For over 40 years Spendor has produced audiophile-grade loudspeakers. The new SA1 represents its latest thinking on small-footprint sealed-box monitors. Spendor has plenty of competition in this crowded category—I can’t think of many speaker companies that don’t make at least one mini-monitor. So how do the SA1’s stack up against all the competition? Splendiforously!
Built the Same, But Different
At first glance the Spendor SA1 speakers don’t seem dissimilar from scores of other diminutive wooden boxes stuffed with a pair of drivers and a crossover, but inside they are very different. The SA1 uses a SEAS 22mm “wide surround hybrid” synthetic-silk dome tweeter that allows for a longer throw with less distortion and more linear response at its excursion limits than a conventional silk dome tweeter. The new Spendor 15cm (6") diameter ep38 polymer cone midrange/bass driver sports a magnesium-alloy chassis, advanced surround material, and a large-excursion motor system. It is assembled entirely by hand at Spendor’s East Sussex factory specifically for the SA1. According to Spendor’s owner Philip Swift, “The 15cm drive unit has a flat frequency response up to almost 10kHz. So we are able to cross that speaker over at a high frequency (4.8kHz). We don’t have the crossover down at the usual 2kHz, which is generally the worst area of operation for the tweeter.”
The SA1’s crossover uses Spendor’s own precision-tapped inductors that are mounted on circuit boards with gold through-hole plating for better conductivity. Philip Swift believes that Spendor’s inductors are clearly superior to other types. “With the circuit topology we use in our crossovers, having the facility to design the inductors like this gives us tremendous control over the way we shape the frequency response of the crossover network. Using an analog crossover, as we do, you can bend or shape the frequency response in a very elegant way.” Spendor employs a second-order 12dB/octave slope on its midrange-woofer and a third-order 18dB/octave slope on the tweeter crossovers. To keep the two drivers in phase the leads on the tweeter are inverted.
Spendor employs a special methodology to mount its drivers to the cabinets, which its calls “dynamic damping.” With dynamic damping a rigid visco-elastic damping material is clamped between the drive unit chassis and the cabinet to dissipate micro-vibration. Any energy flowing into the cabinet from the drivers is turned into heat by this special material.
Silver-plated pure copper wire with halogen-free dielectric and gold conductors are used for all the internal wiring. Unlike many dynamic-driver speakers which employ a double pair of connectors to allow for bi-wiring, the SA1 uses only a single pair of WBT five-way binding posts, flush-mounted on the back of the speakers. Spendor doesn’t offer bi-wiring on the SA1 because it feels that it’s better to use one run of the best speaker cable you can afford rather than two runs of a lesser cable for the same total investment. Also the SA1’s two drivers have been balanced so precisely that using two different cables in a bi-wiring setup could actually degrade the overall sound quality.
While the SA1’s drivers and crossover include substantial amounts of proprietary technology, the speaker’s cabinet ranks as its most distinctive feature. The vast majority of speakers, regardless of size or type, rely on some form of mass damping to reduce internal resonances, but Spendor employs a different approach, which it calls “thin-wall damped panel design.” Rigidly braced, the cabinet is constructed with three different panel thicknesses. Each panel has a specific resonant characteristic, and their different natural resonances combine evenly to dissipate vibrations. According to Philip Swift, “‘If you make a cabinet four inches thick, what you’re going to do is push the coloration down to very low frequencies, but you are still going to hear it. Even if you do push it right down to the tens of Hertz, you are still going to get second and third harmonics of that. So getting rid of it, that’s the answer!” Spendor believes that the even dissipation of cabinet resonances through its thin-walled design is more efficient and effective than other methodologies.
The SA1’s exterior finish is as meticulous as its internal parts. Spendor offers book-matched real-wood veneers in either gloss zebrano, piano black, or satin wenge. My review samples were gloss zebrano. This finish is not for those whose interior decorating schemes favor conservative-looking speakers. The gloss finish is thick and shiny and the wood is flamboyantly grained, not unlike the wood equivalent of a corduroy jacket. The speaker grilles utilize a magnetic attachment system with magnets that stick to the metal screws securing the drivers, so when the grilles are removed no attachment hardware is visible.
The Sound of Spendor SA1’s
I listened to the Spendor SA1 speakers in two radically different environments. The first system was in my computer desktop, which puts the speakers in the near-field, only two feet from my ears. The second system was room-based where the speakers were seven-and-a-half feet from my primary listening position. In both systems I used subwoofers to augment the SA1’s bass response. (Other details of my review systems are listed in the associated equipment section.)
