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Reviewer: Frederic Beudot
Digital Source: Musical Fidelity A5 CD, Accuphase DP55
Integrated Amp: Musical Fidelity A5 integrated, Onix SP3 integrated, Sphinx Project 10 integrated
Speakers: FJ OM, Rogers LS 3/5a + Bass units AB1
Cables: Zu Gede, Zu Libtec, Consonance Billie interconnects, Cobalt Ultimate balanced interconnects, Cobalt Ultimate speaker cables
Headphone: Beyerdynamic DT911, AKG701, Creek OBH11se, Musical Fidelity XCanv3
Power Cords: Cobalt Ultimate
Powerline conditioning: Monster Power HTS5100mkII
Sundry accessories: Isolpads under electronics and speakers, Standesign stand
Room size: 15' x 30' opening to 3 other rooms. Short wall setup
Review component retail: FJ OM $3,995/pair
Do you ever go back and revisit your decisions a year later? When it comes to hifi gear, I rarely do. It mostly seems to be a journey forward with barely a glance over the shoulder but a journey I have so far traveled at a fairly slow pace, one not prone to raising suspicions of reckless upgrading.
But 2006 somehow seems to have been an exception. I started the year listening to Rogers LS 3/5a speakers, powered by a Sphinx Project 10 integrated amp and shortly after by an Onix SP3, using an Accuphase DP55 as a source. A year later, my main system does not have a single element in common. It all started when I heard the FJ OMs at Quest for Sound and as is usual in our hobby, it triggered changes in all elements of my system.
So when Srajan suggested I should pen a follow-up of the OMs for my debut review and to serve as ongoing introduction to my system, it seemed easy enough as I have been living with them for almost a year and have spent countless hours fine-tuning their sound and optimizing their performance. But our Machiavellian editor added a twist to the assignment by asking for a comparison to the Rogers - with and without their AB1 bass unit. At first glance that was not much of an added effort as they have been my references for way over ten years. I should be able to write about their sound and performance in my sleep - shouldn't I?
And then reality settled in. I was asked to compare one of 6moons' 2005 Product of the Year recipients to a 30+ year legend and to do it in the context of a system I had spent a year optimizing for the OMs. I could already picture the flow of vengeful e-mails should I find the Rogers wanting in some way against the OMs. But at the other end of the spectrum, how would I rationalize the purchase of the OMs if they did not sustain an in-depth comparison favorably?
That's why I have decided to articulate this review in three different sections, first the facts (I hope we can all agree on how much they weigh); then critical listening where I'll try to identify the similarities and differences in the way both speakers approach music reproduction; and finally the highly subjective world of emotions and how both speakers enhance the listening experience beyond merely reproducing sounds.
This review started as a follow-up to John Potis' initial write-up on the FJ OMs. I therefore can't recommend enough that you go through his impressions, which led him to grant one of his 2005 product of the year awards to this diminutive speaker. Not much has changed over the past year except that the cited frequency response is now specified at 40Hz - 20kHz +/- 2dB, much more in line with what owners usually experience than the more conservative 50Hz - 20kHz +/- 2dB that the manufacturer used in the past. Sensitivity still 'towers' at 87dB, 4.5dB higher than the Rogers I will be comparing them to.
The 250 watts and high current of my Musical-Fidelity A5 integrated did not get strained in any way by either the 6-ohm impedance of the FJs or the 11-ohm impedance of the Rogers. I can reasonably assume that any compression or lack of dynamics I might have witnessed were not due to the amplifier but truly the reflection of the speakers' abilities. Before we move forward into the heat of a head-to-head comparison of those two Lilliputians, let me backtrack and share a little history of the Rogers with those of you who are not intimately familiar with it.
Let me start right away with a disclaimer. I am not an expert on the LS 3/5a speakers, just an amateur who loves their sound and has been gathering snippets of information here and there over time. There are numerous sites and chat rooms to explore if you want detailed information on the LS 3/5 and how to optimize its performance or even build your own; a good place to start if you are so inclined is undoubtedly the unofficial LS 3/5a support site, rich in articles, links and advice of all sorts.
