Open Mike: The LS3/5a at 48 (OT)

This post is by Ron Dawson from The Online Photographer

Ed. note: I don’t usually work on Saturdays, so this one’s a freebie. You pay nothing! Such a deal.  🙂

I’ve told the story of my departure from the audio hobby several times on TOP, and I’ll tell it again, briefly—but at the end of this post, not at the beginning. It makes a bad lede because some readers have heard it before.

I listen to music on a pretty modest desktop system. It dawns as an astounding revelation on desperate alcoholics that the sober lifestyle is actually more satisfying than drinking; it came as a complete surprise to me when, after 45 years of daily coffee drinking—culminating in a period of true connoisseurship when I was roasting exquisite green Kona coffee beans provided by Hawaii grower and TOP reader Phil Rosenberg—I gave up coffee in favor of simple white tea with lemon, and discovered that I like white tea every bit as much as I ever liked coffee. Maybe a little more. Totally unexpected. How could I be satisfied by a simple little desktop stereo system? It beggars belief. Yet I am.

Giving up the chase

The late Dick Schaus, an old friend, did something similar. Dick was the founder and owner of International Audio in Washington, D.C., the first importer of many British hi-fi products into the USA, including Spendor speakers and British Fidelity components, which he and Antony Michaelson agreed to rename Musical Fidelity for the international market. (I seem to recall there was some kind of conflict with the original name is the US, but memory fades). Before he died, Dick “gave up the chase” for bigger and better and settled on a simple, small system based around Spendor LS3/5a mini-monitors and the truly special little Musical Fidelity A1, a small 25-watt-per-channel Class-A integrated amp that originally came out in the early ’90s. Amazingly, Musical Fidelity, which is now owned by Heinz Lichtenegger of Pro-ject, has recently introduced an all-new revival of the A1 as a legacy product. It’s supposed to ship this month, or early next. I didn’t know that until just now. Classy move by Heinz.

Little giant

The 12″-high LS3/5a, a BBC monitor the design of which is traditionally credited to Spencer Hughes (later the founder and owner of Spendor, his wife’s name being Dorothy—Spen+Dor, get it?), was introduced in 1975. Produced by many manufacturers from Rogers and KEF in the early days to Stirling Broadcast and various Chinese fabricators more recently, it is the original audiophile mini-monitor and is still revered, especially in Asia. Why? It isn’t particularly accurate. But it’s great to listen to. And speaking of classic reissues, I just learned there are now versions of the LS3/5a made by both Rogers, the original marque, and none other than…Musical Fidelity! Dick would be smiling. I didn’t know about either of those last two until today.

If you buy LS3/5a’s, accept them as they are. Don’t use them as a building block to a “better” speaker system. Don’t add a subwoofer. Don’t try to get rid of the mid-bass hump in the frequency response. If you don’t like them, get something else. It’s foolish to think you can make magic better.

LS35aThe granddaddy of mini-monitors:

what’s old is now new again

If I were still playing the game, I’d have mine in walnut with the Rogers nameplate. Ever the connoisseur.

John Atkinson of Stereophile remarked in an old review that it was amazing that the LS3/5a had survived unchanged for 14 years. Well, now they’ve survived for 48 years. Mostly unchanged—everybody tries to make new ones faithful to the original design. In a small room, with careful setup* and the right kind of music—jazz ensembles, bluegrass, chamber music, folk guitarists, vocalists—magic happens.

Nothing to do with me

The stereo hobby is a generational phenomenon. It got going in earnest when RCA introduced the LP, which stood for long-playing record, in 1948, and took shape as a pastime in the ’50s. But it really took off with the Boomers and Generation Jones (my generation) when rock music became such a cultural phenomenon in the 1960s and ’70s.

I first got the bug when I was 15 in 1972. I cut lawns all summer and bought a Dual turntable, a Marantz receiver, and KLH speakers, and was hooked. For 30 years I happily spun records and then CDs (my first player was the portable Sony D-5 of 1984) and then records again, obsessed over reviews, and wasted copious percentages of my paltry discretionary income on a never-ending parade of components. I still have enough equipment in the house for at least two complete systems. (I’d love to get rid of it all but I don’t know how. A prisoner of sunk costs!)

After 30 years it came to an end. One fine day in about 2005 I caught myself reading an issue of Stereophile (one of the two formerly “underground” journals of high-end audio that are now mainstream magazines, the other being The Absolute Sound) that contained reviews of no fewer than three components that each cost more than $40,000. I suddenly thought, why am I even reading this? What has any of it got to do with me? I couldn’t shake that thought. So I decided to give it all up. It was hard at first. Old habits are hard to break. 

