The thought of reviewing a pair of BBC speakers was, to me, like being offered a packet of jammy dodgers. Let me explain, having
spent many hours, and nights, broadcasting and mixing at Her Majesty’s Broadcasting Corporation (and eating jammy dodgers) I had got so accustomed to the sound it was like reliving old times when reviewing this modern incarnation.
The BBC in its heyday designed their own speakers, because no other speaker was good enough, particularly for ‘speech’. When I joined the corporation as a studio manager (incidentally the same year as the LS5/9 was conceived), their premises were full of all variants of speakers designed by them, some dating back to the 1950s. There were near and far monitors numbered as LS3/ and LS5/ respectively. Generally the latter appeared in the larger studios, hence considered as “a” grade as opposed to “b” grade office speakers, where the LS3/5a were widely used. That was confusing in the LS5/12a, being the last near-field BBC speaker – the size of an LS3/5a. That one has been reborn by Spendor, but was not used much at all at the BBC. By the time BBC speakers reached the end of their broadcasting life I worked in my capacity as Resource and Development Manager to look at their replacements. In the end the BBC opted for domestic stock Dynaudio speakers.
The LS5/9 was a smaller loudspeaker to replace the goliath precursor LS5/8, and work began on developing this excellent speaker in 1983. Regrettably it never saw service until the 90’s. Harbeth later sold their own variant Monitor 30 and later still the 30.1, which is used by a number of major recording studios/professionals. Whilst the older LS5/8 was finding itself more and more unlikely to make it to the studios, and certainly the recording suite vans and lorries, as it was too big, it could also sound too slow and lacking top end frequencies. Hence the LS5/9 was designed to match as closely as possible the “sound” of the former iconic speaker, but at 28litre much smaller than the 109litre LS5/8. Indeed, the original tweeter was identical to that in the 5/8 to aid that similarity. It also needed to have the ability to acoustically measure 100dB(A)/1m. Whereas the earlier LS3/6 and LS3/5a were 50litre and 5litre respectively, the new speaker needed to operate at a higher sound level, and be midway in cabinet volume. No mean task, and all done at only the cost of one quarter of an octave of the lowest tones of the LS5/8.
Derek Hughes, son of Spencer and Dorothy Hughes, who of course formed Spendor, was brought in to help with the Graham LS5/9 project. His dad, Spencer, had many years earlier left his job in BBC R&D to build the BC-1 after developing the LS3/6, and son Derek worked in the company, too. His experience therefore was vital in the new Graham Audio LS5/9, in understanding the original design, and to help reinvent the original design. This was done over two years. British manufacturer Volt, who make the woofer for this incarnation worked closely with Derek to create a design similar to the original BBC 200mm unit made by Rogers, and using the same translucent polypropylene diaphragm material. The original could change its frequency curve with age, so time was spent creating a design that would last forever. The original 34mm Audax tweeter is still in production in a similar guise today, protected in a mesh housing, just as it was in the original BBC safety feature. Similarly, the speaker cabinet continues the original strategy of thin walls, largely because the BBC wanted to make them as cheaply as possible. It is important to say that it is a complicated design with bitumen damping, highly braced and with Rockwool-type insulation held together with black cloth. It is highly engineered, despite looking just like a box! The target was to create a cabinet with short resonance within a limited Q, so that resonance didn’t carry across a large frequency range, as in many loudspeakers. As the original was designed for all types of music, including classical which has many small individual instrument sounds across a wide frequency bandwidth, it was important that it wasn’t masked by cabinet sounds.
Whilst many within the BBC tried, and eventually won, to get rid of the ‘BBC sound’, including engineer and colleague Peter Thomas, who built some brilliant unusually shaped speakers using transmission line “porting”, and then who left to form PMC, I still wanted to hear the traditional BBC sound. Call it ‘pipe and slipper’ sound, I don’t mind. If anything, the sound should be called ‘Old Faithful’, as will become clear throughout my spiel. The sound is very forward with a feeling of slight accentuating of midrange, and being very easy to listen to for long periods, something which sound-engineers obviously found to be very important. Placed correctly in an isosceles triangle, slightly toed in, then these near field monitors’ sound is just so right, with nothing missing or added as is the case for many expensive speakers. Indeed, one can get so used to too much top end in modern speakers that these could sound lacking. Actually, putting my meter across the output these are impressively flat, all the way to the top. At £3450 Graham Audio’s remake on the theme is very reasonably priced for the sound you get and for me certainly an incredibly cheap revisit down memory lane for my days at Aunty. It can be bought with a tidy looking heavy, and typically BBC, metal stand at an extra cost, which ensures it is the correct height and is securely held.
