Graham Audio LS3/5 and LS3/5A with SUB3 – Part 1/2
Review sample supplied by Hexagon Audio
Retail prices in the NL, per pair, including 21% VAT:
LS3/5 or LS3/5A:
-Cherry or Oak finish: 2.400 euro
-Rosenut or Walnut (as reviewed) finish: 2.600 euro
-Ebony finish: 2.800 euro (as reviewed)
SUB3 in Cherry (as reviewed) or Black finish: 2.600 euro
The history of the “A”
The LS3/5A a world-famous mini-monitor that is loved by many. But what not many may know is that this was not actually the first incarnation of the model.
The BBC needed a small monitor suitable for critical assessment of program quality in cramped vehicles and control rooms, and nothing suitable was available commercially. At that time, as a separate project, the broadcast company had developed a miniature loudspeaker that could be adapted for monitoring use. Ultimately, this produced the original LS3/5. Note the missing “A”!
After 20 units were built and it was decided to build another batch, it became apparent that KEF had altered both drive units sufficiently to affect the way the loudspeaker measured and sounded. As a result, significant re-engineering work had to be done by the BBC’s Design Department. This produced such a significant deviation from the original model that it was decided to add the A suffix. The new B110 bass driver needed to be decoupled from the baffle in order to prevent interaction with the cabinet and when fed from the existing crossover, the new HF unit exhibited significant coloration which required modifications to the crossover, the addition of the familiar protective grille and felt pads.
The small number of loudspeakers from the original batch were now considered obsolete, and the true LS3/5 was never manufactured commercially. While the revised LS3/5A sounded very similar to the original, many felt at the time that the original loudspeaker was better.
Fast-forward to today. Uniquely, unlike any other manufacturers of BBC-licensed speakers, Graham Audio decided to re-issue the original LS3/5’s, using bespoke Volt and Seas drivers manufactured to their specifications and crossover networks developed by Derek Hughes. By popular demand, they later decided to also produce the LS3/5A’s. And so it happens that a single company has in its portfolio both what many people consider the original and the actual original.
The two LS3/5 models may share most of the type nomenclature but they have differently-built enclosures, different panel thickness, grill-attachment methods, crossover specifications and drivers. And as I would find out, they do indeed sound different.
Above: LS3/5 in Ebony; Below: LS3/5A in Walnut
The purpose of this review
This article is not intended to be an in-depth review but more of an appetite-whetter in which I will describe the audible differences between the LS3/5’s and LS3/5A’s. In addition, I will also listen to the SUB3 stereo subwoofer system that is designed by Derek Hughes specifically to work with these speakers.
SUB3 stereo subwoofers
Employing what is called a novel bass loading technique, the subs are specified to achieve extension down to 35Hz in a compact enclosure. Supplied in pairs they are designed to be placed near to the rear wall, while the main loudspeakers remain in their usual ‘free space’ position. Output is via the front-facing reflex port. There are connections on the rear for the input from the amplifier and output to the main speakers. The SUB3 is a passive system – there are no amplifiers inside.
The system crosses over at 100Hz, and in doing so, relieves the LS3/5 or LS3/5A of frequencies below this point. This will allow the system to reach greater replay volumes provided that the amplifier has adequate reserves.
There is also provision for feet or spikes to be fitted to the base of the cabinet. Standard spikes are supplied, floor protection discs are not. Being passive, there are no controls to misadjust – the system is designed to be “plug and play”.
Although their placement in between the Xavians was only the starting position even after removing the other speakers and experimenting with all the possible positions for the LS3/5A’s, it turned out that the initial placement was pretty much ideal in order to get the best focus and most energetic sound.
Listening – LS3/5A
For these comparisons, I will be using the Fezz Lybra 300B P-SET amplifier with the Ayon CD-10 II as a source connected with FoilFlex interlinks and speaker cables. Since the LS3/5 and LS3/5A are specified at 9 ohms and 11 ohms both can be used with the amp’s 8-ohm outputs.
Starting with the “regular” LS3/5A’s, I hear much of the familiar sound that I know from early on in my career in the audio-video post-production industry. At that time, all the editing suites had a pair of LS3/5A’s driven by Quad 405-II amplifiers. While the 405-II was itself exceedingly smooth and warm-sounding with “fat” bass, a relaxed midrange and lush treble, the combination led to a very neutral presentation that worked well for the vocal range while offering more than enough resolution to hear what you are doing as an editor.
With the Fezz amplifier, the LS3/5A’s have a very similar midrange presentation although, given their small enclosures and tiny woofers, the bass is now actually pretty good. Back then at the post-pro company, the speakers were used as nearfield-monitors near the front wall with the editor sitting very close to them while the rear wall was way back. This illustrates perfectly how a room’s contribution is not always negative but can actually aid the performance.
Actual full-range speakers such as the Kroma Audio Carmens do overpower my secondary room at certain very low frequencies in the bass but with most small to medium-sized speakers the effect is only beneficial and the same goes for the LS3/5A’s. Despite their tiny enclosures, the speakers do not have a thin sound. However, I do find them to sound small, dynamically speaking. It’s as if you can hear that the driver is restricted in its movement.
Above: LS3/5A; Below: LS3/5
While the LS3/5A’s are, strictly speaking, less colored than the Xavian Perlas that I normally use in this room, I feel that they do sound more polite and filtered. They’re just not as lively and direct. Of course, these mini-monitors were designed to provide accurate sound in tiny spaces and they were not specced to sound any bigger than they are. When focusing on their midrange, there is a narrow band where the LS3/5A’s are indeed very linear and very neutral. In this range, the speakers are also very realistic and lyrical and this has the benefit of making certain instruments such as guitars as well as vocals sound especially pure and compelling. Maybe this is what these speakers are famous for? But, I have to say, this is a very narrow area. Further up as well as further down, they quickly start to sound filtered, uneven and upholstered. Another way of putting this is to say that they sound sweet but I feel that it’s different from the larger Graham Audio speakers. These also sound lush and friendly yet much more mature.
The treble is quite open, not masked but also not very refined and a little uneven with some perceived peakiness followed by less air on top than I am used to. There’s a nice soundstage bubble all around the speakers with good width and no cabinet sound. I just did not manage to get them to focus quite as sharply as can be done with other speakers that I used in this room.
All things considered, I think I can see the allure of these speakers. They are truly tiny but produce decent bass along with a linear and realistic quality in the midrange. With music that plays to their strengths, the result can be emotionally engaging and quite realistic. But for more complex multitrack music and especially for electronic music, I find them to be less than ideal.
Granted, the LS3/5’s may require a firmer grip or a more powerful (transistor-) amplifier to perform their best but taking them to the other room for more comparisons is a bridge too far for the intended scope of this article.
Part 1 – Part 2