The Spendor SP1/2's are getting a lot of press from me this month. I brought them in mainly to compare with the Harbeth Monitor 30's (and Compact 7's) but at some point decided that they had to be considered on their own. Comparisons are helpful but can also exaggerate differences more than they clarify what a particular speaker truly sounds like. Spendors do not tend to win competitions, they do seem to win listeners.
The SP1/2 is the third generation (fourth if you take the "E" designation seriously - it involved some interior wiring changes, addition of gold speaker terminals, and a handsome beveling of the cabinet edges) of this well-loved and well-respected hero of a speaker. Its grandfather, the now legendary BC 1, came on the market in 1969 as a two-way, soon thereafter acquired a Coles 4001 super-tweeter to become a three-way, and only left in 1994 because the manufacturing tools for fabricating its main tweeter, the Celestion HF 1300, were disposed of by the manufacturer. There was an SP 1 model that paralleled the BC1 between 1983 and 1991 which also used the HF 1300 and so it too passed into history. (Terry Miles of Spendor tells me, by the way, that they still have a sufficient stock of HF 1300 replacement diaphragm assemblies to service existing models.) Both the BC1 and SP1 were replaced by the SP 1/2 (with Scanspeak drivers) which actually debuted in 1990 - and became the "E" in 1994.
I had the three-way BC 1 in my house for a month or so last year and as appealing as it was, in my personal opinion the evolution from it to the SP1/2 marks a clear advance. Both speakers have a nearly tactile midrange but the BC1 is notably huskier. Compared with the BC 1, the SP 1/2 is more open and to my ears, more accurate. That said, neither speaker's reputation is based on openness or overall accuracy. The SP 1/2 retains the original dimensions of its grandfather (25" x 12" x 12"), has a sensitivity of 88dB and an impedance of 8 ohms. It is fairly easy to drive and many of its fans prefer relatively low-powered push-pull tube amps.
The SP 1/2 is in the BBC monitor tradition in that it is notably flat through the critical midrange, somewhat shy in the nether regions, and rolled off on top. Compared to the best of its brethren, it is a little extra weak on the bottom (a surprise, given its dimensions) and rolled off more dramatically on top. Unlike all of its brethren, it has a midrange that for reasons that we can only speculate, has been known to break up marriages. It is definitely siren-like. (As you may remember, the Sirens were beautiful, blond, blue-eyed, and sang especially well.) It is tonally accurate, a standard BBC virtue, but it is also uniquely engaging and solicitous. And, to repeat my cliché introduced elsewhere, it is sometimes so palatable it feels as if you could cut them with a fork. This is the quality that has been passed undiminished, if somewhat refined, from the BC 1 to its grandson. It is so lyrical that it causes its owners to forgive its weak bass and overly sweet highs. It may be the most loved speaker in the world.
My suspicion is that this love, while grounded in the midrange is also based on the SP 1/2's sense of ease. A quality that small monitors in particular have trouble achieving is a sense of natural ease. This usually requires a greater bandwidth than they are capable of, the additional bass information altering the overall balance and providing some of the ambience that contributes to the sense of ease. The SP 1/2 is unusually good at this. In contrast to the notably more robust and lively Harbeth Compact 7 and Monitor 30, the Spendor offers an ease that some listeners find they prefer. You can't have it all - at least not in a 1.5 - 2 cubic foot box!
I have listened to this speaker in my large (5000 cubic feet) living room and in my more reasonable sized (2300 cubic feet) bedroom. (I had expected it to sound better in the smaller room but actually it seemed to lose ground there: less bass, less space). I have listened to it on my reference Blue Circle AG hybrid electronics and on the very fine but considerably less costly Audiomat Solfege 40 watt, integrated, Class A, push-pull tube amp. The front end in both cases was the Naim CDSII with Nordost Valhalla interconnect. I used Nordost Valhalla speaker cable with the BC electronics and the radically more affordable Blue Circle BC 92 cable with the Solfege, of necessity. (My Valhalla is just one meter long.) I emerged from this complex marathon with the opinion that everything the SP1/2's fans claim for it is true. On the hybrids.
