Spendor S3/5se loudspeaker

Transistors can be made to sound like tubes, digital can be made to sound like analog, and cables can be made to sound like no cables. You'd almost think we live in an age of miracles.

But can a little speaker be made to sound like a big one? Generally, no. Moving a 5" plastic cone back and forth 41 times a second is not the same as reproducing the lowest note of an electric bass, and loudness is not the same as scale. Like it or not, in 2003 as in 1903, the only way to move a lot of air is to move a lot of air.

But the Spendor S3/5se does one of the nicest end runs around the laws of physics I've heard: It's capable of sounding much bigger than it is, and its bass shortcomings—inevitable but less severe than you'd think—are offset by the speaker's very good balance. The S3/5se packs drama, scale, and freedom from worry into something the size of a box of Kleenex. Who'd have guessed?

Pigs are definitely stupid...
The S3/5se's name recalls the 27-year-old LS3/5a, which was designed as a broadcast monitor by a team of BBC engineers—some of whom had distinguished themselves in the early days of television—and which was manufactured under license by a number of English firms, Spendor included. The unambiguously domestic S3/5se isn't a direct descendant of that classic design, and tweedy audio historians will complain that the name doesn't quite fit. (In BBC nomenclature, LS means "loudspeaker," 3 is the in-house code for a product intended for remote use, away from the studio or home, 5 is the model number, and a simply denotes a revision of an original.) But for most hi-fi hobbyists, myself included, the little LS3/5a is a loudspeaker of towering significance, and remains the target at which almost any little box must aim.

The LS3/5a was an odd duck, and more complex than it appeared: a small but superbly well-made wooden enclosure with a plastic-dome tweeter and a plastic-cone woofer, both made by KEF, hooked up with a complex and consequently power-hungry crossover. Much has been written of the latter and its role as an equalizer, which was meant to give the tiny speaker at least some semblance of good bass extension. Coming as I do from the single-ended-triode branch of the audio tree, I look at things somewhat differently, and suggest that the LS3/5a's original crossover didn't boost bass, but rather threw away amplifier power everywhere else in the spectrum—which is true, of course. In any event, the fact of the matter remains that the LS3/5a was not an easy speaker to drive.

Nor was it easy to make, as a half-dozen or so licensees—some of whom fell by the wayside before bringing even a single pair to market—would eventually find out. Parts consistency was crucial to the original BBC design, which required that any individual LS3/5a, regardless of serial number, be sonically indistinguishable from any other. And when suppliers made seemingly insignificant changes to their wares—or when components were discontinued altogether, as happened with KEF's original B110 woofer—havoc was wreaked. The LS3/5a wasn't just a playing field for a handful of British speaker builders: It was a classroom for any audio experimenter with two good ears and an open mind, and its lessons are said to have humbled more than one UK engineer who thought that such things as mounting screws, grille fabric, or the source for wool felt couldn't possibly make an audible difference.

Some people learned those lessons especially well, however, and that includes the Spendor design team. When the LS3/5a's time on Earth was over (footnote 1), Spendor got to work on an in-house design for its replacement. The result was the S3/5, introduced in 1998. Fundamentally, an S3/5 was an LS3/5a cabinet turned 90 degrees, with the drivers mounted to the narrow wall instead of the wide one. The drivers were different, too: a ¾" Vifa tweeter and a 5" plastic-cone woofer that Spendor designed and made themselves. The crossover was also a lot simpler. The two pairs of binding posts were different. So was the grille. Okay, so the whole damn thing was different.

The S3/5 remains a part of the Spendor lineup—more than 600 pairs have been sold in the US alone, and the reviews I've seen have all been raves—but the Spendor designers, spurred by new company owner Philip Swift, decided last year to make a hot-rodded version for real perfectionists such as you and me. Small differences abound between the S3/5 and the S3/5se (for "special edition"), but two are more important than the rest:

1) That Vifa tweeter, decent in its own right, has been replaced with a pricier ¾" unit from ScanSpeak—the same one used in Spendor's great SP100, which in 1993 won the Diapason D'or award, and which is one of my favorite loudspeakers of all time. The ScanSpeak tweeter also makes a surprise appearance in very good speakers from other manufacturers, such as ProAc and Naim.

2) Owing to the increased power handling of the more sophisticated tweeter, Spendor's designers were able to lower the crossover frequency from 4.5kHz to 3.5kHz—a change that provoked an even simpler crossover and, more to the point, much better midrange and high-frequency dispersion characteristics, with less crossover-related weirdness.

Footnote 1: Avid fans of the LS3/5a would have you know that their favorite speaker is still being produced in the UK, in a manner of speaking, albeit in limited numbers and with remanufactured rather than new drivers, which don't exist.—Art Dudley
US distributor: QS&D
33 McWhirt Loop, No.108
Fredericksburg, VA 22406
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