ARCAYDIS SM35 SPEAKER - $1,295 per pair

 

Review by

Lorin Elias

 

Making a good sequel is difficult. Just ask the people behind the movies “Revenge of the Nerds II”, “Dumb and Dumberer”, or ‘Speed 2: Cruise Control”. Remaking a legend is even more difficult. Sure, some carmakers have succeeded in recent memory. Consider the reborn Mini Cooper , or even more recently, the Dodge Challenger . In the audio world, attempts to recapture past glories are surprisingly frequent.

 

Perhaps the most copied audio classic of all is the Rogers LS3/5a monitor that was originally commissioned by the BBC. At my feet, I have a small box containing 2-way minimonitors from the Arcaydis brand in the UK. The model name has the alphanumeric string “35a” in it. These are clearly inspired by the LS3/5a, if not meant as a direct clone of them. What will the box hold? Al Pacino’s superlative 1963 remake of “Scarface”?

But first, let me impart a brief history lesson. If you already know all about the LS3/5a, feel free to skip the next two paragraphs. In the early 1970’s, the BBC wanted a studio monitor for use in small settings (like a van) where headphones were impractical, but so too was the placement of a large “Grade I” monitor. Finding nothing in the current market that satisfied these requirements, the BBC commissioned the construction of a small “Grade II” monitor. Its cabinet was very small, it was sealed (allowing placement quite close to a wall), and it contained two drive units, both sourced initially from British loudspeaker manufacturer KEF. This tiny speaker was designed to serve during nearfield listening in small spaces, and the reproduction of vocals was the primary objective. Unusually, the crossover network resulted in a 15 Ohm impedence, and the power handling of the speakers was rated at “25 Watts of speech and music” , and yet this little sealed box only had an efficiency of 83 dB! Clearly, this little speaker was not designed to play loud, or deep, or in a large room. Instead, it was designed for midrange performance, while listening up close, in a relatively small space.

 

And then something remarkable happened. Unlike most “pro audio” components that get completely ignored by audiophiles (a recent exception to that rule is Benchmark’s DAC1), these little monitors were a hit with audiophiles. They praised the LS3/5a for its rich midrange, spacious imaging, and ease of placement. The monitor was produced under license from the BBC for many years that followed by manufacturers such as Rogers, Spendor, Harbeth, and Stirling. In the nearly 4 decades that have passed since the LS3/5a’s introduction, there have been many different versions of the speaker. For reasons too complicated (and sometimes boring) to go into here, many purists reject subsequent iterations as “real” LS3/5a’s. Despite this infighting among those who care, this little monitor enjoys an (almost?) cultlike following to this day. I tried to count the number of current companies offering versions of the LS3/5a (including DIY kits) and gave up in frustration. There are many. In fact, the original article is still traded actively on eBay.

In 1974, you could buy an LS3/5a from Rogers for only 52 pounds sterling (approximately $115 USD at the time). A good used pair from the same time period will fetch over $1500 USD on eBay today . An officially (BBC) licensed new pair from Stirling runs at just slightly more, $1695. The Arcaydis currently being reviewed is slightly cheaper, with an MSRP of $1295. But offering the listener a savings of $400 is not the Arcaydis SM35A’s raison d’etre. The speaker’s designer, Richard J. Allen was kind enough to offer some details about the speaker:

“This was a design that was asked for by customers, not my idea. The design brief for the SM35A is quite simple. To produce a small, compact loudspeaker that is accurate with good imaging and a lucid midrange. The retro styling harps back to the LS3/5A and it would have been easier if the LS3/5A drive units were still available but they're not so a clean sheet of paper was needed for the design”. A statement along these lines also appears on the Arcaydis website, and I am just as conflicted by it today as I was when this review was being arranged. This speaker is clearly an interpretation of the original LS3/5a, and that piece of paper is not particularly clean. However, Richard Allen’s point that the original KEF drivers are unavailable is a point well taken, and it takes some clever engineering and excellent parts to get fantastic performance out of a really small package.

I write all of this with the speakers still sealed in the box on the floor beside me. That is a lot of baggage for such a little speaker to carry. These audio reviews are supposed to start off with a blank sheet of paper and no prejudices. No such luxury here. This is a review of an audio icon after all. In an equally shameless and futile effort to get my wife interested in these speakers, I said that this task is the audio equivalent of reviewing a new remake of the Emes chair.

