The Spendor 1/2 Loudspeaker

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SUMMER 1999

Cleanness Counts: "Can one speaker be all things to all people? The Spendor SP1/2, a descendent of their classic BC1, comes awfully close."

Review by Herb Reichert

Spendor SP1/2: $2400 per pair.

The music contained on the majority of discs I own was not created for experts or audiophiles just lonely, horny boys and girls, hoping to improve their lot or at least their state of mind. About a third were composed around beer and whiskey; another third assumes a bottle of quality wine; and the remaining disks reference much harder stuff. If you think for a moment, it's easy to conjure up the crowded dance floors, empty glasses, full ashtrays, stained coffee tables, and lost underthings these various musical forms suggest. (I swear, what killed the LP was the demise of the changer and the lack of a "repeat" function.)

Boxes of black discs followed me from my childhood bedroom to my tiny college apartment to the rough, paint-dripped wood floors, steam pipes, and cavernous acoustic of my first Soho loft. I dragged my Auratone Cubes and original Large Advents to New York City in 1974. In that 45,000 cubic foot brick-and-timber factory space, the vinyl-covered Advents sounded like clock radios in coffee cans playing "Take a Walk on the Wild Side." So I bought a second pair, and stacked them on milk crates (tweeter to tweeter) - which helped a little, but the music still lacked strength and purpose. Now I could play a bit of Wendy's Well-tempered Synthesizer, but not the full drama of the Clockwork Orange soundtrack. Late nite in the studio with Marley, Black Uhuru, Yellowman, some spleef, and a quart of Planter's Punch, the bass throb still couldn't take "I and I" to the cool-running palms of Jah-may-kah.

Then, in a dream, I remembered the red, yellow, and green speakers booming "Lively Up Yourself" through the Kingston hills. They were big, with 12-inch and 15-inch drive units cobbled into the doors of old refrigerators and planted in jungle dirt. The boxes were wrapped with duct tape and painted with enamel. "Let me tell you one ting...if you want to feel de heartwork of de Rasta-mon vibration, you must move de 'eavy air-Mon." I will bet my Jiffypop hat that that is correct.

Put a different way: The most important thing to remember when considering a speaker purchase is the room/speaker interface. Extremely valuable aspects of the reproduced sound are lost if one chooses speakers that are too small, that do not move enough air to pressurize the room. There must be a solid, physical relationship between the air-moving capabilities of the speaker and the volume of air in the room. No matter how good the loudspeaker is, if it is small (in total cone area) and the room is large, the playback can be fully dimensional but music will feel weak and thin. Presence will be diminished and fundamental tone and timbre correctness will be compromised.

So...this s what I did: I found two old refrigerators, (a Norge and a Fridgidaire, I believe) and painted them high-gloss, fire-engine red and installed a pair of 15-inch Altec 604s. I put ribbon tweeters in the freezer doors. I used heavy black extension cords for speaker cable, and a kit-built Hafler DH-200 amplifier for power. People are still talking about the parties I threw with these pro-style monsters. I could play loud and clear to 300 sweaty drunks with no one yelling, "Turn it up!" Think New York, circa 1979, the Mudd Club, CBGBs, Blondie, the Ramones, and Donna Summers' "Love to Love You, Baby." You are never too old for big, gutsy, air-moving, floor-pounding speakers, and...red is such a good color for them.

1986: I left the fridge boxes behind when I moved to Brooklyn. For their replacements, I built these big Dynaudio speakers from a magazine article, using every driver in the Dynaudio catalog and a major load of plywood and glue. These rhino-coffins did play loud, but they always sounded like they were straining - what was coming out did not seem to be in direct proportion to what was going in. The music felt like it was being held back and squeezed out through a camera aperture. They didn't play clearly at low levels, and at high-levels there was an obvious sense of strain. (I was now bi-amping with one DH-200 per stereo channel.) They never relaxed and let go. No freedom. Worst of all, the spectral balance and tonal accuracy went more and more sour and sharp as I turned up the volume.