It is a very different loudspeaker on push-pull tubes than it is on hybrid with its solid-state output. I will go into this a little further in the music listening tests, but let me just say here that with the Solfege amp, the SP 1/2's trade a great deal of their refinement and ease for a heavy shot of testosterone. Herb Reichert suggests something of this sort in his Listener review (Summer, 1999); but from what I heard, the difference is far greater than he speculates, which may have something to do with the cajones of the Solfege. I think we are hearing the "real" Spendors with my Blue Circle hybrid electronics, mainly because the Solfege did not change the Harbeth Monitor 30's anywhere nearly as much as it changed the Spendors. (Actually, on early 60's jazz digital reissues, which may have been recorded originally with tubes, I slightly preferred the Solfege on the 30's, whose stronger low end and lower sensitivity were a better match for it than the Spendors.) Anyway, there is clearly something about the SP 1/2's low-end in particular that is very responsive to push-pull tubes. And the responsiveness, at least with the high current Solfege, though it appears to begin in the mid and upper bass, runs well up into the midrange. It may or may not have to do with the Spendor's polypropylene low/mid driver. (The Harbeths used RADIAL, more on that later.) So based entirely on my judgment that the hybrid/Spendor combination is truer to the loudspeakers, most of what I have to say below is based on this pairings. Nonetheless, synergy is a great deal in audio, and clearly in some respects the Spendors preferred the push-pull tube amp to the hybrid.
Audio As Artifice
On the Blue Circle electronics, notwithstanding what has become perhaps its near legendary sense of ease and lyricism, the Spendor SP 1/2 is not a notably accurate overall transducer. This will not bother anyone who prizes its virtues, but it's an observation that in all fairness needs to be made. The price that the SP 1/2 owner must pay for the comeliness of its sound is a slight but unmistakably unnatural sweetness and sense of overall restraint that tends to homogenize and tame music that comes through it. If you like this characteristic, you will say that it blesses, forgives, and makes lyrical. "It sends the music directly to the heart," I have heard folks say. If you have misgivings about it, you will say that it subtracts, simplifies, domesticates, and idealizes. "It may go to the heart but mainly to the faint of heart," respond the opposition. A degree of critical detail responsible for the individuality of instruments and also much of the dynamic energy that makes reproduced music lifelike and exciting - qualities that some of us come to audio for - is in absentia. To be fair, so is some of the pepper and spice that goes with the whole truth, especially once digital gets hold of it. It is finally a matter of aesthetic values.
And there is no law that says that musical truth must be respected absolutely. Some of us want to hear it all, have learned to love the beauty of truth. Some others of us prefer the truth of beauty: find that we sometimes prefer gardens to heaths, literature to life. The question the Spendors force on us is, do those of us who love art want our audio components to be artful? Or do we want them to serve faithfully the art that is music? It is not an issue we are going to resolve here, or perhaps anywhere else. Some very successful and much admired companies have built enviable reputations by building loudspeakers (and amplifiers) that shamelessly proclaim or at least exhibit their artifice. Franco Serblen of Sonus Faber will tell you that his loudspeakers are made to perform like musical instruments, adding their eloquence to all they transduce. And Cary amplifiers have been applied to many feral loudspeakers to transform them artfully into...well Carys! - though I doubt that Dennis Had would put it quite that way. I am not going to end this little speech by proclaiming that Spendors are Sonus Fabers or Carys. They are, after all, British monitors, who in the presence of Italian and Tarheel troubadours keep their counsel. But that they are a step in that direction now seems unmistakable, as time marches on. I doubt they sounded as sweet when they debuted as they do now. Our ears have changed.
And, to be fair, it may not be even that simple. Robert E. Greene of TAS, who is both a musician and a mathematician, and for whom the reality of music is the absolute standard, while he owns two pairs of Harbeths, admires the SP1/2 a great deal and wrote one of its earliest and most complimentary reviews. Listener editor Art Dudley, who while occasionally sentimental has never struck me as an outright romantic, has been a long-time fan of both the SP1/2 and SP100. And a friend of mine in Santa Cruz, who loves and has listened to live music all of his life finds Spendors, especially the larger SP 100's, the most musically engaging loudspeakers he has ever heard. So I see no decision on the horizon.
The Character Of The Spendor SP 1/2
The most obvious clues to the SP1/2's overall character are its lossy cabinet, modest Scanspeak super-tweeter (the high definition Revelator is eschewed for the less transparent B 2008), and the material its dominant driver, the Scanspeak D 3806, is made of. Credit the patient Dr. Richard Tuck for virtually all of the technical explanation that follows. What I've got right is entirely thanks to him, what I've got wrong is my ignorant screwing up of his lecture.