When I first began listening to the Spendor SA1’s I thought they sounded slightly tight and lean. Since I had been told that they would need some serious break-in time to sound optimal I was not overly concerned about their lack of immediate star power. According to Philip Swift, “The actual break-in period for the SA1 depends to a large extent on how loud and long you play the speakers. If you have the opportunity to let loose for many hours with a sensibly powerful amplifier and a broad selection of dynamic, wide-frequency-range program the speakers can be sounding good within a day or two. But if you play more modestly and less frequently it can take as long as 2-3 weeks for the loudspeakers to reach optimum performance. Another factor is temperature, if your loudspeakers have been recently been shipped or stored in low temperatures they may sound a bit ‘flat’ for the first few playing hours.” After approximately 100 hours of break-in I began listening in earnest.
The first thing that impressed me about the Spendor SA1s was their musically personable nature. By this I mean that these speakers have a low fatigue factor similar to the Harbeth PSE-2E speakers. This non-fatiguing character makes it easy to listen at higher volumes in a nearfield environment for long periods of time. But unlike the Harbeths, which sound as if they have a built-in soft-compression circuit that reduces the differences between double and triple fortissimo passages, the Spendors show no signs of compression. They are more akin to the Paradigm S1 and ATC SCM7 speakers, which both preserve high-level dynamic differences. Compared with the Paradigm S1 speakers the Spendors do not have quite as much headroom before they begin to sound stressed, but the Paradigms have a greater ability to play at high volumes without signs of stress than any small monitor I’ve encountered.
This is as good a place as any to state the obvious—small speakers are designed for small rooms. The Spendor SA1 is no exception. The smaller your listening room, the more likely you will find the SA1 to your liking. Personally I preferred the SA1’s in my nearfield desktop system as opposed to my mid-sized room system.
Part of that preference stems from the Spendor’s relatively low 85dB sensitivity. If your music demands 90dB peaks at listening position, a nearfield placement is far more likely to deliver these SPLs without stressing the speakers or the power amplifier driving them. Also the proximity effect of nearfield placement reduces lower midrange and upper-bass deficiencies that are almost inevitable when you ask a small box speaker with small-diameter drivers to reproduce music with a wide dynamic range. Sir Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s recording of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti [Telarc] is about as dynamic a commercial recording as you’ll find. On my desktop the SA1’s had no trouble conquering this recording’s dynamic demands, but in a mid-field situation the orchestra’s fortissimos and the soprano duets don’t have quite the same dynamic authority, due in large part to the speakers’ limited air-moving capabilities in the lower midrange and upper bass.
Another readily apparent fact is that small box speakers image well. But not all small-footprint speakers image equally well. The Spendor SA1’s are among the best at disappearing completely. Even on my desktop they do a surprising complete vanishing act that outpoints comparably sized speakers such as the ATC SCM7s. Compared to the ATCs the front of the Spendors soundstage begins farther back behind the speakers’ front grilles. Also the Spendors are slightly more three-dimensional with phase-coherent recordings. Coupled with my highly modified Dyna Stereo 70 the SA1s created an eerily fleshed out three-dimensional picture of an entire soundstage. On my own live concert recordings each row of musicians could be easily located and even the back wall occupied a firm and exact location in the soundstage.
Besides having excellent image specificity the SA1’s create a larger listening window than many small monitors. Minor changes in your listening position shouldn’t create any image shifts, and with the Spendor SA1’s they don’t. The Spendors allowed me greater freedom of movement at my desktop than even the much smaller-footprint Role Kayak speakers. This was especially surprising since the Roles had been the reigning champs at producing the most wiggle room in my desktop system.
Some audiophiles feel that a soft dome tweeter, while it may be smooth and musical, gives up a certain amount of resolution and acuity to metal or ribbon drivers. The SA1’s resolution of low-level detail ranks with small monitors that use more exotic materials. Compared to the Paradigm S1, which has a titanium tweeter, the Spendor SA1 displayed an equal level of detail and musical information. Also the Spendor’s top end had a similar amount of air and openness.
The midrange is where most of the music is, and the SA1’s do a wonderful job of getting that midrange right. Whether it’s Willie Nelson’s beery baritone or Todd Rundgren’s reedy tenor the SA1’s capture each vocalist’s unique harmonic signature with complete veracity. Female vocalists also retain all their individuality. I’m a huge Tori Amos fan. On her Past The Mission EP CD Amos performs a live version of “The Waitress.” The SA1’s preserve every aspect of her sometimes less than subtle lyrics and delivery: “And I believe in peace, BITCH!”
