July 19, 2005

In This eNewsletter:
• In Praise of a Classic, by John Atkinson
• IAG acquires Mission, by Ken Kessler
• Live8 Sounding (and Looking) Great, by Ken Kessler

In Praise of a Classic, by John Atkinson

If there's one recent article in Stereophile that has generated more reader response than any other, it was Peter Breuninger's review of the classic Fisher 500-C tubed receiver in June. Peter is now working on a review of another classic component from the 1960s, the Bozak B-410 Concert Grand loudspeaker; my involvement in the review, scheduled to appear in the October issue, brought home to me with a vengeance how much the science of speaker design has evolved in the 40 years since this armoire-sized model was introduced.

Such factors as the mathematical modeling of woofer tuning by Neville Thiele and Richard Small, FFT-based testing pioneered by Laurie Fincham of KEF in the 1970s, the introduction of PC-based measurement equipment such as DRA Labs' MLSSA system, and such computerized tools as Finite Element Analysis, as well as great leaps forward in materials science, mean that typical 21st-century speakers such as the Paradigm Signature S2 or the Dynaudio Special 25, which I reviewed in June and July, respectively, are better in almost every way than a typical design from even 20 years ago, let alone 40.

As is my usual practice, around the time I was measuring the Bozak I dragged out my longtime reference speaker, a 1977 sample of a BBC LS3/5a, manufactured by Rogers, to perform a set of acoustic measurements. I do this to ensure that a systematic error has not crept into my speaker measurements. If the LS3/5a continues to measure identically, then I can be sure that nothing has gone wrong with my test gear—microphone, mike preamp, power amplifier, etc.

This latest set of measurements checked out, so I returned the LS3/5a to the closet. But then it struck me: this British speaker will soon celebrate its 30th anniversary, yet in many ways it is still competitive with modern designs. (You can find Stereophile's complete review coverage of the loudspeaker, starting with J. Gordon Holt's March 1977 review and continuing through to my review of the 1993 version manufactured by Harbeth, at www.stereophile.com/budgetcomponents/361.) Yes, there's a touch of nasality in the upper midrange, the treble is less smooth than, say, the Paradigm or Dynaudio, and the upper bass is less well defined than audiophiles now expect from even inexpensive speakers. But when it comes to accuracy and stability of stereo imaging and sheer purity of midrange reproduction, the tiny BBC-designed speaker is still a contender.

How could this be? A touch of history is in order, courtesy the LS3/5a Enthusiasts website:

Back in the early 1970s, the BBC in the UK needed a small location monitor that would provide consistent reproduction in small, suboptimal environments, such as a recording truck. A team led by T. Sommerville and D.E. Shorter, of the BBC's Research Department, developed the LS3/5, based on a small monitor they had designed for acoustic scaling experiments. That monitor used a B110 woofer with a doped Bextrene cone and a T27 SP1032 Mylar-dome tweeter, both sourced from British manufacturer KEF. The speaker showed much promise, but problems with the drive-units led to a detailed redesign carried out by H.D. (Dudley) Harwood of the BBC's Research Department, and Maurice E. Whatton and R.W. Mills of the Designs Department. (I was surprised to learn that one change was to move the tweeter to the top of the baffle.)

The design was licensed to a number of commercial manufacturers: Rogers and Chartwell at first, then Harbeth (formed by Dudley Harwood), Spendor (formed by ex-BBC engineer Spencer Hughes, who had been the chief engineer on the acoustic scaling speaker), Goodmans, and Audiomaster (whose chief engineer, Robin Marshall, had also worked in the BBC's Research Department before going on to form Epos and eventually ending up at Harman). Since then it has seen just two reworkings. The first, in 1988, was to bring the speaker back in line with its original specifications—there had been inevitable drifts in the drive-unit parameters since 1976—and the most recent, as reported by Ken Kessler in our April 2005 e-newsletter, performed by Stirling Broadcast, was because the original KEF drive-units were long out of production. Stirling's v2 LS3/5a costs from $1410/pair to $1542/pair, a far but inevitable cry from the mid-1970s price of 52 pounds each! More than 60,000 pairs of LS3/5as were manufactured up to 1988, 43,000 by Rogers alone.

So why is that almost all speakers from the 1960s and 1970s sound as dated as you'd expect, whereas the LS3/5a remains a competitive design? Perhaps it was the fact that the LS3/5a was intended to be a monitor (though many professional monitors are even more colored than good domestic designs). Perhaps it was the unique assembly of speaker engineering talent at the BBC in the early 1970s, which I don't think has been matched since. Perhaps it was the fact that the design was thoroughly and unusally worked out—a BBC white paper by Harwood, Whatton, and Mills, "The design of the miniature monitoring loudspeaker type LS3/5a," report RD 1976-29, is available at the BBC's website. Perhaps it was just serendipity.

I'd love to hear from readers with their own ideas—e-mail me at STletters@Primediamags.com—but whatever the reason, I thought it worth recognizing the LS3/5a's longevity.

Mark Levinson
Mark Levinson, established in 1972, is a world-renowned manufacturer of the finest stereo and multi-channel electronics. Products range from awe-inspiring monaural power amplifiers to the industry benchmark CD processor. For more information on all Mark Levinson products, please visit www.marklevinson.com.
By Ken Kessler

IAG Acquires Mission, by Ken Kessler

Do you recall a decade or so ago, when music pundits bemoaned the way the major labels were gobbling up the independents? That, by such-and-such a date, there would be only four or five record companies? Well, the moaners were wrong, because despite consolidation we've never had so much good material available: a choice of formats, fantastic availability, and reissue programs we couldn't dream of 20 years ago. And there are still plenty of independent labels. Leaving aside the incalculable impact of the Internet, CD burners, piracy, et al, it now seems inevitable, a by-product of the evolution of any and every industry, that consolidation will occur. Now, at long last, it's hitting in audio. I couldn't be happier.

