Chartwell LS3/5A Review

My Story

The LS3/5A were recommended to me a while ago as a legendary British construction. As I am not a big fan of small monitors, they were not really on top of my priority list, especially that the prices on eBay start around £700 and go up to couple of grands. It felt as a bit too much for ‘shoe box’ size speakers.
Having read more about them and understanding why so many people fall in love with them, I managed to buy myself a pair of Chartwell LS3/5A that used to belong to BBC sound engineer. They were not cheap but at least I knew that they were genuine from a good source (most likely used by BBC).

Please note – usually before reviewing vintage speakers, I recap the crossovers to ensure that capacitors are within manufacturer’s specification. On this occasion, purely because of high collectable value of these speakers I have not modified any of the electronic components. Therefore, review of these speakers is based on them being as they are, meaning over 30 years old capacitors. Also, bear in mind that purchasing vintage speakers is always a gamble. 30 and often 50 years it’s a long time, and one can never be sure how this time affected driver suspension compliance, ferrofluid cooling is some tweeters, etc. Consequently, it is possible that the Chartwell LS3/5A that you have purchased will sound different than the pair I reviewed.

Speaker Info

The LS3/5A were designed by BBC engineers for mobile monitoring use. They needed to be compact, so they could be fitted into BBC vans. The speakers feature 5l sealed enclosure with 110mm bass driver and 19mm dome tweeter. There is nothing particularly special or amazing about each of these drivers. On the other hand, the crossover is quite complicated as most of frequency equalisation (flattening) happens there. I personally believe that the crossover changes these ‘ok sounding’ drivers in to great sounding speaker. The BBC did not produce the speakers themselves, instead, they outsourced production to number of British companies (e.g. Rogers, Kef, Spendor, Goodmans, Chartwell, etc.). From what I gathered the Rogers LS3/5A are most popular, and therefore, cheapest to buy. The other brands are more sought after, and consequently, more expensive. All of these manufacturers used Kef drivers (T27 SP1032 for tweeter and B110 SP1003 for bass). It is important to mention that not all of the B110 drivers product by Kef were the same. The variations on the production line where quite high, which meant that only small percentage of these drivers were approved by BBC and used for LS3/5A production.
 
 
Chartwell LS3/5A Specs

Frequency Response: 80 – 20,000Hz
Sensitivity: 82.5dB (1W input, measured at 1m)
Impedance: 15Ω
Power Capacity: 25W (continuous program)
High Frequency Driver: T27 SP1032 19mm (0.75″) Mylar Dome
Low Frequency Driver: B110 SP1003 110mm (4.5″) Bextrene Diaphragm
Crossover Frequencies: 3,000Hz
Enclosure Type: Closed
Enclosure Dimensions (HxWxD): 300x190x160mm (12×7.5×6.25″)
Weight: 5.5kg (each speaker)
Production Year: 1980
Price When Launched: £160 for a pair
Equivalent Present Day Price: £900 for a pair
Current UK Price: £600 to £3,000 for a pair

 

Look & Feel of Chartwell LS3/5A Speakers

Despite my lack of interest in small monitors, I think that these LS3/5A look very presentable and feel quite heavy and solid for their size. The enclosures are made from 12mm, veneered birch plywood and are dampen with open cell foam on all internal walls. The front panel is recessed against the speaker edges to allow for flush mount of the grills. To dampen reflections from the edges, a felt ‘squares’ were used around the tweeters. The drivers (as you would expect from British speakers from the 70s) do not look very neat but they are definitely well made. The woofer has fairly large motor and the tweeter is very solid. Overall, I do like the way how these are made and how these look.

Sound of Chartwell LS3/5A

Before conducting proper listening tests, I have plugged in these Chartwell LS3/5A speakers and played some background music while I was working on something else. I then found myself stopping every 10 minutes and saying to myself “gosh, these sound quite good”. When eventually I commenced the listening tests, I realised that there is indeed something very special about the sound of LS3/5A.

The bass is quite modest and well controlled as you’d expect from 5l sealed enclosure. However, the lack of low end extension means that some tracks lack weight. It is especially noticeable on the tracks with piano such as Bridge Over Troubled Water by Paul Simon from the MTV Unplugged album, where you constantly feel that something is missing. Modern reiteration of these speaker, Harbeth P3ESR, do much better job at fooling you that you are listening to a full range set. Also, the lack of attack is quite noticeable, especially if one is used to larger speakers. The LS3/5A are simply too small to produce the visceral experience that larger speakers can.

Treble and mids are clear and sweet at the same time. They sound very realistic and natural, especially when playing voices. There is something magical about their midrange and I cannot actually figure out what it is. It makes some of the tracks sound spectacular. For instance, Woodstock by Joni Mitchell gives me goose bumps when played through LS3/5A but sounds just normal when played through any other speakers. It is also important to mention the soundstage, or rather lack of it. The LS3/5A are very flat sounding speakers, even by 1970s standards. I’ve tried various configurations and room placements, and they just not projected a deep sound stage. Strangely, even without the deep soundstage they still sound very engaging.

In addition to all of the above, there is also a matter of handling power and sensitivity. Low power handling combined with low sensitivity means that you have to be careful with the volume control. I’ve achieved satisfying volume levels on majority of records but I would not dare playing bass-rich tracks very loud on these little loudspeakers.

Overall, impressive little speakers with magical midrange and plenty of nostalgia but not the best all-rounders. For the same price (or less) you could get a set of Celestion Ditton 66 that will significantly outperform LS3/5As in most aspects. If I was going to use Chartwell LS3/5A as my main speakers, I would definitely start by checking the capacitors to see if they are within the manufacturer’s tolerances, and replacing them if they were not. Also, experimenting with a set of active subwoofers could be a good idea too. As a matter of fact, I’ve built a set of Rogers AB1 dedicated subwoofers for LS3/5As – you can read more about it here: Rogers AB1 DIY Project.


 

Conclusion

Impressive speakers with magical midrange and sweat and clear sound. Not for bass lovers though. Flat soundstage, yet still very engaging to listen.

Balance of Sound: 2 grey stars
Neutrality of Tone: 4 grey stars
Transparency: 3.5 grey stars
Soundstage: 2 grey stars
Attack: 2 grey stars
Engagement: 3.5 grey stars
Total Score: 3 red stars

 

Songs Mentioned In This Review

Joni Mitchell – Woodstock
Paul Simon – Bridge Over Troubled Water (MTV Unplugged)
 

Reviewed: May 2015 | Published: May 2015

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