During the early 70s the BBC had a need for a small, grade II speaker (suitable for monitoring but not for setting tonal balance or microphone placement) for use in outdoor broadcasting. To answer this need, the BBC commissioned their design group to develop a very compact speaker that could fit and operate inside a monitoring van. The result of their work was the LS3/5 which was then licensed to commercial speaker companies for production under some very tight specifications imposed by the BBC. To be suitable for industrial production, the speaker had to be tweaked and hence the LS 3/5a was born. Aside from Rogers, the other manufacturers licensed by the BBC to produce the LS3/5a were Chartwell, Audiomaster, Spendor and Harbeth. In 1988 the BBC had to redesign the speaker significantly to address a drift in quality and performance. The redesigned speaker's impedance dropped from 15 ohms to 11 but the overall physical and musical presentation remained mostly unchanged except for taming a 1kHz peak and cabinet resonance that had developed out of control over the years. This peak was originally introduced by design to enhance voice clarity and improve the ease of monitoring but a slow drift of the KEF transducers specs over 14 years had taken it to a level no longer compatible with monitoring duties. Eventually the BBC also approved a biwirable version which is what I own.
It is essential to remember that the LS 3/5a was never designed or intended to be an audiophile speaker but is truly a monitoring tool for recording engineers. Therefore the speaker is utterly unforgiving of poor source material. In particular some LS3/5as have a tendency to be slightly hot on top and can sound dreadful (as they were designed to be) with bright sources. Those of us who swear by these speakers have learnt to live with it and have adapted our electronics and cables accordingly.
[The speaker's name is often source of confusion; LS is the BBC code for loudspeakers, 3 indicates that its primary usage is for outdoor broadcasting and not studio work (on the contrary to the LS 5/9 intended for indoor use) and the number 5 after the stroke just refers to the model (the LS 3/5 replaced previous versions of the monitor like the LS 3/1.]
Over the years, one attempt made to overcome some of the speaker's weaknesses for home use was the introduction of a bass unit called the AB1. The AB1 was designed by Andy Whittle when he was Technical Director at Rogers to extend bass reproduction while allowing the 3/5a to work on a more restricted range and coerce a few more decibels out of the design. Rogers designed the AB1 so that the LS 3/5as could rest on top and provided AB1 owners with spikes to screw on top of the bass unit and decouple them. The original idea was that since the drive unit in the AB1 fired vertically it would have little effect on the performance of the 3/5a when used as a stand. But experience showed that much cleaner results can be achieved by separating both units either by using a stand for the LS 3/5a or by decoupling both units with a vibration control device like AudioQuest Isol-Pads.
Another major point of disagreement among AB1 owners is on how to wire the whole system. Rogers intended for the main speaker wire to run between the amplifier and the bottom connectors of the AB1. From there the signal would go through a second-order high pass filter and then to the 3/5a to relieve it of the strain of reproducing the lower part of the music. The AB1 would end up in charge of reproducing music from 100Hz all the way down to a spec of -3dB at 55Hz, below which the output drops like a stone. My experience is that even though this setup allows for louder playback levels, the impact of the high-pass filter on transparency is far too strong to ignore. I prefer to run both the LS 3/5a and AB1 in parallel. Both units therefore fully overlap in the crossover region but I have never felt this to be an issue. On the contrary, listening far from room boundaries as I do, it delivers the most pleasing balance and bass integration.
But enough digression about the Rogers. Let's enter the heart of our topic and take a look at our two contenders before entering the ring. The overall frequency response of the LS3/5a is given at+/- 3dB 70 - 20,000Hz, so quite shy of the published bass extension of the FJ OMs but it does extend to 55Hz with the AB1 unit. The impedance, formerly 15 ohms, now 11 ohms nominal for the revised version, making it an easy load for any amplifier especially if equipped with a 12-ohm tap yet I have never noticed any issue with the 8-ohm tap on my Onix SP3. The overall dimensions of the Rogers are 185mm x 300mm x 160mm (7 1/2" x 6 3/8" x 12") and each weighs 5.5kg (11.5 lbs).