During this test, I brought out in tribute my own LS3/5a and Spendor BC1 (closely connected with the LS3/6, but that’s for another day). I always found the Spendor had a highly coloured mid frequency, and this was particularly evident testing now up against the Graham model. The aged speaker felt overworked and fragile in comparison, plus, as an early variant I was worried in case I over-drove it, so I therefore decided to mod the internal wiring with silver cabling and add, after a few calculations, a uniquely designed 3.75″ length/2″ diameter port, rather than the simplistic “hole of hope” on the original. What an improvement. I’ll share my design with you all soon.
Back to the Graham Audio. When testing during manufacture their objective performance is recorded for future support, and each pair is carefully matched, just like in old BBC days. The model is made from birch plywood and available in 3 finishes. It has a magnificently built enclosure in cherry, rosewood and ebony maccasa. Whilst many might laugh today at building a traditionally shaped box speaker, favouring something with curves, carbon, plastic, glass or perhaps with a baffle and no enclosure, this one really does work, and you get a piece of acoustic history thrown in. The box is critically braced in a different way to that of the original BBC model. The speaker is single-wired, and it has a 1dB adjustment panel for the tweeter level, but this is factory set. This is done to account for minor variations in the tweeter design.
I found the speaker to work better with the front grille removed, which was easily done, since it is cleverly held on magnetically (not on the original LS5/9s, I might add). I found it happier playing classical and jazz music, being a wee stodgy on some of the pop music I played, especially when loud. Naim’s ‘True Stereo’ CD with its uncluttered and unprocessed recording was just that; it sounded just as the engineer would have wanted it to come across to the listener, relaxed and not rushed. The flutes, whistle, guitars and drum in Mark Knopfler’ vinyl album “Get Lucky” were all clear but very, very, powerful at the same time, largely because the sound was forward. For me, being used to soundstage behind the speakers, these monitors could perhaps be tiring if listening to at recording studio levels – which is what I wanted to do, all the time. At low and normal levels nothing stuck out, and bass was punchy like the drinking-straw-tuned bass ports in those Meridian M2 powered speakers, from 30 years ago. Many speakers fail miserably at low level. These certainly didn’t. When going back to my reference Wilson Benesch Arcs, suddenly the sound went back to third gear as the soundstage disappeared behind the speakers and the lower octave needed support from the Torus infrasonic generator. Eagle’s ‘Long Road out of Eden’ was so in control; the sweet vocals contrasted the punchy drum 4 beat in ‘I don’t want to Hear Anymore’. Ironically I did want to hear more, and whilst I was reliving my BBC past, I wondered why the world had ever advanced from NICAM and flared trousers. Both were statements of their time. These speakers were a statement of quality, and of a time when things ran a little slower and more relaxed. These speakers did the same for me; nothing was hurried, and all the music showed total command. For example, ‘A Taste of Honey’ from Patricia Barber’s ‘Cafe Blue’ has a relaxing but informative lilt. This was how life should have sounded. The depth in recording was absolutely right; being forward speakers didn’t mean the sound was two dimensional. I was amongst the musicians, not sitting back in the 10th row. These speakers are, however, like Marmite. You will either love them or not. They are worthy of a listen to fully appreciate just how good sound used to be.
The soundstage has an exceptional stereo spread, and with its clear but polite footprint it can make any music sound pleasurable, whether driven from my Krell, Roksan, Musical Fidelity, Leak, Sony, or anything else I threw at it. It works best on understated amplifiers, though whatever I connected to it gave a really accurate reading of the music. Compressed music sounded compressed, and real vinyl sounded, well, real. Whilst I perhaps would have preferred Scanspeak tweeters, doing so would render this speaker a fraud, and hence not a LS5/9, and ultimately not get that BBC accreditation. And it gets better, Graham Audio will be releasing their 21st Century LS5/8 in November.
In conclusion, this is one hell of a good speaker, and one which is so hard to evaluate. With my BBC hat off this time, I have thought much about the sound as well as build. Indeed, it is incredibly well made and boxed, and gives an equally good and honest musical rendering, though it can sound a bit boring with certain music. This is not a criticism, as there was nothing missing; it was just honest, something we are just not used to in many speakers. I was no longer listening to speakers. I was listening to the musicians, or the singers, or the spoken voice, just as the BBC sound engineers, myself included, would have needed to hear. Forget all those fancy boxes or new technologies. It was all right, back in 1983, and it’s still all right now.
Sound Quality – 8.5/10
Value for Money – 8.6/10
Build Quality – 8.6/10