Maybe I just like swimming against the tide… Maybe I just want to be different… Or maybe, just maybe I resent being told what to think… Anyway, more years ago than I care to remember, when I first started out in hi-fi retail, the mini-monitor debate was a whole lot more focused than it is now. Long before the arrival of the SL6 there were only two camps – the LS3/5a and the Linn Kann – and you were in one or the other, fuddyduddy or young Turk, reactionary or revolutionary. Except that perched on our shelf next to these two was a third speaker, a speaker that I felt was considerably better than either of them. Matching the BBC design in terms of neutrality and the Kann when it came to dynamic coherence, here was a speaker that had all the get up and go of the Linn design along with the tonal qualities of the 3/5a, didn’t suffer from the latter’s pinched, constipated delivery or the bizarre colourations and curtailed range of the former – and possessed more musical scale and drama than either. It was the original Spendor SA1 and it was a sad day for the hi-fi industry when the company stopped making it, first indicator that people were listening to reviewers rather than their own ears.
Well, the SA1 is back – in name if nothing else. I’ve been looking forward eagerly to the arrival of the new version, whilst quietly having qualms about rose-tinted memories. I needn’t have worried; this new version is just as impressive, just as distinctive and even more worthwhile than the original. Musically sublime, beautifully engineered and with fit and finish to challenge anything out there, it could and should cause quite a stir.
Gone are the slightly dumpy proportions of the original, replaced by a fashionably slim enclosure complete with elegant (and effective) matching stand, magnetically attached grille and deep lacquered finish over the piano black or exotic Zebrano veneer. There’s even a satin finished dark Wenge alternative for those of a more traditional bent. But underneath the fancy clothes this speaker is all Spendor. The sealed cabinet follows the company’s thinwall approach with a 15mm front baffle, 12mm rear and 9mm side walls, all in MDF and treated to minimal but critically placed damping. The single-wired crossover employs their trademark, tapped inductor technique to precisely tune the bass output without the need for additional subtractive elements, and is equipped with good quality WBT terminals (hurrah!). This lowloss, low-mass approach is echoed in the stand, where MDF/polymer constrained layer sandwiches top and bottom are coupled by a light, stiff four-part central column to create a low-mass, non-resonant structure. The carefully shaped base gives a wide stance to its three, nicely machined spikes, making for a stable assembly despite its minimal weight.
Drivers consist of a new, in-house designed and built 150mm bass-mid unit using the company’s proprietary ep38 polymer to form its cone, coupled with a 22mm ring-radiator type tweeter. There’s nothing particularly extraordinary about the electrical characteristics that result (85dB sensitivity and 75Hz to 20kHz bandwidth) although the 6.3Ohm minimum load and high 4.8kHz crossover point might be considered significant; likewise, the low 5.4kg weight, most of it taken up by the drivers.
Expecting great things (or perhaps “hoping for” would be more accurate) I was nonetheless floored by the immediately confident, capable and assured sound of the SA1s. Seemingly impervious to stress or the indignity of distress, attempts to unsettle them with either musical demands or matching equipment proved utterly fruitless – right up to the point where I got just too enthusiastic with a pair of 300 Watt mono-blocs, resulting in a sudden loss of volume and a telltale plume of smoke from the bass driver on the left-hand speaker. Yes, I know that the amps deliver well over twice the rated power handling of the speaker and yes, I know that reviewers are supposed to know better, but I include this anecdote because it’s illustrative of the SA1’s singular quality, a capability that’s unique in a speaker at this size and price – at least as far as I’m aware. This is the least intrusive, least invasive speaker I’ve heard short of the likes of Avalons, the Eben C1 and the Wilson-Benesch Trinity (reviewed elsewhere in this issue). Now check the prices on those products and you’ll begin to appreciate both the reason for and the extent of my enthusiasm.
What exactly do I mean by “unintrusive” and how does the SA1 achieve it? Well, the first is easy – the second is down to guesswork, or we’d all be building little gems like these. Play music on the little Spendors and you’ll be amazed by just how intimate and expressive it is. Girls with guitars perch just in front of you, while songs of loss and longing will tug at long forgotten sympathies. The complex intricacies of interweaving brass lines, the insistently upbeat or slyly offbeat rhythms of small jazz ensembles are effortlessly apparent. The energy and purpose in guitar driven rock is given a sense of direction. Even largescale orchestral works draw you into the space occupied by the orchestra, the artistic headspace of the conductor. It matters not what you play, the system shifts in front of you to reflect the recorded acoustic, the scale, the emotional compass and intent of the performers. All of a sudden it’s the music that’s dictating terms, the players not the system playing it.
Likewise, change the system and you’ll hear the results immediately. As impressive as the Spendors sound on the end of the Electrocompaniet ECI-5, there’s no mistaking the leap in quality as soon as you hook up the Gryphon Diablo, the change in character with the VAS valve monoblocs or the impact of changes to the cable loom or mains arrangements. The Connoisseur 4.2 PSE and LSE feeding the Belles MB-200s? Sure, why not? The SA1s take it all in their stride, so easily, without ever drawing attention to themselves, without ever registering discomfort that, if you are not careful their stiff upper lip leads you down the road from Rorke’s Drift to Isandalwana.
What allows these little speakers to disappear so completely? It’s a combination of virtues, but it has to be built on their intrinsic lack of character, in turn reflecting the low stored energy levels and spread resonance of their cabinet, banishing the same-ness that afflicts most loudspeakers, an expressive narrowing you tend to only really notice when it’s gone. Add to that a degree of dynamic freedom reflecting the lighter touch and less energy sapping nature of the crossover, the benign load together with a carefully voiced bottom end that preserves the surprising sense of scale, and you’ve got the basis of a balance that’s judged just as beautifully as the SA1’s cabinet is crafted. The inherent continuity that comes from the high crossover point is the icing on the cake.
The end result is a speaker that (fed properly) delivers music with shape and direction, with an emphatic sense of purpose. Of course, if the rest of the system is limp or disjointed, it tells you that too, but it’s remarkable how much of the damage done to musical expression, coherence and colour can be laid firmly at the feet of the transducers, the source and especially the loudspeakers. Writing this I’m listening to Eliza Gilkyson’s ‘Beauty Way’, the SA1s being driven by the Wadia 581, the Connoisseur and the Hovland RADIA. On paper they should be way out of their depth, but whether it’s the natural delivery of Eliza’s distinctive voice or the steady solidity of the drumming, they simply get on with it, standing aside and allowing the excellence of the partnering equipment and the musical performance free rein. There’s an articulate, involving quality to the singing, an emotional depth and pathos, which is what makes this most intelligent of writers so special. The ability not so much to show that but more importantly not to hide it, is what makes the SA1 so special. The music speaks for itself; you hear what the artist recorded – not what the speaker thinks they recorded.
The Spendor SA1 is far from perfect. It is necessarily limited in bandwidth (not that you tend to notice) absolute transparency and resolution (which only direct comparison reveals).If you want huge levels and deep, deep bass then look elsewhere. But if you simply want the greatest musical insight into the widest possible range of different genres and performances then that is exactly what this speaker delivers. It gets the fundamentals spot on and if you can’t afford or accommodate a full-range loudspeaker system of this quality (and make no mistake, that’s going to cost you – plenty) then the SA1 is an enticingly affordable and capable alternative. At £1100 including stands it’s a musical tour de force. Don’t be fooled by its diminutive dimensions – it’s a wider window on the world than any floorstander at this price. Buy now, score a ton of Brownie points for its petite prettiness, and reap a serious musical dividend into the bargain. Make no mistake, the SA1 is alive – and kickin’!