Once sitting on the AB1, the height of the stack reaches an impressive 37 inches which positively dwarfs the 29" of the OMs; once on the scale, things are reversed though and the OM's 45lb make for a heavier speaker than the less than 30lb of the Rogers' stack; this combined with its short stature makes the OM a very dense and stable speaker, especially as its base is partially filled with sand for even greater inertia. Overall the OMs win hands down on build quality and construction. Built of solid Baltic birch with heavy braces, they make for one dense and inert cabinet compared to the Rogers' much lighter construction. Even though damped with a bitumized pad, the Rogers will give a hollow sound when gently tapped and the AB1 almost sounds like a drum. The OMs on the other hand give a much fuller and damped sound and when tapped on the lower third, the sound they produce can only be described as "full as an egg" (not that I have tried the knuckle rap test on an egg recently). Those who believe in controlling cabinet coloration will lean towards the OMs, those who believe in sympathetic vibrations from the enclosure, as in a violin, will probably have a weakness for the Rogers.
|That said, the Rogers have served me dutifully for eleven years and suffered six moves including one trans-Atlantic trip and a cross-continental one without any injury. That should be testimony enough of their ability to withstand time and abuse as do the thousands of pairs from the 70s still in service around the world. See you in 11 years to discuss how well the OMs withstood the offenses of time.
When it comes to binding posts, the OMs win again; their oversized Druseidt posts are a breeze to use with bare fingers compared to the tiny and very closely set posts of the Rogers, but honestly, if you are not a reviewer moving speakers around every week, once set up the cables won't go anywhere when locked into those binding posts. It just takes a good wrench to tighten the tiny things down, bare fingers won't do too well here.
|As the 3/5a is not a bookshelf speaker, it prefers to stay away from walls for best imaging but then suffers from a serious lack of bass unless used with the AB1. For this review, I positioned the Rogers stack 6' away from the front wall and 8' apart, firing straight forward - and I disconnected or not the AB1 to assess its impact on the overall presentation. This position|
|allowed me to best discern the contribution of the AB1 but in the absence of a subwoofer, I would recommend to position those speakers closer to the front wall (about 3 feet) to get some level of bass reinforcement, otherwise the output below 80Hz will be much reduced. Positioning the Rogers far inside the room awarded the deepest soundstage and a seamless integration of the LS 3/5a and AB1. Moving the stack less than 4' from the front wall caused the upper bass to boom out of control. Do not conclude though from my experience that AB1s and 3/5as cannot be used together in a smaller room or closer to the room boundaries. Taming this upper bass emphasis is no more complicated than returning to Rogers' suggested cabling scheme and running the signal through the AB1's high-pass filter. As I mentioned before, this will simply come at a substantial cost in transparency and ambient detail retrieval. Pick your poison.
The FJ OMs are, by comparison, fairly easy to position. Just drop them (gently) somewhere and they will sing. Work a little harder on their position and orientation and they will steal your heart. In my large and reasonably well damped room, I have enjoyed the best balance between bass extension, midrange transparency and soundstaging by placing them about 3.5' to 4' from the front wall and 8' apart, slightly toed-in so that the tweeters' axes cross a few feet behind me when I am in my usual (and fairly worn out) listening spot on the couch. But I have also had fantastic results by setting them over 10' apart and severely toed-in for an incredibly wide soundstage with absolutely no collapsing of the center stage. I have also moved them 6' to 7' inside the listening room for near-field audition and I was rewarded by the deepest soundstage I have ever had in my room (even beyond what the Rogers stack can achieve in the same spot) but it did come with a thinning of the bass. Those speakers, as with most omni designs, can deliver an amazing and credible visual image of the music. Fine-tuning their location is then a matter of preference between depth of presentation and depth of bass, midrange clarity and physical impact but unlike most omni designs, they do not suffer from any height compression and the soundstage will be as tall as the recording allows.
