Review By Ron Nagle
Surely it must come to pass that in every audiophile life there is a moment of regret, something you would undo if you could. For me that moment was the day I sold my Chartwell LS3/5A Speakers. Now as I look back, it is 31 years since the speakers were first produced in 1975. The first American report I could find was back in March 1977 when J. Gordon Holt reviewed a BBC pair that at the time retailed for $430. The initial production run was small and only meant to fit a very specific need at the time. But that ended when audiophiles discovered the wonderful musical qualities inherent in this LS3/5a specification. Very few speakers have retained such a loyal following over so many years. If you do a web search as I did you might find an LS3/5a chat room. Looking through this site I found a British member reporting that in April of 2005 a pair of Chartwell LS3/5a speakers went for the U.S. equivalent of $2,500 on an e-Bay auction. The speakers have garnered a cult status very much like the acclaimed Marantz 9 amplifiers and Quad 57 electrostatic speakers. Production eventually came to a halt in 1998 when KEF ceased production of the T27 tweeter and the B110 midrange/woofer that was at the very heart of the design. This speaker is designated a Class 2 near field monitor and was developed after extensive research by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) in the mid seventies.
The BBC had a need for a small monitor speaker that they could use in confined spaces like vans and control rooms. However this speaker is definitely not a bookshelf design. It should be placed well away from walls and placed on stands between 24" and 30" high when used in a domestic environment. It might not be widely known but there were actually two different versions that conformed to the BBC speaker specification. The initial production run manufactured a speaker with a 15 Ohm impedance and in later versions the speaker was a more compatible 11 Ohm load. The finalized 11 Ohm crossover was designated FL6/38 SP2128 and around 1987 both the crossover and drivers were supplied by KEF who started using computer aided matching. With KEF supplying both the drivers and the crossovers an ongoing problem with variability was largely resolved. Long time fans of this speaker will tell you that the later 11 Ohm version had a quicker more modern sound and that the 15 Ohm version had a more seductive vocal presentation.
A very important fact to keep in mind is that there never was any intention to design a totally neutral speaker with ruler flat response. The intention was and is to establish a standard and rigorously maintain control over all performance parameters. Having done that any LS3/5a speaker can be mixed or matched with any other LS3/5a speaker no matter when it was made and who may have manufactured it. Ultimately during the span of this 23-year production run they were produced under seven different licensed brand names they were in alphabetical order, the BBC, Chartwell, Goodmans, Harbeth, KEF, Rogers, and Spendor. I am discounting three other wannabe companies that failed or had little or no impact on production. With varying degrees of failure they were Audiomaster, RAM, and JPW. The Spendor speakers were I believe the second most prolific brand name associated with this product. The Spendor Company derived its name from the founders Spencer and Dorothy Huges. H.D. Harwood founded the Harbeth Company and another of the licensees was Richard Ross of Rogers. The combined output of these manufacturers ultimately totaled an astounding one hundred thousand pairs of LS3/5a speakers. One company in particular, the British company Rogers had a very long involvement with this project starting almost at the very beginning and I believe they account for the majority of the speakers now extant. The preceding narrative is only a very small portion of a very large book and even now the last chapter has not been written.
The Gini Choice
Gini Systems imports a Chinese version of the LS3/5a speaker that can be purchased as a $490 kit or as a $560 factory assembled pair. The finished product is a very nice satin finished walnut veneered speaker. Before I elected to get involved in this project I understood that the speakers were not an authorized BBC licensed product. Still curiosity nostalgia and a need to know compelled me to give it a go. I opted to the hairy chested macho route and I built the speakers from scratch. Well not quite scratch, I didn't exactly chop down trees or smelt copper ore but I did have to wash my hands a few times. The most difficult part of the project for a novice would most certainly have been component soldering. Almost too easy to assemble, the kit version comes with the crossover components soldered in place and the wire leads to the drivers and back panel attached and neatly labeled. The crossover is constructed with Chinese branded capacitors both plastic film and electrolytic as are the inductors and resistors, these parts I am not familiar with. Also the one-inch soft doom tweeter and the five-inch mid/woofer supplied with the kit have no manufactures identification and so I cannot comment on parts quality.
(Jst as this went to print I have been informed that all drivers and internal parts are supplied by Ho's Technology of China). Gratefully the Instruction Manual is a first rate booklet with clear and concise step-by-step photos and instructions. You will need four tools to build the kit and they are provided; these are a small Crescent wrench, an Allen key, a Phillips screwdriver and a bottle of glue. The manual suggests that you build each speaker separately and that is simply a good bit of common sense.
The assembly instructions are illustrated and divided roughly into the following steps.
Running In And Setup
The manufacturer suggests a break in period of 200 hours. And that's not a typo it definitely said 200 hours. My audiophile buddy Brian laughed when I told him and he commented, “by that time you will have forgotten what it can't do". Well maybe but as a reviewer I certainly can't bypass the manufacturers recommendations I will have to give it the benefit of a doubt work out. Using the old null trick I placed the speakers face to face and reversed the polarity of one speaker connection and ran the Sheffield XLO Burn in CD (10041-2-T) for 18 house cat-torturing hours. Lastly using a Numark PX2626 pink noise generator I pumped hissing sounds through them for the next 38 hours. And finally for the last 144 hours I exercised them with a local FM radio station. O.K. just between you and me after 15 maybe 25 hours I didn't notice any significant improvement in performance. All of the preceding was greatly aided by intervals involving thick fabric covering both speakers.
