November 3, 2011

The BBC Heritage Revisited.

One of the main reasons that the hifi trio made the London trip was to visit Paul Whatton, to experience what is considered as the holy grail of every LS3/5A enthusiast. Yes, you've guess right, it's the elusive BBC no.1 & 2 pair of the LS3/5A. To the casual observer, this pair looked as non-script as any pair of LS3/5A spec mini monitor, made by Spendor, Rogers, KEF, Harbeth and many of the licensees over the years when it was in production. However, look closer at the discreet BBC badge on the top right corner and the bespoke look becomes apparent. This pair of LS3/5A spec mini monitor carries significant history, and wears it on it's veneers, due to the fact this was the production ready prototype, built by a team of BBC engineers, including the late Maurice Whatton, Paul's father who at the time was also involved in some of the other legendary BBC designs, which incidentally includes the larger LS5/9 variety. Paul continues his father's legacy today as a BBC contractor.

The highly prized, yet elusive BBC LS3/5A No.1 & 2. 
The back view, 40 years or so of hard use, and each side of a veneer panel tells a school of hard knocks story.

This pair of BBC no.1 & 2 LS3/5A speaker was the final reference before the design was approved to be production ready. Apparently in the consideration of making the speakers more production friendly, the licensees entrusted to mass produced the speaker needed to make adjustments to the passive x-over design over the original pair, so that it's easier to match each speaker as pair in the field during use. This was a necessary evil as at the time in the 1970's, KEF's production, and QC spec tolerances of the T27 tweeter and the B110 mid bass driver were pretty wide, compared to the much tighter standards deemed acceptable today. And if Jo was right about his assumption, that the mass produced LS3/5A would have drifted in terms of absolute sonic properties, compared to the very early examples, and surely against the numero uno & duo pair. Is it really so? Let our ears be the judge then!

Paul explaining the details and events that unfold in the making of LS3/5A loud speaker, do read all the really juicy bits on his website!

The KISS(Keep It Simple Stupid) set up!

Paul's system is set up in a smallish living room, typical of a British middle class home. The speakers are set up along side the longer wall, firing straight ahead with little toe in, in to the room. A fire place is nestled in between the speakers to keep the room warm during the winter months, and the rest of the front end equipment, comprising a Thorens TD124 turn table for analog source and a Musical Fidelity A3 CD player for digital source, feeding the audio signal to a DIY tube pre-amp, utilising a very simple circuit of EF86s connected as triodes with an ALPS volume pot, residing inside a gutted out Quad 22 pre-amp box, driving a pair of restored vintage Quad II tube mono block. On first look, little or no audiophile tweakery is apparent, in fact all front end sits inside and on an IKEA self assembled shelf, and cables are rather standard looking freebie red/white RCA and power cords. Paul even throws caution to the wind by stacking his gear one on top of another(certainly a no-no for the prime and proper fastidious audiophile!), due to space constraint. The speaker cables are DIY braided, which consist of three runs of CAT5 cable stock on each side!

Only the IF Designs Tallis speaker stands, made by Roger Lokyer is especially designed for the LS3/5A gives a discreet hint of what this system is truly capable of. Paul also told us that these stands were rather expensive when they were available a few years back.  However, Roger may be considering making these highly coveted stands again soon, but only in limited edition guise! 
The IF Designs Tallis stand are a beauty to behold, especially with the LS3/5A sitting on top. It cost GBP450/pair when available in 2003.

Since the Thorens TD 124 was sporting a broken Supex 900 cartridge, due to a domestic accident(ouch....), it was not used in the listening session. Paul says he also has a broken Ortofon MC10 cartridge(another domestic incident? ouch..... double ouch!). However, I am glad to report that even with the Musical Fidelity A3 CD player, the sound was tonally lush, deep, yet at the same time presented a free, and acoustically open sound staging. Listening to Miles Davis, Kind Of Blue CD, on the first track, tittled So What, I heard the density of air filling the brass body, the blow, using a combo technique of lips, teeth, mouth piece exhaust and finger keys to manipulate each note, the trumpet sounding slightly matte, and the tenor sax taking on a darker, smoother, more burnished tone quality, both gently caressing and coodling my precious pair of ears. Miles presence with the trumpet and John Coltrane's tenor saxophone sounded life like and shockingly real. When playing voices, I did not detect the nasality so often heard with poorly set up LS3/5A speakers, not one bit. In fact, the mid range was dense, thick even but never sounded shut in, or cupped. I find this LS3/5A speaker based system to be surprisingly as transparent as today's best hifi system, which probably accounts for it's level of musical realism. While the system's dynamic range was excellent, it wasn't quite as linear as today's hifi equipment. The volume limits were often breached, and we could heard either the tube amps clipping or the KEF drivers over driven, when playing Pink Floyd's The Wall CD. Stay within it's comfort zone however, this system is one the most complete sounding and as convincing as the best that I've heard. Jo was begining to wonder a loud, after hearing this LS3/5A pair set up with an attitude of abandonment, why did he even need to bother?(with all his tweaks that is) We were indeed left with a sense of bewilderment, which element in the equipment chain contributed to the "magic" of this system, the Quad II and LS3/5A partnership? The DIY pre-amp with Paul's magical DIY touch? The source? Jo then deduced that it was most likely the BBC no.1 & 2 working it's charm on us. Paul told us that the famous(or is it infamous?) Ken Kesler was completely bowled over by the charms of the BBC no.1 & 2 when he heard it sometime ago.

Now, the BBC LS3/5A has been replaced by Paul's favorite speaker, the Quad ESL 57.