Why would anyone want this to happen? Look at what consolidation did for cars: it saved Jaguar, Volvo, Lamborghini, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Land Rover/Ranger Rover, Aston-Martin, Bugatti, and Maserati from vanishing. And wristwatches? It's arguable that the entire watch industry would have vanished, leaving nothing but Seiko and Casio, had the Swiss brands not ended up in groups such as Richemont, LVMH, Swatch Group, and so on. They're living proof of strength in numbers, collaboration, economies of scale, and the countless other benefits available under a corporate umbrella. Given the parlous state of quality audio and video manufacturing, it can't come too soon.

In home entertainment, prior to the turn of the millennium, we've had only one serious multi-label group: Harman International, with Harman/Kardon, Infinity, JBL, Revel, Mark Levinson, Lexicon, and others. Slowly but surely, others are appearing. B&W acquired Classé, and now has a "special relationship" with Rotel. D&M Holdings owns Denon, Marantz, McIntosh, and Rio, and recently acquired Boston Acoustics. Richer Sounds, a UK retail chain, owns a bushel of brands, mainly for sale through their own outlets, including TDL, Mordaunt-Short, Cambridge Audio, Audio Innovations, and others.

The latest to up the count is the International Audio Group (IAG), best known for owning Wharfedale and Quad. Last year they acquired what was left of TAG-McLaren Audio, whose assets included the Audiolab brand. This name is to be officially relaunched in September, the new products having been shown in a sneak preview last January at the Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas. As TAG-McLaren Audio hadn't managed to entirely eradicate the good will associated with that much-loved brand, its rebirth as a low-cost alternative to Quad is both sensible and viable. This now gives IAG two complementary electronics brands (they own Leak as well) and two lines of speakers.

On June 28, IAG announced the purchase of "the Mission business from the Administrators of Symphonix Ltd. In a separate transaction, IAG has also purchased the Mission brand name from NXT plc." Quite what they acquired is not yet known, and pundits are wondering why IAG would want Mission when they already have NXT licensing and two lines of speakers that almost exactly duplicate the Mission span. For now, we have to make do with official statements. IAG UK's managing director, Tim Harris, said, "The Mission product portfolio is exceptionally strong and selling well. However, the company has suffered severe, and well-documented financing issues during the past twelve months. This new deal puts Mission on a very strong financial footing, allowing its many successful product ranges to continue in the market. Furthermore, with full access to IAG's considerable manufacturing infrastructure, Mission will now be in an ideal position to pursue—with the utmost vigor—its long-held commitment to technical innovation and product excellence."

IAG, of course, is Chinese-owned, but all product design for the brands is conducted from the UK headquarters in Huntingdon, England. So that's something left for the British. But as is increasingly the norm for brands that wish to remain competitive in the affordable (as opposed to purist/high-end) sector, manufacturing is undertaken in IAG's one-million-square-foot, purpose-built facility in Shenzhen, China. Yes, one million square feet. We're talking huge here.

Instead of bemoaning the "loss of jobs to foreigners"—and it's our fault, not India's nor China's, that we've squandered our manufacturing prowess and competitiveness—we have to look at it another way: These acquisitions provide the muscle for sheer survival. But if you're genuinely more concerned with nationalism than with price, well, most true high-end brands are still, for the most part, made in the countries of their birth. And still independent.

The Linn Unidisk 1.1
How to audition the only product to receive three Stereophile Product Of The Year Awards in 2004!:

Stereophile Joint Product of the Year 2004
Stereophile Digital Source Component 2004
Stereophile Multi-Channel Source Component 2004

To find your nearest Linn dealer for an audition of this remarkable product, email: helpline@linninc.com

Live8 Sounding (and Looking) Great, by Ken Kessler

Now that it's over, we can sit back and recall how amazing were the Who, Joss Stone, the temporarily reunited Pink Floyd, and a goodly percentage of the rest of the artists. Meanwhile, the more cynical among us are still shaking our heads at the unctuous self-congratulations and backslapping, and the moronic politicking by a bunch of na—ve rockers who think they know how to solve Africa's problems. (I didn't hear Bob Geldof & Co. even once blame corrupt dictators and warlords for the continent's plight.) But lost amid the celebrations were a couple of minor technical footnotes that may point to improved broadcasting quality for UK audiences.

Hey, it's my job to alert you to this stuff, and no, I don't put it on a par with eradicating poverty. I just thought you might like to know that, despite a sense that the UK would never, ever enjoy high-definition television, the BBC broadcast Live 8 in HDTV as a controlled demonstration. Apparently, the crowds gathered at the BBC's "Big Screen" near Cardiff Castle were able to enjoy the coverage in hi-def on a 17' screen. The trial relay featured 1080 lines and 50 interlaced frames per second, with a display screen of 1920x1080 pixels.

John Varney, the BBC's Chief Technology Officer, said, "This is a great opportunity for the BBC to test its delivery of HDTV at a big public event. Who knows? It may prove to be the shape of things to come." As the BBC "intends for all of its programming to be produced to HDTV standard by 2010," and there are rumors that Sky will be broadcasting HDTV in 2006–2007, maybe the British will catch up with the Americans and the Japanese. (While cable TV dominates in the US, satellite TV is the predominant medium in the UK.)

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