For those, like me, who have used the term "lossy" over the years pretending but not really knowing what it means, a lossy loudspeaker cabinet gives a little and usually has panels with a viscoelastic damping material such as bitumen applied in order to stop the panels from resonating and re-radiating sound waves from within the cabinet. This is addition to the more usual foam lining that is used to damp out standing waves within the enclosure. This approach to sound damping is at variance with the more normal practice of trying to make the panels very rigid and stiff (raising their scores on the knuckle rapping test), which can shift the major re-radiated frequencies into more sensitive regions of the mid-range. We can assume that at least part of the SP 1/2's legendarily tonally accurate midrange can be attributed to its lossy cabinet structure. As I've said elsewhere, lossy cabinets are characteristic of British monitors, including Harbeths.
The Spendor, unlike most BBC monitor type loudspeakers, is a three-way. And its midrange/high frequency driver, which handles all music between 45Hz (down 3dB) and 3kHz, the Scanspeak D 3806, is made of polypropylene, a material that while more revealing and faster than the once very popular Bextrene, is also significantly less forthcoming than the patented material used in Harbeths, RADIAL.
Polypropylene is vacuum formed from a sheet and relies on a coating of 'lossy goo' to give the required loss - that is, to absorb sound waves traveling across its surface just enough so that they don't rebound back across the cone to the voice coil and then back again, etc, etc, but not too much so that the life is choked out of the music. All drivers are lossy, it's getting the right balance between weight, stiffness, and loss that separates good designers from geniuses.. Polypropylene is relatively heavy but it is not particularly stiff, so it tends to "lose" what some feel is a bit more than the optimum amount of musical "life," energy, and also detail. Further, from reported experience, the 'goo' tends to change its properties over time, which is one reason, I presume, that many manufacturers who use polypropylene drivers considerately keeps replacement drivers in stock. The BC 1's I owned briefly had replacement mid-woofers - though to be fair they were nearly twenty years old!
RADIAL is an injection-molded composite of a polymer with hollow glass microspheres embedded in it. The RADIAL patent explains that the key is to treat the surface of the microspheres so that they bond to the polymer. If this is done properly, the result is a light-weight but stiff material with optimum loss. Theoretically, it performs well as an absorber of unwanted excess acoustic energy while not suppressing minute sonic information.
A direct comparison of the drivers made of these two materials as implemented in Spendors and Harbeths definitely confirms the superior speed, energy, and detail of RADIAL. While the Harbeth 7 and 30 and the Spendor SP1/2 are all audibly flat through the heart of the midrange, the Harbeths simply have more to say about the performance of the music. There is more detail and the detail is more interesting, exciting, and engaging. It tends to specify whereas polypropylene tends to generalize and homogenize a bit.
All of this said, polypropylene has its staunch defenders. The polypropylene driver in the SP 1/2 has won many friends who show no signs of abandoning their ship, even in the face of the RADIAL challenge.
Listening To Music
It is in the extended listening tests, of course, that I not only got to know the Spendors but it is also where I had a chance to hear how different they could sound when given a mighty shot of Class A, push-pull tube power in their lower gut. On virtually every recording I listened to, as I switched back and forth between the Solfege tube amp and the Blue Circle hybrids, I heard the same thing: with the Blue Circle electronics, I heard the elegance, refinement, restraint, ease, and, punch I have reported. With the Solfege, I heard high energy, dynamics, fullness, and more punch - balls actually; while refinement, ease, and elegance flew out the window. The Spendors lost their blue eyes entirely and became dark-eyed hussies. Which was the real Spendor? you may well ask. Well, given that the Solfege-driven Spendors while full of passion seemed otherwise undistinguished from many other decent loudspeakers, I would say, very likely the Blue Circle driven Spendors, and, as I said earlier, that opinion has governed my overall judgment of these loudspeakers. I don't think folks come to Spendors for balls, nor would they be satisfied to get them at the price of these loudspeakers' other virtues brought out by my hybrid amp. But as this is a review and not a sermon, I'll report both sides of the story. I listened to a great variety of music but as we're running long, I'll offer a brief sampling.