I started to visit the NYC audio salons (big trouble now!), whereupon I became an audio-phile and bought a pair of Dahlquist DQ-10s - followed by DCM Time Windows, then LS3/5As (with the Advents for subwoofers), then old Quads, and, finally, the big change of heart and purchase of my life. A white-light experience. I bought a been-around-the-block pair of Altec, A7 "Voice of the Theatre" loudspeakers. 111dB per watt per meter. Painted battleship gray. At last - back to the Danger Zone, to Trinidad and Tobago. REAL HORNS, in big boxes playing clean, loud music. Pressure Drop: no more sitting in limbo.

Only one problem. There is always, and I mean every damn time, a caveat: I absolutely did not enjoy classical music, especially big Beethoven, Mahler, etc., through these speakers. It could have been the amp, the 1005 multicell horns, or whatever. (It definitely was not the Koetsu Rosewood Signature.) But, man, I stopped playing and buying classical music for more than a year. This sucked.

Looking back, it's obvious that I have never found a loudspeaker that would play all kinds of music in a large room. I think it wasn't so much the speaker that failed to perform: It was simply that the room was too big. Large rooms are an almost impossible problem - and I still haven't found a reasonably priced solution.

The small room rules. If you can, find a small room to play your hi-fi in.

Today, I am living on a houseboat with new Spendor SP1/2 loudspeakers, and the music throbs and pulses. I am having fun now. I can scare myself with "War" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Mahler has tremendous body, and Lefty Frizzell's Long Black Veil displays all its natural oppressive melancholy: automatic goosebumps. The SP1/2s interface perfectly with the materials and volume of the boat's main cabin. Every recording feels solid and whole. Most people overlook the fact that musical sounds must have weight as well as dimension in order to achieve long-term satisfaction. Presence counts.

If you have a speaker-room combination that gives a material tangibility to the music, while the instrumental and vocal tones seem natural and complete - you've got it. You will always desire to come home and play more music. You will miss your hi-fi when you are gone.

For me this is what it's all about, and the Spendor 1/2s will make you want to buy more discs. I have listened to music through literally hundreds of contemporary transducers and every one has at least one glaring flaw. It must be The Law of No Perfection built into the universe. Some natty problem always pops up to spoil the fun - and the Spendor SP1/2s do have one little annoying aspect: They do an extremely broad range of things (that I require) very well, but their shirt is always buttoned right up to the collar and the crease in their pants is just a bit too sharp. Their shoes are always shined, just a little too well. They never spill ketchup on their shirt or belch or fart in public. You won't find no skidmarks on their undies. They are always clean, maybe too clean. A bit anal and overly neat.

Adding a no-feedback tube amplifier (Audio Note P1) puts a little sweat around the collar and some scuffs on the shoes, and adds a spoonful of humanity that make them seem more real and natural.

But overall, the SP1/2s have the character of studio monitors - clean, clear, and FLAT! My impression after listening to the 1/2s in the living room of my normal house and the sitting cabin of my houseboat was of a well-behaved speaker that does the flat frequency response thing in a wide range of rooms. These are rare qualities in hi-fi speakers, but essential if you are looking for something that can give long-term listening pleasure. Groups of narrow-band peaks and troughs, especially in the 50 to 500Hz region, will always make the playback of music unpredictable. Some discs will be enhanced while others just never sound right. But the SP1/2s present all music with the same kind of evenness. This evenness is necessary for good vocal intelligibility. With the Spendors, you will understand the lyrics. This evenness does one more thing: It makes the listener feel he is hearing everything that is on the disc. This is also a rare quality, and one more aspect that contributes to long term satisfaction.

Did I mention the tonal balance? It is almost always dead on. Wood sounds like the kind of wood it is. You can sometimes count the snare wires on a close-miked snare drum. Brass is brass and, if you are a musician, you can sense how the guitars you are listening to have been tuned. This sense of "tuning" happens on both acoustic and electronic instruments. While the music travels along, I can find myself mentally noting the condition or nature of the tuning on individual instruments. This is something I have never experienced on any audiophile-type speakers, and is certainly a result of the aforementioned flat, even, in room frequency response.

