LSA2 Tower-based 5.1-Channel Surround Speaker System (TPV 93)

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LSA2 Tower-based 5.1-Channel
LSA2 Tower-based 5.1-Channel Surround Speaker System (TPV 93)

I first encountered the company LSA (Living Sounds Audio) in one of the high-end demo rooms at a CES show, where, to be perfectly candid, I was intrigued by the company’s motto posted on a signboard outside the room: “LSA: Designed by Ear, Verified by Science.” The message struck a resonant chord with me because, frankly, many would-be high-performance speakers sound as if they were designed the other way around, with cold, analytical CAD/CAM programs calling the shots, obviously with no clue as to what makes actual living, breathing, sounds really tick.

What I like about LSA’s approach, which the company terms “Music First Engineering,” is that it recognizes that good science is a necessary but not sufficient tool for designing very high-performance speakers. While speakers of course need to handle measurable aspects of sound reproduction well, there is no substitute for having sensitive and experienced listeners make final judgment calls—especially when it comes to assessing a speaker’s ability to reproduce difficult-to-quantify aspects of sound, such as textures, timbres, spatial presentation, and overall “feel.”

When I first saw LSA speakers, I found them attractive and well made, but perhaps just a little “generic looking,” though there was nothing generic about their sound. Over time, I’ve come to think the LSA folks understand three aspects of speaker design better than most: 1) creating smooth frequency response with neutral tonal balance, 2) integrating the outputs of mid-bass drivers and tweeters in an unusually seamless way, and 3) crafting designs that offer exceptionally good “disappearing act” imaging and 3D soundstaging. Put these qualities together and you’ve got speakers that produce a smoother, more coherent, and more complete and well-integrated sound than many of their like-priced competitors—a sound that exhibits a certain “cut from whole cloth integrity” that, in my experience, is not easy to achieve.

But two other factors also make LSA products different from better-known competitors. First, they are sensibly priced, so that they offer very good value for money. Second, they provide clearly defined and affordably priced performance upgrade paths. Allow me to explain that second point in a bit more detail. Almost all LSA speakers are offered in Standard, Signature, and Statement configurations Standard models offer, as their name suggests, the entry points to the LSA lineup, but their performance is high enough that they would likely be considered “premium” models in most other manufacturers’ product schemes. Signature models are configured much like Standard models, but incorporate significantly higher-quality (and therefore much more costly) high-end crossover parts, very high-purity internal wiring, and a shift from spun Dacron to long-fiber wool internal damping materials. Statement models go further still, replacing LSA’s traditional fabric dome tweeters with exotic ribbon tweeters, and incorporating crossover changes necessary to achieve proper integration between LSA’s dynamic mid-bass drivers and the ribbons. But here’s the unexpected twist: LSA will allow owners to trade up from one performance grade to another for just the retail price difference between models (though owners must pick up the charges to have their speakers shipped to and from the LSA factory for re-work). This strikes me as pretty generous policy, and one that ensures LSA speakers can be tweaked for higher levels of performance as owners listening tastes and preferences become more sophisticated (and demanding) over time.

The LSA system we chose for this review uses Standard-series models throughout, and is based on a pair of 2 ½-way LSA2 Towers with rear-firing ambience drivers ($2500/pair, used as L/R mains), a 2 ½-way LSA LCR Monitor speaker ($750 each, used as the center channel), and a pair of 2-way, 4-driver LSA1OW On-Wall Monitors ($1000/pair, used as surrounds). LSA doesn’t make a subwoofer at this point, so we used one of The Perfect Vision’s reference JL Audio Fathom f112 subs during our tests, though frankly the bass extension of all three LSA speakers (and especially of the LSA2 Tower) is such that not much subwoofer support was really necessary. How did the system sound? Well, you’ll have to read the review to get the full details, but let’s just say that the results were so promising that we feel certain LSA speakers can and should become much better known options among those who care deeply about the finer aspects of sound quality.