It was at this point, Paul showed us around his wonderful collection of vintage hifi. "There's something of an attraction that I find in vintage hifi, that's not on offer with modern hifi equipment!" said Paul. I spotted a pair of pristine condition Quad ESL57 electrostatic speakers. I asked to be enlightened, Paul obliged, but cautioned that the pair had been sitting in his work shop for some time now, and will need to be charged up before playing. We let the Quads charged up while we chatted over a glass of wine. The hour soon passed and we'd cue up the same Pink Floyd CD again. During the first 20 minutes or so, the sound beamed straight out of the panel from the ESL57. I've never heard modern speakers beamed like that, but as we listened along the sound slowly but surely opened up. The musical presentation of the ESL57 is very different compared to the LS3/5A.  The sound stage is wide open, although the imaging isn't as tightly focused as the dynamic cone speaker. However, it was the richness of it's mid range presence which won me over. It's highly transparent mid range does wonders for the vocal tracks and mood music. The ESL57 is somewhat compromised when it comes to frequency response bandwidth and overall loudness. It seems some what rolled off at the extremes and will buzz when push beyond it's volume comfort zone. The Quad ESL57 will always be cherished for what it can do and will continue to have a place in hifi history. I can now understand why it's re-sale values have done so well for so many decades.

Some thing from the Casino Royale era, a Nagra SNST-R miniature reel to reel tape recorder, seen here with it's partner in crime, the Nagra Kudelski DSP playback unit. A mint condition, working pair could fetch as much as Euro$10,000.00 on the collector's market!  

Proud babies, the speakers or the men?

Paul also maintains the website with intention to help fellow enthusiast to verify values, spot fakes, and basically what to look out for when shopping for the LS3/5A speakers, and other vintage hifi equipment. He has helped countless enthusiast via the detailed information available from his website. As it is getting more expensive to host the site and keep it running, Paul appeals to users who finds his web site and advise helpful to kindly make a donation as it is non-profit oriented.
Paul shares his secret recipe for baked potatoes, they're YUMMY!

This artistic ceramic candle holder is NOT Paul's handy work, but the labour of love from Miranda, his romantic partner.

On his spare time, Paul is also aspires to be a great cook and expresses his artisan side via ceramics. We were served with roast lamb, baked potatoes for dinner topped off with cheese cake for desert. Ahh...... this was a rewarding visit for the hifi trio which ever way one looks at it. Thanks Paul, for sharing the collection of your historical pride and joy with us.

The lovely photos are courtesy of Big E and Felix(mostly!).


Capernaum Creative Solutions Inc. said...

Big E,

Excellent write up. I liked the way you described the sound of the 001 and 002 LS3/5A. It brought me back to the night itself and reminded me again how special the sound was. It was really breathtaking.

It was one of the most memorable visits I have ever made to any audiophile's home. Paul's hospitality and warm welcome is 2nd to non. Wonderful dinner, wonderful family and a perfect evening for me.

Thanks for the write up. Thanks Jo for bringing us there and Thanks Paul (if you are reading this)for a lovely evening which I will never forget.

Ken said...

I think you guys went through a short history course on some English speakers.

One thing puzzle me, I saw a XLR connector at the back of the vintage BBC speaker. Was this the speaker you guys were listening to?

Lastly, when I was studying in UK, I can say that the english has many ways to cook the humble potato! Mash, boiled, baked, roast, even a jacket potato. Bring back fond memories!

Big E said...


Yes, that pair of BBC no.1 & 2 LS3/5A with the XLR connector is the pair the we listened to as the sonic description is about.

Indeed, the are mnany ways to cook the humble potato, just like the many ways to skin a cat, as in life and as in hifi too!

Big E said...


Yes, it was a pleasure travelling with both Jo and your good self.

A special thanks to Jo, for playing the tour guide role so well!

Capernaum Creative Solutions Inc. said...


I've had my share of delicious baked potatoes in the past and yes, there are many ways of cooking them. Being an English, I am sure Paul knows that too.

However, as discovered by Paul with his "secret" ingredient, Paul's baked potatoes just takes the cake. It was the best baked potatoes I have ever eaten. And we ate tonnes of it.

jo ki said...

Hi Big E,

Over the years, you had written some 'BIG' articles, as big as the name that carries you; this is yet another excellent article of note to me!

The significance of this BBC no.1 & 2 is huge! I would refer this to be the 1st official pair of LS3/5A in the world! For those enthusiasts, this is like meeting the creator itself.

The sound is awesome and easily renders all commercial production by licensees "inconsequential"! Hearing it sing so mavellously in Paul's 'raw system', makes my collection of 25 pairs looks silly!

Paul is such warm person that he could make new acquainttence feels like you had known each other for years within 1 minute. This is what I know Paul since more than a decade ago. He has not changed one bit. This explain why it was always my great pleasure in meeting him. I hope he agrees to visit KL again soon.

Bth of you - Big E and Felix - are excellent travelling companions! I hope there would more of such trip because I thoroughly enjoyed the company!

Felix, London does not change much and since I know this city so well, it was nothing taking you guys around. If we stayed longer, I could take you out of London, and show you the charm English landscape offerings up north.

Jo Ki

Martyn Miles said...

I was fascinated by this. I have a pair of home-built LS3/5as, using the same type of B110 as used in the BBC 1 & 2. They were built with advice from Jerry Bloomfield of Falcon Acoustics.
NOS T27s were used, along with new Falcon Acoustics FL6/23 crossovers, Harbeth LS3/5a cabinets and front baffles and all other parts from Stirling Broadcast or Falcon Acoustics.
The grilles are genuine Tygan.
The sound, as posted by Jo Ki, is exactly how mine sound.