Strangely, I’m happier now than when I tried to be an audiophile. Mostly, I guess, because I don’t think about it any more. My main speakers today, as I’ve said before, are a set of AudioEngine A5+ powered computer speakers (now cheaper than ever at $299), augmented by the S8 separate woofer. (I’m still enough of an audiophile that I can’t bring myself to call an 8″ woofer a “subwoofer”!) I got the A5+ speakers as a promotional freebie maybe twelve years ago, and still listen to them every day. My DAC, which I’ve loved from the day I got it to today, is available once again: the Halide Design DAC HD. It was discontinued, then resurrected by popular demand. Here’s a typical review. Highly recommended for computer speakers or small real-world systems. It renders a lovely smooth midrange and great imaging, and has a relaxed, non-digital quality that’s hard to define.

Today I just concentrate on the music, and yet still enjoy the sound; the best of both worlds.


(Thanks to Hi-Fi Heaven in Green Bay for confirming the existence of the new A1)

*On stands, on the short-side of a not-too-big rectangular room, away from the wall the same exact distance, exactly symmetrical side to side, slightly toed in, grilles on, with the listening position equidistant from each speaker, with nothing between the speakers and hopefully something big, absorbent, and irregular hanging on the sidewalls in the reflection position**. On the good side, people spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on elaborate listening rooms, and you can set up the LS3/5a nicely in a room the size of many bedrooms, as long as it’s a rectangular box. You could build such a room easily in many basements.

**Put a lamp exactly where the speakers will be, sit in the listening chair, and have someone position a mirror on the sidewalls until you can see light bulb reflected in the middle of it. That’s the side reflection point. Happens on the ceiling, too, if you’re feeling ambitious—but in a basement, you can simply leave the joists bare to break up the ceiling reflections!

P.S. Not to waste your time for you, but there is lots to read on the Web about the LS3/5a.

Original contents copyright 2023 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. (To see all the comments, click on the “Comments” link below or on the title of this post.)

Featured Comments from:

Herman Krieger: “That seems like sound advice.”

Charles Rozier: “Some of the prior comments took me back in time. I was the industrial designer of the Apt Holman preamp, the Adcom amps, and various other audio components, long ago and far away.”

Mike replies: Wow! That is so cool. Like having a celebrity in my audience. That was a famous preamp back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, designed by Tom (Tomlinson) Holman, who later became the “T” in Lucasfilm THX. He finished his career as an engineer at Apple. The Apt Holman was expensive for its era, and still measures great today after thorough servicing.

The last time I saw an Apt Holman preamp I was advising a bookstore/café on Dupont Circle about how to upgrade their store sound system. I had them buy unfinished Klipsch Heresy speakers and a few other things, but I recommended they get their old Apt Holman restored, and keep it, which they did. They got a low-key but steady stream of compliments from customers about how good the music sounded in the store (I know because my brother worked there). It’s not easy to make a preamp look good, but I loved the way that one looked—all business. You did a good job. Nice that you are here!

Don Seymour: “My audiophile brother-in-law set me up with a pair of Chartwell LS3/5a’s and a matching Rogers subwoofer when I was in college in the late ’70s. Loved them and enjoyed them for 40-some years. Just sold them on eBay last year for many thousands, and replaced them with the KEF LS50 metas. Totally satisfied with these now. Thanks for the informative post.”

Mike Plews: “In 1969 while in the Army on Okinawa I bought a Sansui AU555 integrated amp. Over the years the speakers, tape deck and turntable I also bought all got replaced, but that amp just soldiered on.

A few months back it finally failed, dropping the left side out. I figured 53 years was a pretty good run but wasn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet. I took it to Nils Erickson at Rainbow Studio in Omaha. He has an analog recording studio, audio equipment store and a repair shop specializing in vintage gear. His shop is like a stereo hoarders dream. Need a Dynaco or McIntosh amp? Nils is your guy. He said he would take a run at saving my amp.I figured along with any repairs old reliable would need to be recapped.

A month later he called to say it was fixed. He said the bill would be $100 for labor. I asked about parts and he said, ‘didn’t need any.’ Caps were fine. Turns out 53 years of following me around left a load of god knows what inside. A good cleaning and exercising of the pots and it came right back to its old self. So now it is back at work powering 30-year-old B&W speakers. Earlier this year I ripped my CD collection and transferred them to a Surfans F20 player which works great. Vinyl is handled by a wheel of steel with a fresh Ortofon Red cart. It’s a nice clean mid-fi setup. I don’t regard myself as an audiophile, just a happy listener.

“Gotta say I still love the sound from that old Sansui. They really knew how to build them back in the ’60s. Think I’ll kick back for an afternoon with Kenny Burrell.”

Mike replies: I had an AU-717 for years, which was great as well. Your amp is a cult favorite for sure. If memory serves it uses transformers, like a tube amp (IANAEE*). It was built in a transition period between tubes and solid-state, and sounds like it—it’s voiced like a tube amp, with that warm, lush sound that makes spoken-word sound chesty and full. People who love that sound really love it.

By the way, you are Dorian Gray and I am the portrait. Every time I buy a piece of vintage gear it breaks. When that happens, I always figure there must be someone out there somewhere who’s having all the luck with old gear that that I’m not having!   🙂

*I am not an electronics engineer.


Related Stories