Spendor SA1 loudspeaker

Two years ago, I embarked on a series of reviews of mostly state-of-the-art, mostly full-range floorstanding speakers: the Sonus Faber Cremona Elipsa (December 2007), KEF Reference 207/2 (February 2008), PSB Synchrony One (April 2008), Magico V3 (May 2008), Avalon NP Evolution 2.0 and Epos M16i (July 2008), Esoteric MG-20 (August 2008), Dynaudio Sapphire (January 2009), and Revel Ultima Salon2 (March 2009). I had intended to intersperse those reports with coverage of some high-performance minispeakers, but for various reasons that never happened, so in the next few issues I'll be making up that lost ground, beginning with a promising contender from the UK, the Spendor SA1.

The very first SA1 I ever listened to was Spendor's original version, designed by Spencer Hughes. This was back in the late 1970s, and Paul Messenger had the speaker in house for his "Subjective Sounds" column in Hi-Fi News. If I recall correctly after all these years, Paul preferred that SA1 to the classic BBC LS3/5a, though I felt the BBC speaker had superior stereo imaging. The new speaker, designed under the supervision of Spendor's current owner, Philip Swift, ex-Audiolab, has nothing in common with that design. The 2009-vintage SA1 is 12" tall and almost the same size as the LS3/5a, except that the two drive-units are mounted on what would have been the side of that speaker, which was wider than it was deep.

The SA1 shares the LS3/5A's sealed-box loading for the woofer. The latter is made in-house by Spendor on a 6" diecast aluminum chassis; it features a partially transparent, quite deeply flared cone 3.75" in diameter, formed from a plastic material called ep38, which appears to be polypropylene filled with a stiffening material of some kind. The cone is terminated with a half-roll rubber surround and there is no dustcap, the voice-coil former having a bullet-shaped "phase plug" mounted on its end. The 22mm tweeter appears to be sourced from SEAS and actually uses a soft (doped fabric) dome 19mm in diameter, terminated with a substantial half-roll rubber surround.

The crossover between the two drivers is set more than an octave higher than is usual, at 4.8kHz. This is made possible, according to Spendor, by the fact that the woofer has a smooth response almost up to 10kHz. The crossover itself is constructed on a high-quality printed-circuit board attached to the rear panel and uses three Claritycap capacitors and two powdered-iron–cored inductors. The internal wiring is silver-plated copper, and while the tweeter connections are soldered, those to the woofer and crossover use clips. Electrical connection to the amplifier is via a pair of WBT binding posts on the rear panel.

The SA1 is superbly finished, the review sample featuring an attractive satin lacquer. Both drive-units are rabbeted into the veneered front baffle and fastened with hex-head bolts; the enclosure, constructed from three different thicknesses of MDF, is veneered on all surfaces, inside and out, and is braced horizontally between the drivers. The sidewalls are mass-loaded and damped with substantial bituminous pads, and there is also a lining of gray foam material. The grille, fabricated from black cloth stretched over a frame, is held in place by four small magnets.

Listening
Perhaps because of their restricted low-bass output, it proved relatively easy to find the optimal positions for the Spendors in my room. I used my usual 24" Celestion stands with the SA1s, the single pillar of each stand filled with a mix of dry sand and bird shot. Spiked to the floor beneath the rug, these stands placed my ears just above the tweeter, but I found that I didn't have to slouch to get a good tonal balance. However, pink noise indicated that if I moved my ears even an inch higher, a hollowness began to develop in the SA1's balance, with a narrow band of treble frequencies starting to sound detached from the overall sound.

The speaker that preceded the Spendors in my listening room were the Revel Ultima Salon2s, which I had used for most of the previous nine months. The Revel has almost 30 times the volume of the Spendor, weighs 15 times as much, and is 10 times its price. So I wasn't sure what to expect as I put in the Meridian player's drawer the first CD, a favorite collection of music for strings by Ralph Vaughan Williams, with Bryden Thomson conducting the LSO (Chandos CHAN 8502, no longer available), and selected track 3, the famous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

Well, perhaps it should go without saying that the Spendor SA1 didn't begin to equal the Revel Salon2 in capturing the music's scale and dynamics. Nor did it have the resolving power of the bigger speaker, especially in the high treble. But it did sound smooth and uncolored, if a little soft in the top octave, and once I'd gotten used to the sound, I found that instead of just dipping into the music before reaching for another CD, I ended up listening not only to the rest of the Tallis Fantasia but the following work, Variants of Dives and Lazarus, as well. There was enough upper-bass energy to convey a suggestion of weight to the double basses played pizzicato, and the violins sounded sweet but not rolled off. And I had forgotten the ease with which a pair of well-designed small speakers can generate a huge but stable, well-defined soundstage between and behind the speaker positions. Even with the speakers about 15" from the sidewalls, which was where I got the best upper-bass/lower-midrange transition, there was no sense of any "hole in the middle" of the soundstage.

This was a promising start. I reached for another recording currently in heavy rotation chez Atkinson: the Jubilee reissue of Vladimir Ashkenazy's 1970/1971 performances of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto 2 and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, both with Andr é Previn and the London Symphony (CD, London 417 702-2). An analog original, this has always had a bit too much tape hiss for my liking through the Revels, but played back through the Spendors, the hiss receded a little. More important, the piano tone was superbly natural, and the SA1's restricted low frequencies proved to be a bonus, in that the Kingsway Hall's infamous subway rumble was banished.

Company Info
Spendor Audio Systems, Ltd.
US distributor: Bluebird Music
620 Wilson Avenue, Suite 360
Toronto, Ontario M3K 1Z3, Canada
(416) 638-8207
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