|To fully evaluate all those soundstaging attributes, I like to spin a disc that has a very large, deep and layered soundstage - William Christie's recording of Charpentier's Te Deum with Les Arts Florissants. In a very unusual fashion this recording, realized in Notre Dame de Travail in Paris [Harmonia Mundi 901298] does not start with the Te Deum but with a much rarer piece by Philidor Cadet, a timbale march that diffuses from the back left corner and spreads towards you, getting wider as it moves forward until it reaches the walls of the church and clearly defines the limits of the nave by echoing faintly on those walls. In poorly soundstaging systems, the whole reproduction is blurry and the impacts of hammers on drums quickly become as solid as Jello on a hot sunny day. On even poorer systems, the sound jumps from left to right, forgetting completely the center stage as if it were a black hole inhabiting the church.|
As expected, the OMs when moved 6' inside the room did the best job at outlining this monumental church sound but the deepest notes and echoes were missing in action. The closer I moved the OMs to the front wall, the more the bass reinforced at the expense of soundstage depth. The best balance was about 3.5' from the wall, their usual location. The Rogers stacks went deeper than the OMs but their bass was also less controlled. Imaging and scale were of the highest quality though, in the same exalted league as the OMs. Overall the presence of two extra woofers gave the Rogers stack a more physical and impactful if slightly exaggerated bass. Finally, the LS 3/5a solo really flunked this somewhat unfair test as it requires extension below 80Hz to reproduce the drum wave bouncing off the walls (which it can't do when moved 6' inside the room).
|I was able to confirm this first impression on many recordings but it was especially striking on Peter Gabriel's So [Geffen Records 069 493 272-2] with its very solid bass line spread all over the stage. The OMs reproduced the musical landscape better and bass was tighter and controlled, the Rogers stack just got more physical thanks to the dedicated subwoofers but lacked definition and precision.
But really, how do they sound beyond imaging and bass extension? In a few words, a lot more similar than I remembered when used with the AB1 and far more different than I expected without it.
|The FJ OMs are about smooth transparency and honesty. They will get out of the way and will allow you to fine-tune the sound of your system extensively by swapping electronics and cables and each time will convey the changes for better or worse without interfering. What they do with ancillary equipment they do as well with music, relaying the subtle differences between interpretations or instruments. The OMs do also surprise all listeners, me included, with their speed devoid of harshness and their ability to slightly emphasize leading edges without aggressiveness. The Rogers and AB1 do not exhibit that same level of overall control and transparency. Notes seem to linger a little longer than they should, giving the whole presentation a slightly slower feeling. We are not talking big differences but enough to slightly reduce the PRaT (pace, rhythm and timing) factor of the Rogers stack when compared to the OMs. The leading edge of notes in comparison is slightly rounded with the Rogers, pizzicatos lose a little of their incisiveness, sibilants sound less emphasized with the Rogers.
|I like to assess a speaker's rhythmic ability with Mozart's Jupiter Symphony. There are plenty of good versions but I do have a long time favorite in Karajan's 1978 interpretation with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra [Deutsche Grammophon 423 210-2]. When I think of Karajan, I don't picture him as a Mozartian at all but he for sure knew how to paint an orchestral landscape rich and complex. Modern interpretations on period instruments will sound fast and dynamic on most systems. Karajan's more romantic reading, focused on the orchestral fabric of the symphony rather than its rhythmic dimension, can sound slow and heavy on heavier or slower systems. The OMs powered by the A5 will not slow down or compress the music. The orchestra is laid out left to right and front to back and it is possible to really 'see' the work of the Maestro as he directs the listener's attention to the various sections. It is a toe-tapping|
|experience (if you like Mozart), especially in the last movement as the whole orchestra joins in led by the horns. Now replace the A5 with the Onix and the music slows down a little, the upper bass becomes slightly thicker and the deeper bass less controlled but it does not mean that the bass becomes loose or inflated at all, and it certainly retains its wealth of details. We are dealing with nuances here, not radical differences.
The Rogers without AB1 do struggle to convey this joyful energy as they lack the bottom end to credibly conjure up even a chamber orchestra. Rhythm is present aplenty but it is a very lightweight presentation that lacks body and impact. The frame of the symphony is clearly outlined but the flesh and soul are lacking. The AB1s, as expected, more than remedy these shortcomings but enter their own limitations. I fully enjoy the slightly richer tones but miss the rush and urge forward that are better conveyed by the OMs.