Enough pretext; let’s unbox these speakers and see what they have to offer. I am accustomed to using small 2-way speakers with their grills off. Why? I tend to prefer a more “foreward” sound, but I also prefer the look of most speakers without grills. These monitors are the exception to both of those preferences. Examining the front baffle, I was initially reminded of my last attempt to build a shed in my back yard. I used 3 times the suggested number of nails and screws, largely because I missed studs or otherwise could not get the pieces to hold together snugly. Fortunately I don’t make my living building things. The tiny front baffle on these speakers house 4 posts for grills, 8 screws in each tweeter baffle, 4 screws securing each woofer, and 14 more screws around the edge of the enclosure. That results in 30 black dots (excluding the drivers) on a very small face. It looks like it has been shot…many times. According to the designer, “the cabinet is constructed using 12mm birch plywood and the front baffle is secured using hardwood battens...the plywood cabinet is heavily damped and, due to the number of mounting screws, the front baffle is extremely rigid”. Let’s leave those grills on then.

 

I started listening to the monitors with my “secondary” system, comprised of a computer for a source (playing FLAC or WAV files without compression) with coaxial digital audio output into a modified Musiland MD-10 DAC, with the speakers driven by a Consonance Ref150 tube hybrid integrated amplifier (120 WPC into 8 Ohms), connected with custom silver interconnects and speaker cables. The speakers that normally reside in this system are Usher S-520’s. On one hand, it might seem ridiculous to compare a speaker with a list price of $1295 to the Ushers that retailed at $400 at the time that I bought two pairs of them (now $475). However, don’t count the little Ushers out just yet. They have amassed some extremely positive reviews since their release, and last month won the top prize in a 9 small speaker shootout held by a major audio magazine.

The Arcaydis SM35A certainly bested the Usher S520’s in some areas immediately. They produced a more pronounced midbass, less grain, slightly better integration of the two drivers, and a much better image (particularly image depth). When one tests on of these “Beeb” monitors (BBC LS3/5a’s), one traditionally starts with small-ensemble jazz coupled with female vocals. As much as I enjoy Diana Krall, Norah Jones, and other audiophile cliché’s, like our Stereomojo reviewer Russ Gates refrained during his review of the Gini LS3/5a (more on that later), I also went in a different direction. Enter Lionel Richie. His 2006 Album “Coming Home” is surprisingly good, and the second track “Sweet Vacation” provides some excellent lateral imaging, accompanied with some driving (and sometimes comical) deep bass. The little Arcaydis sure threw a wide and reasonably deep soundstage in the opening moments of the track, although the deeper bass was missing in action. No surprise there of course. I followed that track with one that quite surprised me. I chose “Pendulum Swinger” from Despite our Differences by the Indigo Girls.

In addition to showcasing elements where the Arcaydis should excel (female vocals, acoustic guitar), this piece also features considerable bass and percussion. Unwittingly, I had chosen a track that exploited the little monitors “mid-bass hump” which is also characteristic of other LS3/5a monitors. The bass sounded great! No, it did not knock my motorcycle over, nor did it elicit complaints from the neighbors, but the response was quite satisfying indeed. Retreating to a recording that should really let the monitors sing, I cued up a sublime version of the American national anthem performed by the Dixie Chicks. Here the Arcaydis was virtually flawless, clearly defining each singer in space, faithfully reproducing the small recording space in addition to the singers. I have never heard a floorstanding 3-way or 4-way speaker (regardless of price) reproduce this particular recording as well.

However, this performance required much more twisting of the volume knob than I was anticipating. The original LS3/5a’s exhibited sensitivity in the 82-83 dB range. Richard J. Allen quotes a figure of 85 dB for the SM35a, but comparing them to the 86 dB Usher S-520’s, I suspect that figure is a little optimistic. They required substantially more juice, but were quite happy to reward the power. No, they did not play as low as the little Ushers (a ported design of higher internal volume), but the bass that was present was convincing, and personally, I would rather have lower frequencies missing in action entirely instead of being reproduced badly. Tracks like Peter Cincotti’s “St. Louis Blues” from “On the Moon” were a delight, with the driving rhythm of the acoustic bass reproduced surprisingly well for such a diminutive speaker. Lorin, I've been known to use the title track as a reference at times. Excellent male vocal recording and he's very easy on the ears. His new release "East of Angel Town" departs from his jazz roots and leans more towards pop at the hands of superstar producer David Foster. Still good though - publisher

So far, so good then. Blatantly ignoring the sensitivity figures I just mentioned, I thought I would try the SM35A’s in my PC mini system, comprised of a computer as a source feeding a Nuforce Icon DAC/integrated amplifier (12 WPC into 8 Ohms, MSRP = $250 USD). Given that the monitors were originally designed for low SPL nearfield listening, and that 30 years later, many of us perform that same task in front of a computer, trying the Arcaydis SM35A in a small computer system seemed to make some sense. However, it didn’t. Low to mid-80’s sensitivity coupled with tiny amplifier resulted in a tiny sound. Even with tracks where the SM35a’s should really shine, such as Keb’ Mo’s fantastic version of “The Times They Are a Changin” there were many compromises. Not just SPL, but also the dynamics, soundstage….you get the idea. On to the big system then.

