Swisstone (by Graham Audio) LS3 stand-mount loudspeaker

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Graham Audio Swisstone LS3

The exercise is to squeeze LS3/5a sound into a cheaper package, and it works. Mostly. The key benefit of the LS3/5a has always been outstanding speech reproduction (its original role was as a broadcast monitor in outside broadcast vans for BBC TV and Radio, and much of that programme would be speech based). Few loudspeakers approach the LS3/5a even today in getting this vital aspect right, but the LS3 – in great fairness – does better than most. My stock speech examples are – depending on mood – either Richard Burton reciting the opening to Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Woodor an episode of the original radio show of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy[both BBC Productions]. This time, “Starless and Bible Black” won out over Vogon poetry, and it was clear the LS3 was articulate and capable of lithe changes in microdynamics as it coped with Burton’s coal and whisky born vocal gravel. It wasn’t perfect, as there was a slight emphasis on the upper bass, as if he had slightly more whisky than usual. This is Richard Burton we’re talking about, so for ‘slightly more whisky’ read ‘all the whisky’ but that mild thickening gives a tenor voice some extra body, and – unless you are listening to that remarkable voice that Richard Burton possessed – for most voices, that bit extra is well received. By way of contrast female voices are very well handled here; I tuned into an edition of Woman’s Hour on Radio Four (my wife listens religiously) and those voices well known to me were projected into the room and had a correctness of pitch and timbre along with that excellent vocal articulation.

Moving away from vocal and onto solo piano, a lot of the character of the LS3/5a remains intact. Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concerts[ECM] is a fine example as it’s close mic’d enough to hear his vocalisations while playing, and yet they never intrude on the music. The piano itself is excellent, in the classic LS3/5a ‘better than the real thing’ sound. The LS3 is not as precise at rendering the decay and release of piano tones, but it gives the piano a sense of fullness and projection into the listening room that is very alluring.

Moving over to the big guns is often what shows up the failings of small speakers. It’s unfair to unleash Mahler on a pair of tiny speakers, but actually the LS3 acquits itself well. Unlike the LS3/5a (which is popular in audio shows because it doesn’t even show up for work in the lower registers and doesn’t trigger room boom in the process), the LS3 fares at once better and worse, here; better because there is more of a sense of bass taking place, and worse because that bass is not totally accurate. It’s enjoyable and entertaining but I can’t help think there’s a bit of an 80Hz boost at play to make music sound more alluring. Not in the exaggerated way of 1980s British boxes, but a definite sense of a double bass (or a bass guitar) being fleshed out. For many, this is no bad thing.

I found the LS3 the perfect antidote for ‘corporate-fi’; that inoffensive but sonically bankrupt sound that comes as a result of larger companies building loudspeakers by committee. OK, so the audio world is now sufficiently small enough that our version of a multinational conglomerate could hold a meeting in an elevator, but the fact remains there is something of a ‘safe’ sound emanating from the drivers of some of the larger brands that only has a passing acquaintance with music. The LS3 doesn’t play that particular game and sounds all the better for it. 

Of course, that also means its not perfect, but I don’t think the LS3 was designed to be perfect. It was designed to give a good working impression of a LS3/5a at a fraction of the price. Think of it as 85% of a LS3/5a for less than half the price. And in that task it achieves the goal well. OK, scratch the surface and you might see how it happens, how it’s deliberately slightly tailored to sound good, and sound fun. You might notice that in getting rid of the lip, the LS3 trades one off-axis set of concerns for another and that results in a very small stereo listening space (it doesn’t fill the room with sound quite as well as the LS3/5a or bigger speakers). It’s not that scratching the surface will unveil the monster beneath the veneer, but more shining a bright light on its performance exposes where the greasepaint is coming off.

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