As the KEF units originally created for the LS3/5a are not available (because KEF’s B10 mid/bass and T27 tweeter are no longer made), both v2 and v3 models use drivers from SEAS, custom doped and with tweeter mesh to Stirling’s specifications. Consequently, the mid/bass cone is polypropylene rather than Bextrene and the tweeter is a far more modern design but still has a small (19mm) fabric dome. Doug is full of praise for this brand because their drivers are so consistent; he says that the rejection rate for fully-built speakers is under one per cent, which must make production straightforward.
I haven’t had much experience of this classic design and what I have has not always encouraged further listening so it was with some mild anxiety that I got the Stirlings up and running. They were seated on Custom Design FS104 Signature 60cm stands which needed to be turned 90 degrees because of this speakers old school wide and shallow proportions. Nevertheless, it proved a perfect fit. Hooked up to the ATC P2 power amp with Townshend F1 Fractal speaker cable the set-up looked a little OTT but sounded very entertaining. I wasn’t able to take advantage of the bi-wire facility so I left the bridging bars in place; such things don’t generally help sound quality in truth, but this is how the speaker is delivered. It’s probably worth noting that fit and finish are of a high standard; the big label on the back panel lets the side down a little, but you don’t have to look at it very often. I put the Stirlings quite close to the back wall (18cm to the closest corner) and toed them in to face the listening position. The damping around the tweeter and inset nature of the driver baffle would make this seem like a sensible orientation. Listening backed up that theory.
Listening commenced in casual style. I put on a Bill Withers album that was new to me [Naked & Warm, Columbia] and got out the laptop, but it wasn’t long before I was distracted by what was coming out of the speakers. Which was marked by some of the most clearcut basslines I’ve heard in some time. This is partly because the LS3/5a was designed with a bump in the response at 100Hz, which gives the impression of it delivering more bass than it does. Also, the relatively limited bass extension means that there are no really low notes to thicken the sound, but either way the timing is beautiful and this combined with this design’s renowned midrange coherence makes for a very engaging sound indeed. I didn’t realise that the BBC knew what groove was all about but clearly things were a little different back in the early ‘70s. This album sounds very good, particularly in the 24/96 form I was hearing it.
On the negative side image scale is limited as are dynamics, but this is a speaker that covers those tracks very well, especially if you are sitting in the hot seat. Move to one side and the image moves with you. This happens to an extent with most speakers but here it was more obvious. Sit still, however, and the magic happens, especially with regard to nuances of playing and singing. Voices are beautifully rendered, Doug MacLeod sounds powerful and soulful on the solo ‘Going Home’ [Break the Chain, Reference], and the background is utterly silent. Joni Mitchell is much less polished on ‘All I Want’ [Blue, A&M], which has a raw immediacy that makes it seem so much more real. The timing is once more superb and the midrange delivers all of the emotional message despite the crudeness of the recording. I now see why infinite baffle speakers still have a following; it’s hard to get this sort of coherence from ported designs.
The Hadouk Trio’s Live à FIPrecording of ‘Vol De Nuit’ [Mélodie] doesn’t vibrate your organs the way that it does with a bigger speaker but it’s open enough and the texture of both the oud and double bass make it very hard to switch tracks. In some ways the filtering of low bass makes it more tuneful and thus listenable, this is partly because the room effect is less obvious since there isn’t much deep stuff exciting its modes.
The bass balance is less helpful with some material, as the synth powered music of Radiohead and Bark Psychosis didn’t quite hit the spot. The dynamics and lows are clearly a key part of the mix on those albums. Acoustic recordings on the other hand fare consistently well. I played some Beethoven piano trios [Beethoven: The Complete Music For Piano Trio/ Florestan Trio, Hyperion], which was both tonally and rhythmically excellent and that inspired me to try a bit of piano from Alfred Brendel [Haydn 11 Piano Sonatas, Philips)] where the Stirlings resolved so much of the intonation of the playing that it became beguiling.