Spendor SA1 loudspeaker £1100
9th Nov 2008 | 12:20
Spendor's SA1 is back and it's a classy new miniature
Spendor has a long and illustrious history in the UK loudspeaker business.
One of Spendor's earlier successes (along with the classic BC1 and of course the LS3/5a) was the then-diminuitive SA1.
The initials stood for the Spendor bass/ mid driver and the Audax tweeter – rather as the BC1 was christened after its Bextrene cone main driver and celestion tweeter.
A chunky little speaker with a much squatter shape than the LS3/5a, the SA1 built a strong reputation at the time as a serious (and to many ears superior) alternative to the LS3/5a. However, the absence of the BBC badge-of-approval probably prevented it from establishing a similar worldwide cult status.
End of history lesson. Although sticking to the core principles of the originator, Spendor is a wholly different company these days. It's still British owned and run, but since 2001, it's been owned and run by Philip Swift (before Spendor, Swift was 'Mr Audiolab' in the days before TAG McLaren and JAG).
The new SA1 doesn't have a whole lot in common with its predecessor, but it does offer
very serious competition for the numerous other LS3/5a look-alikes that several brands (including Spendor) produce.
With similar dimensions to the LS3/5a and its clones (albeit swapping width and depth), this £1,100 per pair speaker costs roughly 50 per cent more than Spendor's own award-winning S3/5R (reviewed in HFC 310).
Add a further £400 for the matching stands and you're looking at a considerable sum for one of the smallest hi-fi speakers on the market. From the outside at least, the new Spendor SA1 looks a decidedly expensive prospect that might well struggle to justify its price tag.
However, just as one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, one shouldn't judge a speaker by its price tag or the size of its lacquer-over-zebrano-wood-veneer enclosure.
This speaker (especially when used on its partnering stand) has surprising and hidden depths that are immediately evident as soon as one starts listening and it is clearly a cut above the Ultimate Group Test of sub-£900 mini-monitors we reviewed just four issues back.
The reason lies in the very subtle and detailed approach to developing both the speaker itself and its stand in order to achieve an exceptional level of refinement in resonance control.
The enclosure uses both critical bracing and three different thicknesses of relatively light and thin panels to supply stiffness and resonance control while avoiding significant energy storage. Similar techniques have been applied to the stand, to make it light, rigid and essentially non-resonant.
Spendor's drive units
Recently, Spendor had a commanding reputation designing it's own drivers and not simply picking out drive units from OEM manufacturers. The SA1 continues that trend.
This sealed-box two-way has a new 150mm Spendor bass/mid drive unit. It uses a 90mm ep38 polymer cone, a wide surround, a high excursion motor with powerful magnet and (perhaps most significantly) it operates up to a high 4.8khz.
An unusual 22mm tweeter drive unit uses a small 19mm diaphragm and a 'proper' surround to extend its potential operating bandwidth. A single pair of high quality WBT terminals feeds a refined crossover network using top-quality components and internal wiring.
Three alternative finishes are offered, including the rather bold lacquered zebrano of our samples, a black piano lacquer and a more restrained satin-finished wenge, while concealed magnets hold the optional grille in place. In each finish, the partnering stand has a matching inlay in its central pillar. This nicely shaped tripod stand base has good spiking arrangements and fine stability.
The top plate has small compliant studs and both top and base incorporate constrained damping layers. We consider it a vital part of the SA1 package.
Listening tests began with the speakers well clear of walls and that brought the first surprise.
Although there's an obvious lack of low bass weight and authority here, the SA1 really didn't sound at all like a small speaker, dynamically speaking. This is nearly always the obvious limitation of very small speakers. So much so that it seemed to come with the territory.
The SA1 very effectively demonstrated that this doesn't have to be the case though. It makes no pretence at being a large loudspeaker, but this is the small box that those who like big boxes can learn to love without too much strain. Coming from a reviewer who has a strong affinity for big box loudspeakers, this is high praise indeed.
So, while it doesn't possess the full drama and vivacity of significantly larger models, it's nevertheless much more dynamically literate and informative than prejudice might lead one to expect.
Why should this be the case? A small main driver like the one used here is certainly not going to move a whole lot of air, but two other possible factors can play. The first is that a small enclosure inevitably creates much less enclosure 'noise' than a large one, so the 'noise floor' of the box is low and dynamic range is correspondingly enhanced.
The other possible factor is a phase response that's more accurate than most – something that sealed-box loading tends to promote – as this will tend to sharpen transients and improve dynamic expression.
The SA1 benefits from its small enclosure in other ways. Because its surface area is small and resonances are well controlled, it adds only modest coloration to the sound. And because the frontal area is very small, dispersion is consistently wide and imaging sharp.
Both these factors were clearly audible. Coloration is very low and boxiness is notable for its
absence, while imaging is exceedingly precise, with fine lateral positioning, plenty of air and spaciousness and excellent depth perspectives.
Although the Spendor SA1 works well in free space, listening tests reveal that some bottom-end help from wall proximity is beneficial.
Sealed box loading usually allows for more positioning flexibility than reflex-ported designs and that does seem to be the case here, though exactly where best to place these little Spendors ultimately comes down to personal taste.
Exactly how much will depend on the room characteristics too, since the free-space placement varies with size and construction, while boundary use involves some trade-off with image precision and midband coloration.
Under our conditions, a gap of about a foot (25cm) between the speakers and the wall seems to give the best overall results, lifting the bass up to match the level of the midband.
While it still won't match the scale and weight of much larger models, provided you're not shy in using the volume control, the Spendor SA1 delivers a surprisingly wide bandwidth and does so in an impressively even and smooth way, with very superior overall neutrality.
Intrigued to check the role of the rather special stand, a quick comparison with our regular reference Kudos S100s (sadly no longer in production, although the similar but lighter Kudos S50 – especially when filled with Atabytes or similar – is a good alternative) showed that Spendor's stand does indeed possess a slight advantage with this little speaker.
It isn't a big difference, but the Spendor's lightweight confection was just a little more agile and light on its feet and doesn't seem to sacrifice any image precision.
Spendor considers its £400 stand to be almost an integral part of the SA1's appeal, from both a visual and sonic perspective. Based on our findings both on and off the Spendor stands, we can only agree. It might be a lot of money to spend on a stand at first glance, but the rewards are more than justified.
While there remain several good reasons for preferring larger speakers, especially for those
who like to play their music loud and have the room size to cope, it should not be overlooked that there are several other factors to favour the tinies (over and beyond their extreme physical discretion) and the SA1 is a perfect ambassador for small speaker sound.
The Spendor SA1 is a very easy loudspeaker to love and as stated above, that's from a reviewer not known for having much enthusiasm for tiny loudspeakers. More than simply ticking an impressive roster of sound quality boxes, it's an effortless and engrossing musical communicator and a sub-miniature that surely, at last, puts the LS3/5a out to grass.