Somehow I have never managed to experience one of the great BBC loudspeaker designs like the LS3/5a or the LS5/9. Although I have heard many speakers that claim to come close to these originals from the likes of Harbeth, Rogers and Spendor. So when the chance to lay my hands on a pair from a new production run by Graham Audio came along I was more than keen. Original LS5/9 speakers in good order are very scarce, so I could ’t find a pair to compare against the Graham Audio version, but maybe this is for the better, it is my chance to assess a 1983 design in today’s world without prejudice.
Looking into the history of the BBC designs I found that the LS5/9 is a smaller derivative of the LS5/8 (incidentally Graham Audio's forthcoming model). The LS5/8 had an internal volume of 3.9 cubic feet, the LS5/9 is only 1 cubic foot (28 litres). When BBC engineers couldn’t use the larger ones, the LS5/9 were brought in for monitoring music and speech. The even smaller and much appreciated LS3/5a was originally a monitor for speech (0.18 cubic feet). The smaller cabinet meant that they had to develop a new 200 mm bass driver, keeping the high-temperature voice coil in place to handle at least 100 Watts and produce at least 100 dB sound-pressure at one metre on axis. Graham Audio turned to the Volt Company to have polypropylene bass units manufactured for the LS5/9 as per the original 1983 BBC spec. The tweeter is a Son Audax 34 mm soft dome type, commercially available in 1983 and still in their catalogue. The tweeters specifications slightly changed over the years, which meant some small alterations had to be made to the 24 element precision crossover. Graham Audio protects the tweeter with a metal grill. The two units deliver a neat frequency response from 50 Hz to 16 kHz within +/- 3 dB limits, the original BBC monitor had its -3 dB limit at 56 Hz. These loudspeakers were mostly used to monitor radio programmes and the upper limit of 16 kHz is higher than can be achieved with am FM broadcast. What hasn’t changed is the use of a thin wall cabinet, made out of birch plywood with added damping. The cabinet looks rather outdated these days with its wide baffle and shallow depth but the extra width confers higher efficiency, as does the front mounted reflex port. The 5/9 has a single pair of binding posts and a strip on the baffle with soldering points to trim the tweeter at the factory. The matching open stand is made of steel tubes with spikes at the bottom and rubber on the top. Every Graham Audio LS5/9 is produced in the UK under license from the BBC, specifications are tight and each speaker has to meet the BBC’s criteria. British readers may not be surprised to learn that the BBC asks a substantial fee to use their name, a cost that adds to the retail price.
Crazy but not stupid
Graham Audio tells us they have a background in professional audio and deliver the LS5/9 to studios as well as audiophiles, in the Netherlands a shop called Hanze Hifi in Zwolle handles all sales. This might be of no importance worldwide but it will put the LS5/9 more into perspective. The head of the technical department there uses original Rogers LS5/9 speakers at home. He develops tube amplifiers for Hanze Hifi, sold under the name of H.A.T. (Het (The) Audio Team). The shop is well known on the continent for restoring Thorens TD124 turntables to an exceptionally high level. They also restore Garrards, EMTs and other Thorens players, successfully mixing this with the latest technologies like streaming and digital amplifiers. The employees are experienced and old enough to remember the good stuff from the past but still young and eager to lay their hands on recent developments. As they say “We are a bit crazy but not stupid”. With this in mind it’s not surprising that they represent Graham Audio in the Netherlands.
To listen to this speaker I used a Transrotor turntable with SME 5009 arm and Transfiguration Axia cartridge. Phono amplification is a HAT tube preamp with Lundahl MC transformers inside. The signal runs through an Audia Flight Strumento No.1 preamplifier and FL 50 power amp. The digital source is a NAD M50 network player with a M52 disk cabinet attached, feeding an Aqua La Scala digital to analogue converter. Except for the power amp all devices are fed with 230 Volts from a PS Audio P5 Power Plant. The Graham Audio LS5/9s were placed as recommended on Graham stands, grilles in place, and well toed in to face the listener. Positioning was very easy and straightforward in my room, keeping the speakers about one metre away from the side walls and with their backs 40 centimetres from the back wall. On the Graham Audio stands the tweeters were nicely at ear height when I sat down on my couch. The skeletal structure of the stand is rigid enough to form a steady base for the LS5/9 and adds to its surprisingly popular retro appearance.
Why not feed a classic loudspeaker with some music from the past? Peggy Lee’s Decca recording Black Coffee, this record is a reissue of a real treasure with evergreens like I Got You Under My Skin and You’re My Thrill. The voice is very prominent against the trumpet, piano, bass and drums that accompany it. The voice is in no way dated but the LS5/9 lets you hear the possibilities and limitations of the technology of the era, in that sense this is a true monitor. Trumpet is razor sharp, yet not over the top like it can be on a lot of modern loudspeakers and the top end is well extended. I do not play this record often, but it sounds better and more engaging then I remember from other speakers. From the USA we travel to Paris to meet Juliette Gréco and play her Grandes Chansons, another reissue from an original Philips recording. If this record sounds exceptional the system must be pretty decent. On the LS5/9 it doesn’t bring tears to my eyes because it needs a bit more warmth and involvement, Juliette is rather more distant than usual. It’s hard to describe what is going on but the LS5/9 seems to concentrate on getting the sound balance right, making the voice clear and bringing out detail rather than trying to convince you that Juliette is a real human being. Don’t get me wrong, the sound isn’t overly neutral, but Gréco could be more French, flirting with the listener is part of her appeal.