OVERVIEW

Consider this system if: you like the idea of an attractively finished, relatively conventional looking speaker system, but one whose sound is very special. Compared to most systems its general size and price the LSA2 Tower-based system sounds smoother, more evenly (and neutrally) balanced from top to bottom, more nuanced and refined, and offers exceptionally good imaging and 3D soundstaging. Dynamics are a strong point, too. Apart from imaging/soundstaging, which is remarkably good, no one area of the LSA system’s performance will necessarily jump out at you as being extraordinary. Rather, it is the overall balance and integration of sonic elements that sets the LSA system so apart

Look further if: You are, at heart, what wine enthusiasts might call a “label drinker” (that is, a person more wowed by seeing a prestigious name on the label of the bottle than by the actual taste or bouquet of the wine within). LSA isn’t particularly well known (yet), so throwing the name around won’t win you many “style points” among those impressed by such things. But trust us on this: the sound of the LSA rig will give more than ample proof of your discerning taste and good judgment.

Ratings (relative to comparably-priced surround speaker systems)
Transparency and Focus: 9
Imaging and Soundstaging: 10
Tonal Balance: 9
Dynamics: 9
Value: 9

FEATURES

LSA2 Tower highlights:

• 1-inch silk dome tweeter.
• 6 ¼-inch treated paper cone mid bass driver.
• 6 ¼-inch treated paper cone woofer.
• 1-inch dome tweeter (response range limited to 8kHz – 20kHz), used as a rear-firing ambience driver.
• 2 ½-way design with crossover frequencies of 400 Hz and 3 kHz.
• Bass reflex enclosure feature curved sidewalls and is offered in black ash or rosewood veneer finishes (The Perfect Vision review samples are in rosewood, and finish quality was impeccable).
• Comes fitted with dual speaker binding posts for bi-wiring, and with jumpers for those who prefer (or require) single-wiring capabilities.
• Include high-quality floor spikes.

LSA LCR Monitor highlights:

• Uses same 1-inch silk dome tweeter and two of the same 6 ¼-inch mid-bass drivers as found in the LSA2 Tower, configured as a D’Appolito array in the LCR Monitor. Voicing is precisely matched to the LCR2 Tower (and also to the LSA1 Monitor speaker).
• 2-way design with crossover frequency of 3 kHz.
• Bass reflex enclosure feature curved sidewalls and is offered in black ash or rosewood veneer finishes.
• Comes fitted with dual speaker binding posts for bi-wiring, and with jumpers for those who prefer (or require) single-wiring capabilities.
• Comes with cleverly designed mounting cradle whose top surface curvature matches the curved sidewalls of the LCR enclosure. The curvature also allows the LCR enclosure to be angled upward or downward precisely so that drivers aim directly at the listener.

LSA1OW On-Wall Monitor highlights:

• Uses three of same 1-inch silk dome tweeter found in the LSA2 Tower and LSA LCR Monitor, with a 6 ½-inch treated paper cone mid-bass driver similar, though not identical to the mid-bass drivers used in other LSA models. Voicing is closely matched to the LSA2 Tower, LSA1 Monitor, and LSA LCR Monitor.
• Features distinctive “tripole” design offering three switch-selectable modes of operation:
o Directional (one front-firing tweeter and the mid-bass driver are operational)
o Bipole (two left/right side-firing tweeters and the mid-bass driver are operational, with the tweeters in phase with one another)
o Dipole (two left/right side-firing tweeters and the mid-bass driver are operational, with the tweeters out of phase with one another)
• Bass reflex enclosure is offered in black ash or rosewood veneer finishes.
• Enclosure provides rear-mounted wall-hanging bracket, though the speaker cabinet is veneered on all sides and is also suitable for stand or tabletop mounting.