Haydn's Opus 50 String Quartets, Festetics Quartet [Arcana A415]. Haydn in my view is our (the West's) central composer. Not our most eloquent, nor our greatest. The center. I find my way around classical music using him as my north star. Here he is played elegantly, and through the Spendors he is distilled into the essence of measured refinement. Haydn is a hell of a lot more than refinement, even in these quartets, but it is also that, and the Spendors, driven by the Blue Circles, nail this aspect of him squarely. They also get some, if not all, of the 'old' instrument bitter-sweet tone. Delightful. Switching to the Solfege tube amp, there is immediately more weight on the bottom, and more dynamics and energy overall. But alas, the passion overtakes and drowns the elegance. There is more hair on the cellos, which I like, but the whole focus shifts to the lower mids, making the overall presentation dramatically warmer. A very different sense of this recording. I dearly miss the elegance and refinement but appreciate the dynamics. Haydn feels less central reproduced this way.
Cliff Eberhart, The Long Road [Windham Hill 1092]. With the Blue Circle electronics, a tight, smoooth, punchy, tame presentation. Eberhart's voice is clear and very appealing; but its characteristic edge is missing. Cliff sounds like a sweet boy, especially appealing if you're a fan of the softer side of the singer-songwriter spectrum. But do remember that according to informed hearsay, Eberhart's voice is the raspy bark in the Chevy "Like a rock" commercials, so clearly we're not getting all of Cliff here. His guitar is exquisite - a very lyrical, folky presentation overall. To the Solfege and bang, Eberhart's warm bark comes out and we get a way guttsier show. The lyrical side is now submerged. We are losing some of the beauty of his voice but Cliff would clearly like this presentation. So would his girlfriend, if he has one. Preference? I like them both but each misses something essential to this man's musical character. Again, I think the Blue Circles are telling us what the Spendors can and can't do when not forced to overact. I followed up the Eberhart cd with Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever [MCA 6253] and got the same impression. With the Blue Circles it all goes down a little too easily but with the Solfege, it's all rock and roll and no music. I think what the Spendors lack most that they're getting substantial help on from the tube amp is bass energy. Take the bass energy out of popular music and you're left with something very pleasant but a bit de-natured. Clearly the SP 1/2's need this shot of bass but they're not handling what they're getting from the Solfege quite well enough because, again, its roughing up the midrange.
Rubbra Symphony #5, Hickox, BBC National Orchestra [Chandos 9944]. With the Blue Circle electronics, everything is full, spacious, and the chorus of strings has a nice sweep to it. The lower brass are clear beneath the strings. There is a little sense of constraint overall, however, so that the performance isn't quite... well symphonic. With the Solfege, there is more apparent weight and mass to the orchestral and the sense of constraint is greatly diminished. The strings aren't as clear but the presentation is certainly more authentic sounding. Again, the Spendors clearly like a great deal of what those 6550's are providing.
The Spendor SP 1/2's have obvious virtues which distinguish them from the competition and if these are the ones that are most important to you, they are clearly worth matching with the right amplifier. They do seem to want an amplifier that can provide both an accurate signal from the mids on up and a little extra controlled oomph in the low to mid bass, if perhaps not as much of a kick as the Solfege provides. A fine but imperfect loudspeaker may require equally fine but complementarily imperfect electronics. Also, perhaps a lower current amp - the SP1/2's are fairly sensitive loudspeakers. Either the Audiomate Prelude or Arpege with their EL 34's in lieu of the Solfege's 6550's and with less robust power supplies would certainly be serious candidates from what I am told. Reichert thinks maybe a Dynaco ST-70. I heard enough with the two amps I have on hand here to judge that for those who must have their lyrical midrange at all costs, the SP 1/2's may well be the loudspeakers of choice. I prefer a less overtly solicitous presentation with fewer of the Spendor's downsides, but my preference is entirely personal and offered here simply to avoid coyness.
HF Drive Units: 19mm soft dome, ferrofluid cooled (0.75") Scanspeak 2008
LF Drive Unit: 200mm polypropylene cone (8") 40 mm voice coil (1.5")
Impedance: 8 ohms nominal
Sensitivity: 88 dB for 1 watt at 1 meter
Maximum SPL 104 dBA at 1 meter
Crossover Points: 3kHz, 13 kHz
Frequency Response: 45 Hz to 20 kHz (+/- 3dB)
Pair Matching: Within 1dB
Power Handling: 100 watts
Cabinet Dimensions: 635mm x 300mm x 300mm (25" x 12" x 12")
Cabinet Weight: 18 kilos (40 lbs.)
Spendor Audio Systems, Limited