Ultimately though, what does the LS3/5 sound like? The LS3/5 shares many of the great points of the loudspeaker that replaced it, and it also shares many of that loudspeaker’s limitations. The LS3/5 has the trademark midrange beauty and lack of coloration of the later LS3/5a, and, it also has the lack of deep bass and the modest output levels borne of a low-efficiency design with modest power-handling capacity. It’s more a loudspeaker of exceptional vocal clarity and accuracy than dynamic expressiveness and portrayal of changes in energy levels in music.
Voices are, it must be said, beautifully rendered by this design, and I’ve ploughed through my recordings of The Sixteen, The King’s Singers, The Rodolphus Choir, and others, with considerable pleasure. If this is your musical diet, play on. The lack of coloration, the accurate rendition of tonal colour does, there should be little doubt, set something of a benchmark and once you’ve heard how the LS3/5s portray tone, it does show up where otherwise fine loudspeakers fall short of the ideal.
Richard Burton’s narration on The War of the Worlds [Columbia] is entirely natural and correctly-proportioned. This is the voice of a man in the room, no chestiness or over-emphasised upper bass, no larger-than-life presentation, it is easy to see why the BBC prized the speakers that followed for voice monitoring. This also highlights the principle reported difference between the LS3/5 and the LS3/5a – the flatness of the frequency response means you don’t occasionally feel the need to listen to voices like Burton’s off axis!
Moving to orchestral, the waltz from Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite number 2 [HMV classics] was presented as if heard from the back of the hall, but the orchestral colours drawn by Shostakovich were captured very well, as was the contribution of the various parts to the whole. Fauré’s ‘Agnus Dei’ from the Requiem [EMI] was lush, lavish, and luxuriant in the richness of its orchestral and vocal palette, but with this came a loss of subtle dynamic expression, especially at high volumes where the piece sounds overwrought.
Switching now to jazz, it was easy to appreciate Andy Sheppard’s exquisite saxophone tone on ‘Peshwari’ from Learning to Wave [Provocateur Records], which was nicely offset by the rhythm guitar and tabla. However, the impression of interplay between the musicians was less prominent than usual. Perhaps the best expression of the LS3/5 performance comes with the Balanescu Quartet playing Kraftwerk’s ‘Robot’ from Possessed [Mute]. This had a wonderfully rich, woody, string tones and textures, but seemed to lack a sense of communication between the players.
This is to be expected, and shows the LS3/5 is very likely an accurate rendition of perhaps the most influential loudspeaker that almost no-one has ever heard. The LS3/5 comes from a time when a good loudspeaker was all about tonal accuracy and beauty, and dynamic freedom was distinctly out of favour. This was the era of the original Quad Electrostatic and the KEF Celeste. The headline was a flat frequency response, and all else was secondary. The LS3/5 – born out of a miniature loudspeaker put to use in a Liliputian test studio – became a short-lived but pivotal vocal loudspeaker for Outside Broadcast use, and what followed became a legend in audio circles. This is the LS3/5’s context: the link between the evergreen LS3/5a and its drawing board. It’s a recreation of a historic moment in British loudspeaker design.