Installing the Arcaydis monitors in the 3rd of 4 systems in my house (this cursed hobby…), I replaced my Usher Be-718 monitors (MSRP $2800 USD), driving the SM35a’s with Tube Audio Design TAD-125 hybrid monoblocks (180WPC into 8 Ohms, MSRP $4450 USD) fed by a Squeezebox 3 transport (MSRP $300 USD) through the Peachtree Decco DAC/Preamp (MSRP $800 USD). This setup was certainly a better idea than driving the Arcaydis with the little Nuforce Icon, but it was still not a particularly good idea. Compared to the considerably larger and considerably more expensive Usher Be-718’s, the little SM35A’s struggled. They were certainly limited in dynamics, bass extension, treble extension, and PRAT, but equaled or even bettered in the larger Ushers in Soundstage width. Larger, more complicated pieces like Morten Lauridsen’s choral masterpiece “Lux Aeterna” but was reproduced with excellent tonality, but this same work really revealed the lack of scale and extension with such a small speaker. To be fair though, this system and room were not a good match for the little SM35a’s.

I must confess, I was initially quite baffled about how to drive this speaker. It offers dismal sensitivity (it is a small sealed box after all), relatively low power handling, and presents an abnormally high impedance. On one hand, you want to throw a muscle amp at it, but on the other hand, it clearly is not meant to handle huge power. What sort of poweramps did they lug around in those BBC vans anyway? The designer Richard Allen suggested using a transistor amplifier producing between 60 and 100 WPC. The Consonance Ref 150 tube integrated in my second system came close, mating a tube preamp with a 120 WPC solid-state poweramp section. As I outlined in my initial listening impressions, this amplifier quite liked the little Arcaydis monitors, providing both tube warmth and solid state grip. This resulted in a very spatially and tonally rich sound, and when enjoyed within their dynamic limits, these Arcaydis monitors were a joy. As is so often then case, careful amplifier matching is critical here.

Doing an AB comparison between anything else and a LS3/5a clone is inevitably a controversial exercise. I suspect that most buyers of such a speaker already know what an LS3/5a sounds like, and they know what they are looking for. The designer Mr. Allen expressed that “If you decide to do an AB comparison test, then only an LS3/5A will do as the "other pair" of speakers.” I am certainly sensitive to his position here. Ideally, I would have several “Beeb” monitors on hand to compare to these SM35a’s, including the excellent and inexpensive Gini monitors that we have previously reviewed here on Stereomojo.

Of all the 2-way monitors I have owned, only three of them approximate the diminutive stature of these Arcaydis monitors: the Totem Model 1 Signature, Epos ELS-3, and Usher S-520. The sound of these Arcaydis SM35a’s reminds me most of the Totem Model 1 Signatures. When I owned those, I thought they were great if they were used in a small room and if you can live without deep bass and if you don’t listen very loud and if you are sitting right in the sweet spot. Can you live with four ifs? I couldn’t, and I sold the Totems. These speakers are similar in many regards. If you can embrace them for their strengths (delicious midrange, fantastic imaging in the sweet spot), place them and drive them properly, they will provide great joy. This doctor is no general practitioner. Instead, she is a vascular surgeon, so don’t ask her to deliver a baby or counsel a depressed teenager.


Is this the speaker for you? If you want a spectacular midrange but only in a restricted sweet spot, if you have a small listening space, if you plan to place the speakers close to the back wall, if you can live without deep bass (or provide it through other means), and if your amplifier can deliver enough current, you could live happily ever after with this modern take on an audio classic. Oh yes - and If you like the appearance - especially without the grills. That's a lot of "ifs", isn't it?  An alternative would be the previously reviewed Gini LS3/5a at $530 per pair. Add the B+ Bass stands for another $630 per pair for a $1,160 system that goes lower and presents an easier load for a little less money.
Arcaydis does offer a 30-day in home trial.

 

GINI LS3/5a REVIEW

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