Spendor S100 loudspeaker JA Page 2

Using strips of masking tape on the carpet and the low-frequency warble tones on the Stereophile Test CD to keep track of the changes in position and bass balance, respectively, I ended up moving the speakers somewhat nearer the rear wall. (They were now 2' from the LPs lining the rear wall and 5' from the side walls, resulting in woofer-to-boundary distances of 62", 45", and 22".) That, and returning to the solid-state Mark Levinson amplifier, did the trick. The upper bass, while still rich, was now better balanced with the speaker's lower registers. With a subjective in-room response extending down to 30Hz—the 20Hz and 25Hz 1/3-octave warble tones sounded significantly weaker than either the 31.5Hz or 40Hz tones—the S100s endowed orchestral music with a sufficiently weighty foundation. Double basses had the appropriate weight to their sound, 16' organ pipes moved air. And again, the Steinway on the Brahms sonata had a left-hand power that approached that of the live sound.

But the most impressive part of the S100's bass performance, once set up optimally, was its "tightness." It's hard to avoid the oxymoron "bass transients" when discussing this aspect of sound quality. So I won't.

By "bass transient," I mean a particular sound that has a sharply defined leading edge but in which most of the energy content consists of low frequencies. For example, on track 10, the "Polka" from Solitaire, of the Lyrita CD reissue of Malcolm Arnold's various dance suites (SRCD.201), the instrumental noodling is punctuated by large slaps on the bass drum, a sound that loudspeakers invariably get wrong. Either they reproduce the transient edge of the sound but fail to convey the instrument's size and power, or they produce a low-frequency bass boom that fails to start or stop cleanly. The Spendors do neither; instead, you hear the slap of the beater against the drum head integrated with the weighty follow-through of the drum's tone. Just as you would in real life, the sound starts and stops cleanly, the only hangover being that already in the recording. Given that it doesn't go as low as some listeners might like, when properly set-up the S100 almost uniquely seems to add very little editorializing to the sounds of bass instruments.

The S100's dynamic performance was also excellent. As well as this quickness to the sound of bass-heavy, transient-rich instruments, the speakers would play very loud without giving the listener the feeling that they were running out of steam. I logged average levels well over 96dB on choral, orchestral, and organ climaxes without the sound hardening at all.

The one area where I felt the speaker to lag behind the state of the art, even behind what I remember of Spendor's own BC1, was in stereo imaging and precision of soundstaging. Many audiophiles, of course, will not be bothered by this, particularly if they like to sit in the rear third of a typical concert hall, where most of the sound they hear will be reflections rather than the direct sound from the stage. Nevertheless, when you have experienced the sheer palpability of the soundstage thrown by something like a pair of LS3/5as, coupled with the feeling of depth produced by Avalon Eclipses or KEF R107/2s, it's hard to settle for the Spendors' rather vague (in absolute terms) imaging.

The LEDR test tracks on the Chesky "Jazz Sampler" CD (JD 37) revealed this imaging imprecision, as well as demonstrating that the speakers could produce almost no image height with the appropriate psychoacoustically doctored sounds. Undoubtedly this is a function of the S100's wide baffle and the acoustic obstructions represented by the grille edges.

The speakers' presentation of depth was somewhat paradoxical in that while the depth tracks on the Chesky CD gave a good correlation between the perceived and actual distances of the voice, which was recorded at differing distances from the microphone, the soundstage on music recordings was somewhat flattened, the rear instruments of the orchestra sounding closer to those at the front than I expected.

My criticisms of some aspects of their sound should not be taken as meaning that I didn't enjoy my time with the Spendors. The lack of ultimate image focus was offset by the sheer musicality of the speaker's presentation, coupled with its excellent sense of unrestricted dynamics and that tight-as-a-nut bass. The musical whole almost always added up to more than the individual audiophile parts.

The S100 represents a fascinating contrast with the two floorstanding loudspeakers reviewed by Robert Harley elsewhere in this issue, the Snell Type B and Monitor Audio Studio 20. As well as performing the measurements on all three speakers, I did some serious listening to both the Snells and the Monitor Audios in Bob's listening room. (I also auditioned the Snells in the Stereophile listening room used by TJN.) The Snell conforms to the classic formula for a large, wide-dynamic-range, floorstanding design, which is to combine as neutral a midrange and treble as possible with a bass region that appears to be balanced for flat anechoic response. The result is that the low frequencies become exaggerated in anything but very large rooms, leading to a ponderous quality that tends to rob music of its rhythmic drive. Despite excellent imaging precision, the Snells also failed to "disappear" in the listening room.

By contrast, the Studio 20s are more colored in the midrange and lower treble and don't go anywhere near as loud or as low as the Snells. But not only is their imaging superbly precise, the speakers sound astonishingly open. They simply disappear, leaving just the music and this beautifully defined soundstage hanging between and behind the plane of the speakers. Once you've heard this level of transparency from a pair of loudspeakers, it's hard to go back to the rather thick-sounding, if more neutral, balance offered by a more traditional design like the Snell.

The S100 falls somewhere in the middle of these two camps of speaker design, perhaps offering a musically more acceptable compromise. While more neutral/less colored overall than the Snell B, it perhaps falls short of the American design in imaging precision. However, its low frequencies are tighter and even more tuneful than the Monitor Audio's, while going appreciably louder and lower. And it costs significantly less than either of the other two!

Lacking only in the areas of ultimate transparency (particularly in the lower midrange, footnote 3), imaging precision, and soundstage depth, but offering the ability to play very loud without strain, a fundamentally neutral midrange and treble balance, and an extended, tight bass with the appropriate amplification—an important factor in a smallish room—the Spendor S100 represents superb value and excellent engineering at its $2500/pair price. Highly recommended; if more monitors were as well-balanced and neutral as the Spendor (footnote 4), there might be more high-quality recordings released.

Footnote 3: I can't help but wonder what an "audiophile" S100, with high-quality internal cables and an external hard-wired crossover à la the Hales Signature, and using premium capacitors, would sound like.

Footnote 4: In the next issue I will review two more three-way moving-coil monitor loudspeakers with pretensions toward high-end sound quality: the Acoustic Energy AE3 and the Westlake BBSM-6.

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