SONIC CHARACTER

Let’s start by acknowledging that the LSA system needs a good 100 hours of break-in before it settles in and gives of its best (a common characteristic shared by many higher-end loudspeakers). Though sound straight from the carton is pretty good, you can expect to hear subtle but cumulative improvements in overall smoothness and driver integration as playing time increases. But the biggest single change you may hear involves the bass of the LSA2 Towers, which gradually becomes more refined, showing better pitch definition and becoming more taut and well-controlled as break-in progresses (at first, bass can be slightly thick-sounding and overly prominent).

There are, as noted in our introduction above, three signature sonic characteristics that define the LSA system, the first of which is smooth and neutrally balanced frequency response. I got confirming comments on this point from a competing loudspeaker manufacturer whose representative visited The Perfect Vision listening room while the LSA system was installed. After listening to the LSA system on several music discs and movie soundtracks the representative simply said, “You know, that is really a very good speaker system—it’s so smooth and even in its presentation.” This is high praise indeed when you consider the source.

I should mention that the system also offers very nearly full-range bass response, in that the LSA2 Towers produce meaningful bass down into the mid-30Hz range, while both the LSA LCR Monitor and LSA1OW On-Wall Monitor produce bass down into the mid-50Hz range. As a result, this is one system where, depending on your tastes, you could conceivably choose to use just the five main speakers and forego purchasing a sub. LSA’s President Brian Warford told me that some buyer’s of his system do just that, though I personally preferred using a good sub to help shoulder the bass workload in the bottom octave and a half.

Next, note that LSA speaker’s do a much better than average job of integrating the outputs of their mid-bass drivers and tweeters, so that it becomes easy to forget there’s any kind of sonic “seam” between the two. This means that as frequencies climb higher and higher it’s not easy to tell where the output of the mid-bass driver drops off and the output of the tweeter begins, which is a good thing. This characteristic really helps set the LSA system apart even from some very accomplished competitors, where I find you can more readily hear the “seams” between drivers if you listen carefully enough. What the superior integration of the LSA drivers buys you, I think, is a heightened ability to “suspend disbelief” and to listen through the speakers—not to the speakers—so that your attention can focus more fully on the music or movie soundtrack at hand.

Finally, perhaps as a direct result of the first two characteristics mentioned above, the LSA speakers—and in particular the LSA2 Towers—are very good imagers. Many speakers exhibit, at least to some degree, a problem where the sound, or at least sounds in some frequency ranges, seem to “cling” to the front baffle boards of the speakers, tugging at your ears and causing distractions in the process. But more so than many box-type speakers do, the LSA’s are able to release sounds from the confines of the speaker enclosures, so that you perceive sounds as emanating from specific points within a broader soundstage—not as originating from the speakers themselves. This, of course, is the very essence of good imaging and 3D soundstaging.

LSA speakers are capable of relatively high output and are comfortable, to a point, with large scale dynamic shifts in program material, though to be fair I would say that many competing systems (from Paradigm, PSB, and others) are equally good in this respect.

Above, I mentioned that LSA speakers are offered in three performance grades: Standard, Signature, and Statement. Let me start out by saying that even the Standard models (as reviewed here) are quite nuanced and detailed to begin with, so that they are at the least competitive with, if not somewhat better than, other like-priced systems. But what happens if you choose to step up to the Signature or Statement models? The simple answer is that detail and resolution levels increase, as does perceived transient speed, with the largest improvement occurring when you make the transition to the Statement level, which adds killer ribbon tweeters (plus some sophisticated crossover modifications to enable the mid-bass drivers to blend and keep pace with the lightning-fast ribbons).

What’s cool about this is that you can start out with LSA standard models and enjoy resolution/detail levels equal to or perhaps better than those of other systems in their price class. But later, if the urge to turn up the figurative Resolution Knob to “11” or “12” should suddenly seize you, LSA stands ready, willing and able to show you how to do just that—and for a sensible (though not cheap) upgrade price.