The OMs are so transparent to upstream equipment that they will let you spice up your music the way you like it, whether your spice is body, rhythm, speed or transparency but there are a few things they will not do, no matter how hard you try. These speakers will not do harsh or bright. John Potis reported on their slightly sweet top. I fully agree but found out that the Zu cables I now use have allowed these speakers to exhibit full treble extension without strain or pain of any sort yet it is also true that with cables of a slightly less exalted nature at the top of the range, the OMs will sound polite if not reserved.
The second thing the OMs will not do is anorexic leanness. It is very easy to design a system around the OMs that will sound more or less warm and will give more or less emphasis to voices but the OMs will not go bare bones. It is just not in their nature as tone density remains at their very heart and one of the attributes that render them so endearing to me. It is a very appealing and unique quality if one thinks about it, to be able to deliver that level of transparency and detail, speed and macrodynamics (not of the amplitude of Zu's Definitions but very commendable for the OM's stature) while preserving the flesh and soul of the music. No dryness, no aggressiveness, no deconstruction of the music to the point of sterility, just very sweet transparency from treble to bass (and yes, it is also very detailed in the bass it reproduces). The Rogers will not do bare bones either especially when used with the AB1 (they are lean when used alone but not dry), but they cannot match the OMs' neutrality, transparency and elegance. They especially won't do the grain-free, crystalline treble the OMs can achieve when given a chance.
|Finally, what the OMs will not do is extreme bass and extreme SPLs. A two-way design cannot reproduce the lowest octaves like a four-way behemoth nor is it supposed to. The OMs gently roll off below 40Hz and test tones tell me there is still some usable output in the upper 30s, usually enough to convey most of the recording venue ambiance cues but I can also imagine that the most enthusiastic headbangers might want a few more dBs on tap to fully rock their boat. On this|
|aspect, the Rogers is even more poorly endowed as it will not go over 95dB without making sure you know it is a very bad idea to push it any further. Expect a collapsed soundstage to start with, quickly followed by mechanical and aggressive sound if you pursue down that road. (I've never been any further than 12 o'clock on the A5, I don't know what hell lays any further and don't care to find out). The performance with the AB1 is less limited but concert-type SPLs are not on the agenda even with both units running in parallel.
The Rogers LS 3/5as are mostly about one thing - voices, female voices maybe even more so than male. I can rationalize that they achieve this trick by being not completely transparent and artificially emphasizing details in the 1kHz region and therefore throwing a spotlight on this very critical area of the range, but the bottom line is that on the right recording it just sounds wonderful (and equally dreadful on others). The AB1 is a great addition to the LS3/5a. With them the LS 3/5as evolve into a much more use-friendly and less restricted speaker, which really the speaker solo is not. Deeper extension allows a more balanced presentation and the treble edginess the LS 3/5a can exhibit seems reduced.
The LS 3/5as solo did not really enjoy their time with my usual electronics and cables. First of all, the A5 amplifier is a very refined pack of muscle but a pack of muscle anyway. It grabs a transducer to bend it to its will. The A5 dictates starting and stopping and expects instant reaction from top to bottom. Under those conditions, the 3/5as get mechanical and lose their supple approach to rhythm. Those speakers prefer a gentler, kinder and more diplomatic tube amplifier to drive them. Only then will they agree to sing without edge.
|The LS 3/5a did not like the Libtec and Gede cables too much either. Those cables are as transparent as a high altitude creek in the Rockies. They will pass on the full signal from bass to treble without altering it in any fashion, which means that they convey all the energy of the music in the whole range. The Libtec and Gede combination provide a very high quality treble but will not tame it. They will convey it to you as it is on the CD and if it is not perfect, the Rogers will scream at you and make your ears bleed until you either turn the volume down or put some rolled-off cables back into the mix. This issue became painfully obvious when I listened to Maria Callas in Giordano's La Mamma morta [EMI 7243 5 56461 2 5]. With the OMs I could hear that the recording was distorted but it did not translate into pain and tears like with the Rogers. Enough said about analytical listening. How does it translate into listening enjoyment and that holy grail we all call musicality yet all define differently?
|It's all about emotions.
As detailed previously, the Rogers do not have the flexibility of placement that the OMs enjoy. Neither do they have their transparency and ability to disappear to reveal the finest variations of upstream equipment or the music for that matter but neither should they. LS 3/5a lovers want the speakers to impose their sonic signature to the music. It is the whole point of using these very speakers.
