Spendor S5e loudspeaker Page 2
Going from my 4½'-tall Quads to the 30"-tall Spendors—a contrast that doesn't even take into account the former's extravagant advantage in diaphragm area—I expected the music's sense of scale to suffer drastically. That it didn't was the biggest surprise of the review.
Heard through the Spendor S5es, even average-quality orchestral recordings sounded convincingly, impressively big—such as Bruno Walter's version of Mahler's Symphony 9 (LP, Columbia Y2 30308), and the slow, brooding performance of Shostakovich's 10th by Svetlanov and the USSR Symphony Orchestra (LP, Melodiya SR-40025). The Melodiya disc, especially, showed how the S5es seemed to elevate the musical stage as it extended back behind the speakers—a neat trick, and one that the Spendors' ostensibly straightforward design hadn't led me to expect. (It's worth pointing out that the S5e's tweeter is centered about 28" off the floor, depending on how its feet are adjusted—considerably lower than the distance between the floor and my ears, when seated.)
Better-than-average recordings only intensified the effect: The recent Minnesota Orchestra disc of Tavener's Ikon of Eros (CD, Reference RR-102CD) sounded enormously wide and tall, and the Spendors did a fine job of putting across the generous hall sound on that disc. Sir Adrian Boult and the LPO playing Searle's Symphony 1 (LP, Decca/Speakers Corner SXL 2232) gave the S5e a chance to sound both dramatic and appropriately colorful. More important, the Spendor's clarity and apparent lack of pitch distortion made it easier than usual to follow the plot, so to speak. (Although 12-tone music invites a number of different listening styles, I find I have to concentrate a great deal more than normal to get anything out of it—unsurprisingly, I suppose.)
I admire the Spendors' ability to convey the size of a grand piano from a well-made recording of same. I tried my perennial favorite, the Liszt piano arrangement of Wagner's Tannhäuser overture, performed live in the studio by the late Jorge Bolet (CD, RCA 63748-2), as well as Jerome Rose's expressive performances of the four Chopin Ballades (CD, Monarch Classics M20052). In both instances I was impressed by the apparent size of the stage, as well as by the way the Spendors' realistic decay contributed to the believable big-piano "purr." Nor did I hear anything in the way of missing or exaggerated notes, which piano recordings often do well to expose.
The combined effect of the Spendors' superb spatial presentation, lack of overt or obvious timbral distortion, and good presence and scale made listening to Tone Poems (CD, Acoustic Disc ACD-10) an almost eerie experience. Every nuance of Tony Rice's guitar playing on "The Prisoner's Waltz" was made plain—artistically, not clinically. The same held true for mandolinist David Grisman's dramatic use of downstrokes in his introduction to the next track, "Sam-Bino." Each note had generous color, and was given a decent space to bloom and die away. And the extreme dynamic shadings Tony uses throughout "I Am a Pilgrim" were, if anything, put across better by the $1649 Spendors than by my $9000 Quads. Gloriosky.
Ken Christianson's very nice recording of Beethoven's String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op.131, by England's Allegri Quartet (CD, Naim Music 027), showed off the Spendor's lack of apparent pitch distortion and consequent freedom from listening fatigue. Perhaps more obvious, there was the S5e's surprising sense of body and, again, scale. I was impressed from the music's start, but when Bruno Shrecker's cello entered during the opening fugue, I was dumbfounded: It was astonishingly big—much bigger than the speaker itself. I was also surprised to hear how stable and solid the images of the four players were, even when I stood up and listened from off to one side. Again: My Quads can't do that.
The Spendor never confounded the timing of music, nor, in particular, slowed the tempo of upbeat rock. "When You Dance," a wonderfully gritty, jangly 2/4 drone on Neil Young's After the Gold Rush (LP, Reprise 6383), was every bit as propulsive as it should be—right down to the steady thump of Billy Talbot's so-unfunky-it's-funky bass guitar. Even more propulsive was the sound of Jimmy Woode's upright bass in Ella Fitzgerald's recording of "Perdido," with Duke Ellington and his orchestra, on Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book, recently reissued in an exquisitely clean and present-sounding LP boxed set (Verve/Speakers Corner MGV 4010-4).
The Spendor also skillfully reproduced Procol Harum's tight-as-a-nut performance of Leiber and Stoller's "I Keep Forgetting," on Procol's Ninth (LP, Chrysalis CHR 1080), preserving all the snap in Alan Cartwright's electric bass lines, not to mention the precision in all of B.J. Wilson's uncanny drum fills. Speaking of which, the cleanness of the Spendor's bass and lower-midrange registers was good enough that—forgive the cliché—I heard things in the mix I'd never noticed before, including one of Wilson's trademark one-handed rolls on the largest floor tom, just as Gary Brooker is singing the last "stubborn old fist / at the end of my wrist."
I heard even more evidence of the S5e's excellent way with bass and drums on the great track "Ron Klaus Wrecked His House," from Craps, the penultimate Big Dipper album (LP, Homestead HMS 122-1). Steve Michener's electric bass is the backbone of that song, and the S5e played it amazingly well: deep, fast, colorful, and clear. The manufacturer's specs and my own in-room measurements suggested that the S5e wouldn't quite reach down to the lowest fundamentals of an electric bass—let alone the lowest piano fundamentals, or the full sound of an orchestral bass drum—but during actual music listening, I never felt that the speaker was at all lacking in bass. In the best Rolls-Royce tradition, the S5e's bass extension was, consistently and serenely, sufficient.
Unless you want to count an inability to reproduce the very bottom octave (20-40Hz) with as much weight and impact as, say, a 10' Klangfilm horn, I couldn't find any significant flaws in the Spendor S5e's performance. Sure, other speakers imbue solo instruments and voices with a little more presence, and others go just a bit further down the road of clarity of sound (and utter transparency of the sound around the sound), and still other speakers can do some or all of those nice things under the heady influence of less power than the mid-efficiency Spendor requires. But I've never heard anything near this price and size that has the Spendor S5e's combination of strengths.
The S5e is an uncolored speaker that gets the notes and beats so essentially right, and is so emotionally direct and honest, that, for once, exceptional sound enhanced the music-making rather than distracted from it, howsoever prettily. The Spendor S5e has what I consider a virtually perfect amount of bass in proportion with its clean, open, and pleasantly airy top end. I can't imagine an honest listener who would consider this speaker to be too bright, too dull, or lacking in any other such way.
Over the years, I've owned a few Classic Spendor loudspeakers that have been classics—I mean that both colloquially and in the literal, trade-name sense—and I've loved them for what they were. Yet the new S5e has things that simply weren't part of the earlier Spendor recipe, including scale, drama, and utterly faultless pacing. That the S5e does all that for $1649/pair is remarkable. I can't recommended it strongly enough.