MOVIE PERFORMANCE

The acid test for any surround system involves its ability to create a believable and all-enveloping illusion of a three-dimensional space, and to hear the LSA system do this in a convincing and at time quite scary way, try viewing and listening to the “Behind the Moving Curtain” chapter from the film The Rundown. In this chapter, the film’s three main protagonists, Beck (Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock), Travis (Seann William Scott), and Mariana (Rosario Dawson), seek to find a priceless, ancient figurine made of gold and sculpted in the shape of a cat (and hence called the “Gato”). According to legends, the Gato has been hidden “behind a moving curtain,” which as Travis correctly deduces is a reference to a waterfall. The scene opens with the trio diving beneath a waterfall to surface in a pool hidden in a cave whose underwater entrance has been concealed for ages behind the waterfall.

The sound in the underwater sequence is highly realistic, so that when Beck, Travis, and Mariana re-surface you half expect to find yourself drenched from head to toe, but things get even better once the treasure hunters climb out of the pool to explore the cave. Once inside the cave, overall resolution levels in the soundtrack increase dramatically, with really expert blending of the surround channels—qualities you can easily discern with the LSA system in play. The trio soon discovers that the cave opens upon a chamber whose roof is made of boulders that are upheld by a veritable forest of intertwined support beams. At the very rear of the chamber is a niche that appears to contain the Gato, but the problem is that in order to reach the Gato it will be necessary to remove at least some of the beams. Travis quickly figures out that the chamber is designed as a deadly puzzle, where some beams (those that rest upon flooring stones marked with the image of a jaguar, or “cat”) can safely be removed, while removing others will bring boulders crashing down upon the unwary (or unskilled).

What is downright eerie—and a little too realistic for comfort—is the sound of beams creaking and groaning under the enormous weight of the boulders, coupled with the sounds of air currents wafting through gaps in the roof and curling down the length of the cave. As Travis works his way toward the Gato he makes a few missteps, accidentally dislodging nearby beams and causing them to burst with explosive force. Beck is forced to grab two of the main support beams, which are beginning to tremble, and to hold them in place by brute strength, until Travis and Mariana can retrieve the Gato and escape the chamber just as the final beams shatter and the roof caves in.

Just how realistic is the LSA system in its handling of the soundtrack for this chapter? Very realistic, as it happens. For example, I sometimes invite guest listeners to hear systems under test, and then watch from the far back end of the room. As the soundtrack for “Behind the Moving Curtain” unfolds through the LSA rig, it is not uncommon to see guests experience the vivid sounds of the creaking beams with such intensity that they involuntarily blurt out “Whoa!” and whip their heads around to look for trembling beams that, of course, aren’t really there. Similarly, I’ve seen guests literally jump in their seats when the first beam bursts or to wince and cringe when they hear the ominous, grating sound of the boulders shifting overhead. In short, the LSA rig achieves levels of realism that not many surround systems can equal, bringing heightened levels of emotional impact to the movie-watching experience in the process.

MUSIC PERFORMANCE

Like all fine surround speaker systems, the LSA rig is equally adept at reproducing movie soundtracks and high-resolution multichannel music. For a simple but telling example of this, consider the LSA system’s sound on jazz vocalist Beat Kaestli’s rendition of the Cole Porter classic “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” from Kaestli’s Invitation [Chesky, multichannel SACD]. Unlike Sinatra’s famous upbeat take on this song, Kaestli’s is simpler, quieter, much more reflective, and imbued with darker and more disquieting undertones. Recorded, as are many Chesky efforts, in the interior of a small church, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” has a distinctly intimate feel and features relatively simple instrumentation, most notably a jazz guitar on the left, congas on the right, vocalist Kaestli in the center, and—later in the song—a haunting sax just to the left of center stage.