If a mezzo soprano is not going to sound like a "Rogers" mezzo, why suffer all the shortcomings of the LS 3/5a in the first place? Above all, why tolerate its obvious deviations from neutrality around 1kHz if it's not for this very elusive quality with voices, this ability to convey the sound but also the underlying emotion, this uncanny ability to make singers appear in your room in all their flesh, bones, physical and emotional presence, this combination of warm tones and 'lit from within' quality that vocals can acquire when the Rogers are matched with the right tube amplifier (and it may be revealing that Rogers commissioned Audio Note in the early 90s to design a pure class A amplifier based on two pairs of 6L6GT as their reference amplifier for the LS 3/5a). It is possible to take all those qualities way farther than the Rogers will ever be capable of, by exploring such brands as Kondo or Audio Note UK, but the Rogers seem to deliver a little more of that Kondo magic than they should be entitled to based purely on specs and price but it has been a few years since I last heard an Ongaku so maybe I am just fantasizing.
The OMs can get the emotion flow right as well when paired with the right amp (John Potis and others have reported on the magical match with the Art Audio Carissa which I have not heard myself) but their more neutral presentation can at times also be their handicap as it does not put a spotlight on any part of the performance. In almost every case neutrality is an advantage but in intimate and intense vocal performances, a spotlight on the singer in an otherwise darker stage is as good as it gets - and there are few better at that little trick than the Rogers.
Once recognized and understood, this key difference makes it easier to design two systems, each trying to extract the best out of one set of speakers. The FJ OMs do mate very well with the Musical Fidelity and Zu Cables for a system I turn to when I actively listen to music, when I want to be drawn into the flow and do not want the music to let go of me until the end of the disc, when I want the energy of Renaud Garcia Fons' music to be conveyed unimpaired or when I want to dive into Mozart's Jupiter Symphony. The OMs do it every time. And if this combination is just shy on warmth and texture of voices compared to the Rogers, I have the feeling that a good tube preamp will eventually remedy this small weakness.
|The Rogers do live in good harmony with the Onix SP3 tube amp (check Srajan's review, $1000 will not get you anything much better where tubes are concerned), Accuphase DP55, Cobalt ultimate speaker cables to ensure a warm and non-aggressive sound (translate: to a slightly rolled-off top) and Zu Gede interconnects for a little sparkle and added detail throughout. Tracey Chapman's plea against domestic violence [Behind the wall, Elektra 9 60774-2] or Jacques Brel's broken voice in the last recording he did shortly before dying ravaged by cancer [Les marquises, Barclay 816726-2] just come across with an extra intensity, an almost physical presence missed by my other system. On both tracks the OMs reproduce the songs as they were recorded with all the details, transparency and dynamic desirable but on both tracks the Rogers reproduce the songs as they were meant to be heard - hurt and fragile.
|On the other hand, in a lot of cases the Rogers' deviation from strict neutrality is not desirable. This makes the Rogers a fairly specialized speaker by pure audiophile standards. The AB1 tends to level the field and turns the 3/5a into a more flexible speaker but succeeding in this transformation act without losing the soul of the Rogers requires wiring and setting the speakers very differently than recommended by Rogers. At that price only will you be rewarded with all they have to offer, which will be very close to the OMs, just slightly short on speed, ultimate transparency and dynamic (micro and macro), much shorter on treble elegance and an overall sense of sophistication, but exceeding the OMs on the so critical vocal presence and the physical impact of the AB1's ripe bass.
But as this review is a follow-up on the FJ OMs, I would add in conclusion that their ability to convey the character of all music styles or equipment unimpaired is the best testimony to their much deserved 'product of the year' award and to their exquisite qualities. John Potis called the OMs diplomatic and good natured and I believe those traits show in the respect with which they treat all music - very enjoyable traits in my mind. I can think of many speakers I enjoy listening to in the $4000 range, some with better bass extension or more dynamic expression, but none are close to the OMs when it comes to letting the music flow unaltered. If this characteristic is paramount to your daily musical enjoyment, then I can't think of a better speaker to invest this type of budget into.
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