Speaking of audiophile loudspeakers, let's go for a laugh: Let's compare the Spenders to the Wilson Audio X-1 Grand Slams. Which is easy - the only thing the X-1s do that the SP1/2s can't is play louder for dance parties in large rooms. The Slams might pick up 10 percent on imaging points over the Spenders - but that's it. The Spendors are to me more musically satisfying than any speaker I can name, except maybe the old and new Quads - and both of these are (to my taste) too dynamically challenged. No Dub Reggae, Rap, or Techno for any generation of Quads. When I listened to music on my old ESLs I was always pleased by the tonal perfection and clear, natural balance - but it didn't take long before I started wanting to open the window and get some air. Electrostats must consume oxygen because I always started feeling like I couldn't breath by the third disc. Like the Quads, the SP1/2s can get a tiny little stuffy or shut-down on some disks - and, in general, I would not characterize them as wide open or free-swinging - but they can, when necessary, move along like a shoplifter with the store dick on his tail. When they have to, they can take a deep breath and then let it out.

Now for Master D! Art wants to know if the SP1/2s play notes correctly, in tune and in time - and I say yes, that they do. Peter Breuninger asks if I would characterize the Spendors as neutral: Well, no. Speakers in general are not very neutral (or low distortion for that matter), but the SP1/2 is conspicuous in its leaning in that direction - more neutral than, say, any Wilson, B&W, KEF, Avalon, or Audio Physic that I have tried. But, but, but! What about Harvey the leep driver? He wants to know: Are they coolacious! I don't think so. They have good-student looks and smallish cool factor. They've got that librarian, I ain't sexy even if I take off my glasses and hike up my skirt thing going. But they are truthful and can dance and swim and run. These loudspeakers are more what you'd call athletic than glamorous. In a room less than 200 feet square, they can push real air. They are muscular and possess clear blue eyes.

Should you sell your present loudspeakers and buy these? Maybe. To me these are the kind of speakers you hunker down with for the long haul - that is, if they work in your size room and you don't need to impress your friends. Non-audio people will not even notice them: They look like plain brown wood speakers, kinda like a three-way version of the large Advents, with a way better, world-class hardwood finish and the possibility of bi-wiring. (I tried bi-wiring and I say, Yes, do it. You get at least 20 percent improved voice articulation and a noticeably easier, clearer, musical flow. The singer loosens his tie. The ounce of mud floating in the river of tones settles to the bottom and you can now find the fish before you cast your line.) The 8-inch low-mid driver works from 45hz to 3kHz, which I am sure accounts for the clear, even midrange. A 1-1/2-inch soft dome goes from 3kHz to 13kHz (excellent concept), and the upper harmonics are supplemented with a 3/4-inch soft dome. Flat, wide, and pure.

The excellent manual says: Nominal impedance is 8 ohms, and sensitivity is 88 dB per watt per meter. I used amps ranging from 11 watts (Audio Note P1) to 55 watts (Exposure Super XV) in rooms measuring 14x27 and 11 x 14. The more powerful and beautifully warm Exposure made Shaggy, Cool Moe, and Toots way more fun, while the P1 played the smaller programme with more lustre and beauty. They are certainly adaptable speakers: I have this feeling that an EL-34 amp at about 30 watts and minimum feedback could be just right for all-purpose pleasure. (Dynaco ST-70?)

Remember, loudspeakers make no sound by themselves. You must hook them up to an amplifier. Therefore I can only describe what they did with my amplifiers and in my very specific rooms. That being said, I believe that my experience with lots of amps and speakers can allow for some speculation. So...if your room is small to moderate size, if your amplifier has wide-band torque and horsepower, if you listen to all kinds of music, if you are not an imaging-freak-audiophile, if you send at least some of your clothes to the dry-cleaner and shine your shoes occasionally, if you like your checkbook balanced and your eyeglasses clean...then the Spendor SP1/2 could be a speaker to have kids with.

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