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Audio Space LS-3/5a Bookshelf Speakers And SW-1a Subwoofer Review

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And yet…

Despite the superb midrange and treble, I couldn’t help but feel that the lack of bass response, volume capability, and price were impediments. My Audio Note AX Two speakers (~$700) also offer excellent midrange and treble, but have significantly deeper bass and much higher sensitivity.

Game changers: Enter the SW-1A subwoofers

Subwoofers often cause problems for picky audiophiles. The theory often goes that subwoofers are desirable because the best place for the midrange and treble is often not the best place for the bass. Sub-Satellite systems allow owners to place speakers in their ideal spot, and the subwoofer in a corner or between the stand-mounts. Cross the subwoofer over at 80Hz or lower and you get seamless integration. Unfortunately, most audiophiles including me rarely hear this work in practice. For whatever reason, subs often tend to sound one note or lumpy, or lag behind the rest of the music. Part of that is no doubt due to improperly treated rooms, poor set-up and owners not using the correct crossover positions, but part of it I suspect comes down to driver integration.

The SW-1A subs sit under the LS-3/5a and come with four round, two-way clear adhesives to attach the speakers. The subs have the exact same footprint as the stand-mounts so they fit perfectly. The subs have spikes at the bottom and according to the manual, the bass “driver is mounted horizontally within the cabinet that employs a symmetrical loading technique for an extended low frequency performance. The volume behind the driver is closed box loading of the same displacement as the LS3/5a and has an integral plinth.”

These subs are rated as 55-120Hz +/-3dB, which doesn’t seem all that significant but boy does this add a whole other level to the LS3/5a. If anyone tells you bass doesn’t much matter, then they need to audition these speakers with and without the SW-1A. The subs integrate very well and seem to offer considerably deeper bass than the 55Hz spec. They allow the speakers to play considerably louder and present a much more solid foundation for every single recording. The combination offers real bass weight and good dynamics, if a little polite with rock music. On “Hindinaa” by the Bonia Trio, male vocals have a spooky depth and fullness to voice. With the excellent percussion piece “Monochrome II” by Taiko Band, the bass performance is nimble enough to allow the listener to hear the growing agitation of bass lines without losing the plot or doubling, even at louder than comfortable levels.

I had read a few sites that suggested integration problems were found with other companies’ versions of this subwoofer for the LS-3/5a. It was suggested that I might need to place the LS-3/5a on its own stands and place the subs in front or behind the stand-mounts. At no time did I feel the need to do this, so perhaps Audio Space has a leg up on the competition here. But it also goes back to what I mentioned earlier about sub placement. With the modular approach, you can move the subs into different positions if necessary, which you can’t do with floor-standing speakers.

Further, this two-part approach allows you to buy the speakers in stages, adding bass later with subs that absolutely match the stand-mounts, as opposed to playing that game of “which sub sounds musical versus which ones are only suited for home theater”.

Another word on appropriate room size

I mentioned previously that I felt the speaker was arguably designed for small rooms. While this is true for the LS-3/5a on its own it isn’t the case with the subs included. I had the opportunity to listen to the combined speakers at Audio Space’s dealer show room which is a considerably larger room at 20’ by 30’ if not larger, in which the speakers were placed at least 15 feet apart. Running 20-60 watt Audio Space tube amplifiers, the speakers sounded rich and full and offered a big stage. When pressed, I did notice distortion but if you’re the type of listener who usually plays at moderate volumes, they will do an admirable job of filling a larger room.

Bottom line

If you tend to value musicality and richness of tone, decay, and body to your music this combination has to be on your audition list. There are other speakers in the same general price range that offer things you may prefer. Recently, auditioning Zu Audio speakers at the same price I found them to sound more open and airy and with higher efficiency. Still, the Audio Space combination, while arguably less detail-oriented, offers a richer, deeper tone which is hard to resist.

The LS-3/5a alone faces stiff competition because other speakers, for less money, offer deeper bass, higher sensitivity, and can play louder; though few can match the musicality, cohesive driver integration, wonderful treble reproduction, or the ability to purchase subwoofers specifically designed for the stand-mount.

As a combination, the LS-3/5a and SW-1A is just so inviting but with enough get-up-and-go that you can still play Lady Gaga and Guns and Roses and get the foot tapping. So “right sounding” are these speakers that I seriously contemplated purchasing them in spite of the specs and limitations. What they do right is just that compelling. They are sit-back-in-the-chair speakers that perhaps value music over most current hi-fi speakers that seem to be about catering to a need to impress with treble zing and bass slam. I find this interesting since these speakers, back in their day, were designed for recording studios which may explain a shift in thinking in the entire industry. I respect Audio Space for investing their efforts on a tougher-sell speaker like this in terms of spec sheet prowess. I also respect them for getting behind a speaker that came out four decades ago and are willing to pit them against numerous other companies making newly fashioned small two ways.

I think I understand why this speaker design has survived for nearly 40 years. Unlike some retro speakers that people seek out on the used market, the LS-3/5a is a design that several current speaker makers continue to build and sell successfully.

One Response to Audio Space LS-3/5a Bookshelf Speakers And SW-1a Subwoofer Review

  1. Murray Wiseman says:

    Great article about what is really essential in speakers in particular and audio in general. It shakes up your thinking just as a listen to a late 5o’s early 60’s jazz recording might do. Yeah, plummy bass and truncated highs but boy it sure sounds good. My Dynaco A25’s, Polk Model 10’s and NHT 2.5’s are all gone but I still remember the NHT’s magic in capturing that jazz vinyl. Their extended woofers and slightly forward midrange truly complemented that midrangy, up-to-the-mike recorded sound. Ditto my Quad amps which made the midrange their focus. Sometimes it’s amazing what you don’t need to get good sound: you have to love those lousy specs–just like SET amps! I’m shopping now and am keeping this review in mind. Just one thought: I have a large room and a lot of audio writers talk about not using small speakers in a large room because they can’t pressurize the room in the bass frequencies. But if you’re listening in the near field (say 7 or 8 ft. away), then isn’t it just a matter of more or bigger subs for the frequencies under 100 hertz (to “load” the room)? Every stacked woofer Paradigm or PSB still has a 4 or 5 inch midrange driver and tweeter like the Audio Space LS-3/5a; it’s just a question of how well the little drivers can get their volume up and out into the room while getting the subs to integrate into the soundfield. Apparently easy in theory but hard in practice as people who prefer towers are wont to say. Nevertheless, in support of your review, most of us do sound better singing in the bathroom than in the living room. Towers vs. sub/sats will continue just as good two-ways will always shake up multi-driver afficianados. I’m trying to solve this equation right now with my larger room. But my little old Monitor Audios from the 80’s (with upgraded gold tweeters) still sound great in the 11×13 room upstairs. Now if only I could find a decent old-style audio salon with the answers I need….

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