I mentioned earlier that I used a subwoofer with the SA1’s. Actually I used several subwoofers in my room-based system—two for each channel. Since the SA1 has a sealed cabinet with no bass-enhancing ports or vents to increase its low-frequency output, if you want to get anything below 80Hz (the specifications state that the speaker is down 3dB at 75Hz) you’re going to have to mate it with a subwoofer.
The good news is since it doesn’t have any ports or vents there are no group-delay issues or bass humps that might prevent the SA1 from mating seamlessly with a sub. Only the Spendor’s low efficiency of 85dB could present any problem. That’s because you will need to set your subwoofer’s input settings higher than with more efficient speakers. Depending on the subwoofer, you might detect some audible hum, since subwoofers are prone to a 120Hz hum when their input controls are turned up. But when you get the blend right, which shouldn’t be too tough, the SA1’s will do a more than serviceable job delivering the leading edge of a bass instrument while the subs deliver the body and fundamentals.
When speakers are on my computer desktop I often rest my fingers on their surfaces to see how much the cabinets vibrate. Due to Spendor’s “thin-wall damped panel design” the SA1’s cabinet sides and top vibrate more than any mini-monitor I’ve had in my home. But unlike cheap plastic computer speakers where cabinet vibrations have a noticeably negative effect on the speaker’s performance, the SA1’s cabinet vibrations don’t seem to have any influence on the speaker’s ability to image or resolve low-level details. I can only assume that Spendor’s unconventional cabinet design works just as its designers intended.
King of the Midgets?
I’ve read too many reviews where pricey mini-monitors were crowned as the best. I can’t in good conscience claim that coronet for the Spendor SA1. Not that it doesn’t deserve a title, since it combines a compelling set of attributes and has few deficiencies, but it’s not my place to bestow crowns.
Due to its not insubstantial price of $2195 a pair the Spendor SA1 has a lot of competition for your attention. But for a small listening room the SA1 may well prove to be a far more musically rewarding choice than the vast majority of larger, more physically imposing transducers.
If you are assembling a high-end nearfield computer desktop system, the Spendor SA1 deserves to be among your top-five must-audition options. I have yet to experience any speaker whose sonic characteristics are better suited to the demands of extended intimate listening. In a desktop environment the SA1 ranks as a grand champion, and if not worthy of a crown, it has certainly earned membership in my personal mini-monitor pantheon.
SPECS & PRICES
Spendor SA1 Mini-Monitor
Enclosure type: Sealed
Drive units:HF, 22mm wide-surround dome with fluid cooling; LF/MF, 150mm (6in.) ep38 polymer cone
Frequency response:75Hz–20kHz +/-3dB anechoic on reference axis
Frequency range:-6dB at 65Hz anechoic
Dispersion: Within 3dB of response on reference axis
Horizontal: Over 40° arc (+/-20°)
Vertical: Over 20° arc ( +/-10°)
Sensitivity: 85dB for 1W @ 1m
Impedance: 8 ohms nominal (6.3 ohms minimum)
Crossover frequency: 4.8kHz
Power handling:125 watts unclipped program
Dimensions: 12" x 6.5" x 7.5"
Weight: 12 lbs.
Price: $2195 per pair
EAD 8000 Pro CD/DVD player and transport, MacPro Dual core computer with i-Tunes 7.61, Devilsound USB Dac, High Resolution Technologies MusicStreamer+, Bel Canto Dac 3, Reference Line Preeminence One B passive controller, Bel Canto S-300 stereo amplifier, Accuphase P-300 power amplifier, Modified Dyna St-70 amplifier, Earthquake Supernova mk IV 10 subwoofer, PS Audio Quintet, AudioQuest CV 4.2 speaker cable, AudioQuest Colorado interconnect
CEC TL-2 CD transport, Oppo BDP-83 Blu-Ray/Universal transport, Sony BPS-300 Blu Ray Player, Apple TV, Sonos Z-90, Lexicon MC-12B HD pre/pro, Bel Canto M-1000 power amplifiers, two JL Labs Fathom F112 subwoofers, two Genesis 2/12 subwoofers, Sound Anchor single column 24” speaker stands, PS Audio Quartet and Duet AC devices, Synergistic Research Designer’s Reference interconnects and speaker cables