The Graham Audio LS8/1 Loudspeakers Debut in the US
Jake Snider of Gig Harbor Audio and band Minus the Bear stands between Philip O’Hanlon of On A Higher Note (left) and Gig Harbor co-owner Erik Owen (right).
After two years of COVID-enforced isolation, the ever-dapper Philip O’Hanlon, founder and president of On A Higher Note distribution, flew to the PNW (footnote 1) to present, on October 2, the US premiere of the Graham Audio Limited Anniversary Edition LS8/1 loudspeaker. At $9700/pair with stands, the Graham Anniversary Edition LS8/1 looked right at home in the tastefully appointed, main floor showroom of three-floor Gig Harbor Audio, a dealership located a major swim or easy drive from the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area.
During a break from music playback, O’Hanlon managed to compact over five decades of BBC loudspeaker history into five minutes. The Graham Anniversary Edition LS8/1 is the latest offspring of Derek Hughes, whose father Spencer Hughes was part of the BBC team that designed the fabled BBC-favored monitor, the LS5/5. (Dudley Harwood, who later founded Harbeth loudspeakers, also contributed to the design.) According to O’Hanlon, current BBC engineers consider the LS5/5 the “ultimate” BBC monitor and used it for decades to calibrate their microphones. But as much as people loved the sound of the original LS5/5 with its unique slotted woofers with Bextrene cones, those cones could play neither very loud nor very deep. The speaker’s appeal lay in what O’Hanlon called its “utterly stunning midrange magic.”
Due to the LS5/5’s shortcomings, BBC engineers also funded development of its successor, the LS5/8, which had a 1″ tweeter and a 12″ woofer with a polypropylene cone. The LS5/8 may have played louder than the LS5/5, but, according to O’Hanlon, lacked its resolution and midrange clarity.
O’Hanlon says that the original LS5/5 lives on in Derek Hughes’s Graham Audio LS5/5, whose polypropylene cone, more powerful motor assembly, and modern copper/air chokes, glues, internal cabling, resistors, and voice-coils together play 10dB louder and extend lower, with far greater articulation and definition, than the original. Plans for a formal US launch of the LS5/5 were scrapped due to the first wave of the pandemic.
Which brings us to the new Graham LS8/1, designed by Derek Hughes. The Graham LS8/1 resembles daddy Spencer Hughes’s fabled two-tweeter BC1 (footnote 2). Compared to the original, two-tweeter BC1, which extended up to 16kHz, the Graham LS8/1’s new “super-tweeter” extends up to 20kHz. At the other end of the frequency spectrum, the Graham LS8/1’s woofer descends to 45Hz ±3dB. O’Hanlon says that the speaker’s in-room bass remains audible down to 32Hz.
The Graham LS8/1 arrives in the 50th-anniversary year of Spencer Hughes’s BC1 and comes equipped with many of the same 21st century materials that distinguish the Graham LS5/5 from the BBC original. The Graham LS8/1 sports an addition to Spencer Hughes’s original design: a front panel switch that allows adjustment of the tweeter by +1 or +2dB. Although only 100 signed-and-numbered pairs have been produced, some remain. Future production runs of the Graham LS8/1 will include veneered front grilles but will not be signed, numbered, nor supplied with stands.
O’Hanlon took advantage of LS8/1’s unveiling to also present the belated US launch of the Bergmann Modi air-bearing turntable ($8990, above; footnote 3). In Gig Harbor, it debuted with its optional Thor air-bearing linear tracking tonearm and a larger air pump ($17,000 total), equipped with a Hana ML cartridge ($1200).
The turntable’s air-bearing platter requires a pump, which turns off after two minutes of non-use. I’ve heard noisy pump-driven turntables, but I heard no sound from the pump used by the Modi and Thor. During the demo, O’Hanlon said the Thor allows for on-the-fly adjustment of VTA.
Other essential parts of the system included Naim Audio’s SuperNait 3 integrated amplifier ($4990), pictured above with the Naim Audio HiCap power supply ($2490), a Chord Electronics Huei phono stage ($1499), and Gig Harbor Audio’s GHA custom 8′ Dueland/Switchcraft speaker cables ($499/pair).
Sound Part One
Seated in the sweet spot before a system backed by lightly covered glass windows, I initially thought the sound quite fine, with clearly defined, precisely placed images and modest bass. What puzzled me was the absence of a distinct midrange. Listening solely to vinyl, I thoroughly enjoyed cuts from Clare Teal’s single-miked, direct-to-disc A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and Dominique Fils-Aimé’s Nameless. A special treat was a rare 12″ single of Michael Jackson’s Quincy Jones-produced “Thriller.” (Vincent Price was a hoot.) But even though everything set my foot tappinga sure sign of musical impactthe only time I began to hear something special in the midrange was when I stood behind the couch, well above tweeter height. By the time I departed for a 20-minute tour of Gig Harbor Audio’s new, far more spacious three-level set-up (pictured at the bottom of the page), I had come to the tentative conclusion that the main floor’s windows had defeated the Graham LS8/1’s midrange “magic.”
Sound Part Two
When I returned to the demo, the sound had changed so dramatically that I asked what had happened. O’Hanlon explained that because Gig Harbor Audio didn’t possess the Bergmann’s requisite DIN/RCA phono cable, he had initially made do with a cheapie cable that any self-respecting Radio Shack salesman would have left hidden in the stockroom. During my tour, O’Hanlon’s Shunyata Alpha DIN/RCA arrived by FedEx. Once it was installed, the sound fundamentally changed.
At my request, we returned to Fils-Aimé’s “Birds.” Now her voice was fully fleshed out. Treble had mellowed as the midrange grew exponentially. In addition, the soundstage had widened and bass accompaniment went from weak to full and well-defined. I could even hear the vibrations of bass strings on their initial pluck. The speaker’s fabled midrange and the solid bass were the predominant features of the presentation. All that was required to allow the Graham LS8/1 to sing in its own unique manner was a change of phono cable.
O’Hanlon, who once helped program music in his nightclub in the south of Spain, continued to play music as rewarding as the sound. In addition to “Smalltown Boy” from Jimmy Somerville and Bronski Beat’s Age of Consent and an LP of Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing the overture from Beethoven’s Fidelio, we heard “The Game Needed Me” from a yellow-vinyl LP of Minus the Bear’s Menos los osos. Band member Jake Snider, who is a partner in Gig Harbor Audio, is pictured in the heading photo, standing between O’Hanlon and Gig Harbor co-owner Erik Owen.
By the time I walked into the sun to have a talk with Bob Lichtenberg, the open-hearted, deaf audiophile featured in this video tribute to Art Dudley, I had a good sense of what the Graham LS8/1 has to offer. It’s a sound I greatly look forward to hearing againwhich hopefully I will, because I’m eager to return in a few months to audition the big Line Magnetic LM812 loudspeakers, which have a rated sensitivity of 102dB (at 8 ohms nominal), with the LM805 amplifier, which were on display in GHA’s spacious-yet-intimate top-floor showroom. I just need to wait for the completion of a remodel, which will allow visitors to ascend to the top floor via an enclosed staircase.
Footnote 1: Pacific Northwest for the uninitiated.
Footnote 2: In designing the BC1, Spencer Hughes drew on the knowledge gained from designing the original LS5/5.
Footnote 3: For its debut, the Modi sported a bespoke candy apple red plinth which, as with any special color, costs an additional $3000. The not so basic Modi comes with a black plinth. All versions include silver metal trim.
Footnote 4: Yes, we do have sunny days in the PNW.
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