Advisory: The Speakers come with a perforated metal cap covering the tweeters these are held in place by the magnet in the tweeter assembly. They should be removed when you use the speakers they are intended only as a temporary protective covering over the tweeter.
Following a posted online recommendation I started with the speakers spaced two meters apart facing straight ahead and my listening position was then two meters away. Well that didn't work, but I did find out that at that this extreme separation (in my room) I had pretty good center fill, surprised I was. O.K. so now I knew these speakers had decent lateral dispersion but this was only a good start. It took a few days of fiddling to settle on a final position. Placed six feet in front of a wall twelve feet wide the speakers sat on 24-inch high stands. They were five feet apart and toed in slightly to fire passed the sides of my chair seven feet away.
Do They Have A British Accent?
Right after I finished putting them together I hooked them up to make sure that they worked. My wife obviously using the other side of her brain commented that the music “doesn't seem to be getting out of the boxes"; yes and I did hear the same lethargic characteristics she referred to.
After those 200 hours I previously mentioned things most certainly got a lot better. Although the improvement spanned the frequency extremes from treble to bass I think there was a much greater change in the tweeter performance. Now liberated from confinement the tweeter was better able to depict a musical event spanning the space between speakers. One of my reference discs is a copy I made of a Willie Nelson cut from his album Yours Always, Sony-CD-A21562. The song is, You where always on my mind. While I'm really not a Willie Nelson fan the way this song is recorded I can easily pick out and delineate backup singers and instrument lines in the mix. At 2 minutes and 32 seconds into this track there is a brief appearance of a harmonica in the background accompaniment this quickly gets swamped out. The Gini LS3/5a is able to locate and clearly reproduce this nuance.
The question: Is this speaker indeed a copy of the LS3/5a if so it will have to reveal that fact down in the lower midrange. It is important that you understand my final conclusions were arrived at with the grill cloth in place. The grill covering has a greater than usual effect on the perceived tonality of the speaker. My lower frequency reference is a wonderful recording of Adagio d' Albinoni by Gary Karr & Harmon Lewis. This is an Amati Double Bass accompanied by a large pipe organ reverberating within a cavernous stone cathedral. The resonant body of the Amati sounds absolutely organic and the bow produces sounds like the sigh of a wounded soul. The composition transitions through layers of sadness and longing so profound that you would need to be made of stone not to be drawn in. The real test is not just to be able to do deep bass but to get all the harmonic nuance and bass overtones of these instruments just right. The Gini LS3/5a as you might expect errs on the side of omission. In plain language it just does not dig down and evoke the exact same LS3/5a voice.
Specifically this is where the Gini LS3/5a leaves itself open to criticism. I had to consider that previous statement carefully because it could apply to most any two-way design. And obviously anyone buying such a speaker is not after room rattling bass response. But this is a very special case it is not just any two-way speaker but rather one that mimics a legend and aspirers to be more than ordinary. Most audiophiles know it was the way the original LS3/5a speakers tailored the bass response to impart a life like warmth. This was artfully achieved by introducing a “bumped up" bass. In plain language the crossover for the mid/woofer was designed to allow a rise in bass response at a very specific part of the lowest midrange.
Is the Gini LS3/5a a BBC clone? The answer is not exactly, what is that old expression, “Close but no cigar." But hold on now, did you really expect a $490 kit built speaker to duplicate a product that now sells elsewhere for $1,695. Bottom line; forget the claimed lineage the speaker is worth the asking price. I can remember a time when if you wanted a good music system you had to buy a decent soldering iron and you put it together yourself. The reward was that you bonded with your work the component you made than became an extension of yourself and you felt some pride of ownership. The kit version is easy, great fun and it will give you 75 or 80 percent of the performance of the BBC original. This was and is a very enjoyable little speaker project if you have never built anything you are really missing something and this would be an excellent place to start.
I have just been informed that a Bass Stand (B+) matching the Gini Systems LS3/5a speakers will début at the Rocky Mountain Audiofest in Denver Col.October12th. Additionally all subsequent production will bear the Gini logo and have model and serial number identification on the rear panel as well as manufacturers identification on all internal parts.
Marantz DV 8400 Universal CD player, Cambridge Audio Discmagic-1 CD transport, Cambridge S-700 Isomagic HDCD D/A Converter, ART DI/O Up sampling D/A and A/D processor, Magnum Dynalab FT 101a tuner and Dynalab Signal Sleuth.
Audio Research SP-9 MK 3 Preamplifier, Audio Research Classic 60 Power amplifier, Outlaw RR2150 Stereo Receiver.
Aurum Cantus Leisure 2 SE two-way monitors on 24 inch stands, Kimber Kable 8tc 11ft. speaker cables.
Monster Reference 4 pairs, 2.5 meter, 1 meter and 1.5 meters
Nordost Red Dawn, 1 meter
Wire World Eclipse-2, 3 meters
Audio Research Litzlink 2 pairs, 1.5 meter
Chord Silver Siren, 1 meter
Audiobhan 0.5 meter digital
Wire World 10 gauge IEC power cord
Islatrol Industrial 20amp ac line conditioner
Alpha Core Balanced Transformer Power Supply
Audio Power PE-1 power enhancer
Triad 2-ampere isolation transformer
VPI Magic bricks
Ferrite RFI cable blocks
Room Tunes Panels
Gryphon diffusion panels.
Type: two-way BBC monitor kit
Frequency Response: 50Hz to 20kHz
Impedance: 8 Ohms
Power Requirements: 50 Watts
Dimensions: 12 x 7.5 x 6.25 (HxWxD in inches)
Weight: 10 lbs each
Price: $490 kit or as a $560 factory assembled per pair