One of the first things you’ll notice through the LSA’s is that they produce a very large and compelling soundstage that places you right in the midst of the acoustic of the recording venue, while showing each of the performers at precise and unwavering positions on stage. Next, you’ll appreciate the timbral purity and finesse of the LSA’s as they define each of the human and instrumental voices you’ll hear. Specifically, the guitar has a sweet, almost honey-like tonality, while the delicate, multi-pitched “thomp-thoomp” of the congas sounds wonderfully taut and well-defined as the player’s hands gently slap the heads of the drums. Late in the song, I was floored by the intensely realistic sound of the solo sax, whose reed sounds and golden, brassy bite were both spot on. But what was best of all was the tightly focused sound of Kaestli’s voice at center stage.

Two things proved impressive about the LSA system’s handling of the Kaestli’s vocals. First, the system showed a lot of resolution and overall finesse in capturing the dry, subtle, moody inflections in Kaestli’s voice, where the singer uses very small shifts in tone and emphasis to suggest deeper, darker emotions within. Some systems get the basic outlines of the notes right, but the LSA’s go further to explore not just sonic but emotional overtones in the performance. But the second impressive element involves the fact that this is a 4-channel, not a 5-channel, recording, meaning that it was deliberately made without a center-channel track. Despite this fact, however, the LSA2 Towers had absolutely no trouble in casting a strong center image of Kaestli’s voice—an image so vivid, so stable, and so rock-solid that most listeners would probably swear the center channel speaker had to have been involved (though in fact it was not). This is the kind of precisely focused imaging performance you can consistently expect from the LSA’s.

BOTTOM LINE

The LSA2 Tower-based surround system offers smooth, neutrally-balanced frequency response, beautiful integration of mid-bass drivers and tweeters throughout, and killer imaging and soundstaging. The voices of the main, center, and surround speakers are extremely evenly matched, giving the system a cohesive, all-of-one-piece sound that is highly desirable. Apart from imaging, no one aspect of system performance might at first seem to jump out at the listener as being extraordinary, but the balance of sonic ingredients and their across-the-board excellence is what really sets this system apart.

LSA isn’t the best known name in the home theater marketplace, but it certainly deserves wider recognition. If you are shopping for a system in this price range, you owe it to yourself to at least hear the LSA option before making a purchase decision. Bear in mind, too, that unlike most other speakers on the market, the LSA’s Standard models offer a clearly-defined and easy-to-access upgrade path which allows you to raise the performance bar even higher, should you wish to do so.

SPECS & PRICING

LSA2 Towers
Type: 2 1/2-way, bass reflex floorstanding speaker
Driver complement: one 1-inch silk dome tweeter, one 6 ¼-inch treated paper cone mid-bass driver, one 6 ¼-inch treated paper woofer.
Frequency response: 35Hz – 20 kHz
Sensitivity: 88 dB
Impedance: 6 Ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD): 38.825” x 9.25” x 17.5”
Weight: 65 lbs. each
Warranty: 5 years, parts and labor.
Price: $2500/pair

LSA LCR Monitor
Type: Three-driver, 2-way, bass reflex LCR speaker
Driver complement: one 1-inch silk dome tweeter, two 6 ¼-inch treated paper cone mid-bass drivers
Frequency response: 55Hz – 25 kHz
Sensitivity: 88 dB
Impedance: 6 Ohms
Dimensions when position on its side (HxWxD): 8.825” x 22” x 14.5”
Weight: 35 lbs. each
Warranty: 5 years, parts and labor
Price: $750/each

LSA1OW On-Wall Monitor
Type: Four-driver, 2-way, bass reflex on-wall monitor with “tripole” operating modes (directional, bipole, or dipole modes are switch selectable)
Driver complement: three 1-inch silk dome tweeters, one 6 ½-inch treated paper cone mid-bass driver.
Frequency response: 55Hz – 20 kHz
Sensitivity: 85 dB
Impedance: 6 Ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD): 13.6” x 14.75” x 5.75”
Weight: 13.25 lbs. each
Warranty: 5 years, parts and labor.
Price: $1000/pair

System Price: $4250 as tested, powered subwoofers from third-party manufacturers may be used if desired.

LSA Group
(615) 356-0180
www.thelsagroup.com

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