tweeters :-) ..........

Doctor Fine's picture

Art they only sound small when used the wrong way.
In a seriously small room two to three feet from your ears they sound HUGE.
That is actually what they were designed for.
Not carrying a big room at midfield distances!

Anton's picture

Kudos for the joy you created reading the review.

The only thing missing is price per pound!

I forget who used to talk about amps that way. It made its point about construction and transformers in a charming way.

The Graham Chartwell LS3/5a weighs 11 2/3 pounds. I don't know how I'd work that into the discussion.

Thanks again for a totally fun read.

dial's picture

The LS 3/5 A were my main inspiration to build a pair of monitors (28 X 18 X 19) but I wanted 91 dB/W/m or so and some bass (so vented enclosure, of course). I used a Davis 13 cm and an Audax tweeter.

musicisthecure's picture

I lent Art my Nait 2 for the review. I don't know Art personally but I can tell you behind the scenes he was first class. A real gentleman. That amp is quite special to me - it was hard to find a chrome bumper version in such good condition and I put a bunch of money into it with the AV Options Ultimate Nait 2 treatment - so thank you Art for taking such good care of it! Coincidentally, it was partly because of Art's review of the olive Ultimate Nait 2 a while back that I decided to have the treatment done.

While the amp was away I started to wonder if it was really as good as I remembered it to be. When it came back I put on Horowitz at Home (through Rega Apollo/Chord Qutest/Naim Allaes) as background music while I worked. Well, I couldn't work. It's simply stunning. I have found the Nait 2 also has great synergy with ProAc Tablette 10s, which I use in my office.

From reading Art's review of the Falcon and Graham LS35/As it seems there is great synergy with those speakers as well. Even though I have been using vintage Naim gear for a while I have never gotten around to trying BBC monitors. It's probably time to change that. It's refreshing to see that some companies are still making the classic designs.

Apparently some of these old designs, whether amps or speakers, are considered "obsolete" for some reason. Maybe it's simply because they have been around a long time. I don't know. In any event there is nothing obsolete about reaching the Omega Point. That's why Nait2s have been appreciating in value and I presume that's also why LS35/As are still being made.

Thank you Art for doing something different and highlighting these speakers.

Jack L's picture

Hi

Some 40 years back when I first owned my KEF Celeste II, a 2-way bookshelver with KEF then famous unique B139 flat cone woofer & T27 dome tweeter. I never like its T27 dome tweeter which kept ringing like crazy in mid-hi frequencies.

So I replaced the T27 tweeter with SEAS 87H 1.5" soft-fabric dome tweeter, which incidentally got similar LF roll-off curve of T27.
Yet this Danish tweeter sounds so so much smoother & more balanced without ringing than the KEF T27. I love its sound since day one.

To make my vintage KEF sound even much better, I rebuilt it on a large fiber-glass PCB, replacing the cheapie tiny electrolytic capacitors with large non-polar polypropylene metal film capacitors. I also converted its origin single-wiring design into bi-wiring !!!

Wow, I virtually resurrected my vintage KEF from earth to its music Nirvana !

Listening is believing

Jack L
Canada

spkrz's picture

I think that the trademark owner is not necessarily the same as the brand using it.

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