But I also realise that I’m only listening to the music, the voice and the musicians and rather less to the soundstage, bass notes, treble details and whether or not the sound escapes from the boxes. I am not consciously listening to a pair of speakers, I am listening to music. This is a compliment to Graham Audio because when I start looking for hi-fi qualities they are all in order; tight if restricted bass, soft treble that sounds very easy on the ear, a soundstage with depth and height albeit not that much width, probably because of the toe in Graham Audio recommends. Time after time I return to listening to music and forget about technicalities. Let me put it this way, I am not judging the speakers, I am judging the artist’s performance. Another high quality recording is my Chet Baker LP simply named Chet. It pits trumpet against sax with the drums on the right, Chet on the left and bass in the middle with the baritone sax of Pepper Adams between bass and drums. None of the instruments are too small, so they blend into the soundstage very naturally, with a lot of air around them, plenty of detail and the sound of real instruments instead of recorded ones. Stacey Kent’s The Boy Next Door is a fine example how good vinyl can be. Clear and open, with a nice balance between the voice and the instruments. Bass is well defined but again does not go extremely deep. The treble is softened at the top due to tweeter roll off, giving an ‘easy on the ear sound’ that won’t tire a listener. The midrange keeps on shining no matter what I play, BBC designs were always praised for this feature and Graham Audio has managed to keep this exceptional quality. Pluck string instruments, blow your brass, play the piano or just sing along, the LS5/9 gives you a special feeling that only the most musical loudspeakers do. Covering up bass that doesn’t go very deep, hiding the limitations that all loudspeakers suffer one way or the other, the LS5/9 does this by giving enormous listening pleasure time after time.
In one of the BBC papers it states that the LS5/9 was developed for serious music and pop. I guess serious music covers classical music, jazz, and easy listening. Actually everything except for dreadful pop music and with the LS5/9 modern pop music is not among my favourites. Ellie Goulding’s Halcyon soon turns into a fully distorted, muddy pool of noise, the LS5/9 ruthlessly reveals every shortcoming in the recording, and there are many. I could barely listen to the opening track before pressing stop. The very popular Pharrell Williams does not make me Happy either, the music sounds flat, restricted and lifeless. Not as bad as Goulding but it comes close. The LS5/9 is far too good to be able to mask rubbish. Pure Heroin by Lorde shows that some pop music can be played, and guess what the LS5/9 even produces a heavy low end. Walking In The Air by Chloë Agnew is not bad either. Simply said the LS5/9 is not for head bangers and MP3, but feed it with most well recorded music and it will reward you with a lot of listening pleasure.
I feel the urge to return to vinyl to hear some classical music but there’s no need too, my ripped CDs and high resolution files sound great on the LS5/9 , but vinyl seems so appropriate given the classical design and appearance of the speakers. The Academy Of Ancient Music plays Six Favourite Overtures by JC Bach (L’Oiseau-Lyre, 1977) is colourful and rich, the stereo image is well defined but not too tight or controlled. The image is kept well away from the listener, I get the impression of sitting near the middle of the concert hall and the laid back way the LS5/9 produces music makes long listening sessions a pleasure. The harmony between the instruments makes sure that we hear an orchestra and not a stage full of solo instruments. There’s no need to stick to vinyl with this system as music downloaded from the 2L website shows. These high resolution recordings are clearer than old vinyl and have more power and dynamics, which is no problem for the LS5/9. Possibly because of the slow roll off characteristic of the tweeter violins never become sharp or too bright. Small or large orchestras are handled just as easily as solo instruments, this speaker ensures that the sound is as neutral as the BBC intended when it designed the system.
The Graham Audio LS5/9s replace my large transmission line PMCs for the duration of this review and I have enjoyed them a lot, playing as much music as time allowed. I would describe the LS5/9 as a true monitor, one that tells you a lot of inside information about the recording and its circumstances, but not in an overly analytical way, at least not most of the time. There have been moments I longed for a little more warmth and involvement, but most of the time I forgot to listen to the speakers and simply enjoyed music and music only. The midrange is exceptionally neutral and open, the treble is soft and will appeal to any listener that disapproves of the hard, often metal domes in modern systems. The low end is restricted by the internal volume of the box and the cone area of the LS5/9 woofer, but has a liquid power that I would like to hear in a lot more speakers. Bass is well defined, just enough for a living room, perfect for a small room and present when it needs to be. This is not a loudspeaker for the masses because it is unflattering of bad recordings, their limitations are almost emphasised. It is made in the traditional way that loudspeakers were once designed, revealing how little has actually changed over the last 30 years and showing what kind of standards the BBC achieved in those days. The fact that Graham Audio licenses the original name LS5/9 from the BBC may be important to some, but even if you are not interested in the heritage this is a delightful loudspeaker.